The Religion of the Engineers; and Hayek Its True Prophet

by Henry Farrell on November 13, 2023

Marc Andreessen’s recent “tech optimist manifesto” is one of the most significant statements of Silicon Valley ideology. As I’ve written elsewhere, it’s actually less a political manifesto than an apostolic credo for the Religion of Progress. The words “we believe” appear no less than 113 times in the text, not counting synonyms.

The core precept of this secular religion is faith in technology. From Andreessen’s opening section: “We believe growth is progress … the only perpetual source of growth is technology … this is why we are not still living in mud huts … this is why our descendents [sic] will live in the stars.”

Andreessen invokes the right wing economist, Friedrich von Hayek, as one of the “patron saints” of this dogma. That might seem like a surprising assertion. Hayek was ferociously critical of what he described as the “religion of the engineers” – the efforts of Saint-Simon’s followers to create a quasi-messianic faith applying engineering insights to society. Their fervid belief in the inevitable benefits of progress purportedly justified the efforts of an elite to remake society along better and more rational lines.

Hayek quotes an early Saint-Simonian journal as describing a program to “develop and expand the principles of a philosophy of human nature based on the recognition that the destiny of our race is to exploit and modify external nature to its greatest advantage.” Compare to Andreessen: “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.”

The obvious difference is that the earlier religion of the engineers glorified the state, while the new one glorifies markets (that’s why Hayek is one of its patron saints). But the similarities are at least as important. Both the old time religion and the new one invoke grand visions to wave away the mess, disagreements and complexities of the present. They depict those who oppose the actions of a tiny self-elected elite as champions of ignorance and enemies of progress. If we only just let the engineers run things, we could be sure that our descendants will have the universe for their inheritance.


I’ve been trying to work out my thoughts about the relationship between the old and the new religions of the engineers for years. Hayek plays an interesting and complicated role, as erstwhile CT contributor, Corey Robin has pointed out. His suggestion that rich elites will and should play a crucial role in guiding the progress of an apparently decentralized and pluralistic system helps justify the world-shaping ambitions of founders. So too, does Schumpeter’s theory of the entrepreneur and of the general benefits of monopoly. But my sense of what is going on was really crystallized by Daron Acemoglu’s and Simon Johnson’s recent book, Power and Progress.

This book gets Andreessen’s shtick down cold, in a book that was published well before the manifesto (Andreessen is expressing the collective wisdom of those around him as much as his own thoughts). Acemoglu and Johnson describe a standard optimistic mythology, according to which we are “heading relentlessly toward a better world, thanks to unprecedented advances in technology.” Whatever problems we experience are the birth pangs of a better world that is just around the corner. In their description, “[p]eople understand that not everything promised by Bill Gates, Elon Musk, or even Steve Jobs will likely come to pass. But, as a world, we have become infused by their techno-optimism. Everyone everywhere should innovate as much as they can, figure out what works, and iron out the rough edges later.”

More specifically, the book explains exactly how claims about the awesome freedoms of the markets are interwoven with practical restrictions on people’s liberties. It emphasizes the importance of Jeremy Bentham’s ideas about the general benefits of surveillance for economy and politics: “before the panopticon was a prison, it was a factory.” These ideas paved the way for factories that turned workers into “mere cogs” and the later notions of Frederick Taylor and others who looked to use new technologies of surveillance to squeeze as much productivity out of workers. The standard response is that everyone benefits from this in the long run, but Acemoglu and Johnson stress that this is hardly a given. How the benefits are distributed depends on politics, and specifically on whether those who are on the receiving end are able to organize and ally with others, to create “countervailing power” that ensures that the benefits of new technologies are evenly distributed, and to avoid technological trajectories that maximize on exploitation rather than general benefits.

These historical lessons have relevance today. I’ve heard it said (correctly or incorrectly) that Andreessen’s tirade was largely motivated by his anger at AI skeptics. Certainly, one of his proposed articles of faith is that “We believe any deceleration of AI will cost lives. Deaths that were preventable by the AI that was prevented from existing is a form of murder.” Acemoglu and Johnson point out that AI is regularly being used to replace workers or to surveil them. They stress that this is a political decision, rather than an inevitable consequence of technology. We can choose differently, and we ought to.


