Where has techno-optimism gotten us?

Back in the 2000s, I used to write for Seed, the glossy, artsy, fabulously interesting magazine that tried to do for science what Wired did for technology in the 90s. I liked the magazine, but it tried too hard and went belly-up in 2012, leaving behind a diaspora of science writers who’d been briefly nourished at its teats.

That was too bad, but maybe it was for the best: it could have encouraged a generation of obnoxious twits who thought they understood science, but really just liked fancy fonts, odd layouts, and money. You know, like Wired spawned. Imagine a world where naive pseudo-scientists announce that we just need to science more shit and all our problems would be solved, and we just need to tweak a few genes and mix up some new pharmaceuticals and…oh, wait. We live in that world. Never mind.

Anyway, what brought this to mind is that Marc Andreessen, the very rich guy who turned an early investment in Netscape into billions of dollars, and who has been rewarded with regular columns in the Washington Post, has scribbled up something he calls the Techno-Optimist Manifesto, which I haven’t read. I don’t want to read it, because I’ve read a few of his WaPo columns, and he’s just another spoiled conservative wanker who actively repels me with his narrow, selfish perspective. But Dave Karpf read it! He didn’t like it.

In the manifesto (which, let’s be honest, reads more like an extended twitter thread), Andreessen positions himself as a brave, bold truth-teller: We are being lied to he declares. We are told to be angry, bitter, and resentful about technology… Technology is the glory of human ambition and achievement, the spearhead of progress, and the realization of our potential… For hundreds of years, we properly glorified this – until recently… It is time, once again, to raise the technology flag. It is time to be Techno-Optimists.

This is a familiar diatribe. Louis Rossetto used to say exactly the same thing back in WIRED’s startup days. Rossetto insisted that the media and the government were clinging to power by trying to scare people away from the liberatory power of the internet. The only thing that could stop inevitable technological progress was a culture of pessimism and fear. As recently as 2018, Rossetto was calling for a return to “militant optimism,” insisting that the sole barrier to our bright, abundant future is a pessimistic mood. Kevin Kelly, Stewart Brand, and Peter Schwartz all hit similar themes throughout the 90s. Their “Californian Ideology” was a mix of libertarianism and technological optimism, declaring that all of the world’s problems could be solved if we would just sit back and let the engineers of techno-capitalism do their work.

I asked the same question Karpf does: who is lying to us?

Who is lying to us, Marc? You serve on the boards of trillion-dollar companies. A few of your peers own media companies. A few others have chosen to bankrupt media companies that write mean things about them. You have been celebrated for thirty years as the genius-inventors-of-the-future. If the public is turning against you, who ought to be held responsible for such a change in the public mood?

Isn’t it funny how the richest people in the country, the ones who have profited exorbitantly off the current system, are so upset at any criticism of the system. It’s as if a mysterious entity is threatening to take some of their yachts away, when in reality, the sheep are too busy trying to forage for grass rather than look up and plot to overthrow the minority that are gnawing on rack of lamb. Maybe the rich are worried we’ll notice, so they give us these semi-religious artifacts of techno-idolatry as a distraction. And it’s been working!

What makes Andreessen’s 90’s retread so odd is the way he frames it as a challenge to the status quo. Technological optimism has been the dominant paradigm throughout my adult life. We have spent decades clapping for Andreessen and his buddies. We have put them on magazine covers. We stopped regulating tech monopolies. We cut taxes for the wealthy. We trusted that they had some keen insight into what the oncoming future would look like. We assumed that the tech barons ultimately had our best interests at heart.

Even amidst the techlash years, public criticism of the tech platforms ultimately amounted to very little. The ranks of the tech billionaires grew. The largest companies that we associate with digital technology reached trillion-dollar valuations. Their every announcement of a bold new technological future was treated with extraordinary credulity. (remember the metaverse? Remember Web3?)

I have a special place in my heart for this little passage, though.

Our enemy is the ivory tower, the know-it-all credentialed expert worldview, indulging in abstract theories, luxury beliefs, social engineering, disconnected from the real world, delusional, unelected, and unaccountable – playing God with everyone else’s lives, with total insulation from the consequences.

