What would you think if a group of rich billionaires invited you to a remote location to get your opinions on the future? And how would you feel after you found out that what they really wanted to know was how to survive a coming global disaster that was of their own making? Where most of us would likely perish but they would be safely protected in their secure bunkers and islands!!??
This actually happened to the author of Survival of the Richest, Douglas Rushkoff, and it prompted him to write this book and dive deeper into how these tech billionaires and hedge fund managers got to that point. These people wanted to know if Alaska or New Zealand would be safer during a climate crisis, how many provisions they should stockpile, and how they could keep their security forces from turning on them if and when money starts losing its power.
Mr. Rushkoff is a writer and professor of media theory and digital economics at CUNY, and something of a futurist. He has written other best-selling books such as Team Human, Present Shock, and Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus. He has been a long-time critic of Silicon Valley and its influence on our lives, and this is one of his most blistering attacks on the mindset that prevails there.
I have heard of people like Peter Thiel constructing a compound in New Zealand for possible escapes, but apparently this is happening in the USA more and more, from the doomsday preppers in Idaho stockpiling guns and ammo to the Silicon Valley tech billionaires looking for escape sanctuaries in underground bunkers, on the ocean, and even in outer space. If we learned anything from the Covid-19 epidemic, it's that we are woefully prepared for any type of global crisis, especially if it requires us to stay home and isolate. Doomsday preparations are great for surviving maybe for a week, but after that nature and human nature start intruding into even the most elaborate plans.
Rushkoff likens the desire to escape from coming disasters, rather than prevent them in the first place, as a part of something he derogatorily names "The Mindset." This mindset is a powerful faith in technology's ability to overcome every challenge, regardless of any inconvenient externalities that might be produced as a byproduct. Externalities like poverty, climate change, pollution, diseases, and even death, are things to be feared and escaped from in large and safe cocoons, all financed by the billions that Silicon Valley has produced in the past decades.
He likens these illusions of safety as returning to the womb. The goal of big tech is to remove all threats, problems, and friction from the real world and return us to the wonderful safety of the womb, where all of our needs were not only taken care of, but anticipated ahead of time. Predictive algorithms are now supposed to look at past behavior and anticipate future behavior, making life as seamless and effortless as if we had 1,000 servants tending to our needs.
Many of the wealthiest got a taste of that womb during the Covid-19 epidemic, when they learned they could stay home in their pajamas and work from home while still earning handsome salaries and watching their stock portfolios skyrocket. Through home delivery services, streaming services, and virtual information bubbles that make sure they didn't see anything too disturbing, many found themselves in a bubble where "The Mindset" seemed to work just fine.
This illusion only worked because there was an army of Amazon drivers, farm workers, and regular people who went out and risked infection because they had no other choice. Those inside of the bubble never saw that side of it, and lost the ability to feel empathy for other people, especially for those less fortunate than them. The pandemic didn't seem so bad because the pajama class was insulated from it, experiencing only minor inconveniences while others risked their lives. Instead, the luckiest and wealthiest experienced something Rushkoff calls the "dumbwaiter effect", where the workers behind all of production are hidden down below and out of sight, as the magical dumbwaiter opens to reveal consequence-free meals.
This book goes far deeper than I anticipated. (I had expected a diatribe against tech titans only- this goes into their way of thinking, which is even better.) Rushkoff examines such things as:
- How capitalism's emphasis on mergers, growth, and payoffs relies on a system of extraction, exploitation, and relentless domination of people and nature.
- How people at the bottom are starting to rebel against this pressure to produce at any cost through quiet quitting in the US or tang ping (lying down) in China.
- Why going meta through things like financialization and digitization enables exponential growth while obscuring the reality that underlies it all. That's why the financial crisis of 2008 erupted when the bizarre instruments tied to mortgages turned out to be unsustainable based on the actual houses they represented.
- How the exponential growth of computers and everything else may be reaching natural limits, and desperate entrepreneurs are looking for game-changing moon shots to extend the illusion just a bit longer.
- How technology, behavior modification, gamification and marketing are used and abused to manipulate our buying behavior, voting, and online choices, making us little more than pawns in much bigger games devoted to "The Mindset".
- Why the "great reset" that's supposed to save us from climate change is mostly BS. Tech titans claim they have the answers, but they involve a lot of the same strategies that got us into this mess- extraction, profits, and eventual obsolescence of things like solar panels and wind turbines.
Two stories that struck me the hardest about how clueless the tech elites are involved two programs in Africa that appear to have backfired. The shipments of thousands of cheap laptops to African children, once believed to be a cure to poverty, was considered to be a spectacular failure by philanthropists because of its unrealistic expectations. And Bill Gates' shipments of mosquito nets to that continent to prevent malaria may have had the unpleasant byproduct of killing entire ponds of fish when Africans instead used the netting to try and catch fish with the chemical-laden nets. The hubris and cluelessness of those at the top comes not because they are bad people, but because they are sadly out of touch with the reality outside of their bubble. Their wealth and ego insulate them from the many problems that exist outside of their awareness.
In a way this is a depressing book because these leaders - political, business, and military, are the ones we are counting on to guide us into the future. Rushkoff paints a picture of people who are married to The Mindset and unable to think differently. The Mindset- a linear, straight, growth and progress-oriented drive is not something new. It's been the driving force of Western civilization for centuries and it may be reaching the limits of what it can accomplish. While it's given us microwave ovens, medical science, and unlimited entertainment choices, it's also given us climate change, opioid addiction, and staggering income inequality.
So what's the alternative? Rushkoff points to regenerative systems, things that work more in cycles than in straight lines. He states that eventually big tech can't solve everything, and we will need to simplify, slow down, and spend less. Business models will have to be more local and less global, and more cooperative and less hierarchical. It makes some sense, but I can't see how we get there any time soon. The Mindset is entrenched and powerful, but when faced with cataclysm, things could change rapidly. While the rich are hiding in their bunkers the rest of us that survive will be tasked with reinventing things, something that humans have proven very good at throughout history.
So rather than feel like we are all screwed, this is a hopeful book in that it's becoming apparent that even those at the top don't see this things as sustainable. I remain optimistic that the rest of us will figure things out before artificial intelligence (AI) takes over and enslaves us all. The human spirit is more powerful than any algorithm or mindset.