Like other religions – like Marxism too for that matter – the religion of the engineers is centered on a myth about the world to come.  A lot of people talk about the influence of science fiction on Silicon Valley, and how people like Peter Thiel and the Paypal Mafia were inspired by Neal Stephenson’s ideas about money. Stephenson is an important part of the story that Silicon Valley tells itself about its present – the Metaverse, Google Earth and so on. But I can’t help wondering if the Culture novels of Iain M. Banks (cited for example by Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk as core texts) are more important to the stories that Silicon Valley tells itself about the future.

Banks’ future is one where humanity (I simplify here – the Culture’s relationship to actual Earth-humans is complicated, and much happens in our past, Elsewhere in the Galaxy) has figured out how to produce universal abundance. Within very broad reason, the people of the Culture can have whatever they want, traveling the universe in massive starships, constructing vast Orbitals, glanding drugs, having lots of sex, changing gender at a whim (Musk may have changed his mind on that bit) and throwing wild parties, all overseen by more-or-less benign AIs. It’s a very attractive future, where socialism and libertarianism blur into each other.

I can’t say whether Andreessen’s manifesto is directly influenced by Banks’ novels, but its imagined trajectory at the least adjacent, with AI as “our alchemy, our Philosopher’s Stone” and a future in which:

We believe the global population can quite easily expand to 50 billion people or more, and then far beyond that as we ultimately settle other planets. We believe that out of all of these people will come scientists, technologists, artists, and visionaries beyond our wildest dreams. We believe the ultimate mission of technology is to advance life both on Earth and in the stars.

In contrast, I am reasonably sure that Banks would have absolutely fucking hated the tech optimist manifesto and the project behind it. His books have plenty to say about people who promise paradise tomorrow to justify purgatory and hell today. None of it is complimentary. His books are all about the complexities and the tragedies of politics.

There isn’t any room for complexity in Andreessen’s vision. The politics are all stripped out. There is only a struggle between the Good who embrace technological progress, and the Enemies of Progress.

The religion of the engineers is the hopium of Silicon Valley elites. It’s less a complex theology than an eschatological soporific, a prosperity gospel for venture capitalists, founders and wannabes. It tells its votaries that profits and progress point in exactly the same direction, and that by doing well they will most certainly do good. It should barely need pointing out that the actual problems and promise of technology lie in the current political struggles that this vision of the future waves away.



sam 11.13.23 at 2:45 pm

I agree with all of this but I do think that Andreessen is reacting to an equally dumb tendency online and among many journalists these days to assume the worst about every new technology. You see it int the “the luddites were good, actually” takes that have become popular (which assume, fairly ahistorically as far as I can tell, that all they wanted was some social programs and then skilled weavers would have been OK being put out of a job) recently and in the almost gleeful response to any setbacks involving AI. He’s not wrong that ultimately we need technological progress for greater human flourashing (to achieve the Banksian utopia) and that a lot of people are in denial about that. He’s just also wrong that that’s ALL we need. Allergy to complexity is a sin on the left as much as the right–I think sadly, as a leftist myself…


Ebenezer Scrooge 11.13.23 at 4:44 pm

Andreessen’s screed had little to do with technology. It was centered on “tech:” big John Galt individuals making a New World of Their Dreams.™ Tech has little to do with technology, and plenty to do with finance and a certain kind of business model.

I pretty much agree with Henry’s thesis, but he should have left the poor engineers out of it. They really can make the world a better place, if they are only better deployed by society.


Brett 11.13.23 at 5:16 pm

@2 Sam

Some of that is just the general “negativity” bias in media these days (because it drives traffic and attention), plus the penchant for ideological stridency in online media (for the same reason as the negativity bias – it drives engagement).

But I agree that we’re kind of seeing a swing too far in favor of the Luddites among that sort, including treating them in ways that are anachronistic (like nascent unionists or social democrats). They were skilled artisans trying to use violence to maintain a corner on their trade – it’d be like if doctors responded to technology that allowed for more treatment by nurse-practitioners and PAs by shooting up clinics that had them doing it. A lot more people benefited from having textile jobs that paid more and had more independence than “field hand”, “urban jobber”, or “servant” than those who lost their jobs among the Luddites, although I’m not totally unsympathetic – Great Britain really did have very little consolation or help for those who found themselves displaced from employment in the early 19th century.


Sean Matthews 11.13.23 at 5:34 pm

Reasonably sure Banks would have hated these people? There are few things I could be surer about.


