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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

‘Techno-Optimism’ is Not Something You Should Believe In

Techno-optimism is a dangerous philosophy whose adherents espouse the blind faith that market capitalism and technology will solve the world’s problems. In reality, this kind of optimism simply justifies elite power and promotes indifference to human suffering.

Billionaire tech investor Marc Andreessen recently published a manifesto for “techno-optimism,” a worldview that contends technology will solve all of humanity’s problems and create a world of infinite abundance for all. Andreessen’s manifesto is so extreme that it has been heavily criticized even in the tech sector. It accuses anyone who opposes the unrestricted development of AI of having blood on their hands (since AI will save lives, meaning that if you slow down its development, you are essentially a murderer). It quotes favorably from Italian fascist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in envisioning a race of technologically-augmented “supermen” and “conquerors.” It condemns “socialism” in favor of “merit and achievement” and treats “social responsibility,”  “trust and safety,” “risk management,” and even “sustainable development goals” as “enemy” ideas. 

Andreessen’s manifesto comes across as unhinged and manic. It is, in fact, more a religious catechism than a “manifesto.” It is filled with “We believe” assertions that lay out the core of the Techno-Optimist faith. For example:  

  • “We believe in accelerationism – the conscious and deliberate propulsion of technological development – to ensure the fulfillment of the Law of Accelerating Returns. To ensure the techno-capital upward spiral continues forever.”
  • “We believe 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.”
  • “We believe Artificial Intelligence is our alchemy, our Philosopher’s Stone – we are literally making sand think.”
  • “We believe any deceleration of AI will cost lives. Deaths that were preventable by the AI that was prevented from existing is a form of murder.”
  • “We believe that there is no material problem – whether created by nature or by technology – that cannot be solved with more technology.”
  • “We believe central planning is a doom loop; markets are an upward spiral.”
  • “We believe in Milton Friedman’s observation that human wants and needs are infinite.”
  • “We believe the global population can quite easily expand to 50 billion people or more, and then far beyond that as we ultimately settle other planets.”
  • “We believe markets lift people out of poverty – in fact, markets are by far the most effective way to lift vast numbers of people out of poverty, and always have been.”
  • We believe in nature, but we also believe in overcoming nature. We are not primitives, cowering in fear of the lightning bolt. We are the apex predator; the lightning works for us.”
  • “We believe in ambition, aggression, persistence, relentlessness – strength.”

Are any of these beliefs substantiated by actual evidence? Do we get convincing proof, or even substantive argument, that “human wants and needs are infinite” or that every single material problem can be solved by technology? No. All we get is assertion, even around highly dubious claims about human nature and the workings of free markets. For instance, Andreessen claims that free markets are the only sensible way to organize society in part because humans are motivated by the selfish pursuit of money: 

“David Friedman points out that people only do things for other people for three reasons – love, money, or force. Love doesn’t scale, so the economy can only run on money or force. The force experiment has been run and found wanting. Let’s stick with money.”

But whether or not “David Friedman says” people only do things for other people for three reasons, empirical evidence suggests that people actually often do things for other people out of a sense of perceived fairness. Scientists who study statistically valid samples of actual humans, instead of projecting from their own inclinations or observations of their abnormally greed-motivated peers, find that humans evolved to be—as Frans de Waal observed—“moral beings to the core.” Andreessen is not interested in evidence, though. He makes this clear at the end of his manifesto, which says that “in lieu of detailed endnotes and citations, read the work of these people, and you too will become a Techno-Optimist,” before listing a series of figures ranging from anonymous Twitter accounts (e.g., @BasedBeffJezos, @bayeslord) to right-wing economists (Ludwig von Mises, Thomas Sowell). 

