I got invited to a super-deluxe resort to deliver a speech to what I assumed would be 100 or so investment bankers. It was by far the largest fee I had ever been offered for a talk – about a third of my annual salary as a professor at a public college – all to deliver some insight on “the future of technology.”
As a humanist who writes about the impact of digital technology on our lives, I am often mistaken for a futurist. And I’ve never really liked talking about the future, especially for wealthy people. The Q&A sessions always end up more like parlor games, where I’m asked to opine on the latest technology buzzwords as if they were ticker symbols on a stock exchange: AI [artificial intelligence], VR [virtual reality], CRISPR. The audiences are rarely interested in learning about how these technologies work or their impact on society beyond the binary choice of whether or not to invest in them. But money talks, and so do I, so I took the gig.
Douglas Rushkoff is professor of media theory and digital economics at Queens/CUNY, and a writer known for covering early cyberpunk culture. His latest book is “Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires.”
I flew business class. They gave me noise-canceling headphones to wear and warmed mixed nuts to eat (yes, they heat the nuts) as I composed a lecture on my MacBook about how digital businesses could foster circular economic principles rather than doubling down on extractive growth-based capitalism – painfully aware that neither the ethical value of my words nor the carbon offsets I had purchased along with my ticket could possibly compensate for the environmental damage I was doing. I was funding my mortgage and my daughter’s college savings plan at the expense of the people and places down below.
A limo was waiting for me at the airport and took me straight out into the high desert. I tried to make conversation with the driver about the UFO cults that operate in that part of the country and the desolate beauty of the terrain compared with the frenzy of New York. I suppose I felt an urge to make sure he understood I’m not of the class of people who usually sit in the back of a limo like this. As if to make the opposite point about himself, he finally disclosed that he wasn’t a full-time driver but a day trader a bit down on his luck after a few “poorly timed puts.”
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As the sun began to dip over the horizon, I realized I had been in the car for three hours. What sort of wealthy hedge fund types would drive this far from the airport for a conference? Then I saw it. On a parallel path next to the highway, as if racing against us, a small jet was coming in for a landing on a private airfield. Of course.
Just over the next bluff was the most luxurious yet isolated place I’ve ever been. A resort and spa in the middle of, well, nowhere. A scattering of modern stone and glass structures were nestled into a big rock formation, looking out on the infinity of the desert. I saw no one but attendants as I checked in and had to use a map to find my way to my private “pavilion” for the night. I had my own outdoor hot tub.
The next morning, two men in matching Patagonia fleece came for me in a golf cart and conveyed me through rocks and underbrush to a meeting hall. They left me to drink coffee and prepare in what I figured was serving as my green room. But instead of me being wired with a microphone or taken to a stage, my audience was brought in to me. They sat around the table and introduced themselves: five super-wealthy guys – yes, all men – from the upper echelon of the tech investing and hedge fund world. At least two of them were billionaires. After a bit of small talk, I realized they had no interest in the talk I had prepared about the future of technology. They had come to ask questions.
They started out innocuously and predictably enough. Bitcoin or Ethereum? Virtual reality or augmented reality? Who will get quantum computing first, China or Google? But they didn’t seem to be taking it in. No sooner would I begin to explain the merits of proof-of-stake versus proof-of-work blockchains than they would move to the next question. I started to feel like they were testing me – not my knowledge so much as my scruples.
Eventually, they edged into their real topic of concern: New Zealand or Alaska? Which region will be less impacted by the coming climate crisis? It only got worse from there. Which was the greater threat: climate change or biological warfare? How long should one plan to be able to survive with no outside help? Should a shelter have its own air supply? What is the likelihood of groundwater contamination? Finally, the CEO of a brokerage house explained that he had nearly completed building his own underground bunker system, and asked, “How do I maintain authority over my security force after the Event?” The Event. That was their euphemism for the environmental collapse, social unrest, nuclear explosion, solar storm, unstoppable virus or malicious computer hack that takes everything down.
