Decadence and Andreessen's Dilemma

If we need to embrace a culture of building, does it matter if we do it in reality?

Early in the pandemic era, the Netscape founder Marc Andreessen published a manifesto that was so on-point for the themes of The Decadent Society that I cited it in the paperback. His argument was that many of the institutional debacles in the West’s response to the coronavirus reflected a longstanding failure to build, a comfort with stagnation and sclerosis visible everywhere from our physical environment to our regulatory apparatus to our transportation infrastructure and education system. If the pandemic taught us anything significant about our future, then, it was that we need a different and more old-fashioned-American sort of culture — one in which “every step of the way, to everyone around us, we should be asking the question, what are you building? What are you building directly, or helping other people to build, or teaching other people to build, or taking care of people who are building?”

Notably, the manifesto only glancingly mentioned the internet and virtual reality, which meant that it effectively avoided taking a position on a set of difficult questions hanging over would-be techno-futurists. Stipulating that the internet is our great shining example of technological progress in the last fifty years, have Silicon Valley and all its works and pomps been good or bad for non-virtual forms of innovation? Should we be confident that the further internet-ization of Western life can go hand in hand with other technological leaps forward? Or alternatively, is our progress into realms of virtuality and simulation actually intimately connected to the dearth of building in the real world?

This question divides anti-stagnationists: Figures like my AEI colleague James Pethokoukis or the bullish-on-America Bruno Maçaes tend to regard Silicon Valley and its virtual realities as integral parts of a more dynamic future, while people in the orbit of Peter Thiel are more likely to regard Big Internet in its current incarnation as an obstacle to real-world forms of industry and growth, and in need of some kind of political and social management to become a spur to dynamism instead. Personally I’m mostly on the Thielword side of the debate: Without going all the way to the Butlerian Jihad, I think human civilization needs to exert a kind of mastery over the internet and the virtual, a disciplining and putting-in-its-place, if we want to both preserve certain basic human goods and make non-virtual leaps forward more likely — because left to its own devices the internal techno-logic of the virtual realm will pull us deeper into decadence.

So it was very interesting to read Andreeessen, in a recent interview with the pseudonymous troll-comedian Niccolo Soldo, offer a full-throated defense of virtualism. Soldo asked Andreessen the non-trollish, increasingly-commonplace question: Isn’t the internet “a negative for our psychological well-being,” given that “we are not programmed for constant, instantaneous contact”? And the billionaire entrepreneur answered with something rare in these tech-disenchanted days, a straightforward defense of online’s superiority, or at least potential superiority, over the world of flesh and blood.

Your question is a great example of what I call Reality Privilege. This is a paraphrase of a concept articulated by Beau Cronin: "Consider the possibility that a visceral defense of the physical, and an accompanying dismissal of the virtual as inferior or escapist, is a result of superuser privileges." A small percent of people live in a real-world environment that is rich, even overflowing, with glorious substance, beautiful settings, plentiful stimulation, and many fascinating people to talk to, and to work with, and to date. These are also *all* of the people who get to ask probing questions like yours. Everyone else, the vast majority of humanity, lacks Reality Privilege -- their online world is, or will be, immeasurably richer and more fulfilling than most of the physical and social environment around them in the quote-unquote real world.

The Reality Privileged, of course, call this conclusion dystopian, and demand that we prioritize improvements in reality over improvements in virtuality. To which I say: reality has had 5,000 years to get good, and is clearly still woefully lacking for most people; I don't think we should wait another 5,000 years to see if it eventually closes the gap. We should build -- and we are building -- online worlds that make life and work and love wonderful for everyone, no matter what level of reality deprivation they find themselves in.

Now Andreessen then goes on to hedge a bit, talking about how adjusting to global connectivity requires “a massive shift in individual and collective psychology that we are just starting to grapple with,” etc. etc. But let’s stay with the optimistic case. First, is he right? It’s certainly not a crazy argument: Sitting here at my computer with my smartphone nearby I have instant access, free or very very cheaply, to an insane diversity of cultural goods, from books and symphonies to TikTok videos and images of practically every famous painting ever committed to canvas. I can find people who share my obscure interests in an instant, instead of living for years without meeting a fellow fan of alternative histories where Bonnie Prince Charlie pushes on London and puts the Hanoverians to flight, thus setting motion a Tory version of modernity rather than our Whiggish dystopia … wait, have I said too much? Anyway, the less normative and more eccentric you are, along any dimension, the more the internet seems to offer that plain-old-embodied reality didn’t, whether your reality started in the suburbs or slums.

