Artificial Intelligence Editorial

The ugly manifesto behind the “Techno-Optimist Manifesto”

Want to improve the title of Marc Andreessen’s screechy screed, The Techno-Optimist Manifesto? Easy. Just replace the misused word “optimist” with the more accurate “fascist.”

It reads like a supervillain monologue

From the opening sentence, “we are being lied to,” the essay takes bigger and bigger leaps into supervillain monologuing, with lines like “we are not victims, we are conquerors” [and yes, the italicization is Andreessen’s].

But the cherry on this shit sundae — and my personal favorite — is the line “We are not primitives, cowering in fear of the lightning bolt. We are the apex predator; the lightning works for us.” That sounds exactly like Marvel Comics’ Doctor Doom!

The “enemies list” that appears two-thirds of the way into the polemic seemed hilarious at first, but then you realize “Oh shit, he’s serious.” Naming “trust and safety,” “tech ethics,” and “risk management” as things to be opposed is the kind of thing an old Saturday morning cartoon villain would do. I’m reminded of the bad guys on Captain Planet, who declared war on clean water and air.

But as bad as the similarities to cartoon villainy are, the Techno-Optimist Manifesto takes its inspiration from something far, far worse.

The Futurist Manifesto

The real red flag is this paragraph, which you can find smack-dab in the middle of the essay, which is intentionally written with the structure of a poem:

To paraphrase a manifesto of a different time and place: “Beauty exists only in struggle. There is no masterpiece that has not an aggressive character. Technology must be a violent assault on the forces of the unknown, to force them to bow before man.”

He could’ve made it much shorter by writing: Kneel before Zod!

As a fan of the ’80s avant-pop synth band Art of Noise and a fan of industrial design, I knew what he was paraphrasing: The Futurist Manifesto, written by Italian poet and fascist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti.

Here’s the paragraph that Andreessen paraphrased:

There is no longer any beauty except the struggle. Any work of art that lacks a sense of aggression can never be a masterpiece. Poetry must be thought of as a violent assault upon the forces of the unknown with the intention of making them prostrate themselves at the feet of mankind.

There’s a helluva lot of batshittery in Futurist Manifesto, and Marc Andreessen retrofitted it into the Techno-Optimist one.

Marinetti and Futurism

Marinetti in his Fiat Cabriolet.

The Italian verision of Futurism started with a car accident.

Like the author of the Techno-Optimist Manifesto, the author of the Futurist Manifesto was in the top 1%. Marinetti had a very nice car — a Fiat Cabriolet — which was no small achievement, considering that it was 1908. (For reference, the first Fiat was produced in 1899, not even a decade before.)

In 1908, while driving home after a friend’s party outside of Milan, Marinetti was speeding and had to swerve to avoid hitting two cyclists. The car went into a ditch and was totaled.

In writing about the incident, he clearly paints himself as a lead-footed driver, describing himself as driving so fast that his car was: “hurling watchdogs against doorsteps, curling them under our burning tires like collars under a flatiron.”

(Remember, he was a rich, eccentric poet.)

Here’s how he described the crash:

The words were scarcely out of my mouth when I spun my car around with the frenzy of a dog trying to bite its tail, and there, suddenly, were two cyclists coming toward me, shaking their fists, wobbling like two equally convincing but nevertheless contradictory arguments. Their stupid dilemma was blocking my way—Damn! Ouch! … I stopped short and to my disgust rolled over into a ditch with my wheels in the air …

The lesson most well-adjusted people would’ve taken from the crash would be “don’t drive faster than you can maneuver,” but that requires one to be well-adjusted. Marinetti decided that it was a symbol of the new world (the car) destroying the old one (bicycles). It captured all the things that excited him: speed, technology, risk, and violence. He thought that they perfectly illustrated the rapidly changing world around him and were signs of a new everything — a new, more mechanical world, in a modern era where everything is fast and furious.

That led him to write the Manifesto in 1908. First published in 1909, it was meant to kick-start an art movement to transform the world — starting with Italy.

