The Noah-Marc interview

Views from the top of tech

Bloomberg’s Noah Smith has an interview with Marc Andreessen up on his personal blog. A few quick notes on its contents while I am in edit for TechCrunch and thus free for a moment:

Marc’s regulatory perspective, regarding the private sector during COVID, and its relationship with the state more broadly:

[T]he private sector can and does deliver even under considerable duress, and even when much of our political system is devoted to stifling it with regulatory handcuffs and damaging it with misguided policies.

This is a simplistic — government money helped fund the vaccine work that Marc is giving private companies full credit for — but illustrative.

My perspective is that the United States has traditionally had a light-touch relationship with the tech industry. And that we’ve kept it.

It’s correct that some ideas currently up for discussion in the American legislative branch are silly; but most won’t become more than campaign commercials pretending to be policy white papers. It doesn’t seem likely that much is going to change between the tech industry and government, apart from slightly greater scrutiny of acquisitions by major players.

We’ll survive.

But Marc posits that the American political system is up to much more, that it is devoted to stifling the domestic tech industry. I’ve retained quite a lot of the libertarian bent I fostered during my late youth and early adulthood, but this doesn’t scan with me.

Turning to the power of software, I like the following from Marc:

Software is a lever on the real world. […]

Software is our modern alchemy. Isaac Newton spent much of his life trying and failing to transmute a base element -- lead -- into a valuable material -- gold. Software is alchemy that turns bytes into actions by and on atoms. It’s the closest thing we have to magic.

This is spot-on and is why I find the technology market so interesting to follow as an external observer and reporter.

To underscore Marc’s point here, I’ve been very excited by the growth in no-code, and low-code services. Having worked inside of startups a few times now, I’ve seen how non-engineering teams can get utterly stymied at times by a lack of technical talent. Perhaps software systems with more flexible outputs and lower-requirement technical inputs will allow more folks to become the sort of alchemists that Marc discusses.

It sure would accelerate productivity.

Next up, media. Noah asked Marc about “a new wave of social media, including a16z investments Clubhouse and Substack. Here’s the investor on Clubhouse:

Clubhouse is the Athenian agora come to life, globally. I mean that seriously. Clubhouse is the first venue for people anywhere in the world to come together in groups to talk -- not metaphorically, but literally -- about any topic they can imagine.

I’ve taken part in a dozen or so Clubhouse events. And I’ve tuned into friends taking part in other Clubhouse events here and there for months now. And while I am all for optimism, this doesn’t fit with reality. At least thus far.

Generally speaking, most folks on Clubhouse aren’t speaking, generally. At least in my experience.

Instead, Clubhouse seems to be a place where folks with audiences can hold conversations, and others can listen. It’s like podcasting, but live. And many other companies are building similar tooling that mimics the best of Clubhouse, inside of networks/platforms where folks are already engaged with audio.

Perhaps Clubhouse will hold onto its early lead in live, mobile, group audio streaming. Perhaps not. But the agora comparison feels more grandiose than valid.

Next, Substack. Or as I like to think of it, every journalist’s insurance policy:

Substack is the business model for intellectual creativity that’s been missing on the Internet for 30 years. I’m so excited about this. Substack isn’t a new form of communication; in fact it’s the original form of Internet communication -- the written essay, the IETF Request for Comments, the newsgroup posting, the group email, the blog post. But until now you could never get paid for writing online, and now all of a sudden you can. I think it’s hard to imagine how transformational this is going to be.

Substack is causing enormous amounts of new quality writing to come into existence that would never have existed otherwise -- raising the level of idea formation and discourse in a world that badly needs it. So much of legacy media, due to the technological limitations of distribution technologies like newspapers and television, makes you stupid. Substack is the profit engine for the stuff that makes you smart.

Paid newsletters aren’t new, though Substack has done a good job building a tool with an easy on-ramp to charging for writing.

In a sense I want Marc to be right here, that Substack really will create tons of monetary value for the writers of the world. Writing is how I make my living today. Of course I want it to become as lucrative as possible.

But here again, we’re getting the most bullish case for something that is merely a single player in a larger cohort of companies building similar/related/competing service.

And frankly Substack is just blogging with a strong newsletter tie-in, and Stripe. Sure, the company has built more around its service — and good on it for investing in insurance and the like for writers — but I am writing this to you in a CMS that isn’t much different from others I’ve used for years. So, here’s to optimism, and not overstating the case.1

My dear friend Holden has a few notes on Marc’s Substack perspective that are worth considering, if you want to chew on the matter a bit more.

A few more things as I am nearly out of edit and thus have to get back to work. This bit is a lot:

Peter Thiel has made the characteristically sweeping observation that AI is in some sense a left wing idea -- centralized machines making top-down decisions -- but crypto is a right wing idea -- many distributed agents, humans and bots, making bottom-up decisions.

This rubbed me the wrong way as it conflates right-wing political ideology with libertarian political thought. I disagree with that framing. And Marc is conflating left with a desire for absolute control, something that we tend to see most in autocratic/fascist and other forms of right-wing government.

Small-l liberalism is not right-wing, at least in the modern conception, so this is all a bit muddled for me. (Obviously I am trying to cover a lot of ground in a few words here; so give me an extra inch of space due to my time constraints.)

And on China:

Many countries need to consider very carefully whether they want to run on China Inc.'s technology stack with all of the downstream control implications. Do you really want China to be able to turn off your money?

In the meantime, the West's technology champion, the United States, has decided to self-flagellate -- both political parties and their elected representatives are busily savaging the US technology industry every way they possibly can. Our public sector hates our private sector and wants to destroy it, while China's public sector works hand in glove with its private sector, because of course it does, it owns its private sector. At some point, we may wish to consider whether we should stop machine-gunning ourselves in the foot at the start of this quite important marathon.

Agreed on the risks related to depending on Chinese tech.

Marc’s notes on the tech industry viz the United States government still strike me as hyperbolic. As does the idea that the domestic “public sector hates our private sector and wants to destroy it.”

Ok back to work.

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I will say that if Substack manages to come up with a neat way to bundle paid newsletters, allowing writers to better team up, collab, and the like, it could really change the world. Today the dichotomy between going solo, or staying with a Big Pub is too stark. More work to close that gap would generate a lot more space for writing innovation.