Why Tech Billionaires Want to Shape Our Future
Paris Marx is joined by Rose Eveleth to discuss the end of her long-running podcast, why thinking about the future is important, and how tech billionaires try to shape our idea of the future to serve their ends.
Rose Eveleth is the creator and host of the Flash Forward podcast and the author of Flash Forward: An Illustrated Guide to Possible (And Not So Possible) Tomorrows. You can follow them on Twitter at @roseveleth.
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- Karen Hao and Gideon Lichfield explained how Facebook’s PR team nitpicked one of their stories
- Books mentioned: Ruha Benjamin’s Viral Justice: How We Grow the World We Want and Jimmy Soni’s The Founders: The Story of Paypal and the Entrepreneurs Who Shaped Silicon Valley.
- The New York Times recently wrote about a group of Luddite teens.
- Tommy Douglas won CBC’s Greatest Canadian contest for winning public healthcare. You can see the episode here.
Paris Marx: Rose, welcome to Tech Won’t Save Us.
Rose Eveleth: Hi, thanks for having me. I’m genuinely very excited to be here. I love this show.
PM: Thank you so much that some of the listeners who are like regular listeners will be like: Ah, another person that Paris has had on who is a fan of the show, of course.
RE: That’s the best part of having a podcast is you just get to invite people you think are cool to talk to you.
PM: Exactly, right. People must realize this — because it’s not even a small podcast anymore, I can really invite almost anyone I want to come on here, and they’ll come.
RE: It is the thing about journalism that I’m always like: You just get to ask anybody any question you want, and they can’t yell at you because that’s your job.
PM: I would say I’m also very excited to have you on the show. Because as we’ve been talking about before this I slid into your DMs a couple years ago to ask you about Italian futurism because you wrote an article for Wired about that. You’ve been on my list for a long time and I’ve just beene like: How have I not gotten to Rose already? But this is a perfect moment to to have you on because your podcast “Flash Forward,” which has been going for almost eight years now, is finally wrapping up. It has just released its final three episodes. I wanted to know if we were looking back at an eight year younger version of Rose, why did you decide to start “Flash Forward?” What were you hoping to achieve or do with the show?
RE: I would love to say that I had this grand plan and this like arc and this thesis about the future eight years ago when I started, but that is not true. I had just graduated from grad school and I was freelancing, and working in podcasting, making shows for other people. And I was having a conversation with Annalee Newitz, who is an incredible journalist, science fiction writer.
PM: Friend of the show has was on a year ago, two years ago.
RE: At the time, they were, I believe the editor in chief of io9, or they were working in io9 and Gizmodo, and were just like: Hey, do you have any podcast ideas? Like this new podcasting thing that’s happening? Can we do a podcast? And I was like: Boy, do I have podcast ideas. And so I sent over a bunch to them. And we talked about them. And I’ve always been really interested in science fiction and journalism and ways to nix them. I sort of pitched this idea of a show about the future where you have kind of little audio dramas and fictional sketches, and then also talk to experts about what that would be like. The first season was produced for Gizmodo and it really just seemed fun. And I was really interested in thinking about the future. At the time, I was doing a lot of tech reporting and noticing that, as there is now, but I think even worse back then there were just not that much critique happening. It was a lot of like: Look how amazing the new iPhone is, was the main technology journalism. It was more like gadget reviewing and that kind of vibe. There were obviously people who were doing tech criticism. that was happening, but not as much as now even. I started sort of working on this show and then it kind of grew into something where I now do actually have sort of a thesis about, like, what I’m doing with the show, and what I think about thinking about the future and all of that, but eight years ago, it was like: This sounds cool and fun and we can work together on a project. So that’s how it started. Annalee Newitz made it happen.
PM: That’s fantastic. I did not know the origin story, so that’s great to hear. And obviously, I have a podcast as well as people are very aware of, they’re listening to it right now. And your show is just put together so well. And I have an interview show where I sit down with someone like you we talk for about an hour, it’s pretty easy to edit together. Sure, there’ll be a few things we need to cut out. But yours has a lot of music throughout it; there are a bunch of different pieces; you’re interviewing people; you’re stitching in poems and other writings and you’re making commentary. There must be a lot of work that goes into putting one of these episodes together.
RE: Yes, it’s sort of a character flaw, or I don’t know, best worst thing about me is that if there is a thing to do, I just do the most. I can’t not do the hardest possible version of it. I don’t know, I joke about this, but it is one of the things I need to work on with my therapist, and not here in this space. I was supposed to do a reading where I could have just shown up and done a reading at a bar. Instead, I created this game for the audience to play with, note cards and glow sticks. And everyone’s like: What is wrong with you? So I just have that constitution of making things harder than they need to be. But yes, the show is lots of different pieces. It’s fiction, it’s journalism. It’s, I mean, I’ve worked at Radio Lab for a little while. So definitely inspired by that kind of trying to cut between a lot of different things and disguise a lot of different ideas together. And some days I’m like: Man, I could have just done an interview show and that’d be so much easier. But it’s not easier, I think actually doing a good interview show is quite hard. I have the luxury of cutting out my parts when I interview someone for my show. And so I can ask rambling questions or questions that aren’t that, you know, and you just use the best pieces. So I think that actually doing an interview show is quite challenging. But it is a heavy lift to make “Flash Forward, “which is one of the reasons I’m sad, but glad to be moving on to something else.
PM: Of course, interview shows are challenging in a different way. And this goes for your show as well. I think people maybe underestimate the work that goes into researching and putting these shows together, especially to be able to have an informed conversation with people. Sometimes I have people reach out and be like: Why don’t you talk about this topic on the show? And I’m like: Look, I would love to, but I would really need to do a lot more research on that topic first. And I just don’t have the time to do it right now. But I would love to explore that in the future. And maybe we’ll get there. It’s just going to take me a little while because I’m not just going to have anyone on to talk about a topic and me just sit here not really knowing what’s going on. I totally respect that and totally understand where you’re coming. I want to get into your thesis on the future. But we started with where the show came from after those nearly eight years, what did you learn from making the show exploring these ideas, putting it together, engaging in this kind of future oriented work for such a long period of time?
