Against Technocracy: The Year Software Finally Ate the World

Andrew Keen on Building Democratic Digital Spaces

So how will historians remember 2020? Having interviewed 100 writers about its significance for my daily Keen On Lit Hub radio show, they all agreed about one thing: more than just another year, 2020 represents a world historical moment—an 1848, a 1914 or a 1989. They believe that 2020 represents what the former US Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers calls a “hinge in history”—a year in which the foreign becomes familiar and everything, the entire world, will be irretrievably different.

A hinge is, of course, a simple piece of technology—a hardware that enables the opening and shutting of a door. But what grand historical forces, exactly, are being opened and shut by the 2020 pandemic?

The clue is in the hinge—at least in the sense it’s a piece of technology. As Vivek Wadhwa, the Silicon Valley-based author of Your Happiness Was Hacked, explained to me, 2020 represents the year when the technology of the digital revolution—specifically “Big Tech” companies like Google, Amazon, Amazon and Facebook—has triumphed over the traditional brick and mortar economy.

But this victory represents more than just a decisive shift in power from 20th-century analog to 21st-century digital economics. As another guest on my show, Chris Schroeder, the author of Start-Up Rising and a long-time tech executive, put it, the pandemic’s social distancing regulations have triggered “virtualness unbound” in every area of our Zoom-centric lives—from shopping and healthcare to education, finance and politics.   

Start-Up Rising, Schroeder’s 2013 study of digital innovation in the Middle East, contained a foreword by Marc Andreessen, the co-founder of both Netscape and the venture capital firm a16z. The influential VC firm’s operating credo, “Software is eating the world,” is borrowed from an eponymous Wall Street Journal essay written by Andreessen in 2011.

“My own theory is that we are in the middle of a dramatic and broad technological and economic shift in which software companies are poised to take over large swathes of the economy,” Marc Andreessen argued in 2011, “Over the next ten years, I expect many more industries to be disrupted by software, with new world-beating Silicon Valley companies doing the disruption in more cases than not.”

Truth itself, never particularly healthy in the Internet age, may eventually be the costliest casualty of Covid-19.

But even Marc Andreessen underestimated the disruptive impact of digital technology. In the pandemic year, less than a decade after his prescient Wall Street Journal essay, software has finally eaten the world. That’s why 2020—like 1848, 1914 or 1989—will be seen, by future historians, as a hinge year.

The world was, of course, already radically disrupted when Marc Andreessen wrote his 2011 essay. Indeed, traditionally curated media has been under assault ever since the launch of Netscape, the revolutionary internet browser that Andreessen co-founded in 1994. But 2020 will be remembered as the year the final nail was hammered into the coffin of professional media.

The numbers are staggering. Already this year, the jobs of 36,000 Americans working at newspapers, magazines and online publications have been ravaged by the pandemic—an economic and cultural bloodbath that will inevitably accelerate in the second half of the year.

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WHAT COMES NEXT: LIFE BEYOND PANDEMIC

Noam Chomsky on the history of the left and its response to crisis

Bill McKibben on what the coronavirus pandemic means for the climate crisis

Karen Washington on a renewed movement to grow food in cities

Ari Berman on how to treat voting as a public health issue

Ai-jen Poo on creating policies that protect care workers

Casey Schwartz on relearning to pay attention

Madeline ffitch on what anarchism shows us about caring for each other

Elizabeth Catte on mutual aid as a form of resistance to power

Julian Noisecat on how progressive messaging can adapt to the pandemic

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“We grew our digital business faster than anyone at a time when we believed that as more pies were baked we’d keep getting a slice,” Nancy Duboc, the CEO of Vice Media, wrote in a May internal memo announcing the elimination of 150 staff jobs. “But we aren’t seeing the return from the platforms benefiting and making money from our hard work. Now, after many years of this, the squeeze is becoming a chokehold. Platforms are not just taking a larger slice of the pie, but almost the whole pie.”

This seizure of the “whole pie” by “the platforms” (Google/Alphabet, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple and Facebook) is now extending throughout the entire economy. Since the low point in the stock market in March, these platforms have seen $1.7 trillion added to their market cap, making them worth 24 percent of the entire S&P 500 Index.

This sharp recalibration of the value of equities from analog to digital is a central reason why the stock market has actually done rather well, all things considered, during the pandemic. 1929 has been memorialized as the Wall Street Crash; 2020, in contrast, may be remembered as the crash of everything but an increasingly tech heavy Wall Street.

Other digital sectors are also booming during the pandemic. Shares in the Canadian e-commerce software provider Shopify, for example, are up 46 percent while almost the entire brick and mortar retail industry is in a death spiral. Equity in the financial software platform PayPal has increased by 20 percent with many predicting that the coronavirus will kill off cash. Another of guest on my show, Scott Galloway, the high profile New York University business school professor and author of The Algebra of Happiness, is even predicting the replacement of physical universities by a winner-take-all coterie of cyborg colleges.

From shops to banks to universities, the squeeze, then, is becoming a chokehold across the entire economy. Marc Andreessen’s 2011 prediction has, nine years later, become a reality. From shopping to cash to education to most other categories of our economy, software is, indeed, eating the world.

The implications of this seismic shift go beyond economics. Like Vice Media, the online news platform BuzzFeed also announced significant job cuts in May. One consequence of this disappearance of credible journalism is what one Buzzfeed journalist calls “the information apocalypse.” We’ve known for a while that the internet, as another of my guests, Nicholas Carr, so memorably put it, is making us stupid. But the pandemic year—with its online plague of incessant rumors and lies and nonsense about the coronavirus itself—may be killing off any vestige of intelligence still remaining.

