Survival of the Richest – escape fantasies of the tech billionaires

Survival of the Richest

Survival of the Richest


ISBN: 0393881067

Survival of the Richest

Survival of the Richest reveals fascinating tidbits about the elite tech crowd’s postapocalyptic survival strategies and the niche solutions being marketed to them.–Carolyn Wong Simpkins „Science“

Take Aways


“Eventually, they edged into their real topic of concern: New Zealand or Alaska? Which region will be less impacted by the coming climate crisis? It only got worse from there. Which was the greater threat: climate change or biological warfare? How long should one plan to be able to survive with no outside help? Should a shelter have its own air supply? What is the likelihood of groundwater contamination?”

“How do I maintain authority over my security force after the event?” The Event. That was their
euphemism for the environmental collapse, social unrest, nuclear explosion, solar storm, unstoppable virus, or malicious computer hack that takes everything down.”

“Don’t just invest in ammo and electric fences, invest in people and relationships.”

“hey were preparing for a digital future that had less to do with making the world a better place than it did with transcending the human condition altogether.”

“Will it be Bezos migrating to space, Thiel to his New Zealand compound, or Zuckerberg to his virtual Metaverse?”

The Insulation Equation

“I find it quite accurate—the wealthy hiding in their bunkers will have a problem with their security teams … I believe you are correct with your advice to ‘treat those people really well, right now,’ but also the concept may be expanded and I believe there is a better system that would give much better results.”

“Whether on land, on sea, or in outer space, the quest for self-sovereignty is less important as an example of apocalypse preparedness than it is as an exposé of the underlying, Ayn Rand fantasies of the tech elite: the most rational and productive among us escape to pursue their self-interests, empowered to build an independent economy of their own, free from the moral consequences of their actions.”

Mergers and Acquisitions

“As Ted Turner later explained it in characteristic hyperbole, “the Time Warner–AOL merger should pass into history like the Vietnam War and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. It’s one of the biggest disasters that have occurred to our country.”

The AOL failure exposed the Ponzi scheme underlying the early internet. The broader dotcom crash that followed erased $5 trillion, or 78 percent, of the NASDAQ index by October 2002. Yes, the markets eventually recovered. But the relationship of technology to capital was forever changed. Money was no longer seen as a way to fund new technologies; new technologies became understood purely as ways of making fast money—as long as you could get out in time.”

“As companies lobby to protect their monopolies, small businesses lose the ability to compete. This leads to more bankruptcies and unemployment. Workers have no social safety net because the companies that have rendered them jobless show no profits and pay no taxes. As a last resort, workers turn to gig economy jobs at Doordash, Uber, or Amazon Mechanical Turk, becoming dependent on the platforms that disempowered them in the first place.”

“Studies have shown that the more power a person has, the less “motor resonance” or mirroring they do of others. Of course, people seeking power may be predisposed to this behavior. But further research has suggested that after people have gained power, they tend to behave like patients with damage to the brain’s orbitofrontal lobes. That is, the experience of wealth and power is akin to removing the part of the brain “critical to empathy and socially appropriate behavior.” Poorer people are much better than their wealthy counterparts at judging other people’s emotions. Their capacity to make “empathetic inferences” based on facial muscle movements is far superior.”

“As NYU business professor Scott Galloway has explained, “we’ve decided that capitalism
means being loving and empathetic to corporations, and Darwinistic and harsh towards individuals.”

A Womb with a View

“There’s no Dropbox plan that will let us upload mind and soul from the body to the cloud. We are still here on the ground, with the same people and on the same planet we are being encouraged to leave behind. There’s no escape from the others.”

“More tellingly, Covid gave many of us the excuse to finally submit to one of the dominant elements of The Mindset’s ethos—the one those billionaire preppers live by—which is to design one’s personal reality so meticulously that existential threats are simply removed from the equation. The leap from a Fitbit tracking one’s heart rate to an annual full-body cancer scan, or from a doorbell surveillance camera to a network of autonomous robot sentries, is really just a matter of money. We are all, to some extent, in this same game.

The best technology can really offer is an illusion of insulation. Whatever may be befalling everyone else—whether it’s an isolated virus or systemwide climate catastrophe—technology can make us feel protected.”

“In other words, no matter how deeply immersed we are in the video game of online life, the real world of viruses, poverty, terrorism, climate change, and other horrors persists. We simply become less able to empathize with it, mitigate its effects, or prepare for its eventual encroachment on our lives.”

“Like a hiding toddler who thinks holding their hands over their eyes can prevent them from being seen, those who would rely on digital technology to mediate the world are in for a surprise.”

The Dumbwaiter Effect

“The illusion here is that the technology is doing all the work. Just talk into your Alexa and Jeff Bezos’s army of automated robots will snap into action to make your clothes. His business objective is to own the interface between us and his robot workforce. MadeForYou is his proof of concept for the future of everything from automobile manufacturing to military drones. But robots are not truly doing all the labor. They may be sewing the shirts together, but human beings are still picking the cotton, mining the raw materials for the robots, and burying the obsolete ones in landfill. The externalities are still there—from labor to pollution to resource wars. The robots aren’t replacing the human toll so much as hiding it. The dumbwaiter effect.”

