During the recent stock market highs, you couldn’t blame the average person for thinking we were on the verge of another digital revolution with the advent of non-fungible tokens (NFTs), cryptocurrencies (e.g., Bitcoin, Ethereum, USDC), decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs), Web3, and the metaverse.
Some were so manic in their belief in software’s self-evident divinity, their irrational exuberance mirrored the apocalyptic fervor of the “end times” and the second coming of Christ himself. Billions of dollars poured into these new companies in the hopes of another digital gold rush by venture capitalists.
Billions of dollars evaporated. Now, the next hype cycle is “generative AI,” with the hopes of ushering in a 4th Industrial Revolution.
Where did this exuberant faith in technology originate?
Marc Andreessen’s seminal essay summed it up nicely back in the Wall Street Journal in August 2011: “In short, software is eating the world.”
Time proved him correct. So much of our lives runs and depends on software ceaselessly functioning. The last decade undoubtedly proves tech’s national and global dominance. During the worst of the pandemic, the top five Big Tech firms (at the time) constituted 23% of the S&P 500.
Putting the numbers aside for a moment, take a closer look at his phrase that launched a thousand startups: “software is eating the world.”
The world, being Earth, is a finite object. A massive object, nonetheless, but it’s bounded by space and time, as is everything else existing on and within it.
Software is personified.
Software is an entity outside of the world to eat it.
Outside of space and time.
Software, thus unbounded by neither space nor time, transcends the challenges and conditions of its human creators.
And because software can transcend, it can conquer. It has conquered.
Software’s ubiquity abstracts space and compresses time. Operations and functions that used to require countless human labor hours now can be done by code that does not need to rest or eat. All software needs is the electricity feeding the servers where it resides.
Why have we assigned so much human agency to the software we create?
In this light, Andreessen’s essay reads like a pastor’s sermon celebrating the digital triumphing over the physical.
Software’s paradigm shift is irreversible. Andreessen, the prophet of our age, heralded a new era in his canonical sermon.
Software is our God, and our worship of it is the tech industry’s secular faith.
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What happens if our software ‘God’ fails us?
As we experience the latest tech hype cycle of generative artificial intelligence (AI), I can’t help but notice how much we’ve come to idolize emerging technologies like ChatGPT and DALL-E.
Whereas the last hype cycles around the metaverse, crypto, NFTs, and DAOs were fueled by zero interest rate policies and quantitative easing (courtesy of the Federal Reserve), generative AI has neither of those central banking initiatives supporting tech investor-driven cheerleading.
We worship these nascent technologies as if they were already existing Gods.
Generative AI will be a “coming to Jesus” moment for many knowledge workers across a variety of industries. Yet, the most fascinating thing about generative AI isn’t the technology itself, but its manifestation in our minds as a “transcendental God” made in our image.
That image may be nothing more than ones and zeros, but it's those bits that we digest in our new digital reality.
I hope we don’t choke on them.