That’s ripped straight from the book, Jurassic Park — the section where the protagonist rails against modern science, handing all-powerful tools to students who don’t know what they’re reading. I read it as a grad student, and I could tell you it was straight-up bullshit. But I’ll let Kieran Healy dismantle that claim:

Yeah. Exactly. Andreessen is a guy with a bachelor’s degree, nothing more, who got lucky. If I were playing God, and one of my students got $1.7 billion, I’d at least insist on a small percentage. All we can really do is guide students to interesting stuff and hope they can use it in their lives. I don’t even have a single billion of dollars, and I’m mainly worrying about how I’m going to pay for health care when I retire — I don’t have the leisure to do any social engineering.

But I do have time to look up and notice who has all the money and power and desire to play god with everyone else’s lives. One of them is this bullet-headed fuck:


  1. hemidactylus says

    I liked reading Douglas Rushkoff’s earlier books but took him with a huge grain of salt as he seemed a bit full of himself, but I vaguely recall him being a part of a manifesto on techno-realism over 20 years ago. I wonder how that has aged:


    I assume that was it from 1998?



    Rushkoff is still around writing books and doing podcasts.

  2. raven says

    We are being lied to he declares. We are told to be angry, bitter, and resentful about technology…

    By who and where?
    Mostly, I’m being told to buy things.
    Advertising is everywhere and it is getting more and more focused down to the level of the individual.

    I get advertising in constant phone calls, cell phone, mail box, everywhere on the internet, radio, billboards, printed media, etc..

    Another dead strawperson.

    Technology is the glory of human ambition and achievement, the spearhead of progress, and the realization of our potential… For hundreds of years, we properly glorified this – until recently… It is time, once again, to raise the technology flag. It is time to be Techno-Optimists.

    I don’t have a problem with technology. I’m writing this on a computer connected to the internet by a high speed cable.

    Technology can do a lot but it can’t do everything and can’t solve most of our problems.
    Right now, we have Global Warming, the GOP wrecking the USA to gain and keep power, the war in Ukraine, growing economic inequality in the USA, the world migrant/refugee crisis, and the constant war in the Middle East is about to flare up again. Among many other problems.

    What are we supposed to be optimistic about here?
    How is technology going to solve these problems?

    I’ll be a Techno Optimist when technology produces some accomplishments that make that a reasonable view point.

  3. acroyear says

    “Trillion dollar valuations” – all the while layoffs remain a regular thing (along with hiring freezes resulting in a requirement for burnout-levels of ‘productivity’ in whomever’s left), and in the lower non-creatives echelons, an anti-union effort also going unchallenged by the law.

    Then you look at their “techno-optimism” and how the media treats it: The Today Show ran a section about an Amazon warehouse that is going almost zero-worker. The whole thing are robots. Some human-like enough that you could see the movie “I, Robot” in it.

    THAT’s their techno-optimism: a world where nobody has to work…but then they forget the result of that: if nobody can work, nobody gets paid, nobody can actually buy your products.

    But that’s just a short-term devaluation, easily handled by a stock buyback and another round of layoffs…

  4. says

    Marc Andreessen, the very rich guy who turned an early investment in Netscape into billions of dollars

    Andreessen wrote one of the first web browsers, which started the whole “browser” mess, then co-founded netscape, which basically had one product: a browser. When they went public, he was instantly insanely rich.

    Then, he became a venture capitalist and, based on his success with Netscape, concluded that he was a really super duper smart guy. Actually, he was a pretty mediocre coder (I reviewed the code for his first browser for security bugs and we told jokes about it for years) (turns out the joke was on us) A fascinating thing about American popular culture is that when someone gets rich there appear to be armies of people whose job it is to convince them that their shit no longer stinks. These people smell it, taste it, sculpt it into fantastical shapes, paint it, paint themselves with it, and declare that “really, it smells like roses and apples!” Venture capitalists are basically in a position where they can make money from other peoples’ successes – all they have to do is be in the right place at the right time (and they straddle the tech market) and if they choose well they can make 10,20,100X return on their investment. They consider this “hard work” because all those expense account lunches are hard to metabolize. Doing all that takes skill and brains. I’ve been to Andreessen Horowitz (Marc’s firm) to pitch some of his underlings and it’s a beautiful building – the best money can buy, filled with beautiful curated art (a tax write off) and eager people who perform the aforementioned shit-sculpting. It’s really something – they do have a sense that technology is where it’s at, and they’re at the pinnacle of technologic elitism or something, because they have an endless stream of hopefuls coming through sniffing their shit and commenting on its rose blossom scent, because they will do anything to get a bit of the venture capitalist’s Smaug-like hoard. So he probably does know something about tech – it’s just a very distorted view.

