July 3, 2022

Does Tech Need a New Narrative?

In 2009, Marc Andreessen—a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and angel investor best known for cofounding Netscape, in 1994, at the age of twenty-two—announced that he would be starting a venture-capital firm. “I’m crossing over into the dark side,” he said, jokingly, to the PBS talk-show host Charlie Rose. Andreessen explained that he would be starting the firm with a longtime colleague, Ben Horowitz, and that Andreessen Horowitz would be “by entrepreneurs, for entrepreneurs.” Over the next decade, the firm would help fund Facebook, Skype, Lyft, Pinterest, Airbnb, Slack, Stripe, and Coinbase. Its assets would be worth more than sixteen billion dollars, and it would be regarded as one of the premier V.C. firms in Silicon Valley.

The firm, modelled after Michael Ovitz’s Creative Artists Agency, had a new approach to venture capital. Partners at Andreessen Horowitz, all of whom were considered area specialists, supported entrepreneurs as if they were Hollywood talent, pitching in with research and recruiting. The company also had a new angle on the media. Andreessen had been booked on “Charlie Rose” thanks to Margit Wennmachers, the co-founder of an influential Silicon Valley P.R. shop called OutCast; Wennmachers soon joined Andreessen Horowitz as a partner. At the time, most startups saw marketing and publicity as an afterthought. Similarly, at most media outlets, tech coverage tended toward dry business reporting, product-release announcements, and reviews of new gadgets. But Wennmachers made P.R. a priority for Andreessen Horowitz and the companies it funded. At her brightly decorated home, she hosted exclusive, off-the-record parties during which tech journalists could mingle with startup executives and founders over food and cocktails. Where venture capitalists had traditionally avoided publicity, Wennmachers encouraged Andreessen and Horowitz to invite media attention.

As consumer technologies evolved, so did tech coverage. In the aughts, a slate of tech-focussed blogs sprang up, and the readership for tech coverage expanded. In a study called “Toward a Constructive Technology Criticism,” published in 2016 by the Columbia Journalism Review, the writer and critic Sara M. Watson identified the release of the iPhone, in 2007, as a turning point in the way journalists talked about tech. As smartphones reached market saturation in the United States, tech coverage became increasingly entangled with culture, economics, politics, labor, and media. Ordinary people “were now a little closer to technology” in their daily lives, Watson wrote, and “leading technology commentators celebrated tech’s “potential for advancing democracy and empowering people.” As technology became more accessible, diffuse, and pervasive, technological optimism itself—TED Talks, thought leadership—became a product.

In 2011, Andreessen published an essay in the Wall Street Journal titled “Why Software Is Eating the World.” “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,” he wrote. “In some industries, particularly those with a heavy real-world component such as oil and gas, the software revolution is primarily an opportunity for incumbents. But in many industries, new software ideas will result in the rise of new Silicon Valley-style start-ups that invade existing industries with impunity.” Andreessen predicted that the decade to come would see “epic” battles between “incumbents and software-powered insurgents.” The op-ed, which was both a prognostication and an investment thesis, was widely read and bolstered Andreessen’s reputation as one of Silicon Valley’s intellectuals—not merely a middleman but a man of ideas. Among other things, this reputation was useful for “deal flow”: it made Andreessen more attractive to both startup founders and investors.

In May, 2012, Forbes dubbed Andreessen and Horowitz “Venture Capital’s New Bad Boys.” That same month, Andreessen graced the cover of Wired, under the headline “The Man Who Makes the Future.” Meanwhile, other V.C. firms were hiring their own communications and marketing teams. Later that year, an article in the Times—Venture Capital Firms, Once Discreet, Learn the Promotional Game”—considered the trend in the context of a consolidating, hypercompetitive venture industry. There were fewer active venture firms than during the dot-com bubble, and over-all returns were low. Institutional investors wanted to work with only the top firms, and venture capitalists had to sell themselves to entrepreneurs, rather than the other way around. Still, the article’s author, Nicole Perlroth, wrote, “the biggest catalyst for the attention-seeking atmosphere, venture capitalists say, has been the rise of Andreessen Horowitz.”