Tom 11.13.23 at 7:10 pm

Excellent piece, Henry. There is also the issue of how much the high priests of this new religion will be willing to share with those who are left behind. News on that front are not great. From Vice (who gets it from the Atlantic): “Silicon Valley billionaire and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen went out of his way to try and derail an effort by Atherton, California to allow just over 100 multifamily housing units in the town over the next decade. Atherton, where Andreessen lives, is the most expensive zip code in the nation.”

Andreesen’s wife submitted the following public comment to the town (all caps in the original email, as reported):

“I am writing this letter to communicate our IMMENSE objection to the creation of multifamily overlay zones in Atherton. Multifamily development is prohibited in the Atherton General Plan and any change in zoning and land use rules should only be considered after a thoughtful General Plan amendment process, that includes significant community outreach, participation and comment.

Please IMMEDIATELY REMOVE all multifamily overlay zoning projects from the Housing Element which will be submitted to the state in July. They will MASSIVELY decrease our home values, the quality of life of ourselves and our neighbors and IMMENSELY increase the noise pollution and traffic.”

Technological progress for me but not for thee.


Tm 11.13.23 at 7:35 pm

„a swing too far in favor of the Luddites“
„You see it int the “the luddites were good, actually” takes that have become popular“

I have no idea what you guys are talking about or even which universe you are referring to.

Agree with 2: leave the engineers out of it. This is not an ideology of engineers.


Seekonk 11.13.23 at 8:02 pm

*“heading relentlessly toward a better world, thanks to unprecedented advances in technology” *

There is plenty of vital work that is not getting done, and won’t get done by “technology” — low-tech, labor-intensive, pink and blue-collar work like sanitation, maintenance, green retro-fitting, health care, elder care, and child care, to name a few.

(And some things can’t be done for profit. Like giving a hand to a broke senior citizen who needs assistance but can’t afford to pay for it.)


Alex SL 11.13.23 at 9:35 pm

Agreed with the conclusion of the post. Contra Sam @1, my perception of media is that it is mostly adulation of billionaires and uncritical reporting of anything tech entrepreneurs claim, no matter how implausible (see reporting on FTX and Theranos before they were found out, or on Musk’s various risible claims from Boring tunnels to Mars colonisation). And maybe Iain Banks would indeed have hated Andreessen’s screed.

But I have read two of Banks’ novels and then gave up on buying any more because they were so redundant, despite only one of them being a Culture novel, and the other nominally unrelated. It is a bad sign if an author hits precisely all the same notes in two randomly selected novels, because then one has to assume that all others will hit precisely the same notes again, and if that is the case, maybe they should have left it at writing one book and done something more useful with the rest of their lives.

The notes are: AI will happen. AI will always be benevolent and have no negative consequences whatsoever. Letting AIs run our society for us will create a better society, perhaps even a utopia. Anybody who is skeptical or hostile to AI taking over our society can only be a dangerous Luddite, either ideologically blinded to unreasoning delusion or evil to a downright comical degree, on the level even of genocide.

Also, he took a disturbing pleasure in describing scenes of torture and mass destruction. In both books, an enormous space habitat is blown up. Although it was at least mostly evacuated in the book where the Culture committed the war crime, it is another indication to me that he may have put his limited number of ideas into every book he wrote.

Ultimately, of course, this is just entertainment. If you like to read a book where the good guys are the ones who hand their government over to machines and force their defeated enemies into the same arrangement, by all means do it. The really scary part is that a large subculture of tech bros did indeed seem to read these as documentaries of what will happen, entirely untouched by any considerations of plausibility and feasibility, and as something that should happen. I like scifi, but I am starting to think that it can have a bad influence on ignorami.


Chris M. 11.14.23 at 1:03 am

@3 Brett

“A lot more people benefited from having textile jobs that paid more and had more independence than ‘field hand’, ‘urban jobber’, or ‘servant'”

Someone was once telling my dad that the preferred and indeed natural way of life was to live close to the land, surrounded by extended family and a tight-knit community, etc etc. And he said, “My grandparents had that in Quebec. That’s why they came down to America to work in the mills.”


both sides do it 11.14.23 at 1:06 am

Certainly it’s fair to focus on the religious trappings, but kind of surprised that neoliberalism doesn’t figure into the OP. There are many neoliberal flavors in the slop Andresson put out: the technocracy, “those against us are killing people by stopping efficient deployment of resources”, the politics being “stripped out” (and also, lacking a Theory of Politics), the unstated reliance on the state to allow or enforce expanded worker domination by employers. And that’s all before even getting to Hayek.

