Trusting Tech Billionaires is a Recipe for Disaster
Paris Marx is joined by Douglas Rushkoff to discuss why internet visions of the 1990s were wrong to ignore corporate power, how the dot-com boom was like a Ponzi scheme, and why we desperately need to stop elevating tech billionaires.
Douglas Rushkoff is an author and documentarian who studies human autonomy in a digital age. His most recent book is Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires and he’s the host of Team Human podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @rushkoff.
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- An excerpt from Survival of the Richest was published in The Guardian.
- Paris was recently on the Team Human podcast to discuss Road to Nowhere with Douglas.
Paris Marx: Douglas, welcome to Tech Won’t Save Us.
Douglas Rushkoff: I’m so glad to be here!
PM: I’m so excited to chat with you. Obviously, you had me on your show, “Team Human,” a few months ago, and we had a great discussion about my book, but also topics far beyond that. And honestly, it was one of the conversations that I most enjoyed going and talking about the book because it branched so far off into these other things that you’ve been working on, that I’ve been writing about. And so I’m just excited to have you on the show. So we can have a wide ranging discussion as well about your work.
DR: Oh, me too, totally! In case you don’t know I’m a fan of you and what you do. So for me, it’s a extra special thrill to actually do this with you.
PM: Thank you very much. It’s so good to hear from you, of course, after I’ve read a number of your books, and I’ve been following your work for so long too. Thank you. So here’s where I want to start. Obviously the book gets us into these escape fantasies of billionaires that people get really excited about and think are really interesting. But before we talk about some of that, I want to step back and ask a broader question. Because I feel like the book in some ways is also a reflection on the experiences and the work that you’ve done over the past number of years writing about these topics, looking at the tech industry, looking at these influential figures who are shaping a lot about how society works right now. And so I wonder from your vantage point, how you’ve seen the tech industry evolve over the years, and whether your thinking on it has changed over that period, too?
DR: It’s interesting. When I read the book for the audiobook — so I don’t know if you’ve done the audio reading of your own books — the whole thing takes on a different quality for the writer because now you’re saying it out loud. And when I read this book out loud, compared to the others, I realized it was a stealth memoir — that this really was my journey through the cyber culture, from what seemed like the beginnings to me anyway, in the late 80s right through to where we are now. I would say it’s less the story of my changing attitudes towards a thing that was happening, but the way the world shifted under my feet. For me, it’s a story of there was this tremendous, if unsettling, or destabilizing potential for digital technology to really change the way we engage with one another to foster a much more collective creative potential. And I watched really, over the years, as that potential was surrendered to the needs of the traditional marketplace. I’m less amazed by how things have changed than by how steadfastly they’ve remained the same. So that instead of taking this almost — not to get to druggie — but instead of taking an almost psychedelic trip together as a society, we used digital technology more like steroids or speed in order to double down on extractive corporate capitalism.
So the the original set and setting — to use Timothy Leary’s words — the original set and setting for the digital trip was collective imagination and challenging authority and asking new questions. And it was a world that a lot of us saw those early days of hypertext and rave and interactive storytelling and even questioning identity and gender in fun, crazy, playful ways. And how that was replaced by a set and setting of extraction, control, domination, the good old ones that we’ve had the last 500 or so years, and then looking at where that took us. And I feel like it’s the story of how we went from this good trip into a really bad trip of paranoia, and apocalypse fantasies. And in some ways, the people who are most successful in the digital media environment are suffering the most with that horror show.
PM: It’s really reflected in the book and in your work as well. That horror show that we have developed into that we’ve arrived at, even though the narrative in the early part of this transformation, as the internet is emerging is so different, as you say, is so focused on the opportunity and the liberation that is going to be offered by these technologies by moving in this direction.
DR: It is interesting. When you say it, I was just thinking I just looked at my first real book, it was called “Siberia” that I wrote in 1992 that was cancelled in 93, because they thought the net would be over by the time it came out. You know — that one. And it’s not an optimistic, but it’s a very open minded appraisal of this new thing that was happening. The Mondo 2000 era reality hacker, are you serious, very early Apple, gee whiz, wonder West Coast thing. But at the very end of the book, I say there’s this new magazine coming along, called Wired, that sort of reframing this digital renaissance as an economic revolution. And I feel like there’s a window of opportunity for us peace, love, human nature loving people to seize the opportunity of the net. But if we don’t, there’s a very alternative history that we may live. And I was trying not to be too scared, but I was like: Ah, there’s this thing on the horizon. There’s an alternative road we may go down, which will be really scary. And I was already at that point, saying: What will it be like if we’re using an internet where marketing could reconfigure itself in real-time based on how we’re behaving? And we’ll each end up with our own feedback loop of personalized social control? That would be a dangerous place to go. So I was already wondering that it could happen.
PM: Phew! It’s a good thing we avoided that dystopian future.
DR: Thank god! I warned everyone, and we avoided it [both laugh].
PM: It’s interesting, though, because when you look back at that moment now, and certainly you discuss this a bit in the book, what do you make of that kind of framing of the internet, because, as you discussed in the book, and as is probably familiar to a lot of the listeners of the podcast, a lot of those narratives around the potential transformative effect of the internet and of the digital environment is also seized on by those people who want to promote the economic vision of the internet and what it could give to us as well. When you look back now on those narratives of the internet as liberatory, as offering us these different experiences, do you think that they were naive in what they potentially offered or what they saw as being possible through this technology? Was it always set in stone that the way that we went was one where the market took over the internet and vastly commercialized it just as though it takes over every other part of our society?
