It’s Time To Learn

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 foreseeable 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.

11 Responses to “It’s Time To Learn”

  1. Steve Portigal

    “the mostly pointless pandemic hackathons”

    Hmm – maybe you’ve already written about this and I haven’t seen it – but this seems worth of unpacking with some examples? What are they and why are they worthless?

    I took a look today at – probably one of a dozen similar sites I’ve looked at lately – I didn’t look at it critically, just looked for an easy match and didn’t see one.

    1. Scott Berkun

      I’m likely being flippant here I’m sure as some probably have been helpful and if nothing else they give people who want to help a chance to try and do that, and meant other people with the same values, which might lead to more helpful good things in the future. .

      But hackathons rarely involve much outreach to the people the “hacks” are supposed to be made for. It ends up being “let me guess what the problem is, and what app I can make given my skills, that might be helpful and then try to build it in 48 hours and largely abandon it after.” Those 48 hours would probably be better spent just volunteering 10 hours a week at an actual organization that is deep in a need or problem that probably needs some not very exciting volunteer help (fixing a WordPress website, answering phones, whatever) far more.

      This is a decent summary of the general issues with hackathons:

      1. Steve Portigal

        I don’t disagree about hackathons in general. I have been impressed with what I’ve seen designers and engineers try to come together and do right now – solve specific tangible and tactical problems and it’s a welcome relief from the designer hubris of tackling wicked problems. If you are conflating “hackathons” and “pandemic hackathons” I am certainly conflating “pandemic hackatons” with every grassroots self-organizing designer response to the pandemic.

        1. AJ

          I think the key to a successful hackathon is the prework. Are you seeding the ideas based on user research? Do you understand the personas you are building for? Are users (or proxies) part of your team? When we run our “Innovation Days” we include business/user stakeholders as part of each squad and have prework done before the day. In addition, we introduce journey mapping as a mandatory activity for each team and expect them to present on it as well.

          1. Scott Berkun

            I agree, and while I admit it’s opinion more than data I don’t think most hackathons invest much in prework. In fact many advertise the opposite.

      2. Drew

        GiveCamp sounds like the good example you’re looking for. Work with nonprofits to identify a need that could be fulfilled in a weekend, then bring together volunteers for a weekend to knock it out.

        I’ve done the one in Cleveland for 3 years. Each year we had about 3-4 dozen groups, and about 80% were building or updating websites for them. Not glamorous, but they needed it.

  2. Elisabeth

    Thank you for responding to the essay, I really appreciate it.

    The thing that struck me the most about his essay was his utter failure to acknowledge the other crises we are facing that “building” will exacerbate — we have built our way into a world that is experiencing a sixth mass extinction, higher CO2 levels than in the past 3+ million years, and the prospects of large swathes of the planet becoming uninhabitable within the next few decades due to sea level rise, temperature rise, and water and food scarcity. The natural world is teetering on the brink and it is our building that has caused this. So while building might solve many of our every day and immediate human problems, and perhaps mitigate the economic problem and some of the health problems we face — with your suggestions and caveats — building will only exacerbate those other problems and eventually we will find out that no amount of money or masks or ICU beds will solve those problems. Only a radical and immediate shift in our thinking about how we live on the planet will do that, and Mr. Andresson just wants more of the same (building) that got us into this pickle in the first place. In this day and age, that is willful blindness and ethically irresponsible.

    I was hoping that a “shock to the system” might open up possibilities in people’s thinking about how we adjust our lives for the better of all of nature, including humanity, but so far I have seen little evidence that is happening. Most people are just wanting to get “back to normal” as fast as possible. For instance, the world doesn’t need cruise ships. At all. They are utterly useless. So why are we not having a serious discussion about ending that industry for once and for all? Likewise, most tourism is completely unnecessary, wasteful, and destructive. Why are we not talking about how to build local economies that can work without tourism to keep people afloat? And speaking of local economies, globalization is clearly a disaster when a pandemic is at hand. Where are the economists who should be thinking far far outside the box when it comes to how to rebuild local economies, supply chains, and community resilience? I see that discussion happening at the local level, which is great. But the big push from above will be to rush back to buy buy buy at all costs once things get going again, which would be exactly what we don’t want to do (just like build build build without some much deeper thinking — as you point out so well — is exactly what we don’t want to do).

    Well, I could go on… I will end here :-) Thank you Scott.

  3. Tim Reddan

    Great to see some critical thought being used. As I read your article it reminded me of Meredith Broussard’s (2018) book “Artificial Unintelligence: How Computers Misunderstand the World”. She has some highly relevant things to say about the tech-boys club which seems to be epitomized by Andreseen’s essay.

  4. Markus Grupp

    Thanks for sharing your perspective.

    (As an aside, the speeding / soaring suspended monorail in Wuppertal, Germany has been an effective public transport mode for over a century 😀)


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