It’s Time To Reflect

a response to Marc Andreessen, and a musing on the beginning of the end for the Valley.

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***here’s the TLDR***

I want to start by saying that this is in no way a hostile response. This is not the Talebenning 2.0The Andreessenning. Aside from anything else, there is nothing in Andreessen to Taleb. He is brilliant. I don’t think he has a cult, but if I am mistaken then I’m sure it’s not his fault and he knows nothing about it. I used to have a running joke in my essays (which probably nobody ever noticed) in which I would always credential Andreessen as, professional baller.

More seriously, I advise more junior colleagues at my place of work that it is unacceptable not to be intimately familiar with Andreessen’s writings and actions. Software Is Eating The World remains probably the most important treatise on finance written this century, and yet most in finance have not read it, and those who have think it is not about finance but about tech. It is only about tech insofar as by “tech” you mean “software”, by “software” you mean “everything”, and by “everything” you mean “finance”. So, you are right, but in at least three different wrong ways. Maybe more.

By his actions, he ought to be at the forefront of our admiration for four different reasons: i) Netscape, the browser, ii) Netscape, the company, iii) LoudCloud, iv) Andreessen Horowitz (or “a16z” as the cool kids call it). I can’t readily think of anybody else with two such contributions. There may be nobody else with four.

But this is like the Talebenning in one respect: I pay my dues at the altar of a true master, then I shit all over their recent output. Buckle up.

Okay, I don’t really shit on anything. But I do respectfully disagree. Like I said, this is intended as a dialogue, that he will likely ignore as he has no idea who I am. Which is absolutely fine, and even just. I don’t have a single entry on the list I gave above. Not even close. I started an Internet business once that made no money, cost me £3k, but played well in interviews and taught me a lot about people and about life.

The thesis is, It’s Time To Build, over which tech and finance twitter collectively lost their minds on account of its dripping inspirational and intellectual brilliance. And sure, I’m only half-mocking here because it was inspirationally and intellectually brilliant. It just wasn’t quite dripping. I am wont to suspect bullshit whenever people collectively gravitate to cult-like adoration of anything, even if it is brilliant, and not a steaming pile of shit, as in other recent cases that have drawn my ire.

The antithesis is, It’s Time To Reflect. On what? On everything. Being a techy finance person based 2 flights and one uber, 10 hours, and 7k miles away from Silicon Valley, I am constantly amused that nobody in Silicon Valley seems to have watched Silicon Valley. Or like all the loyal Talebites still scurrying around the interwebs, they watched it but didn’t get it because it was making fun of them.

yeah, it’s funny, but it’s not like that.

IT’S FUNNY BECAUSE IT’S EXACTLY LIKE THAT!

It’s Time To Build reads like it is from the show as well as the place. Which isn’t even a bad thing, really, because Silicon Valley is fantastic satire. It’s funny because it’s true.

But it’s also funny because it’s ridiculous. And while, It’s Time To Build gets nowhere near genuine ridiculousness, it has seeds ripe for satire. I am absolutely done with satire for at least a good few years, so I will try to respond earnestly, and in my own voice. My goal is to identify the seeds that others may satirize, and which I’m sure Mike Judge is seriously considering a reboot in which T.J. Miller is brought back to deliver the exact speech in question.

The seeds are ones that really, seriously, honestly bother me. So, while there is much to like, to admire, and for which to be thankful, and much with which we may form a synthesis should Andreessen, or anybody, have the time or inclination to read this, there is much to which to object as well. In essence my complaint is as follows: Software is eating the world, but it is not, itself, the world. There must first be a world for software to eat, and it’s actually not so bad when you close your close your integrated development environment and check it out.

Dear Silicon Valley (the place, not the show),

You have moved fast and broken quite enough. Slow down. Breathe. Reflect. Read a classic or two and go for a walk. Then sleep on it, wake up, drink some fat-free decaffeinated soy kimchi latté juice, and build all you want. But for real, work-from-homies, just reflect. For like, a day.

Yours,

Allen

Disturbing Miscellany

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photo by Juliane Liebermann, via Unsplash

There are a few points in the piece that are not terribly important in and of themselves, but are misguided in a way that reflects the heart of the problem. I don’t want to linger on them, but I can’t let Andreessen get away with them, either.

First, he says,

“the problem runs deeper than your favorite political opponent or your home nation.”

If your favorite political opponent is the CCP, this is false.

The question of China itself (not the CCP. They are NOT the same thing) is a fascinating one on which I will tug merely a little bit longer. The reason a16z invests heavily in China and not, say, India, or Nigeria, is that Chinese culture, for all its various political faults, is superior to the West in ways to which I will allude later on, but Andreessen does not. Given his quasi-political position, I suspect he never will. So let me.

