This Twitter thread caught my eye on Tuesday evening. I want to talk about it briefly because I think it’s a good representation of a mentality that’s prevalent among people in the tech and techno-finance spaces. It starts, as these things often do, with a musing from Elon Musk about population growth and birth rates, and kicks off a little whiteboarding-in-public session among some Men Who Solve Problems. The conversation went from zero to SYNTHETIC WOMBS at an alarming speed.
Eventually, Vitalik Buterin, a programmer by trade and a co-founder of the cryptocurrency technology Ethereum, chimed in.
Buterin’s tweet was thoroughly dunked on (I confess to being weak and joining in) but I wanted to unpack his response a bit more. Musk’s initial tweet is about declining fertility rates, which is a real phenomenon both in the U.S. and abroad. As this Vox piece lays out, “fewer babies make for aging countries, which slows down economic growth and holds back innovation.” And so it makes sense that this set of tech men are specifically interested in and concerned with this issue.
But, rather than diving into the fundamentals of declining fertility—a complicated mix of changing lifestyle preferences (like worries about the future, a general delay in people seeking partnership) or economic issues (the fact that it is quite expensive to raise a child, or that the early child-care education system is broken, both in terms of supporting care workers and parents)—Buterin jumps directly to synthetic wombs.
There’s a substantial jump in logic here, as many responding to Buterin have pointed out. Buterin argues that “synthetic wombs would remove the high burden of pregnancy, significantly reducing the inequality,” which is an answer that seems to thoroughly misunderstand the root problems behind declining fertility. And while I certainly don’t want to downplay the physical burden of pregnancy, the reasons for gender inequity, post-pregnancy, have little to do with the process of carrying a child to term and giving birth and everything to do with what comes after (medical costs, child-care costs, time allocated for leave and parenting, poorly distributed caregiving between spouses). The writer Lyz Lenz summed it up nicely.
The reason this dust-up matters is because Buterin is considered an influential thinker in many tech spheres. He was named to the Time 100 list last year and heralded as “a builder’s builder” whose blockchain technology is poised to serve as the backbone for a new iteration of the internet. Those who believe in Ethereum and in the promise of many Web3 technologies see Buterin as a visionary. And, given the success and adoption of the Ethereum blockchain to power things like NFTs, there are those who are willing to see even his fringy ideas as plausible. Here, for example, is another influential technodeterminist defending Buterin’s synthetic-womb idea and comparing criticisms of Buterin to early critics of IVF:
This, of course, misses the actual criticism of Buterin. The issue is not whether this synthetic technology would be bad or unuseful on its own. The issue is that what Buterin proposes is not a solution to the post-birth earnings gap, nor is it the first-order tool to address the myriad complicated issues that might contribute to declining birth rates. But that doesn’t matter to the Builders. What matters, to a degree, is the boldness of the idea and the process of the thought experiment. The Builder mindset often eschews policy completely and focuses on the macro issues, rather than the micro complexities. It is a mindset that seeks to find very elaborate, hypothetical-but-definitely-paradigm-shifting, futuristic technology to fix current problems, instead of focusing on a series of boring-sounding and modest reforms that might help people now.
I’m sympathetic to the notion that we need big thinkers and dreamers. I’m reminded of the classic Steve Jobs and Henry Ford quotes about innovation. Ford’s line was that if he’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told him, “A faster horse!” Jobs famously remarked that “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them … Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.” So I get it! It’s important to have smart people thinking outside the box and proposing wild, futuristic things that normies can’t wrap their head around. Sure.
Where this idea runs into trouble, though, is when the Builders are so focused on building that they misunderstand the problem they’re trying to solve. They are so interested in pushing the boundaries of the possible that they make illogical leaps. The worst version of Builder mentality is that their dreams become reality, but instead of maintaining their creations, they simply move onto the next Big Thing, leaving others to deal with the mess they’ve made.
Builder mentality is at the center of the current Web3 and crypto debates. The venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, whose firm, Andreessen Horowitz, is one of the premier boosters and funders of blockchain and Web3 companies, has loudly declared that “it’s time to build” and that many of America’s ills, from COVID response to political dysfunction, come from a lack of a desire to build new things.
Crypto advocates suggest that blockchain-based technologies offer an elegant solution to the consolidation of the corporate internet. The new technology, they argue, is decentralized and solves many of the problems of the social web (Web2) by allowing people to own pieces of the internet. In theory, this means more equity for artists, creators, you name it. Web3 boosters see blockchain technology as a powerful means for accountability and transparency. Take a problem on the current internet, they argue, and there is a decent chance that this new technology will help solve it.
