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Pandemic Progress


Pandemic Progress

Courtesy of Ben Thompson, Stratechery

(originally published on June 21, 2021)

If the Internet Archive is to be believed, Marc Andreessen’s April 2020 coronavirus-driven exhortation It’s Time to Build never actually included that futuristic picture of skyscrapers; it’s in the metadata so that it shows up on social media like Twitter:

Marc Andreessen's "It's Time to Build" tweet

What is even more intriguing is when, exactly, the building happened; after all, Andreessen wrote last week in Technology Saves the World:

Last April, I issued a call to our technology industry that it was time to build — and I am so proud of how we delivered. Please join me in an enthusiastic — virtual! — round of applause for all of the amazing workers in our spectacular technology industry who made all this possible. The experience of COVID has made crystal clear both how important our technology is to human flourishing, and how well we can deliver. Technology helped save the world.

Mission accomplished?

Future Business Models

Andreessen’s new essay was published on Andreessen Horowitz’s (a16z) much-ballyhooed new media property Future; you will recall much of the media establishment losing its mind over the announcement in January; I argued in Publishing is Back to the Future that the announcement seemed to be part of a much larger shift in media from a world of scarcity, where newspapers were profitable thanks to geographic monopolies, to one of abundance, where publications succeeded based on their ability to attract audiences who could visit any website on the Internet:

To put it another way, what the New York Times has become is not so different from what Andreessen Horowitz is proposing to build. Margit Wennmachers said in that introductory post that “Our lens is rational optimism about technology and the future”; as a long time subscriber of the New York Times, I think it is fair to call their lens rational skepticism about technology and its effects. What is notable about both is that their lenses are perfectly aligned with their business models (and, I would note, both claim to be motivated to change the world).

a16z’s business model is, of course, venture capital, and Wennmachers, in an interview with Bloomberg’s Emily Chang, was clear that driving a16z’s venture business was the primary focus of Future:

I’m trying to accomplish a business goal. Our firm wants to advance the future and thinks that technology is a good force in the world, and by implication we think that will make us attractive to entrepreneurs, and that’s what our business is all about. The three things that matter in venture capital are seeing the deals, picking the deals, and very importantly, winning the deals. If my function can help us see the deals then I’m making a contribution to advancing the future.

Wennmachers added that Future wasn’t going to be focused on traditional news reporting, and, for the record, none of this is in conflict with the original announcement; that’s not to say the media’s overreaction wasn’t warranted: I can only imagine how many page views and subscription dollars were driven by said overreaction. Understanding business models has always been one of the most reliable ways to understand the behavior of organizations.

Technology Saves the World

One could certainly make a similar argument about the striking differences between It’s Time to Build and Technology Saves the World; in How Tech Can Build I noted that the venture capital business model, which is biased towards zero marginal cost business models, wasn’t particularly well-suited to the sort of industrial policy that Andreessen seemed to be espousing:

I agree with Andreessen that much of the software revolution is inevitable; I also agree that tech’s seeming exclusivity on innovation has also been about the online space being the one place without the inertia and regulatory capture Andreessen decries. If you are talented and ambitious, what better place to be?

What I also sense in Andreessen’s essay, though, is the acknowledgment that tech too has chosen the easier path. Instead of fighting inertia or regulatory capture, it has been easier to retreat to Silicon Valley, justify the massive costs of doing so by pursuing infinite-upside outcomes predicated on zero marginal costs, which means relying almost exclusively on software as the means of innovation.

Technology Saves the World seems to imply that is sufficient; Andreessen cites a number of ways that technology has excelled during the pandemic:

  • Vaccines, particularly those developed using mRNA, were created, tested, and delivered at scale within a year.
  • Telemedicine was enabled at scale.
  • The majority of businesses continued to function thanks to technology platforms that enabled remote work.
  • Huge numbers of small businesses moved online, thanks to platforms like Facebook, Instacart, Doordash, and more.
  • Schools figured out online learnings, laying the groundwork for a huge expansion in educational opportunities.
  • Online entertainment kept people entertained, and online networks kept people connected.
  • The realization that people can work remotely separated the link between geography and economic opportunity.

This leads to the cynical argument: all of the pieces for these success stories were built before the pandemic hit — that’s why the U.S. was able to navigate the pandemic as well as it did. Which, conveniently enough, means that venture capital was already getting things right. It’s not-so-much “Time to Build” as it is “Keep Building the Things We Were Building All Along.” The business model is safe!

Revisiting Compaq and Coronavirus

Your ears may have perked up at the phrase “that’s why the U.S. was able to navigate the pandemic as well as it did”; wasn’t the American response an abject disaster? It certainly seemed so a year ago; Andreessen opened It’s Time to Build by writing:

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. 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 — and despite hard work and often extraordinary sacrifice by many people within these institutions. So the problem runs deeper than your favorite political opponent or your home nation.

I had struck a similarly despondent tone a couple of weeks earlier in Compaq and Coronavirus:

The fact of the matter is that we do make tradeoffs between human lives and economic activity all the time — speed limits are perhaps the most banal example. What is truly tragic is the utter lack of resolve and lack of a bias for action in this so-called tradeoff. The only options are to give up the economy or give in to the virus: the possibility of actually beating the damn thing is completely missing from the conversation. To put it another way, the West feels like Compaq in the 1990s, relying on its brand name and partnerships with other entities to do the actual work, forgetting that it was hard work and determination that made it great in the first place.

I drew a contrast to Taiwan, which responded rapidly to limit the spread of the coronavirus, and then kept it at bay for over a year, allowing life to operate normally. Today, though, the tables have turned: the U.S. is almost completely open, thanks to vaccines, while Taiwan, like many other Asian countries, is struggling with outbreaks and imposing lockdowns, and pinning their hopes in part on U.S. vaccine exports.

That’s not to minimize the massive suffering that occurred over the last year: over 600,000 deaths in the U.S., and a fatality rate of 183/100,000 people, 20th in the world (Taiwan, even with the recent outbreak, is at a mere 2/100,000 people). It is, though, a reminder that making grand pronouncements in the first inning is often a mistake. I reflected earlier this year in a Daily Update:

If one were to have presented you with a hypothetical in which the U.S. population was impossible to coordinate during a crisis, yet it was the U.S. that the led the way technologically and logistically in ending the crisis, that would make total sense, right? Moreover, it seems clear that the failure in the beginning is related to the triumph in the end: the U.S. remains a dynamic place with more variance than anywhere in the West, which is why you should expect both the highest highs (when there is a clear goal with an uncertain route to success) and the lowest lows (when there is an unclear goal with top down control).

Everything is indeed a trade-off, but what is important to remember is that the trade-off extends beyond a single pandemic as well. I don’t think it’s an accident that China both crushed the pandemic and also was the place where it originally spiraled out of control, thanks in part to the suppression of the spread of information; the country is also nowhere near opening up even as its vaccines are of questionable efficacy. Is it a stretch to wonder if a bias towards top-down control might be better for mass coordination problems, and worse for innovative and dynamic responses?

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