The man whose software ate the world

Marc Andreessen on building, COVID, and how the Internet is taking us back to previous forms of thinking

I’ll tell you how old I am without telling you how old I am: my first sight of the World Wide Web was at the University of Navarra in Pamplona, running something like Netscape 3.x while watching the ‘throbber’—a looping, pixelated animation of a planet-straddling ‘N’ getting hit with a meteor shower—for longer than a minute while a page loaded. The thought I’d one day earn my living in the world that then-clunky application created, or that I’d be standing here writing about my interview with one of its inventors and architects, never even vaguely occurred to me.

Reviewing Andreessen’s past accomplishments and present associations here would be redundant for your typical Pull Request reader, so I’ll abstain. More recently, Andreessen’s venture firm A16z launched Future, a site ‘by and for people building the future’.

You pounded out your essay ‘It’s time to build’ in a single evening in a bout of angry inspiration, and it went über-viral the next day.

It made me think of the 19th century and Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days. There’s a scene where the English gentleman protagonist and his valet are crossing what would become United States in a complete novelty: a transcontinental railroad. The train gets to a decrepit bridge that clearly can’t handle the length and weight in question, but in a very democratic and feisty way, the American passengers decide that they’ll just fly across fast as hell and hope the bridge doesn’t buckle. Off they go and just make it, the bridge crumbling the moment they get across. Everyone cheers, and the French author thinks they’re all crazy.

It’s funny that in the 19th century, the soon-to-be hegemonic power that was doing all this crazy but admirable stuff was the United States relative to Europe. And now it seems like it’s almost China relative the United States (and Europe doesn’t even seriously enter anyone’s plans). Your essay embodies that very American spirit, but what went wrong? How did we get here?

I think the historical comparison to Jules Verne is very apt. This is going to be simply explained by stages of economic development. As you’re alluding, America was the dynamic new force on the economic stage at that point. And there was actually a money flow component to it, which was that the build-out of America was financed from old Europe. All of Europe had been what you were describing for 300 years or so. But by the time the US came along, that spirit was starting to fade. So what they did quite literally was put all their money in the US. The way JP Morgan got established was that his father Junius Morgan ran the leading merchant bank in London, and then set up his son Pierpont to run a correspondent bank in New York, and the two of them basically funneled money from the UK to the US to build everything in what was known as the Second Industrial Revolution.

So is this a changing of the guard to China or is it just China’s turn to build out? From that standpoint it makes sense that Western money would flow into the developing world in search of higher returns. It’s also indicative from that standpoint that when we talk about China’s “miracle”, the things they build super fast are still literally things like train stations, right? They’re not building fusion reactors super fast, they’re not building things we don’t have super fast. They’re building things that we were building a hundred years ago…super fast.

This reminds me of some viral Twitter video I saw showing some snarl of highway ramps; it might even have been from a Chinese government account. They were so proud of this, and I wanted to tweet-reply: you know, Americans were excited about this sort of thing in the 1960s.

I’m in favor of everyone having train stations and freeway systems, it’s all good. But the American freeway system got built out starting in the 1930s; it’s been a long time since that kind of thing has amazed us.

That’s kind of a historical view on it, then you get to the cultural and there something did happen.

Ironically, that change gets pegged right around to the year I was born, 1971. There’s this kink in all these curves, where things really started to slow. We as a society decided that basically the build out of the frontier was over. What was the literal frontier for a long time, and then it was whatever JFK termed the New Frontier, we just kind of decided that that frontier mentality was over. We decided to transition to what you might call a softer culture, inaugurated by the hippies and the environmental movements and all the other changes in the 60s and 70s. From a sweeping historical standpoint maybe that’s called for, maybe there should be a balance between hard and soft. Maybe there needs to be a balance between aggressive expansion and environmentalism, or maybe there needs to be a balance of hard-edge capitalism and safety standards and support networks.

I think you also have to ask the question, okay, what about progress? What about actually getting to the future? For the environment, just the most striking thing that keeps jumping out, which I just still can’t believe it’s not the topic of daily conversation is: ok, if you want to eliminate emissions, we actually have the technology for doing that, it’s nuclear fission power. It’s actually highly safe, certainly compared to the myth and legend and compared to the alternatives. It’s just like a kill shot for carbon emissions. And yet it’s completely ruled out from the environmental movement. It’s representative of the fact that we do have the technological capability to fix a whole bunch of problems that we all agree that we have, and we also lack something in the national spirit or national character right now that really wants to actually fix these things. We want to complain about them; we just don’t want to fix them.

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