The best Web3 criticisms I’ve seen, though, are rightfully skeptical, because many boosters of this new technological paradigm are people who spent time and money working on the past iterations of the internet that they would now like to leave behind. Elizabeth M. Renieris, a senior research associate at the University of Oxford’s Institute for Ethics in AI, wrote recently that much of the Web3 boosterism features, “a kind of imaginative obsolescence.” She notes that:
As one vision of the future rapidly replaces the next, the technologies and systems now in place suffer decay and disrepair. Our imaginations and resources are once again diverted from fixing or rehabilitating what exists. Meanwhile, familiar problems, inevitably, resurface. Imaginative obsolescence also upends efforts at effective technological governance—and perhaps that is exactly the point.
There are plenty of shallow and lazy criticisms of crypto and Web3, but Renieris’s concerns strike me as extremely reasonable. Already, large NFT marketplaces are confronted with the content-moderation problems of the platform-based internet. Despite the transparency and decentralization ethos, there is plenty of abuse and fraud. Web3 might very well help to automate processes and eliminate the need for intermediaries, but these features don’t solve for the messy nature of the human operators behind all platforms and economies and technologies. There is also the chance that they create their own problems—some that we can foresee (a hyper-financialization of, well, everything) and some we can’t. As Renieris writes:
If we just keep building without repairing what exists or applying lessons learned along the way, we will continue to spin our wheels as the same problems accumulate and amplify. In this way, our technology may evolve, but our relationship to it (and to each other) can only degrade.
But the Builders do not repair. They build. That’s because building is virtuous. Unlike, in their mind, criticism, which is passive and vampiric in nature, building is active and generative. It is a de facto good to build, regardless, perhaps, of the outcome.
Maybe they’re right and the good the Builders do will outweigh the bad. But if we take their ambitions seriously (and I do), it’s worth asking whom the Builders are building for. On that point, I found this language in a blog post from Andreessen Horowitz’s Chris Dixon—arguably Web3’s most prominent investor/booster—called “Why Web3 Matters” pretty interesting: “In web3, ownership and control is decentralized. Users and builders can own pieces of internet services by owning tokens, both non-fungible (NFTs) and fungible.”
Web3 is about ownership for users, but also, importantly, for Builders. The real question, then, is whether that distribution between users and Builders will be equitable. Perhaps it will, but, again, I’m skeptical that the decentralization of money and power proposed by Web3 won’t merely consolidate power for a small class of early entrants (Builders).
It seems many Builders do not appreciate or value criticism. Andreessen’s “It’s Time to Build” essay addressed this head-on. “Here’s a modest proposal to my critics,” he wrote. “Instead of attacking my ideas of what to build, conceive your own! What do you think we should build?”
It’s a standard bit of deflection. But what I think this deflection ignores is that there are plenty of people advocating for solutions—they’re just of a more boring, bureaucratic type than the Builders would like. Maintenance, not demolition and remodeling.
What do synthetic uteruses have to do with Web3? Nothing, beyond the way these ideas are raised by people like Buterin and quickly embraced by his acolytes. Both ideas rely on a particular line of thinking, one that seems to run the risk of missing the root cause of a problem in service of a more exciting solution.
WORDLE BRAIN VS MONETIZATION BRAIN
Speaking of a very specific tech mindset … I found this Hacker News post rather telling:
This is just one post, but I do believe that Wordle’s success has scrambled the brains of people in tech who have a reflexive desire to monetize things that are popular.
As it turns out, Wordle’s creator, Josh Wardle, is familiar with this Silicon Valley mentality and actually designed the game with that idea in mind. Here’s what he told Slate in a great interview:
I used to work in Silicon Valley, and I’m aware of the things that, especially with games, you’re meant to do with people’s attention. You’re trying to capture as much of people’s attention as you can. So that involves things like endless play, or sending them push notifications, or asking them for sign-up information. And philosophically, I enjoy doing the opposite of all those things, doing all the things that you are not meant to do, which I think has bizarrely had this effect where the game feels really human and just enjoyable.
Wardle’s line gives me some hope. Wordle is the slow food of online puzzle games. It sounds silly to call it reactionary, but it is most certainly a reaction to a very specific part of the attention economy. It’s a small act of protest. And the fact that the game is immensely popular suggests to me that maybe, just maybe, there’s a quorum of people who are tired of things that feel extractive.
Wordle defies the infinite scroll, and the game is rewarded for doing so. I think there’s a lesson here—one that probably ties into the essay above. We love convenience; and we love efficiency and automation; and we prioritize scale and growth, and both those things create immense wealth. But even though we love those things, there is something truly joyful about things that feel slow and un-bingeable. You can only savor something that is scarce, and there’s a pleasure in doing so that feels distinctly human—that feels like being alive.