This single question occupied us for the rest of the hour. They knew armed guards would be required to protect their compounds from raiders as well as angry mobs. One had already secured a dozen Navy SEALs to make their way to his compound if he gave them the right cue. But how would he pay the guards once even his crypto was worthless? What would stop the guards from eventually choosing their own leader?
The billionaires considered using special combination locks on the food supply that only they knew. Or making guards wear disciplinary collars of some kind in return for their survival. Or maybe building robots to serve as guards and workers – if that technology could be developed “in time.”
I tried to reason with them. I made pro-social arguments for partnership and solidarity as the best approaches to our collective, long-term challenges. The way to get your guards to exhibit loyalty in the future is to treat them like friends right now, I explained. Don’t just invest in ammo and electric fences, invest in people and relationships. They rolled their eyes at what must have sounded to them like hippie philosophy, so I cheekily suggested that the way to make sure your head of security doesn’t slit your throat tomorrow is to pay for his daughter’s bat mitzvah today. They laughed. At least they were getting their money’s worth in entertainment.
I could tell they were also a bit annoyed. I wasn’t taking them seriously enough. But how could I? This was probably the wealthiest, most powerful group I had ever encountered. Yet here they were, asking a Marxist media theorist for advice on where and how to configure their doomsday bunkers. That’s when it hit me: At least as far as these gentlemen were concerned, this was a talk about the future of technology.
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Taking their cue from Tesla founder Elon Musk colonizing Mars, Palantir’s Peter Thiel reversing the aging process or artificial intelligence developers Sam Altman and Ray Kurzweil uploading their minds into supercomputers, they were preparing for a digital future that had less to do with making the world a better place than it did with transcending the human condition altogether. Their extreme wealth and privilege served only to make them obsessed with insulating themselves from the very real and present danger of climate change, rising sea levels, mass migrations, global pandemics, nativist panic and resource depletion. For them, the future of technology is about only one thing: escape from the rest of us.
These people once showered the world with madly optimistic business plans for how technology might benefit human society. Now they’ve reduced technological progress to a video game that one of them wins by finding the escape hatch. Will it be Jeff Bezos migrating to space, Peter Thiel to his New Zealand compound, or Mark Zuckerberg to his virtual metaverse? And these catastrophizing billionaires are the presumptive winners of the digital economy – the supposed champions of the survival-of-the-fittest business landscape that’s fueling most of this speculation to begin with.
Of course, it wasn’t always this way. There was a brief moment, in the early 1990s, when the digital future felt open-ended. In spite of its origins in military cryptography and defense networking, digital technology had become a playground for the counterculture, who saw in it the opportunity to invent a more inclusive, distributed and participatory future. Indeed, the “digital renaissance,” as I began to call it back in 1991, was about the unbridled potential of the collective human imagination. It spanned everything from chaos math and quantum physics to fantasy role-playing.
Many of us in that early cyberpunk era believed that – connected and coordinated as never before – human beings could create any future we imagined. We read magazines called Reality Hackers, FringeWare and Mondo2000, which equated cyberspace with psychedelics, computer hacking with conscious evolution and online networking with massive electronic dance music parties called raves. The artificial boundaries of linear, cause-and-effect reality and top-down classifications would be superseded by a fractal of emerging interdependencies. Chaos was not random, but rhythmic. We would stop seeing the ocean through the cartographer’s grid of latitude and longitude lines, but in the underlying patterns of the water’s waves. “Surf’s up,” I announced in my first book on digital culture.
No one took us very seriously. That book was actually canceled by its original publisher in 1992 because they thought the computer networking fad would be “over” before my publication date in late 1993. It wasn’t until Wired magazine launched later that year, reframing the emergence of the internet as a business opportunity, that people with power and money began to take notice. The fluorescent pages of the magazine’s first issue announced that “a tsunami was coming.” The articles suggested that only the investors who kept track of the scenario-planners and futurists on their pages would be able to survive the wave.
