If you missed it, Marc Andreesen recently put out ‘The Techno-Optimist Manifesto’ and it’s generating a lot of buzz.
I don’t want to oversimplify his points, so I do suggest reading it for yourself. But if I had to summarize, I would say his main point is that the combination of unbridled technological innovation and free markets will lead to material abundance for all of humanity. Anyone who disagrees with that vision is an enemy, of which he lists many, including sustainability, tech ethics, risk management, and collectivism, plus many others. Manifestos are usually designed to get a reaction out of people, a call to champion a cause and rise up against real or figurative enemies. From what I can tell, this has certainly succeeded on the reaction front.
Before we go any further, I want to say that this is not a manifesto. (Separately, if anyone has any data on how many women call their work manifestos vs men, please let me know.) I also want to highlight that Marc Andreesen is an incredibly successful founder and venture capitalist that deserves deep respect for his contributions to the technology landscape we live in. This isn’t a point-by-point discussion of Andreesen’s work.
My hope is that this essay can be part of the deep reflection you’re likely already doing around the power of technology to solve problems as well as potentially create problems.
I don’t believe we have to put ourselves into techno-optimist or techno-pessimist camps. It’s too easy to fall into another ‘us vs. them’ debate. To me, it’s less of a question on techno-optimism and more about whether you’re optimistic about humanity in general. Technology is one of many tools humans can use to advance our goals as individuals, communities, and as a species. I think that instead of pointing fingers and creating more divisive discourse, we should do the hard work of seriously assessing how our use of technology has helped us and where it might be failing us.
When I think about human advancement, I orient around Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
It’s a basic, yet enduring framework for human motivation and behavior. A quick refresher: in order from lowest to highest, we need physical health, safety, belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization. Our lower-level needs like food, shelter, and safety must be met before higher-level needs such as belonging and self-actualization can be met. The goal of any life form is survival – of the individual, of the herd, and of the species. For humans specifically, our elevated consciousness is what drives the desire for things like self-actualization or purpose beyond survival.
In my opinion, we should judge societies (and countries) based on how many people have their lowest-level needs met. If a few individuals are incredibly self-actualized and successful, but a large majority feel hunger or don’t have shelter, there’s work to be done if the goal is an advanced society. It goes without saying, populations are more productive when more people have their basic needs met. Similarly, we can judge whether our use of technology is helping us or preventing us from achieving each level of the needs hierarchy. And we should be prioritizing solutions that help the most people satisfy their lowest-level needs first. Humans cannot function at their best until they have their necessities.
Our deployment of technology to date has been incredible for satisfying lower-level needs.
Globally, our standard of living has never been higher. There are large disparities that we could work to close, but advancements around material comforts have been incredible. Andreesen brings up electricity, indoor heating, and vaccines as prime examples. Life expectancy is probably the best metric to assess our success against our lowest-level needs. It’s estimated that the average lifespan of a human in the premodern world was 30 years while currently it’s over 70 years. We might take it for granted these days, but the speed of that progress is almost impossible to comprehend. Humans have been around for hundreds of thousands of years with likely only marginal gains in life expectancy to show for it until the most recent few hundred years. If survival is the goal, we’re over twice as good at it now, largely due to our technological advancements. Beyond simply surviving, many people around the globe live in extreme comfort thanks to technology that humans created.
The problem remains that large populations of people around the world do not have their basic needs met, but that isn’t because the technology doesn’t exist to help them, it’s because we as humans have not decided to allocate resources to do so. That’s a necessary, but separate discussion. The point is that our technological innovations have enabled us to meet our physiological needs in a way that is beyond the wildest dreams of our prehistoric ancestors.
When it comes to our higher-level needs of belonging and self-esteem, I believe technology has been more harmful than helpful.
Although it’s a higher-level need, not having a sense of belonging can actually have serious health consequences. Loneliness is associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, premature death, among other negative outcomes. You’re probably already aware of the loneliness epidemic we’re facing. To highlight a few important data points, people are spending 24 more hours per month physically alone compared to 2003 and 49% of people have 3 or less confidants, up from 27% in 1990.