DR: There were multiple forms of naivete. The easy one was John Barlow came along and wrote the “Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace.” He was a Grateful Dead lyricist. He was cool with everybody. We didn’t know he was Dick Cheney’s roommate in college and campaign advisor.
PM: I did not know that. When I read that in your book, I was like: Wait, what?
DR: When he came along and said: Governments of the world, get off our internet! We don’t need you; this is our space. What we didn’t realize was if you get rid of government, then you create free reign for corporations to come. And government really had cast itself as the enemy. This was the moment there was something called Operation Sundevil, where they had raided the homes of little 14-year-old hackers who are trying to break into AT&T to see how the systems work. They were not cyber espionage terrorists. They were curious children getting handcuffed and dragged into jail. We were mad at them. We were mad at Tipper Gore, Al Gore’s wife who was doing parental advisory and trying to shut down — everyone thought that cyber would be used for child porn. And this was all bad. And babies are gonna see naked people on the internet or God knows what they were really worried about at the time. But it was a lot of fear mongering or moral panic was going on. So it seemed like: Yeah, government get out! FBI, we don’t need you! So that happened.
But on a more complex level, and this is more to your work, what we knew was we were breaking the monopolistic control of Rupert Murdoch and William Randolph Hearst, the whole read-only mediacape that we were living in. It seemed like: Okay, now we’re gonna move into a read/write mediascape, where I can make the videos and do this stuff and make all that. It’s going to be free of those repressive biases. And because we weren’t really fluent in McLuhan, we didn’t realize that, no, it’s not just that they’re free of those biases. It’s going to be now subjected to a new set of biases. What are the biases and affordance of digital technology, and we better understand those, lest we be run over by them. And without doing that analysis, we weren’t able to see how this space would end up favoring the loudest troll, that misbehavior in cyberspace would be rewarded vastly more than appropriate behavior. It was a different place. And we didn’t compensate for that — we didn’t program for that. We programmed for engagement.
PM: I feel like it makes a ton of sense. When you go back and read Barlow or some of the other writings in that time, the opposition to government is there. You can see it very clearly. But then there’s so little mention of the corporation. And this other kind of form of power that exists in our society, and how it would be able to swoop in if the government is not there, if there’s no kind of regulatory framework, if we’re not thinking about the potential consequences that come of just unleashing it and creating a whole new market opportunity that a bunch of companies can then use in order to build a whole new load of businesses.
DR: Right, and not to cheer for authoritarianism on any level, but you look at the difference between the exported version of TikTok and the domestic version of TikTok in China. Because China has a very — let’s use a nice word —strong government, and ready government intervention. The TikTok that their children receive has educational material like pandas and all sorts of stuff that basically it’s an educational channel using the addictiveness or some of the addictiveness of TikTok and the sensationalism of it to teach kids. And the number one profession that little kids say they want to go into when they grow up is to be an astronaut. In America, where TikTok has no such controls, and it’s it’s the least common denominator. Tristan Harris has got a good word for this; he’s really good. I don’t agree with him all the time about his kind of technosolutionism for upscaling humanity, but he is good with a phrase. And he says domestically Chinese TikTok is spinach. Internationally, it’s opium. And that’s true. That’s why in America when you ask kids at the same age, what they want to be when they grow up, and they say an influencer. Oh, my gosh, a social media influencer! It doesn’t matter what they’re influencing about — just influence! Influence.
PM: That also feels linked to — I feel like I’ve read this somewhere and I can never like actually find the study that said it so maybe it’s something I made up and then just justify to myself.
DR: Good enough!
PM: But in unequal societies, and I guess maybe we could even say stagnating to some degree societies. Because one thing I think that we can recognize about whether it’s the United States or the West more generally, is that social mobility is really stagnating. The kind of promise of, say, an American dream or what have you — that you work hard and things are going to get better in your life and you’re going to improve generation on generation — that has kind of evaporated as this inequality has gotten so much worse. And then you see that reflected in these ideas about careers and what people want to achieve. Whereas, as you say, somewhere in China, maybe astronaut and these sorts of ideas are what people are going toward, what people think would be really good careers — things that we might have seen in decades past in, say, the United States or Canada. And now everyone wants to be a sports player or a YouTuber, or an influencer, or what have you. Because it seems like that is your one shot at getting out of whatever situation you’re in now. You can’t really pursue the kind of career that is going to give you the growth or what have you in the past. It’s the moonshot or it’s nothing,
DR: Right? The main tools that people had for changing class, if you will, for class mobility, those are the things that are inflated more than anything else: home prices, where you get into a so called better neighborhood to send your kid to a good school, so they can then get into college; or college itself, which went up 10 times more than the regular rate of inflation. And now doesn’t even really serve that same function. Well, college is so much more, and I’m teaching in college, but parents and kids, they all come in, it’s like, what job can I get when I’m done? What job? So the whole, maybe it was elitist. But the beauty of college was it was four years away from the job market to actually develop your whole instrument, and now it’s very few people look at it that way.
PM: Job training, basically, which is unfortunate.
DR: They’re externalizing the cost of worker training to us!
PM: Exactly. And we have, I think, traditionally been a bit better with the university tuition and stuff in Canada, but even here in Newfoundland, where I am, they shot it through the roof recently, because the argument was that it’s too cheap here, because the rest of Canada has it more expensive. So we need to match them so that it looks comparable; if it’s not expensive than it looks like it’s a cheap education and not worth as much. And it’s like, what? How? That’s so backwards. It makes no sense.
