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27 November 2023

The techno-optimist fallacy

Robert Skidelsky is right to warn about the delusions of our tech overlords – but his critique of Silicon Valley capitalism does not go far enough.

By Mark O’Connell

Last month, the influential Silicon Valley venture capitalist Marc Andreessen published on his firm’s website a piece of writing entitled “The Techno-Optimist Manifesto”. The post was, among other things, a reaction against a cultural tone of caution and despair about the world being built by, and around, developing technologies. “Our present society,” he wrote, “has been subjected to a mass demoralisation campaign for six decades – against technology and against life.” This campaign, he claimed, has had many terrible guises including “social responsibility”, “sustainability”, “tech ethics” and “the limits of growth”, many of which are derived from the mother of all bad ideas: communism itself.

A primary target for Andreessen was the critics of artificial intelligence, steadily growing in number and prominence, urging caution about the development of technologies whose spooky potency might cause enormous societal and economic consequences. Any effort to hold back the development of AI, he insisted, is by definition an attempt to hold back the development of humanity itself: “We believe artificial intelligence is best thought of as a universal problem solver. And we have a lot of problems to solve. We believe artificial intelligence can save lives – if we let it. Medicine, among many other fields, is in the Stone Age compared to what we can achieve with joined human and machine intelligence working on new cures… 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.”

The manifesto is easy to dismiss as the ranting of a cosseted nerd-extremist; he quotes approvingly, for instance, the neo-reactionary philosopher Nick Land, who believes that humanity will inevitably, and rightly, submit to a superior machine intelligence that will use us for its own ends. But it articulates, in its clumsy way, a position that is commonly held among supposedly enlightened Silicon Valley types: that technological progress and human progress are not just inextricably linked, but essentially one and the same. Even those among them who warn about the potentially disastrous effects of AI tend not to see nipping it in the bud as a viable option, because they hold equally to an almost messianic belief in its potential to lead humanity out of its fallen state.

I thought of Andreessen while reading Robert Skidelsky’s preface to his book The Machine Age: An Idea, a History, a Warning. Resistance against the grand ameliorative claims of technologists, he writes, has rarely led those technologists to conclude that “their schemes might affront some basic requirement of human flourishing”. They prefer to attribute such resistance to “stupidity, ignorance and superstition”. Skidelsky offers a balanced and historicised assessment of the role of technology in our society. It’s the sort of sober, measured study that attempts to provide a broad view of how Western civilisation developed in tandem with technological innovation, before giving some sense of the varied promise and danger that lies ahead. It’s a fairly brisk read but Skidelsky crams a lot into its pages, including the rise of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution, the increased mechanisation not just of workplaces but of human beings themselves, and how the Enlightenment and Reformation gave rise to new ways of thinking about machines and their place in the world.

The Machine Age leads the reader, in its early pages, to expect some grand statement about the world and its future. (The title alone lends the enterprise a certain aura of epochal definitiveness.) Before he gets to the main business of the book, Skidelsky provides, in addition to the preface, an introduction and a prologue. There is even a glossary “for the technologically challenged”. Some of its entries are arguably useful – for Moore’s law, natural language processing etc – but I did find myself wondering whether a person who needs a definition of “the internet” (“a global network of connected computers and devices that communicate with each other using a standard set of communications protocols”) is likely to be reading a book like this in the first place, or any book at all for that matter. This might seem like a paratextual quibble, but it points towards a larger problem with the book: once all the throat-clearing is out of the way, Skidelsky seems to lack clarity on what point he is setting out to make in the first place.

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Despite its stated intentions, the book turns out not to be about machines as such – at least not in any kind of direct or concerted way. Skidelsky is a political economist by profession, and his tendency is to provide the reader with encapsulations of various thinkers and movements before offering a brief assessment of ways in which they were either prescient or misguided. The Machine Age is less a work of intellectual history, though, than a loose agglomeration of reflections on the historical roots of our technologically saturated culture.