In terms of how to reflect; I, as a Totally Legit Medical Doctor specialising in curing STEMophilia in the extremely intelligent but poorly read, prescribe for the patient the following: all the Soviet dissident literature the patient can get his or her hands on. Solzhenitsyn, Havel, Markov, Bulgakov, Miłosz, Grossman, Koestler, and Pasternak would be a good start. Learn what we are really dealing with here if you are lucky enough to have been born after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Books are your friends. They are like Stone Age proto-blogs, printed out on expensive paper and stapled together into what looks like 6 or 7 iPads stacked and rubber banded. They take way longer to read than blogs, too, so you might need to turn off Twitter for (gasp) 4 or 5 hours.

And note, by the way, that Andreessen is almost certainly not “the patient”. Anybody who has been in the a16z reception, as I once gloriously was, is immediately overwhelmed with the sensation that Andreessen et al read a lot of books.

The patients are those influenced by him without any hope of truly understanding how they are supposed to be inspired. People who have a cargo culty notion of what the inspiration ought to entail. People who try to mimic Andreessen’s output, but not his throughput. People, in other words, who think Software Is Eating The World is about “software”. Those people. You might know one. If you live and work in Silicon Valley, you might be one.

Second, there is a serious whiff throughout of preparing for the last crisis rather than the next one. I am certain Andreessen himself doesn’t mean this, but I am rather worried once more that 90% of his readers will interpret it this way. If only we’d done what we now know would have worked perfectly and would have involved a lot of code!

This oversight is very probably due to Silicon Valley’s internalised gloating that not only did it have nothing to do with the Great Financial Crisis (which is called the “Lehman Crisis” in Japan, by the way. Isn’t that interesting? The things you learn when you leave the Valley …) but all the best performing stocks since then have come from software eating the world.

All true, more or less, but I worry that many use this as reason enough to stop thinking about what actually happened. Therefore, they can’t answer, and are completely unaware that the purely economic factors of this crisis where caused by trying to prevent the last crisis after the last crisis. Blank stares. Vacant looks. Exactly. Read a book.

A good book to read, by the way, would be Cities and the Wealth of Nations, by Jane Jacobs. This came to mind by a fairly circuitous route: I read and loved this book because I heard Marc Andreessen recommend it. It has very little to do with this discussion, although given 500 more words I could torture a connection. But my recollection of it amused me because this entire call to arms reads far more like Robert Moses than Jane Jacobs. Readers for whom this reference was entirely over their heads are encouraged to … y’know … read.

On Education

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photo by Susan Yin, via Unsplash

I should note, by the way, lest this seem like an attempted “debunking”, which it is absolutely not, that anything I do not mention I agree with wholeheartedly. Much of the piece was fantastic and inspirational. I was inspired on first reading. But I was troubled on second. The comments on education I found to be deeply disturbing.

Andreessen managed to be wrong in two separate ways, which contradict each other anyway. The idea that everybody should go to university is alarmingly stupid. I’m sorry. It’s the only genuinely stupid thing in there, as far as I can tell.

I have a better idea: how about we go back to when my grandfather was in high school, the material was harder than current undergraduate courses are, and the teachers gave two shits about teaching it rather than moulding model transnational progressives?

My Dad and I dug out some of my grandfather’s old work when we cleared out my Grandma’s house to sell it a few years ago, and I couldn’t answer some of the questions he was tasked with as a 17-year-old. I’m a 28-year-old with a pretty darn good math degree. But, I’m an idiot. Ask anyone.

If Andreessen’s concern is purely education, then we can solve that easily by all agreeing to be less shit than the Greatest Generation. But nobody’s real concern is education. I’ll spare the reader an entirely different essay (because I already wrote it in Quillette) but academia is broken. For once, this isn’t Silicon Valley’s fault. It’s the communists! THE RED THREAT COMETH! They are trying to sap and impurify our precious bodily fluids!

No, not really, but the foot soldiers of the church of social justice have infiltrated just about all of it. It still happens, for sure, and there are brave holdouts, but it is dying a death by a thousand deplatformings. As has the CCP (I take it back, it is the red threat, after all!). To quote the best bit so we can move on,

“Classical education involves the acquisition of culturally and scientifically useful knowledge, and fostering an ability to think critically to further understanding. Modern education, on the other hand, is accreditation by an officially sanctioned seminary.

