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How the super-rich plan to outsmart the end of the world

Have you ever found yourself sitting at a table at a luxury resort with five super-rich strangers wondering where you think they should build their doomsday bunker? It sounds ridiculous, but it actually happened to media theorist Douglas Rushkoff. On the show today, he explains why 0.01% of people are obsessed with escaping climate change, global pandemics, political unrest…and ourselves.

listen to Douglas next big idea Podcast below, or read some key highlights. And follow host Rufus Griscom on LinkedIn for a behind-the-scenes look at the show.

“Alaska or New Zealand?”

Douglas Rashkov: I write these books on media, technology, and society because they have some technical focus, and I’m often mistaken for a futurist. So I was asked to do some well-paid talks for bankers and tech investors. They’re not very interested in my stuff, like, how do we build technology to help humans create a better world for themselves? They want to know what to bet on.

I received this cryptic invitation to spend a fortune—basically a third of my annual salary as a professor at CUNY—to go out and talk about the digital future. And I had assumed, because of the amount and some of the words surrounding it, that it would be a room with hundreds of bankers and hedge funds — you know, the way you usually talk. But I’m in the green room of this crazy resort, getting ready for those guys to come and put a mic on me and take me on stage, and these five guys in golf attire, basically, come in and sit around this at the table and started asking me questions.

It turns out that’s the talk. It’s just five guys.

I later documented that two of them were definitely billionaires. I don’t know about the other three, but it’s close enough. They started asking me all these typical questions: “Ethereum or Bitcoin?” “Virtual reality or augmented reality?” And finally they asked, “Alaska or New Zealand?” And I was like, oh man. They want to know where to put the cover. They started asking all these questions about what they called “events”: biological, climatic, economic or nuclear disasters that made the world uninhabitable and asked them to leave town. The question we ended up spending almost the entire hour discussing was: How do they maintain control of the security forces after their money is worthless?

“These are people who really understand that through their business activities, they’re causing so much damage, and the best they can hope for is to make enough money to escape the damage they’re doing by making money that way.”

They all have these little places they want to go, and they’ve hired some SEALs or equivalent in advance to fly out at the last minute and protect their camp from — I guess ours.

Rufus Griscom: Use our pitchforks.

Douglas: Yes. But they understand, if it’s long term, why would the SEALs protect this guy and his family instead of just taking over the place? So they started getting into the Walking Dead-like scene. “Will I put a shock collar on these people? Or am I going to build a safe that can store all the food, but only me can use it?”

Rufus: Has anyone really suggested a shock collar?

Douglas: Well, equivalent. In other words, you don’t put shock collars on them, but you have an implant or something to get in, but the implant can be used to control where people are or what they’re doing.

The whole thing is giving me a crazy feeling, this feeling that these guys really understand that with their business they’re creating such a huge amount of damage that the best they can hope is to make enough money to get away with it They do damage in this way by making money. It’s like they’re trying to make a car that can go fast enough to escape its own exhaust. Just nowhere to go. nowhere to go. Places we thought would be immune to climate change turned out not to be. We get sick where we thought disease wouldn’t go. Angry humans can get the most anywhere. I feel like they understand the irony of the fact that they are creating the conditions that need to be done, but they fail to realize that their fantasies of technological solutionism won’t save them.

The threat of civil war may be real, but the isolationist response is wrong.

Rufus: To me, it feels like two things could be true. First, I suspect that billionaires are more paranoid than non-billionaires. Wealth isolates people, erodes empathy, and has the potential to turn people into assholes. As a billionaire, you have to work very hard to counteract this tendency. Another factor is that many of these billionaires have made their fortunes designing complex, interconnected computer systems with a deep understanding of how fragile those systems are and how destructive they can be.

I think it’s worth taking a moment to think about how irrational and fanciful these fears are, rather than irrational and pragmatic.

A few months ago, we had Ray Dalio on the show, and Ray estimated a 30% chance of civil war and a 30% risk of war with China over the next decade. So the civil war is a big war. But then you have attacks on the power grid, and electromagnetic bombs that destroy the internet. We can all imagine a more serious biological disease, whether man-made or naturally occurring, after COVID. Then there’s global warming, which may not be a sudden event: it may be more of a gradually boiling frog situation.