The main part of the Futurist Manifesto was written as a set of 11 statements, each one a short or one-sentence paragraph. Andreessen borrowed the style when writing the Techno-Optimist Manifesto:

  • We want to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness.
  • The essential elements of our poetry will be courage, audacity and
  • Literature has up to now magnified pensive immobility, ecstasy and
    slumber. We want to exalt movements of aggression, feverish sleeplessness, the double march, the perilous leap, the slap and the blow with the fist.
  • We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath … a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.
  • We want to sing the man at the wheel, the ideal axis of which crosses the earth, itself hurled along its orbit.
  • The poet must spend himself with warmth, glamour and prodigality to increase the enthusiastic fervor of the primordial elements.
  • Beauty exists only in struggle. There is no masterpiece that has not an aggressive character. Poetry must be a violent assault on the forces of the unknown, to force them to bow before man.
  • We are on the extreme promontory of the centuries! What is the use of looking behind at the moment when we must open the mysterious shutters of the impossible? Time and Space died yesterday. We are already living in the absolute, since we have already created eternal, omnipresent speed.
  • We wish to glorify war — the world’s only hygiene — militarism, patriotism, the destructive act of the libertarian, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for women.
  • We want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice.
  • We will sing of the great crowds agitated by work, pleasure and revolt; the multi-colored and polyphonic surf of revolutions in modern capitals: the nocturnal vibration of the arsenals and the workshops beneath their violent electric moons: the gluttonous railway stations devouring smoking serpents; factories suspended from the clouds by the thread of their smoke; bridges with the leap of gymnasts flung across the diabolic cutlery of sunny rivers: adventurous steamers sniffing the horizon; great-breasted locomotives, puffing on the rails like enormous steel horses with long tubes for bridle, and the gliding flight of aeroplanes whose propeller sounds like the flapping of a flag and the applause of enthusiastic crowds.

“Come see the violence (and misogyny) inherent in the system!”

If you’re a reader of this blog, the word “Futurism” doesn’t sound so evil, and neither do three of its four aspects — I’m sure that like me, you like the concepts of speed, technology, and even at least a little risk.

And besides, how serious could they be about that fourth part, violence?

It turned out, very serious, at least in theory. Marinetti referred to war as “the world’s only hygiene.”

Here’s the full paragraph from the Manifesto where that bit about war appears:

We wish to glorify war — the world’s only hygiene — militarism, patriotism, the destructive act of the libertarian, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for women.

I added the bold text for emphasis.

Once again, someone in the movies said it better — namely Arnold Schwarzenegger’s version of Conan the Barbarian:

In spite of their hatred for the calcified past, there was one long-standing tradition that Futurists were okay with: chicks ruin everything.

Futurism and fascism

Creative Commons image by “Douuwwurunwuuzhe”. Tap to view the source.

If you ever find yourself examining an idea, approach, philosophy, or movement and asking “Is this fascist?”, you’ll find Umberto Eco’s Practical List for Identifying Fascists to be a handy checklist.

Futurism checks a lot (but not all) of Eco’s boxes:

  • The cult of action for action’s sake
  • Disagreement is treason
  • Appeal to social frustration
  • The enemy is both weak and strong
  • Pacifism is trafficking with the enemy
  • Contempt for the weak
  • Everybody is educated to be the hero
  • Selective populism

Futurism’s big difference from fascism is how each views the past. Futurists see the past as a useless relic holding them back, while fascists revere it as a golden, halcyon era that they must bring back.

Their similarities eventually overrode their differences. In 1918, Marinetti would form the Futurist Political Party, an extension of his artistic and social movement. A year later, they’d join another party, Fasci Italiani di Combattimento, whose name translates as “The Italian Fighting League.” That group would rename itself as the National Fascist Party in 1921. You might be familiar with their founder’s name: Benito Mussolini.

It’s more honest to call it techno-fascism

Let me show you what a real techno-optimist looks like:

I live, work, and play with technology — and with boundless joy and hope for the future — to the point that I’m associated with a technology that has nothing at all to do with what I get paid to do:

Seriously — if you’ve ever seen me give a presentation, you know what I mean when I say “techno-optimist.”

The Techno-Optimist Manifesto is heavy on the techno, and incredibly light on optimism. Yes, there’s a belief that the future could be better, but in that belief is the constant “j’accuse!” that if you’re not onside, you are the enemy — or at least a murderer.

That’s not optimism, but it is futurism. And you know where futurism leads.

Wired had an article in April 2019 titled When Futurism Led to Fascism—and Why It Could Happen Again, where they looked at futurism and asked:

Does any of this sound familiar? Disruption? Moving fast (and perhaps breaking things)? The rejection of history? Today’s most vocal voices in tech might not communicate their values with the same aplomb as the Italian poets, but they’re often saying the same kinds of things.

The article goes on to provide some examples of futurism’s ideas, expressed by today’s techbros, including Waymo’s cofounder Anthony Levandowski talking about how little he values history (“In technology, all that matters is tomorrow”) and “Google Memo” author James Damore’s claim that the gender gap in tech exists because men and women “biologically differ”.