Defenders of “education,” who more often than not have a stake in the present racket prescribed by the modern definition, like to pretend that they are part of a system upholding the classical definition. At Evergreen, this was obviously false — critical thinking was subordinate to dogma and Bret Weinstein was hounded from his job for having the temerity to defend it. The university was conceived to provide scholars with a secure redoubt in which to conduct their studies, which would be partly funded by letting willing students pick up a thing or two by being in close proximity. This was a very sensible proposition in the 1300s, but is looking like a fantasy today. There are no safe spaces for scholars, and students can mimic proximity to scholars for the cost of an Internet connection. Willing students can get 20 or 30 separate undergraduate degrees’ worth of (classically defined) education from MIT OpenCourseWare alone. But many just want a piece of paper that says they are an adequately socialised member of society, approved of by the cultural elite.”

It isn’t at all obvious to me what Andreessen would disagree with here, and therefore what he wants to change. He even hints in the direction of Lambda School, which I go on to praise in my article. But he seems to be hedging his bets, even though one side of the hedge has already gone into moral bankruptcy.

But the rot goes deeper. There is the issue of Chesterton’s Fence. Why is he upset at the following?

“The last major innovation in K-12 education was Montessori, which traces back to the 1960s.

I just told you that my grandfather’s education in the 30s and 40s was superior to the 60s, which was superior to now. Why do these people want to build so God-damned much? Why must they fix everything? Why can’t they just be content not knowing some things, and, in so reflecting, stop breaking everything in the first place? Or, at the very least, correctly identify the attempts they are already making to actually fix things, rather than hedging with something else already in liquidation?

Education is dead. Long live education.

Modernism and Postmodernism

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photo by Kurt Deiner, via Pixabay

Andreessen makes a similar kind of social-ontological error elsewhere, less potent than in his remarks on education, but more dispersed and arguably more insidious. It is something like the following: all the solutions must be new. We must build them!

As Taleb discovered much to his displeasure, there are no new good ideas, only new bad ones. It is especially surprising and painful to me to have to say this in reply to somebody who had 4 new good ideas. Most people haven’t had any. I might have had one, but I really need to do a math PhD when I’ve had enough of this finance lark to figure out if there’s anything to it. And even in the best possible case, perhaps 100 other people will care. Everybody cares about web browsers. Everybody. You are reading this on a web browser, aren’t you? Therefore, you care. QED.

But maybe that’s just it? Maybe Andreessen is genuinely so brilliant that he doesn’t realise that nobody can possibly match him. Hence his encouragement is well intentioned but pretty well entirely misplaced. It’s like when superstar players become coaches, in more or less any sport. They almost never succeed because they can’t understand why all their players aren’t just better. The best managers tend to have been decent but not great players, because they understand the struggle that almost everybody faces of being decent but not great.

And note, lest my metaphors get confusingly mixed, that Andreessen may well be a brilliant actual manager. My suspicion, given Netscape, LoudCloud, and a16z is that he is, although it is possible that he is the “idea guy” and that he outsources all the actual management to Ben Horowitz, who proceeds to scream Rick Ross lyrics at the subordinates:

WHO THE F*** YOU THINK YOU F***IN WITH IM THE F***IN B0$$

In the metaphor, Andreessen is a “manager” insofar as he is a writer, and he wrote this piece. If what he really meant was, “be as brilliant as me, please,” then it will work about as well as Gary Neville at Valencia, or, for American readers, Ted Williams or Wayne Gretzky attempting to coach in their respective sportsball derby bowls.

But the ontological error is deeper than sports analogies, and I heartily direct the reader to Alex Danco’s truly superb, Progress, Postmodernism, and the Tech Backlash, in order to go deeper:

This is, honestly, the best essay I have read in years. And he’s a SVer, VC-type! What gives? What gives is that Danco clearly reads a lot, and clearly is mildly irritated and entertained by all the people in Silicon Valley who clearly don’t read at all.

This line is borrowed from George Gilder’s Life After Google, whilst also being a genuine observation of my own, but, by and large, denizens of the Valley seem to think that history began with the Google IPO and that everything prior was a kind of messy preamble. Like how the Old Testament has lots of history and lots of begetting, but is mostly just stupid and contradictory nonsense before God gave up and fixed it himself.

I quote Danco extensively, because he is a far better writer than I am and almost certainly a deeper thinker and reader as well. I mused on Twitter at the time that this was one of the best things I had ever read, that I intended to reread it, and that, if I became truly insufferably obnoxious and aspirational, might write a response. Alas, no need. There is nothing to respond to in Danco, and much in Andreessen.