RE: The two main things I learned: one, is sort of about how to think about the future and sort of an argument for thinking about the future. I think that sometimes it can be scary, and also to sort of feel a little bit useless to play around in future thinking, because people are like: Well, things are really bad right now. That’s sort of escapism. I think there’s an idea among some people that thinking about the future is a way to not have to engage with the things are happening now. And I think that there is certainly a version of future thinking that is absolutely that, that we should critique and avoid, and not do. So there’s one argument for thinking about the future in general, as a practice. And then the other is the easier one, which is more about the format. When I first started “Flash Forward,” it was actually really interesting to see the reactions to the show’s format of blending fiction and journalism. In both the fiction and journalism world, it was really hard, it remained very hard for many years, to get funding because it wasn’t really enough fiction to be considered a true fiction show. But then journalists were like: Oh, there’s made up stuff in this and that makes us uncomfortable. So it was sort of this weird hybrid that made everybody uncomfortable, and no one really wanted to touch.
Now, there’s more of an acceptance within journalism, that there is use to the idea of thinking that creating these worlds. But I didn’t really have a thesis about that format, but now I think that it can help people to think about the future. This is what science fiction does, it helps us go to a place and consider: Do we like this? Do we not like this? Do we want to live in this world? Do we not want to live in this world? And it makes it very real and concrete in a way that sometimes it’s really hard when you’re a journalist covering the future, because it hasn’t happened yet. There’s nothing to report on, you can’t show a scene or talk to a person. The utility of the fiction was something that I hadn’t actually thought deeply about until I started really doing it. And then I was like: Ah, this is what this is doing. But I think that the thing that I’ve really learned is how to explain to people why I think thinking about the future is worth doing and why I think that, even among people who I agree with on most things; like progressives who are doing the work now to organize and do all that work.
Even amongst folks like that, sometimes I get this like: Okay, but I don’t have time to think about the future, I have a strike plan and I have these things happening and people are in prison now. We need to focus on making change now, which is very valid. But to be able to say: Well, okay, but he people in power are thinking about the future all the time and they have a plan and they are pitching you futures all the time. They’re pitching everybody futures all the time, in political campaigns and advertisements, in all their messaging. You need to be able to do that too, so that you can at least examine what they are pitching, and then perhaps, offer up your own versions of this.
There are lots of activists who do this already. Even if they don’t know that’s what they’re doing. Even if it’s not necessarily named. Adrienne Maree Brown, who’s a really great writer and thinker, has this really amazing framing that comes from a speech where she said something like: We’re engaging in an imagination battles where we have these imaginations for what the future could be like, without prisons, or, with worker organizing, they have their own imaginations about what might happen. The examples that she gives in the speech is even in a more small scale, context, like something where a person of color or a Black person in the United States might be pulled over by a police officer. The police officer’s imagination is actually a very dangerous thing in that moment. And there’s this imagination battle of whose imagination of what this interaction might look like wins out? Usually the person with a gun, unfortunately, which is the cop. I think that being able to articulate the value of future thinking is the thing that I think is the biggest overarching thing I’ve learned in doing these episodes. This all sounds very important and highfalutin. Some of our episodes are bizarro land, they’re not really engaging in deep philosophical thought. We have one where it’s like: What if you woke up and everyone was face-blind, and we all had to learn how to recognize each other from our hands. We’re having fun also, but I think like the utility of future thinking, and a little bit of play and fun too without having to be so serious all the time, is the biggest thing that I learned in the almost eight years of doing it.
PM: You need to have fun! And what you’re talking about, what if everyone wakes up face blind, the first thing that shot into my mind was, I don’t know if you saw “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” what if we all woke up and we had hot dog fingers?
RE: Exactly. I love that movie so much. Oh my gosh, yes!
PM: Me too. It’s such a fun movie and such a deep movie as well, but we don’t need to go into that. You close off the show recently, with three final episodes — a summation of some of your thinking on how we think about the future, how we should think about the future, maybe. And in one of those final episodes, you talked about hope. I wanted to discuss that a bit, because I feel like hope is something that is really tied up in any discussion about the future. There’s a lot of talk today about hopelessness, about the material conditions, leaving people feeling like things can’t get better, or won’t get better in their lifetimes and they just kind of need to trudge through. As you were saying: Why think about the future when things are so bad in the present? And I wonder how your exploration of hope and these futures has affected how you think about that question?
RE: The three episodes at the end are really just three things that I think about all the time and don’t have good answers for. So it was sort of an excuse to truly try and drill down and figure out why I feel uncomfortable talking about hope, it’s the question I get asked all the time, Anytime I give a talk, anytime I go on a show people ask some version of: Okay but, given the state of the world: How am I supposed to be hopeful? How does one have hope? What What keeps you hopeful? And I never feel like I have a sufficient answer to that question whenever it’s raised, even though I know it’s coming. I think one thing that the episode explores, and the thing I think about a lot, is whether hope is necessary. Whether we have to be hopeful in order to do the work to make a better future. I don’t know if it is or not, but expecting it to be there for you all the time is probably setting yourself up for disappointment and failur. Maybe we shouldn’t do that. But also, I do think that it is unrealistic to expect humans to just suffer all the time for a cause, even if that cause is a good one, right? That’s just not sustainable. There’s a lot of talk in activism spaces around the need for joy and the need for some amount of, if it’s not success, some kind of support or reflection or community or something that can give you the thing that the folks in power, or the battle, is not giving you. We talk in episode two about the way that this universal desire for hope can be weaponized by corporations and by companies to offer you an easy version of it. I tried to coin a term in an episode: ‘hope-washing,’ of, like, pink washing and greenwashing; where there are all these advertisements where it’s like: Wells Fargo is going to give you hope for the future. And it’s like: Wells Fargo isn’t doing jack shit for the future. Right? Wells Fargo is not helping anyone.
