Review of “Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires”, by Douglas Rushkoff

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Douglas Rushkoff’s new book, “Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires,” opens with a surreal scene: For a sum equal to a third of his annual salary as a professor, Rushkoff flies to a luxury resort to advise five ultra-rich men on how to survive the collapse of civilization . The anonymous men discuss such pressing issues as how to maintain authority over their private security forces after “the event”, and they brainstorm solutions. Maybe the guards could wear some sort of disciplinary collar? Better yet, what about using robots as guards?

It is a dark and revealing episode. More terrifying than the nightmares of Hollywood-derived men is their naive and deeply antisocial response: they would rather optimize their bunkers than work to avert the apocalypse. Rushkoff describes their attitude as a “faith-based certainty in Silicon Valley that they can develop technology that will somehow break the laws of physics, economics, and morality for their offer something even better than a means to save the world: a means of escape from the apocalypse of their own making.

While few can afford to indulge dystopian fantasies so liberally, men are an extreme example of a larger trend. Bunker sales in America are skyrocketing and the market now caters to a range of income levels, from $40,000 starter bunkers to a nearly $10 million deluxe series “Aristocrat” which offers a swimming pool and a bowling alley. Many people now seem obsessed with storing enough money to protect themselves from the rest of the world, rather than considering the kind of world they are creating by earning money in this way.

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Rushkoff, a professor of media theory and digital economics at the City University of New York, who consults and lectures on media and technology, calls this dynamic the “isolation equation.” Anyone who asks any version of the question – can I make enough money doing X to insulate myself from the effects of doing X – is considering the isolation equation. Think of Jeff Bezos launching into space with the money earned from a business model widely condemned for its treatment of low-wage workers and its environmental impact. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.) Think of the cryptocurrency traders who can afford to live in relatively pristine environments by peddling speculative and volatile financial products that generate vast amounts of air pollution.

The isolation equation is a provocative and illuminating concept, and Rushkoff devotes much of the book to tracing the manifestations and origins of a mindset that seduces people into believing they can isolate themselves. of the damage they contribute to creating. As a maker of large-scale illusions – like the myth that by effortless swipes all one’s desires can be fulfilled without harm to other humans or the environment – Silicon Valley is a major target of his criticism. So is the relentless financialization of new technologies through venture capital, which has helped transform the open source, democratic, and collective ethos of many early technologists into a contemporary technological landscape of monopolies based on the theft of data and a cleverly designed dependency.

One of the scariest examples he cites concerns the production of cell phones. At the end of the assembly process, workers wipe down each device with a toxic solvent to remove their own fingerprints. The chemical causes miscarriages, cancers and shortened lifespans, but it fuels the illusion that the phones are created by frictionless magic, not by workers in appalling conditions. Rushkoff sees this as an example of a more widespread phenomenon: “Some of Amazon’s smartest innovations exist entirely to shield Prime members from the reality of working for the company,” he writes.

Rushkoff provides a powerful critique of the attitudes and technologies that enable these deceptions. His arguments about their ultimate origins and his suggestions on how to improve our economy and our future are not convincing, however.

The problem begins with a confused and simplistic attack on empirical science and quantification. Attempting to recast the terms ‘Western’ and ’empirical’ as insults, he rails against a ‘Western, empirical approach to science that breaks everything down into parts rather than emphasizing the connections and interactions between all these things “. It is a caricatural portrait; many ecologists, biologists and other scientists study the interactions within and between complex systems. It’s a shame that the book leans into such thoughtless broadsides.

It is also difficult to take seriously his assertion that “because Western language systems…tend to be more noun-based than many of their counterparts…our language has enabled certain forms of industrialism and capitalism, among many other systems (like slavery and domination) that rely on objectification and categories. Perhaps asking for evidence of this claim or a way to rule out or rule out other explanations for these phenomena is manifesting the very empiricism it opposes. But such exemption from the standards of proof and falsification puts the claim on the same epistemic level as astrology or climate skepticism.

Siddhartha Mukherjee considers the cell and the future of humans

The central problem is a confusion between science and its use. Scientific methods are not bad because they help some people locate oil deposits or good because they help others treat brain tumors; they allow both good and bad deeds. The methods themselves should not be condemned because of the way they are sometimes used. The right answer is to refrain from immoral uses of science, not to condemn it.

Rushkoff’s proposed solutions, repeated in a quick paragraph near the end of the book, focus on lower consumption and the regulation and taxation of industries. These are good ideas although familiar, but they cannot be implemented well without thorough empirical study. How much less do we need to consume, and in which sectors of the economy, and over what period of time? What is the comparative effectiveness of the various potential regulations and what are the most promising green technologies?

These kinds of questions should not be answered by scientists alone; they also have moral and political dimensions. But it is impossible to answer without a thorough scientific analysis. Science is necessary to create a livable future. It’s just not enough.

Nick Romeo is an Athens-based critic and journalist. Her new book, which explores the people and ideas that build a fair economy, will be published in 2023.

Escape the fantasies of tech billionaires

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