It’s difficult to say that, Progress, Postmodernism, and the Tech Backlash is really about anything beyond the title. Danco himself admits that, “this post is going to cover a lot of ground: How innovation overtook progress, the resonance and coherence of the anti-tech movement, the rebellion against postmodernism, guess which tech leader is sort of a Marxist?” It’s more like a Rhapsody on a theme of Thiel, every bit as varied and haunting as its unintentional homagee:

Or maybe it was intentional, I dunno. I wouldn’t put it past Danco. The man is clearly deeply interested in Western Civilisation.

While I only intend to pull out the bits that are strictly relevant to my response to Andresseen, the start is worth quoting in its entirety:

Here are two aspects of the anti-tech backlash that I believe are both true, and are actually reciprocally related to each other:

  1. Critics in media, politics, and even in tech itself, who spend all day in the echo chamber, usually overestimate how many people out in the real world actually believe that Silicon Valley internet companies are villains. As anti-tech rhetoric gets louder, we perceive it as more widespread than it actually is.
  2. Conversely, tech leaders don’t appreciate how resonant and cohesive the anti-tech movement actually is. As we cordon off the current backlash to a subset of critics, we fail to appreciate what exactly this movement is about, and what it stands for.

Anti-tech sentiment is far from a universal stance. But it’s more coherent, and therefore more dangerous, than I think most tech leaders realize. To really understand this movement, you need to recognize it as part of a reaction to something bigger than tech. It’s a rebellion against postmodernism.

This alone somewhat answers Andreessen, if you already believe it, or have read the essay and know what he is talking about, but I’ll tease it out nonetheless. Andreessen is arguably stumbling into the positive version of the negative case Danco accuses Silicon Valley at large of committing.

Andreessen overestimates what Silicon Valley can actually do. This is understandable for a number of reasons already covered. Andreessen himself can seemingly do anything he wants and us mere mortals are a bit shit by comparison. Also, it can do a lot. Software is eating the world, and all that. But it can’t boot up a better society than Judeo-Christian Federalist Modernist America, obviously flawed as this may be. Chesterton’s Fence, and all that.

I am reminded of Balaji Srinivan’s (I believe?) infamous Y Combinator talk, Silicon Valley’s Ultimate Exit, below. I watched this years ago and was deeply impressed. It even encouraged me to buy and read Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, by Hirschman (a book! a book!). And I still am impressed. Obviously, I rewatched it just now and it held up very well.

But then I read this book, and a couple hundred other books, and I have sadly concluded that Srinivasan didn’t really get it — brilliant as he undoubtedly is, and impressive as his achievements are (very possibly three to Andreessen’s four and to my zero). Srinivasan is suffering from STEMophilia in the extremely intelligent but poorly read. Lucky for him, this is my specialty.

He gets the exit part. That’s the whole point of his talk: we should exit! Wir sind Übermenschen! But the book is actually about the tensions between economics and politics that throw up an irreducibly complex web of exit, voice, and loyalty (it’s almost like Hirschman didn’t call it, Exit, for a reason). Srinivasan’s framing of the distinction is absurdly simple and reflects, I am sad to say, the kind of decisions one might be expected to make in refactoring a codebase, but not in running an organisation of non-autistic adult humans.

In addition, Srinivasan is clearly trying to tap into the spirit of the American Revolution, and yet he skips over the (these days horrifically offensive and politically incorrect) fact that the Founding Fathers were amongst the best educated group of people in history. They read a lot of books! Thomas Jefferson, in particular, may well have been the best-read person in the entire world at that point in time. I’d take even odds on this.

And so, if Silicon Valley wants to exit on remotely credible terms, it is going to have to produce something as good as or better than the Declaration of Independence. If it wants to organise its own governance (as a DAO, say, har har har) it is going to need to produce some Federalist and anti-Federalist papers. Not Y Combinator speeches. Not tweets. Not blogs. Essays. Essays that give the impression of having read a couple of books.

Is the USA the Microsoft of nations? Har har har. It’s a joke, yes, but it’s a bad joke. It’s a stupid joke, because software is not the world. “The codebase is over 230 years old and written in obfuscated language,” and yet is still a better written, more moral, and more important and influential piece of work than everything Silicon Valley has ever produced, combined. Har har har.

Even the allusion to open source irked me, because it’s not that simple, damn it! The classic work of open source theorising is Eric Raymond’s, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, in which numerous thought exercises are carried out analogising the noosphere to physical land, and hence what cultural and legal precepts from meatspace have to tell us about how to behave there, if any. And hey, maybe teachings can go the other way too! It’s a fascinating book and a fascinating broader discussion to have, provided you have the slightest clue what he is talking about because you give a shit about how our civilisation has ended up at the point at which the discussion is happening.