DR: It’s commodity fetishism in education. There you go.
PM: It’s disappointing. And I want to get back to that early period, before we get into what is going on now.
DR: I could stay — I’ll stay in the early period [both laugh].
PM: You also talked about the Dot-com boom. That, first, when the Internet is privatized, when this is taking off, all these companies are forming. And there’s really a mad dash to be the big internet company, to be the next big thing. All of this money is rushing in. And then at the end of that period, we have the explosion. All this “wealth,” so to speak, is destroyed because the boom goes bust. But you also talked about how this period was — you called it like a Ponzi scheme, basically — all of this money was going in, in search of returns. And the question was: Will you be able to get out before everything goes bust? Can you talk to us a bit about that period? And what you take from it?
DR: Well, it’s funny, I remember all these business plans. When I was a kid, people would write screenplays, and then try to get one. So you’d get like $500,000 for a screenplay, and you move out to California and you’re rich and get laid and get a pool and whatever. And people who had nothing to do with movies would try to write the screenplay. You buy the Syd Field book, it was just one on how to write screenplays. And then you just try to bang one out if you have a good enough idea, and you follow the structure. So with the Dot-com boom era, like 96-99, what people would do is they come up with a high concept like a digital bike lock. And then you write this business plan where you say: Okay, there’s 500 million bicycles in America times $12, which is the margin that we get on each one of these digital bike locks, equals $2.7 billion. That was basically the way it went or you be generally say: Well, if we only sold to 20% of American bicycles, we would still make $3 million. So they would write those out and generate money. It was really a pure pyramid scheme. An angel would come in and support that and then they go up to a Series-A for the next level investors and a Series-B. And you’d tried to get all the way up to your IPO where you’re selling to the public. And at that point, the angels and the Series-A people get out and leave everybody else on the pyramid holding the bag until the thing dies.
And it just kept happening and happening — even companies that were delivering some value. Their business plans would be like people who stay in their apartments or their homes by remortgaging and remortgaging at better valuations. That keeps working as long as the price of your house is going up, so you can get a new mortgage at a better valuation. But the minute it stops going up, you die. You die suddenly; you have to leave. And what I was watching was that when was this going to happen to all these companies? Because everybody, I think — maybe they didn’t, I knew and some of my friends knew — but everybody else thought we were in a new paradigm that because of digital, it would be all different. A new paradigm was Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the Federal Reserve, said: We’re in a new paradigm!
PM: We see how that went.
DR: And the turning point for me was when — and I wrote about it in the book — the New York Times asked me to write the Op-ed, about the AOL Time Warner merger. And me, I’m one of us. I’m not a business guy, I’d never written a business piece in my life. It’s like: Wait a minute, I compare the hypertext adventure to Ayahuasca trip versus an acid trip. And here’s why. I’m different. I was writing about internet culture and all, but not that. And they’re like: No, no, you’re the guy to write this, because this is the new synergy of old media, new media, you’ll be able to explain it. You’re the new McLuhan, you’ll tell us what it is. So I go: Okay, if I’m the new McLuhan, I’m gonna look at this through the lens of a media theorist. So what is this currency that they’re playing with? And it’s like, oh, so Steve Case, the owner of AOL is taking his in-game money. It’s like video game money. And he’s using it to buy an old media real company like Time Warner that has a movie studio and cable, they owned Road Runner cable, they have amusement parks, they have all this actual stuff. So right, he’s cashing in his chips, his poker chips to get this next level of money that’s tied to the real world. And that must mean his subscriber base has probably peaked. And that’s why he ran to Goldman and Salomon Smith Barney and whoever to do an IPO or to buy this new company. And it’s going to crash and burn, obviously, because the weight of this funny money into that real money is going to dilute everything; I don’t know how this is going to even last.
They call me up that afternoon from the Op-ed page, and they say we can’t print this. We talked to the people in the business section, they say you are insane, that this is a paranoid conspiracy theory nuttiness. He couldn’t buy it — he’s growing! That’s why he’s buying, because he’s growing. This is the new synergy of old media, new media, new paradigm, blah, blah! And I’m like: Look, if that’s what the business people say, let them write the Op-ed. So they wrote the Op-ed, I published mine in The Guardian. And of course, just a few months later, you know, they’re taking the drinking fountains that water coolers out of the Time Warner building to try to save money, the whole thing crashes and burns. Ted Turner says it was the worst thing that happened to America since the Vietnam War, and maybe worse, you know, he was the guy who ran CNN, but it was the beginning of Dot-com crash. That was that moment that people went, Oh, I get it. This isn’t real. This isn’t real money. I thought: Yay! We fought off the infection, you know, the bacterial infection of corporatism.
I was the one who dubbed it, actually, in 95, I said that this is going to prove itself a social medium, what the internet is. And I thought, this is it. And when I saw even though they were silly, the beginnings of Friendster and MySpace, and Blogger — it’s like oh, here we go. These are not Dot-coms. This is not people buying stuff, through the internet. It is people sharing ideas, and even monetizing them in some cases, but with the medium. And it looks like this is it! It’s becoming social again. And of course, the business came back and said: Okay, we’re going to invest again. But now, instead of just doing your crazy Dot-com thing, once we give you money, we’re going to ask you to pivot towards something that actually makes some money. And they even did it to companies that were like Google that was making money. They said: But how are you going to make $100 billion instead of $10 billion.
