As a humanist who writes about the impact of digital technology on our lives, I am often mistaken for a futurist. The people most interested in hiring me for my opinions about technology are usually less concerned with building tools that help people live better lives in the present than they are in identifying the Next Big Thing through which to dominate them in the future. I don’t usually respond to their inquiries. Why help these guys ruin what’s left of the internet, much less civilisation?
Still, sometimes a combination of morbid curiosity and cold hard cash is enough to get me on a stage in front of the tech elite, where I try to talk some sense into them about how their businesses are affecting our lives out here in the real world. That’s how I found myself accepting an invitation to address a group mysteriously described as “ultra-wealthy stakeholders”, out in the middle of the desert.
A limo was waiting for me at the airport. As the sun began to dip over the horizon, I realised 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.
The next morning, two men in matching Patagonia fleeces 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 realised they had no interest in the speech 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? Eventually, they edged into their real topic of concern: New Zealand or Alaska? Which region would be less affected by the coming climate crisis? It only got worse from there. Which was the greater threat: global warming 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 was 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 was 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 hippy philosophy.
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.
Taking their cue from Tesla founder Elon Musk colonising Mars, Palantir’s Peter Thiel reversing the ageing 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, Thiel to his New Zealand compound, or Mark Zuckerberg to his virtual metaverse? And these catastrophising billionaires are the presumptive winners of the digital economy – the supposed champions of the survival-of-the-fittest business landscape that’s fuelling most of this speculation to begin with.
What I came to realise was 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. [Continue reading…]