By the way, if you want to see what a society designed by Silicon Valley actually looks like, there is an easy, if unpleasant, way to find out: go to San Francisco and walk around until you can’t take it anymore. It’s a hellscape. I intend to never go again if I can help it. The catch-22 of transhumanism will hit you right in the smell buds: San Franciscans don’t take shits in the metaverse; they take them in the street.

woah, those sprinkles you put on your virtual turd are lit, fam!

And they aren’t even capable of being honest about it. When Stripe moved out of SF, Patrick Collison tweeted some bullshit like, the political and social situation in San Francisco has deteriorated to the point that we have had to take the considerations of our workforce’s wellbeing into blah blah blah. What he meant was,

Thurz naht s’mach shoit in Oirland, like. Camda thinkuvit, thurz nahn ad ahl!

And again, I really am sorry to have to be so harsh on Srinivasan. He is brilliant. Perhaps as brilliant as Andreessen, and certainly in the same league. Everything he has ever written or said is worth reading or listening to. But he is not perfect. His mistakes make him more human, particularly when they are pretty obviously not even his own fault so much as stemming from having spent the better part of twenty years inside the utopian dystopia of the Valley.

Danco’s second point from his introduction can be left intact for our purposes. Andreessen also underestimates how coherent his opponents are. How sick people are of Big Tech’s endless bullshit about how, any minute now, just as soon as these Senate hearings are over, and with just a few billion more in primary capital, they are going to fix all the problems they also happen to have created. The brilliance of, It’s Time To Build would be completely lost on the vast majority of people who won’t read it anyway. They are over you. Sorry if this is the first you are hearing of this.

Danco’s final point is my own, but better. The ontological error is in failing to realise that none of this is about tech. It’s about postmodernism.

Okay, now what on earth does that mean? First of all, for the hundredth time, read Danco! But if you don’t want to juggle tabs, it basically means that the way of looking at the world that Silicon Valley has stumbled into first believing, and then forcing on everybody else via surveillance capitalism, is fundamentally at odds with treating reality in the way one has to if one hopes to engender progress. Perhaps more gratingly, it is at odds with the foundations of our civilisation. It’s really dangerous stuff.

“Modernism fundamentally cared about progress. Your impression from looking around the world, even just looking outside your window, was of definite, forward progress everywhere. Houses went from dark to light. Travel went from slow to fast. Infection went from deadly to curable.

Then came the hangover. Postmodernism began as a conscious reaction to modernism: disillusion with absolute ideals and unstoppable progress; new emphasis on subjective experience and relative change. Postmodern art and culture emphasized a meta-awareness of the old utopian ideals, often by mocking them. New was out. Irony, remixing, and self-reference were in. “

Danco gets so deep into this that it isn’t worth following here, and also not worth quoting in full. My rhetorically fuelled bastardisation would be: in postmodernism, everything is bullshit, or may as well be assumed to be bullshit until proven otherwise. Bullshit is the null hypothesis. This sounds mildly entertaining if in a Kafka novel, but if you actually live this — if you are a Kafka character — it is horrific and demoralising and dehumanising, and if you ever had the slightest shimmer of a dream or a goal, adulthood is about learning to let go and watch garbage TV instead.

This was largely an artsy countercultural scene in elite American, British, and European universities, until Silicon Valley realised it could hijack the movement to make several metric gigaf***tons of money by offering Everything-as-a-Service at 100% incremental margin.

As if a kind of McLuhanian prophecy, even our preferred media has warped to better express irony, reference, meta-irony, meta-reference, and so on. The Waste Land is self-referential child’s play compared to A Tale of Two Talebs (it is decidedly better, however, just to be clear). But what is The Talebenning — nay, what is this very essay, if not an ironic meta-reference to Andreessen, Danco, Gilder, Soviet dissidents, and whomever else I have already forgotten I referenced above, enabled by hypertext? And While Tim Berners-Lee invented the hyptertext protocol that has come to dominate, one Marc Andreessen is primarily responsible for its success.

See what I did there? I can’t help it. It’s partly for the millennial clout I write this way. I’m not gonna lie, it’s great fun, and I am my own best audience. But equally, as the serious parts of the past few paragraphs evidence, it is more or less impossible to use this medium (“Medium”) to its fullest without meta-meta-meta-whatevering. These two paragraphs are about the medium being the message, and the message being meta-reference, and I couldn’t help but use the medium meta-referentially to make that point. God damn you, Marshall!