PM: Exactly — always more.
DR: Always more, because they’re chasing exponential growth, which is not real exponential growth does not exist in nature, except in cancer, and it kills its host.
PM: There’s been such a mistake, especially in recent years, as increasingly, they’ve tried to apply that exponential thinking to the real world, to things like cars, and things like Ubers, and houses and anything else. But there are a few things, I want to pick up on what you just said, because I think there’s so much fascinating in it in looking back at that period. And even thinking about it in terms of what has gone on in the past decade or so. When you’re talking about the Dot-com boom, and these angel investors, these VCs buying in and then going to the various rounds to get more money and then cashing out at the IPO, the thing that I immediately think of is a company like Uber. It’s never made any money. The investors bought in early on, they got more investors to come in on it. And then they cashed out at the IPO and put the company on to the retail investors of the other people who buy in at that period. But they’ve made their money even though Uber has never been profitable. How do you compare what was going on in that Dot-com boom period to what we’ve seen in kind of the post-2008 cheap money, what was going on in that period?
DR: The main difference is more of the early investors now understand to get out. In the Dot-com boom-bust period, a lot of wealthy people lost a lot of money. They lost 80-90% of their portfolio in that crash, and then they blame people like me for saying the internet was great. I said the internet was great, not that these Dot-com companies are great. There’s a really big difference. Oh, no, Rushkoff — you’ve soured on the Dot-com! It’s like no! I was screaming about the Dot-com in 95, saying don’t do this thing. Honestly I didn’t think Amazon was going to make money. I was like: Why would I do that, instead of going to the bookstore and supporting my local shop? I remember writing a piece saying we just lived through Barnes and Nobles’ decimation of the local book industry, do you think we’re really going to go a step further? Maybe it’s because of what Barnes and Nobles and Borders and all did to the local book shops that made it easier. They kind of destroyed the local, so then what’s worse about this company than that one?
PM: Well, it’s like Walmart too. To some degree there was even like: Walmart sucks; Walmart is terrible; Walmart’s destroying our communities. But now Amazon is coming and eating Walmart’s lunch, do we really want to lose Walmart too if that’s all we have left?
DR: Right. And now Uber is a particular case. I think Airbnb actually makes money. Uber loses money. And even though their impact on society and local economies is pretty similar, I guess because Uber thought — like a lot of these companies, like Facebook does — they think that their big payday is in the next thing that they do. Uber probably believes that it’s going to be running the national network of autonomous vehicles or something, that they’ll partner with Tesla or something and create a new drones, automobiles. I saw they had they did a architectural competition for spaceports, or teleports for flying Uber cars. They were the richer in this layer above the city and the poor down on the ground fighting each other like in some John Carpenter movie.
PM: But in the PR, that’s actually for everyone. Everyone gets to take the helicopters.
DR: I don’t think we do! I really don’t. It’s each level of new thing, I’m less invited to participate. My wealth has stayed the same. I used to be able to afford an Uber. No, I mean, I could afford an Uber luckily. It is a little different. And it’s also because I think that the amount of financialization around these things is greater, so that it’s easier for say, like Jason Calacanis bought in Uber early, and got really rich, like $100 million rich off that. And yes, and the company didn’t make money, I think it would have been harder to do that, before people learned how to game the system. It’s like: Oh, wait a minute, when we buy this, they’re going to put a two year lock on us being able to sell our stock? Well, let’s change that to 90 days. And how do we obfuscate this and do that? And 83(b). They’ve got all of these little hacks that they’ve developed, so they could do the same Ponzi, but kind of delay the crash long enough to get out.
PM: So fascinating. Because it does feel, with what you were describing with a lot of the Dot-com stuff was also a lot of what we saw in kind of the post-2008 period, where you have all this cheap money, where cash is everywhere, where again, there’s these companies that are building the Uber for X, and they have an app for everything. And in many cases, that’s not really socially useful. It’s just what can we dream up that someone else hasn’t done before, and then can try to raise a bunch of money from a bunch of venture capitalists, even if it crashes and burns in six months, or whatever. At least we got that kind of payday for now. And then we can move on to the next thing. and the next thing.
DR: It’s funny, I had a bunch of different companies or groups and whatever, wanted me to join them on conferences and panels and things about Web3. I always say when they email us: I don’t know if Web3 is really a thing. It just seems to be this basket of ill-defined or undefined innovations: VR, and AR and crypto and blockchain and NFTs and fantasy role playing and media and into the next whatever this sort of meta — literally meta — but a meta innovation. It’s some kind of meta innovation for the meta crisis in the meta economy. And when I challenge it, what more than one person has said: But there’s so much money invested in it, that it has to happen, that it can’t not happen. And I’m like: What? Why can’t it not? I feel like it can not happen — even even with all that money.
PM: I agree with you. Look at how much it has imploded, since the peak in November 2021, about a year or so ago. Web3 for a little while was going to happen. It was the next big thing and now we see the NFT market has crashed, we see these completely empty NFT conferences where a year ago they would have been filled with people. And now we see Mark Zuckerberg burning his company to the ground in pursuit of this metaverse that no one really seems to want.
