Yesterday my feed had many references to a new Marc Andressen essay titled It’s Time to Build. I understand its popularity as it has an enthusiasm that’s in short supply in the tech world today.
But what he has to say floats about the fray in a disturbing way – thousands of people are dying from a problem we aren’t sure we know how to solve. Unemployment is rising towards 20%, which means basic needs for many is now a struggle. The government decisions happening now will determine how many more thousands of people die, especially front-line workers and the poor. And his essay doesn’t give consideration to them at all: having everyone build now will solve everything is his empty answer.
There’s much more. Let’s dig in:
Every Western institution was unprepared for the coronavirus pandemic, despite many prior warnings. This monumental failure of institutional effectiveness will reverberate for the rest of the decade, but it’s not too early to ask why, and what we need to do about it.
This sounds compelling at first as I hoped he’d explore what the rest of the world did right, so we can learn from them, but that is nowhere to be found in this essay, despite how well documented our lessons are. What did they do right? Is not a question he seems to have studied. A sign of things to come, or more precisely not to come.
Many of us would like to pin the cause on one political party or another, on one government or another. But the harsh reality is that it all failed — no Western country, or state, or city was prepared
Here he has made pandemic response binary, either you pass or you fail, which is not how things happen in the world. There’s always a spectrum for how to evaluate outcomes. If he wanted to write about the future he could have, but he starts in the present and makes everyone equal as a way out, which dodges learning anything from what’s happened.
Some U.S. States and European nations responded much better than others, as evidenced by the countless charts we all study daily. But that spectrum isn’t convenient for what Andreessen really wants to say, so he frames the world as pass or fail so he can confidently say that everyone (except for all of Asia which he won’t talk about) has failed.
And pinning the blame means you blame someone who was not involved (which he calls here pinning the cause). You can’t say this about someone whose job is precisely to prevent a thing that ends up happening.
For example, if a CEO calls the threat of a competitor a hoax and tells his staff to ignore it, despite their knowledge and interest in doing something pre-emptive, and then that competitor devastates them a few weeks later, and the stock price tanks, and 20% of staff are fired, it wouldn’t be pinning the blame. Instead it’d be holding the people in power accountable for the consequences of their actions.
Andreessen is avoiding politics by not mentioning Trump, or his staff, or any government agency, all of whom are accountable in degrees for what has happened. Andreesen wants to avoid alienating anyone but he’s doing it at the expense of credibility. Later on he writes:
“We need to demand more of our political leaders…”
But he does the opposite in this essay. We pay our leaders to plan for, respond to and be accountable for the outcomes of major events and he gives them a free pass, without even a mention of who has served their citizens well.
We see this today with the things we urgently need but don’t have. We don’t have enough coronavirus tests, or test materials — including, amazingly, cotton swabs and common reagents. We don’t have enough ventilators, negative pressure rooms, and ICU beds.
A cursory look at the successful pandemic responses showed that if you act early and shut social interaction down quickly, you never need vast quantities of ventilators or ICU beds. I’m not saying we should copy what they all did, as there were many tradeoffs, but we should start by learning from it, instead of leaving it out completely from essays on the subject.
Even if prevention wasn’t possible, we could have had the supplies we needed. They were for sale. But someone has to decide it is worth keeping massive expensive inventories that are rarely used. A hospital owned by a corporation that wants to stay lean to keep profits high, is unlikely to do this. What corporations call inefficiency, in the short term, is often very important in the long.
In the movie Catch-22 a corporation replaces parachutes of active WWII war planes with shares of stock, using the logic “when was the last time you actually used one? Wouldn’t you rather grow wealth instead?” Which works great until your plane is going down, which planes at war, and nations in pandemics, often do.
It’s governments that historically are well suited to insure societies against uncommon but devastating events, like wars, famines and natural disasters. Without shareholders and profit motive they can prioritize differently. America’s prized $748 billion military mostly stockpiles missiles, guns and aircraft that will never be used for their purpose, but we pay anyway. Why? In case we need it. That’s what a government can do. Why the same logic isn’t used when it’s about the health of citizens is a better line of inquiry than simply pointing out that we didn’t have enough of something. A small percent of that military budget might have been enough.
This was not a building problem. It was a priorities problem. A logistical problem. A leadership problem. You could call it many different kinds of problems but building isn’t high on the list.
Making masks and transferring money are not hard. We could have these things but we chose not to — specifically we chose not to have the mechanisms, the factories, the systems to make these things. We chose not to *build
Finally we really get to what he wanted to say all along: BUILD!
But he’s off the rails already. Sure, making masks that sit in a warehouse and transferring money to individual consumers are easy. But that was only part of the challenge. The other parts were:
- How to pay for a stockpile of masks/resources that are unlikely to be used for decades
- How to quickly distribute masks/resources across 50 states, or between dozens of counties within states, and through various agencies who may not have coordinated before (or pay for the training and exercises to make sure they are always ready)
- How to build a public tech money transfer infrastructure within existing legacy (e.g. COBOL) systems that can service citizens during a national crisis
These are hard problems to solve, or in his language, hard solutions to build. He doesn’t frame the problem this way because… I don’t know why.