And forget about hyptertext, already. What is this, 1993? OK, boomer. Let’s fast forward: what is blogging? What is Twitter? What is TikTok? Or, put more provocatively, what will be the first masterpiece of TikTok literature? The question might seem ironic, but it really isn’t (oh, the irony of being mistaken for irony the one time I am being earnest!). TikTok is a set of rules that is two years old for an art form that is fifteen. It’s the late teens’ iambic pentameter to the twenty-first century’s prosody. If you don’t think it is capable of producing great art, then you are a snob. Gen Z has so much cultural knowledge on the tips of their tongues that the average TikTok is almost certainly better, or at least cleverer, than the average poem. It’s easy to forget that we only read the really good poems. Most, throughout history, were dog shit. Sorry if this is the first you are hearing of this.

But … if you are worried that the medium of TikTok itself discourages real art without strictly disallowing it, then you might have a point. Poets are usually at least trying to produce art. If TikTokers do so, it is likely entirely in spite of their own intense efforts not to because, lol, it’s just memes, grandpa. It may well be the apex of meta-meta-meta-whatevering. But then we probably said that every other time too. Who knows what’s coming next?

The above meandering rant is a collectively unsavoury interpretation of why software is eating the world. Why aspire to art when you can remix those who try and fail? Why do anything that takes any commitment of time or effort if others will immediately be on your ass for it? Why deal with reality as it actually is when you can play a meta-meta-meta-game from one minute and one tweet to the next? Why live in the future when you can live in the moment? Why dream when you can dance? Why own when you can rent? Why rent when you can rent on margin? And why have any responsibility or human decency when you can … well … not?

Securitise everything and then use that as collateral to draw down — I mean who even really gives a shit about the metaphor, right? I can more easily capture this by repeatedly and enthusiastically — possibly drunkenly — yelling, YOLO!, or including it as a hashtag on Instagram.

And if you pause for long enough to notice these glitches in the Matrix then that’s really interesting and you should OMFG LOOK AT THIS TIKTOK IT’S A CAT AND A BUNNY SNUGGLING OMGOMGOMGOMGOMG. Pop another oxy and get back to being permanently spied on.

And to get back to a thread I left hanging, China doesn’t have this problem. It has many, many serious problems, but it exports this kind of crap and imports our equity and government debt, because people there save and respect their families and we do not. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but not by much. Everything else is a footnote. China is terrifyingly modernist, in the respects that matter for this discussion. You can tell the truth there about social science and people will just nod in obvious agreement, even if telling the truth about politics will cost you a kidney. And good for them, as far as this goes! China is not the CCP, so I’m rooting for all the non-commies I can. There will be a Chinese Solzhenitsyn, and I will tweet about it.

I risk going on too much of an enjoyable tangent and rewriting a worse version of Danco’s essay, but I will conclude this section by remarking that many of Andreessen’s complaints about our society exist in part because “Big Tech” numbed us into them with their endless, mindless, parasitic bullshit. It’s that simple. Again, sorry if this is the first you are hearing of it.

Bitcoin

Oh God, not this again …

Danco’s essay concludes (SPOILER ALERT!),

“Anyway, all of this is really just a long winded way of saying: Bitcoin.”

In my case, Bitcoin is really just a long winded way of saying: read Danco’s essay.

So, yes, this, but only briefly. I think I am very lucky to have just about the perfect perspective on this. I am close to Silicon Valley, but closer to Bitcoin. They are similar in many obnoxious respects: we can rebuild all this from scratch and it will be both architecturally and morally superior, etc.. But the key difference is pertinent: consensus development has no comparator in Silicon Valley. They move fast and break things. The Bitcoin Core team move slowly and break nothing.

That’s it. That’s the section. If you don’t do tequila-infused overnight hackathons with hundreds of billions of dollars in digital bearer assets, you sure as shit don’t do it with the foundations of civilisation. Aside from this being unwise from the point of view of engineering, it also follows from culture and literature. You might actually like how our civilisation has ended up if you … y’know … read.

A Better Prophet

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photo by Guy Dugas, via Pixabay

Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Lol, jokes. Readers may have sensed my constant refraining from mentioning the hero we don’t deserve, but nonetheless need:

Peter Thiel.

The End of the Future is a superior foil to, Software is Eating The World; The Founder’s Fund Manifesto is a superior foil to, It’s Time To Build, which I guess it is fair to say is now the a16z manifesto. The End of the Future is an equal foil to The Founder’s Fund Manifesto, and both are a better foil to Andreessen’s collected offering, excellent as Andreessen’s is.