Our year of the pandemic will also be remembered as the year of “The Plandemic”—that all-too-famous 26-minute online video, viewed many millions of times, which blames the coronavirus on a cabal of global financial elites. When software eats trust, you see, it also eats truth. So truth itself, never particularly healthy in the Internet age, may eventually be the costliest casualty of Covid-19, swallowed by the ubiquity of a social media-centric culture in which the informational gatekeepers have been disintermediated by anonymous liars and propagandists.

The political implications of the triumph of Big Tech are particularly disturbing. In a spirited Intercept essay, Naomi Klein, the author of Shock Doctrine, suggests that the main significance of Covid-19 is a dramatic rise in the political power of Silicon Valley. Her argument was triggered by the May 6 announcement by Andrew Cuomo about a partnership between New York state and Schmidt Futures, a civic innovation fund set up by the former Google CEO Eric Schmidt. This ominous new axis between Big Tech and state government, which Klein dubs a “Screen New Deal, she believes, points to a “no-touch future” in which “our every move, our every word, our every relationship is trackable, traceable and data-mineable.”

I fear, however, that the implications of Klein’s “Screen New Deal” might be more deeply structural than just a new Cuomo-Schmidt political axis. As George Packer, another guest on my show, argues, the pandemic revealed that, in the Trump era, Americans are living in a failed state—a bureaucratic vacuum outlined, in all its goriest detail, by Michael Lewis in his 2018 book Fifth Risk.But political vacuums exist to be filled and the pandemic is actually triggering the colonization of an increasingly dysfunctional state bureaucracy by the hegemonic West Coast technology platforms.

So, for example Amazon and Google are providing states like Rhode Island, Kansas and New York with computer systems sufficiently sophisticated to cope with the online tsunami of unemployment claims. Even in the much less tech-friendly EU, Apple and Google have “got their way” over Brussels in building digital tools to track and fight the virus. Meanwhile, multi-billionaire tech entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are increasingly using their wealth to do the work of the traditional state. The Gates Foundation, for example, is rivaling the Center for Disease Control in the fight against Covid-19. While Musk’s SpaceX is replacing NASA in the business of human spaceflight.

Radically disruptive new technologies like blockchain—which creates cryptographic lists of timestamped data—will compound this takeover of the traditional state. Imagine a smart blockchain, with its digitalized banks of verifiable data, as a networked replacement for the analog state bureaucracy. The author of the Blockchain Revolution, Don Tapscott, thus argued on my show that blockchain technology is “the new internet” and will radically transform the post-pandemic world. But this new internet will be like the old internet in the sense that the blockchain revolution will be owned and operated by a new wave of fast-growing tech platforms funded by venture firms like Marc Andreessen’s a16z.

Speaking of Andreessen, what, exactly, has Silicon Valley’s most prescient VC been up to in the year that software finally ate the world? He’s certainly having a productive 2020, writing an influential essay about the crisis entitled “It’s Time To Build” in which he presents his analysis of the pandemic:

“Many of us would like to pin the cause on one political party or another, on one government or another. But the harsh reality is that it all failed — no Western country, or state, or city was prepared — and despite hard work and often extraordinary sacrifice by many people within these institutions,” he argues. “So the problem runs deeper than your favorite political opponent or your home nation.”

The post-2020 challenge is building a new media to protect truth.

Marc Andreessen is right, of course, to blame the failed American state for the crisis. And he’s right to argue that it’s time to build fixes to this dysfunctional state. The problem, however, is that Andreessen’s vision of the future is of an “apolitical” technocracy. When software eats the world, when everything is reduced to the ones and zeroes of digital technology, the ideal future is reduced to the quantifiable and the calculable, to the spread-sheets of efficiency and the data downloads of wealth analysis. The future becomes a one-party state. The future is Singapore.

“When the producers of HBO’s Westworld wanted to portray the American city of the future, they didn’t film in Seattle or Los Angeles or Austin — they went to Singapore,” Andreessen thus presents his vision of the ideal post-pandemic world. “We should have gleaming skyscrapers and spectacular living environments in all our best cities at levels way beyond what we have now; where are they?”

Software may not have an ideology, but it has a prophetic ideologist. Marc Andreessen’s rejection of politics and his affection for a Singaporean-style one-party technocracy is both understandable and troubling. The dream of technocrats—from the inventor of utilitarianism Jeremy Bentham to Singapore’s first prime minister, Lee Quan Yew, to contemporary aristocrats like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Andreessen himself—is to replace the all-too-human messiness of politics with gleaming skyscrapers and spectacular living environments. Democracy becomes an afterthought. Perhaps even an inconvenience.

Andreessen is right to argue that, in the hinge year of 2020, the year software finally ate the world, it’s time to build. But rather than shiny skyscrapers the challenge is making a post-2020 pie that can be shared by everyone. The post-2020 challenge is building a new media to protect truth. The post-2020 challenge is (re)building an American state that isn’t owned and operated by a handful of blockchain billionaires. Above all, the post-2020 challenge is building a digital democracy rather than a corporate technocracy.

Andrew Keen
Andrew Keen
Named as one of the "100 Most Connected Men" by GQ magazine, Andrew Keen is amongst the world's best known and controversial commentators on the digital revolution. He has written five books including the best-selling Cult of the Amateur, The Internet Is Not The Answer and How To Fix The Future. He directed and wrote the 2020 movie How To Fix Democracy and is the host of the popular podcast show Keen On Capitalism. Current interests include the future of work, the future of the earth and the future of humanity. He is executive director of the Silicon Valley innovation salon FutureCast, the host of the popular Internet chat show Keen On<,em>, a Senior Fellow at CALinnovates, a columnist for CNN and a much acclaimed public speaker around the world.





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