Maybe because it doesn’t support what he really wants to say? Or maybe he has little experience with massive government infrastructure problems with 30 year old COBOL codebases and didn’t talk to anyone who does, like the folks at 18F or USDS who are technologists who work in the U.S. government and can explain exactly why these challenges are far harder than they appear.
I agree with him that these should be solvable problems but part of the answer is having more of our best young technologists choose to work to help society in profoundly important ways instead of being recruited to join one of Andreessen’s startups that’s going to go try, but likely fail, to disrupt something or other that everyone involved admits isn’t really that important but happens to have a bigger “growth opportunity.”
You don’t just see this smug complacency, this satisfaction with the status quo and the unwillingness to build, in the pandemic, or in healthcare generally. You see it throughout Western life, and specifically throughout American life.
Who has smug complacency? I do not know who he is talking about.
If anything, most of America is angry, scared, lost or grieving, and feels let down in one way or another, which is neither smug nor complacent.
Is he including the people who work at his startups, or use their products? Or the millions of people who use the products his startups are busy competing with to convert into their own customers? Who is he rallying against here? I don’t know and he doesn’t say.
We have top-end universities, yes, but with the capacity to teach only a microscopic percentage of the 4 million new 18 year old’s in the U.S. each year, or the 120 million new 18 year olds in the world each year. Why not educate every 18 year old? Isn’t that the most important thing we can possibly do?
What year is he writing this in? Schools and universities are closed indefinitely right now and some are likely to go bankrupt.
I actually agree that education in America is in a bad place but we’re in a crisis. And even if we weren’t this isn’t a problem of building. It’s a problem of systems, of leadership, policy and bureaucracy. I don’t think Andreessen has watched season 4 of the Wire. If he had, he’d understand how school quality is inextricably linked to city and state politics. It’s a really hard and long term problem that is rarely solved by budgets and technology alone.
You see it in transportation. Where are the supersonic aircraft? Where are the millions of delivery drones? Where are the high speed trains, the soaring monorails, the hyperloops, and yes, the flying cars?
We are now fully in bad example territory.
- Supersonic aircraft? The Concorde was expensive. And noisy. And is convenience of faster air travel really important for the forseeable future?
- High speed trains? Much of the world has them, but America has not invested much in infrastructure in 50 years. Our highways are bridges are literally falling apart. And our culture has a huge preference for cars over public transportation. In a democracy that makes it pretty hard. Like masks, high speed trains exist, but someone has to decide to pay for them and we haven’t.
- Soaring Monorails? I live in Seattle. I know about monorails. They are inefficient and expensive (They also don’t soar – birds do. Maybe he meant speeding monorails? But they don’t get very fast either.) There isn’t one non-imaginary city that uses them effectively (and DisneyWorld doesn’t count).
- Hyperloop? Is he only going to mention technological ideas that most experts think are ridiculous for very clear reasons but the uninitiated love to romanticize?
- Flying cars? Yes! He did it! Had he mentioned jetpacks too he would have had the full set.
Had he simply listed important problems that he feels we have underinvested in (education, infrastructure, emergency response, climate change) I’d be fully behind him. But that’s not what this is. It’s an underthought list of tech-lust thinking. He was trying to be inspiring here but these are terrible examples.
How about free internet for all? (A timely problem since underprivileged kids can’t do schoolwork from home right now). How about ensuring basic health care for everyone or even that every family has enough food to eat for the next few months? Those are building problems too, but they don’t sound as cool to the tech-centric as his list does. Historically the truly important things technology can do for us in the long term don’t seem cool, but maybe a silver lining of the pandemic is that will change.
Building isn’t easy, or we’d already be doing all this. We need to demand more of our political leaders, of our CEOs, our entrepreneurs, our investors. We need to demand more of our culture, of our society. And we need to demand more from one another. We’re all necessary, and we can all contribute, to building.
I’m doing my part my demanding more from his essay. And you can do the same by demanding more of mine.
I’d prefer you also go into the part of your community that is struggling right now and help them get the basics they need. If you go to them (virtually of course) and listen, and pay attention, and learn, I bet you’ll find plenty of easy things to build that will help them right now.
Even better, find people already building solutions, and have been working on these problems for years, who need more money or other support. Builders are often bad at helping if it doesn’t involve them building something themselves (e.g. the mostly pointless pandemic hackathons), even if they’re not the best person to do it.
There is only one way to honor their legacy and to create the future we want for our own children and grandchildren, and that’s to build.
I can agree with this. Provided we’re talking about building societies, safety nets, higher quality of life for communities and the tools they actually need to make that future, I’m in. Or building better tools and telling better stories for reminding us how interconnected our fates are.
But first we have a crisis to solve. And unless you’ve lived through a pandemic before, it’s time to learn before we act. We have to look to our experts who know the options and the tradeoffs and how they played out in the past. And more than anything, resist the temptation to jump ahead and likely repeat the mistakes that have been made before.