PM: I thought was a great term, by the way.
RE: Oh, thank you. I think that it’s so alluring. Who doesn’t want that? I would love like, it’d be so nice. If that were true; or if it were easy to just be like: Ah, yes. Now we can all be hopeful. But of course, that’s not realistic. However, there are other ways of framing hope that lots of activists have talked about — Maryam Kaaba and Mia Mingus and lots of other people — around hope as a practice, hope as a discipline. Hope as something of choose to do every day. Hope is not necessarily the reward for success, but the thing that drives you forward. And I think that those are ways of thinking about hope that can be useful when it is in short supply, frankly. It’s hard sometimes to wake up in the morning and be like: Ah, yes, another day. Here we are, I’m so hopeful all the time. This is something I think about a lot too around this new wave of folks who are entering activism for the first time, which is great, but often burn out really quickly because there’s sort of this expectation of easy wins or it being really exciting and hopeful. Especially if you enter in a really big moment that feels really important. If your first touch point is a huge protest that’s actually successful, then you’re gonna like them later, you learn that a lot of activism is just boring and bad, and you lose a lot. That’s just part of it. But I do think that reframing our expectations, and maybe even definitions of hope can be useful for getting to futures that are in fact more hopeful, without sort of necessitating that feeling all the time as we get there.
PM: It’s so important. I thought it was fascinating, because in the episode, you also talked about hope, being like faith in a way and how some of these corporations want you to see hope, as kind of faith. Something that is passive, that you just carry with you. S you don’t need to take action and try to achieve something better because, as you say, Hope USA — like in the Wells Fargo commercial — will just arrive if you let these corporations continue and do the things that they do. Then on the other hand, I don’t know if I see hope as faith a bit as well, in the sense that I feel like: I have hope that the future is going to get better, even despite all these things. Because I feel like if I didn’t have hope, then I’d be in a much worse place than I am in terms of how I feel about the world. That doesn’t mean that I don’t wake up some days and read about a massive disaster that has been made worse by climate change and how all these people are suffering and think like: Man, the world is just fucked. But then I still have hope that we can do something about it? Because if I didn’t, I feel like I would just fall into despair it, it would be really terrible.
RE: Totally. I think also, one of the points I tried to make an episode is if you are a naturally hopeful person that’s like really great, and you should seize that and keep it. Also that hope isn’t the only emotion that is required. There’s so many other things that we have at our disposal and tools we have at our disposal. Sometimes hope is the tool that you need to use, whether that’s for messaging or for your own personal sanity, or whatever it is. But other times, it doesn’t have to always be there. It’s not a necessary condition I think is the thing that I think about a lot in terms of hope. The other thing I didn’t actually make it into the episode, but is a thing that I think about a lot is people see critique of technology, or us saying: Hey, hold on, let’s like have a conversation about like, what is going on here? And people will say like: Oh, why are you so negative? Why can’t you just have hope for the future? Why can’t you just be positive? I’m sure you hear that all the time, I hear it all the time to for “Flash Forward.” I think it’s really interesting, because to me, what I think of as being very hopeful is saying like: Actually, no, we don’t need all of this stuff. We have the tools that we need to make a better world at our disposal, in our communities, and with our people.
We don’t need billionaires with questionable ethics to come in and invent 9000 more things that take away our agency and surveill us. To me saying no was actually really hopeful, as a practice. And reframing hope as not just being affirmative or necessarily agreeing to everything, and being swept along the tides of progress, or whatever it is. So saying no is actually quite hopeful, in many ways to me. I think that’s another piece of this that I think about too, which is that people often think of hope as a sort of being this forward momentum, always being like: Yes, yes and; Let’s do it. Let’s be hopeful; Let’s charge into the future. When actually hope could also be saying, no, let’s go this other way, or no, let’s pull back and re-examine what we have here in our own worlds and our own people. That is very helpful to me, but it’s often not framed as hope by the folks who want you to just be like: Yes, of course. Let’s carry on and go into the metaverse or whatever. I still don’t even know what the metaverse, I don’t think. Whatever it is, I don’t think I want
PM: Rose, metaverse is the future a place where we can have legs. I thought you knew this.
RE: In my email inbox says so via PR pitches that I get all the time.
PM: Luckily, I haven’t had too many VR ones I used to get so many NFT pitches though, I’m happy that moment is over. Just picking up on what you were saying there. I think it’s so important to be able to see that pushback, to be able to see that saying no as a hopeful thing. Because I also think on one hand, this notion that we just need to keep holding out for a new technology to be invented to solve our problem takes that ability, to act or improve the world, away from you. It’s taken away, it;s like: We need to rely on the billionaire or the tech company to deliver a better world, you can’t do it yourself because you can’t develop the technology or you don’t have this inherent power. But it is empowering to say: We don’t need the Hyperloop— or whatever other thing they’re trying to sell us — to actually improve society. One of the things I say all the time, and it’s just repeating scientists who say it, is that: We don’t need any new technology to address the climate crisis; We have all the technologies we need right now; What we lack is the political will, which is something that we can take action on right now in order to change, in order to help realize. We don’t need to wait for Elon Musk to come up with the amazing sports-luxury car that is going to save the world or the great way to put together a carbon market or to track carbon sinks or whatever else all these technologies are proposing to put carbon credits on the blockchain so they can be traded, all this stuff is bullshit. We don’t need it to address the crisis, but there are a lot of companies who would want us to believe that’s the case because it serves their interests in the end. Then, I think the other piece that goes along with what you’re saying is that being able to say no is also an act of future making. You are telling us that there’s this particular future that you’re trying to sell us that depends on this technology being realized. But if we say no to that — if we kind of assess this technology and its potential implications — and we say: What if we don’t rely on this technology, and we take some action in order to change the direction of what we’re doing. In order to rely on a different process; in order to address this problem that you’re saying this technology is addressing; that, also changes the direction that we’re going, the potential future that we’re achieving, how we’re thinking about human society at the end of the day.