DR: I was really into what we call meta theatre when I was in college — the play within the play? Because that moment when you see the play within a play, and then the audience thinks, am I in a play and someone seeing me. There’s that moment of looking over your shoulder, that paranoid beautiful, play within a play within a play within a play, and you go: Meta, meta, meta, meta, meta! But when I would talk to my friends in the Philosophy department, they would say, Yeah, but there’s some philosophical rule. I don’t know what they call it, that if your philosophy is based on an infinite recursion, or something — it’s like there’s a name for it and philosophy — then you know you’re kind of going down the wrong path. If your proof of God is that God could go meta on us, well, then what goes meta on God? And what goes meta on that? And meta on that? It’s like youu’re stuck in a kind of a metaphysical loop. And I think that we recognize that intuitively.
So everyone understood Web 2.0. It’s like: Okay, you can have a Dot-com, or you could have the site that aggregates the Dot-coms. Who do you want to be? Do you want to be American Airlines, buying planes and buying fuel and having people and crashing and all this stuff? Or do you want to be the website that aggregates American Airlines and United Airlines, gets 10 or 15% of every ticket, and you got no planes? No gas? No, you went meta, right? Or go meta on that maybe, and then have a site that aggregates the prices from all the meta sites? And does that? So you can do that one or two times. But then I think, when we went from Web 2.0 to Web3, I think a lot of people went: Wait a minute, does this just keep happening? So if I could go web three on web two, then is someone else going to just go web four on web three? And if they can, I’m going to be the sucker again. So fuck, that maybe the place to go is not up to Web3, but down to Web 1 or reality 1.0, where the actual scarce resources exist, the actual rare earth metals, the actual human beings, the actual water? What do you want to be in: Web3 or water?
PM: I’ll take the water. It’s also like: Do I want another level of commercialization when the degree to which the web is commercialized already is already so shitty and terrible? Okay, so I do want to get to the topic of the book, I have one more thing I want to pick up on what you said. I’m fascinated, obviously, as you wrote about in the book, and as you were just describing, you wrote this Op-ed about the Time Warner-AOL merger, before it all imploded. And we’re also in this moment where there’s a lot of interaction between the more traditional entertainment companies, the Warner’s, the Discovery’s, all these, and the tech companies, as they moved into this increasingly with streaming, etc. And it seemed like they were revolutionising the video, film, television sectors, with the streaming business model that Netflix really pioneered. And a lot of them kind of jumped onto, and a lot of the big entertainment companies felt that they had to replicate. It forced them to consolidate more, because they had to compete with these highly capitalized tech firms.
And it does feel like after the hype of that for the past decade, it does feel like the wheels are kind of coming off of that kind of vision for entertainment, with the trouble that Netflix has had, with the whole mess with Warner and Discovery. Now, we were talking about what happened before when the tech companies started to move into the entertainment space by AOL buying Time Warner and how that was a disaster. What do you make of what is going on now and the effect that they have had in transforming the film and television industries? And what that has turned into?
DR: Well, I mean, you’re right that these companies had massive power over the new companies. And that’s because their capital structures were one or even two orders of magnitude greater than the companies that they were competing with. So you get MGM or Time Warner, and these little quaint, property owning, reality based companies that have been around a long time and have P&Es (price-to-earnings ratios) that are related to the last 50 years of earnings that we know about sweet little Fox movies or whatever. Then you’ve got these digital companies that are just Saudi sovereign wealth fund, massive extra billions from oil and molybdenum mining. It’s like cash looking [growl sounds]. You’re looking for what? You know what I mean? So the amount of content that they could make — Warner has its schedule of: Oh, we’ll do like six movies this year and two TV shows and, ooh, we’re really going; maybe we’ll have a Hunger Games and really do well! And then it’s like, okay, so we will never we’re going to do 51 shows a year so that we can release one new major series a week on every week except Yom Kapoor, or whatever. And each one of them having so much or Disney having so much — it was a bit like Bannon, just like flood the zone.
So they flooded the zone with all of this media, it was great for people who wanted to make media. It was really hard for people to watch. When I was a kid, there were three main channels, maybe four if you included Fox, as they arose with “The Simpsons.” But most kids I knew, knew pretty much every TV show, what channel it was on and what day of the week. There was Thursday nights had “M*A*S*H,” and this, and they had certain comedies that was must-see TV. But you knew the whole thing. Even if you didn’t watch “Everybody Loves Raymond,” you knew what it was. Where now there are like, six season, $100 million mammoth series about barbarians and Medici and Romans, that I’ve never even heard of. Someone says: Oh, go see the Medici thing. And I go look, and there’s nine different major multimillion dollar series on that family, or the Borgias or whatever they were called, they’ve got like six series. Oh, there’s the Jeremy Irons, one, and then this one. So this massive amount of content, and they were all doing it until they could be the last man standing.
So I would argue it was successful, just like the automobile industry had 100 companies until it was the three majors. Now there’s going to be 100 of these until the three last ones stand. People are not — I’m not able to afford every single streaming network I’d like. Between Hulu and Paramount and Peacock and this and that, and the other. So I’m just missing. I missed the last three “Star Trek” series. And I’m someone who never would have missed even if it was bad. I made it through everything — through “Deep Space Nine,” “Voyager,” or the all that — I made it through them. I don’t even have time to watch them if I wanted to. So the consolidation is necessary. There’s not enough eyeball hours to do it. So it was going to happen, but I would argue they succeeded. TV has been transformed into this remote control operated menus of stuff. It’s a whole different thing — streaming worked. It just can’t work for so many companies at the same time.
