The increasingly bitter war over AI has spawned a radical worldview—backed by one of the most powerful VCs in the Valley. Wtf is ‘Effective Accelerationism’? And why should you give a damn about the pet theories of fabulously wealthy men?
About the lead image: We thought it fitting to use a scene from ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’—which is all about a psychopathic AI:)
Ok, tell me wtf is e/acc…
We are officially at the dawn of a new technological era. For the first time, building Artificial General Intelligence—a kind of superintelligence as powerful as the human brain—is a real possibility. The heated debate over the risks and opportunities of this technology has spawned a new worldview called Effective Accelerationism—shortened to e/acc (pronounced ee ak). But to understand this worldview, you need to first know what it is responding to.
Effective Altruism: began as a philosophy of philanthropy—specifically, using data to decide how much to give and to what cause (explained in this BIg Story). Unsurprisingly, a philosophy based on mathematical rationality became extremely attractive to extremely wealthy financial and tech types. The movement has received donations from the likes of Vitalik Buterin, founder of the Ethereum blockchain, the Peter Thiel foundation, Elon Musk etc. As Vox notes:
It’s safe to say that effective altruism is no longer the small, eclectic club of philosophers, charity researchers, and do-gooders it was just a decade ago. It’s an idea, and group of people, with roughly $26.6 billion in resources behind them, real and growing political power, and an increasing ability to noticeably change the world.
But, but, but: EA is rapidly going out of fashion—thanks to the colossal failure of its most visible proponents. Example: the disgraced crypto billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried. Also because it appears to be on the wrong side of the AI gold rush.
The doomers: Proponents of EA are today described as doomers—because they are prophets of a technological apocalypse—brought on by machines:
The loudest perspective is a frightening, dystopian vision in which AI poses an existential risk to humankind, capable of wiping out all life on Earth. AI, in this vision, emerges as a godlike, superintelligent, ungovernable entity capable of controlling everything. AI could destroy humanity or pose a risk on par with nukes. If we’re not careful, it could kill everyone or enslave humanity.
The panic over AI is a natural offshoot of EA’s emphasis on longtermism—the idea that our #1 moral priority is to ensure our actions today create a better tomorrow:
It's about taking seriously the sheer scale of the future, and how high the stakes might be in shaping it. It means thinking about the challenges we might face in our lifetimes that could impact civilisation's whole trajectory, and taking action to benefit not just the present generation, but all generations to come.
EA advocates are concerned with not just evil AI—but also climate change, nuclear waste etc. Anything that affects future generations.
Point to note: There is a far more modest lot of AI sceptics. But they want regulation to prevent bad things from happening today—and worry far less about the murderous AI of tomorrow. In general, their aim is to avoid replicating the disastrous consequences of allowing social media to grow without guardrails—miring humanity in a sea of dangerous misinformation. But they don’t get as much attention—perhaps because their concerns are far less dramatic (sexy?)—or because their advocates tend to be people of colour, queer etc.
Effective Accelerationism: It started as a cheeky response to Effective Altruism—but soon took a seriously wacky turn. Three anonymous X handles published a document that essentially embraced the end of humanity. It argued that the key driver of progress—technology plus market forces (technocapital)—is unstoppable. And the demise of humanity as we know it is inevitable:
Technocapital can usher in the next evolution of consciousness, creating unthinkable next-generation lifeforms and silicon-based awareness. New forms of consciousness by definition will make sentience more varied and durable. We want this.
Point to note: This purest version of e/acc is in violent agreement with doomers—as in they both think machines can replace us.
Sounds nuts… surely no one takes this seriously!
Well, no one did until one of the most powerful venture capitalists in the Valley—Marc Andreessen—declared himself a believer. And published his own bible titled the ‘Techno-Optimist Manifesto’ in October. But Andreesen didn’t waste his time contemplating the “next evolution of consciousness.” He had an entirely different agenda—to fend off attempts to regulate AI—and also air his pet peeves for good measure.
Andreesen's manifesto got a whole lot of attention and A-list supporters—such as Garry Tan, the founder of the Valley’s primo startup accelerator—YCombinator. He also helped pull e/acc out of the margins—giving it a certain mainstream respectability. And he was taken far more seriously by his critics—because his philosophy has real-world implications (unlike hypothetical murderbots). Here’s what the manifesto essentially says:
One: Technology is good and the foundation of all civilisation. Bad people make us fear technology:
We are told that technology takes our jobs, reduces our wages, increases inequality, threatens our health, ruins the environment, degrades our society, corrupts our children, impairs our humanity, threatens our future, and is ever on the verge of ruining everything.
This is a lie because there is “no material problem—whether created by nature or by technology—that cannot be solved with more technology.” Where Google once started out with the mantra ‘do no evil’—Andreesen insists the opposite: technology can do no evil. Or any bad stuff it spawns is far outweighed by the good it creates.
Two: Andreesen replaces the ‘invisible hand’ of the market with the updated techno-capital machine—which is an “engine of perpetual material creation, growth, and abundance”—if we would just get out of its way:
The techno-capital machine makes natural selection work for us in the realm of ideas. The best and most productive ideas win, and are combined and generate even better ideas. Those ideas materialise in the real world as technologically enabled goods and services that never would have emerged de novo.
Three: He lists the enemies of progress and technology—slapping together all kinds of sins:
We have enemies. Our enemies are not bad people – but rather bad ideas. Our present society has been subjected to a mass demoralisation campaign for six decades – against technology and against life – under varying names like “existential risk”, “sustainability”, “ESG”, “Sustainable Development Goals”, “social responsibility”, “stakeholder capitalism”, “Precautionary Principle”, “trust and safety”, “tech ethics”, “risk management”, “de-growth”, “the limits of growth.”