    Consider a fictional example: a start-up proposes to build a carbon extraction system that takes poop in one funnel and outputs diamonds from the other. They want the venture capitalists to support them financially while they do better than a “proof of concept” (which is mostly a rigged demo, or perhaps a bucket of manure and a diamond that they can point at and say, “SEE!!?”) naturally they would never ever tell a venture capitalist “we actually doubt this will work.” Of course it will work. It’ll work great and billions will be made! There are just a few details to be ironed out, and that’s going to take a massive R&D budget and a few years. So, the venture capitalist gets this distorted world-view in which there are all these great technologies just around the corner. And they forget that, once upon a time, they could barely code a browser.

  5. says

    I’m writing this on a computer connected to the internet by a high speed cable.

    Yup, and what we need to do is remember that the computer, its software, the internet, and the cable, have all evolved in a brutally difficult and competitive landscape for 40+ years and that landscape is littered with the corpses of technologies that almost, but didn’t quite, make it. Over there is FDDI. And in that heap of corpses is a Silicon Graphics Iris, and, ooooo .. a Commodore PET. And then there are all the various things from Apple. etc., etc. over that ridge, there, made from software and games, on the other side are the AI experiments and self-driving cars. That monument to Elon Musk is actually made from poo, sculpted by his marketing department.

    I love/loved tech but I always kept my view as realistic as I could, by remembering that tech is mostly a gigantic litany of failure, patches, fixes and tweaks. That’s not a bad thing, not at all, but it’s a sobering reminder not to be techno-optimistic. The place where things get interesting, and I listen to techno optimism, is when there’s been enough evolution in a field that someone says, “we think we can roll all these incremental improvements together, using new manufacturing techniques, and produce something that is 15% more efficient and 20% cheaper in machining costs than the previous version.” e.g.: SpaceX was right that the Raptor engine is great engineering advances (about those percentage points) and they coupled it with some other clever design iterations (who’d’a thunk rocket boosters that land themselves without blowing up!) (several years of explosions later) and it amounts to a ground-breaking evolutionary “leap” except it’s not, really a leap. Where we should look at techno optimists seriously is when they are talking about a technology that is evolving iteratively in an interesting direction. But it’s the breakthroughs they want to point to because that gets the funding!

    Another way of saying what I just said is that I’ll get excited about flying cars when I see a technology evolution that looks like it might eventually lead to flying cars. That means energy density improvements continuing apace (check) brushless motors improvements continuing apace (uh, they seem to be maxed out) materials composition continuing apace (is there something beyond carbon fiber?) self-navigating software (um… who wants Tesla self-flying rotary wing flying lawnmowers?) etc. Because the way humans do tech, there is a distinct absence of great breakthroughs from someone’s garage. It takes a long evolutionary cycle and we need to look for and get excited about that. (I remember JNET, UUCP, RSCS, and a couple networking technologies that never made it, but paved the way for TCP/IP)

  6. billseymour says


    I think that it works exactly like you said @6, and has been working that way for a very long time.  Wasn’t it Isaac Newton who said, “I stand on the shoulders of giants.” (or something like that)?

    I think the surprising bit is the speed of technological change, particularly around the middle of the last century.  These days, with capitalists being mostly anti-competitive and buying up new ideas just to let them die on the vine, I’m finding it difficult to be optimistic, about the next few decades at least.

  7. Dunc says

    The only stocks keeping the S&P 500 in positive territory this year are Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, NVIDIA, Meta, Alphabet, and Tesla. Techno-optimism is literally the only thing levitating the entire US economy right now. OK, the only thing other than military spending…

  8. Artor says

    “We are told to be angry, bitter, and resentful about technology…”

    Wait, what? I’ve been told the exact opposite; how technology is going to save all of us from everything. It’s my own experience with it that has led me to be angry, bitter and resentful. When I look at the transformative potential of the internet and see it undergo the tragedy of the commons, with mega-corps staking it out as their own territory, or the ubiquity of cell phones being twisted into mass surveillance unimaginable just years ago, I lose whatever misguided faith in technology I have been spoon-fed since childhood.