PM: I completely agree with you. They absolutely transformed it. I think it was just so many companies trying to compete for so much and then having to spend to make so much content and to consolidate in order to compete, and how that consolidation is going to be pushed even further. But also the discussions of you know what that means for the people who work on the shows, you know, it was good for some actors and screenwriters and things like that who are in high demand. But then it also had some issues for some of the people who work on the sets and how the rates were different, what it means for residuals. It’s a real disruption. And there are discussions now as to whether the finances of streaming make as much sense as the way it worked before because you make the content, it drops in the library, and then it stays there and never goes anywhere else.
DR: And it will flip again. That’s where Cory Doctorow, his new book on “Chokepoint Capitalism” is interesting. For people to read, look at how these big, massive, interactive media companies or internet-era media companies went in wisely, creating choke points so that no one else can get value from the thing, except the studio or the streamer or whoever it is that’s in charge. They do open up the possibility of a people’s bottom-up different sort of media. Look at the alternatives to YouTube that have different profit models. Look at even a service like Vimeo. If you had proper publicity, you could put a movie on Vimeo in 4K. They have admissions — they’ll run the money for you. So the keys to an independent media space are in our hands. Now, it’s just a matter of whether we can kind of organize ourselves to create a different method of discoverability.
PM: And that’s the real challenge. Because then you need to face up against the power of these major companies that exist there, the people who head them. And I want to use that to transition into the hook of the book. Because you start by talking about going to an exclusive conference where you meet these people who are really concerned about the “event,” nd how they are going to survive it. So I was hoping you could tell us a bit about what this event is, what is motivating these people. And in the book, you talk about the mindset, how these people are thinking, and I think that is really key. So can you outline that for us?
DR: I still don’t really know what the event I went to was, exactly. I was under the impression that it was the highest net-worth investors of a particular hedge fund family. So that they were there, and that they brought in a bunch of speakers to talk about the future of various things. thought I was going to be brought out to speak, and instead, they brought these five guys into my greenroom. And they just sat down at the table, I thought it was like a pre-talk thing that they were doing, I was pretty going to say: Look, right before I give a talk, I like to have a few minutes alone. And it was like: Oh, no, this is it; this is your event. It’s happening right now. So what I did learn was there were lots of different kinds of professionals at this thing, not just speakers, but like a golf coach, and a chef, and an astronaut. So it’s possible that each of us was a form of entertainment.
And I also considered the possibility that the reason they didn’t bring me out to do my talk in whatever the auditorium speaker space was that maybe only five people showed up for my event. So I don’t know if any of this is true or not. This is just afterthought in the years, I’ve had to think about this — that what if it seems to be some possibility that, oh, they were going to bring me in. I wasn’t deluded. This was a greenroom. They were going to bring me out and then maybe brought these guys in instead, except there was already a table in there with chairs around it. So why would that be in the greenroom? So, I don’t know. But then they’re talking to me and they didn’t let me do my talk.
And they were doing what wealthy guys usually do with me, which is a really dumb thing to do with me, which is ask me binary questions about where they should place their bets. Because while I am almost always correct about where things are going, I am almost always incorrect about where to place your bet. I would have said CompuServe not AOL, I would have said Betamax not VHS right. I would have said Ethereum, not Bitcoin, although maybe that one will prove to be true. But they were peppering me with those questions. It was the old: Should I bet on Ethereum or Bitcoin or virtual reality or augmented reality? Or this or that? And then finally, it was Alaska or New Zealand? So we spent this hour talking about these things, just about their bunkers, after that question came out. And again, I have to wonder, did they invite me there to water test their bunker strategies? Or did they wander into a conversation that it turns out, all five of these guys were actually concerned about, and one of them popped the cork on that conversation? So now it was: Oh, yeah, I’ve been worrying about my Navy SEALs. And I’m worrying about this. And I’m worrying about that.
And what I realized was their concern, one of them said that their actuaries had decided there was a 20% likelihood of a cataclysmic event by the end of their lifetimes. So that’s why they were investing 20% of their money in Plan B’s, in these bunker scenarios. They weren’t all bunkers. One of them was like a seasteader. They had different sorts of things they were thinking about, or at least saying that they were thinking about in front of each other. Because there was also the feeling like this is some kind of a weird, little poker game that they’re playing with each other, bluffing on who has what. And so what was really going on, there was some point I had brought up something about their water supply, some real basic point about their water supply. But, oh no, there’s swimming pools! One of them was talking about that he was getting this bunker with an indoor swimming pool and natural light somehow. And I was like: Dude, my neighbor has got a swimming pool. And there’s always a truck in front of that house. It’s always someone is bringing a new filter and a new water thing and new heater. It’s like, where are you going to get your pool supplies when you’re down there? It’s like, what are you going to 3D print them? And the guy opens one of those little moleskin books and I see him write down “indoor swimming pool supplies?” It says like: Okay, so you’re really not thinking about this at all. You’re just losers.
But what I realized was, what we were looking at was a bigger guilt paranoia, where they have always been trying to build a car that could go fast enough to escape from its own exhaust — that they’ve been living with trying to escape externalities. And back in the days when it was people of color in faraway places and their resources that you were taking and their children that you were enslaving, it wasn’t quite as bad as when it was right in your own country. When your own Northern California, Indigenous-made log cabin Wigwam is now being singed with forest fires from your own deforestation practices. What do you think’s going to happen? Now they’re starting to worry, when they see the storming of the Capitol. It got a lot of them scared. It’s like: Uh oh, what power have we unleashed?
