In 'Survival of the Richest,' author Douglas Rushkoff examines the escape plans of the tech elite
Political instability. Social breakdown. Environmental catastrophe.
We’re not talking about a Hollywood disaster movie. Instead, we’re talking about all the apocalyptic scenarios that a tiny number of the world’s richest people are preparing for, right now.
And how are they doing it?
Vast bunkers in New Zealand are just one example of how the world’s richest people are planning to survive a breakdown in social and environmental order.
Missing from this solution set? Ideas to stop authoritarianism, decrease inequality, heal social divides, or slow climate change.
“Most of these guys that we think are going to save us are actually wishing for the apocalypse. This is not just something that they fear. It’s something that at this point they’re ready to bring on.”
Today, On Point: In Douglas Rushkoff’s latest book: “Survival of the Richest,” we hear how the tech elite are planning to escape the destruction they had a hand in creating.
Douglas Rushkoff, author of Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires. In total, he’s the author of 20 books on technology, media and society. Professor of media theory and digital economics at CUNY in Queens. (@rushkoff)
Gary Lynch, general manager of Rising S Company, a residential bunker builder based in Murchison, Texas.
Can you tell us about this bizarre, fascinating meeting you had in the American desert?
“I write about technology and society. I’m kind of an anarchist, Marxist, kind of a thinker, cultural, you know, guy from back in the cyberpunk days. And because I wrote some of the first books on this stuff, I often get called in by really wealthy tech investors to kind of, you know, pontificate on the digital future, so they know where to place their bets. And I try to do it less and less. But I got this one offer for really what to me was zillions of dollars, you know, one third of my annual teaching salary. To fly out to some desert resort and do a talk about the digital future for some investors.
“So it’s like whatever. Money talks, I talk, take the gig. You know, fly out business class with warm nuts and everything. It was just great. And get taken there, the next day they come to my room and bring me out on a golf cart to this little facility and I’m waiting in my green room to be taken out, you know, get the little mic put on and be brought out for these guys. And they brought five men into the green room and they sat around this table and this is the talk. And they didn’t want to hear my prepared talk about the digital future. They just started peppering me with these very binary questions. Like, you know, Bitcoin or Ethereum? Augmented reality or virtual reality, like, which should they bet on? And finally they got around to Alaska or New Zealand?
“And they spent the rest of the hour asking me really to water test their survival strategies. … Do we go underground? Do I get an island? Can I do seasteading? What about space? And we ended up spending the majority of the hour on the single question, How do I maintain control of my security force after my money is worthless? The ultimate prep questions, because they’ve all got this money, they’ve, you know, contracted Navy SEALs to come out to their compounds. But then they’re thinking, well, what do we do if our money’s worthless, then why are the Navy SEALs not just going to kill us and take all the stuff? And I just was floored.
“Because I’m thinking I’m in a room here with the wealthiest and most powerful people I’ve ever been in a room with before. I mean, these are, at least two of them, of the five were definitely billionaires. And the other three, I couldn’t find their exact wealth, you know, rate, but close to it. And here they are feeling utterly powerless to influence the future, that the very best thing they can do is prepare for this event, the inevitable catastrophe, and just kind of hang on for dear life. And that really set me out on this journey to figure out, Where did this mindset really come from?”
People feel on the knife edge of political unrest. If you’re living in Ukraine right now or any other war zone, the event is going on right now. So what is the event in the mind of these billionaires?
“When you talk about the problems, I understand them almost as kind of steady state problems. You know, these problems that are chronic and are going to go on, like how do you deal with hunger and climate? These are long emergencies. But the narrative arc that these guys are addicted to, maybe it’s because every one of their businesses has an exit strategy, that they think that the world, too, requires an exit strategy, you know, where you leave or get out of that bad neighborhood and into a better one.
“They are looking toward the end game, you know, they always want to be first. They always want to bet first. They want to have the thing. And they look at the way the world is going, you know, and they really believe that somehow with enough money and technology, they can escape the catastrophes of their own making.
“So they’re making technologies that require slave labor or require kids to go into mines to get rare earth metals, or they’re making printers that brick themselves after a certain number of pages, requiring the person to buy another one, even though the printer is perfectly fine. It is as if they think they can build a car that can go fast enough to escape from its own exhaust.
