It takes a bold person to write a manifesto. Marc Andreessen, cofounder of the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz and of the early web-browser company Netscape, is one such person. Andreessen’s recently published “Techno-Optimist’s Manifesto” tells us a lot about his beliefs—but its very existence says something concerning about this moment in American culture.
A manifesto is a declaration. The base Latin word means “to make public”—to manifest, make obvious, expose. The purpose of a manifesto is not to persuade; it is to sort the sheep from the goats. It rallies true believers and triggers opponents into revealing themselves. It’s a stake in the ground. As such, manifestos are not needed and rarely offered for widely popular and publicly acknowledged beliefs. Manifestos are for building movements around unknown or unpopular ideas. That’s why Andreessen’s is such an indictment.
America is in a “Down Wing” moment. That term and its optimistic counterpart, “Up Wing,” were coined by futurist Fereidoun M. Esfandiary in the 1970s. Esfandiary believed the right-wing/left-wing spectrum of politics was becoming obsolete, to be replaced by up-wing optimists and down-wing pessimists. Five decades on, conservative futurist Jim Pethokoukis has called the divide “the most crucial” for America today. Up Wing, Pethokoukis explains, is “all about acceleration for solving big problems, effectively tackling new ones, and creating maximum opportunity for all Americans.” While risk-averse Down Wingers “yearn for limits,” risk-taking Up Wingers want to rocket through them. Marc Andreessen is the Up Wing of the up-wing party.
His 15-section manifesto offers an unapologetically optimistic vision for humanity, in a provocative, pithy style. Dismiss the lies, he says; don’t be “angry, bitter, and resentful about technology.” Ignore those who tell us to “be miserable about the future.” Instead, embrace growth through technology produced in free markets, “the techno-capital machine, the engine of perpetual material creation, growth, and abundance.”
Andreessen sees artificial intelligence as an augment to humanity that will save lives, “if we let it.” Any deceleration of AI will cost lives—it will be “murder,” in fact. Likewise, rather than our status quo energy-conservation mindset, Andreessen demands a massive expansion of energy production. He rejects as false the trade-off between energy and environment, pointing to nuclear fission and fusion as obvious answers. The “feedback loop” between energy and intelligence will eliminate scarcity in goods, yielding “material abundance for everyone” and a capacity to expand world population massively, to 50 billion or more, and eventually to populate the stars.
Andreessen maintains that the techno-optimist is not a utopian believer in human perfectibility. He properly recites the incantations of fundamental limits on centralized control articulated by Thomas Sowell (the “Constrained Vision”) and Friedrich Hayek (the “Knowledge Problem”). And yet, Andreessen unnecessarily opens himself up to question by quoting the 1909 “Futurist Manifesto.” Written by a twentysomething Italian, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the “Futurist Manifesto” is colorful, energetic, and immature. Most problematically, it exhibits what James C. Scott would call “high modernism,” revealing a “strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of the self-confidence about scientific and technical progress . . . [and] the mastery of nature (including human nature).” High modernists believe that the past has no value. They want to see it razed and society rebuilt from first principles. A clear tension runs between the Techno-Optimist Manifesto’s Sowell-influenced parts and the parts that carry the high modernism vibe. It’s an unforced error by Andreessen.
Still, one can see why this error happened. Andreessen wants to borrow the ambition of the Italian Futurist movement. He believes that building new technologies is virtuous, adventurous, and romantic. He calls for strength, courage, merit, bravery, free speech, and honest inquiry. He posits eudaimonia through arete—flourishing through excellence—as the ultimate motivator, stronger than riches or fame or revenge.
In sum, Andreessen believes that technology can not only make the world materially rich but also liberate it. It can be “Liberatory of human potential. Liberatory of the human soul, the human spirit. Expanding what it can mean to be free, to be fulfilled, to be alive. We believe technology opens the space of what it can mean to be human.”
Is it controversial to claim that humanity can, through technology, build a better material and spiritual future? Controversial enough to require a manifesto?
For some of us familiar with the “hockey stick” graph of human prosperity showing more than 200 years of rapidly increasing material abundance, techno-optimism seems obvious. The Renaissance sparked ideas like the possibility that humankind could improve its prospects over time and fostered a newfound respect for the merchants and “bourgeois class” that profited by improving the lot of others through trade. Out of that fertile cultural ground grew the Industrial Revolution and the accelerating creation of market-tested technologies that could solve human problems.
The results are remarkable. Life expectancy has risen, child mortality has fallen, and wealth built. War is less prevalent (though we’re obviously living in troubling times), homicide is down, and we treat one another, and even animals, better. Reality supports the Up Wing.
Yet the Down Wing remains popular. We live in a moment where commercial ambition is gauche, success is suspect, and technological innovation is derided as harmful, dehumanizing, or even an existential threat. Building a company from scratch is inherently Up Wing, and thus foreign, if not offensive, to Down Wingers.
Down Wingers dominate academia. Liberal arts professors question technology’s benefits. Legal scholars propose new governance frameworks to mitigate mostly theoretical harms. Academia is fundamentally skeptical of free markets.
Even the engineering schools that train the builders of tomorrow have become infested with skepticism about the future, about capitalism, and about the value of trying to solve problems through technology. Many such programs now conduct mandatory ethics classes. Ethics training is good as far as it goes, and one of the strengths of American liberal arts education is that it often produces entrepreneurs deeply aware of real-life problems that people want to solve. But the dominant ethics curricula today contribute to a broader atmosphere of doubt regarding capitalism and the critical role of technology in addressing real-world challenges.
Political campaigns are increasingly nostalgia-filled. Candidates tell the Americans that the best years of our country are behind us, not ahead. Compare Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” and Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” slogans with Ronald Reagan’s forward-looking “Morning in America” and even Barack Obama’s “Change We Can Believe In.”
In short, a large chunk of America’s intelligentsia and politicos are pessimistic to the core about the future and about human capabilities.
No surprise, then, that Andreessen’s argument has touched a nerve, particularly among tech journalists. “Boneheaded,” New York writer Kara Swisher calls it. “When was the last time [Marc] talked to a poor person?” asked trade magazine TechCrunch. Nathan J. Robison, cofounder of the socialist magazine Current Affairs, coauthored an angry 3,500-word response. “Optimism has always been a tool used by the powerful to advance their interests,” he asserts.
What this shows is that Andreessen’s manifesto is working as intended. In the face of a constant media barrage about the dangers of technology and innovation, the Up Wing has been awaiting a rallying cry. The “Techno-Optimist Manifesto” presents a compelling vision for a brighter future driven by technological innovation and human potential. It challenges prevailing pessimism within U.S. culture and argues for a return to the spirit of progress and entrepreneurialism that has historically propelled humanity forward. It is unapologetically in favor of permissionless innovation and free markets.
And it triggers all the right people.