You may think that more time alone is ok because we have social media to stay connected. While there are definitely some benefits to social media, there are many harms as well. Feelings of isolation are complex and we can’t blame social media completely, but we can’t really deny it’s a major factor. In one study, participants who reported using social media for more than two hours a day had about double the odds of reporting increased perceptions of social isolation compared to those who used social media for less than 30 minutes per day. Additionally, phone use during in-person interactions increases distraction, reduces conversation quality, and lowers self-reported enjoyment of time spent together. There are also several studies to suggest social media is a leading factor in decreased self-esteem, especially in teens. It can also contribute to increased rates of self-harm and suicide.
There’s a broader conversation to be had on the role of social media in our political discourse. Issues like misinformation and the virality of extreme points of view at the very least create more disconnection, but at the very worst lead to the destabilization of democracies and increased violence in the real world. The books I recommend on this topic are Frances Haugen’s The Power of One and Tobias Rose-Stockwell’s Outrage Machine.
Of course, there is some technology that has certainly enhanced our ability to meet our higher-level needs for belonging: we can use cars and planes to physically travel and connect with people in other places, we can watch sporting events and performances live from remote locations, music and art experiences can be distributed at scale. When it comes to self-esteem, you could argue the process of building new technology in and of itself increases camaraderie and feelings of purpose.
The important distinction between technology for our lower-level needs and technology for our higher-level needs is that more nuanced application is required for the latter, in my opinion. For example, having electricity is basically undeniably better than not having it (the only issue would be not using too much of it, but I agree with Andreesen on technology being able to solve that problem). The same can’t always be said for things like social media. It has proven very difficult to commoditize and outsource our need for real, human connection.
It’s too easy to use the word technology in an all-encompassing way. When we treat it as one thing in conversation, it can be transformed into a stance: you’re either for technology or you’re against it. In the US specifically, we do this with a lot of things, like suggesting people are either “for” or “against” science, progress, freedom, the list goes on. We lose nuance this way; there’s no room to thoughtfully consider the negative effects of certain technologies if the implication is that anyone who does so is somehow against all technology.
In the context of human history, we have only been trying to coordinate as large groups for a short time. Our brains have yet to catch up to the scale of our societies, and it’s unclear if they ever truly will. To make sense of it all, we often find superficial ways to figure out who’s in our tribe and who’s not. We use things like hometowns, looks, politics, religions, sports teams, social class, and academic affiliations to quickly create groups in our minds that are either for us or against us.
You could argue that we can overcome these tendencies, that it’s a moral imperative to do so. And even though I believe that, I think it’s besides the point in this case. In reality, much of the polarization we’ve created is around false dichotomies. Politics is an easy example: Americans agree on a lot more than your social media feed would have you believe. We can change the narrative if we want to.
Choosing to be a techno-optimist or techno-pessimist is an outlier, extremist view that is only appropriate in the context of a manifesto.
It seems easy to agree that humans have created some technologies that have been net positive for society and some that have been net negative. I don’t believe I’m the first person to say this. I’ve spent many years on a personal journey to learn more about human history and how our use of technology is affecting us, and I’m sure many of you have been doing the same. I’m hoping this leads you to have an honest discussion with those around you about whether your use of technology is advancing your broader community along its hierarchy of needs.
If you believe it can be better, you have the power to create something new. While I think the picture of Silicon Valley that Andreesen paints is a bit too rosy, I also know there’s a lot of people working to make it better. I hope to count myself as one of them. Even beyond the creation of new technology, we are all the end users of it and that comes with power as well.
For the record, I choose to be optimistic about humanity and our ability to create new, life-changing technologies that benefit large groups of people. I also believe in our ability to course-correct when we are using technology to harm large groups of people. Personally, I think technology is better suited for fixing our physical problems like diseases and global energy balance than our spiritual problems like social isolation, but I’ll be happy if I’m proven wrong one day.