The book is at its strongest in its discussion of the development of capitalism, and the ways in which the mechanisation of labour practices led to an increasingly mechanised conception of human life. Skidelsky is interesting on the enduring influence of Frederick Winslow Taylor, the engineer whose ideas about scientific management were famously adopted by Henry Ford at his factories. Taylor thought of himself as more than a mere engineer, or management consultant avant la lettre: “He felt himself to be a prophet of ‘scientific principles’ which would sort out all social frictions. Lenin was greatly impressed.” The legacy of Taylorism, Skidelsky argues, is a world in which humans are encouraged to act increasingly like machines. “If humans can be got to behave like robots for 90 per cent of their time,” he writes, “we might get rid of the remaining 10 per cent either by equipping robots with emotional and ethical intelligence, which eliminates the need for humans altogether, or by extinguishing the humanness of humans, which… is such an obstacle to their efficient deployment.”

The book moves at a clip, with frequent detours through the history of economics and politics. Skidelsky is erudite – his writing is filled with references to thinkers as diverse as Thorstein Veblen, Michel Foucault, Mary Shelley and Plato – but he does not often have much to add to what those writers have already said. One chapter, which looks at the various utopias and dystopias imagined by writers throughout history, features overly thorough plot synopses of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. Such detailed run-downs might be justifiable if Skidelsky engaged in a substantial way with these novels’ analyses of power, but he seems largely content to just tell us the plots of the books before pronouncing that: “The message of the three novelists is that it is easy to slide from democracy to dictatorship because the technology of power creeps up so invisibly and becomes so pervasive that most people remain blissfully unaware that it is happening.”

This padding is compounded by a tendency, throughout the book, to state the obvious. “California’s Silicon Valley,” he tells us at one point, “takes its name from the high concentration of companies manufacturing and using silicon-based computer components in the 1970s and 1980s.” Elsewhere, we are informed that the process whereby parts of the internet have gradually become walled off from one another is known as “the ‘Balkanisation’ of the internet, after the fragmentation of the Balkan Peninsula into several small states following the collapse of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires”. In places, too, I found myself wondering how deeply Skidelsky had read the writers whose work he draws on.

He invokes, for instance, Shoshana Zuboff’s influential notion of surveillance capitalism, but introduces her ideas by quoting a summary of them from a London Review of Books piece by Donald MacKenzie. He doesn’t engage in a substantive way with Zuboff’s ideas other than to suggest – briefly but with apparent finality – they are fatally compromised by their ideological basis: “Like all left-wing critics of capitalism, Zuboff cannot entirely escape from the Marxist base-superstructure model. Capitalism, or rather a perverted form of it, Lenin’s ‘monopoly capitalism’, is the enemy; the state is, ultimately, its agent. However, the state is a much more powerful and sinister agent of surveillance than capitalist platforms, and much more difficult to break up, as the liberal trust-busters want, or to ‘regulate’, as socialists advocate.”

As its subtitle suggests, the book does sound a note of warning about an over-investment in technology as a cure for society’s ills, and as an end in itself. Skidelsky rightly points out the lunacy of the conviction that technological progress must be pursued at all costs. He cites the mathematician and computer pioneer John von Neumann’s insistence, for example, that it was unethical for scientists “not to do what they know is feasible, no matter what terrible consequence it might have”. (Von Neumann was certainly a genius, but this notion sounds a discordant historical echo with Marc Andreessen’s accelerationist foolishness.) Elsewhere, he observes that Silicon Valley techno-utopians, although they recognise the “risk to humanity of super-intelligent AIs run berserk”, are too entranced by their millenarian dreams of the coming of a messianic technology “to propose shutting AI down before it reaches super-intelligence”.

Skidelsky urges caution about the excesses of techno-capitalism, but he does so in an excessively cautious manner – urging caution, too, about any kind of serious critique of capitalism per se. And so it’s hard to know, finally, what to take from this well-meaning and learned but unfocused book. There is a fair amount of history here, and a quantity of warning, too; but the idea promised by its subtitle never really comes into view with any clarity.

Mark O’Connell’s books include “A Thread of Violence” and “To Be a Machine” (Granta)

The Machine Age: An Idea, a History, a Warning
Robert Skidelsky
Allen Lane, 384pp, £25

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This article appears in the 29 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Being Jewish Now