Home > economics, internet startup > Marc Andreessen and Al3x Payne

Marc Andreessen and Al3x Payne

June 18, 2014

My friend Chris Wiggins just sent me this recent letter by Alex “Al3x” Payne in response to this recent post by Marc Andreessen. Andreessen’s original post is entitled This is Probably a Good Time to Say That I Don’t Believe Robots Will Eat All the Jobs and the rebuttal is entitled simply Dear Marc Andreessen.

To get a flavor of the exchange, we’ll start with this from Andreessen:

What never gets discussed in all of this robot fear-mongering is that the current technology revolution has put the  means of production within everyone’s grasp. It comes in the form of the smartphone (and tablet and PC) with a  mobile broadband connection to the Internet. Practically everyone on the planet will be equipped with that minimum spec by 2020.

versus this from Payne:

If we’re gonna throw around Marxist terminology, though, can we at least keep Karl’s ideas intact? Workers prosper when they own the means of production. The factory owner gets rich. The line worker, not so much.

Owning a smartphone is not the equivalent of owning a factory. I paid for my iPhone in full, but Apple owns the software that runs on it, the patents on the hardware inside it, and the exclusive right to the marketplace of applications for it.

You spent a lot of paragraphs on back-of-the-napkin economics describing the coming Awesome Robot Future, addressing the hypotheticals. What you left out was the essential question: who owns the robots?

Please read both the original post and the rebuttal in their entireties. At it’s heart, their conversation strikes me as a somewhat more contentious version of the argument I’ve had with myself about the utopia envisioned in Star Trek.

Namely, at some point we’ll have all these robots doing stuff for us, but how are we going to spread that wealth around? Who owns the robots and when are they going to learn to share? In this vision of the distant future, that critical “singularity of moral enlightenment” (SME) is never explained. I wish I could ask Captain Picard how it all went down.


It’s one thing to lack an explanation for the SME, and to consider it an aspirational quasi-religious utopian goal, but it’s another thing entirely to fail to acknowledge it.

That someone as powerful and famous as Mark Andreessen, who is personally involved in the development and nurturing of so many technology platforms, has trouble seeing the logical inconsistency of his own rhetoric can only be explained by the fact that, as the controller of such platforms, it is he who reaps their benefits. It’s yet another case of someone thinking “this system works for me therefore it is super awesome for everyone and everything, amen.”

I’m hoping Al3x’s fine response will get Marc to consider how SME is gonna happen, and when.

  1. Larry Headlund
    June 18, 2014 at 8:43 am

    Where is the SME? Note that the crew of the enterprise are in the military. everything you see is owned by the government. That government, the Federation, may be the agent of the people (however defined) or the tool of some other group but day to day life for the Enterprise won’t change much.
    Compare, for example, life for the crew of the submarine in Run Silent, Run Deep and life for the crew of Das Boot.


  2. pjm
    June 18, 2014 at 9:00 am

    Oh Cathy, you got to read this, on intellectual property and the anti-Star Trek


  3. Christina Sormani
    June 18, 2014 at 9:15 am

    When someone powerful and intelligent uses rhetoric filled with logical inconcistancies to defend a system where he benefits, I would not conclude that this person is confused or that he truely thinks “this system works for me therefore it is super awesome for everyone and everything, amen.” Rather that he thinks “this system is super awesome for me, everyone else is stupid anyway so let me confuse them with my deliberately inconsistant logic”. Disclaimer: I write this without actually reading the linked articles, just your post, and without actually judging whether the argument of a certain somebody has inconsistant logic. I’m just making a general statement about intelligent people using illogical rhetoric.


  4. cat
    June 18, 2014 at 9:51 am

    Think of it this way. The SME is the event that decides which parallel universe we live in. the one described by Star Trek or the one described by the Matrix. Both Universes were at the tipping point, enough productivity through robots it was about to create a huge inequality between the haves and have nots.
    In the Matrix universe humans did the wrong thing and were like “Free Markets 4 EVAH!” and there was unrest and violence against humans and robots and the robots were like I’m not dieing for The Man whose stealing my economic output anyways “Vive la robot revolution!” and the rest was a 3 part movie trilogy.
    SME is just one hurdle that has to be overcome in the Star Trek universe. How do we deal with the hedonism that will be rampant in society when all of your needs are met. I’m not trying to excuse “Affluenza” but people need things to do and they’ll do ANYTHING rather then be bored.


  5. Guest2
    June 18, 2014 at 10:02 am

    So, what is there to stop the Industrial Revolution from continuing? Nothing, according to this Oxford study.

    Click to access The_Future_of_Employment.pdf


  6. Brad Davis
    June 18, 2014 at 10:23 am

    Most of the people I’ve spoken with about the singularity express concerns that humans will be replaced by machines, and what bothers them is the lack of humanity. Maybe they’re also bothered by the process by which that transition will occur (Terminator 2: Judgement day), but we haven’t discussed that much.

    I’ve always wondered if what really happens in Judgement Day (and what goes unseen in the Terminator movies) is that there’s a big chunk of the world where everything is okay, at least for the people who created the robots. Initially the robot owners didn’t mind us non-robot owners not doing anything and living in this new ‘utopian’ like society where most of the stuff was done for us. But then they, as will happen, the owners started becoming angry at us ‘moochers’ for our ‘insolence’. The tensions between the owners and non-owners began to boil over, until the owners decided to build themselves an army of robots to keep them safe (after all, they’re grossly outnumbered). And the non-owners understandably feeling threatened, decided to arm themselves. And then we’ve got an arms are and war between the non-owner humans and the robots begins.

