Friedrich Nietzsche would doubtless have millions of social-media followers if he were alive today. A master of the aphorism, the nineteenth-century German philosopher’s greatest hits include such bangers as “What doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger;” “Gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you;” and the classic, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”
From Andrew Tate to Bronze Age Pervert, Nietzschean thought is even undergoing a minor online revival thanks to the excesses of the progressive Left. As his day’s “red-pilled edgelord,” Nietzsche waged polemical war against Christianity and the philosophies of asceticism and egalitarianism that Christianity inspired. Wokeism, a modern Nietzschean would argue, traces its genealogy to Christian “slave morality”: an inversion of classic aristocratic morality that imputes virtue to victimhood, levels down human excellence, and strives to protect the innocent above all.
Between the woke assault on gifted and talented programs and growing tolerance for public disorder across American cities, our modern-day Nietzscheans surely are onto something. Yet according to his latest torchbearer—venture capitalist and early Internet entrepreneur Marc Andreessen—Nietzsche may even help us make sense of the perennial backlash to emerging technology.
As Andreessen explains in his recent “Techno-Optimist Manifesto,” “we are being lied to” about technology. We are told that it destroys jobs, harms the environment, and creates inequality. On the contrary, he writes, “our civilization is built on technology,” as technology is “the glory of human ambition and achievement, the spearhead of progress, and the realization of our potential.”
Andreessen’s own penchant for aphorism is well known. In 2011, he memorably declared, “software is eating the world.” During the pandemic, his clarion call, “It’s time to build,” became a rallying cry for builders and technologists around the country. His latest manifesto is no different. Written as a series of one-liners and short position statements, Andreessen’s exhortations are less about persuading tech skeptics than about crafting a Nietzschean aesthetic. On one side are the technological “supermen” who embrace risk in pursuit of a wealthier, freer, and more abundant future. On the other are the fallow enemies of progress standing in the way: the de-growthers, AI skeptics, government bureaucrats, and ESG consultants.
As an acolyte of Virginia Postrel’s classic 1998 book, The Future and Its Enemies, I’m familiar with many of these points, and they largely ring true. Yet aphorisms risk creating the illusion of profundity and are no substitute for a well-reasoned argument. This analytical shortcoming, unfortunately, ends up tying Andreessen’s Manifesto into a knot of self-contradiction.
Consider Andreessen’s citation of the anti-humanist philosopher, Nick Land. “Combine technology and markets and you get what Nick Land has termed the techno-capital machine, the engine of perpetual material creation, growth, and abundance,” writes Andreessen. “We believe,” he continues, “the techno-capital machine is not anti-human—in fact, it may be the most pro-human thing there is. It serves us. The techno-capital machine works for us. All the machines work for us.”
Yet whether he realizes it or not (and I suspect he does), this completely inverts Land’s philosophy. Indeed, the very term, “techno-capital machine,” is meant to invoke mankind’s total powerlessness and subordination to the self-perpetuating forces of high-tech capitalism. As Andreessen puts it, our sole purpose is to ensure “the techno-capital upward spiral continues forever,” not for us as humans, according to Land, but for the machine’s own sake. We are just along for the ride; a mere bootloader for the digital post-humans that will inevitably replace us.
Land is the dark inspiration behind effective accelerationism, or e/acc—an online subculture that seeks to speed up the advent of superintelligent AIs. The name is a play on effective altruism, the influential movement of utilitarian moralists whose proponents consider the creation of an unaligned superintelligence an existential threat.
Land doesn’t exactly disagree with their prognosis. As a philosophical pessimist and misanthrope, he simply views the end of human civilization with a kind of sociopathic indifference. Land once even argued for viewing the Black Death—a plague that killed 25 million people—from the perspective of the rat. When asked whether the human experience mattered, Land replied, “I don’t see why it should receive any special priority.”
Andreessen doesn’t share the moralists’ skepticism. “Intelligence makes everything better,” he writes. As “the birthright of humanity; we should expand it as fully and broadly as we possibly can. . . . Artificial Intelligence is our alchemy, our Philosopher’s Stone—we are literally making sand think.” This is true to a point, but it does little to allay concerns about the sui generis risks of AIs that fully surpass human capabilities, a development most AI researchers now think is inevitable. Nor does it inspire comfort to cite one’s intellectual indebtedness to the godfather of an AI death cult.
Andreessen’s internal confusions come to a head on the question of whether techno-optimists are utopian. Despite viewing technology as a “universal problem solver” that will let us colonize the stars, Andreessen abruptly disclaims utopian thinking. Instead, he writes, “We are adherents to what Thomas Sowell calls the Constrained Vision,” seeing trade-offs everywhere, and viewing progress as something that “only happens on the margin.”
This is my view as well. It also happens to be directly at odds with Andreessen’s otherwise unconstrained vision of technology as an inherently “liberatory” force whose “upward spiral continues forever.” Sowell’s “constrained vision,” by contrast, communicates a distinctively conservative insight about man’s imperfectability, and thus technology’s double-edged nature.
Take the issue of population growth. Andreessen writes that techno-optimists believe “our planet is dramatically underpopulated” and that “the global population can quite easily expand to 50 billion people or more.” I agree. Yet fertility is collapsing across the developed world not due to Malthusian population controls but because of forces inherent to modernity itself. The twentieth-century advent of oral contraception, for example, was no doubt “liberatory” for the women who gained newfound autonomy over their biology. At the same time, as arguably the first real “transhumanist” technology, this delinking of sex from pregnancy had profound cultural and demographic ramifications that modern societies are still grappling with.
The upshot of that observation is not that we should or even can unwind modernity, but simply to underscore that you can’t unring the bell. The proper conservative orientation to technology, then, should be neither optimism nor pessimism, but rather clear-eyed realism—particularly when the technology in question, like AI or bioengineering, directly impinges on what it means to be human.
While many innovations look inevitable in retrospect, the precise way that a new technology develops and diffuses is far from predetermined. We can use public policy and private initiative to shape technology in a way that reinforces our human nature and enables us to flourish, rather than resigning ourselves to fate and some post-human oblivion.
Nietzsche, for his part, would almost certainly reject Andreessen’s brand of techno-optimism as yet another secularized form of Christianity, as if technologists were building the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. Indeed, the conformist and decadent “Last Man” whom Nietzsche portrays as a passive mediocrity—and whom Andreessen declares his primary enemy—is himself the byproduct of technological abundance.
As Nietzsche puts it in The Will To Power, “Believing one chooses remedies, one chooses in fact that which hastens exhaustion; Christianity is an example . . . ‘progress’ is another.”