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Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires
by Douglas Rushkoff
No current Talk conversations about this book.
Probably you only need to read his essay about this, https://onezero.medium.com/survival-of-the-richest-9ef6cddd0cc1, to get the key point: Today’s billionaires are using the fantasy of escape to explain why they should be continuing doing the things that will destroy the world for most of us and require an escape in the first place. But they can’t outrun climate change (or solve worries about keeping their security forces in line, perhaps with control collars or control over the food, or both), so we should probably use their fantasies as further reasons to stop allowing them to make things worse. ( )
"Domination!” is the word Mark Zuckerberg allegedly shouted at the end of meetings in the early days of Facebook. Best to “lean in” to corporate games, his then COO, Sheryl Sandberg, told a generation of young female professionals in her 2013 book of that title, or risk being left behind. Lean In: Women, work, and the will to lead sold more than two million copies within two years. As if to emphasize the point, Zuckerberg, a few years later, named his daughter August, after the Roman emperor Augustus. Leaning in was about domination (eventually), which was about conquest – of territories, real or virtual, and the minds inhabiting them. This sounded like overdue encouragement, for women especially, even empowerment, until it began to look like the opposite, a mindset charged with what, in 2015, Mark Carney called the “tragedy of the horizon”: the inability to see the cost of present gains to future generations, who would bear it.
Douglas Rushkoff’s tech billionaires developed their winning strategy around the turn of the century, to prop up the stock market when the dotcom bubble burst: create and invest in addictive digital products, scale them, use these products to surveil users and extract their data, then autotune users to better fit models, pivot and do it all again as quickly as possible. It was a strategy that would generate almost unfathomable returns – in part because of Silicon’s Valley’s tech industry, there are a staggering 750 or so billionaires in the United States (and 177 in the UK). Rushkoff suggests that these might be the most dangerous winners yet – more short-sighted, more penetrative and more extractive than even the oil barons of yore. One of his key observations in Survival of the Richest is that, almost by definition, tech billionaires are “unable to see themselves as members of society”. The venture capitalist Peter Thiel, for example, has said that the governance of society can’t be entrusted to the people (who in 2009 he called “the unthinking demos”). It follows that the winners of capitalist games, like him, should be “free” (Thiel’s much-used word) to preside “as gods” (Rushkoff’s not inaccurate extrapolation).
Something has changed in the past few years, however, hence Rushkoff’s title. Both the short and long horizon have become disturbingly visible, and the tech winners have become obsessed with escaping the fallout of their own success, however it comes: social unrest by way of internet-fuelled partisan bubbles or vaulting economic inequality, or environmental collapse, or a computer hack that takes everything down. Perhaps what’s most surprising is how fervently billionaires believe that their wealth can “insulate” them from inevitable apocalypse, in much the same way that some of them believe they can escape the human condition altogether – overcoming ageing or death (Thiel), or the limits of Earth (Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk). For them it’s a question, naturally, of finding a techno fix: of designing a vehicle that’s “so fast it escapes its own exhaust”, or of building an impenetrable bunker that keeps the exhaust out, not to mention the rising oceans and, crucially, the rest of us.
Rushkoff inhabits a number of identities in the course of his book. At his most demure he describes himself simply as “a humanist who writes about the impact of digital technologies”. Or as a humanist with a PhD in digital economics. Or as a professor of media studies at Queens in New York. He also calls himself a Marxist media theorist. The back cover of the book announces that he has been named by MIT as a “top ten” intellectual influencer. He reminds us that in early 2000 he predicted the end of the dotcom bubble. He is also someone who, though not one of them, is habitually “in the room” with the billionaires, the TED types and the Davos crowd. These people, he tells us somewhat coyly, “mistake” him “for a futurist” because of successful predictions such the one above, and consult him in order to know what to invest in. They pay him to tell them how to market their products to fit evolving social narratives. He likes to think that he can help them be more humane.
His identities may have a way of proliferating, but his view in this book is unambiguously straightforward: most of his tech billionaires are conquering “sociopaths” who, in the digital age, have “program[med] their sensibilities into the very fabric of society”, rendering the world unliveable for everyone but them. Presumably his clients don’t read his books. (I was distracted at times by the thought that, despite the views expressed here, Rushkoff must be able to perform a remarkable degree of empathetic amiability in their presence).
