Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires
September 23, 2022
The escape fantasies of the super-rich have become unfortunately apparent in the way we've all been living our lives in the pandemic era. Douglas Rushkoff explores where "The Mindset" originates and how we can cultivate a more pro-social worldview and lifestyle built on greater connection and community.
Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires by Douglas Rushkoff, W.W. Norton & Company
Somewhere in the rarified air of the elite rural enclaves that the super-rich have carved out in the American West, Douglas Rushkoff sat with an audience of five billionaires. Summoned with a larger speaker’s fee than he had ever commanded before, he thought he was flying out to give a speech to a larger assemblage. Instead, it turned out to be a consultation to individuals looking for a means of escape from a world they had helped create. They wanted to talk about strategies for surviving “the event”—the social, environmental, public health, or technological catastrophe they believed was now inevitable, and nigh. The piece he posted to Medium after the experience, and “The Mindset” these men illustrated, evolved into a book that was released earlier this month. In the intervening years, the COVID-19 pandemic shook the world, and while it didn’t fully bear out the billionaire’s pessimism, it did implicate many of us in the same escapist mindset
Like the conversation he had with the billionaires he spoke to about “the event,” Survival of the Richest is probably not going to proceed exactly as you envision it will. Like any other Rushkoff book, you’re not going to get out of it without getting a lot more than you bargained for out of it. When he released his book Life, Inc. in the aftermath of the Great Recession, he warned of the big banks we had just rescued with our tax dollars that, “Rather, like hostages suffering from the Stockholm Syndrome, we have come to regard the institutions that have commandeered our economy as our benefactors.” But to get to that point, he took us back to the Age of Enlightenment to explain where centralized currencies and corporate charters originated, and how we’d come to organize our life around them. Similarly, to learn how tech titans have bent our already technocratic society even further in their own favor, Rushkoff takes us back to the where our almost unquestioning optimism and belief in science and technology originated—once again, the Enlightenment. You are going to need to bring an understanding of nuance here, because this is no anti-science or luddite screed, but an examination of how scientism has run amok, and over our very humanity.
The Enlightenment valued logic, reason, and evidence above all else, offering a refreshing and liberating shift away from control by the church. But taken to the extreme and implemented by neoliberal technocrats, it begins to feel totalizing and disempowering—corrosive to the way people form their sense of identity, establish a connection to purpose, and experience their participation in the greater scheme of things.
As he warned in his book Program or Be Programmed, “software companies are no longer programming computers; they are programming us people.” And they are programming us in a way that not only addicts us to their platforms and products, but in a way that separates us from each other.
The scientific model is a method of collaborative inquiry, and perhaps [hu]mankind’s greatest single achievement. […] Yet, forcibly removed from the greater contexts of meaning and morality, science easily falls into the service of domination and control, providing justification for the most alienated features of The Mindset.
It is odd. We talk often about how the internet polarizes us today, but those who have driven the internet to where it is today have always seemed to be pulled to—or were already on—the extremes. Rushkoff was among those people, one who considered himself “a citizen of cyberspace” long before most people knew what cyberspace even was. He talks about the people he walked amongst in those early days of the internet, the cyberpunks and psychedelic experimenters who imagined a new way to interact with and expand the possibilities of the world. They embraced John Barlow’s 1996 Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace that declared government had “no sovereignty where we gather.”
Deregulation sounded good at the time. We were just ravers and cyberpunks, paranoid about the government arresting us for drugs. We knew John Barlow as the freewheeling Grateful Dead lyricist—not in his earlier role as the libertarian who ran Dick Cheney’s congressional campaign. We didn’t realize that banishing government from the internet would create a free zone for corporate colonization. We hadn’t yet discovered that government and business balance each other out—a bit like fungus and bacteria in the body. Get rid of one, and the other runs rampant.
What he and others overlooked in Barlow’s treatise was “the signature line at the end, ‘Davos, Switzerland, February 8, 1996’—the time and place of the famous World Economic Forum, ground zero for global capitalism.