Selfish Genes

“Human evolution is not best characterized by competition. It’s a story of collaboration.

“If anything, we suffer from too little faith in good science, not too much.”

“Where Dawkins saw human beings as “survival machines — robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes,” I saw sharing, collective awareness, and a new renaissance of collective creativity.
Dawkins’s model of human-as-hardware, and those of intellectually compatible colleagues like Daniel Dennett and Stephen Pinker, won out in Silicon Valley. Their views were entirely more compatible with business models that depended on manipulating human beings instead of empowering them—exploiting them for profit rather than giving them opportunities for collective creativity. If people were really just passively responding to lines of genetic or cultural code, then why not be the ones writing that code and capitalizing off it?”

“Anchoring bias” refers to our tendency to rely on the first information we hear. Marketers exploit this by telling us an “original price” before the “sale price,” making consumers believe they are getting a bargain. Behavioral economics is just another form of binding nature—in this case, human nature—to one’s service by treating people like programmable machines.”

Pedal to the Metal

“The rhetoric of Silicon Valley—whether in the pitch decks of young developers, the talks by TED speakers, or the Joe Rogan interviews with tech billionaires—always bears the same hallmarks as these business plans. Progress. The future. Optimism. Transformation. Winning. But usually these are just euphemisms for conquest, colonization, domination, and extraction. They describe ends-justify-the-means campaigns to change the landscape and achieve a monopoly.”

“Entrepreneurship today has less to do with innovating a product than innovating on the business model for growth. Never is the growth itself questioned.”

“The assembly line, for just one example, had little to do with making products better or even faster. Its real purpose was to minimize a company’s reliance on skilled workers who could ask for fair wages. Manufacturing technology was primarily about disconnecting human labor from the value being created.”

“The apps and platforms are indeed designed to disrupt markets, but primarily for the purpose of extracting wealth from the poor and delivering it to the rich. Amazon makes book publishing more “lean” by leveraging its monopoly to seize a bigger share of profits than regular bookstores did. Uber drivers make less than cab drivers and restaurants lose their margins to Grubhub. This is not creative destruction, but destructive destruction—all justified as the inevitable tide of forward progress.”

“But these are really just loans against the future—a bit like citing the strength of an athlete who has been using steroids to boost their performance.”

“This drive toward wealth and power is like a poker game where
everyone stays at the table until a single player has won all the money. It’s a drive toward inequality as the ultimate goal—what economists would call a Gini coefficient of 1—where just one person has accumulated everything.”

“A game of “no limits” poker always favors the wealthier player, because they can repeatedly force their opponent to stake the entirety of their holdings. So the very existence of inequality in an unregulated market favors those with the most wealth. That’s why they use that wealth to push for deregulation, which in turn wins them more wealth.”



“Most importantly, land had gone from a living ecosystem on Earth to a more abstracted unit of exchange”

“By the 1980s, General Electric CEO Jack Welch recognized the pattern, and its implication: get as far up into financial abstraction as possible. Like any company selling big-ticket items, GE had a capital services division to help finance purchases—originally intended as a way of reducing pain points for customers. Yet Welch observed that he was making less money selling washing machines to people than he was lending them the money to purchase the washing machines. When he was manufacturing washing machines, his profits were limited by real-world frictions such as the cost of materials, labor, and shipping. When he was selling loans, he could make money like magic. It was all just numbers, which could scale frictionlessly. So Welch went on a mission to sell off GE’s productive assets and pivot entirely toward finance. Harvard Business Review extolled the virtues of Welch’s new strategy, business schools taught it, and other corporations imitated it. In their effort to become more like banks, businesses cannibalized themselves, liquidating any divisions that were on the ground actually creating value.”

“But General Electric’s more fundamental challenge—the one Welch never adequately addressed—was that the real world of houses, airplanes, and industrial activity couldn’t scale in the ways capital required and investors were demanding. At some point, manufacturing hits the hard limits of human labor and physical matter itself.
The digital realm appeared to solve this Industrial Age problem by transcending the laws of physics. In his 1995 book On Being Digital , Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte announced to the world—and to businesspeople in particular—that “bits” had come to rescue us from the tyranny of atoms. Industrialism was limited because “world trade has traditionally consisted of exchanging atoms.” Now that we were moving into a digital age, however, the limits of the physical world no longer applied. “A bit has no color, size, or weight,” he explained, “and it can travel at the speed of light.”

“Dotcom companies may have been accessed through websites, but they still sold products that had to be delivered on real planes and trucks. Just because a business conducted its business on the internet didn’t make it truly digital.
The companies that survived the dotcom boom had one thing in common: they had gone meta. Tim O’Reilly, the technology book publisher, called it Web 2.0. He said that Web 2.0 companies, like Google and eBay, treated the web as a platform, and leveraged the activity of users rather than spending money on their own people and merchandise.”