In the opening chapter of Survival of the Richest, his twentieth book, he is in a “super-deluxe resort” in the high desert of the American Southwest, three hours from the nearest airport, to deliver a speech “to what [he] assumed would be a hundred or so investment bankers” wanting to know about the future of technology. The speaker’s fee is a third of his annual professor’s salary. To his surprise he finds no mic and no audience of the kind he had expected – only five middle-aged men, whom he recognizes as hailing from the upper reaches of the tech-investing and hedge-fund worlds, seated at a table. These men are not interested in hearing the talk he has prepared, however, only in the answers to what are essentially variations on two questions: should they build their underground bunkers in New Zealand or Alaska? And how does one “maintain authority over [one’s] security force after the event”? Even gods can be anxious, it seems.
They are especially exercised by whether “their guards should wear disciplinary collars of some kind in return for their survival”. Or should they be replaced by robots? They are also worried about how to protect their privilege (including their food, water, Club Med-style luxuries) from their guards. Rushkoff recounts earnestly making pro-social arguments for relationships across the class divide as the best insurance against rebellion; elsewhere in the book he argues for actually “seeing the face” of the person who prepares or delivers food or ensures security. These suggestions, he writes, are met “with eye rolls” (which, it seems, are countered by Rushkoff’s more discreet version of the same) and with observations like this: “The best way to ensure your head of security doesn’t slit your throat tomorrow is to pay for his daughter’s bat mitzvah today”.
Rushkoff organizes his insights around certain words and catchphrases – the mindset, the event (for the apocalypse feared by his tech billionaires), insulation fantasies, the dumbwaiter effect (not seeing the faces of one’s underlings). One of these is “going meta”, which refers to the act of transcending the game everyone else is playing. One can think of “going meta” as fuelling European colonialism. It happened in the US, Rushkoff explains, when land became property, then property translated into mortgages and later into derivatives, with each level of abstraction – or financialization – creating a bigger pie for investors to divvy up and grow rich from. When the housing market crashed in 2007 the digital world offered an astronomically bigger pie and “a dimensional leap in the behavior of capital”, as Rushkoff, quoting Alan Greenspan, puts it. Data became a form of money.
Zuckerberg went meta when he created Facebook: instead of competing to build the best website or personal home page, he created a platform (a territory) where lesser mortals could build the websites. Platformization (in the manner of Facebook or Amazon) is a way of claiming territory – and thence of generating hockey-stick profits. Zuckerberg is hoping to “go meta” a second time with “the metaverse” (defined simply as a network of virtual reality worlds). The trick, then, if one has billionaire aspirations, is to “go meta” before anyone else does, then have the rest of us lean in while our data – now the ultimate source of our value – is being seamlessly extracted.
The vehicles du jour for billionaires wanting to scramble their own circuits just enough to attain meta-level inspiration are psychedelics, consumed at high-end retreats in the rainforest. According to Rushkoff (and yes, he has been present at the retreats), the billionaire returns from his particular experience of “all is one” with “a zealot’s vengeance to build it into reality, at scale” (though in fact he does exactly what he was doing before, only now with “cosmic justifications”). Billionaire visions are never about incremental change – boring, banal and suitable only for non-billionaire minds – but about grand “resets” or “total solutions” to infinitely complex global challenges (the climate, human nature), about which Rushkoff declares, with the confidence presumably born of intimacy, hedge-fund managers and investors know next to nothing. Their solutions invariably involve a combination of “automation, surveillance, biometric tracking, sensor networks, blockchains, geo-engineering, and more capitalism to repair capitalism”.
Regarding the last of these: green capitalism, insists Rushkoff, is all about bluffing, with the carbon footprint of green technology often no better than that of the brown technology it replaces. He points to solar panels as a case in point. They require intensive mining for rare metals. Their manufacture is highly energy-intensive and generates myriad toxic byproducts that poison the environment. When the panels degrade – sometimes after just ten years – their disposal constitutes another toxicity nightmare. And, he might have added: the solar panels of the rich are often subsidized in ways that affect the poor, who don’t have the luxury of buying panels themselves. “Solutions” such as these may play into the rhetoric of “sustainability”, but in the end they are about sustaining capitalism, Rushkoff argues, just in a more smoke-and-mirrors fashion. His own solution to what plagues us?Degrowth, cautious incrementalism, grounded knowledge and closed loops where “we” (tech billionaires included) experience the consequences of our own consumption. This certainly sounds sensible and unsexy in the right ways, but of course the devil is in the details.
