“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. 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?”Marc Andreessen
The 9/11 attacks happened almost twenty years ago. Looking back at how our world changed after the attacks, would we say that the changes were overall a good thing? Probably not. Twenty years from now, when we look back at how the world changed after Covid-19, will we say that the changes were good? I think it’s possible that the answer will be yes. But it depends on the actions we all chose to take, starting now.
What actions should we take? The way I hear Marc Andreessen’s provocation is that the first action is an attitudinal shift. A decision that what matters is that we build. And with that comes the motivation to drop whatever prevents us from building, and to lean in to whatever promotes building.
The time is right. There’s long been a sense that we’re stagnant. Stuck. Outside of computation and communication, our technological and scientific progress has been stalled for 40 years or more. In computation and communication we’ve seen massive progress, but it hasn’t translated into the social and cultural growth we’d expected. Now we’ve got Trump. Factionalization. White supremacists are back? Really? There are few out there who feel that we’ve been going in the right direction.
So what do we need? Here’s how Andreessen puts it.
The problem is desire. We need to want these things. The problem is inertia. We need to want these things more than we want to prevent these things. The problem is regulatory capture. We need to want new companies to build these things, even if incumbents don’t like it, even if only to force the incumbents to build these things. And the problem is will. We need to build these things.
“We” here, is all of us. The collective. We need to want to build more than we want all of the other things.
But that means change, and change is hard. Coordination is hard. Interests pull in different directions.
What’s needed is a catalyst. Maybe we’ll get attacked by aliens. Hopefully they’ll be aliens who are not so weak that they can’t get here, but not so powerful that we can’t defeat them militarily. If that happens we’ll know what to do: get Will Smith into a fighter jet and give Bill Pullman the battlefield mic.
But that feels like the image of an ideal from an age that has passed. We’ve been a thousand times down the road of solving problems by conquering them. I don’t want to go down that road again right now. I don’t want a new Red Menace. I don’t want an enemy to tell us who we are.
And anyway, we don’t have an alien attack. And Bill Pullman is just an actor.
But we do have Coronavirus. This might be just the catalyst we do need. For the first time in my life, the whole world has stopped and focused on the same thing, and it’s not a sentient enemy. It’s not an evil spirit. It’s not a monarch. It’s not communists. It’s not terrorists. It’s not racists. It’s a virus. It’s not even alive. All the well-worn stories of good versus evil — of standing with noble and patriotic courage to give one’s life in the fight for the future of one’s tribe — don’t apply.
The problems are systemic. It’s relatively easy to see this. They’re about us. How we operate together. How we see ourselves. How we see other people. How we make sense, and make decisions.
This global meditation is an opportunity for insight. An opportunity to shift to a novel location in ideological space. I don’t know what the new ideology will look like but I believe that it will not center around classical Good vs Evil. It calls for the recognition of systems on many levels — the cell, the individual, the community, the species, and the planet, to name a few. The feeling we’ll have from this new ideology will be, rather than zero-sum scarcity, a feeling that there’s so much headroom. That we’re just getting started. I believe we’ll find a new tool in our problem-solving toolkit. Rather than solving all problems by conquering, we will recognize a large class of problems that are solved through the cultivation of balance and harmonious interference.
If Coronavirus is the catalyst, it’s not the whole story. To use a metaphor from metallurgy: in the annealing process, a metal is heated to the point that the crystalline structure of its molecules admits of movement. If the metal is cooled at the right rate, the molecules can reorganize into a new crystalline structure with fewer imperfections, resulting in a stronger metal. In our case, we might imagine that Covid has heated our civilization up. If we’re able to cool at the right speed, we might reorganize in a way that’s stronger and more harmonious. To do this, I believe we need common ideals to orient towards. Andreessen’s is as good as any I’ve seen.
Our nation and our civilization were built on production, on building. Our forefathers and foremothers built roads and trains, farms and factories, then the computer, the microchip, the smartphone, and uncounted thousands of other things that we now take for granted, that are all around us, that define our lives and provide for our well-being. There is only one way to honor their legacy and to create the future we want for our own children and grandchildren, and that’s to build.
Building is how we reboot the American dream. The things we build in huge quantities, like computers and TVs, drop rapidly in price. The things we don’t, like housing, schools, and hospitals, skyrocket in price.
Andreessen’s post has attracted criticism, of course.
Some of that comes from people who have made a lifestyle out of hating Andreessen or tech. That attitude is not what we need so let’s treat it as we would a schoolyard bully and not reward bad behavior with our attention. Haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, until we stop incentivizing them to do so.
Some critics have engaged constructively. Vox’s Ezra Klein is one. Klein asked what’s stopping us from building, and, as someone who in my experience has been an advocate for the Don’t Do Anything If It Will Hurt Someone’s Feelings ethic, Klein surprised me by placing the blame on veto culture:
The question, then, is why don’t we build? What’s stopping us?
Here’s my answer: The institutions through which Americans build have become biased against action rather than toward it. They’ve become, in political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s term, “vetocracies,” in which too many actors have veto rights over what gets built. That’s true in the federal government. It’s true in state and local governments. It’s even true in the private sector.
That seems right to me, at least as part of an answer. But how are we going to change veto culture? Klein seems to think Andreessen missed the mark, but it’s not clear that Klein has much of an answer.
I’m not against soliciting more ideas of what to build. But what we need is sustained funding, focus, and organizing to make building in America possible again. And that requires patiently engaging with the kinds of institutions that frustrate builders.
Funding, focus, organizing… isn’t that what we’ve been doing? And it’s gonna work this time?
Klein offers specifics:
So let me end with my answer to Andreessen’s question: What should we build? We should build institutions biased toward action and ambition, rather than inaction and incrementalism.
At the federal level, I’d get rid of the filibuster, simplify the committee system, democratize elections, and make sure majorities could implement their agendas once elected. As I’ve argued for years, we should prefer the problems of a system where elected majorities can fulfill the promises that got them elected to one where elected majorities cannot deliver on the promises that the American people voted for. The latter system, which is the one Americans live in now, drives frustration and dysfunction.
I think Klein is right in the sense that, sure, we need these things. But I think he misses Andreessen’s central point, which is that the prerequisite to this kind of institutional change is attitudinal change. We have to collectively rally around something in order to achieve the degree of coordination that would allow us to make these changes.
Like it or not, we live in interesting times. There’s a sense that something huge is possible. Some creative destruction of the factors that have limited us, allowing for the growth of new ideologies and new institutions.
Coordination is hard, but in Covid we have a catalyst. We can choose to be active participants in building a better world. It starts with an attitude. I think the attitude is well-captured by Andreessen’s call to build.
There’s so much headroom under coordination. If we’re able to do this, we might look back from the gleaming cities of the 2040s and thank the universe for Covid-19.