Not sure what that all adds up to. Maybe “neoliberalism with a new coat of millenarian paint and speaking rhetorically to a smaller network of capital”.

Re: the Luddites, above commenters can take on Eric Hobsbawm if they like. But Pynchon will come in from the top rope.


JimV 11.14.23 at 3:31 am

Point of order; as an engineer (who enjoyed Stephenson’s “Anathem” but consider Banks’ novels generally better than Stephenson’s) I see it as the Entrepreneur’s Religion. Musk is not, and never has been, an engineer. Jobs, as the movie said, could not solder a circuit or hammer a nail. Wozniak was the engineer, and I know of nothing bad to say about him.


Paul Davis 11.14.23 at 6:09 am

There are lots of reasons to hate on Christopher Lasch, but can anyone recommend a better book to provide a historical overview of “progress” than his “The True and Only Heaven (Progress and its Critics)” ?

A truly eye-opening book to read in my 20’s (I’m turning 60 now), even if merely for pointing that people have not always believed in progress, and that some of them, even if presented with the idea, would not choose it.


Zamfir 11.14.23 at 9:46 am

@ JimV, as much as I’d like to avoid association with assholes, I do think that engineering is part of the story here. Andreesen, for example, started his career as nuts-and-bolts programmer, and his business career grew directly out of that. Effectively he became head of a product development team, then rose in the ranks to allocate budget to product development teams. Silicon Valley genuinely has lots of such people among the powerful, and it shapes the culture around them. Jobs or Musk might not be engineers in that same sense, but they are shaped by that culture.

And if I am honest, this techno-manifesto stuff resembles the attitudes of many regular non-rich engineers. Taking science fiction serious, everything can and should be fixed by machinery, if the machines can’t do that today then Progress will enable them tomorrow. And the general atitude that if people disagree with you, it’s because they are lesser minds who don’t understand.

It may be mixed with more generic ideas of rich people, but the particular flavour is an engineering flavour.


Dave Timoney 11.14.23 at 9:51 am

@2 Sam,

Re all the Luddites “wanted was some social programs and then skilled weavers would have been OK being put out of a job”. Not so. The argument was about the use of power looms to enable the employment of women and youth in jobs previously restricted to adult males (due to the physical demands of hand-looms).

This allowed employers to push down wages, the assumption being that women and youth should only earn a fraction of the wage of male breadwinners. It was a dispute over pay, not technological unemployment.

In practice, the use of power looms and the associated reduction in costs (i.e. wages) increased productivity and profitability, which in turn fuelled an expansion of the industry and thus created more jobs, but it did not lead to “textile jobs that paid more and had more independence”, as Brett (@3) erroneously claims.

In fact, it led to previously semi-independent weavers, where the women and children were wholly outside the factory system, being forced en famille into the mills simply to maintain living standards.


Bill Benzon 11.14.23 at 11:10 am

From the OP: “I’ve heard it said (correctly or incorrectly) that Andreessen’s tirade was largely motivated by his anger at AI skeptics.”

And those skeptics are concentrated in Silicon Valley, both the geographical locus, but also the online, virtual, locus (such sites and LessWrong and Astral Codex Ten). As I’ve said in a post over at New Savanna:

My point is simple, the tech-optimists and the AI Doomers are two sides of the same coin, which may be why they’re concentrated in Silicon Valley. One is Kirk, the other is Anti-Kirk, Spock and Anti-Spock, Yin and Yang, more generically, good twin and bad twin, or in a lingo from the belly of this particular beast, Luigi and Waluigi (LessWrong). You can line up the positives and negatives however you please.

All of them are insular, tech-obsessed, intelligence too, and self-regarding, at least on the surface. Who knows what lurks in the hearts of men. Moreover, some of them are very rich, which just magnifies everything else.

Ted Chiang has been voicing a similar idea in various places, which is probably where I picked up on it. The evil artificial superintelligence that destroys all before it is but a cousin of “move fast and break things” capitalism.

BTW, take a look at what turns up when you Google “break things“.


DavidtheK 11.14.23 at 2:08 pm

Engineers can help to solve problems, just not inthe way Andressen and Musk et al. envision it.