It would be easy to dismiss Andreessen’s manifesto as the frenzied ranting of another rich man who thinks that the depth and correctness of one’s opinions on political and social matters exist in proportion to one’s net worth. But Andreessen’s “techno-optimism” is hardly new, unique, or persuasive. (Optimism has always been a tool used by the powerful to advance their interests.) In this particular philosophy, “growth” and “technology” have magical problem-solving capabilities, and if we pursue them relentlessly, we will eliminate the need to ask any deeper questions (such as “growth toward what?” or “technology that does what?” or, crucially, how the benefits are allocated, i.e. “growth and tech for whom?”). The “optimism” in “techno-optimism” is the idea that we can be confident that the future will be a certain way without having to do much work ourselves to make sure it is that way. The cult-like chanting of the god-word “technology” is typically an attempt to evade the political (i.e., ethical) work of deciding how to justly allocate harms and benefits. Andreessen is unashamed about this: he explicitly rejects the need for “socially responsible” technology and the “precautionary principle.” He doesn’t spend a moment dealing with the many serious dangers that people have highlighted around current artificial intelligence technology (such as its capacity to propagate racial biases or manufacture hoaxes and lies at breathtaking speeds). For Andreessen, we don’t need to think about which technologies to develop or how to develop them responsibly. The invisible hand of the free market knows best. 

Faith is indeed the appropriate word for this kind of optimism, which is a totally unjustified confidence in one’s ability to know how the future will unfold. Is it actually the case that all of our problems can be solved by technology? That question is never considered, because in a catechism it doesn’t have to be. After all, we believe that all problems can be solved by technology. For Andreessen, belief is enough. (Likewise, he believes that it is OK for the global population to reach 50 billion, therefore there is no need to prove that the Earth can sustain this population.)

What happens when Andreessen’s confident beliefs are actually put to the test? Is he right that capitalist markets and technology create “abundance” for all? To assess the credibility of that claim, we can examine how real-world abundance has been allocated by greed-driven markets in practice. Take, for instance, our global food system. We produce more than enough calories to feed all humans—which is to say that our total food supply is adequate—but 77 percent of global farmland fattens livestock to make meat for the wealthy, and rich-world pets seem to have better food security than 2.37 billion people (nearly one in three humans do not have access to adequate food, according to the U.N.). Meanwhile, 150 million kids are stunted by malnutrition, and we waste enough grain to feed “1.9 billion people annually” in the production of environmentally disastrous biofuels. And under the guise of enhancing market efficiency, some of the world’s richest people and institutions, like hedge-funders and elite university endowments, invest (which is to say gamble) in food commodity markets. We can see clearly—without  elaborate economistic euphemisms—that the market ensures that greedy ghouls are profiting by taking calories out of the mouths of the planet’s poorest and most vulnerable children.

The chart on the left shows the steady global supply of calories per person, which bears no relation to the rollercoaster ride of food commodity prices on the right.

Those huge price swings, which harmed the global poor, were driven by commodity speculation, not by the fundamentals of supply and demand.  Clearly, the market is not producing morally acceptable outcomes here. Does this not mock the fine Enlightenment philosophizing about equal human dignity among all? More importantly, does this provide justification for Andreessen’s doctrine of market- and tech-driven optimism? How does this argument about the “efficiency” of the markets look to the eyes of the world’s poorest and least powerful people? Only the absurdly blinkered could imagine that our global food abundance is used “rationally” or “efficiently”—never mind ethically. Is there any reason to expect Andreessen’s “techno-capital” machine will allocate any other kind of abundance in a better or more morally justifiable manner?

One concrete example of how capitalist-controlled technology is actually used is the Covid crisis, where profits have been placed above the lives of the poor. The moral fiasco of vaccine apartheid—whereby rich countries hoarded vaccines and refused to waive intellectual property patent rights so that lower-income countries might produce affordable vaccine for their populations—has been linked to more than a million avoidable deaths (even today, according to the U.N. and the W.H.O., two-thirds of people in low-income countries remain unvaccinated against Covid). That was on top of an already inadequate and unjust healthcare system for the world’s population overall. Scholars estimate that 15.6 million excess deaths per year could be prevented through universal global healthcare and public health measures. (The climate crisis has also created a deadly battle over how—and for whom—our technologies will be used, as four billion people face “health-threatening“ heat by 2030.) 