But there’s a problem: There are a lot of experiences — call them “core experiences” — that people still prefer to have in the world of flesh and blood, ranging from the banal (real drinks >> Zoom drinks) to the transcendent (visiting Chartres Cathedral >> doing a virtual tour of Chartres Cathedral), from the excitement of travel or the thrill of concert-going to the physical-cum-emotional intensity of falling in love and having sex (not necessarily in that order). And there are core experiences that just don’t translate into virtuality at all: You can some kind of sexual intercourse on the internet, depending on how elastically defined, but you can’t bear and raise a child.

Now say what you will about 20th century America, but it did a pretty good job of democratizing these kinds of core experiences. Whereas while the age of the internet has clearly expanded the range of available experiences, for core experiences democratization sometimes seems like it’s in danger of going into reverse, with experiences in reality, from the museum to the ballpark to the classroom, becoming the high-cost “premium” experience, while a mediocre virtual equivalent is offered the masses and the proles. (With certain real-world goods this happened well before the internet, admittedly: The beauties and symmetries of pre-1960s architecture, for instance, have been preserved and priced for rich people, while ugliness and mediocrity have been inflicted for generations on public spaces and the dwellings of the poor.)

Nowhere is this problem more apparent than sex and romance, where as the virtual dating market has displaced the old real-world methods of meeting and mating and marrying, a toxic tournament effect has seemingly taking hold, increasing various forms of sexual inequality and making it likely that many more people will be shut out of a core experience, the sex-wedlock-procreation combination, that most human beings still very reasonably desire.

Now maybe this pattern is a temporary hiccup, reflecting the immaturity of virtual technology. The Industrial Revolution arguably made workers poorer before it made them richer; maybe virtuality in its infancy is increasing certain forms of inequality but eventually the technology will evolve so that virtual experiences will become so seamlessly indistinguishable from real ones that any reality premium for the rich will disappear. Oculus Rift will give way to the Holodeck, video games will become as physically satisfying as a soccer game in the park, we’ll find ways to transmit tastes as well as sights so that the four-course meal at the five-star restaurant will be as immediately available as “drivers license” is on YouTube … and somehow, around some unknown corner, the line between reality and fantasy will blur so much that even the sex-marriage-babies nexus, or at least the feelings associated with it, will migrate to virtual spaces and be re-democratized in the process.

But if this is possible and desirable it raises some questions about Andreessen’s call for building in the real world, his pining for the “high speed trains, the soaring monorails, the hyperloops, and yes, the flying cars” that the internet age has failed to produce. Because if virtual reality is destined to be better, indeed so much better, not just richer but“immeasurably richer” than what’s on offer in “the quote-unquote real world,” then shouldn’t we want all our best minds even more focused on its possibilities than they are today? I mean, sure, flying cars are nice, but if the goal is to get most of humanity’s nine billions into the Holodeck then isn’t there an obligation to get them there as fast as possible?

I know, it’s not necessarily an either/or proposition, we can build in bricks and mortar and bits and bytes at the same time. But what we think about virtual reality will still necessarily shape what we think about the choices that companies and countries and talented people make. For instance — Matt Yglesias had a post this week about the possible return of supersonic transport, a case study in back-to-future building if there ever was one, which started off with this short riff on the internet-versus-reality question:

But really what makes it interesting is the founder, Blake Scholl. He has a computer science degree from Carnegie Mellon and for most of his career, he was a software guy working for Silicon Valley companies. He left in 2014 to go to Colorado and start Boom with the idea that advances in computer-assisted design made it possible to tackle a big, difficult physical engineering problem in a new way. And fundamentally, that’s the kind of thinking the country needs. We’ve had tremendous progress in the specific zone of computers and internet stuff. But thus far in its history, all that digital technology has been a serious disappointment in terms of raising economy-wide productivity and living standards. Applying digital advances to solve big physical problems is what could change that.

But if the goal is to live ever-more-fully and completely in the virtual, then isn’t Blake Scholl actually taking a wrong turn? After all as a software guy working for Silicon Valley companies he’s potentially on the cutting edge of the breakthroughs that will let us all put on a set of glasses and enter a virtual world that’s “rich, even overflowing, with glorious substance, beautiful settings, plentiful stimulation, and many fascinating people to talk to, and to work with, and to date.” Whereas the physical-engineering problems around supersonic flight are only interesting if you think it’s important to travel faster around the old-fashioned meatspace world … and isn’t that just Reality Privilege in action, when really the technology we need is one that lets the ordinary bloke in London experience New York in all its fullness without ponying up for a trans-Atlantic flight? In which case might not a lot of real-world “building” just be a reality-privileged distraction from the more important goal, the more socially-just and democratic goal, of building every man and woman a Matrix of their own?

The only thing I can say for sure about this question is that I’m sure Andreessen has an interesting answer.