Mark Andressen: why optimism is always a winning strategy

Original author: New York Magazine
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Mark Andressen does not go into his pocket for a word. The tall, bald, energetic venture capitalist who invented the first popular Internet browser co-founded Netscape, made a fortune by investing early on Twitter and Facebook, and has since become Silicon Valley's main resident philosopher. He is omnipresent on Twitter , where his machine-gun lines of bold statements on various topics have gathered an army of followers (and involved in several very large battles). At a controversial moment for the IT industry, Andressen is the chief captain of the technology industry and tireless advocate for his special vision of the future.

I liked the moment you first met Mark Zuckerberg and he said something like “What was Netscape ?”

He did not know.

He was in high school when you founded Netscape. How does it feel to work in an industry where things change so fast that collective memory is completely rewritten in ten years?

I think this is fantastic. For example, now it seems as if there are two Silicon valleys. The first consists of people who were here during the collapse of 2000, and the second - of those who did not see this, and their psychology is radically different. Those who survived the collapse of 2000 seemed to have formed scar tissue, because then everything went wrong and it was bad.

You came to Silicon Valley in 1994. What was that like?

Everything is extinct here. Complete silence. After the giant PC boom in the 80s, when Apple, Intel, and Microsoft were active in Seattle. And then the economic recession hit the United States - in 1988, 1989 - and this is against the backdrop of the rapid ten-year rise of Japan. Silicon Valley had such a short-term bright flash, but Japan was going to pick everything up for itself. And then the American economy went downhill. You take the newspaper, and there is only endless suffering and adversity. Technology in the US is dead; economic growth has stopped. All American children - generation X loafers - no ambition, never get anything done.

What have you done?

I just went to college. I went my own way. I came here in 1994, and Silicon Valley was in a lethargic dream. In high school, I generally thought I would have to learn Japanese to work in the technology industry. My main feeling was that I missed everything, everything was already over. The movement was in the 80s, and I came too late. But in general, I may be the most optimistic person among all I know. I mean, I'm incredibly optimistic. I am optimistic, perhaps to the point of error, especially regarding new ideas. My typical tendency when getting acquainted with a new idea is not to ask “Will it work?”, But to ask “And what will happen if it works?”.

I work a lot to save such an installation, because it is very easy to slide into another mode. I remember when eBay started making progress, I thought: “Well, what for. Damn flea market? How much crap do people have in garages? Who needs it? ” But these were irrelevant questions. The eBay guys and early investors said, “Forget about whether this works or not. What will happen if it works? ” If the project fires, then you have the world's first global trading platform, you have a flow of goods of all kinds, you open the true market price of goods.

But you do not think that everything will work.

Not. But there are people programmed to be skeptics, and there are people programmed to be optimists. And I can say, at least over the past 20 years, that if you are on the side of optimists, you are usually right.

On the other hand, if there were more skeptics in 1999, people could save their retirement savings. Is this the importance of skepticism in the technology industry?

I don’t know what it gives you. I will say this. If you can point to time periods over the last hundred years, when everything calmed down and nothing changes, then maybe it is. But it is unlikely that such a time will ever come. Skeptics are not right all the time.

Today, Silicon Valley plays the cultural role that Wall Street could play in the 80s.

There are pros and cons here. But entrepreneurs will tell you that it is better - not necessarily easier - to develop a company during a recession, because there is less bustling around, it’s easier to recruit people, fewer competitors. Entrepreneurs say that it is difficult to grow a business during the economic boom because everyone around is agitated and too much money is meant for too many marginal companies.

Today in the technology industry there are several large companies: Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple. Which of today's startups do you think will join them?

All our startups.

You have investments in many companies.

And you should love all your children equally.

One of the things that you really like, at least on Twitter, is to dig up old pessimistic forecasts of people like Paul Krugman, where they compare the Internet with a new generation fax machine and all that.

This is part of the overall thrill of the IT business. So strange, but in fact it is a fundamental part of American culture. You read Tocqueville , right? The paradox is hidden in the very heart of American culture: in theory, we love changes, but when changes really manifest themselves, they are met with hostility. We love changes in general, but do not like them in particular. Absolutely about every thing anyone ever did here, there were always people saying, “This is bullshit. It will never work. This is stupid".

The media is definitely more skeptical of technology than you.