  9. jacksprocket says

    Nowt wrong with being bullet headed, no worse than hedgehog chinned or bumpy chested. It’s the other bit that’s the problem.
    As for the technology, what happened to the Age of Leisure where you’ll have to take a pay cut if you want to work 8 hours a week?

  10. Reginald Selkirk says

    … a generation of obnoxious twits who thought they understood science, but really just liked fancy fonts, odd layouts, and money.

    I would settle for one out of three.

  11. hillaryrettig1 says

    I worked as a journalist in high tech for 20+ years, and nothing will ruin your faith in tech more than meeting these guys who were (to quote Ann Richards on Dubya) “born on third base and think they hit a triple.”

    Also, engineers are way worse than even physicists in extrapolating from a narrow success into thinking they know everything.

  12. DanDare says

    To have optimism we need aspirations.
    Then we look at the world and see what is needed to give us a chance of reaching those aspirations.

    That’s reasonable and part 1 of the billionaire thesis.

    They then skip part 2.

    We also need to make sure our aspirations and the changes needed are at the very least not detrimental to others. At best there should be a broad synergy.

  13. chrislawson says

    As someone who probably would have died three times* in childhood in the pre-pharmaceutical era, I’m techno-optimist. But this doesn’t make me an ally of Andreesen because I am also a hardcore billionaire-pessimist.

    *That I am aware of. In terms of vaccination and other public health and safety measures, about half of us probably had our lives saved without even knowing it.

  14. Akira MacKenzie says

    Perhaps a better term for the tech bro mindset would be “techno-cynicism.” To them, science and technology don’t serve humanity, just their bank accounts.

  15. says

    Ah, yes. Mosaic. Netscape. The NCSA. The ghosts of Blonder-Tongue. The reputation among those who knew them of certain graduates that began spreading — all the way at the other end of the campus (only the veterinary-medicine complex is farther away) — before the ink was dry on their respective diplomas.

    What, you don’t think he’s the only bullet-headed techie from that era who has since become prominent primarily for doing things other than actually using his/her/their tech degree, do you?

  16. says

    raven #2

    We are being lied to he declares. We are told to be angry, bitter, and resentful about technology…

    By who and where?

    My thoughts exactly. Never mind agreeing with him, I’m not even sure who he might possibly be referring to.
    Say that we’re told to be scared of technology and I could at least point to an example or two, but “angry, bitter, and resentful”? Who is he talking about?

  17. StevoR says

    @2. raven :

    What are we supposed to be optimistic about here?
    How is technology going to solve these problems?
    I’ll be a Techno Optimist when technology produces some accomplishments that make that a reasonable view point.

    Landing Humans on our planets Moon? Explotring our solar system with robotic spacecraft including landers and rovers?

    Using science to understand Global Overheating, building the internet, mobile phones, Mas stransit systems , etc ..

    As someone once noted all technology is very much a double edged sword and can be used for good or ill depedning on what we choose to do with.

    Its very much up tous a there’s alot of awesome inspiring SF idea son what w ecould do. If we chose to do it.

    Dunno that I’m a techno-optiomist exactly but still.. Potential, possibilities? Wisdom?

  18. StevoR says

    Our problem isn’t somuch technology -its leadership and choosing what to do with it.. Too obvs?

  19. says

    @Bill #7, Marcus #6: If you haven’t got a handy giant willing to let you stand on their shoulders, you can see a long way standing on a pile of failed experiments. (And can an experiment really be described as “failed” if you learned something from it — even if the thing you learned was “that’s a lousy way to do it” ?)

    @jacksprocket, #10: What happened was, the rich people who had got used to a scarcity-based economy didn’t like the implications of an abundance-based economy (for people like that, it’s not enough just to have stuff; it’s important for others not to have stuff so they can feel superior) and so they started manufacturing artificial scarcity.

  20. birgerjohansson says

    If you like techno-optimism I recommend the “Culture” series by the late great SF author Iain Banks.

  21. birgerjohansson says

    The “Jackpot” trilogy by William Gibson is a mixture of techno-optimism and pessimism.

    In an alternative world line /time line the biosphere has partially collapsed, resulting in an orgy of disaster capitalism called “the jackpot”.
    The significantly reduced numbers of humans eventually begin to recover, as progress in biotech and nanotech just barely manage to shore up what is left of the biosphere.