In the early parts of this new book, Rushkoff writes of the time he was asked by an editor at The New York Times to write an op-ed about Time Warner’s announcement that it was going to be acquired by AOL. It was the very beginning of the year 2000, the dawn of a new century, and here was an “old media” giant getting gobbled up by a “new media” upstart. It seemed like a harbinger of things to come, and the Times wanted something about how the internet had arrived—a celebration of what a great deal it was; indisputable, market-based evidence of the rise of the digital economy and the arrival of a new era. As Rushkoff saw it, there was only one problem:
From my perspective, this wasn’t the beginning of the Internet Revolution, but the end. We were beginning to care less about how this technology could augment humanity and more about how it could bolster a flagging stock exchange. … Digital innovations were no longer about changing the world, but keeping the old system firmly in place.
Moreover, he didn’t think it was a good deal for Time Warner—seeing it instead as AOL founder Steve Case “cashing in his chips, exchanging his speculative dotcom paper assets for a majority stake in a real company with real assets.” The piece he gave to the Times was along those lines, highly critical of the deal—not what they were expecting or looking for. Feeling they couldn’t run such a negative piece while nearly everyone else was celebrating this marriage of old and new media as a boon for business and investors, they ran an alternate piece in praise of the deal instead (Rushkoff’s ended up in The Guardian). Two short months later, in March of 2000, the dotcom bubble—which had been building up since 1995—finally burst and $200 billion of investors’ money in the deal evaporated almost overnight as AOL stock imploded. Nearly $5 trillion overall was erased from the NASDAQ by 2002. The Time Warner/AOL deal is still the biggest merger in American business history, and despite the initial hype from the business press, Rushkoff correctly diagnosed it from the beginning.
He was also, way back in 2010, announcing that The Era of Jack Welch Is Over and pushing against the dominant, shareholder-maximization business models that dominated (and, despite a lot of lip service to the contrary, still dominate) Wall Street and American corporate philosophy and practice. When I wrote him about that recently as we were discussing running a ChangeThis piece in support of his new book, he remembered how “every business journalist acted like I was a crazy person. […] The Economist said I was batty.” Once again, it took a while for the rest of the world to catch up, but just this year New York Times business columnist David Gelles released a book entitled The Man Who Broke Capitalism about (wait for it…) Jack Welch
But General Electric’s more fundamental challenge—the one Welch never adequately addressed—was that the real world of houses, airplanes, and industrial activity couldn’t scale in the same ways capital required and investors were demanding. At some point, manufacturing hits the hard limits of human labor and physical matter itself.
The digital realm appeared to solve this Industrial Age problem by transcending the laws of physics.
Of course, it didn’t. Web 2.0 may have leveraged the lowering cost of technology and the activity of internet users, riding Moore’s Law to unprecedented profits and power, but we still live in the physical world. And for all the talk of disruption that would follow, the old economy’s power center and stock exchanges would not only be safe, but bolstered by those who insisted they were intent on breaking down old power structures. Instead of doing so, Big Tech inherited the intellectual and economic models that have made the modern world. If you’ve been reading Rushkoff over the years, you’ll know he was in the vanguard of those warning us about social media that “we are not users, we are the product” of such platforms. It is a pithy saying he now has a caveat to:
While catchy, it’s not quite true. We are not products of these platforms so much as the labor force. We dutifully read, click, post, and retweet; we become enraged, scandalized, and indignant; and we go on to complain, attack, or cancel. That’s work. The beneficiaries are the shareholders. For what Silicon Valley really chose to learn from the AOL debacle is that the true product of these companies is the stock.