Beware of venture capitalists writing manifestos

Manifestos written by people in positions of privilege tend to be cringeworthy, whether it’s James Damore’s “Google Memo”, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, or Andreessen’s latest word salad.

In the end, Andreessen’s essay is just a long-form version of his tweet from December 3, 2022, which is just him saying “Let me do what I want, and stop getting in my way.”

I’m all for techno-optimism, but not the kind Andreessen’s selling.


R.I.P. “Super Vittorio” Bertocci

This weekend, Vittorio Bertocci, Principal Architect at Okta and coworker of mine, passed away after his battle with cancer.

When I was applying to work at Auth0 (this was before it was acquired by Okta), I didn’t know very much about digital identity, authentication, or authorization. In preparing for the interviews and eventual “take-home” exercise, I found Vittorio’s Learn Identity video series, which ended up being my North Star. I knew of him from his work at Microsoft (we were contemporaries there, when he was an Architect Evangelist and I was a Developer Evangelist), and I thought if anyone could teach me about OAuth2 and OpenID Connect, it would be Vittorio. I can say with absolute certainty that those videos helped me land this job — a position that I’ll have held for three years as of next Thursday — and for this alone, I will always be grateful to Vittorio.

After joining the company, I was fortunate to partake in a number of his “Architecture Hour” Zoom chats that he held with the Developer Engagement team. I’m even more grateful for the one time I got to hang out with him in person in March at the company offsite, where I had the privilege of annoying him with the accordion.

Vittorio was a giant in the world of digital identity, working continuously as a Principal Architect at Auth0 and then Okta, contributing to the standards that make it possible for us to sign into our websites and applications, and helping people understand what identity is and how it works in the online world.

Beyond his technical contributions, he made significant human contributions as well, sharing his warmth and humor with everyone he met, from his loud “Buongiorno, everybody!” greeting to his constant joking. His long, curly hair was legendary, and the RFC that he co-authored — RFC 9470, OAuth 2.0 Step Up Authentication Challenge Protocol — pays tribute to it in the Acknowledgements section, where there’s a “thank you” to the shampoo manufacturers.

And only a character like Vittorio could become an anime character! This video, created by Auth0’s Japanese office, explains multifactor authentication (MFA) in the most delightfully bonkers anime way:

Vittorio’s approach and demeanor are part of the DNA of Auth0’s legendary work culture. I’m pleased to say it lives on in Okta, and for that, Vittorio deserves a lot of credit.

Requiescat in pace, Vittorio.

Business Editorial Humor

The strategy behind Twitter’s rebranding, explained

This is the latest from Pizza Cake Comics, created by Ellen Woodbury. Click the comic or this link to see it on its originating page.

Business Current Events Editorial

There is no plan at Twitter/X. There are only pants and paved cowpaths.

A sloppy rebranding

As I write this — 11:10 p.m. on the evening of Tuesday, July 25, 2023 — more than a day since Twitter ditched the bird icon and name for X. The problem is that the rebranding wasn’t terribly thorough.

Consider this screenshot from my Twitter/X home page:

Also, if you click on the links at the bottom right of the home page, the pages they lead to still bear the Twitter bird and name:

The newly-renamed corporation had a crew to remove the old Twitter sign from its San Francisco headquarters, but the police were called in and stopped it since the company never contacted the building owners about it, nor did they get a permit to set up the sign removal equipment on the street:

At last report, the sign on Twitter HQ looks like this:

These are the kinds of mistakes that a marketing or brand manager would never make, because they know that rebranding is something that requires a plan.

But there is no plan. There’s a goal — ditching the Twitter name and replacing it with Musk’s beloved brand, X — and there’s PANTS.

Pantsing and paving the cowpath

“Planner” and “pantser” are terms that many novel writers use to describe two very different writing styles:

  • Planners have their novel outlined and planned out before they start writing it. They’ve got clear ideas of the story they’re trying to tell, and their characters and settings are fleshed out.
  • Pansters — the term comes from the expression “by the seta of one’s pants,” which means by instinct and without much planning — might have a vague idea of what they want to write about and are simply making it up as they write.

Both are legitimate ways of creating things, although a planner will tell you that planning is better, and a pantster will do the same for pantsing.

As an organization, Twitter has been a pantser from its inception. Most of the features that we consider to be part of the platform didn’t originate with them; they were things that the users did that Twitter “featurized.”