    Meanwhile, in time lines close to our time, trans-temporal/trans-universal communications from the “Jackpot” time and world line make things back here ‘interesting’ in the Chinese meaning of the world.

  22. StevoR says

    Oh and whatever “Techno-Optimism”** is I’m sure my version and idea of it is quite different to Marc Andreessen’s one..

    I think technology can help and be useful and is something we should encourage but it certainly isn’t everything and the only fix and major social and cultural changes are also necessary if we are to have the sort of Star Trek* future that is ideal and a lot better and avoid a techno-dystopia for the majority of human individuals. Notmany billionaires idolised or shwn inTrek -the one I recall being the villain who tried to collect Data.

    Wikipedia FWIW says this .. I think :


    .* Sorry PZ ( https://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2023/10/04/i-dont-like-star-trek-anymore/ ) but I still do like Trek -which of course has always pushed progressive and inclusive and “atheism plus” type ideas as well as technobabble magic wodner tech answers too. Again ot either / or but both / &.***

    *** So I guess this? :


  23. Kagehi says

    I would say that most of the innovation and actual “progress” is being made by makers, who have X problem to solve, and find Y solution, often “in spite of”, not “because of” billion dollar companies. If we could fab modern microchips, which are stupid complex, and even the big companies spent years failing at until they got the new massive number of transistor versions to work right, no one would need these “techno-optimists”. Their “optimism” might not even be wrong, but they are absolutely not the people who should be in charge of it. Its like the difference between if you asked Musk what we need to do about space, versus someone that isn’t a complete nut. He wants to create a colony on Mars, which is insane, wasteful, if ever done would just kill a lot of people, and probably add to space junk hazards and polution. Meanwhile if a “sensible” person could even gain access to space they would probably be trying to work out how to robot mine asteroids for actual useful resources, and finding a way to clean up all the crap floating around out there, which is making near orbit space increasingly crowded and dangerous to anything, and anyone, that might go up there. Why do these make more sense? Because a) a lot of the tech we do need requires resources we are going to run on “on Earth”, especially if we don’t come up with something other than lithium for batteries, and b) we are rapidly turning Earth orbit into a space where anything you put up there is going to get hit by something already up there, making any “attempt” to do more dangerous, and impractical. But all the freaking Musks of the world can see is the impractical, “Lets fly to another planet!”. The same can be said for just about every freaking product produced by “tech companies”, which may or may not be useful, but is almost certainly not as useful as it could be, or fills a real need, vs. every person on the internet that looks at all their crap and goes, “Yeah, this is all crap, but if I chop up these 4 devices, add a few extra chips, and 3D print some parts, I can actually make something that solves a problem I have, instead of one they imagined.” This includes doing the exact opposite of what 90% of these “tech-optimist” fat cats end up doing – actually reducing waste, cleaning something up, or fixing a problem there bloody tech created in the first place, due to not giving a damn about such problems, in favor of, “Making new thing X, which does flashy thing Y. Please ignore the fact that it will take 500 years to decompose, if ever, and required 8 million gallons of drinkable water to produce.”

  24. StevoR says

    Where has / would techno-pessimism (Ludditie-ism?) or techno-indifference get us?

    What are the alternatives & how might they be better?

    If we don’t think technological improvements & advancements make our lives better then .. Why not? What will?

    Albeit Techno-progressivist here as noted in @+#25.

    This ain’t zero-sum. Nor do we need to idolise douchecanoes notr think that just because they say that’s true or meaningful. If Trump says our nighttime sky is black (@ leasto our unaided eyes and ignoring worst of skyglow) does that falsify what we see? Just becoz douche X sez Y don’t make Y untrue..

    How did the last letters of our alphabet become so algebraically significant again?

  25. Dunc says

    The mistake is in imagining that techology can make the world better in and of itself. Technology just gives us tools, and tools can be used for good or ill. The important question is: to what uses are these new technologies being put? Do those uses improve people’s lives? And if so, which people’s lives, by how much, and at what cost?

    What I think has been happening of late (and what I suspect Mr Andreessen is really complaining about, even if he doesn’t realise it) is that a lot of people have started noticing that technology is being used in ways which disproportionately benefit a relatively small number of people, and which carry significant costs – costs usually borne by other, much less powerful people, who are not enjoying anything like a fair share of the benefits.