Do any of these preventable deaths or harms appear at all in Andreessen’s calculus? No. Instead, he perversely focuses on the fear that the “deceleration of AI will cost lives,” likening AI skeptics to murderers. But the market, as we have seen, already kills millions by allocating goods and services according to ability to pay rather than need. The loss of life due to not developing AI sufficiently is merely speculative, while the avoidable deaths of people who have fallen victim to the markets are already well documented. By Andreessen’s logic, we ought to consider these millions of deaths to be mass murder by markets, which aren’t historically rare.1 To ignore so many deaths happening now is absurd and cruel.

The market’s distribution is grotesquely unfair, and this fact undercuts Andreessen’s faith that “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.” The machines, in fact, do not work for us automatically, even if they could be put to humane use. To quote an astute insight from science fiction legend Ted Chiang, “Most of our fears or anxieties about technology are best understood as fears or anxiety about how capitalism will use technology against us.” Without a suitable political and social context, technology will often be used against those with the least power. 

It is also always crucial to probe the meaning of “human” and “us.” “Us” often means “me and people like me”—in this case, rich humans. (See, for instance, Steven Pinker’s claim that “we” are insufficiently grateful for human progress, which implicitly excludes those who do not experience its upsides.) If poor humans can’t meet market prices, they get a far less “pro-human” fate: death by preventable disease.

A common claim often pushed by rich elites like Andreessen is that market growth is “solving” global poverty. As Andreessen puts it, “markets are by far the most effective way to lift vast numbers of people out of poverty.” But Andreessen is wrong, and these ideas are wildly misleading.

For instance, the income gains made by the world’s people in recent years have been anything but fair. World Inequality Database data show that from 2009 to 2019, the aggregate global personal income pie grew by $37 trillion. Of that, the top 10 percent took $8.7 trillion (24 percent) while the bottom 10 percent got $25 billion (0.07 percent). That’s not a typo. The poor got 0.07 percent, about 350 times less than the rich. 

Claims that global growth is “lifting people out of poverty” do not square with the following figures. Zooming in on the World Inequality Data reveals that average annual individual income gains in that decade for top versus bottom ten-percent earners were $1,800 and $5. Five dollars a year is 1.3 cents per day—a far less laudable feat than Andreessen et al. celebrate. It’s hard to argue that $5 added to the extreme poverty level of $6942 per year is really an “escape” from anything. 

Now let’s consider what would happen if we redistributed some of those earnings from top to bottom—a thought experiment I wrote about in Jacobin last year. If just 5 percent of these top 10-percenter gains were redistributed, the bottom 10 percent would gain $90. They’d “escape” poverty 18 times better than their current gain of $5 —which is to say that there’s so much more we could be doing to increase the resources available to the poor. 

Now let’s say our aim were to end extreme poverty without delay. This could be achieved. The World Inequality Lab (WIL) has calculated that a tiny wealth tax on the obscenely wealthy (those who have at least $100 million) would net $581 billion—that’s almost triple the amount of current global aid. The same tax on all millionaires would net $1.6 trillion. That’s more than enough resources to get the job done pronto.

But under the greed-driven, market growth method that Andreessen advocates, the poor will just have to wait. It takes around $1,400 of global income growth to put an extra $1 into the hands of a person at the global bottom. This is an enormously inefficient method! It also amounts to hundreds of times more in gains for the already rich, thus making this approach more about perpetuating inequality than about alleviating poverty. 

The truth here is that the improvement in extreme poverty levels—the metric so beloved by progress-cheering elites and which is shown on the left below—is nothing more than, as I have stated before, a tiny fig leaf barely concealing an ugly truth. The data couldn’t be clearer: the GDP per capita gap between rich and poor nations, as shown by the figure below on the right, is growing, not shrinking. 