“But they realize that that equation is not working anymore, you know, that they can’t keep it up, the devastation that they’re externalizing to the rest of the planet, whether it is income inequality or climate deterioration or any of a number of the things or, you know, geopolitical strife. And then there’ll be some nuclear disaster. They realize that it can’t keep going the way that they’re going.”
What is the mind set that you observed?
“You can have enough money and technology to insulate yourself from the problems that you’re creating with money and technology. You know, that you can use sort of exponential growth to outrun the devastation you’re leaving in your wake. And, you know, that was really what I got interested in, this kind of tech bro mindset. And there’s so many interesting ways to look at it. But almost all of them come down to the idea that you, as a kind of a tech billionaire, are existing one level above mere humans. That they take Stewart Brand, who had the famous quote, We are as Gods. We may as well start acting like them. They take it seriously.
“I mean, look at Peter Thiel’s book. It’s called 0 to 1. The idea is that if you’re special, you go, you rise one order of magnitude above the rest. Or you look at Mark Zuckerberg when Facebook looks doomed. Their Subscriber rate had peaked and public opinion turned against it. What does he do? He goes meta, literally meta on Facebook. I’m going to go one level above. We were web two, now we’re web three. We’re at three, now, we’re web four. Or you can even look at the folks like Jeffrey Epstein, who believes he could act as some kind of a demigod, you know, ruling a slave race of people, of young women below him. And it’s the same as their business strategies, which are always, you know, you leave the real world behind and you move to stocks or move to derivatives, which are once removed from stocks.
“And this for me goes back to digital, which for all of its wonders, digital is a symbol system. It is not on the ground reality. It’s kind of one level above. It is a simulation, and that’s where these guys want to go. Their dream is to become what they call self-sovereign individuals. And whenever I hear that, Self-Sovereign, what does that mean? So you’re both the king and the subject, right? Self-Sovereign. So you’re even one level above yourself, and that’s really what they’re doing. They’ve got to get one level above. And that means, you know, in the end it means escape. It means getting away from us.”
It seems as if this welcoming of the end times isn’t limited to the tech elite.
“No, it’s not. Not at all. And in fact, they’re part of the same movement, if you will. You know, Elon Musk and Peter Thiel and Steve Bannon and QAnon are all part of a are all part of a spectrum. You know, in some sense, it’s interesting. There’s kind of two kinds of of tech bro responses to the coming apocalypse. One is the one we’ve been talking about. I’m going to escape. I’m going to get with my family and my Navy SEALs and go on Mars or go on an island, get away from everybody. You know, and that’s sort of a certain kind of accelerationist.
“The other kind is like going to Davos or the World Economic Forum and having, Oh, I’ve got a plan for a great reset. You know, I’m a tech bro. And I went to Burning Man and did a whole bunch of ayahuasca. And at the height of my trip, I realized, Oh my gosh, the world is suffering. So what I did was came up with a software solution, a kind of a SIM City thing, I’m going to call it, you know, Plan 2 or Game B or, you know, Next Generation Planet. And I’m going to go to Davos and use this kind of technocratic techno solutionism and all this money to build a blockchain. And it’s something that saves the planet.”
On COVID and the Silicon Valley mindset
“I wrote this book as a black comedy intentionally because I thought rather than being afraid of these guys or wanting to grab pitchforks and kill these guys, that we should be able to laugh at these guys. Because if we can laugh at their insulation equation, and laugh at the Silicon Valley mindset, then we become more immune to it ourselves.
“You know, the moment I decided to write this book was actually during the kind of the height of the COVID crisis, of the pandemic. And I felt like, well, look at all of us now. We’re all in our little COVID bubbles, not all of us, but those of us who could afford it. We’re getting DoorDash, Amazon Prime and video doorbells, you know, and we’re all in some sense enacting the same thing that they are, but on a much smaller scale. And it made me feel really bad about myself.
“And bad about where we went with it. I mean, a lot of us had this stuff already, but it certainly helped justify a future where people are spending more time in the, you know, safe plays zone of their Oculus headset than out in the world with other people. And yeah, the way to change that is really from the ground up. We can’t depend on these guys. They are not going to save us. I was in the room with them. They have no intention of saving us.”
Medium: “Survival of the Richest” — “Last year, I got invited to a super-deluxe private resort to deliver a keynote speech to what I assumed would be a hundred or so investment bankers. It was by far the largest fee I had ever been offered for a talk — about half my annual professor’s salary — all to deliver some insight on the subject of ‘the future of technology.'”
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.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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