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The techno-optimist's fallacy
Mark Andreesen delivers the straw man I've been waiting for
Earlier this year, I kept writing draft versions of an article denouncing something I wanted to call “the Techno-Optimist’s Fallacy.”
What is the fallacy? It starts with the accurate observation that technological progress has, on net, been an incredible source of human betterment, almost certainly the major force of human betterment over the history of our species, and then tries to infer that therefore all individual instances of technological progress are good. This is not true. Indeed, it seems so obviously untrue that I couldn’t quite convince myself that anyone could believe it, which is why I kept abandoning drafts of the article. Because while I had a sense that this was an influential cognitive error, I kept thinking that I was maybe torching a straw man. Was anyone really saying this?
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Then along came Marc Andreesen, the influential venture capitalist, with an essay that is not only dedicated to advancing this fallacy, it is even literally titled “The Techno-Optimist Manifesto.”
So now I can say for sure that, yes, this is a real fallacy that people are actually engaged with.
There are people out there who are so annoyed by the Luddites and de-growthers and socialists that they have negatively polarized themselves into believing that it is never a good idea to worry that new technology is harmful or dangerous, in need of limits or control, or otherwise more worthy of condemnation than praise. Or, rather, they have polarized themselves into saying that they believe this.
It seems to me that, in practice, almost everyone in the techno-optimist camp lives in the Bay Area and is annoyed by the open air drug use in San Francisco. So I feel pretty confident that if I pushed them on it, they would acknowledge that the positive productivity shock we’ve seen in fentanyl manufacturing and distribution over the past 10 years has, in fact, been bad. And that even though pharmaceutical R&D, manufacturing, and distribution are in general great boons to humanity, there is also a strong case for limits in these spheres. Having people openly sell and use fentanyl downtown is bad. Having it be commercially available in stores nationwide and the subject of major advertising campaigns would be worse. I don’t think this is actually something I need to convince anyone of. But some techno-optimists are clearly out there making broad, sweeping claims that do not stand up to scrutiny.
Nuclear fission can be pretty dangerous
The core thing that techno-optimists get right, I think, is that western societies took a bad turn in the 1970s. At just the time when the Middle Eastern oil crises and growing concern about coal-induced air pollution should have been making the value of nuclear energy clear, a huge wave of activism pushed, successfully, to make the regulatory burdens on nuclear power so large as to make it non-economical. And many of the core leaders in that anti-nuclear movement were fundamentally opposed to the idea of economic growth and human flourishing.
The two standard quotes are from Paul Ehrlich and Amory Lovins:
Ehrlich: “In fact, giving society cheap abundant energy at this point would be the equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun.”
Lovins: “If you ask me, it’d be a little short of disastrous for us to discover a source of clean, cheap, abundant energy because of what we would do with it.”
These ideas helped kneecap the nuclear industry, and — crucially — they have implications for all kinds of contemporary controversies around things like renewables siting and interregional electrical transmission. But they also suggest that there was a road not traveled in the 70s, down which every country would have pursued a France-scale decarbonization of their electrical grid and emissions and pollution would have been dramatically lower and society would not be constantly roiled by jitters around climate change.
If you want to get really mad at Ehrlich and Lovins, I am with you. If you want to be mad that this history is not better-known and that legacy versions of their ideas continue to be influential, then yes — I’ve written a bunch of pieces along those lines.
But this is a good time to remind oneself of the difference between righteous anger at people who are bad (this is good) and simply embracing the 180 degree opposite position of whatever those people say (this is bad). For example, while the anti-nuclear activists drastically overstated the safety issues with nuclear plants and the difficulty of dealing with nuclear waste storage, it is true that these are real issues. Like if you just didn’t store the waste and flushed it down the toilet instead, that would be really bad. And while we should not regulate reactor designs so strictly that we are left using more dangerous sources of energy instead, this is obviously not a space where you want an everything-goes free-for-all.
Of course “everyone” knows that, but it’s possible to get lost in a sea of rhetoric. No matter how annoying the anti-nuclear people are or how over-burdensome the Nuclear Regulatory Commission may be, it’s still not the case that the optimal amount of regulation is zero.
And that’s to say nothing on the weapons front. You can’t go down to Walmart and buy a tactical nuclear weapon. They don’t sell ICBMs over the internet. I don’t totally understand the pragmatic concessions conservatives made in deciding there are limits to the second amendment, but I’m glad they made them.
Amusing ourselves to death
Again, none of this is to deny that, on the whole, technological progress is extremely important.