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This wasn’t going to be about the psychedelic counterculture, hypertext adventures or collective consciousness. No, the digital revolution wasn’t a revolution at all but a business opportunity – a chance to pump steroids into the already dying Nasdaq stock exchange, and maybe to milk another couple of decades of growth out of an economy presumed dead since the biotech crash of 1987.
Everyone crowded back into the tech sector for the dot-com boom. Internet journalism moved off the culture and media pages of the newspaper and into the business section. Established business interests saw new potential in the net, but only for the same old extraction they’d always done, while promising young technologists were seduced by unicorn IPOs [initial public offerings] and multimillion-dollar payouts. Digital futures became understood more like stock futures or cotton futures – something to predict and make bets on. Likewise, technology users were treated less as creators to empower than consumers to manipulate. The more predictable the users’ behaviors, the more certain the bet.
Nearly every speech, article, study, documentary or white paper on the emerging digital society began to point to a ticker symbol. The future became less a thing we create through our present-day choices or hopes for humankind than a predestined scenario we bet on with our venture capital but arrive at passively.
This freed everyone from the moral implications of their activities. Technology development became less a story of collective flourishing than personal survival through the accumulation of wealth. Worse, as I learned in writing books and articles about such compromises, to call attention to any of this was to unintentionally cast oneself as an enemy of the market or an anti-technology curmudgeon. After all, the growth of technology and that of the market were understood as the same thing: inevitable, and even morally desirable.
Market sensibilities overpowered much of the media and intellectual space that would have normally been filled by a consideration of the practical ethics of impoverishing the many in the name of the few. Too much mainstream debate centered instead on abstract hypotheticals about our predestined high-tech future: Is it fair for a stock trader to use smart drugs? Should children get implants for foreign languages? Do we want autonomous vehicles to prioritize the lives of pedestrians over those of its passengers? Should the first Mars colonies be run as democracies? Does changing my DNA undermine my identity? Should robots have rights?
Asking these sorts of questions, which we still do today, may be philosophically entertaining but it is a poor substitute for wrestling with the real moral quandaries associated with unbridled technological development in the name of corporate capitalism. Digital platforms have turned an already exploitative and extractive marketplace (think Walmart) into an even more dehumanizing successor (think Amazon). Most of us became aware of these downsides in the form of automated jobs, the gig economy and the demise of local retail along with local journalism.
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But the more devastating impacts of pedal-to-the-metal digital capitalism fall on the environment, the global poor and the civilizational future their oppression portends. The manufacture of our computers and smartphones still depends on networks of slave labor. These practices are deeply entrenched. A company called Fairphone, founded to make and market ethical phones, learned it was impossible. (The company’s founder now sadly refers to its products as “fairer” phones.) Meanwhile, the mining of rare earth metals and disposal of our highly digital technologies destroys human habitats, replacing them with toxic waste dumps, which are then picked over by impoverished indigenous children and their families, who sell usable materials back to the manufacturers – who then cynically claim this “recycling” is part of their larger efforts at environmentalism and social good.
This “out of sight, out of mind” externalization of poverty and poison doesn’t go away just because we’ve covered our eyes with VR goggles and immersed ourselves in an alternate reality. If anything, the longer we ignore the social, economic and environmental repercussions, the more of a problem they become. This, in turn, motivates even more withdrawal, more isolationism and apocalyptic fantasy – and more desperately concocted technologies and business plans. The cycle feeds itself.
The more committed we are to this view of the world, the more we come to see other human beings as the problem and technology as the way to control and contain them. We treat the deliciously quirky, unpredictable and irrational nature of humans less as a feature than a bug. No matter their own embedded biases, technologies are declared neutral. Any bad behaviors they induce in us are just a reflection of our own corrupted core. It’s as if some innate, unshakeable human savagery is to blame for our troubles. Just as the inefficiency of a local taxi market can be “solved” with an app that bankrupts human drivers, the vexing inconsistencies of the human psyche can be corrected with a digital or genetic upgrade.
