Link to the entire original blog post here (have quoted/cited about half the article here):
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.”
I’ve never liked talking about the future. 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 for potential investments: blockchain, 3D printing, CRISPR. The audiences are rarely interested in learning about these technologies or their potential impacts beyond the binary choice of whether or not to invest in them. But money talks, so I took the gig.
After I arrived, I was ushered into what I thought was the green room. But instead of being wired with a microphone or taken to a stage, I just sat there at a plain round table as my audience was brought to me: five super-wealthy guys — yes, all men — from the upper echelon of the hedge fund world. After a bit of small talk, I realized they had no interest in the information I had prepared about the future of technology. They had come with questions of their own.
They started out innocuously enough. Ethereum or bitcoin? Is quantum computing a real thing? Slowly but surely, however, they edged into their real topics of concern.
Which region will be less impacted by the coming climate crisis: New Zealand or Alaska? Is Google really building Ray Kurzweil a home for his brain, and will his consciousness live through the transition, or will it die and be reborn as a whole new one? 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?”
For all their wealth and power, they don’t believe they can affect the future.
The Event. That was their euphemism for the environmental collapse, social unrest, nuclear explosion, unstoppable virus, or Mr. Robot 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 the angry mobs. But how would they pay the guards once money was worthless? What would stop the guards from 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.
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 Elon Musk colonizing Mars, Peter Thiel reversing the aging process, or Sam Altman and Ray Kurzweil uploading their minds into supercomputers, they were preparing for a digital future that had a whole lot less to do with making the world a better place than it did with transcending the human condition altogether and insulating themselves from a 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 really about just one thing: escape.
There’s nothing wrong with madly optimistic appraisals of how technology might benefit human society. But the current drive for a post-human utopia is something else. It’s less a vision for the wholesale migration of humanity to a new a state of being than a quest to transcend all that is human: the body, interdependence, compassion, vulnerability, and complexity. As technology philosophers have been pointing out for years, now, the transhumanist vision too easily reduces all of reality to data, concluding that “humans are nothing but information-processing objects.”
It’s a reduction of human evolution to a video game that someone wins by finding the escape hatch and then letting a few of his BFFs come along for the ride. Will it be Musk, Bezos, Thiel…Zuckerberg? These billionaires are the presumptive winners of the digital economy — the same 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 and up for our invention. Technology was becoming a playground for the counterculture, who saw in it the opportunity to create a more inclusive, distributed, and pro-human future. But established business interests only saw new potentials for the same old extraction, and too many technologists were seduced by unicorn IPOs. Digital futures became understood more like stock futures or cotton futures — something to predict and make bets on. So nearly every speech, article, study, documentary, or white paper was seen as relevant only insofar as it pointed 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. Worse, as I learned, to call attention to any of this was to unintentionally cast oneself as an enemy of the market or an anti-technology curmudgeon.
So instead of considering the practical ethics of impoverishing and exploiting the many in the name of the few, most academics, journalists, and science-fiction writers instead considered much more abstract and fanciful conundrums: 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, while philosophically entertaining, 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.
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.
But the more devastating impacts of pedal-to-the-metal digital capitalism fall on the environment and global poor. The manufacture of some of our computers and smartphones still uses networks of slave labor. These practices are so deeply entrenched that a company called Fairphone, founded from the ground up to make and market ethical phones, learned it was impossible. (The company’s founder now sadly refers to their 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 peasant children and their families, who sell usable materials back to the manufacturers.
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 human beings as the problem and technology as the solution. The very essence of what it means to be human is treated less as a feature than bug. No matter their 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 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.
Our movies and television shows 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 Westworld — based on a science-fiction novel where robots run amok — ended its second season with the ultimate reveal: Human beings are simpler and more predictable than the artificial intelligences we create. The robots learn that each of us can be reduced to just a few lines of code, and that we’re incapable of making any willful choices. Heck, even the robots in that show want to escape the confines of their bodies and spend their rest of their lives in a computer simulation.
The mental gymnastics required for such a profound role reversal between humans and machines all depend on the underlying assumption that humans suck. 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 will be less a continuation of the human diaspora than a lifeboat for the elite.
