Ross Douthat on the Marc Andreessen Interview

Virtual vs. Tactile

My recent interview with Marc Andreessen has gotten quite a lot of attention, especially in mainstream media and in particular in tech news. It is also surpassed my interview with Glenn Greenwald in terms of unique page views.

Ross Douthat has collected and posted some of his thoughts on the interview here. This serves as a nice follow up which should spur discussion elsewhere.

Marc has urged America ‘to build’. But build what?

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?

The crux of the debate, as per Ross:

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.

This is an important debate to have, but my focus is instead placed on how this specific form of technology, the virtual, changes the nature of us humans.


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.

The virtual vs. the tactile.

Ross raises another important point:

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?

At this point the human is now under control by those that control the virtual. Governments have a monopoly on force, but what does this mean if inevitable handful of corporations control the virtual in a world that is dominated by the virtual? “The Matrix” is too often referenced but it serves the point well here.

Lastly: isn’t a focus on building a virtual utopia an acknowledgement of our failure in the meatspace? Is it not just a form of escapism?