Ultimately, according to the technosolutionist orthodoxy, the human future climaxes by uploading our consciousness to a computer or, perhaps better, accepting that technology itself is our evolutionary successor. Like members of a gnostic cult, we long to enter the next transcendent phase of our development, shedding our bodies and leaving them behind, along with our sins and troubles and – most of all – our economic inferiors.
Our movies and television fare play out these fantasies for us. Zombie shows depict a post-apocalypse where people are no better than the undead – and seem to know it. Worse, these shows invite viewers to imagine the future as a zero-sum battle between the remaining humans, where one group’s survival is dependent on another one’s demise. Even our most forward-thinking science fiction shows now depict robots as our intellectual and ethical superiors. It’s always the humans who are reduced to a few lines of code, and the artificial intelligences who learn to make more complex and willful choices.
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The mental gymnastics required for such a profound role reversal between humans and machines all depend on the underlying assumption that most humans are essentially worthless and unthinkingly self-destructive. Let’s either change them or get away from them forever. Thus, we get tech billionaires launching electric cars into space – as if this symbolizes something more than one billionaire’s capacity for corporate promotion. And if a few people do reach escape velocity and somehow survive in a bubble on Mars – despite our inability to maintain such a bubble even here on Earth in either of two multibillion-dollar Biosphere trials – the result would be less a continuation of the human diaspora than a lifeboat for the elite. Most thinking, breathing human beings understand there is no escape.
What I came to realize as I sat sipping imported iceberg water and pondering doomsday scenarios with our society’s great winners is that these men are actually the losers. The billionaires who called me out to the desert to evaluate their bunker strategies are not the victors of the economic game so much as the victims of its perversely limited rules. More than anything, they have succumbed to a mindset where “winning” means earning enough money to insulate themselves from the damage they are creating by earning money in that way. It’s as if they want to build a car that goes fast enough to escape from its own exhaust.
Yet this Silicon Valley escapism – let’s call it The Mindset – encourages its adherents to believe that the winners can somehow leave the rest of us behind. Maybe that’s been their objective all along. Perhaps this fatalist drive to rise above and separate from humanity is no more the result of runaway digital capitalism than its cause – a way of treating one another and the world that can be traced back to the sociopathic tendencies of empirical science, individualism, sexual domination and perhaps even “progress” itself.
Yet while tyrants since the time of Pharaoh and Alexander the Great may have sought to sit atop great civilizations and rule them from above, never before have our society’s most powerful players assumed that the primary impact of their own conquests would be to render the world itself unlivable for everyone else. Nor have they ever before had the technologies through which to program their sensibilities into the very fabric of our society. The landscape is alive with algorithms and intelligences actively encouraging these selfish and isolationist outlooks. Those sociopathic enough to embrace them are rewarded with cash and control over the rest of us. It’s a self-reinforcing feedback loop. This is new.
Amplified by digital technologies and the unprecedented wealth disparity they afford, The Mindset allows for the easy externalization of harm to others, and inspires a corresponding longing for transcendence and separation from the people and places that have been abused. As we will see, The Mindset is based in a staunchly atheistic and materialist scientism, a faith in technology to solve problems, an adherence to biases of digital code, an understanding of human relationships as market phenomena, a fear of nature and women, a need to see one’s contributions as utterly unique innovations without precedent and an urge to neutralize the unknown by dominating and de-animating it.
Instead of just lording over us forever, however, the billionaires at the top of these virtual pyramids actively seek the endgame. In fact, like the plot of a Marvel blockbuster, the very structure of The Mindset requires an endgame. Everything must resolve to a one or a zero, a winner or loser, the saved or the damned. Actual, imminent catastrophes from the climate emergency to mass migrations support the mythology, offering these would-be superheroes the opportunity to play out the finale in their own lifetimes. For The Mindset also includes a faith-based Silicon Valley certainty that they can develop a technology that will somehow break the laws of physics, economics and morality to offer them something even better than a way of saving the world: a means of escape from the apocalypse of their own making.
Excerpted from “Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires” by Douglas Rushkoff. Copyright © 2022 by Douglas Rushkoff. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.