RE: Totally, I have stickers I send to patrons that: Say seize the means of future production. Becauseyou can produce futures that is what we are doing here — that is the project of Flash Forward —and of so many activists even if it’s not named that. There’s a great book that just came out by Ruha Benjamin called Viral Justice, and it’s all about all these small-ish interventions or changes that actually make people’s lives, demonstrably, much better. All these things — exactly what you’re saying, like, tech companies, and politicians, and folks with money and power — have sort of tried to convince us that we can’t do anything, we just have to wait for them to deliver the future to us in an Amazon box. And that’s not true. We actually do get to do things. This is a thing that I talked about on the series, and is the thing that I struggle with communicating, which is that sometimes when we talk about this — we talk about: You have the power to like make futures and you should seize that power — can sometimes veer into the personal responsibility, for climate change, right? Where it’s like: Ah, you can recycle your way out of climate change. And, of course, that is not true, that is not what we’re saying, and not what you’re saying, obviously too.
PM: If you buy an electric car, if you buy a Tesla, then you’ve solved the problem. Right?
RE: Right, just just just click the button that’s it. No problem. Do your little carbon calculator — which was like created by the oil companies — whatever it is, buy carbon offsets on the blockchain, etc. That is not really what we are talking about, but I think it’s so easy for these tech companies to co-opt that messaging to be like:Ah, yes, of course, you can change the world by buying our products, or by doing this thing. A big thing we talk about on “Flash Forward” is this kind of question of identifying reformist reforms, and non-reformist reforms. The ideas of: When are we actually resisting and changing and when are we just tinkering within the system and actually reinforcing it? All of those things — partially, what I’m trying to do with “Flash Forward” — teach people how to identify places that they can build futures and give people the tools, or at least the questions to ask, when things come up. Understanding with the places you can slot in and be like: Oh, here’s a place I can make a real difference and actually resist and make a future. Versus places where you’re just playing in the mud pit that they’ve made for you off on the side while they go make billions of dollars.
PM: Just as you’re saying, we talk about the power, the actions that can be taken in order to realize or change these futures, or to think about taking a different path. So often that is not an individual power. As you’re saying — it’s not about recycling or buying an electric car, or what have you — it’s a it’s a collective power, you need people to come together in order to exercise that power in a way that can actually challenge these more dominant power structures, these billionaires, in order to push back on what they are trying to sell us to make us believe the future should be in to realize something different?
RE: There’s another person who’s here on the series finale, but it’s also someone I’m a huge fan of is Dean Spade who wrote this great book about mutual aid, and sort of identifying places that you can in your community actually build a better world, right now. You could just go do that literally right now, like, and you can make the world better for actual people who are living, right now. And identifying these power structures and collective organizing; and figuring out ways to use the skills you have to come into a movement, this is one other thing I find just watching the ways that tech thinking has infiltrated — you talked about all the time on the show — so many different pockets of the way people think about things and hustle culture, and this idea that you have to build a brand around yourself all the time. Every time there a big moment where people have some kind of political awakening, or impetus, or sort of fuel to do something — for example, Roe v. Wade, being overturned in the US, all of a sudden — all these people, instead of slotting into the abortion networks that exist currently that are doing the work on the ground and have built sort of like the networks that they have. You have all these people doing little abortion startups or their own thing and their own individualized kind of ‘tech-y,’ sort of in the framing of a tech company, trying to build a brand around starting their own project and sort of reinventing the wheel in ways that aren’t really going to help very many people. Whereas, if you had gone to the abortion network, they probably would love someone to rebuild their website, they actually probably do need that, or whatever it is. Or do the unglamorous work of schlepping stuff from place to place, or going to the warehouse and organizing it.
There’s so many things that need to be done, that don’t require special skills, or special knowledge necessarily, that I just watch the ways that individualism and the tech startup thinking infiltrates. I think even without realizing it — the way that people get activated and start to work in activism and get frustrated when they don’t really make much of an impact. Yes, you alone with your Instagram account probably aren’t going to have the same kind of impact as an abortion network that knows where to go and knows the doctor, like has been doing this for years. So I think that’s the other piece of it too is people get excited, they’re like: Alright, I want to make a better future, I want to do things, but instead of looking for what is being done, currently, there’s this idea, they have to invent something for themselves. I think that’s A) very hard to do B) very exhausting, and C) often not very rewarding because it’s hard to do on your own. So people burn out or they don’t succeed, or they don’t like it, or they don’t see the effects that they want. Then they kind of just like: Oh well, what am I going to do? There’s nothing to do. So linking up in that collective power way that you were talking about is so important.
PM: It’s interesting to think about the myth of the tech genius, the founder or whatever, and how someone like Elon Musk, feels they can go into different sectors of society and revolutionize it because they can see how it should work in a way that no expert, who actually knows what’s going on, can think about these topics like transportation, and so many others. Then to see that kind of thinking, move down into the rest of society through personal branding, this hustle culture, all these other things that are that are pushed out there, so that everyone else has to act as their kind of individual who’s going out to solve this problem on their own rather than acting in a collective way. That’s so fascinating. I want us to switch to thinking about the tech industry and how it interacts with futures as well. Keeping in mind this idea of ‘hope washing’ that you were talking about, especially for the listeners. Obviously, it will not be a surprise to anyone who listens to this show, to know that the tech industry is very engaged in shaping how we try to think about the future. They want us to think about the future in a particular way because it not only aligns with how the people at the top of these companies want to think about the future themselves —often influenced by science fiction, things that they read when they were younger, particular ideas of how we change the future through technology — but also because it benefits their commercial and business interests to shape the future in a particular way. How do you understand the way that the tech industry engages with future thinking? And why they do that?