There is a kind of cultural criticism, individual manifestations. Obviously, I do not agree with many of them, but I am sure that a very correct set of topics has been chosen: will the technology take away all the jobs? Uneven income distribution, all this discussion about the destructive effect of technology.

I noticed that you didn’t really like Jill Lepore’s essay on the devastating impact of technology in The New Yorker.

There is not so much analysis as a primeval cry. But the argument that drives me the most crazy was often three years ago - that innovation was over. "Great stagnation." There is such an economist in Chicago, Robert Gordon, he says: “Everything new now is nonsense. How can this be compared to the industrial revolution? There will be no more economic growth. ” Honestly, I would rather accept criticism that technology is changing the world too much than the fact that it is insignificant.

If we talk about staffing the Silicon Valley, you can probably use online education. But I have a question, who is better at doing this kind of training? These are self-taught, people who can work independently. Studies show that members of the poor constitute a minority.

Too early to judge, because we are at the initial stage of development of this technology. It's like criticizing DOS 1.0 and saying that it will never turn into Windows. We are still at the experimental stage of the prototype. We cannot use the old approach to education in the world. We cannot build so many campuses. We do not have enough space, not enough money, not enough teachers. If you can go to Harvard, go to Harvard. But that is not the question. The question is how the 14-year-old from Indonesia will begin his life: subsistence farming or a Stanford-quality education course, which will allow him to choose a professional career.

There is a thing that people really underestimate: the impact of the economics of the entertainment industry on education. Right now, with massive online courses, the number of students is small - and you're just filming a professor in the audience. But let's project the situation for the future. Imagine that in ten years the basic course of mathematics (Math 101) is taught online, it is respected, fully accredited and a universally recognized certificate is issued. What if we expect a million students each semester? And what if each of them pays $ 100? If we know that we can receive $ 100 million in income from this course per semester? What budget will we allocate for preparing the course?

You can hire James Cameron.

You can literally hire James Cameron for an introductory math course. Or, for example, to study the wars of the Roman Empire in virtual reality, pacing the battlefield or flying over it. And below there are military operations, and the program shows you the maneuvers that occurred in reality. Or how about recreating the original Shakespearean productions at the Globe Theater?

Can we talk a little about robots, one of your favorite topics?

Of course.

People have been worried for decades that automation will ruin the economy.

Nobody likes to talk about the old. The old farm work was absolutely terrible. I mean, farmers got up at six in the morning and worked 14 hours a day. Work at the factory - people were dying there. Miners - they are trying to protect their mining jobs. This is terrible, terrible work. Newer jobs are better. They simply are better. This is happening all over China, and now in Indonesia and Vietnam. Every time Foxconn opens a factory, literally hundreds of thousands of people submit applications in the hope of finding a job. In developing countries, people are ready for anything to get into modern production, because the alternative is much worse. So actually, thanks to technological progress, work is getting better.

But suppose a machine is invented that cleans hotel rooms. We can process rooms more efficiently, hotels reduce costs. But all the maids are now out of work. Your thesis is that they should be retrained in another profession?

We are returning to libertarian things - I believe in a social protection system. I think that on an individual level, such changes are real and important. I myself grew up in a rural Wisconsin in the 70s. I grew up in an agricultural, industrial country. We lived like that. So I believe in an individual social protection system.

From an economic point of view, the situation you described is an example of maintaining a balance in terms of working hours (lump-of-labor fallacy), because housekeeping is not the only job in hotels. If you go to a modern hotel in a large city, you will see that there are many employees of other professions. All these people who work in spas, in fitness clubs, wine bars, guides. All these are new professions. If you went to a hotel a hundred years ago, none of these professions existed. So there is a cycle of development. You climb the ladder of welfare, make more tax deductions - and this money goes back to the social security system.

Here I can not agree. You assume that this money will automatically flow into the social protection system, that it will respond to growth and return resources back. This requires a deliberate change in legislation, to which many do not agree.

I am not one of these people. Our country has a very advanced benefit payment system.

Let's look at the situation with the hotel on the other hand. Suppose we abandoned the modernization. We have a magic machine that cleans the rooms, but we do not use it because we want to leave the maids jobs. Well, then in the old days, you need to leave work at the hotel to guys who are lighting stoves. What do we need to abandon heating systems and return them? Before the refrigerators, there was a whole layer of workers who pricked and brought ice. Should we return to storing food on ice, which is chopped and delivered manually? If you think cars are your enemy, then you have to go back and put everything in its place, right? If you follow this logic, you need to return to the very sources, that is, to subsistence farming. And it's better to make clothes with your own hands.