And without robust redistribution, as U.N.’s Olivier De Schutter notes, it would take 200 years to eradicate poverty under a $5 a day line, assuming empirical market growth rates. It is therefore grotesque for anyone to claim that this situation ought to be seen as good news for humanity, especially when we note that $5 per day amounts to one-eighth America’s already too-low poverty line, and in each and every one of those 200 years, gains for the global rich will be hundreds of times greater than for the poor. Two hundred years amounts to eight generations of people being denied an appallingly low level of resources so that the rich can get richer.

The idea that market “progress” is closing the rich-poor gap is a pie-in-the-sky fantasy, an elite-flattering story. The global economy, which is run by gangster financial institutions, has no real mechanism for alleviating inequality and poverty, and there are no grounds to support “optimism” that it will create universal “abundance” if left to its own devices. That so many believe capitalism is making fantastic “progress” against poverty by showering the poor with trickle-down blessings testifies to a spectacularly successful cover-up. Disguising rapacious global profiteering as anti-poverty do-gooding is genius PR, and Andreessen is just the latest to parrot this delusional assertion that the markets will alleviate poverty.

We have seen that the assertion that a “techno-capital machine” will produce an infinite “upward spiral” of abundance has no grounding in the world of fact. It is a pleasant fantasy that exists in the minds of believers and keeps them from having to ask hard questions about how we can actually create economies that produce a decent standard of living for all without imperiling the planet. 

Optimism expresses unwarranted confidence that the world’s problems will somehow be solved without our having to do the difficult work of coming up with (and implementing) political solutions ourselves. It is worth emphasizing that “optimism”—techno or otherwise—is always a dangerous philosophy. This becomes clear by looking at how the word has evolved conceptually over time.

Optimism was coined by 17th-century polymath Gottfried Leibniz, who used the term to mean that we live in literally the “best of all possible worlds.” Leibniz’s argument that this had to be absolutely the “best of all possible worlds” had been meant in both a moral and a mathematical sense. He was a god-and-math smitten genius; in his teens he imagined settling all philosophical debates using a purely “logical language” that an “arithmetical machine” could process. He and his Enlightenment peers harbored vast hope for what math-driven thinking could do. To Leibniz it was obvious that the god-ordained order of nature operates “by maxima and minima.” By God’s very nature, his creation must do the most good at the cost of the least evil. Thus, all that exists is part of the divine plan, and all “evil” serves God’s greater good (albeit in often mysterious ways). This calculus-like optimizing and economizing imagery was vital to casting all woes as necessary evils. Philosophical poet Alexander Pope, in perhaps the 18th century’s favorite poem, stated the “don’t-worry-be-happy” doctrine similarly, asserting that “One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.”

Then comes Voltaire, who saw both these views as obviously preposterous. Far from benign, these ideas were, to his mind, dangerous. In his famous 1759 novella Candide, or Optimism, he mercilessly lampooned these ideas and popularized “optimism” as an insult. In the novella, throughout Candide’s many ordeals, his tutor (every young aristocrat had one back then), Dr. Pangloss, applies strict optimism: all events, crises included, are for the best. Even Pangloss’ acquisition of syphilis is deemed positive, since the pathogen came with the plunder that brought chocolate to Europe. Voltaire saw that optimism could easily sanction a numbing indifference to human suffering. It was a worldview plausible only to young aristocrats born into blessings and privilege. 

As Voltaire warned, the idea of an “all-for-the-best” grand plan has long been used to justify inaction in the face of suffering. Examples abound. For instance, titan of early economics Reverend Thomas Malthus decried conventional charity—misery and starvation were God’s provident checks on the poor, to keep them from reproducing like rabbits. Providence was better served by toil in harsh for-profit workhouses. Charles Dickens wrote Hard Times to attack the “scientific cruelty” (a phrase from Karl Polanyi) of economists who advocated that workhouses served the all-for-the-best optimistic grand plan. Dickens skewers a character who felt “the Good Samaritan was a bad economist.” Up to well into the 19th century, economics, often thought of as a rational and neutral science, was heavily influenced by theology. Of course, resource allocation is always a deeply moral endeavor, even when supposedly inspired by heavenly plans or hidden under earthly mathematical schemes. But that morality need not be dictated by the doctrines of a particular religion.

