Silicon Valley’s idiosyncratic political futurism has been developing for a long time.
As one might imagine given the region’s concentrated population of high-IQ, highly motivated, highly stimulated engineers, researchers and salesmen of all stripes, for decades the greater Bay Area has been both a magnet for and producer of boutique theories and ideologies — informed by everything from the dogmatic anti-utilitarianism of Ayn Rand to fevered philosophical experiments hatched on rationalist message boards.
Increasingly over the past few years, these mad scientists and late-night forum posters have developed an ambition to elbow their way into politics.
This morning two essays painted this movement in very different lights. In The Atlantic executive editor Adrienne LaFrance warns of the incipient “Rise Of Technoauthoritarianism,” saying the world-bestriding ambitions of moguls like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk over the past 20 years are merely prologue to what they have planned for the age of AI.
Meanwhile at Axios, co-founders Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen offer a more receptive take on a group they call “techno-optimists” — “a new, powerful political movement” that believes in “unfettered free speech, pro-artificial intelligence, anti-mainstream media, and deep skepticism of DEI, political correctness and elite consensus.”
Both pieces take as a jumping-off point Marc Andreessen’s “Techno-Optimist Manifesto,” published last October. It’s an alternately resentful-reactionary and pie-in-the-sky call for “a world of ambition, abundance, and adventure,” unhindered by hectoring regulators, academics and naysayers. (Andreessen has an impressive record as an investor; as a political thinker he has been less kindly received.)
Beneath all three essays lie one big insight: Silicon Valley power now has to be reckoned as real power, the kind that only governments used to have. And we need to take its impact seriously.
“Comparisons between Silicon Valley and Wall Street or Washington, D.C., are commonplace, and you can see why — all are power centers, and all are magnets for people whose ambition too often outstrips their humanity,” LaFrance writes. “But Silicon Valley’s influence easily exceeds that of Wall Street and Washington. It is reengineering society more profoundly than any other power center in any other era since perhaps the days of the New Deal.”
Her latter point is hardly arguable — and, in fact, would be a pretty good mission statement for this newsletter.
For Valley bigwigs, it’s also exactly the kind of self-flattering view that drives them into big public debates without having given deep thought to why, exactly, those debates might be happening.
America’s tech billionaires do wield a massive amount of unaccountable individual power over the technologies woven into the fabric of our everyday lives — and public concern about their influence is now (belatedly) powering everything from the Biden administration’s AI executive order to Europe’s attempt to write AI restrictions into law.
As they wade more explicitly into politics, LaFrance sees disturbing tendencies in figures like Andreessen and Musk, lamenting how they “already have authoritarian control, more or less, to establish the digital world’s rules and cultural norms, which can be as potent as political power.” That, she says, demands a response powered by regulation, investment in public research and individual consumer choice. (Curiously, LaFrance lumps Mark Zuckerberg into this group — a businessman who, for all his behind-the-scenes ruthlessness and college-days indiscretions, has tacked hard toward inoffensive, center-left philanthropy in the Bill Gates vein.)
VandeHei and Allen note their increasing self-insertion into electoral politics, from the Vivek Ramaswamy presidential campaign, which often seemed like a tech-world podcast come to life, to their support for gadfly candidates like Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. And although they don’t indict the movement as harmful, their conclusion about the group’s likely stance in 2024 isn’t exactly incompatible with the judgment of a liberal like LaFrance: “…If they decide a third-party candidate isn’t viable, they seem much more likely to turn to former President Trump than President Biden, based on their posts and podcasts,” they write.
So… now what happens? Having covered and immersed myself in this movement and its thought over the past couple of years, I’d guess that their near-term prediction is probably correct.
Missing from both LaFrance and the Axios duo’s analysis, however, is a clear-eyed view of what figures like Andreessen and Musk hope to actually do, and what Washington and the rest of America might do in response.
The Occam’s-razor, somewhat freaky answer to that line of speculation is that we simply don’t know how the current wave of tech revolution might resolve itself. VandeHei and Allen look more narrowly at policy goals, like some Silicon Valley bigwigs’ hatred of corporate “diversity, equity and inclusion” efforts, and Andreessen partner Ben Horowitz’s stated commitment as a “one issue voter” in favor of pro-tech industry policies.
LaFrance ends her essay with a call for Americans to liberate themselves from the tech moguls’ influence and return to analog life in all of its “messy, tree-climbing, night-swimming, adventuresome glory.” (As someone who recently went through a phase with only a flip phone, I’m not unsympathetic.)
But calls to withhold our attention as protest date back to the age of television, if not before then. So far, our record as humans suggests that our attention will always be captured by the next shiny thing.
That extends to the tech moguls, who despite their temporal power don’t seem to have any special claim on or awareness of the future themselves. Andreessen, Musk and the rest of the self-proclaimed mold-breakers are mired in the same prosaic culture-war issues that have been annoying conservatives for generations, and which always might become totally obsolete as public opinion shifts.
But the world of “atoms, not bits,” as they like to say, actually is changing. One has merely to peruse the last week of tech news to discern the technological stakes now at play: Lifelike, non-consensual sexually explicit material abounds; an experimental “telepathy”-inducing microchip is implanted into a human brain; full-on robotic warfare ensues in Ukraine.
The people with the most power and money in Silicon Valley look at this future with excitement: “We are not primitives, cowering in fear of the lightning bolt. We are the apex predator; the lightning works for us,” Andreessen writes in his manifesto with typically grandiose flair. Given his extensive reading habits and bent for self-mythology, he’s surely familiar with Prometheus’ lament after unleashing forces beyond his control: “those are the things which I produced for mortal men, and yet as I now suffer here, I cannot find a way to free myself from this distress.”
We might not yet know where that “distress” comes from in a future racked by unrest over cutting-edge technologies like quantum or AI. But at the moment, it’s not at all clear whether even those building that future, much less its critics, have a capacious enough imagination to prepare for it.
Germany’s digital minister announced he would support the European Union’s proposed AI Act, clearing the way for it to proceed through the European Council.
POLITICO’s Gian Volpicelli and Peter Wilke reported on the move today, which all but ensures France, another potential holdout, won’t have the votes to stop the law from proceeding through the EU’s legislative process.
Germany and France had been the biggest members of the bloc to voice concern about the law as it neared initial votes, worried its strictures would discourage private investment.
The European Council will vote on the law’s text Friday, with four member countries’ objections required to halt it.
Americans want government to bring the hammer down on sexually explicit AI deepfakes, according to new polling.
A new poll from the Artificial Intelligence Policy Institute found that 86 percent of respondents favored “regulation that would require companies to restrict AI models from creating deepfake pornography,” based on a survey of 975 voters in the days after a wave of such images depicting Taylor Swift hit social media.
Only 32 percent of respondents had actually heard about the incident, but 84 percent subsequently said it “increases [their] concern” about AI and 84 percent supported legislation that would make such content illegal. Eighty-seven percent said that companies who create the models used to create it should be held liable.
The poll found mass disapproval and concern across all demographics in the crosstabs, demonstrating that unlike some other AI-related issues, there’s strong consensus over restricting non-consensual, sexually explicit AI material.
Stay in touch with the whole team: Ben Schreckinger ([email protected]); Derek Robertson ([email protected]); Mohar Chatterjee ([email protected]); Steve Heuser ([email protected]); Nate Robson ([email protected]); Daniella Cheslow ([email protected]); and Christine Mui ([email protected]).
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