TM 11.14.23 at 2:44 pm

The Pynchon essay has this:

“TO insist on the miraculous is to deny to the machine at least some of its claims on us…
But if we do insist upon fictional violations of the laws of nature – of space, time, thermodynamics, and the big one, mortality itself – then we risk being judged by the literary mainstream as Insufficiently Serious.”

Insisting upon these violations characterizes for Pynchon the luddites and the romantics who rejected machine rationality. What irony that nowadays it’s the technooptimists like Andreessen and Musk who deny “the laws of space, time, thermodynamics, and the big one, mortality itself”. And unlike Pynchon’s Luddites, they are being taken seriously, no matter how absurd their fanatsies about immortality and Mars colonization.


J, not that one 11.14.23 at 2:47 pm

Andreesen didn’t coin the phrase “techno-optimism.” As far as I know, that honor belongs to Evgeny Morozov. I thought it was a dumb label, but I guess it’s inevitable that if someone claims his opponents are all the bad things, some of those opponents will turn around and embrace the charge, for want of a better alternative (and a better imagination).

It’s unclear what “techno-optimism” means, from the “anti” point of view. Does it just mean believing problems can be solved using applied science? Worse, it’s a purely negative claim. What is it supposed to be raising up as an alternative? Morozov, at least, is obviously a kind of centrist who both believes the charges communism and capitalism make against each other, but also disbelieves them both, and seems to substitute an unspoken kind of central-European common-sense that Popper would probably approve of. To me that seems negative in itself, just a stance from which a cranky white guy can complain about stuff.

In this case it seems to be a way to preserve a boundary between people who have the “proper sort” of education to be thinking about the future, and people who don’t.


Sam 11.14.23 at 4:21 pm

@Dave agreed: that was my characterization of the pro-luddite position. You’re right that the luddites had good reasons to oppose technological progress. My point was that that doesn’t mean we should think they were right to do what they did, or at least that we shouldn’t bemoan their failure. Certainly Britain could have developed through the industrial revolution with more broadly-shared prosperity, but that would still have involved power looms.

@Alex, I was thinking of the several interviews I’ve encountered with the journalist author of this book, who describes himself as pro-luddite, and also this essay from the normally very sage Ted Chiang:


JimV 11.14.23 at 5:30 pm

Zamfir, in my opinion, having been both, a programmer is not an engineer, although there are engineers who write programs. I started out as a programmer, and was able to handle (given enough time) any specified programming task. There were a finite and not huge number of code instructions I had to learn to use. They might have different names in different computer languages, but I could look them up in manuals. Then I went into engineering and had to learn metallurgy, material processing, strength of materials, crack propagation, Theory of Elasticity, Theory of Plates and Shells, vibration analysis, metal fatigue analysis, differential equations, Fourier’s Law of Thermal Propagation, Fluid Mechanics, numerical methods, statistics and probability, and tons of product knowledge on steam turbine design, manufacture, and repair. I had to interact with people on the job, not electronic systems. No engineer is an island.

Sure, there are asshole engineers, as in any profession, but the best engineers I knew were some of the best people I knew. (None of them were millionaires.)

A side note on science fiction: I don’t see it as a prescription for the future anymore because it is 95% fantasy (e.g., FTL travel). There will never be Iain Banks’ super-intelligent AI’s to govern us with perfect wisdom. It is just pretty to think so, and we are doomed without them. Just look at every current government in the world. I think that was Bank’s point, to contrast the Culture with every other form of government. Tolkien had his favorite system also. The issue for me is how well you write it. Here’s Banks:

I suspected from the rhythm of her running steps it was the girl Zab. Zab is still at the age where she runs from place to place as a matter of course unless directed not to by an adult. She came skidding to a stop and took a deep breath to say,

“Uncle Fassin! Grandpa says you’re in a commun-i-cardo again and if I see you I’m to tell you you’ve to come and see him right now immediately!”

“Does he now?”, Seer Taak said laughing. “Well,” he said, hoisting the child up and turning and lowering her so she sat on his shoulders, we’d better go and see what he wants, hadn’t we?” “Are you okay up there?”

She put her hands over his forehead and said, “Yup.”

“Well, this time, you mind out for branches.”

“You mind out for branches!” Zab said.

“No, you mind out for branches, young lady.”

“No, you mind out for branches!”