Consider the hashtag — that’s not a Twitter creation, but the invention of Chris Messina, whom I happen to know from my days as a techie in Toronto and the early days of BarCamp:

Retweets? The term and the concept were invented by users. We used to put “RT” at the start of any tweet of someone else that we were re-posting to indicate that we were quoting another user. Twitter saw this behavior and turned it into. feature.

The same goes for threads (not the app, but conversational threads). To get around the original 144-character limit, users would make posts that spanned many tweets, using conventions like “/n” where n was a “page number.” Twitter productized this.

All these features were a good application of “pantsing” — being observant of user behavior and improvising around it. This approach is sometimes called “paving the cowpath.”

If you do a web search using the term paving the cowpath ux (where UX means user experience), the results tend to be articles that say it’s a good idea, because you’ll often find that users will find ways around your design if it doesn’t suit their needs, as shown in the photo above.

However, if you do a search using the term paving the cowpath business, the articles take a decidedly negative slant and recommend that you don’t do that. User behavior and business processes are pretty different domains, and business processes do benefit from having a plan. As a business, Twitter had no plan, which is why they’ve always been in financial trouble despite being wildly successful in terms of user base and popularity.

To paraphrase Mark Zuckerberg’s observation about Twitter, it’s a clown car that somehow drove into a gold mine.

Pantsing as a process

Since Elon Musk’s takeover, Twitter has been pantsing at never-before-seen levels, largely based on Musk’s whims. We’ve seen:

And the company’s been losing developers for reasons that started with cost-cutting, but soon, people were losing their jobs for contradicting the boss. Working for Musk is like working for Marvel Comics supervillain Dr. Doom:

More on Musk

If you’d like to hear more about Twitter and Musk, including three theories on why Musk has descended into madness — I’m particularly intrigued by theories (ketamine, a.k.a “Special K,”, a.k.a. horse tranquilizers) and (simulation theory) — check out the latest episode of the Search Engine podcast, hosted by Reply All’s former host PJ Vogt, What’s Going on with Elon Musk?

Current Events Editorial

The top story on Techmeme right now…

Thanks to Dave Playford for the find!

…is the announcement by Florida’s Karen-In-Chief Ron DeSantis with Elon “Space Karen / South Afri-Karen” Musk on an incredibly glitchy Twitter Space last night.

The audio-only stream failed after about half a million listeners tuned in, which might sound impressive if you’re technically ignorant or spinning the story. One DeSantis spokesperson vaingloriously claimed to NBC news that “Governor DeSantis broke the internet — that should tell you everything you need to know about the strength of his candidacy….!”

It seems impressive until you recall that Twitch star “TheGrefg” recently held an audio and video stream (which would use more bandwidth than audio alone) that had 1.7 million viewers — over three times the audience DeSantis’ announcement garnered.

That’s what happens when you choose a technology based on whether its owner is “on side” vs. whether it’s well-run and working well.

Also worth reading…

From The Daily Beast: Ron DeSantis’ 2024 Campaign Launch Fail Could Predict What Happens Next

Artificial Intelligence Editorial Presentations Video

Maciej Ceglowski’s reassuring arguments for why an AI superintelligence might not be a threat to humanity

Yesterday on the OpenAI blog, founder Sam Altman, President Greg Brockman and Chief Scientist Ilya Sutskever posted an article titled Governance of superintelligence with the subtitle “Now is a good time to start thinking about the governance of superintelligence—future AI systems dramatically more capable than even AGI.”

Although it’s a good idea to think about this sort of thing, there’s also the possibility that all this fuss over superintelligence may be for nothing. In his talk, Superintelligence: The Idea That Eats Smart People, which he gave at Web Camp Zagreb in 2016, developer Maciej Ceglowski, whom I personally know from another life back in the 2000s, lists some arguments against the idea of an evil superintelligence that is a threat to humanity:

Here are just a few of Maciej’s “inside perspective” arguments, which you can also find in his companion essay:

