Going Meta

Why the tech billionaires want to rise above the rest of us, and why it’s so stupid you have to laugh

Douglas Rushkoff

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Photo by Martin Sanchez on Unsplash

While Mark Zuckerberg was sitting down to talk with Joe Rogan last week, I was in a studio recording the audio version of my upcoming book, Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires. (Yes, available September 6!)

As the title suggests, the book uses the ludicrous apocalypse bunkers and fortified island retreats of the tech titans as its starting point. But what I realized as I read the text out loud is that it’s really much more concerned with the sort of virtual escape imagined by tech visionaries like Zuckerberg. In fact, the pathetic and ultimately self-destructive, anti-human hallmark of the digital age is the desire not just to survive catastrophe, but to rise above mere mortals and exist on a different plane, altogether.

Sure, an actual apocalypse literalizes this transcendence — at least if we all die and they get to go to Mars. But the more pressing and active form of escape these guys are already practicing looks a lot more like Zuckerberg’s vision of “Meta.” Think about it: Facebook’s subscriber base has peaked along with the public’s tolerance for the platform’s impact on our psychology and society. So what does Zuck do? He goes “meta” on the platform by announcing Meta, an undefined combination of as-yet unrealized meta-technologies from virtual and augmented reality to the blockchain and AI. “Web 3.”

Silicon Valley developers and investors like Zuckerberg are afflicted with what I dubbed “The Mindset” — a belief that with enough money and technology, they can escape the catastrophes of their own making. But the catastrophes — things like pandemics, climate change, authoritarianism, and social unrest — are really only justifications for what these guys wanted to do in the first place.

Stewart Brand told us “we are gods and we might as well get good at it,” and these tech bros took him literally. As gods, they want to rise one level above mere mortals, and either direct us from above or abandon us completely. That’s what Peter Thiel means by Zero to One: a business shouldn’t compete with its peers but rather rise “one order of magnitude” above them. It’s what Tim O’Reilly meant when he defined Web 2.0…

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Douglas Rushkoff

Author of Survival of the Richest, Team Human, Program or Be Programmed, and host of the Team Human podcast http://teamhuman.fm