Prometheus did not write apps. A reflection on Venkatesh Rao’s “Breaking Smart.”

“Breaking Smart” offers now the first “season” by Venkatesh Rao, former “philosopher in residence” at VC firm Andreessen Horowitz (How does someone get such a job?  Can I find a position like that on LinkedIn and do it part time?).  This “season” is self-described as philosophy.  It cites a lot of SF.  But what I find most interesting is where it fails.

It sets up a dichotomy between the Pastoralists and the Prometheans, as a framework for an optimistic futurism based on the claim by patron Marc Andreessen that “software is eating the world.” (Why would they think this claim is attractive?  Even to say, for example, “Justice is eating the world” makes justice sound sinister.  Is the goal to be a little scary?  To seem a tough realist?)

Otto_Greiner_-_Prometheus
A hand up for humankind, before software eats the world….

We learn in this “season” that programmers and the businesses that work with them (e.g., VCs) are the Prometheans who bring us a bold new future in which everything is better.  The Pastoralists are the foot-draggers who are holding us back.  Prometheans love Uber.  Pastoralists want to protect taxis.

All this is rather strange from Rao, whose other bloggings are Nietzschean paens to “sociopaths” (his name for CEOs and others in pinnacle management) who create fictitious values in a meaningless world, to which the rest of us cling (we 99% are divided into either the “clueless” or “losers” — here even Nietzsche would cringe).  Is the Promethean a sociopath?  Is this whole first season of “Breaking Smart” all noble lies, meant to inspire us?  We’ll have to tune in next season to get the answer.

What strikes me as most interesting in this “season” is the gaping hole in the center of this panegyric to our Silicon Valley Titans.  The future of technology is unlimited.  All shall get better.  Uber shall turn out to be wonderful, software will feed everyone, creative destruction will prove creative.  Only, what about our social technologies — that is, what about our economy, our collective mores, our politics?  And what about the problems we face now:  inequality, surveillance, other abuses of technology?  Here the Promethean stuns us:

Broken though they might seem, the mechanisms we need for working through “inequality, surveillance and everything” are the generative, pluralist ones we have been refining over the last century: liberal democracy, innovation, entrepreneurship, functional markets and the most thoughtful and limited new institutions we can design.

This answer will strike many as deeply unsatisfactory and perhaps even callous. Yet, time and again, when the world has been faced with seemingly impossible problems, these mechanisms have delivered.

Beyond doing the utmost possible to shield those most exposed to, and least capable of enduring, the material pain of change, it is crucial to limit ourselves and avoid the temptation of reactionary paths suggested by utopian or dystopian visions, especially those that appear in futurist guises.

That last bit is just ad hominem. If “reactionary” means someone who opposes change and may even want to return to some (imagined) earlier state of affairs, then those with utopian dreams are not reactionaries.  To call them such is without content.  And as for “these mechanisms have delivered” — that’s true of the lowly taxis that the Promethean disparages.  That’s true of the horse and buggy, of the ox-drawn plow.  So this too is without content.

We have a blatant contradiction.  Machine and software technologies must be ever innovated.  Pastoralists are reactionaries to say that these machine and software technologies should be controlled or directed or regulated because of their danger.  But the Promethean tells us that social technologies are done, complete, as good as it gets; only dangerous utopians think that social technologies can be innovated.

The moment Rao turns his attention from promoting more code, to considering moral codes, his imagination not only fails — he becomes a reactionary (and here, by the definition with content:  he wants to protect the status quo, and even praises the glories of liberalism’s earlier accomplishments).  Fukuyama was right!  History has ended!  Neoliberalism is the (not perfect, but best and so final) solution to all social problems.

It is terrible, that we find it so easy to imagine more machine and software technologies but we find it nearly impossible to imagine a better social system.  This kind of lack of imagination can only be created by force.  That is, it must be continually reinforced.  Imagining a different social arrangement is as difficult for the contemporary citizen as, say, it was for a medieval European peasant to imagine a life without God.  The Church made civilized atheism inconceivable for the medieval peasant; our ideological engines make a better alternative to our current political economy inconceivable to us.

When Ursula LeGuin said we need SF writers to imagine new futures for us, I think she meant it as a plea.  She knows that SF is one of the few places where someone might imagine some alternative way of living.  Most SF is comfortably neoliberal or reactionary, of course.  But the goal is to imagine possible futures.  And so maybe someone dedicated to this goal will see a little over the walls of our mental prison.

But then again, what do I know?  I’m either a loser, or, at best, clueless.

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