I would even happily agree that it’s underrated in intellectual circles for the boring-but-important reason that intellectual circles are dominated by highly verbal people who don’t contribute that much to technological progress. This creates a built-in bias in favor of valorizing polemicists, idea-slingers, and activists over scientists, engineers, and businesspeople. But the reality is that while we could have a lot of interesting arguments about the relative merits of the sociopolitical regimes in the United States, Sweden, and Japan or talk about why all three of these countries are richer than Slovakia or Chile or Indonesia, the fact is that all six countries are dramatically better places to live than anywhere in the world was for the vast majority of human history. That’s because our technology got better.
But it’s still true that almost every powerful and useful technology also has the potential to create harms, and that most technology is only useful and usable because there are safeguards and coordinating mechanisms in place.
Meanwhile, I think an awkward thing for a lot of Silicon Valley people is that while tremendous fortunes have been made on the Internet, it really hasn’t been a huge driver of human betterment in the way that a lot of other major inventions have. Andreesen tries to get around this by just smuggling it onto a list of genuinely useful inventions:
We believe that there is no material problem – whether created by nature or by technology – that cannot be solved with more technology.
We had a problem of starvation, so we invented the Green Revolution.
We had a problem of darkness, so we invented electric lighting.
We had a problem of cold, so we invented indoor heating.
We had a problem of heat, so we invented air conditioning.
We had a problem of isolation, so we invented the Internet.
We had a problem of pandemics, so we invented vaccines.
We have a problem of poverty, so we invent technology to create abundance.
Give us a real world problem, and we can invent technology that will solve it.
Five out of the six things he names here save lives on a routine basis. The sixth one let me waste an hour last night watching a video on YouTube of someone making homemade meatball subs, which I found amusing even though I have absolutely no intention of ever doing it.
The people involved in creating ARPANET seem to disagree about why they did it. Most say it’s a myth that they were trying to create a command-and-control system that would be robust to a Soviet nuclear attack and that it was about sharing access to scarce supercomputers. But some do say it was about the nuclear war thing. Either way, it was not designed to end isolation! And while I think the evidence that people have gotten lonelier is badly overstated in the media, people pretty clearly have not become less lonely or less isolated. What the internet really has accomplished is to make the world less boring — there’s always something on streaming or another Reel to watch — but this seems like it probably has a lot of downsides.
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We already mentioned fentanyl, but there’s been a whole lot of innovation in the field of intoxicating substances that’s of pretty dubious value.
Like are we really happy that someone figured out how to make crack? Even substances that are very useful in certain circumstances need tough controls in others, otherwise you get our current opioid epidemic. Less dramatically, all the people toiling away to create more compulsively munchable ultra-processed snack foods are not really doing the world a service. Again, to point out that a lot of innovation in the field of creating compulsive entertainments — whether that’s slot machines or social media feeds or addictive drugs or unhealthy food — is bad for us is not to deny the value of innovation in general. It’s good that people figured out how to dry herbs. And it’s good that people figured out how to make matches. The invention of cigarettes, by contrast, was not so great for humanity. You can’t answer specific questions at such a high level of generality.
Our robot overlords
I’m focusing on these somewhat outlandish edge cases because the point of Andreesen’s article is to try to salt the conversation around the risks associated with the rapid development of artificial intelligence. He is unalterably opposed to any kind of regulation and massively dismissive of concerns about existential risk, algorithmic bias, and everything else.
And he doesn’t want to argue any of the specifics, he just wants to mobilize general pro-technology, pro-progress, pro-growth sentiment in favor of the specific idea that we should be rushing headlong to try to create an artificial super-intelligence.
But what if I told you aliens with advanced technology were going to arrive on Earth tomorrow? You’d probably be a little excited, right? But also pretty scared. The upside of advanced aliens could be very large, but the downside could also be very large. The invention of sailboats capable of crossing the ocean was not good news for the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere. Really bad things happen all the time. And some of the good things that happen seem pretty contingent: If the Nazis had won World War II, the discourse in that reality might emphasize the importance of technological progress and Aryan values to the betterment of humanity.
You shouldn’t listen to the debbie downers and permabears and cranks who insist that everything is terrible all the time. But history really does have a lot of ups and downs, and the upward march of technological progress and human welfare is very uneven if you zoom in. I’m not qualified to say whether AI labs’ claim to be developing super-intelligent models is total bullshit. But they have certainly made a ton of forward progressive over the past five years in creating systems that can see and read and communicate, so I don’t dismiss it out of hand. And what they are talking about is self-evidently risky unless you can convince yourself of the overheated and absurd “techno-optimist” thesis that it’s just not possible for something that’s technologically impressive to also be bad.