–“The Algebraist”, Iain Banks


Alex SL 11.14.23 at 9:17 pm


Somebody who can write in a way that is pleasing to read can still hold stupid or abhorrent beliefs, but at some point the latter nonetheless make the reading experience unpleasant regardless of the beauty of the language. Rowling comes to mind as another example – there are some really enjoyable aspects about her writing, but the more she turned her original series into an opus of her philosophy instead of an escapist children’s tale, the more morally repulsive it became.

Yes, the AIs imagined by Iain Banks will never exist. As mentioned, the main problem here is that some Silicon Valley people did read the books as prescriptive instead of entertainment or prompts for thought: as the saying goes, they read about the Torment Nexus and now enthusiastically set out to build it. (Or not, because many of them are grifters who don’t build anything anyway or at best serially over-promise.) A smaller problem is that IMO even the most utopian version Banks describes – the Culture – is pretty silly. In effect, he makes the same mistake as the proverbial tech bro of assuming that social problems can be solved with tech fixes.

And, whether inspired by his books or the other way around, that is exactly what the super-AI crowd argue: if we get the “alignment” right, a super-AI will deliver us solutions for everything from climate change to poverty and world peace. Now, what would happen under the assumption that such a benevolent hyperintelligence is built? It would read out the conclusions section of The Limits to Growth (1972) and then say, you should phase out fossil fuels ASAP, and also please stop hating each other over idiotic things like having a different ethnicity or religion, what’s the point.

Because we already know all the solutions, it is just that too many of us don’t want to implement them because they find the unsustainable and warlike status quo more profitable or emotionally appealing. To overcome that, we could do a Culture and declare the AI dictator for life, but why would those too many of us happier with the status quo accept that? Conversely, if AI dictatorship was easy to install, why not just install a human dictatorship right now to ensure world peace, equality, and sustainability? Because a dictatorship is abhorrent. Well, then so is an AI dictatorship. The circle of pointlessness is now complete.

In other words, the most charitable interpretation of Banks’ worldview is equivalent to somebody thinking that they can cure cancer by having a computer tell a patient that they should stop having cancer. I find that… unimpressive, to put it in no starker terms than that.


John R Sundman 11.14.23 at 9:18 pm

I published Acts of the Apostles, a hackertastic cyber-bio-nanopunk thriller about an evil Silicon Valley genius & would-be messiah and the cult of techbros who venerate him, in late 1999. Andreessen’s manifesto reads like a dreadful John Galt-ish rant from an early draft of that book. I mention ‘Acts’ because it anticipates much of the discussion about the apostolic nature of the so-called Manifesto in convenient novel format — with sex and car chases — and I think some readers may find it amusing.

Acts of the Apostles is available lots of places for free download under Creative Commons license (though I prefer when people buy it). A new edition is due out before year’s end with an introduction by Cory Doctorow.


David in Tokyo 11.15.23 at 11:27 am

While I agree that these techno-optimist whackos are essentially pedling a religious cult, as an engineer*, I object to you all talking about it as a “religion of the engineers”.

Real engineers design and build things. Andreessen et. al. design and build financial gimmicks and scams. None of the current “great men” of silicon gulch know anything about actually building things. Buying companies that are already building things (Space X), yes. Building things, no.

*: Well, sort of. My undergraduate program was EECS, and they made us take all the core EE courses. They.Were.Hard. But when my actual degree showed up, all it said was “CS”. Sheesh.


Trader Joe 11.15.23 at 12:14 pm

I guess I would have thought that almost all of us are ‘tech-optimists’ to some extent.

I think it’s largely indisputable that some tech does in fact solve some problems (and does so without causing others). The mistake is believing ALL tech solves problems or alternatively that ALL problems can be solved by tech.

For example these pages regularly champion clean energy solutions and this is little more than applied technology solving a problem to make a better world. The world will always need energy and that technology is currently the best available. Some day, maybe, some form of synthetic bio-fuel or fission or something else may be yet better and no doubt some will fear that solution and others will embrace it.

Ultimately we’re talking a matter of degree – zealots are always hard to get your head around. They start out with the right notion but expand it beyond logical extremis.


TM 11.15.23 at 3:03 pm

TJ 24: I guess the alternative to techno-optimism and techno-pessismism would be something like techno-realism.


Dan 11.16.23 at 12:33 am

When you speak of “religion of the engineers,” that’s a phrase with truth in it. Sociologist Carolyn Chen’s book Work Pray Code (Princeton Univ. Press, 2022) documents how tech workers (including engineers, programmers, etc.) in Silicon Valley do have what can only be called a religion. That tallies with my observations during 13 years living in Silicon Valley — tech workers like to think of themselves as post-religious rationalists, but many of them are not. Many of them look to me like wild-eyed cultists and Marc Andreesen is one of those.