What is your personal assessment that we should all be concerned about these probabilities?

Douglas: The more distribution of wealth we have – the more fear, isolationism and alienation – the more vulnerable our systems are. I sometimes think that what we should or can do is to prevent some worst-case scenarios, just as we do to do when they do. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a lot of local farming around you if shit is going to hit fans and there is no long food supply chain? If there’s going to be some kind of civil war, don’t you want to be friends with your neighbors? So, in some ways, their calculations are wrong.

The world might be a better place if the founders of big tech companies had decided differently.

Rufus: When I graduated college in ’91, I remember feeling like you could do something fun or make money. Those are two options. Because these are two options, hungry artists have dignity. But over the next decade, we saw examples of these Google Boys and others doing interesting work, changing the world in ways we thought were better at the time, and then making billions of dollars by accident. It breaks the polarity of you either doing something fun and beautiful or going after money.

Douglas: That’s interesting. I remember prepaid $40,000 for my first big online culture book. I was ostracized by my friends. “Rushkov, you made $40,000 for two years of work? My God, you sold out!”

“The more we distribute wealth – the more fear, isolationism and alienation – the more vulnerable our systems are.”

The money you say is true. There is unexpected money. But then Pivot Funding came along. Take Google for example. Two kids in a Stanford University dorm come up with a new way to search that will bring down the big, bad Yahoo. They come with an algorithm that uses people’s links to find out everything. People’s Network! But then they only made a few billion dollars, a quarter and Sequoia, they put their money in, and they wanted not only 100 times, but 1,000 times the return, and they went to Sergey and Larry and said, “Kids Hey, what else do you have?”

Sergey and Larry said, “Well, we just throw away all this data people leave behind. Maybe we can use it to calculate—”

“Aha! Here you go.” And so the nightmare of surveillance capitalism was born.

I went to these business schools and I said, “Listen, I think the future success and good way is to lower your website. Can you settle for just a few tens of millions of dollars? If you can somehow get yourself to accept that eventually With only tens of millions of dollars, you can take a very different, more fun, caring, circular approach to business. So I invite you to consider what is enough.

Can you take 50 million somehow?

Rufus: We can imagine a scenario where Mark Zuckerberg is the hero. Imagine if he decided to focus only on privacy, a great user experience, the mental health of users, and protecting democracy. It’s probably a business worth hundreds of millions or billions, not hundreds of billions, but you have to think he’d be a happier person if he and his team made those decisions.

Douglas: you will want to. But he didn’t for two reasons. First of all, he now says he will refund 99% of the money, to which I always say, “What if you reduced Facebook’s abuse by 99%?” Imagine! But Zuckerberg’s other problem is that his role model is Augustus Caesar. He even cut his hair like Caesar. So if you see yourself as the emperor of mankind, it really doesn’t work.

“If we start a business with the mindset of getting to a certain scale and staying the same, like any system in nature, it opens up such new, different and wonderful possibilities.”

Rufus: Doug, you talked about building regenerative systems and adapting to economic erosion, if necessary, to build a more collaborative, reciprocal economy.

Douglas: The sad thing about many techies I know is that they understand digital operating systems and how arbitrary they are and how easily they can be broken and transferred. They understand specific markets and how easily they can be disrupted. But they accept the fundamental principles of central money and growth-based economics as if they were natural conditions. they are not. There are some ways to do business that don’t involve this.

What we’re working on is an economic operating system that was developed in the 13th century by royalty who were concerned with the rise of the middle class, so they created a currency – a monopoly currency – that you have to borrow and repay the interest. Because you have to pay interest, you have to grow. This gave birth to colonialism, mining and extraction, and domination economies. It has led to all kinds of good things, conquered many people at the same time, and also led to many bad things. But this is not the only economic model. Not every business needs to grow to achieve its goals. If we start a business with the mindset of reaching a certain scale and staying the same, like any system in nature, it opens up so new, different and wonderful possibilities.

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