From left to right, Oliver Daemen, Jeff Bezos ’86, founder of Amazon and space tourism company Blue Origin, Wally Funk, and Bezos’ brother Mark, at Blue after launch from the spaceport near Van Horn, Texas In front of the Origin New Shepard rocket, July 20, 2021.
Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press
Rushkov’s new book details how the super-rich have plans to flee the rest of us
In 2017, Douglas Rushkoff ’83 was invited to speak on “The Future of Technology”. The author, tech commentator, and media theorist was an early writer on the subject, and he would talk about it with the wealthy tech investor community. To his surprise, Rashkov found himself in a room with five billionaires and millionaires, slowly discerning what they really wanted: advice on how to get through the “event,” As one of them put it. As Rashkov later wrote in a viral media article, an impending “environmental collapse, social unrest, nuclear explosion, an unstoppable virus, or Mr. Robot that breaks everything down.” To prepare, one of the men was building an underground bunker system and wondered how to make sure his security wouldn’t attack him.
From that encounter, Rashkov realized that it was those who caused the most damage to the world who believed disaster was coming — and were seeking to escape it. “Success is understood as separation,” Rushkov told PAW, citing Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos’ ’86 focus on colonizing Mars as a further example. “The new American dream is to make enough money so you can insulate yourself from the damage that comes with making money this way.”
How we got here, and what should we do, is the subject of Rashkov’s latest book, survival of the rich. It interweaves critiques of technology, capitalism, and the media with humorous first-hand accounts of his interactions with tech millionaires—donors of TED talks, investments in “moonshots” and “unicorns” creator and inventor, and bearer of Rushkoff’s dub “mindset.” He defines this mindset as the belief that, given enough money and technology, it is possible to outsmart us when the laws of physics, economics, and morality are reversed developmental impact.
Rushkov begins by looking back at the early days of the internet, remembering the internet as a free-spirited, idealistic space and the moment it was absorbed by investment capital. After the dot-com bubble burst in the 1990s, “money was no longer seen as a way to fund new technology; new technology was understood purely as a way to make quick money—as long as you could get out in time,” he wrote.
From here, he looks back at the larger history of centralized currencies and the ancient practice of making money from interest-bearing loans. The basic math of monopoly incentivizes companies to keep growing until they become pathological forces, wiping out existing local industries, centralizing power from workers, and extracting everything possible. He drew the line between the genocidal and colonial expansion of the first major corporations, such as the British and Dutch East India Company, and the world-dominant mentality of today’s tech entrepreneurs. Then, as now, “financiers who provide loans can only benefit from large new projects that require a lot of capital.”
What’s different now, however, is the new height of abstract financialization that the internet allows (what Rashkov calls “towards the meta”). In the old economy, there was a limit to how far things could scale. “Manufacturing reaches the hard limits of human labor and matter itself,” Rashkov wrote. “The digital realm seems to solve this industrial age problem by going beyond the laws of physics.”
The result is sites like eBay or Google that make money from users’ activity, rather than selling their own goods; platforms like Kayak, which aggregate information from other sites (which are themselves aggregators); social media companies that turn their users into products and labor, selling their data to market researchers. Financial abstractions such as derivatives and mortgage-backed securities ushered in the 2008 financial crisis; today, investors have upgraded to new scalable abstractions such as cryptocurrencies and NFTs.
Rashkov, who teaches digital economics at the City University of New York, also questioned the tech world’s experience and data-driven thinking, which he sees as “capitalism has to put everything into a marketable form.” In this mindset, anything that cannot be easily quantified (“soft stuff”) is discarded.
Fortunately, not every tech billionaire wants to leave humans behind. But even those who wanted to stay and help were held back by “mindsets,” Rashkov said. As a result, the solutions they support are equally top-to-bottom and thus inherently detrimental. From biohacking to space colonization to universal basic income, “technological solutions are often shaped by the inherent value of the technology itself: exponential growth, automation over human intervention, forward momentum, platformization, and disregard for existing conditions,” he wrote. They include investing in more technological innovations in the problems the technology causes, or insisting that a two-pronged approach is possible.
As an example, Rashkov cites the continued push for widespread, one-time investment in solar energy, at a time when the vast amounts of water needed to mine metals and make panels could be just as bad for the planet. It’s better for the planet to slowly replace as they wear out than to completely flatten out the old system and replace it with a new one — but investors won’t make money that way. Rashkov writes of meeting a prominent entrepreneur who wanted to build a self-sufficient eco-village — and clear a forest for it. At a gathering of tech elites aimed at solving the world’s problems, Rashkov told them that existing organizations were already doing what they proposed. Clearly, someone replied, “If they’re so good, why haven’t I heard of them?”
“These comprehensive solutions perpetuate the myth that only technologists can solve our problems,” while diverting funds to long-term “dumbs,” Rashkov wrote. But all they do is make the rich richer.
Rashkov argues that the solution to our predicament is modest, incremental and collectivist – the opposite of “mindset”. “People hate to hear that,” he said, “but I advocate for regression.” As he writes, “Fixing what we have, scaling back, or even seeking incremental progress cannot be exciting. A podcast, an online panel, or a TED talk. But it also doesn’t require a massive capital investment, a sales talk, or a “buy.”
On a personal level, degradation means meeting neighbors, participating in mutual aid and other community activities, traveling less, buying local products, slowly replacing things as they wear out, and supporting cooperatives. This means a circular economy that does not depend on growth. When Rashkov said this to the five super-rich, “they rolled their eyes.” But nonetheless, he urged the rich to embrace rather than escape humanity. “Either we all succeeded, or none of us succeeded,” he concluded.