Part of the engineers’ problem is a lack of understanding about understanding. The concept of technology goes back to the ancient Greek word techne, but the ancient Greeks understood that techne was just type of thinking/knowing. In addition to techne, craft or skill, the Greek philosopher Aristotle also listed episteme, roughly equivalent to scientific knowledge; sophia, theoretical wisdom; nous, intellect; and phronesis, practical wisdom (see the Nicomachean Ethics). Techne and episteme are related, and roughly correspond to what we understand today as technology and science. But Aristotle’s list of types of thinking/knowing should make it obvious that other kinds of thinking/knowing are crucial. If Aristotle lived today, he’d probably point out that the stereotype of the absent-minded professors as a perfect example of someone with lots of scientific knowing and technical knowledge, but little practical wisdom — which is also what Silicon Valley tech workers are like. They know about science and technology, but they sure lack practical wisdom.

At the risk of angering the engineers who read this blog, I’ll tell a little story about my personal experience of engineers and their lack of practical wisdom. I spent 12 years working in the residential construction industry, and in that time had to deal with a number of engineers who were quite sure they knew more than I did about construction. They would come up with elaborate solutions which might have worked, but would cost more, have a shorter lifespan, and take much longer to build. My dad was an engineer, and I remember when he called me one evening help him take care of a leak in his basement. He needed to make a sump for his sump pump to work. He started talking about how to do that. I mixed the mortar and laid the bricks and had the sump completed before he had finished talking. I loved my dad, but that was classic engineer behavior — still talking about how to solve the problem while people with practical skills have already solved it. Mind you, I could never have done the things my dad did as an engineer (managing million dollar projects, taking an idea from concept to product, etc.). But where engineers go wrong is in thinking that everything is an engineering project. They forget that oftentimes it’s really practical wisdom that’s needed.

I call on Ghu and Foo and the other ghods to save us from the religion of the engineers….


Neville Morley 11.16.23 at 7:18 am

Obvious point about the Banks influence is that they want both components of the imagined future: post-scarcity society with spaceships, supercool space opera tech and benign super AIs supporting unlimited hedonism, AND they will be the elite who get recruited into Special Circumstances because they retain primitive qualities of aggression, ambition, individualism etc unlike the sheeplike masses.


Jan Wiklund 11.17.23 at 10:05 am

What a strange idea to believe that the highest expectation of humankind is to be able to live on a star! It’s like telling a guy from, say, San José: ”Hey man! Next year you will be able to live in Yakutsk!”, and expect him to be blown away with happiness. And I would say that Yakutsk is a homely and nice place compared to a star.

This is not quite out of line, because it says something about the AI hype.

I have nothing against AI. I use deepL every time I translate a text. That relieves me from a lot of dull routine work. But it doesn’t relieve me from checking the result. And to check the result I will have to be quite proficient in both languages, so it doesn’t relieve me from learning those languages either.

AI is a kind of routine. It is a routine on the second level, a routine able to improve the routine of the first level. But it is not more than that. It is like a bureaucratic office. A bureaucratic office has its routines, and it has a boss that can tell the junior officer to go outside the routine if need be. But the boss has also a routine laid down by some superior boss. And so on. And the worst thing you can imagine is layer upon layer of good routines if the top level routine is a disaster.

In for example the European Union we know more or less what the top level routine disaster is: it is the Maastricht agreement, the Stability pact and the Treaties of Rome. But in the case of an AI programme only the programmer knows. And while the EU top level disaster is under some kind of control by known governments, the control of the AI top level disaster is hidden somewhere that probably only God knows.

A malfunctioning top routine may even be well-intentioned; I am sure the disastrous EU top routines were. But the makers, the ”programmers”, didn’t think of everything, they never do, it is not in human capacity to do.

And when they think they also think about feathering their own nests.

In the case of AI it seems that those in control have an extremely naive thinking about ultimate goals and directions – ”living on a star”. And since they are not even responsible to a public, they can feather their nests to an astonishing degree. If they were a host of small financially and culturally independent producers, each possible to ignore, that might perhaps not be a serious problem, but they aren’t.

So these are the people I would never trust laying down top routines. The small routines, yes. But not more than that.

Comments on this entry are closed.