Again, since I've gotten into the topic, we witness how the super rich - who have usually made their enormous wealth not through labor, genius, exceptionalism, some special personal qualities or superpowers, but by a combination of sheer luck, cunning and above all, making use of leveraging financial instruments designed to CAPTURE (not create) value - so, when having the weight of a few hundred million or billion, you can easily just pull some levers to multiply your wealth without so much as moving your finger. George Soros, for example, exploited something that had been widely known at the time, but only he was unscrupulous enough to actually do it, becoming a billionaire overnight and acquiring all the social and political power and influence that comes with it. "Go for the jugular", he was known as saying when proceeding to short the British pound, leaving thousands jobless, homeless, destitute and on the streets.
But unlike most others in the category, Soros (misguidedly evil as he may be) was actually educated in the London School of Economics and Karl Popper was among his teachers, plus - his agenda is to actually apply certain philosophies he picked up, but in what I find to be rather perverse, misguided and delusional ways. Otherwise, most of those people are just like how Rushkoff describes them - not only are they non-exceptional, but even shockingly uneducated and dumb, lacking any intellectual curiosity or interest in anything, assuming money can buy them anything. This also perfectly demonstrates there is and never has been such thing as "trickle down economics" - another neo-liberal ploy paid for by the rich siphoning cash into think-tanks to constitute their apologist ideology.
Psychopathy is defined, above all, as the lack of the capacity to care or empathize with others, and it seems like that is the predominant common denominator among these types - and whether or not picking and reinforcing this particular evolutionary trait from the pool of our cultural evolution (which defines the direction of the long-term biological one, obviously) is a good thing, I am not sure. The Lord works in mysterious ways and all that - but even so, one is more likely to conclude with the self-destruction of our species (No wonder we're the only ones in the Homo genus, we sapies practically killed off the rest - cos we could and were more numerous and better make sure we genocide them to avoid the potential of future troubles, right? In evolutionary psychology, when one human encounters another more intelligent than he is, his first reflex or impulse is to actually kill him - we are, in fact, the most murderous species there are, or as George Carlin eloquently put it, "semi-civilized beasts with baseball caps and semi-automatic weapons").
Either way, point being - people like Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos or the entire Silicon Valley tech bros (with their particular flavor of Dunning-Krueger syndrome, called the fallacy of transferable expertise), are really not people to admire, be inspired from, take examples from or look up to them and their supposed success. The vast majority of them and what they innovate is actually more new ways to screw and exploit the end user, considered a "useful idiot" or even a "product" - this has myriad of consequences on many different levels for everybody everywhere, yet Bezos still dreams of moving manufacture to Mars and Musk of colonizing it (Musk is really a fraud, if a clever one in his eccentricity theatrics, but he's just the government's pal to represent certain things to the public.... even Vitalik himself at one point bit the bait on Twitter upon Musk taking the piss at him and crypto by just tweeting out "ethereum"...)
The underlying logic and principle of all capitalism is maximizing profits at any cost and whatever the long-term consequences. And it is not necessarily, or even usually, about insatiable greed - but about acquiring the power of influence and control, of personal decision-making about global issues and of usurping the State apparatus through installing their own pawns at the levers of government (how many senators do you think Bezos can buy just for breakfast?)
So, buckle up your seat belt Dorothy. Cos a lot of places are now beginning to talk about things like "food safety" - not least, and sometimes even actually due to and as direct consequence of, policies which destroy local production in order to import and sell their own. And now kids want to be computer wizards and financial advisors and businessmen - but nobody seems to be particularly interested in things like agriculture, construction work, water supply, quality of food control and monitoring of supply chains, etc. Appearances seem to not only be deceiving, but very effective at being that. Particularly in our Western culture whose perceptions are so configured as to focus/accent on the visual aspects of things.
Re-think and re-evaluate your current state of affairs, individually and otherwise, and consider building up on that class consciousness that has also come to be destroyed - because in order to organize in achieving anything meaningful with any measure of success, we must collectively articulate what it is we actually want and how we want it, not just get angry with demands and chant slogans when things suddenly get bad (and we were too asleep to notice how we sleepwalked to the edge of the abyss...)
Your dear friend and humble narrator will stop here with what some would rabidly point out as "communist propaganda" and assemble the Twitter armies of various ideological doctrine in spewing their bile, in between mentioning Ayn Rand and quoting Milton Friedman (who, just to remind y'all, considered greed the driving force of progress in society - not bad, I mean, if greed is encouraged and considered "societal good", then you've got more power/leverage on moving things, as the masses chase that carrot on the stick that Marx called "the universal equivalent").
Yet another disappointed failure from our cursed generation standing in the middle of history.