    For example, Amazon has deployed a great deal of technology to fundamentally change shopping. Whether those changes are for the better or not very much depends on who you are – if you’re Jeff Bezos, it’s been amazing. If you hold shares in Amazon, it’s been pretty good. If you are an Amazon customer, you presumably think it’s been good (or you’d stop using them), but you might have some concerns about how they’re using your data. If, on the other hand, you’re an Amazon warehouse picker working 12 hour shifts and pissing in a bottle since your previous much better job disappeared when your employer was driven out of business by Amazon, you probably don’t feel that it’s been an improvement.

    Technology is not intrinsically good, and it’s often not morally neutral either. It empowers some people, and disempowers others. It’s also subject to the law of diminishing returns. The costs keep going up, and are being increasingly unevenly distributed, while the benefits are becoming ever more marginal. That’s not technology’s fault – it’s a socio-political issue, arising from how the power to determine how technology is deployed is distributed in our society.

  26. Alan G. Humphrey says

    @27 & 29
    I’m thinkin’ it was because some mathy types didn’t want WTFs and LOLs showing up in their equations…

  27. says

    Kagehi @26: “I would say that most of the innovation and actual “progress” is being made by makers, who are given X problem to solve, by either government mandate or private individual or corporate demand, and find Y solution…”


  28. Kagehi says

    Pretty sure I didn’t include either “government mandate” or “corporate demand” in there, like at all. This is not to say that everything that the online maker community does is intended to actually solve a problem that is actually important, but there are a lot of projects that literally are based on, “The government mandated/corporate solution is expensive, possibly over engineered, and impractical, so.. how about we do this instead?”

  29. jo1storm says


    Or sometimes they do that just to amuse themselves. That’s why I am in certain areas tech enthusiast but not techno optimist. For example, these guys who spent three years of their time to make automatic bullseye dartboard just to see if they could:

    The end result is that they got their automatic bullseye dartboard to exist in the world and they got to show it in front of million people on Jimmy Kimmel show (and Mark Rober himself has 26.6 million subscribers on youtube). Modern Nikola Tesla everyone, engineer and showman!

    Was this frickin’ useful? No, it’s impressive curiosity but not strictly speaking useful. He got a carny game that didn’t exist before or a bar trick dartboard. Could it be useful in the future of human race? Absolutely! I can imagine a completely sci-fi goods transport system that is not using tracks or roads or engines, but instead a trebuchet with one of these “dartboards” catching stuff from miles away so long as it drops anywhere in the landing area.

    Throwing goods between distribution centers but not people, because that didn’t end well when someone tried to use it for amusement.

    That means it won’t solve traffic any time soon, I guess. Just use trains. My point is, I am happy to see engineering people just fafing around (fuck around, find out).
    If you do it enough then sometimes you get something like this:

    A tool built for one purpose used for something else. Or that cassette tape producer who is selling their innovative cassette tapes as filters in beer production. But those are both products who started with clear goal in mind, repurposed for a different thing.

  30. Silentbob says

    @ 27 StevoR

    Okay, but apart from electricity, sound recording, video, automobiles, aircraft, computers, global communication, the internet, accurate weather forecasting, and GPS… what has techno-optimism ever done for us?!!

    h/t Monty Python

  31. timbr says

    “Isn’t it funny how the richest people in the country, the ones who have profited exorbitantly off the current system, are so upset at any criticism of the system.”

    This is so true. At this point a lot of local businesses(small ones obv) I knew back from childhood are all closed, since the system doesn’t support those – almost everyone just does their stuff at Amazon or some other platform – what’s the point of having a small store somewhere in your neightbourhood if you can just sell your stuff there… That’s just extremely sad imo. Even stores that opened later(I have an outdoor one that opened pre-COVID and somehow got through) – still HAVE TO play by the rules and do all of this stuff on top(I’m pretty sure they’ve got some sort of AMZ inner department called Weby Corp https://webycorp.com/ that deals with all this stuff)… Meanwhile Jeff is getting his 50th yacht since he became the richest person of this sytem and probably the one who benefited of lockdown the most: I’ve noticed that delivery services got very rampant compared to 6-7 years ago…