The Religion of the Engineers; and Hayek Its True Prophet

This essay appeared on the blog “Crooked Timber,” November 13, 2023
by Henry Farrell (Reprinted with Permission)

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.

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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.

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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.

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11 thoughts on “The Religion of the Engineers; and Hayek Its True Prophet

  1. Well. We know what Davidson claimed and wrote: belief is a propositional attitude. I can believe in God. Or not. I can believe the moon is made of green cheese, but it sure did not look like green cheese in pictures we have seen. I might believe it was a hoax, pictures and all, but people died on January 28, 1986 and there would have been no expediency in faking that. So, people—including science scholars—can believe whatever they wish. Some beliefs will prove true, in the fullness of time and progress. Others will be as phony and fanciful as phlogiston. I don’t care much for manifestos. Those are mostly hot air, unless and until they facilitate something useful.

  2. Thanks for a brilliant challenge to the utopian visions of the Silicon Valley. As early as 1995, such blithe optimism was labeled “The California Ideology” (see link below.) Reading an issue of WIRED from that period is like reading one of Paul’s letters in the New Testament. This, alas, has always been the American approach to new technology. From railroads to light bulbs to splitting the atom, the stages have been 1) euphoria and promise; 2) exploitation and monopoly; 3) half-hearted regulation that could have been much stronger without stage 1. In the cases of the Internet and of AI, I doubt we’ll even get to stage 3.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Californian_Ideology

  3. First my apologies for off-topic comment.

    Having recently discovered this wonderful website, I have added an occasional comment– largely to make public my appreciation of your posts, but also of your compilation of material for amateurs such as I.

    When I comment, I leave spaces between what I would consider to be a new paragraph.
    When I hit “Post Comment”, what is displayed is a solid block of writing, in chronological order, but with no separation between anything. If more than a few sentences it is almost unreadable.

    Does it display to you with spacing? If not, what am I doing wrong in my posting ?

    Again, my apologies for posting regarding mechanical housekeeping info.

  4. I have learned much today about things like resurrection biology, extinction, Einstein and Spinoza, religion and engineering. The connections among resurrection biology and extinction are most fascinating; those around religion and engineering, least. Why? Well, there are avenues of discourse and action in the cities of engineering and science. Not so much in the wastelands of extinction and resurrection biology. Albert claimed, allegedly,
    God does not play dice. Possibly true—I do not know. However, WE do and that must surely keep God entertained. Maybe it was Spinoza who led Albert to his conclusion? Or perhaps Einstein just wanted to be comfortable, in his own skin. Hmmmm…

  5. weird. the spaces seem to be there this time. but feel free to contact me if they still don’t seem to be appearing.

  6. Einstein famously said he believed in Spinoza’s god—Spinoza was a pantheist. Of course the god doesn’t play dice phrase refers to the indeterminacy in quantum mechanics.

  7. Wow! This is the opposite of my essay preceding this. I claim that technological progress will destroy humanity, and these folks claim that technological progress will turn earth into a utopia. I’ve known a lot of techies like this. The key flaw in their reasoning is that they just don’t take into account anything other than the whiz-bang technologies they imagine.

    For example, Mr. Musk’s speculation about colonizing Mars fail to take into consideration the immensely difficult logistical requirements of such a colony. The environment of Mars is colder than Antarctica, and lacks both oxygen and sufficient air pressure to sustain people. It takes about 2.5 acres of land to grow enough food to sustain one person for one year. A 30-person colony would then need about 75 acres of land to feed itself — all inside pressurized and heated structures. With lots of electricity and hydroponics, this can be greatly reduced, but you’re still talking about gigantic warehouses. It takes about a year on average to get a payload from earth to Mars, so a colony would need to be able to handle any emergency that arises for at least that long.

    Similarly, Mark Zuckerberg has poured billions into his ‘meta verse’ idea, and it just hasn’t amounted to anything.

    The big question that neither billionaire has not scrupled to answer is “Why bother?” If we want to send millions of people to live inside tightly sealed structures on Mars, why not just dig huge cave systems for them to live in? That would be immensely easier. And nobody seems to be interested in living in a fake 3D universe.

    Techies are great at making technology, and suck at almost everything else.

  8. Thank you for this. It fits with my evolving skepticism regarding not just technological/scientific advance and resultant progress, but even the desirability of it. (a sure sign of getting old, this is a complete reversal from my beliefs as a young man)
    The bumper-sticker phrase ‘Man is clever, but he is not wise’ is a quick summation.

    To my thinking, the following three quotations illustrate the dangers of AI and futuristic techno utopia.
    The first two are from the prologue of “The Human Condition” by Hannah Arendt

    “If it should turn out to be true that knowledge (in the modern sense of know-how) and thought have parted company for good, then we would indeed become the helpless slaves, not so much of our machines as of our know-how, thoughtless creatures at the mercy of every gadget which is technically possible, no matter how murderous it is.”
    And:
    “What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.”

    The third quote is from Rachel Carson’s “Lost Woods”
    “The modern world worships the gods of speed and quantity, and of quick and easy profit, and out of this idolatry monstrous evils have arisen.”

    While I don’t believe either Arendt or Carson were considering AI, or the concept of spreading human determinism to other planets, I suspect they would recognize the inherent dangers of these utopian visions and consider them part and parcel of these quoted thoughts.

  9. Really thought-provoking Chris. You know I’m a bit more tech optimistic than you are but when “let’s just live on Mars” came up in my futurism courses I’d always tell students “you do know that living on Mars, even if possible, would really really suck.” Exponentially easier to live anywhere on earth.

  10. I’m really torn on this. I share yours and Chris Crawford’s “let’s be careful, a lot could go wrong, humans are arrogant, there are many bad unintended consequences of taking risks,etc.” mentality but this has to be balanced with the idea that we have to take some risks (for me this would include augmenting/enhancing our moral and intellectual faculties) to survive and flourish. And these risks would include using technology to transform ourselves and the world.

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