  • The Argument From Wooly Definitions: “With no way to define intelligence (except just pointing to ourselves), we don’t even know if it’s a quantity that can be maximized. For all we know, human-level intelligence could be a tradeoff. Maybe any entity significantly smarter than a human being would be crippled by existential despair, or spend all its time in Buddha-like contemplation.”
  • The Argument From Stephen Hawking’s Cat: “Stephen Hawking is one of the most brilliant people alive [He was alive at the time Maciej wrote this], but say he wants to get his cat into the cat carrier. How’s he going to do it? He can model the cat’s behavior in his mind and figure out ways to persuade it. He knows a lot about feline behavior. But ultimately, if the cat doesn’t want to get in the carrier, there’s nothing Hawking can do about it despite his overpowering advantage in intelligence.”
  • The Argument From Einstein’s Cat: “There’s a stronger version of this argument, using Einstein’s cat. Not many people know that Einstein was a burly, muscular fellow. But if Einstein tried to get a cat in a carrier, and the cat didn’t want to go, you know what would happen to Einstein.”
  • The Argument From Emus: “In the 1930’s, Australians decided to massacre their native emu population to help struggling farmers. They deployed motorized units of Australian army troops in what we would now call technicals—fast-moving pickup trucks with machine guns mounted on the back. The emus responded by adopting basic guerrilla tactics: they avoided pitched battles, dispersed, and melted into the landscape, humiliating and demoralizing the enemy. And they won the Emu War, from which Australia has never recovered.”
  • The Argument From Slavic Pessimism: “We can’t build anything right. We can’t even build a secure webcam. So how are we supposed to solve ethics and code a moral fixed point for a recursively self-improving intelligence without fucking it up, in a situation where the proponents argue we only get one chance?”
  • The Argument From Complex Motivations: “Complex minds are likely to have complex motivations; that may be part of what it even means to be intelligent. There’s a wonderful moment in Rick and Morty where Rick builds a butter-fetching robot, and the first thing his creation does is look at him and ask ‘what is my purpose?’. When Rick explains that it’s meant to pass butter, the robot stares at its hands in existential despair.
  • The Argument From Actual AI: “When we look at where AI is actually succeeding, it’s not in complex, recursively self-improving algorithms. It’s the result of pouring absolutely massive amounts of data into relatively simple neural networks. The breakthroughs being made in practical AI research hinge on the availability of these data collections, rather than radical advances in algorithms.”
  • The Argument From Maciej’s Roommate: “My roommate was the smartest person I ever met in my life. He was incredibly brilliant, and all he did was lie around and play World of Warcraft between bong rips. The assumption that any intelligent agent will want to recursively self-improve, let alone conquer the galaxy, to better achieve its goals makes unwarranted assumptions about the nature of motivation.”

There are also his “outside perspective” arguments, which look at what it means to believe in the threat of an AI superintelligence. It includes become an AI weenie like the dorks pictured below:

The dork on the left is none other than Marc Andreesen, browser pioneer, who’s now more of a south-pointing compass these days, and an even bigger AI weenie, if tweets like this are any indication:

But more importantly, the belief in a future superintelligence feels like a religion for people who think they’re too smart to fall for religion.

As Maciej puts it:

[The Singularity is] a clever hack, because instead of believing in God at the outset, you imagine yourself building an entity that is functionally identical with God. This way even committed atheists can rationalize their way into the comforts of faith. The AI has all the attributes of God: it’s omnipotent, omniscient, and either benevolent (if you did your array bounds-checking right), or it is the Devil and you are at its mercy.

Like in any religion, there’s even a feeling of urgency. You have to act now! The fate of the world is in the balance!

And of course, they need money!

Because these arguments appeal to religious instincts, once they take hold they are hard to uproot.

Or, as this tweet summarizes it:

In case you need context:

  • Roko’s Basilisk is a thought experiment posted on the “rational discourse” site LessWrong (which should be your first warning) about a potential superintelligent, super-capable AI in the future. This AI would supposedly have the incentive to create a virtual reality simulation to torture anyone who knew of its potential existence but didn’t tirelessly and wholeheartedly work towards making that AI a reality.

    It gets its name from Roko, the LessWrong member who came up with this harebrained idea, and “basilisk,” a mythical creature that can kill with a single look.
  • Pascal’s Wager is philosopher Blaise Pascal’s idea that you should live virtuously and act as if there is a God. If God exists, you win a prize of infinite value: you go to Heaven forever and avoid eternal damnation in Hell. If God doesn’t exist, you lose a finite amount: some pleasures and luxuries during your limited lifespan.
Editorial Humor

Everything you need to know about cryptocurrency, in a single Twitter poll

Adam Kotsko posted a hilarious Twitter poll a couple of days ago, and the results are in:

Adam Kotsko’s Twitter pool: What’s your favorite tech innovation? Illegal cab company: 16%. Illegal hotel chain: 12.2%. Fake money for criminals: 38%. Plagiarism machine: 33.9%.
Tap to view the original Tweet.

Also worth reading

See my article: Arguments for staying away from crypto, NFTs, and “Web3” in general.