July 14, 2024

In the face of the apocalypse, the book shows how the rich decide to save their skin

5 min read
In the face of the apocalypse, the book shows how the rich decide to save their skin
In the face of the apocalypse, the book shows how the rich decide to save their skin

Washington Post – Douglas Rachkoff’s new book, Surviving the Rich: Escaping the Fantasies of Tech Billionaires, begins with a surreal scene: For a sum equivalent to a third of his annual teaching salary, Rushkoff travels to a luxury resort to advise five billionaires on how to survive the collapse of civilization. The anonymous men discuss issues such as maintaining power over the SS after the “event” and analyze solutions. What if the guards were wearing some kind of disciplinary collar? Better yet: How about using bots as sentinels?

It’s a dark and revealing episode. Even more terrifying than Hollywood’s nightmares is the billionaires’ naive and antisocial response: they’d rather improve their bunkers than work to avoid the end of the world.. Rushkoff describes his position as “a typical certainty in Silicon Valley, based on the belief that they will always be able to develop some technology that will somehow break the laws of physics, economics and morals to give themselves something better.” A way to save the world: a way to escape the apocalypse they created.

In Adam McKay's movie Don't Look Up, an entourage of billionaires would rather invest in a space mission to escape Earth than help the planet
In Adam McKay’s movie Don’t Look Up, an entourage of billionaires would rather invest in a space mission to escape Earth than help the planet

While very few people have enough to satisfy such dystopian fantasies, billionaires are an extreme example of a broader trend. Cellar sales are rising in the United States, and the market now serves different income levels: from $40 thousand to almost $10 million of the “aristocratic” model.It comes with a swimming pool and bowling alley. It seems that a lot of people are now focusing on hoarding enough money to protect themselves from the rest of the world, rather than thinking about the kind of world they make by making money this way.

Rushkoff, a professor of media theory and digital economics at City University of New York who advises and lectures on media and technology, calls this dynamic the “isolation equation.” Anyone asking a version of the question – Can I make enough money by doing X to insulate myself from the effects of doing X? Apply the isolation equation. think about it Jeff Bezos blasted into space with money earned from a business model widely criticized for his low pay and environmental impact.. (Bezos owns a file Washington Post). Think of cryptocurrency traders who can live in relatively immaculate environments selling speculative and volatile financial products that generate massive amounts of air pollution.

The solitude equation is a provocative and enlightening concept, and Rushkoff devotes much of the book to tracing mental manifestations and origins that tempt people to believe they can isolate themselves from the harm they are helping to cause. As a maker of widespread illusions—for example, the myth that without great effort all desires can be satisfied without harming other humans or the environment—Silicon Valley is a prime target of their criticism. So too is the relentless cashing in of new technologies through venture capital, which has helped transform the open source, democratic, and collectivist ethos of many early techies in the contemporary landscape of monopolies built on data theft and programmed addiction.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos who went to space is one of the richest men on the planet
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos who went to space is one of the richest men on the planet take photo: Charlie Riddle/AFP

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One of the most chilling examples is the production of cell phones. At the end of the assembly process, workers clean each device with a toxic solvent to remove their fingerprints. The chemical causes miscarriages, cancer and shortened life spans, but it maintains the illusion that cell phones are created by magic, without friction, and not by workers in squalid conditions. Rushkoff sees this as an example of a broader phenomenon: “Some of Amazon’s smartest innovations are entirely in place to protect Prime members from the reality of working at the company,” he wrote.

Rushkoff offers a strong critique of the situations and techniques that make these delusions possible. But his arguments about the origins and his suggestions about how to improve our economy and our future are not convincing.

The problem begins with a confused and simplistic attack on empirical science and quantification. In an attempt to reformulate the terms “Western” and “empirical” as insults, he criticizes “the Western empirical approach to science which breaks everything down into parts rather than emphasizing the connections and interactions of all things”. It’s a caricature: many ecologists, biologists, and other scientists study the interactions within and between complex systems. It is a pity that writers bow to such ill-considered generalizations.

It is also difficult to take seriously his claim that because “Western language systems tend to be more noun-based than many of their counterparts, our language has enabled certain forms of industrialization and capitalism, among other systems (such as slavery and domination.) that depend on categories and topics. To demand evidence for this claim, or for a way to rule out other explanations for these phenomena, may be a manifestation of the very empiricism that he opposes. But such a rejection of standards of evidence and verifiability places the claim on the same epistemological level as astrology or climate skepticism.

A scene from Adam McKay's 'Don't Look Up' with Meryl Streep and Leonardo DiCaprio
A scene from Adam McKay’s ‘Don’t Look Up’ with Meryl Streep and Leonardo DiCaprio

The central problem is the confusion between science and how to use it. Scientific methods are not bad because they help some people identify oil deposits, or good because they help others treat brain tumors: they enable good and bad deeds. The methods themselves should not be condemned because of how they are sometimes used. The correct answer is to avoid immoral uses of science, not condemn science.

Rushkoff’s proposed solutions, outlined in a quick paragraph near the end of the book, focus on reducing consumption and regulating and taxing industries more. These are good ideas, albeit familiar ones, but they cannot be implemented well without careful empirical study. How much less do we need to consume? In which sectors of the economy and in what time frame? What are the relative effectiveness of the different systems and what are the most promising green technologies?

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Scientists shouldn’t just answer these kinds of questions; They also have moral and political dimensions. But it is impossible to answer them without careful scientific analysis. Science is required to create a livable future. But this is not enough.

Surviving the Rich: Escaping the Fantasies of Tech Billionaires

Douglas Rachkopf

Norton – 224 pages – $26.95

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Nick Romeo is a critic and journalist in Athens. His new book, which explores people and ideas for building a fair economy, will be published in 2023.


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