It might be more appropriate to say that “We are not users, but are being used.” The internet has turned into yet another extractive economy, in pursuit of ever greater returns, but this time the resource is us, as tech companies turn to mining our personal information and data for profit. The winners of the digital economy weren’t supposed to be the same as the winners before it. It was always sold to us as something that would break up old power structures and democratize the world. Instead, it has entrenched them and threatened democracy itself. If anything, existing power structures were entrenched. As books like Emily Chang’s Brotopia and Claire Evan’s Broad Band document, even though women were the pioneers of early computing and programming, they were largely pushed out of the profession when it became more lucrative and seen as a profession. The tech world today is dominated by white males, but just as important is how it is dominated by “The Mindset.” The tech billionaire preppers looking for a personal consultation with Rushkoff to escape the rest of humanity and survive “the event” have been the winners. And yet, what they were looking for was an escape, a way to wall themselves off from the rest of humanity. And that is what “The Mindset” ultimately does, it “encourages its adherents to believe that the winners can somehow leave the rest of us behind.” But, like The New York Times looking for an article about how great the AOL/Time Warner merger would be, the prepper billionaires would be disappointed with Rushkoff’s response, which he describes as “pro-social arguments for partnership and solidarity as the best approaches to our collective, long-term challenges.” Unfortunately, when a real catastrophe did arrive in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was not only the super-rich who looked for or found an escape. The circumstances called for an isolation which many of us took easily, even eagerly to. As Rushkoff writes:
The Covid pandemic gave us all a lesson in the attraction and limits of such dreams of universal happiness through technologically enhanced bubbling. In most cases, it was the wealthy who bubbled, and the poor who braved the real world to service them.
Just as capitalism didn’t begin with Jack Welch or AOL, The Mindset did not begin with today’s technologists, and they were not the only ones who succumbed to it. Which brings us back to Rushkoff’s examination of the root, tracing the history of modern capitalism back to the darker sides of the Enlightenment and the colonial beginnings of the corporation. It is not just capitalism, but the way in which science prioritized material progress over social cohesion.
The scientific model is a method of collaborative inquiry, and perhaps [hu]mankind’s greatest single achievement. It has supported not only those who seek to understand the nature of our reality, but also those who want to help us live better, healthier lives, distribute food, energy, and resources more effectively, document our impact on the environment, and understand our place in the universe. If anything, we suffer from too little faith in good science, not too much.
Yet, forcibly removed from the greater contexts of meaning and morality, science easily falls into the service of domination and control, providing justification for the most alienated features of The Mindset.
As he writes:
Thanks to early scientists’ objectified, quantifying, transactional biases, science and the technologies it spawned became the fast friends of colonial capitalists who were looking for ways of putting a monetary value on everything.
Fast forward to today, and those that have inherited their worldview have helped reinforce and entrench an extractive business model in the digital economy of Silicon Valley:
Their views were entirely more compatible with business models that depended on manipulating human beings instead of empowering them—exploiting them for profit rather than giving them opportunities for collective creativity.
And while I’ve been encouraged that behavioral economists have made a dent in the myth of homo economicus over the years, Silicon Valley has been quick to leverage their insights in pursuit of even greater profits and manipulation.
Behavioral economics is just another form of binding nature—in this case, human nature—to one’s service by treating people like programable machines.
So, The Mindset has its origins in colonialism, which instituting central currency as “the operating system for the economy, with corporations the software that ran on it.” As Rushkoff sees it, from that origin:
Growth became the new ethos and requirement for any chartered company, and the expansionist, extractive form of monopolist colonial capitalism that followed is still in full force today.
Today, the richest men alive are pouring their money into ways they might possibly escape the world they created. There’s a billionaire space race afoot, bunkers being built, ideas for manufactured islands with autonomous governments overseen by their libertarian plutocrats. And too many of us are following suit, securing our own little bubbles as tightly as we can, cutting ourselves off from the pain and suffering of others upon whom we—and the overall economy—so fundamentally depend for our comfort. It doesn’t have to be this way. And by the end of the book, I hope you’ll be convinced that:
The principles for building a more circular economy that isn’t dependent on growth are straightforward. Keep resources and revenue recirculating through the community, and accessible to the working class. Leverage the power of mutual aid to lift up one member of the community at a time, each according to their need. Maintain independence from big employers and disinterested investors by owning businesses cooperatively with other workers.
If you think that sounds “batty,” or like the ramblings of “a crazy person”—as supposedly serious publications have written off Rushkoff as before—I encourage you to read the book and dig into his ideas and analysius further. Rushkoff is no "futurist," and concerns himself just as often with the past, but he seems to see the future more clearly than most. If the trend continues, and I sure hope it does, other people are going to start coming around to Rushkoff’s way of seeing things in a few years’ time, so you might as well read the book and get ahead of the game.