As well as developing many of the digital innovations that shape the world today, Silicon Valley has also spawned a variety of philosophical movements over the years, often garnering mainstream attention after being picked up by influential tech bosses.
In the latest example of the phenomenon, business leaders, including YCombinator CEO Gary Tan and digital innovator-cum-venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, have endorsed a fiercely pro-AI techno-philosophy known as “effective accelerationism,” often shortened to e/acc. And now, Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin has waded into the debate too.
Writing in his personal blog on Monday, November 27, Buterin responded to Andreessen’s Techno-Optimist Manifesto , in which American businessman articulates his views on an idea that is fundamental to the intellectual culture of Silicon Valley: the notion of technology as a force for good that must be harnessed in the name of progress.
A kind of polemic against what he perceives as a prevailing pessimistic discourse on technology, the views contained within Andreessen’s manifesto place it firmly in the accelerationist camp of political philosophies.
For anyone familiar with his political and economic beliefs, Andreessen’s latest monologue is continuous with a long-running ideological project. Over the years, the influential technology investor had often spoken of his admiration for the works of Ray Kurzweil and the controversial father of accelerationism, Nick Land.
The addition of “effective,” however, is more recent.
Alongside other prominent figures within the American technology sector, in 2023, Andreessen praised the pseudonymous internet personalities Beff Jezos and Bayes Lord, who coined the term e/acc in 2022.
In Land’s initial formulation, accelerationism posits that there is no way to resist or slow the “techno-capital machine,” which can only accelerate the inevitable advance of technology.
Inflected through a digital culture that draws as much from SciFi movies and 4Chan mythology as it does the realm of traditional academia, e/acc has moved the discussion forward somewhat.
From the inevitability of the forward march of capitalism, proponents of the new theory embrace acceleration as much as possible, rejecting outright any attempts to curb technological progress.
While Buterin is sympathetic to Andreessen’s techno-optimism, the two men diverge on the issue of Artificial Intelligence (AI).
Andreessen’s view can be summed up by his assertation that “any deceleration of AI will cost lives.” Arguing against the precautionary principle, the Silicon Valley investor rejects any attempt to constrain technological growth, stating that “there is no material problem […] that cannot be solved with more technology.”
Meanwhile, although he broadly aligns with Andreessen’s criticism of anti-growth narratives, Buterin makes a point of distinguishing AI from other technologies. Observing that “AI is fundamentally different from other tech,” the Ethereum founder said it warrants a uniquely cautious approach.
Buterin’s understanding of AI acknowledges that its capacity for self-improvement undermines the idea that any negative consequences can simply be countered with more advanced technology at a later date.
Moreover, while the prospect of a Skynet-style superintelligence turning against humanity might seem outlandish in 2023, Buterin made the case that in the wrong hands, contemporary AI already poses a significant threat to human freedom:
“My basic fear is that the same kinds of managerial technologies that allow OpenAI to serve over a hundred million customers with 500 employees will also allow a 500-person political elite, or even a 5-person board, to maintain an iron fist over an entire country. With modern surveillance to collect information, and modern AI to interpret it, there may be no place to hide.”
Considering the rapid pace of AI development in recent years, Buterin isn’t the only one who has voiced concerns.
Around the world, most politicians and business leaders reject the hardline accelerationist stance and acknowledge that some checks and balances are needed. However, the question of what the appropriate level of restraint is remains contested.
Among AI developers, disagreement on the matter has created a growing rift between those who favor unbridled growth and those who support exercising restraint.
On one side, there are those like Emmett Shear, who lean toward moderation. Before his short-lived tenure as the CEO of OpenAI, Shear made it clear that he thought AI was evolving too quickly. “If we’re at a speed of 10 right now, a pause is reducing to 0. I think we should aim for a 1-2 instead,” he stated in September.
Now, however, Altman is once again at the reigns. Newly empowered by a board shakeup that was one of the conditions of his return, Altman’s leadership, while unlikely to endorse a full-blown e/acc agenda, nonetheless signals that the techno-optimists are back in charge.