The Techno-Optimist Manifesto, Annotated

October 16, 2023 • #

Whether intentional or not, Marc Andreessen’s latest piece is the canon of the e/acc (effective accelerationist) movement. The visual that comes to mind for me is “the world if” meme made real. The desire to build, to expand energy production, increase population growth, and generally innovate our way out of problems (which has been the story of human civilization since we first stood on two legs).

To help readers less fluent in the language of human technological progress and the broader “accelerationist” movement, I put together an annotated list of clips with references to source materials or explanations for the less initiated. His post includes a list of thinkers and influences at the end, but these annotations provide more specific direction to interesting ideas core to the e/acc philosophy.

An arcology of the future

We’ll start with his reference to Hayek:

We believe Hayek’s Knowledge Problem overwhelms any centralized economic system. All actual information is on the edges, in the hands of the people closest to the buyer. The center, abstracted away from both the buyer and the seller, knows nothing. Centralized planning is doomed to fail, the system of production and consumption is too complex. Decentralization harnesses complexity for the benefit of everyone; centralization will starve you to death.

One of Hayek’s best (and most-accessible) works is his 1945 essay “The Use of Knowledge in Society”. It succinctly lays out a driving thesis of all of Hayek’s work: the inherent confounding complexity of the universe, and the impossibility of corraling it into useful knowledge through centralized means. All of humanity is a distributed thinking machine.

We believe in David Ricardo’s concept of comparative advantage – as distinct from competitive advantage, comparative advantage holds that even someone who is best in the world at doing everything will buy most things from other people, due to opportunity cost.

David Ricardo and comparative advantage.

We believe markets are generative, not exploitative; positive sum, not zero sum. Participants in markets build on one another’s work and output. James Carse describes finite games and infinite games – finite games have an end, when one person wins and another person loses; infinite games never end, as players collaborate to discover what’s possible in the game. Markets are the ultimate infinite game.

James Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games is a useful framework for understanding what motivates different people, groups, and political movements.

We believe Artificial Intelligence is our alchemy, our Philosopher’s Stone – we are literally making sand think.

The Philosopher’s Stone was a mythical device said to turn base metals to gold. An alchemical substance.

We believe in Augmented Intelligence just as much as we believe in Artificial Intelligence. Intelligent machines augment intelligent humans, driving a geometric expansion of what humans can do.

Doug Engelbart wrote about this in his seminal paper “Augmenting Human Intellect” way back in 1962. One of the foundational texts of modern technology.

We believe technology is the solution to environmental degradation and crisis. A technologically advanced society improves the natural environment, a technologically stagnant society ruins it. If you want to see environmental devastation, visit a former Communist country. The socialist USSR was far worse for the natural environment than the capitalist US. Google the Aral Sea.

The USSR’s “Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature” is a canonical example of failure of technocratic, top-down planned economies. They tried to improve irrigation, and drained a 26,000 square mile lake.

We believe that if we make both intelligence and energy “too cheap to meter”, the ultimate result will be that all physical goods become as cheap as pencils. Pencils are actually quite technologically complex and difficult to manufacture, and yet nobody gets mad if you borrow a pencil and fail to return it. We should make the same true of all physical goods.

See Leonard Read’s classic essay on the complexity (and efficiency) of distributed specialization of labor, I, Pencil.

We believe that technology ultimately drives the world to what Buckminster Fuller called “ephemeralization” – what economists call “dematerialization”. Fuller: “Technology lets you do more and more with less and less until eventually you can do everything with nothing.”

Andrew McAfee wrote a great book a few years back on the subject of dematerialization: More from Less. Or if you prefer, the podcast version gives a solid overview.

We are adherents to what Thomas Sowell calls the Constrained Vision.

We believe the Constrained Vision – contra the Unconstrained Vision of Utopia, Communism, and Expertise – means taking people as they are, testing ideas empirically, and liberating people to make their own choices.

Sowell describes the “two visions” in A Conflict of Visions. Constrained acknowledges human fallibility, human nature, and favors incentives to harness this self-interested behavior to solve problems. The unconstrained vision believes man is “good” by default, and that large, empowered, technocratic, expert institutions are the way to progress.

While not Utopian, we believe in what Brad DeLong terms “slouching toward Utopia” – doing the best fallen humanity can do, making things better as we go.

Here’s Brad DeLong’s Slouching Toward Utopia: An Economic History of the 21st Century.

  • Moment of Zen Podcast on e/acc and AI Safety
  • Virginia Postrel’s The Future and its Enemies (1998) is essentially a book-length treatise that parallel’s much of Marc’s post.
  • Martin Gurri’s The Revolt of the Public is probably the best way to understand the modern media ecosystem, and a great diagnosis of the current state of mass statism and pessimism.
  • Bastiat’s The Law is useful for dating the origins of the libertarian mindset.
  • You’ll find an excellent recounting of how we squandered the growth rates of earlier decades in J. Storrs Hall’s Where is My Flying Car?.
  • If Brink Lindsey’s The Captured Economy doesn’t radicalize you against regulation, stasis, and the scourge of the overal restrictionist mindset, I don’t think you’ll ever get accelerationism.
  • Johan Norberg recently did this great interview on his latest book on the Fifth Column Podcast.
Topics:   progress   innovation   e/acc   accelerationism