In April, Marc Andreessen put out the call to build. It was in response to our failure to control and mitigate the effects of Covid-19 — institutions on every level were unprepared for the pandemic, and have continued to show their inability to quickly find and scale solutions.
But more than anything it was in response to our failure to build in general. We chose not to build, he claims. “You see it throughout Western life, and specifically throughout American life.” The problem isn’t a lack of resources or technical ability — it’s with supply and demand of desire. Demand is limited by our ambition and will to build. Supply is limited by the people and organizations holding it back.
Andreessen is generally an optimist, which is why I see his essay as positive in overall tone. But it was also somewhat of a mea culpa. Andreessen has for years been on the other side of Peter Thiel’s view of modern technical stagnation.
Thiel’s view may be too pessimistic, but there’s a kernel of truth to it. If you’re familiar with the history of tech and innovation, something feels different. The late-1800s to mid-1900s had explosions of innovation in fields from medicine to consumer products, transportation, energy, communication, computing, food, and more.1
This is the introduction to a series of ongoing essays centered around the question:
What frameworks can help us build more, better?
And further attempting to investigate the answers to the following:
- What are the best ways to approach solving big, complex problems?
- Why are certain efforts so much harder to achieve than others?
- How are these efforts best managed at every level?
- How do we build things faster? (Without sacrificing quality or safety.)
- What is holding us back from building more?
- How do we overcome these barriers?
Many of these lessons apply not just to “building” in the physical sense, but for solving problems, scientific discoveries, improving systems, and making progress overall. Building in a way is symbolic. It represents making big, necessary changes to move humanity and our planet forward. This can be building something physical or digital, pushing the boundaries of fundamental research, or trying new uncertain ways to solve problems.
It doesn’t even have to be anything new or innovative per se. Andreessen gives many examples of expanding existing tech: housing, infrastructure, education, manufacturing. Even preservation and restoration — in many ways opposites of building — can still apply. In the early 1900s, President Teddy Roosevelt established over 230 million acres of public lands and parks. This added an incalculable amount of value to future generations. I would love to see E.O. Wilson’s Half-Earth Project executed at scale. This is in the spirit of building: making progress and pushing humanity toward a better future.
Here’s a preview of some of the specific topics I want to explore in the series:
- Ladder of Abstraction (why/how chains)
- Modes of effort (why/how quadrants)
- Traversing fitness landscapes
- Oblique vs. direct approaches
- New methods of project management
- Explore vs. exploit
- Minority rule and collective action
- Forcing functions
- The role of trust in building things fast
- The specific methods we used to accomplish large-scale collaborative efforts such as the Apollo program, the Manhattan Project, etc.
- Cultural lag and the contentment hurdle
Essay Table of Contents
- What was different about this era? The following is a good rundown from Vaclav Smil’s book “Creating the Twentieth Century” on the remarkable attributes of the pre-WWI technical era:
- The impact of the late 19th and early 20th century advances was almost instantaneous, as their commercial adoption and widespread diffusion were very rapid. A great deal of useful scientific input that could be used to open some remarkable innovation gates was accumulating during the first half of the 19th century. But it was only after the mid-1860s when so many input parameters began to come together that a flow of new instructions surged through Western society.
- The extraordinary concentration of a large number of scientific and technical advances.
- The rate with which all kinds of innovations were promptly improved after their introduction—made more efficient, more convenient to use, less expensive, and hence available on truly mass scales.
- The imagination and boldness of new proposals. So many of its inventors were eager to bring to life practical applications of devices and processes that seemed utterly impractical, even impossible, to so many of their contemporaries.
- The epoch-making nature of these technical advances. Most of them are still with us not just as inconsequential survivors or marginal accoutrements from a bygone age but as the very foundation of modern civilizations. ↩︎