Don’t bank on tech titans saving you and me (review of Douglas Rushkoff’s Survival of the Richest)

Douglas Rushkoff got an offer he couldn’t refuse.

He was invited to give a speech at an ultra-deluxe resort.

“It was by far the largest fee I had ever been offered for a talk – about a third of my annual salary as a professor at a public college – all to deliver some insight on the future of technology,” says the author of Survival of the Richest.

Rushkoff anticipated getting up infront of a big audience. Instead, he sat down behind closed doors with just “five super-wealthy guys from the upper echelon of the tech investing and hedge fund world. At least two of them were billionaires.”

They weren’t there to listen to a keynote. “They had come to ask questions,” says Rushkoff. And they weren’t looking for ideas on how to save the world. They wanted advice on how to save themselves when the world is falling apart. And they didn’t want anyone else in their lifeboat.

Should they move to Alaska or New Zealand? Build a bunker? Buy an island? Join a flotilla of super yachts? Book a ride to Mars? Or go full meta and upload their brains to a supercomputer? And how could they buy the continued loyalty of their security forces when crypto coins and cash were suddenly worthless?

“This was probably the wealthiest, most powerful group I had ever encountered,” says Rushkoff. “Yet here they were, asking a Marxist media theorist for advice on where and how to configure their doomsday bunkers. That’s when it hit me: at least as far as these gentlemen were concerned, this was a talk about the future of technology.

“They were preparing for a digital future that had less to do with making the world a better place than it did with transcending the human condition altogether. Their extreme wealth and privilege served only to make them obsessed with insulating themselves from the very real and present danger of climate change, rising sea levels, mass migrations, global pandemics, nativist panic and resource depletion. For them, the future of technology is about only one thing: escape from the rest of us.”

Yes, the meeting sounds ridiculous, sad and disturbing. But don’t be so quick to cast the first stone.  

Some of us were lucky enough to escape the pandemic by hunkering down at home thanks to a big assist from technology. We kept making good money while hanging out in Zoom rooms and staring at screens all day. We ordered everything online with free next day delivery. Smartphone notifications let us know when deliveries were at our door, left by unseen, underpaid and overworked gig workers who were putting their health on the line to keep us fully stocked with stuff.

The pandemic also fuelled a growing mistrust and dislike of billionaire saviors. “The much-feared angry mob is real,” says Rushkoff, and the mob’s tired of feeling like they’re trapped in an endless TED conference or investor pitch and continually reminded that they’re dumb and someone else knows best.

“Fanciful pronouncements for a civilization-wide transformation orchestrated by technocratic billionaires doesn’t play well in Peoria, and they undermine more legitimate efforts at addressing crises, which are never so seamlessly deployed. Even when they’re functioning as intended, the solution sets imposed by the technocratic elite refuse to acknowledge the human soul, irrational though it may be. People want their leadership to be more than utilitarian. What progressives’ painstakingly constructed plans for job training, climate remediation, taxation and economic equality often fail to address are the more essential needs of people to feel recognized and heard.”

So what’s the solution? “I’m not going to offer a plan for how to save the world here, but I can point to some of what we need to do to mitigate the effects of these guys’ machinations, and develop some alternate approaches,” says Rushkoff.

“Most simply, we can stop supporting their companies and the way of life that they’re pushing. We can actually do less, consume less and travel less – and make ourselves happier and less stressed in the process.”

So maybe hold off on ordering that new electric vehicle from the world’s richest man or from Apple once they figure out how to put four tires on a jumbo-sized self-driving iPhone. Stick with your old car and find ways to drive it less or not at all. That’s not the stuff of an inspirational TED Talk or investor pitch. But it’s one of many ways to save our world that’ll actually work.   

Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.