Rushkoff warns against trying to “upscale” humans to make apocalyptic realities less likely. He describes a meeting with an enthusiastic young developer, just graduated from Stanford University, who comes to consult him about creating a “new” and “better” and “healthier” social network. (It’s none of these things, Rushkoff quips.) As it happens, the consultation takes place on January 6, 2021, and as the Capitol is being stormed, the young developer remarks: if only we could “push a button” to get the QAnon folk to disappear, or at least to no longer believe “the crazy stuff”. Rushkoff describes QAnon as a particularly pernicious form of “end-stage internet addiction”, but also points out the irony that a new generation of tech developers is trying to undo the damage wreaked by previous generations with more of the same mindset: the wish to programme one’s fellows, or deprogramme them, to push a button to manufacture consent or dissent. Rushkoff names names here (he mostly doesn’t with the billionaires), pointing to two professors at Stanford who blithely showed a generation and more of students how to develop addictive algorithms and create habit-forming products: B. J. Fogg, the founder in 1998 of the university’s Persuasive Technology Lab (now the Behavior Design Lab), and the consumer psychologist Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to build habit-forming products (2014). Alarmed by what they have wrought, Fogg and Eyal now sell ammunition to both sides: to those who would control humans like magnetic filings on a gramophone and to those who would break that control. Eyal’s latest book is called Indistractable: How to control your attention and choose your life (2019).
Rushkoff, too, could be accused of selling ammo to both sides (to the billionaires who consult him and to us), but never mind: Rushkoff is well worth reading precisely because he has spent a lifetime gliding between these two worlds. Occasionally there is a slight thinness to his insights, as when he points to tang ping (“lying flat”), a niche movement among young Chinese workers, as a solution to China’s global dominance. This is, to be sure, the opposite of blindly “leaning in”. But again the devil is in the details: an entire generation across the capitalist world would have to lie flat for tang ping to save the horizon.
Douglas Rushkoff is at his best when he sticks with the satiric deconstruction of what he knows best, or with observations such as this one: the focus on “leadership” as a value in itself, divorced from humility and tethered to programming skills, breeds a desire “for the gamified domination of others”. That sounds uncannily right.
Michele Pridmore-Brown is a Research Fellow at the Center for Science, Technology, Medicine and Society at the University of California, Berkeley, and Science editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books
One of Literary Hub's Most Anticipated Books of 2022 The tech elite have a plan to survive the apocalypse: they want to leave us all behind. Five mysterious billionaires summoned theorist Douglas Rushkoff to a desert resort for a private talk. The topic? How to survive the "Event": the societal catastrophe they know is coming. Rushkoff came to understand that these men were under the influence of The Mindset, a Silicon Valley-style certainty that they and their cohort can break the laws of physics, economics, and morality to escape a disaster of their own making--as long as they have enough money and the right technology. In Survival of the Richest, Rushkoff traces the origins of The Mindset in science and technology through its current expression in missions to Mars, island bunkers, AI futurism, and the metaverse. In a dozen urgent, electrifying chapters, he confronts tech utopianism, the datafication of all human interaction, and the exploitation of that data by corporations. Through fascinating characters--master programmers who want to remake the world from scratch as if redesigning a video game and bankers who return from Burning Man convinced that incentivized capitalism is the solution to environmental disasters--Rushkoff explains why those with the most power to change our current trajectory have no interest in doing so. And he shows how recent forms of anti-mainstream rebellion--QAnon, for example, or meme stocks--reinforce the same destructive order. This mind-blowing work of social analysis shows us how to transcend the landscape The Mindset created--a world alive with algorithms and intelligences actively rewarding our most selfish tendencies--and rediscover community, mutual aid, and human interdependency. In a thundering conclusion, Survival of the Richest argues that the only way to survive the coming catastrophe is to ensure it doesn't happen in the first place.
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)303.48 — Social sciences Social Sciences Social Processes Social change Causes of change
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