Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Marc Andreessen on crypto, AI, and high tech pirates hell-bent on hoarding the world's wealth [my spin]

Noah Smith interviews Andreessen.

Cypto and AI:

N.S.: You've been more and more interested in the crypto space in recent years. What are some cool things about crypto that aren't emphasized enough in popular discussions?

M.A.: Crypto is one of those topics that calls to mind the parable of the blind men and the elephant -- there are so many aspects of how it works and what it means that you can interpret it many different ways and seize on one part or another to make whatever point you want. [...]

That architectural shift is called distributed consensus -- the ability for many untrusted participants in a network to establish consistency and trust. This is something the Internet has never had, but now it does, and I think it will take 30 years to work through all of the things we can do as a result. Money is the easiest application of this idea, but think more broadly -- we can now, in theory, build Internet native contracts, loans, insurance, title to real world assets, unique digital goods (known as non-fungible tokens or NFTs), online corporate structures (such as digital autonomous organizations or DAOs), and on and on.

Consider also what this means for incentives. Up until now, collaborative human effort online either took the form of a literal adoption of real-world corporate norms -- a company with a web site -- or an open source project like Linux that had no money directly attached. With crypto, you can now create thousands of new kinds of incentive systems for collaborative work online, since participants in a crypto project can get paid directly without a real-world company even needing to exist. [...]

Finally, Peter Thiel has made the characteristically sweeping observation that AI is in some sense a left wing idea -- centralized machines making top-down decisions -- but crypto is a right wing idea -- many distributed agents, humans and bots, making bottom-up decisions. I think there’s something to that. Historically the tech industry has been dominated by left wing politics, just like any creative field, which is why you see today’s big tech companies so intertwined with the Democratic Party. Crypto potentially represents the creation of a whole new category of technology, quite literally right wing tech that is far more aggressively decentralized and far more comfortable with entrepreneurialism and free voluntary exchange. If you believe, as I do, that the world needs far more technology, this is a very powerful idea, a step function increase in what the technology world can do.

Pirates vs. Navy in the tech world:

N.S.: [...] So I wanted to ask: In what ways did the dreams of the 1990s techies come true? And in what ways were they dashed on the rocks of reality? When we think back on the 90s, how should we remember that era, and what ideas from that era should we hold on to?

M.A.: It worked! The dreams came true; it all worked. And now we’re the dog that caught the bus. What do we do with this damned bus?

Think about what we’ve done. Five billion people are now carrying networked supercomputers in their pockets. Anyone in the world can create a web site and publish anything they want, can communicate with anyone or everyone, can access virtually any information that has ever existed. People live, work, learn, and love almost entirely online. Virtually all of the constituent components of the vision of the 1990’s have come literally true.

And yet, and yet. As Edwin Land, the founder of Polaroid, once said, “I didn’t say you’re all going to be happy. You’ll be unhappy – but in new, exciting and important ways.”

Why isn’t everyone happy? I think it’s that the technology industry went from building tools -- operating systems, and databases, and routers, and word processors, and browsers -- that other people picked up and used, to becoming the center of virtually every major societal and political debate and dispute on the planet, in almost a single step.

One way to think about it is that we went from being pirates to being the Navy. People may love pirates when they’re young and small and scrappy, but nobody likes a Navy that acts like a pirate. And today’s technology industry can come across a lot like a Navy that acts like a pirate.

On the other hand, a Navy without pirates isn’t necessarily great either -- a suppressive force that prevents new ideas and new activities from forming, a global orthodoxy and set of rules that lead to the death of creativity -- which creates the opportunity, and the need, for a new generation of pirates.

Machiavelli in his Discourses stresses the need for a state to go back to the well, to its original founding ideas, to find renewal in later and darker times. I think this same principle applies to companies and industries. I think we should make a practice of revisiting the founding ideas of the technology industry -- certainly the 1990s of John Perry Barlow’s A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace and Tim May’s Cyphernomicon -- but also the 1950’s and 1960’s of Doug Engelbart and Ted Nelson, the 1920’s of David Sarnoff and Philo Farnsworth, the 1890’s of Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, even the 1500’s of Leonardo da Vinci. I think we should view the unrealized -- or imperfectly realized -- ideas from all those eras as not lost but not yet found.

And later, in the context of talking about China and tech:

M.A. On the other hand, China has a strategic agenda to achieve economic, military, and political hegemony by dominating dozens of critical technology sectors -- this isn't a secret, or a conspiracy theory; they say it out loud. [...]

In the meantime, the West's technology champion, the United States, has decided to self-flagellate -- both political parties and their elected representatives are busily savaging the US technology industry every way they possibly can. Our public sector hates our private sector and wants to destroy it, while China's public sector works hand in glove with its private sector, because of course it does, it owns its private sector. At some point, we may wish to consider whether we should stop machine-gunning ourselves in the foot at the start of this quite important marathon.

Well, if you guys would stop acting like pirates busy hoarding as much wealth as possible in your private pirate kingdoms, it'd be worth consideration. Otherwise, it's off to the brig with you.

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