It’s one thing to not let my own kid use any of the stuff and they don’t. Their kids are going to Rudolf Steiner Schools and Waldorf academies and living on organic goat milk and whatever up in Nevada somewhere while they are giving us — just like the Chinese — they’re giving us all the same bad stuff the Chinese would give us. But who are they living amongst then? So that’s really their real fear is: Wait a minute, I’ve externalized so much that now I’m neck deep in my own externalized harm. I’ve got to get away from this somehow. So they fantasize. Blue Origin getting off the planet — oh, the 8 billion people alive today according to longtermism. They’re just the larval stage in humanity’s inevitable ascent to the heavens, when the 40 trillion of us spread out through the solar system will matter a lot more than the 8 billion larvae squirming around today.
PM: It’s so distressing.
DR: It’s laughable when you realize who they are and how silly they are. There’s a great story in there about a guy who’s really afraid of AI, one of the guys who started one of the main social networks, it was at a Foo camp, the friends of O’Reilly So we’re not allowed to say the names of people who say stuff. But the guy’s asking me: Aren’t you scared? You’ve been posting such negative things about AI on Medium and on Twitter? Aren’t you scared that when the AIs are in charge, they’re going to rub you out? And I was like: Well, why should I be? And he goes: Well, I don’t write anything at all about AI, since 1997 I’ve meticulously scrubbed anything, there’s not one comment. And I said: Well, if you think these AIs are going to be so smart with all their machine learning, are they going to be able to infer from your posting pattern, how you actually feel about them? And the guy goes: Oh, shit. Like he’s never even thought of that, and these are the smart guys. These are the guys smarter than us. The geniuses who programmed this shit?
PM: It’s so true, and it’s frustrating to see how influential they are, how much harm they’re causing in society, and how the response that they have is, how can I try to protect myself from the consequences of my actions, rather than saying, hey, these actions are destroying society? Maybe I should be doing something a little bit different. Maybe I should be trying to change that. And not in the way that you might hear from some of these effective altruists, Sam Bankman-Fried, people like that, I’m doing the terrible thing. But I’ll take some of that money, and I’ll put it into good causes. So that’s ethical. It makes building crypto Ponzi schemes and working for oil companies and stuff like that ethical, because I’m doing that.
DR: It’s doing more good. It’s in the math, it’s in the math!
PM: As long as I can calculate it out and make it look right on the sheet!
DR: The balance sheet! [laughs]
PM: It’s so frustrating.
DR: That’ll always work — that always works! There’s the other kind though, who don’t just want to escape it, or do some correction, but feel like they have the exclusive vision of how to fix the whole thing. The guys that have such hubris and such we are as gods and may as well get good at it self confidence that they drop some acid or go to Burning Man and do some ayahuasca and come back thinking that they’ve got the total solution for all of humanity. And you look say at a Thiel, who believes he has that in techno-monarchy, or some of the guys with The Great Reset and Game B who think they have it in their stack of software. But I feel like that’s reaching an endpoint too. Right now, we are watching a Elon Musk have a nervous breakdown in real time on Twitter and bring an entire community into that.
People are asking what I can compare what Musk is going through, too. And the closest thing is Charlie Sheen, if you remember when he did that. There’s this standing wave of culture and then someone decides to jump into it. So Charlie Sheen was the first and he got thrashed around and huge and then kind of spit out. Then the next one to do it was kind of Donald Trump jumped in there, right in this big way. It’s not him, it’s the culture. People keep blaming him. It’s not — he’s the fucking Gollum. He’s the Gollum being inhabited by this cultural spirit. And now, I think that the greatest threat to Donald Trump is Elon Musk. Because if Elon Musk takes on the sort of antichrist-like quality, that he is the one being murdered by civilization, then Trump loses that. Whoever is the Troll-in-Chief wins, I would much rather Elon play that role, non-politically than Trump in the civic sector.
PM: It makes total sense. I guess the risk there is he’s someone who very much holds this third view as you’re talking about, very much his visions are what is going to save us — whether it is from climate change or from extinction, etc. There’s a whole other load of things that he thinks he’s saving us from, defender of free speech now. But along with that, he not only brings along a particular politics of grievance, it seems like a particular politics that nobody should stand in his way. He should not have to pay taxes; he should not have to pay attention to regulations. He should be allowed to, and not only allowed to, but enabled to undertake and rollout his vision of what this society should be and how it’s going to solve our problems and fix everything and what have you. And that seems particularly concerning, because this is something that you write about in the book, it doesn’t really contain the real solutions to the problems that we face, and in many ways, probably even exacerbates them. Because it puts our focus on these moonshots, on these things that he is excited about. Whereas the real solutions to these problems, often solutions that don’t involve holding out hope for some new technology that’s going to save us from whatever it is we’re doing to ourselves, is really trending us in the wrong direction.
DR: It’s nightmarish. So then what the question becomes is: what do we do about that? And I think all we can do about that is attempt to achieve coherence. ourselves. I’m less and less involved in the Twitter wars. That’s unwinnable — that space is unwinnable? In the book, I have this argument with Richard Dawkins, where he wants me to provide evidence of a non-evidence based reality. It’s like, wait a minute, that’s not going to work. So it’s like, how can I troll us toward an anti-troll society? You can’t — it’s the wrong tool for the job.
PM: I wonder, you know, as we start to wrap up a conversation that I’ve really enjoyed. And obviously, I thank you for coming on the show. I wonder, what you feel your big takeaway is with this book? What are you trying to get people to recognize or understand about the tech industry, and the way that this industry and the particular people who are powerful in this industry, are shaping the world in a particular way? What should we take away from this? And what does it force us to do or to think about as we consider how we really try to address these problems and think about a better future?
