We believe that the steering wheel is more important than the accelerator
This is a version of The Intersection column that appears every other Monday in Mint.
I believe technology is a unique human capacity that can continue to improve our well-being. Individual freedom, free markets and liberal democracy are remarkable conceptual innovations that have allowed our species to achieve extraordinary levels of well-being. And human ingenuity — often underrated in the face of the kind of daunting social and environmental challenges that currently confront us — can help us find ways out messy problems that it sometimes creates. That is why I am concerned about the techno-optimist manifesto that Marc Andreessen published last week, for it undermines the very cause it seeks to promote.
Anyone who starts by saying “we are being lied to” should be treated with suspicion. It’s a standard ingredient of all conspiracy theories. Similarly the use of the word “enemy” to describe one’s political opponents is a sign that the proponent wants to trigger our emotion and suspend our reason.
In it, Andreessen calls for unrestricted development of technology without any concern for consequences. He combines a superficial understanding of free markets with social media-style diatribes against the excesses of the US progressive left to vilify everything from sustainable development goals to “trust and safety”, “risk management” and “tech ethics” as the enemy. All of this is packaged in the populist style of the times — that you are being lied to, that experts are the problem, and that enemies are holding us back from achieving our true potential. It is clear that Andreessen is frustrated with the regulatory and popular backlash against the tech industry and is pushing back with this over-the-top call to arms.
The de-growth movement floated by the Western progressives is immoral; but it should be noted that the call to suspend AI development came from leading tech industry figures.
Few reasonable people will dispute technology’s role in improving lives. Despite the vociferousness of some Western activists, few policymakers anywhere in the world are likely to put the brakes on technology development.
Technological power is too concentrated and presents a threat to liberal democracies.
Andreessen’s real problem seems to be the increasing attention regulators are paying to the conduct and business models of big technology companies. He refuses to entertain the possibility that there might be good reasons for this. What we are left with is less a manifesto than a lobbyist’s agenda, a rant against regulatory impediments pretending to be an ideology or philosophy.
Takshashila’s GCPP Technology & Policy Programme we work with technologists, investors & leaders to show how responsible innovation is not only possible is a winning business strategy.
Techno-optimists can dismiss the Andreessen manifesto merely on the grounds of its abject disregard for consequences. Optimism cannot excuse recklessness and irresponsible behaviour, especially among adults. Andreessen presents us with a false dichotomy, for it is possible to be both optimistic and responsible. In fact, it is this combination that is the secret sauce that has powered human progress.
We introduced ethical reasoning in our programmes precisely because engineers and innovators often lack exposure to ideas in philosophy and social sciences.
“Tech” is not a monolithic entity: dishwashers and nuclear reactors cannot be treated in the same manner. I am a strong advocate of nuclear energy, but I do not think it is a smart idea to allow undergraduates to tinker with reactors in garages so that we can accelerate their development. Precaution, safety and ethics are not ideological fetters imposed by people Andreessen does not like, but fundamental social imperatives. We can debate what they should be and to what extent we should allow them to constrain our actions, but to argue that they do not matter is absurd.
There is an optimum velocity in technology development: there is an optimum in both the direction and speed. However, we cannot predict it a priori; we have to discover it as we go along.
On account of the potential consequences, we need to be especially careful about four types of technologies: those that affect biology, cognition, social organisation and the environment. It is important to invest in their development, but to do so at the optimum velocity.
This is where Andreessen falls short: he thinks that the only process is that of innovation. He is oblivious to the other two processes, concerning human reaction to innovation, which are also important.
I have observed that there are three processes simultaneously at work: the pace of technology development, its use by people and of society’s ability to manage the consequences of its use. They should be either mutually supportive of each other, or in some form of balance. The problem is that it is difficult to say how people will use technology and what social consequences it will have. Back in the early 1990s, many of us thought that the internet driving the cost of international communications to zero will make the world a better place. We did not know then that the manner in which the human brain processes information in a social context can have dramatic political consequences. Today we know better. Given that the impact of technology is fast, global and perhaps irreversible, the case for a deliberate approach is even greater. The onus in on innovators, intellectuals and policy analysts to anticipate the unintended, to borrow a phrase from my colleague Pranay Kotasthane.
Throwing Adam Smith at the reader is neither here nor there. It is unclear if information markets work the same way as industrial markets, and therefore whether the extant capitalistic models are truly consistent with free markets. The non zero-sumness of information goods changes many equations.
For someone advancing a futuristic manifesto, Andreessen’s thinking seems tethered to current business models. We need not buy into progressive critiques of ‘late-stage capitalism’ to accept that free market capitalism is not limited to the ones in his portfolio. On the contrary, the market encourages innovation in business models as much as in technology. So the fact that a few players have acquired global-scale market dominance in a number of segments should give us pause to ask it is functioning as it should, and if not, how competition can be promoted. We are still discovering how the information economy works and I do worry that it is putting immense wealth and political power in the hands of a few individuals. And the corruptive effect of power is not limited to political leaders alone.
The antidote to doomerism is not reckless boosterism. Genuine techno-optimists will make a strong case for growth; one that is sensitive to constitutional values, conscious of social obligations, alive to the world’s complexity and mindful of consequences. We believe the steering wheel is more important than the accelerator.
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