Let's talk about the nature of work. Keynes said that when everything is automated, we will not have material needs and the need for labor. All food will be delivered or synthesized ...

We are working on it. But we are not talking about the fact that there will be no need for work. Keynes wrote in the 20s and 30s, when a serious problem for a person was to get food or to heat a house. But it is a fallacy that human needs are limited, and as soon as you satisfy them all, then nothing more is needed. We have food and clothes, and that's all, we have enough. We don’t need a spa, we don’t need a psychologist, we don’t need video games, we don’t need space tourism, we don’t need artificial organs, we don’t need corneal implants for blind people, we don’t need thousands of other things that we discovered.

There is another point of view of Milton Friedman, which I adhere to. Friedman believed Keynes’s opinion was wrong for the same reason I did: human needs and requirements are endless. We will never be satisfied. Go to Keynes and tell him that every middle-class parent in the United States wants to enroll a child in violin lessons.

You posted a tweet last night that resonated: “It's hard to be a billionaire because no one will say that your stupid ideas are really stupid.” Was it autobiographical? I mean, is it bothering you?

I'm not a billionaire! That's why it amuses me so much! Everyone immediately thought that I was talking about myself.

But you are in such a position that if I worked for you, I would be afraid to call your stupid ideas stupid.

My tweet is about billionaires who don’t understand what is happening to them. They will be the last to know. Because they don’t feel how the situation is changing. They just feel something like "I am what I used to be, I go my own way, I do everything right." And very rarely do they really stop and think: “Everyone somehow treats me better than ten years ago.” By the way, the phenomenon is not limited to billionaires. The same applies to presidents, senators, mayors, all those in power.

So how can you, Mark Andressen, be sure to hear honest feedback?

Every morning I wake up and dozens of people on Twitter explain to me in detail why I am an idiot, which is actually very useful.

Have they ever convinced you?

They definitely keep me in shape, and we'll see if they can convince me. I mean, I like to argue.

Oh really?

For me, an important advantage of Twitter is that there are more people to argue with.

Judging by your tweets, you sleep about three hours a day.

I would say intermittently.

Do you have a bed in the office where you can relax during the day?

Now for the first time in my life I have an office with a door, so for the first time in my life I have a sofa in my office. So I had a great nap yesterday afternoon, actually.

What does the venture capitalist do all day? I was sure that you attend dozens of meetings a week, but what conclusion can I draw when I read your tweets 24 hours a day?

In reality, our company [Andreessen Horowitz] makes about 15 decisions per year.

It is a pleasant life.

Yeah. The result of our work lies in investment income. We are trustees for investors. They entrusted a lot of money to us, and not to other people. The task of the company is to make investments and make profit from them. And we make about 15 major investments a year. So these are important decisions. At the end of the day, what are we most responsible for? Those same 15 decisions and their consequences. A lot of time I work with the founders and CEOs of the companies in our portfolio. In fact, I am in constant contact with them.

Returning to free time. I know that you love Deadwood. Is he still your favorite series?

Yes. Favorite for all the time so far.

In fact, there can be no better choice for a venture capitalist, because there the action takes place during the gold rush, when the foundations of society are laid. Do you think you could become a gold digger in the days of the Wild West?

Oh, sure I could. Deadwood is in Dakota, but California is obviously right for him. So yes, no doubt ... All my life I admired the concept of the frontier.

Where I see the spirit of the frontier now is moving around the extension of life. I think many techies are annoyed that we have not yet defeated death.

On this occasion, the amazing thing is that if you conduct a survey of Americans and ask if they would like to extend their lives, then amazingly many answer “no.” Something like 70% or 80% say they would not want to.

Do you share their point of view?

I think there are two pitfalls to watch out for. One of them is the phenomenon that as people age, they become less susceptible to new ideas. Not individually, and there are many exceptions, but collectively, from the point of view of society. Another interesting point is inequality. If you give people another 20 or 50 years to accumulate wealth, then the concentration of money by age groups will become very noticeable.

One of the things that I read about you is that you are not always tactful. It seems you once said that you do not like people.

I love people in an abstract sense.

And on an individual level?

On an individual level, I don’t know. I haven't figured it out yet.

Interviewed by Kevin Roose for New York Magazine, published October 20, 2014
(published abridged)

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