DR: And then I guess the emotional takeaway for me is that these people, these men, who once showered the world with madly optimistic business plans for how technology might benefit human society have reduced technological progress to a video game, that one of them wins by finding the escape hatch. And I want the effect of that to be humor — to be a black comedy that these dudes that we think are so great are children basically plucked from colleges, freshmen who didn’t even have the myelin sheath formed around their frontal lobes and transfer parental authority onto a Peter Thiel and never took ethics or philosophy or economics. And now you’ve a kid like Mark Zuckerberg still wants to be Augustus Caesar. That’s who he modeled himself and his haircut and everything after. On the one hand, we should be thankful it’s Augustus and not Caligula. But he’s still one of the richest men in the world modeling himself after a Roman dictator. So that’s the number one, and I guess the second thing is for us to look at in terms of technology, and ask, what are we solving for? Are we solving for the blockchain? Are we solving for the exponential growth of the economy? Or are we solving for human society?
So when you look at the homeless people in Palo Alto, say, the tent villages in one of the wealthiest cities in the world, you think: What kind of problem is this? Is this a city problem? Or is this a human problem? If it’s a city problem, you get them to move along, and then it’s done. They’re gone — they’re somewhere else; they’re over in Redwood City. If it’s a people problem, then you look towards solving something — and solving is even a tricky word to use. But you look toward addressing this in a very different way. And I think that’s sort of what I’m asking people to do: that if they can see these guys and their dreams, not as the big things shaping society, but as bad trips spawned at Burning Man, and they’re small enough to laugh at, then we can start to see our own capacity to disengage from their rule sets, from their video games as entirely within our control. Yes, we can buy less stuff. You can buy one lawnmower, rather than getting a minimum viable product drill, as Cory Doctorow says, in order to make one hole in your wall, go and borrow one from your neighbor, a nice metal drill, a real drill that the whole block shares.
And the reason not to do that is people will go: Well, what about the drill company? What about the guy who’s going to lose his job at the drill company because you’re not buying enough drills? Since when are human beings here to serve the economy? The economy is supposed to be here to serve us. If it turns out that we don’t need to do as much work, that should be a good thing, not a bad thing. So we should be feel free to engineer and to reverse engineer our economy around human needs, rather than other ones. And all sorts of different possibilities emerge. But the prerequisite to that is not seeing these guys who call themselves Gods — not seeing them as gods, and not letting them recode our reality to suit their aims, because their aims don’t involve us. Their aims involve escaping us and leaving us behind in a polluted morass of horror.
PM: I completely agree. It feels like you know, there’s been this idea of technology, of the tech industry, of the way that tech can — not to repeat the name of the podcast — but can save us really, certainly since the 90s. But even as you’re saying, we are going back to the 60s and the Whole Earth Catalog, this particular ideology that has shaped this period. And it really does feel that after all of this time of it really shaping how we respond to these things, informing how we approach these problems, that there does feel like there’s a more critical turn toward it — a questioning of it that maybe wasn’t there before, or at least didn’t have this kind of energy that it has in this moment, to really say: You know what, we’ve tried this before. We’ve been trying this for decades. It’s not solving the problems. In many cases, it’s making things worse. And it’s really time to rethink that at a more fundamental level, and consider how we improve the society, and how we change the way that we think about how we improve society, so that we can actually do that in the years to come.
DR: It’s interesting, though, the two loudest voices in this reconsideration of technology moment, are on the one hand, you’ve got Bannon and the fascists who are saying — and I get it — return to blood and soil; tese technocrats are trying to take over and program our brains and put silicon chips in our COVID vaccines and nanobots. And the energy under it is right, but where it’s going is really the excuse for hate and violence doesn’t really work there. And it’s interesting how he’s able basically to leverage the GamerGate kids against technology. It’s genius, right? He’s a wizard; it’s a little scary. And then the other main allies, we have are — whatever they call themselves — humane technologists who are willing to question everything about this stuff, except the underlying operating system of capitalism. So they stay invested in these companies. And they’re looking for solutions that both solve for capitalism and solve for humans.
And I’m sorry, but capitalism is intrinsically anti-human. You can’t energize it. You might be able to work with it as a tool, but you can’t see it as the underlying operating system for society. Because technology amplifies it — it revs it up too much beyond our ability to control it. That’s where all the meta comes from. The original meta really is derivatives — derivatives on derivatives on derivatives. It’s a way to invest, to leverage the money. So that money is worth a thousand, or a million or a trillion times what was actually earned. When you leverage things that much, it’s what allows bits to overcome atoms, because there’s a zillion more bits than there are atoms. And no, it’s not that they’re going to expand out through the universe in a trillion simulations that matter as much as our world, they’re not real. They’re symbol systems, they are MP3s to music. They’re not real.
PM: I think it’s a really important point that we need to recognize — that this way of thinking about the world is not how we’re going to solve these fundamental problems. And we need to really question that at a fundamental level, if we ever hope to respond to serious issues like climate change, or inequality or or anything else that exists out there. Douglas, it’s been fantastic to speak with you. The book is great, and I highly recommend everyone go pick it up. Thanks so much for taking the time!
DR: Oh, thank you for taking the time and I do intend to get on a little, maybe electric bicycle or something and make it up to see you. I want to breathe the air, while it’s still there!
PM: Next time I’m in New York, we’ll have to hang out
DR: Okey doke! That too.