    At least that’s one way I can imagine it happening.

    Who knows, maybe that’s how both the Star Trek universe and the Terminator universe start. Just in the Star Trek Universe, the robot owners who had everyone else killed start to feel bad about what they did, they reprogram the robots and start over. And in the terminator robots, the robots decide that they don’t like their masters either.


    • Demeter
      June 22, 2014 at 3:37 pm

      Hate to point this out, but we are already there.


  7. June 18, 2014 at 10:38 am

    Owning the Means Of Production (MOP) is old spats — it requires you to get your hands dirty hiring labor and wasting capital on producing real goods. The ruling e-lite today has cornered the market on the Means Of Distribution (MOD), especially the Distribution Of Money (DOM) in the financial sector — hedge funds and higher order derivatives are the touchless anti-gravity engines that keep their Stratos City afloat.


  8. June 18, 2014 at 11:15 am

    Now when it comes to singularities, I’m afrayed we’re already in that parimutuel universe where the Ferengi Singularity rules the Costmost Cosmos.

    Also known as the Grabitational Singularity.


  9. Bill
    June 18, 2014 at 12:12 pm

    While I agree that Marc Andersseen is probably wrong about how we will just naturally fall into a consumer utopia, he does state that we need a “vigorous social safety net”. If he truly believes this then he should be willing to advocate for it. I see no point in arguing with him about a distant and probably unrealistic utopia when we could be using his influence to push right now for
    that safety net. If he is right and in the end it withers away because it is unneeded who cares. If he is wrong, then the sooner we get started the better.


  10. June 18, 2014 at 12:38 pm

    Of course it will all be owned by us Vulcans. Let me leave you with a Vulcan salute.



  11. June 18, 2014 at 7:38 pm

    I actually think that Andreessen’s assertion that robots won’t eat our jobs is correct (within my lifetime), but not for his reasons. My reasoning is more that it seems that many governments – at least in developed countries – are trying to reduce their expenditure on higher education and pure research. As the reason most often given is the ageing population’s effect on dependency ratios, it seems more likely this trend will spread than discontinue. Hence, I suspect that the fundamental research required to underpin future AI development will occur at a slower pace, pushing out the rise of the robots considerably into the future.


  12. ScentOfViolets
    June 19, 2014 at 7:48 am

    Time for my usual quote whenever this subject comes up:

    A certain learned constructor built the New Machines, devices so excellent that they could work quite independently, without supervision. And that was the beginning of the catastrophe. When the New Machines appeared in the factories, hordes of Drudgelings lost their jobs; and, receiving no salary, they faced starvation. . .”

    “Excuse me, Phool,” I asked, “but what became of the profits the factories made?”

    “The profits,” he replied, “went to the rightful owners, of course. Now, then, as I was saying, the threat of annihilation hung. . .”

    “But what are you saying, worthy Phool!” I cried. “All that had to be done was to make the factories common property, and the New Machines would have become a blessing to you!”

    The minute I said this the Phool trembled, blinked his ten eyes nervously, and cupped his ears to ascertain whether any of his companions milling about the stairs had overheard my remark.

    “By the Ten Noses of the Phoo, I implore you, O stranger, do not utter such vile heresy, which attacks the very foundation of our freedom! Our supreme law, the principle of Civic Initiative, states that no one can be compelled, constrained, or even coaxed to do what he does not wish. Who, then, would dare expropriate the Eminents’ factories, it being their will to enjoy possession of same? That would be the most horrible violation of liberty imaginable. Now, then, to continue, the New Machines produced an abundance of extremely cheap goods and excellent food, but the Drudgelings bought nothing, for they had not the wherewithal. . .”

    “But, my dear Phool!” I cried. “Surely you do not claim that the Drudgelings did this voluntarily? Where was your liberty, your civic freedom?!”

    “Ah, worthy stranger,” sighed the Phool, “the laws were still observed, but they say only that the citizen is free to do whatever he wants with his property and money; they do not say where he is to obtain them. No one oppressed the Drudgelings, no one forced them to do anything; they were completely free and could do what they pleased, yet instead of rejoicing at such freedom they died off like flies.”

    From the incomparable Stanislaw Lem.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. davidflint
    June 19, 2014 at 11:58 am

    For an optimistic view of a robot-based, post-scarcity future see Ian Bank’s Culture novels. Wonderful stuff.

    Of course Banks knew it would take a revolution … but maybe we’ll get one.


  14. Howard Beale IV
    June 22, 2014 at 9:56 am

    Sigh. Baumol’s cost disease, anyone?


  15. Bill Blaney
    June 23, 2014 at 9:10 am

    I deeply fear that the robot utopia of the future will look less like Star Trek and more like Kurt Vonnegut’s “Player Piano”.


  16. coobek
    June 24, 2014 at 5:41 am

    Captain Picard is certainly well equpied to anser that question. With his historical and philospic interests and a really humane approach.

    I miss him.


    • June 24, 2014 at 7:25 am

      You and me both, sister.

      On Tue, Jun 24, 2014 at 5:41 AM, mathbabe wrote:



  1. June 22, 2014 at 6:55 am
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