RE: I think there’s been such a strong movement to think of tech leaders as if they are almost characters in science fiction, I think they’ve styled themselves that way. They like that idea often of like: I am the weirdo genius man in my lab, and I’m inventing the future. And all of those tropes that are fun to read in science fiction, but not so fun to live through. And it’s relatively explicit, some of these tech leaders will say things about their favorite books, or the people that they look up to in the science fiction books. And sometimes I’m like: You know, that guy’s the villain, right? Like that’s not the hero of the book. I believe — at one point, and you should fact check me on this — at one point, Elon Musk said that his favorite book was Hitchhiker’s Guide, and that he really loved Zaphod Beeblebrox; which I’m like: That’s funny, because you are that person; but also, that’s not flattering. I don’t think you understand that that’s not flattering. It’s interesting, because I sometimes will hear people say like: oh, you know, tech people, if they just read more science fiction, maybe they would be better at ethics. And I’m like: Oh, they read a lot of things, it’s just not like the ones you want. Or they released in the wrong ways?
PM: Or they read the ones that you might want them to, but they do not get the context or the message at all.
RE: Exactly, it’s like we’ve read totally different books, even though we’ve read the same book. I think there are a couple of reasons why these folks have really tried to position themselves as these kinds of futurist mogul kind of people. One is that when you are positioning yourself as someone who is creating the future, you build in a buffer for being wrong. Because, in fact, we all sort of know that you cannot accurately predict the future necessarily. We can make some vague predictions, we can do a little, but there is sort of a bit of a built in an excuse. And if you get it wrong, it’s like: Okay, because who can know. We can’t really know these things. Like we’re on the bleeding edge of technology; We’re in this liminal space between what is real and what is not. So that’s nice. Wouldn’t that be nice if you and I could just live in a space where it’s fine, just be wrong all the time and that’s part of it.
The second thing is you can just make things up, which is very fun to do. You don’t have to have proof of your claims, you can go out and be like: I’m going to do this thing. And no one can really tell you that you can’t because maybe you could, it’s possible — like it is within the realm of possibility — you have, just to pick on Elon Musk because I feel like this is a safe space to do so, you have these brain-computer interfaces that he’s constantly claiming are going to do X, Y, and Z. All the neuroscientists are like: Woowoo. But he’s claiming it in such a way that it is a couple steps beyond what you can do, but it’s not fundamentally impossible, a lot of what he’s talking about. His timelines are obviously bananas, but he’s able to sort of say things that could be true. and that people are in fact working on. And so there’s this really great way that you can, if you’re one of these people, make claims and make promises and then not necessarily have to be held to them. Because you know, it’s the future who can say; Who can know? But also that you can just say anything, and not have proof of it. We have Elizabeth Holmes, we have lots of people who are making claims about what they are going to be able to do in the future. Where it’s like: Okay, that would be cool, if you could do that, and weirder things have happened. We have had breakthroughs in science that have been weirder and bigger than some of the things that people are claiming. So you can live in this really cool space, that’s probably quite fun and quite lucrative, to just sort of make things up and have people pay you for that future nonsense. And if it doesn’t happen, what’s future, who can say? So you end up in this really incredible space, where there’s all this money, and there’s all this hype, and all this excitement, and the public loves it — because we want to these futures to be real — we really want to live in this world where you can cure cancer, or can do all these things.
And then when it doesn’t happen quite the way it’s supposed to, or quite the way it’s described, there isn’t really any consequences for it, it’s perfect. It’s a great place to be if you can live in that space. I mean, I would love to do that too, except for all the taking advantage of people the unethics of being a billionaire. But all that aside, those are a couple of reasons why tech people really love to be in that space of trying to dictate the future. There is a culture of celebrating that kind of place too, so you get to also be a little bit of a superhero. You get to be this kind of like big larger than my figure that gets to live in that world. I think that those are a couple of the places that we see these tech, quote, unquote, leaders — which I feel like a weird way to use that word, because I wouldn’t necessarily call them good leaders — but the people you see in the news, who love the spotlight, or love to kind of be in that realm of building the future. And of course, the rest of us are supposed to sort of sit there and let them invent their way to wherever land we’re going to live in, in the future.
PM: It’s really interesting as well as you talk about that because I’m reading Jimmy Soni’s “The Founders” right now about the founders of PayPal, and effectively what they go on to do. And there’s one anecdote that he tells him that about how one of the people who was living with Elon Musk went into his bedroom, and there were just biographies of business leaders all over the place, and he was kind of studying how to become the famous entrepreneur, that of course the media kind of later frames him to be. So that’s very fascinating to me how this is all very much planned, to be this way, for these people to be framed in this way by the media gets people very excited.
I wonder if you have a theory or thoughts on why these tech leaders, to use your language — it’s language I use as well — have been so successful in capturing our imaginations over the past couple of decade. I feel like how we think about the future or our ideas of the horizons that we could achieve were, in the past to a certain degree, driven more by governments or politics by putting out political visions for what the future should look like, for what we should achieve as a society. Maybe that is a wrong take, but, especially in the past couple of decades, I feel like these people from Silicon Valley — from this particular kind of node of the tech industry — have been very successful in taking over that space and kind of colonizing the mind of the public and our idea of what the future can actually be. Why do you think they were so successful at that?