In the very next paragraph of my Quillette piece on education read as follows:

Peter Thiel has given a uniquely scathing critique of the insanity of this system. He questions whether higher education, as an economic exchange, represents much of an investment anymore — the student defers gratification to reap higher rewards in the future, or the student enjoys a four-year party as a consumption good. Thiel says he originally thought of higher education as consumption masquerading as investment, but now thinks of it as an even crazier combination of concepts: as insurance against failure in life in general, and as a kind of Veblen good that is priced uncompetitively so as to confer status on those who can afford it. This produces a ridiculous situation in which insurance is desirable, not because something disastrous is prudently insured against, but because the disaster would be the ignominy of failing to purchase insurance in the first place. It is effectively a Ponzi scheme. No wonder Thiel calls college administrators subprime mortgage brokers. They get a cut on selling pieces of paper that are only as valuable as we all pretend they are.”

Or, Peter Thiel understood this all years before me and better than me. At the very end of his essay, Danco writes, “and then there’s Peter Thiel,” before proceeding to say much the same: Thiel gets this, got it years ago, is smarter than me, and is right about everything.

To the best of my knowledge, Thiel hasn’t publicly commented on the current situation. But he also doesn’t really need to. He has cultivated such a hilarious, Blofeldian, comic book supervillainy that idiotic, poorly-read hit pieces like this defend him by accident:

The observation that China, as an allegedly emerging economy, ought to be exporting capital, not importing it, is pure, distilled Thielianism. He said this in 2014 or so, and it found its way to Trump via Steve Bannon. Just let that sink in, dear transnational progressive Valley girls: you now believe something exclusively because Bannon (yuk) believed it 5 years ago and probably no longer cares. How does that make you feel?

But now all the cool kids are saying it. Y’know, the ones who laughed at Thiel then and are still laughing at him now about whatever they will think is obviously true in 10 years?

Balaji gets it. Balaji gets *most* things.
.

Even Bitcoin can be tied into this. Thiel has rather brilliantly observed that Bitcoin is libertarian tech, while AI is authoritarian, which is in part hilarious in its rhetorical vacuity that surely enrages people who demand there is more to it than that. Yes, there is more to it. But Thiel is daring you to say what you think there is to it so he can tell you exactly how you are stupid and wrong.

I accept Thiel’s challenge because I like it when smart people tell me I’m wrong. I plan an essay on teasing this out in a lot more technical detail. Watch this space. And, again, Andreessen absolutely knows this. I would peg the amount of his personal wealth he has sunk into this insight as: a lot. However, his fangirls probably do not. There is a reason very little Bitcoin development happens in Silicon Valley: it’s overrun with power hungry postmodernists. Bitcoin may very well be the most potently modernist and peaceful technology ever invented. They have no use for it. They either hope it fails or think they could build a better version of it.

Narrator: they could not.

Loose Ends and Conclusion

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photo by Miriam Zilles, via Pixabay

Those are the big ones. I will now rattle through some more miscellany before wrapping up.

I agree with the need for hearty and healthy investment. Regular readers of mine will know exactly how I feel about the zeitgeist in academic economics and professional finance: that they encourage parasitism, mindless consumption — both of tat and of capital — and a race to the bottom of professional ethics to get their straws in the milkshake before it’s all been drunk. Srinivasan gets this absolutely right in the Y Combinator talk too, by the way. You would expect nothing less from somebody so brilliant on Bitcoin.

But our difference is that I didn’t come up with all this on my own. Sacha and I have an enormous intellectual debt, as indicated below. There was one original idea in that essay, and it was Sacha’s, not mine.

But as pertains to Silicon Valley, the idea that what we criticise is, for lack of a more rhetorical framing, “bad”, was not the output of AlphaGo. It is in the Book of Job.

Andreessen slyly pre-empts attacks I’m sure here nonetheless received,

“I expect this essay to be the target of criticism. Here’s a modest proposal to my critics. Instead of attacking my ideas of what to build, conceive your own! What do you think we should build? There’s an excellent chance I’ll agree with you.”

I agree, but it is not what I am criticising. I am criticising not that we build, but why.

“Our nation and our civilization were built on production, on building. Our forefathers and foremothers built roads and trains, farms and factories, then the computer, the microchip, the smartphone, and uncounted thousands of other things that we now take for granted, that are all around us, that define our lives and provide for our well-being. There is only one way to honor their legacy and to create the future we want for our own children and grandchildren, and that’s to build.”

This is simply false. It’s cargo cult sociology. Our forefathers and foremothers did not set out to build. They set out to lead good and responsible lives. They read Homer, The Bible, and Shakespeare, and they took them seriously but not literally. They felt a duty to their families, their communities, and their country. They worked hard and saved. They stocked capital: financial, material, and social.

Then they built.

