Catastrophe is Just the Figure
Apocalypse bunkers, spaceships, shock collars, and Navy Seals seem to be getting the most attention as I do the media tour for my new book, Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires. I suppose that’s only natural; it’s a pretty compelling hook.
But while titillating and infuriating, the story of my encounter with the tech bros who mean to escape the externalities of their own business practices may be less important than what I’ve come to call “The Mindset” leading them to think and act this way in the first place. In fact, our fascination with the catastrophes themselves (the climate disaster, social upheaval, electromagnetic pulse) or even all the ways that billionaires want to escape those possibilities (Mars colonies, uploaded consciousness, eugenics) may be a symptom of The Mindset, itself.
We are so fixated on the figure, that we can’t see the ground. We can see the subject of the picture, but not the landscape in which it is standing.
This problem lies at the heart of our tech industry’s awful and sometimes even unintended consequences on the world at large. Tech investors and the young developers in their thrall are single-mindedly focused on the mega-hit capable of delivering hock-stick returns and a home-run “exit strategy.” They may even focus on “product” but the boundaries around it are pretty sealed.
They don’t appear to have the desire or ability to consider the world in which the product is operating or the people it affects. The users, workers, and environment impacted by the technology or business are understood as “externalities.” The children mining for rare earth metals or assembling phones, the indigenous people downstream of the silicon chip factory, the exploited workers, the objectified teens….these are all just part of the environment. Background.
It’s an old problem. “In the beginning, all the world was American,” explained Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, describing the pre-civilized “state of nature.” The Native American was to be understood as part of that landscape, no different than “one of those wild savage beasts with whom men can have no society or security . . . and . . . therefore may be destroyed as a lion or…