Bill Gates once wrote: ‘I believe that with great wealth comes great responsibility, a responsibility to give back to society.’ My new book, The End of Reality, seeks to understand four billionaire tech barons who have a very different view. Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, Mark Zuckerberg and Marc Andreessen are creating a world where ‘nothing is true and all is spectacle’.
If we are to inquire how we got to a place of radical income inequality and the looming potential for a second American Civil War, we need look no further than these four – ‘the biggest wallets paying for the most blinding lights’. Herein, I’ll call them the Technocrats, in recognition of the influence of the right-wing technocracy movement, founded in the 1930s by Elon Musk’s grandfather, Joshua Haldeman.
The kingdom of the Technocrats
The Technocrats make up a kind of interlocking directorate of Silicon Valley, each investing in or sitting on the boards of the others’ companies. And the Eurasia Group, the highly respected consulting firm headed by Ian Bremmer (author of Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism), aptly describes the world the Technocrats have created as one in which: ‘Your personal information will be hacked. Algorithms fed with biased data will make destructive decisions that affect how billions of people live, work, and love. Online mobs will create chaos, inciting violence and sparking runs on stocks.
Tens of millions of people will be dragged down the rabbit holes of conspiracy theories. The one thing that all of these realities have in common is that they emanate from digital space, where a handful of big tech companies, not governments, are the main actors and enforcers.’
The myth of the Big Tech hero
This digital anarchy affects the UK as well as the US. I use the term ‘techno-determinism’ to describe the path the Technocrats have dictated for us because they have sold – and we have bought into – the idea that they are going to deliver us a bright future, and we tend to ignore any facts that contradict this story. The future they are now selling us – artificial intelligence (AI), crypto fortunes, living to 200, spending our lives in the Metaverse or on Mars – is mostly hype, just as historian Timothy Snyder has shown that Donald Trump ‘was lying not so much to deny the truth as to invite people into an alternative reality’. But when we surrender to the lies, we yield power to those with the fortunes and magnetism to create spectacle in the place of truth.
For years there has been a myth that the Big Tech leaders are progressive heroes, but the Technocrats are actually part of a broader anti-democratic, authoritarian turn within Big Tech, deeply invested in preserving the status quo and in keeping their monopolies unchallenged and their multi-billion-dollar fortunes secure from higher taxes. But their digital oligopolies are now morphing into political oligarchies.
Much of the spectacle takes place on the social networks that all four Technocrats have been involved with either as executives or investors. In 2009 the Gallup survey of the dissatisfaction of Americans with their country’s direction stood at 62 per cent. Today it is 87 per cent. The rise of social networks correlates with the metastasis of social distrust, and political polarisation could get worse in the new world the Technocrats are planning for us. Imagine millions of political disinformation social network posts generated by Chat GPT.
I believe the ultimate goal of these prophets of modernity is to replace nature with technology – to rebuild our society in such a way that a few of them might fulfil the most primal human dream: to become gods. When Ray Kurzweil, who has promoted the idea of the Singularity (the moment when AI will be able to surpass the brain power of humans and will be able to evolve on its own), was asked if he believed in God, he replied: ‘Not yet.’ But by 2045 Kurzweil believes we will have entered ‘the age of spiritual machines’, where humanity will no longer be the most intelligent or the dominant species on earth.
The rise of the resistance?
So, our task is to ask ourselves whether we want to continue down this road of techno-determinism and surveillance capitalism or we want to join the resistance movement. I see that movement every day on the picket lines around Hollywood studios. I hear that resistance every day when I listen to the songs of Rhiannon Giddens or T Bone Burnett.
I see that resistance in the 10,000 signatures on the Authors Guild letter to the AI barons asking to be paid when their AI systems ‘train’ on their books. You can be part of that movement as well. Don’t buy crypto. Take a day off each week to observe a digital Sabbath, where you and your family put your mobile devices in a locked box for a day. Don’t fall for the Metaverse hype.
Jonathan Taplin is director emeritus of the Annenberg Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California
This story first appeared in issue 89 of Spear’s, available now. Click here to buy a copy and subscribe