We do not honour their legacy by imitating what it seemed like they did, because we don’t know any better, because we don’t read. We honour them with humility, by abandoning the farce of postmodernity, and by doing the same hard work as them rather than considering their work a “platform” which is now struggling to “scale”. The greatest lie of postmodernity — and a thread that goes from Plato to Hegel to Marx to Lenin, then quasi-ironically through Derrida, Lacan, et al, and right out of irony again to Harvard at this very moment — is that the work of living a good life can ever truly finish; that there are not lessons we each must learn on our own, by failing. Learning is failing is living.

History never ends, and “populism” is just democracy you don’t like. Maybe democracy itself is the problem? If it isn’t too heretical for our precious little minds, it might be worth rereading (or reading) one of Plato’s better musings on why democracy is not, in fact, the $#IZZ, is not the means by which the best come to rule but actually — usually — the worst, and does not mark the end of history. The founding fathers knew this well. Contrary to popular propaganda, the USA is not the oldest democracy in the world because it is not a democracy at all. The States are democracies. The USA is a federal constitutional republic. If you don’t know what that means, read a book. Maybe start with Plato, to which everything else is pretty much a series of footnotes

So, while reading won’t answer the big questions for you, it will tell you the best questions, because you are not the first person to think to ask them, no matter how learned your machines are.

I offer the superior writing of Tom Wolfe as a conclusion of which this piece is unworthy, but to which I owe another intellectual debt. Alas, dear excited reader, there will be no pissing monkeys, nor Masters of the Universe, but rather a lesser known article of his with which I am sure Andreessen is intimately familiar, but which is sorely lacking from Stanford’s CS101: The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce. If you don’t know who Robert Noyce is, then — you guessed it — read:

The plain truth was, Grinnell had Middle West written all over it. It was squarely in the middle of Iowa’s Midland corn belt, where people on the farms said “crawdad” instead of crayfish and “barn lot” instead of barnyard. Grinnell had been one of many Protestant religious communities established in the mid-nineteenth century after Iowa became a state and settlers from the East headed for the farmlands. The streets were lined with white clapboard houses and elm trees, like a New England village. And today, in 1948, the hard-scrubbed Octagon Soap smell of nineteenth century Protestantism still permeated the houses and Main Street as well. That was no small part of what people in the East thought of when they heard the term “Middle West. “ For thirty years writers such as Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, and Carl Van Vechten had been prompting the most delicious sniggers with their portraits of the churchy, narrow minded Middle West. The Iowa painter Grant Wood was thinking of farms like the ones around Grinnell when he did his famous painting American Gothic. Easterners recognized the grim, juiceless couple in Wood’s picture right away. There were John Calvin’s and John Knox’s rectitude reigning in the sticks.

What on earth is this about? you might ask. This is about the birth of Silicon Valley, and its transformation from rolling plains of orange groves to the greatest engine of economic productivity in the history of the world, through the sheer force of will, not of code, nor of coders, but of entrepreneurs. It didn’t start in a garage in Menlo Park in 1998. It started on a farm in Iowa in 1948.

Marc Andreessen, professional baller, knows this well. But his acolytes do not. Amazingly, he too is originally from Iowa. Or maybe it’s not so amazing after all …

“In the last stage of his career Josiah Grinnell had turned from the building of his community to broader matters affecting Iowa and the Middle West. In 1863 he became one of midland Iowa’s representatives in Congress. Likewise, in 1974 Noyce turned over the actual running of Intel to Gordon Moore and Andrew Grove and kicked himself upstairs to become chairman of the board. His major role became that of spokesman for the Silicon Valley and the electronic frontier itself. He became chairman of the Semiconductor Industry Association. He led the industry’s campaign to deal with the mounting competition from Japan. He was awarded the National Medal of Science in a White House ceremony in 1980. He was appointed to the University of California Board of Regents in 1982 and inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in February 1983. By now Intel’s sales had grown from $64 million in 1973 to almost a billion a year. Noyce’s own fortune was incalculable. (Grinnell College’s $300,000 investment in Intel had multiplied in value more than thirty times, despite some sell-offs, almost doubling the college’s endowment. ) Noyce was hardly a famous man in the usual sense, however. He was practically unknown to the general public. But among those who followed the semiconductor industry he was a legend. He was certainly famous back east on Wall Street. When a reporter asked James Magid of the underwriting firm of L. F. Rothschild, Unterberg, Towbin about Noyce, he said: “Noyce is a national treasure.”

Maybe something about growing corn and herding hogs; about taking the Sabbath off to reflect; about the hard, grinding work both demanded by and moulding the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism made similar impressions on Noyce and Andreessen alike. Maybe building a community is just a little more important than building an app.

There is plenty of time to build tomorrow, and every day after.

Today, reflect.

follow me on Twitter @allenf32

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