RE: It’s a great question and I don’t know, I have some theories that I’ve totally them, but I would be curious what you think too. Because it’s a thing I think about all the time because, to be rude, these men are not that charismatic. They’re not that interesting. They’re also not super conventionally attractive, and nor am I, but I’m also not trying to become the leader of PayPal or leader of the world, which is what some of them would like to be. It is a great question because you look at these people and you’re like: Really? You? I have questions.
I think there’s a couple of things that I would point to, although I don’t think that any of these are probably fully going to explain it. There’s been a collapse of workplace protections in the United States; There’s been a collapse of Social Security’s; There’s been a collapse of a social safety net, such that hustle culture and culture of the individual has really taken hold of our imaginations because it feels like this lovely fairy tale of a way out of a system that we all know is not working. Additionally, you can no longer just get a job, have health care, have hobbies and a home and just have a normal-ish life where you go to work and your boss isn’t exploiting you, and you’re not being surveilled all the time. You’re not worried that if you get hurt, you’ll lose your house. We just are all living in this state of complete anxiety, all the time, because most people are one step away from losing everything. I mean, there’s a survey that gets cited a lot that in the United States, it’s something like: Most people don’t have something like $500, if there was an emergency, and they needed $500, a lot of people in the US would not be able to do that.
Here in the US, we have a huge influx of people who are unhoused for the first time over 50, because they just lost their housing because one thing went wrong, and that’s it. Because our workplaces are crumbling, and all these social safeties that we once had are crumbling, the myth of the person who can just build a thing in their garage and become a billionaire — which, again, is a myth, is not what happened to any of these people — but it’s a myth that they love to repeat, that we hear all the time, is really alluring. Because maybe there’s a way out. Maybe there’s a thing you could invent or a way you could slot into this economy in another sense. And I think that that’s really compelling to people, because it offers another way of financing themselves.
There is this idea, again, of this mythical person who goes from nothing — has $100 and delivers pizzas — and becomes Elon Musk, or becomes Bill Gates or becomes whoever. And I think that’s partially why it’s so appealing because if we all had jobs that paid well enough, maybe we wouldn’t all desire to have that trajectory. And so I think that’s one reason that they are so appealing culturally. I think there’s also been a real uptick in the cultural power of science fiction and of superheroes and of Tony Stark-esque characters in the media. Sci-fi went from being not so big blockbuster-y to being many of the big blockbuster movies are about science fiction, and about sort of these lone genius characters. I think that contributes to it. And I think, also, because so much of our life is mediated by technology, it makes sense that the people who own and operate that technology will have an outsized cultural impact on our lives. Whereas before, when we weren’t on our phones, literally all the time, the people who made phones weren’t people we thought that much about. But now I look at this terrible little box all the time, and of course, the person who creates the little beeps and boops that make my box light up and gives me serotonin, or the opposite, are going to be people who I think about as like characters in my life more so then 20 years ago when the person that impacted the day-to-day of my life was my neighbor, or my mayor, or my my senator, or whoever it was. So I think those are a couple of things, but I don’t know, what do you think? I don’t feel like that’s a sufficient explanation.
PM: No, I think that those are great contributing factors to a larger reason why this is all happening. And I just wanted to add on the point about how none of these people are really just founding these things in their garage. One of the greatest stories of that for me is Jeff Bezos, who obviously starts Amazon after being at a hedge fund, or something like that, and gets a $250,000 loan from his parents, along with other people he knows putting money into it, and he specifically buys or rents a house in Washington state that has a garage, so he can kind of spin the tale that Amazon was started in a garage, because this is such a key part of these kinds of tech backstories.
RE: Totally — it’s all made up. This is the thing that you know as a tech reporter, what is every tech company is going to give you their origin story pitch, and you know that like 85% of that story is wrong. Like there might be a thing that happened but that they’ve built and they train them to do this. If you’re gonna go in and pitch VCs, you got to have your origin story. And it’s well known within the industry that, we all know they’re fake, like, everyone knows these are fake, it’s just like a thing you do. It’s fiction that you create, like a tail to spin to kind of get where you need to go. But the public doesn’t know they’re fake. Right? The public thinks he founded Amazon out of his garage.
PM: It’s so fascinating, and I’m happy you gave the broader context there. But I think what I would add to your explanations for this. There’s the loss of the collective of life that people used to have; whether you were engaging with a union and the role that they played in the community — obviously that was a bit stronger in Europe than in North America, but that was still there — there were more kind of community spaces where people came together, before communities became more atomized and separated and things like that. Neoliberalism, also, plays a big part in it. The state used to do things for people and then we entered this period where the state was not supposed to do anything for anybody and leave it to the market. That leaves it to people like these tech “leaders,” to come in and say how they are going to transform the future and make the future better, because the state has really abdicated that role of being able to do that.
The other piece of it is how technology and changes in business models have affected the media as well. The media has less resources to really dig into these companies — the things that they’re selling us, the claims that they’re making —especially in tech media, but increasingly in mainstream media as well. It’s just how can we repeat these things? People get excited by it, why would we dig into it too much? And then as you say, there are periods where there’s not very much critical stuff, or the critical stuff doesn’t get the attention that it deserves. Then maybe we enter a period where the critical stuff gets a bit more attention because there’s been a broader kind of turning against these companies, a period that we’re sort of in right now, but there’s still a lot of that very positive reporting as well, or whatever you want to call that kind of stuff. So I think those are some of the things I would add to your reasons.