This is where techno-optimism slides into old-fashioned crankiness about ‘darned liberals’.
Four: Andreesen puts forward an astonishingly old-fashioned view of human beings’ relationship with their world:
We are not victims, we are conquerors. We believe in nature, but we also believe in overcoming nature. We are not primitives, cowering in fear of the lightning bolt. We are the apex predator; the lightning works for us.
Technology is how we force nature to bow to us. In other words: I am human, hear me roar.
Five: Pursuing technological innovation—heedless of consequences—is morally good. In fact, it’s downright generous:
The economist William Nordhaus has shown that creators of technology are only able to capture about 2% of the economic value created by that technology. The other 98% flows through to society in the form of what economists call social surplus. Technological innovation in a market system is inherently philanthropic, by a 50:1 ratio. Who gets more value from a new technology, the single company that makes it, or the millions or billions of people who use it to improve their lives? QED.
His critics point to the inconvenient fact that most of the greatest tech innovations were built on government funding.
Six: Last not least: his old fashioned insistence on using ‘Man’ to refer to all humans—which isn’t accidental. In Andreesen’s world, once upon a time, we were all “men”—who did manly things without fear… until the wussy scaremongers came along. As Ezra Klein notes in the New York Times:
He yearns for a kind of person, not just a kind of technology. “We believe in ambition, aggression, persistence, relentlessness — strength,” he writes, italics included. “We believe in merit and achievement. We believe in bravery, in courage.”
This theme shows up in his other writings—including an ode to MMA—and the virtues of ancient Greek machismo. FYI: Andreesen wants girls to be MMA queens, as well.
Ok, my brain hurts. Why are we paying so much attention to this?
Because there are parts of Andreesen’s worldview that are entirely mainstream—such as the hostility to regulation, importance of technological innovation or value of unrestricted growth. However, these are bundled along with other, more extremist—or as Klein describes it—“reactionary” views:
In their story, the old way that is being lost is the appetite for risk and inequality and dominance that drives technology forward and betters human life. What the muscled ancients knew and what today’s flabby whingers have forgotten is that man must cultivate the strength and will to master nature, and other men, for the technological frontier to give way.
This back-to-the-future framing may be a better way to understand culture wars in the US. But the passage below could read just as true for a right-leaning worldview anywhere in the world:
We are used to thinking of our ideological divide as cleaving conservatives from liberals. I think the Republican Party’s collapse into incoherence reflects the fact that much of the modern right is reactionary, not conservative… It’s a coalition obsessed with where we went wrong: the weakness, the political correctness, the liberalism, the trigger warnings, the smug elites. It’s a coalition that believes we were once hard and have become soft; worse, we have come to lionise softness and punish hardness.
Andreesen’s worldview offers insight into right-leaning rhetoric everywhere—including the most rarefied circles of Silicon Valley.
So Silicon VCs are extreme rightwingers?
No, no, no. Rather, this kind of tech worship dangerously veers close to the borders of authoritarianism—and always has. Adrienne LaFrance in The Atlantic links e/acc to an authoritarian ideology of ‘technocracy’—the idea that a technological elite should be left free to shape our world. It probably doesn’t help that Andreesen admiringly quotes not one but two thinkers linked to fascism—Friedrich Nietzsche and FT Marinetti:
To be clear, the Andreessen manifesto is not a fascist document, but it is an extremist one. He takes a reasonable position—that technology, on the whole, has dramatically improved human life—and warps it to reach the absurd conclusion that any attempt to restrain technological development under any circumstances is despicable. This position, if viewed uncynically, makes sense only as a religious conviction, and in practice it serves only to absolve him and the other Silicon Valley giants of any moral or civic duty to do anything but make new things that will enrich them, without consideration of the social costs, or of history.
So maybe it’s just about greed. Other critics view e/acc more as an ideology of convenience—perfectly suited to the Valley’s desire for unregulated profit and power:
e/acc taps deeply into the Californian Ideology—a version of “greed is good,” especially techno-utopian greed—that came out of the pages of the Whole Earth Catalog, suffused early issues of Wired, and now lives on in the Silicon Valley founders and venture capitalists who grew up reading them. Like the Californian Ideology of the 1970s and ’80s, e/acc justifies and romanticises getting rich in tech.
Or perhaps it’s just clever marketing—for VCs who can’t wait to cash in on AI—and “have a financial and professional interest in moving AI development forward as quickly as possible.”
A less ominous view: of e/acc is to see it as a defensive response to all the bad press: “To be an e/acc is to declare oneself aggressively and unapologetically pro-tech. After years of public backlash against big tech companies—about misinformation, antitrust and data privacy—e/acc has become a rallying cry for a backlash to the backlash.”
The bottomline: A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. That holds especially true for tech titans who read a bit of economic or political theory in their spare time.
The best defence of the e/acc worldview is Andreesen’s manifesto—and this long interview laying out more details. Wired offers a detailed critique of his assumptions—but also points to what is valuable. For an overview of e/acc, we recommend reading the New York Times and Bloomberg News. Andreesen’s manifesto is similar to something called the Westminster Declaration—described by Daniel Drezner. This substack analysis by John Ganz argues that all this is just VC panic. For a more nuanced version of e/acc, read Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin’s long blog post. Mother Jones takes aim at the ‘greed is good’ philosophy—while The Atlantic links e/acc to technocracy. We did a good Big Story on the worry over AI.