If the tech industry was selling itself, journalists on the tech beat were among its enthusiastic buyers. Tech coverage tended to be written from the perspective of the consumer; this worked for gadget reviews but was inadequate for contextualizing the ambitions of companies like Lyft and Airbnb. In a 2020 paper, “Words Matter: How Tech Media Helped Write Gig Companies Into Existence,” the San Francisco-based reporter Sam Harnett noted that tech coverage in the twenty-tens was characterized partly by the unquestioning adoption of industry rhetoric to describe companies offering on-demand services and transportation. Acquiescing to the terms set by the industry, Harnett argued—“disruption,” “sharing economy,” “platform,” “innovation,” even “startup”—also helped “pave the way for a handful of companies that represent a tiny fraction of the economy to have an outsized impact on law, mainstream corporate practices, and the way we think about work.” By aligning with consumers, rather than software engineers or gig workers, the coverage also elided the question of whether companies like TaskRabbit and Uber were ultimately in the business of technology as such.

In the media and the imagination, certain narratives became pervasive. Silicon Valley was the epicenter of innovation, home to stewards of the future. Tech entrepreneurs were iconoclastic young underdogs motivated by personal hardships, social consciousness, and sheer ingenuity. Startups were not just businesses but mission-driven organizations that could upend the status quo, connect and liberate humanity, and change the world for the better. An earlier Silicon Valley mythology of post-counterculture nerds in electronics-cluttered garages grew sleeker, slimmer, and better capitalized. The scrappy, Steve Jobs-like obsessive with a taste for high design was repackaged for post-recession millennials. Claims of “democratization” abounded. Mark Zuckerberg became an archetype. Workplace perks and relaxed corporate mores were treated as metonyms for ethics and ideals. Despite a growing body of criticism from academics and writers at Valleywag, the Baffler, Dissent, the Awl, and elsewhere, stories of benevolent disruption were reproduced and reified. Software was eating the world, and the world was going to love it.

Silicon Valley is a future-oriented place. In their early phases, startups often look implausible (home rentals), minor (online payments), frivolous (social media), or risky (ride-hailing). A well-crafted narrative about innovative underdogs and counterintuitive but inevitable success was legitimizing. The role played by venture capital itself rarely figured: widespread adoption was seen as a reflection of merit, rather than a function of a funding model that used cash reserves to create new monopolies. By the mid-twenty-tens, Andreessen Horowitz’s marketing strategy had evolved into something like mythology. As late as 2014, Wired was still referring to Andreessen, then forty-two years old, as a “wunderkind.”

The Edward Snowden revelations, in 2013, increased awareness of the social and political implications of consumer technologies. But John Carreyrou’s reporting on the blood-diagnostics company Theranos, published in the Wall Street Journal beginning in 2015, was an even more direct hit to Silicon Valley mythologizing. Elizabeth Holmes, the company’s founder, dressed like and had been hailed as “the next Steve Jobs”; a young Stanford dropout, she had appeared on the cover of T Magazine for a story written by Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, Marc Andreessen’s wife. Theranos was the beneficiary of hundreds of millions of dollars in venture funding and an abundance of glowing tech coverage. In a profile published in The New Yorker in 2014, Holmes offered an explanation of Theranos’s technology: “A chemistry is performed so that a chemical reaction occurs and generates a signal from the chemical interaction with the sample, which is translated into a result, which is then reviewed by certified laboratory personnel,” she said. Carreyrou found that, in fact, the proprietary blood-testing machines that Theranos claimed to have built were a farce; the company was using traditional medical devices and was a fraud.

Then came the 2016 Presidential election, in which an outlier candidate, mirroring the rhetorical habits of ironic and inflammatory message-board culture, leveraged social media and targeted advertising to spread misinformation and galvanize his base. The news media began to exhibit a diminished appetite for triumphalist storytelling about tech. New terms, such as “surveillance capitalism,” filtered into the conversation, along with useful concepts (online radicalization) and suggestive shorthand (“the algorithm”). There were still column inches for tales of young upstarts, but they were reduced to make room for reporting on fraud, exploitation, privacy violations, security breaches, polarization, inequity, and discrimination. Many of the new stories relied on employee and worker accounts. In her article for CJR, Watson had identified some tics of tech writing: moral panic, technological determinism, the pathologizing of consumer behavior, and the appeal to readerly anxiety. The new wave of tech criticism exhibited these tendencies, too. To some, the media’s intensified scrutiny was well deserved and overdue; to others, even investigative reporting looked like personally motivated backlash.

Toward the end of the twenty-tens, it became unclear whether the world had been eaten by software or simply paved over. Many of Silicon Valley’s most highly valued companies were platforms that aggregated transactions. Often, this meant that they’d built private, high-margin layers atop real-world processes while externalizing the risks. In 2018, a flattering profile of Wennmachers, published in Wired, suggested that she faced a “new and critical challenge: crafting a revamped image of the techie of the future, one that embraces the great responsibility that arrives with newfound great power.” The myth had been distorted; the idealistic, aspirational narratives had not borne out. The industry needed a new story.