RE: The journalism piece is such a good one. And having been a tech reporter at a couple of different publications, not a very good one, frankly. Partially because I do find sometimes engaging with these tech companies to be totally exhausting. Particularly, the large tech companies have extremely savvy and competent PR teams that are very good at killing stories, and very good at nickel and diming journalists to the end of the earth, and frankly, intimidating reporters into not covering things in a certain way. They also give access to certain people and not other people. I remember when I was a reporter, and working as the tech editor at The Atlantic, a person who worked at the Atlantic — who I will not name because I don’t know that I have permission to share this exactly is — was uninvited from the Apple big events, because they were told that they had not covered Apple well. Which is of course means that they said negative things about Apple. As a tech reporter, particularly when you’re first starting out, not being able to go to those big events is actually damaging to your career because you’re expected to go and report on what’s going on.
There’s a reporter at MIT Tech Review, Karen Hao, who did a series on, I believe, Facebook, and then wrote about the ways in which the PR team then sent her a million emails with every single tiny little things — most of which were not actually corrections or inaccurate — but just an attempt to bury her in sort of this lendless campaign of: You’re wrong, then trying to frame the story as being inaccurate. There’s all these ways, and they’re very good at it, and they’re very savvy. I think that it does mean it’s hard if you especially, if you’re a freelancer, are a person who like is really not looking to get sued by Facebook, because you’re a freelancer, and you have signed a contract with these media companies that says you have to take all legal costs, if you get sued. I’m really glad you pointed out the ways in which journalism is funded, the way it’s run — the way that sort of the industry works right now —makes it really hard to do in depth, investigative reporting about technology, because there’s just so little infrastructure. For those reporters, there are some amazing people who are doing it, Karen being one of them. But it is really hard, especially if you are a freelancer and you’re not attached to a media publication, who’s going to go to bat for you in court. I can’t do those stories, because I would prefer to not have to fund my own lawsuit against Amazon. That’s not a thing that I could do. I will lose that. Even though there’s a lot more tech criticism than there was 10 years ago, it’s still really hard to do in a way that is deep and investigative, or actually changes people’s minds or gets into the nitty gritty details of what’s going on.
PM: Very well said. So we’ve talked about how these tech billionaires, these tech leaders, are very effective in shaping the way we think about the future — the way that we think about their products and how essential their products are to the realization of those futures — do you think that their ability to do that is being challenged now that they are less effective at carrying that out than they used to be in the past? And if so, why? Why do you think that shifted?
RE: I think there has been a shift, I think there has been a shift because I mentioned earlier that it’s like: Oh, it’s easy, you get to make stuff up, and then if you don’t deliver, whatever. I think that that is true to an extent, but I also think that a lot of people are sort of looking around and being like: Alright, I was promised all this stuff, I was promised. I mean, the joke is like: Where’s my flying car? But truly, I think people are like: Well, wait a minute, I was promised this cool, technology future where I get to, live an awesome life, and I don’t have to clean becausee there’s a cleaning robot. All the like actual things that would make my life easier and better, have not arrived. They have not arrived on the backs of these robotic dogs or whatever we have. Instead, I have a Facebook that is contributing to genocide. And I have Twitter, where people are screaming obscenities, I have all of this stuff. I have all this technology, but I don’t feel like my life is actually that much better. You know, technology has made people’s lives better in many ways. I would not ever sit here and be like, technology has never done anything good, I love technology. There’s many things that are good about it, many of the things that we do day-to-day are better and safer because of technology. But a lot of the stuff that we were promised — a lot of these really cool things are these worlds that we want — have kind of failed to deliver. And I think that people are kind of slowly starting to ask questions about like: Okay, what’s going on here? Why is my life not actually so full of this cool stuff that you promised me 10 years ago,?
It’s always fun to go back and look at Wired covers or Popular Science covers to see all the stuff, even just 10 years ago, you dont have to go back to the late 1800s of Pop Sci, which was really cool archives, I do recommend looking at them. You don’t have to go back far to see all this stuff that we were promised that we never really got, and I think that’s part of why, in general, people don’t have as much money to spend and they don’t want to spend their money on these gadgets that are getting a little bit like: Okay, my phone’s cameras a little nicer now, but is that worth another $9,000? Phones are so expensive. And I feel like there’s things like that, but I also think that there is an increased awareness, and I think that’s partially because of journalism, partially because of the youth’s learning things that there is an environmental impact to a lot of these things. When I talk to teenagers now, it’s actually really interesting. I was trying to ask them, how they feel about surveillance, how they feel about Tik Tok, and these questions. They don’t care about surveillance, they care about climate change, like across the board. Every single teenagers is just like: My parents, fuck that up for us. We had no say in it, that ship has sailed, but climate change, they’re all very invested in climate change. I think that’s really interesting, also, I’m like: Please care about surveillance, please.
I do think that like the awareness of younger generations about the impacts of these technologies, some of the ways in which not only the environmental impact, but the emotional impact of some of these technologies in the awareness — like what Instagram does to them, and their fellow teenagers — they all know that really, really well, and are skeptical of it. They’re also geniuses at like getting around certain things. They have all these workarounds. I don’t even understand about how to sort of avoid certain things with Instagram and things like that. I do think that there is a bit of a question mark around. We didn’t get what we were promised from you guys. And so like: Why is it that now we’re still supposed to care? I think the Metaverse rollout is a great example of what people being like: What? I have so many relatives — I’m sure you are the tech question personcprobably for family and friends — I am I got so many text messages being like: What is the metaverse and me having to be like: it’s not, don’t worry about it, it’s really not anything. And then you have the crypto right people were promised this whole new economy, this whole new way of making money and that rug is being pulled out from them too. So I think that over and over, we’re seeing people kind of stop and be like: Well, wait, none of this delivered on the promises that you made, and at some point, that does come back around to bite you, which I know I’m slightly contradicting myself from earlier — I’m like, you can make up whatever, it doesn’t matter — but I do think that at some point, there is a moment in which the public gets to be like: Hey, none of these things happened. What are you guys doing?
