Atlas Smug

(Tom Raftery / Flickr)

Hi, Marc.

I grew up using your work. Thanks to one of my parents being employed by a university, I got to use Mosaic to browse the early Web way before most people had even heard of it. My first software development internship was a summer spent using beta versions of Netscape technologies — what was then “LiveScript”and “dynamic HTML” — to sketch new interface elements for a protean web collaboration app. I rooted for Netscape when Microsoft came barging in to the browser market. When you started A16Z a few years ago I was excited to see what you’d invest in.

You’ve got a big audience of admirers. I’ve counted myself among them, but lately you’ve made it a challenge. I just can’t square with the way of looking at our industry, political economy, and the future laid out in your latest post.

You seem to think everyone’s worried about robots. But what everyone’s worried about is you, Marc. Not just you, but people like you. Robots aren’t at the levers of financial and political influence today, but folks like you sure are. People are scared of so much wealth and control being in so few hands. Wherever you and other gatekeepers of capital direct your attention — towards robots, 3D printers, biotech, whatever — you’re going to detect a fearful response as people scramble to determine the impact of your decisions and whims.

The debate is, as ever, really about power. So let’s set robots aside, and with them your black and white dichotomy of pro-growth, pro-tech heroes versus regressive Luddites. In our country, most people have positive sentiments about science and technology while simultaneously being concerned about unemployment.

Citizen Consumer In Neoliberal Tomorrowland

You come out swinging in your post, quickly invoking no less than the ghost of Milton Friedman to claim the last two centuries as an unqualified win for capitalist progress.

[A]dvocating for slowing technological change to preserve jobs equals advocating for the punishment of consumers, and stalling the march of quality of life improvements.

We could go back and forth all day on what exactly defines technological change — I certainly have before. But what labor wants is self-determination, not a slowing of technological change. Taxi drivers protesting Uber aren’t saying that they want apps out of their cabs. They want leverage to negotiate wages and working conditions so they aren’t barely scraping by. The pushback is on exploitative business models, not technology.

“Let markets work,” you say, “so that capital and labor can rapidly reallocate to create new fields and jobs.” Well, we’re three decades into an era of systemic deregulation and financialization. The result? Global recessionlingering structural unemployment, and an accumulation of wealth at the top. In this climate, capital has indeed “rapidly reallocated”. . .into hard-to-tax, hard-to-regulate asset classes like fine art. Public sector workers are under attack and austerity reigns while tens of billions in corporate profits sit in off-shore tax shelters.

The “severe macroeconomic downcycle, the credit crisis, deleveraging, and the liquidity trap” that you mention in passing? We “let markets work,” and that’s what we got in return. It’s been a failed experiment for everyone but the 1%. Dismissing “the crisis of inequality” as just a “pessimistic economic theory” has not, historically, gone well for aristocracy.

The Means of Production

While I didn’t jibe with your take on recent macroeconomic history, I was heartened to see that you’re interested in empowering individuals through technology:

[T]he current technology revolution has put the means of production within everyone’s grasp. It comes in the form of the smartphone (and tablet and PC) with a mobile broadband connection to the Internet.

If we’re going to throw around Marxist terminology, though, can we at least keep Karl’s ideas intact?

Owning a smartphone is not the equivalent of owning the means of production. I paid for my iPhone in full, but Apple owns the software that runs on it, the patents on the hardware inside it, and the exclusive right to the marketplace of applications for it. If I want to participate in their marketplace, Apple can arbitrarily reject my application, extract whatever cut of my sales they see fit, and change the terms whenever they like.

Same story with their scant competitors. It seemed like a lot of people were going to get rich in the “app economy”. Outside of Apple and Google, it turns outnot so much. For every WhatsApp there are thousands of failures.

The real money in tech is in platforms, network effects, scale. Sell pickaxes and jeans to the miners, right? Only today it’s Amazon selling the pickaxes. The startup with its servers on EC2 is about as likely to find gold as a ’49er panhandler. Before the startup goes out of business, Amazon gets paid.

Investors, shrinking in number but growing in wealth and  political influence, own the means of digital production. Everyone else is doing shift work and hoping they still have jobs tomorrow.

You spent a lot of paragraphs on back-of-the-napkin economics describing the coming Awesome Robot Future, addressing the hypotheticals. What you left out was the essential question: who owns the robots?

Robots and Safety Nets

To ensure we all get by in Awesome Robot Future, you think we should:

Create and sustain a vigorous social safety net so that people are not stranded and unable to provide for their families.

Yes! Absolutely. With you one hundred percent.

The loop closes as rapid technological productivity improvement and resulting economic growth make it easy to pay for the safety net.

You lost me again.

Sure, technology that enhances productivity can make products and services cheaper. Emerging technologies can also create demand for things that are inherently expensive — cutting-edge medical procedures and treatments, for example — driving up costs in entire economic sectors.

Unless we collectively choose to pay for a safety net, technology alone isn’t going to make it happen. Though technological progress has sped up over recent decades of capitalist expansion, most people on the planet are in need of a safety net today. The market hasn’t been there to catch them. Why is this different in Awesome Robot Future? Did I miss one of Asimov’s Laws that says androids are always programmed to be more socially-minded than neoliberals?

I appreciate that smart, ambitious people like you are thinking about a future of universal prosperity. You borrow terminology from finance in saying that you’re “way long human creativity.” While I’m creeped out by the commodification of our species’ ingenuity, I appreciate the sentiment. If our industry stops painting anyone who questions our business models as Luddites and finds creative ways to build products and services that sustainably address real needs, maybe we can hold on to the receding myth of triumphal disruption.

Hopefully we can agree that there are many more meaningful quality of life improvements technology has yet to deliver on before we can start brainstorming the “luxury goods markets” of the future.

Meanwhile, we don’t need to wait until a hypercapitalist techno-utopia emerges to do right by our struggling neighbors. We could pay for universal health care, higher education, and a basic income tomorrow. Instead, you’re kicking the can down the road and hoping the can will turn into a robot with a market solution.