Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Will to Progress

If technologists wish to form a more virtuous elite, they must attempt something greater than a program of satiation through hyper-consumption.

Credit: JD Lasica

On October 30, President Biden signed an executive order on “Safe, Secure, and Trustworthy Artificial Intelligence.” The order requires developers to do a variety of things: share safety test results with the federal government, prevent A.I. from conducting dangerous bioengineering, protect consumers, transform education, and advance equity and civil rights. 

Reactions to the executive order have been mixed. Some believe the order both legitimizes A.I. and encourages competition in the sector. Others, such as Marc Andreessen, the legendary Silicon Valley entrepreneur and venture capitalist, have been extremely vocal on Twitter about their disapproval.


Andreessen’s reaction is no surprise. Several weeks ago, he posted a long document, titled “The Techno-Optimist Manifesto,” arguing for unlimited technological acceleration. At first glance, the Manifesto, composed of a host of declaratory statements, lacks a clear argument; Ezra Klein described the piece as a “vibe” rather than an argument. Bemusedly noting citation of “BasedBeffJezos” and Nietzsche, Klein dubs that vibe as “reactionary futurism.”

This seemingly reactionary document draws the ire of both Klein and other critics, who fail to take it seriously and alternately conclude that Andreesen is blinded either by wealth or “violent, right wing machismo.” These are lazy replies written by authors who know their audiences to be predisposed against such men. But these critics ought to have taken Andreessen more seriously; such responses legitimize his project in the eyes of his audience. 

What that project is may not be immediately clear: “our enemies are not bad people—but rather bad ideas,” Andreessen claims. Yet, his subsequent list of enemies are not bad ideas themselves, but bad ideas that have been wielded by elites for a “demoralization campaign.” Eventually, it becomes clear that his enemies are, in fact, bad people—those elites. 

It is nearly impossible to convince a set of elites to abandon their institutions, their culture, and their ideologies. Nor does Andreessen expect this. Silicon Valley’s feud with the demoralizers has gone on for too long for any such delusion to remain; Tesla ceased replying to reporters’ inquiries four years ago. Rather than persuading the current class, Andreessen clearly intends to raise a new generation of motivated technologists, a generation of new elites, in whom he will inculcate his vision of techno-optimism. As the culture war grinds to a stalemate, Andreessen plots a grand breakthrough.

It is not surprising that the figureheads of Silicon Valley who feel that they have been treated unjustly by traditionally prestigious institutions like newspapers and universities want to drive out the old elites. American culture operates on top of a digital substrate that they built; yet American elites, the demoralizers, are successfully turning that culture against them. 


Perhaps nations receive the elites they deserve, but Andreessen is right to despise the present class. Under their stewardship, universities grew to ignore truth; politicians, their constituents, businesses, the consumer; journalists, ethics; artists, beauty; and churches, the orphan and the widow. 

Silicon Valley may be more capable of effecting a revolution in the elite class than their opponents realize. As “new technologies enter society, they disrupt the connections between institutions, practices, virtues, and rewards,” Jon Askonas notes. In other words, Marx was right; technology is the true revolutionary principle; but in our case it is the technologists who control the means of innovation. In theory, then, men like Andreessen or Sam Altman, by altering our technological substrate, can make obsolete the structures which formed our elite classes, replacing them with their own cohort, who will legitimize their demands for prestige by leading a new age of innovation. This is, in effect, a revolution, carried out in culture by means of technological change. 

These changes are seemingly just around the corner. Generative A.I. promises to undercut the prestige of elite institutions and jobs. The Writers Guild has already attempted to forestall the attempt. Their success, or lack thereof, will become clear in the coming decades. Let a thousand white-collar unions bloom.  

The more interesting question is this: Can Silicon Valley produce a more virtuous elite than the one they are attempting to replace? After carefully reading, it seems unlikely. 

In fact, the proclamations of the Manifesto bear striking similarities to the ideologies of the current ruling class. We can liberate our soul, it proclaims, through material abundance, created by technology, which “opens the space of what it means to be human.” Technology allows mankind to “create our lives;” it is the “spearhead of progress.” Yet, the techno-optimists “are not Utopians,” which is an odd thing to say about a movement that believes in “overcoming nature.”

The Manifesto is progressive, and it it progressive in the same manner that Andreessen’s enemies are. Woodrow Wilson, in many ways the patriarch of the demoralizers, would approve of the Manifesto’s language, given its similarity to his own. Andreessen could have easily included quotes from Wilson’s speeches, if he had wanted to: “we think of the future, not the past, as the more glorious time in comparison with which the present is nothing. Progress, development–those are modern words. The modern idea is to leave the past and press onward to something new.” 

For, much like Wilson, it is not clear what Andreessen wishes to progress to. In the case of the individual, he speaks of “eudaimonia through arete”, happiness through virtue, but in order for something to be virtuous it must be well-suited to its end. The techno-optimist’s end—humans who are better able to determine their own lives—sounds suspiciously like the language of identity and self-actualization that his so-called enemies employ. It would not be out of place in a Disney movie. 

The Manifesto also has a decidedly Marxian tone. It proclaims a program of human emancipation, achieved by using technology to “make everything we want and need abundant.” This is particularly ironic, given how many times the Manifesto condemns communism. It is also confusing. If “human wants and needs are infinite,” how will technological abundance make everything we want?

“Societies, like sharks, grow or die,” the Manifesto proclaims, neglecting history and forgetting that societies are often killed by their own growth. In the end, Andreessen’s techno-capital machine will neither free humanity to be our best selves, nor will it enslave us to its own purposes. Rather, it is a vision of “50 billion people” enslaved to their own gluttony. Andreessen’s ambition of settling other planets does not bring to mind a race of “Technological Supermen” but rather the obese passengers from WALL·E. Yes, humanity will “always be the masters of technology,” but we, in turn, have often been mastered by our own passions.

If technologists wish to form a more virtuous elite, they must attempt something greater than a program of satiation through hyper-consumption.