What might a new narrative for the tech industry look like? In April of last year, as COVID-19 cases spiked across the country, Andreessen published a blog post to his firm’s Web site, titled “IT’S TIME TO BUILD.” “Every Western institution was unprepared for the coronavirus pandemic, despite many prior warnings,” Andreessen wrote. He went on to argue that certain shameful facts about the response to the coronavirus—shortages of swabs, reagents, gowns, and surgical masks; the absence of a vaccine or treatment; insufficient and inaccessible bailout funds—were not just failures of action and imagination but evidence of regulatory capture, “inertia,” and a “widespread inability to build.” The consequences of this inability could be seen elsewhere—in housing development, education, manufacturing, and transportation. “You don’t just see this smug complacency, this satisfaction with the status quo and the unwillingness to build, in the pandemic, or in healthcare generally,” he wrote. “You see it throughout Western life, and specifically throughout American life.” For many readers, the essay was a sequel to “Why Software Is Eating the World”: both a diagnosis and a mission statement.

Among Andreessen’s own suggestions for what to build were scalable universities, digital tutoring platforms, and automated domestic factories. “Why aren’t we building Elon Musk’s ‘alien dreadnoughts’—giant, gleaming, state of the art factories producing every conceivable kind of product, at the highest possible quality and lowest possible cost—all throughout our country?” he asked. (On a 2016 earnings call, Musk had told analysts that “alien dreadnought” was his vision for the next Gigafactory, a high-speed, automated facility for manufacturing the Model 3.) “Where are the supersonic aircraft? Where are the millions of delivery drones? Where are the high speed trains, the soaring monorails, the hyperloops, and yes, the flying cars?”

A strain of wishful, ahistorical thinking pervaded the essay, which ran beneath a stock image of a futuristic, fictional city with gleaming skyscrapers, a blue, unpolluted sky, and no people. Andreessen ignored the role the tech industry had played in accelerating the erosion of some American institutions; his insistence that building should be separated from politics was strange, given that America’s failures in the face of the coronavirus did not occur in the absence of political will. But “IT’S TIME TO BUILD” also articulated certain undeniable realities. The housing crisis in the Bay Area is as Andreessen described—a nightmare, created by archaic zoning ordinances, NIMBYism, an irresponsible tax system, and political gridlock, which has forced many longtime renters out, and makes it “nearly impossible for regular people to move in and take the jobs of the future,” or any job. Andreessen was correct, too, to criticize the federal government for distributing relief funds through paper checks, rather than a digital system. At the heart of Andreessen’s essay was an uncontroversial truth: from housing and education to mass transportation, people deserved better. (“Is the problem money?” Andreessen asked. “That seems hard to believe when we have the money to wage endless wars in the Middle East and repeatedly bail out incumbent banks, airlines, and carmakers.”)

“IT’S TIME TO BUILD” went viral in tech circles, spawning a small and robust corpus of open letters, Substack dispatches, Hacker News comments, Reddit threads, and tweets. Some readers heralded it as an “instant classic,” “era-defining,” and “a potent call to arms.” Others expressed skepticism and disgust, or published granular rebuttals. Responses spanned the ideological spectrum. Colin McAuliffe and Jason Ganz, at the progressive think tank Data for Progress, suggested building by enabling more public research and development. Scott Berkun, a writer and early Microsoft employee, wrote a blog post proposing free Internet for all, universal basic health care, and a stronger social safety net. In Exponents, an online magazine dedicated to neoliberal thought, Steven Buss, a software engineer and YIMBY (“Yes in My Backyard”) activist, argued for an end to occupational licensing and commercial land-use restrictions, subsidies for vocational-training programs, and a revamp of the F.D.A., so that it is “permissive by default.” On a panel about the essay, hosted by the Lincoln Network, a libertarian nonprofit that aims to connect Silicon Valley technologists and D.C. policymakers, Mark Lutter, the director of the Charter Cities Institute, said that building would be more likely to happen if “policy entrepreneurs” were held in the same high regard as startup founders. “If we think about the success of what might be called the builder movement, that looks like two or three people from Silicon Valley getting Cabinet or Cabinet-level positions,” Lutter said. “Why isn’t Marc Andreessen Secretary of Commerce or something?”

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