PM: I completely agree with you. I really think that those promises, for a long time, they did get away with it. I guess my bias would be, in part that was because there was cheap money, it was just easy to get financing. Say whatever the hell you want, and some venture capitalist is going to throw a bunch of money at you. Now, we’re entering into a period where that’s not the case, so you can’t make stuff up and expect to get it funded or get things to happen. Especially after the past decade or so of seeing how these things have not come to pass in the way that they were promised.
Two points on what you were saying: first, of all on the youths, I’m 31 now I’m past that, but there was a story in The New York Times recently about luddite teens — I can’t remember where in the states they were, but how they gave up their phones and really critical of the technologies — I was like: Yeah, this is cool, this is good. They’re thinking the right things.
RE: The teens are good!
PM: Exactly, and the other piece of that is obviously how we were talking about these people were putting out these futures that were very, very grand, and how they were going to achieve all these things. It was going to be so fantastic for us as a society that we were allowing them to do this. One of the ones I get a laugh at is when people will take the screenshot of, I think a TED interview or something, that Elon Musk did 12 years ago, saying that he was going to land a rocket on Mars in 10 years. It’s like: Where’s the rocket Elon, when are you landing on Mars, it hasn’t happened, as so many of the things that he promised. It does feel like we’re in a moment where there is a reckoning on those kinds of big promises that these people made, the futures that they had us believing in for a long time. Then I feel like there’s also a recognition that a lot of those futures they were trying to sell us, right, a lot of these ideas that they were putting out into the world, really did serve to distract us from real tangible problems that exist in society. As we were talking about earlier: how we do actually have ways that we can address these problems today, and we don’t need to wait for some technology to arrive in order to do it. I feel like after us believing and waiting for these tech people to deliver the futures that they were promising for so long, as you’re saying, there’s a reversal on that, and people saying: You didn’t deliver, our lives or shit. We need to do something.
RE: I don’t want to go to work in the metaverse. That is not a thing that I’m in. On the other hand, I do worry sometimes, because I do see people asking these questions. But I also feel like because we are in that moment, where as you say: my life is shit, I have a phone that cost $9,000; I have no health insurance; there’s no public transportation. You know, all of these things that I think there is a risk of it being so easy to satisfy us now. We’re in this moment where if you just literally gave me one thing that made my life better, I would be like: Yep, I love technology. You know what I mean? We’re in this moment where because they have put the bar in literal hell, it is so easy to clear it, that I worry a little bit that any tiny thing can be this great redemptive arc for technologists, and the powers that be. That is the thing I think about a lot, and I worry about, because it’d be so easy in some ways to become the next Elon Musk right now. All you have to do is give me literally one thing that works and makes my life better. That cannot be that hard. There’s just so many problems that you could be solving. And so I think about this a little bit with the fusion announcement, semi-recently, where it’s cool and there’s a little bit of progress on this thing that has been almost happening for so long. I’m not here to say that it wasn’t a cool thing, but people got so excited about it because we just are grasping at anything that would make the world better. I do worry a little bit that we’re in this moment where we’ve lowered our expectations, unknowingly over the years because they just keep not delivering, that any amount of improvement in people’s lives gets to be this great technology savior thing, even when it’s not really doing much to make better futures. That’s the thing I actually have been thinking about a lot recently is like: What is going to be the thing, that is not really world changing technology, but is going get people back on side of tech. I don’t know, maybe I’m just like a paranoid person. But I do think about that a lot.
PM: That is worrying, really. And on the flip side of that is the government could step in and do some things to really improve people’s lives. And they could step into that void, right?
RE: It would be so easy. I feel like you probably feel this way all the time. But you look at something you’re just like: It’s right, it’s literally right, just do one thing, just one thing. And you could be everyone’s favorite person. I know I’m not a politician for many reasons, but sometimes I just don’t understand how people just aren’t doing, like this super low hanging fruit. That would be actually relatively easy. Some of these challenges, like universal health care are not necessarily, quote unquote easy to remedy. But there are other things you could totally do, like, student loan debt forgiveness would have been so easy, so easy, and yet. I mean, that’s maybe not the best example, but there are a lot of things like that where it is sort of baffling to me sometimes. I’m just like, man, one thing, give me one thing.
PM: Just to add to what you’re saying the CBC, which is the public broadcaster up here in Canada, ran a, I can’t remember the exact title on it, but it was basically a best Canadian, kind of, contest a decade or so ago, right? It was like: Who was going to be like the number one best Canadian, voted by Canadians across the country. And the person who won was Tommy Douglas, who was the Saskatchewan Premier who introduced universal health care, that became the template for universal health care across the country, our public health care system. That was in the 60s or 70s and he is still remembered as this Canadian that everyone says made a huge difference in our lives all these decades on. Eho else is there to really kind of stand up to that achievement? I think that there is an opportunity there, if we really did want to start improving things for our governments to really step back into that role that they vacated, and actually start making our lives better instead of selling us fantasies of hyper loops and things like that.
RE: Yeah, I live in Berkeley. So we’re adjacent to all the tech central stuff. It is interesting to see the ways in which funding for public projects is largely reliant on tech people to donate large sums of money. That is sort of an interesting thing, I come from New York City. I’m originally from New Jersey, and New York City has its own weird financial politics that I will not get into. But being out here is interesting to see it here in action ou on the West Coast.
PM: It’s like: Just tax them, just tax them. Rose, it’s been so fantastic to talk to you to discuss the way that we think about the future, the way that tech influences how we think about the future, and what you’ve learned from that over the almost eight years of doing your podcast as it winds down now. I would certainly recommend everyone go check out the last three episodes, but maybe even dig into the archives and see if there are any fun futures that you want to explore by looking through some of those old episodes. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today.
RE: Thanks for having me. This was so fun.