Similarly concerning, economics as currently practiced often presents itself as morally neutral. As Freakonomics authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner put it, “Morality, it could be argued, represents the way that people would like the world to work— whereas economics represents how it actually does work.”  For Andreessen, it seems that worshiping the—in his view—omnipotent and omniscient market is central to his religious cult of techno-optimism.

Many economists and market optimists like Andreessen now sanction a similar “scientific cruelty.” Like Pangloss, today’s pro-market pundits in effect preach that present material suffering is just part of the grand plan on the road to a bright future. It’s a seductive message to the contemporary equivalents of Voltaire’s smug upbeat aristocrats. Like Leibniz, today’s Optimists urge the continuation of staggeringly unjust but self-serving systems. Their equivalent of a “best-of-all-possible outcomes” is  the “rational” resource allocations of the great Invisible Hand. The economy is seen as a mathematical optimization scheme, which operates with qualities tantamount to omniscience and quasi-omnipotence. Indeed, that’s precisely how Andreessen speaks of it, repeating the idea that no human has sufficient information to question the Invisible Hand judgements. 

But this notion of Market Providence is, of course, riddled with deep anti-poor biases. To the market gods, your ability to avoid material suffering, never mind aspire to happiness, should be granted strictly in accordance with your demonstrated market virtues, expressed solely in cold hard cash. That’s the core doctrine of trickle-down market theology. But as the Federal Reserve’s own Jeremy Rudd wrote: “the primary role of mainstream economics … is to provide an apologetics for a criminally oppressive, unsustainable, and unjust social order.” 

Andreessen’s manifesto is a perfect example of a bundle of ideas that have been called “TESCREAL” by Émile Torres and Timnit Gebru (this acronym stands for “transhumanism, extropianism, singularitarianism, cosmism, rationalism, Effective Altruism, and longtermism”). According to these ideas, humanity is on a trajectory toward some great technological miracle that will massively augment human capacities and produce endless abundance for all. The ideas themselves often come uncomfortably close to those of classical eugenics (see Andreessen’s quotation of a fascist and belief in Nietzschean supermen). In practice, they seem likely to produce a dystopia that only a billionaire could love. But sadly, the billionaires who believe this stuff have a great deal of power in our world as it exists.

In a way, it is a good thing that Andreessen wrote and published his manifesto. It lays bare what the planet is up against. These are the beliefs that many of the aspiring “masters of the universe” hold. They preach a dangerous faith in technology and capitalist markets and are unwilling to consider any of the disastrous drawbacks produced by poorly-designed tech and unregulated markets. They dismiss “socialism” as the enemy of “growth” and “abundance,” waving away all considerations of justice and equality. They are utterly detached from the real-world conditions of people’s lives (TechCrunch asked, “When was the last time Marc Andreessen talked to a poor person?”). Like any other monomaniacal faith—in which doubters are seen as enemies and beliefs are accepted without evidence—this package of beliefs is deeply threatening to any moral person’s vision of a just and sustainable future for humans and all that inhabit the planet. As Voltaire knew, optimism is typically a demon in disguise. 

  1. He seems ignorant of the history of for-profit murders. For instance, in Late Victorian Holocausts, Mike Davis writes about famines: “India like Ireland before it had become a Utilitarian laboratory where millions of lives were wagered [and lost] against dogmatic faith in omnipotent markets…” 

  2. The equivalent of $1.90 a day per the World Bank, which was the rate at the time the global income figures used here were generated. This number was updated in 2022 to be $2.15 a day

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