“Don’t focus on the content, experts like O’Reilly insisted, but the platform on which everyone posts the content. And if there are already a bunch of platforms, become the platform of platforms.

Persuasive Tech

“software companies are no longer programming computers; they are programming us people.”

“Thanks to data mining and machine learning, technologists can use computers to operate people.”

Visions from Burning Man

“Getting drunk and harassing women was not just a facet of chauvinist work culture, but a way for an executive to prove he had no scruples about fucking over consumers, either. Psychedelics are a way for modern-day tech executives to show they are willing to reformat their own cognitive hard drives, and daring enough to apply those insights to the world at large. They are ready to reprogram humanity.”

“If they’re so good,” someone asked, “why haven’t I heard of them?”
There’s The Mindset, again. Why support an initiative already in progress when you can cut the ribbon on a new enterprise? As any platform enthusiast following the Web 2.0 philosophy might ask, why just work on the world’s problems when you can build the WeWork for others to do it?”

“Yes, nature is in trouble, but The Mindset’s approach to addressing this collective crisis is always to do
something. Fix it. Hack it. Reboot it. Develop it. Scale it. Automate it. As if doing less, or even doing nothing, were not an option. Repairing what we have, scaling back, or even seeking incremental progress doesn’t make for an exciting podcast, online panel, or TED Talk. But neither does it require massive capital investment, sales speeches, or “buy-in.”

“Feminist and racial critiques have also revealed the blind spots and biases of a tech paradigm developed by a white male elite. As Bodker and Greenbaum have shown, a white male–dominated tech industry encourages the values of independence, autonomy, and distance, ignoring more circular and interconnected forces of organization. Likewise, as social feminists have argued, technologies developed by women might reflect the priorities of more people, for “they would be based in the experience of women, whose standpoint as the non-dominant group in IT provides them with a more comprehensive view of reality because of their race, class and gender.”

“The belief that we can code our way out of this mess presumes the world is made of code, and anything that isn’t yet code can eventually be converted to a digital format as easily as a vinyl record can be translated to a streaming file. Once the elements of the problem have been converted into data, we can use digital technology to fix them. The problem is, anything that can’t be converted into code gets left behind. This puts us all in a race to get scanned, digitized, or formatted into a language compatible with the technologies orchestrating our liberties. Even solutions to the problems of technology tend to involve bringing more technology into our lives and learning to optimize our behavior in accordance with its functioning. We conform to the reward structure of the technological environment in which we live, always making more accommodations to whichever operating system our technologies—and the billionaires behind them—demand of us.”

The Great Reset

“ The Covid pandemic created at least nine new billionaires off vaccine profits alone — enough wealth to fully vaccinate all people in low-income countries 1.3 times.”

“We must plow through. Just on the other side of the next hill is the answer we’re looking for. Have faith in scientists, technology, and market forces. We can reach new heights. This is the philosophy underpinning the Great Reset, a campaign launched with a website and book by World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab. He argues for “a better form of capitalism” that encourages big investment in the businesses and technologies that can solve climate change, global poverty, and everything in between.”

“The headline that they let her speak at all was probably all they were looking for. That’s because her thesis—that the world is on fire and we must immediately transition to “real zero” emissions by reducing our actual energy expenditure—contradicts the premise of the Great Reset. Schwab and the WEF believe that slowing down would be a big mistake and that market forces, unencumbered by local or national regulations, can be applied to any problem and make investors wealthier in the process.”

“In other words, the people at the very very top of the hierarchy must use their money and technologies to restore order.”

“Degrowth is the only surefire way to reduce humanity’s carbon footprint. It would also give us time to transition to less energy-intensive technologies. Instead of debating whether to buy electric, gas or hybrid, just keep the car you have. Better yet, start carpooling, walking to work, working from home, or working less. Like Jimmy Carter tried to tell us during his much-ridiculed fireside chats, turn down the thermostat and wear a sweater. It’s better for your sinuses, and better for everyone.”

Cybernetic Karma

“But digital technology may be different. While The Mindset may have brought us into the digital age, it has not yet figured out how to contend with the primary novelty that digital has wrought: cybernetics — the circular loops generated by computers, surveillance, feedback, and interaction. The term was invented by mathematician and technology philosopher Norbert Wiener when he was designing gun mounts and radar antennas during World War II. The idea was for these systems to respond to incoming sensor data in order to adjust themselves. Instead of merely following an initial command for where to point, the gun would use feedback from its environment to find and follow its target.”

“These same new rules seemed to apply to human society as well. With the advent of digital technologies, the traditional, linear modes of control and communication gave way to something else. Each of us was a potential butterfly or “remote high leverage point” from which massive systemwide effects could be initiated. A kid could come up with a program that reached millions of people. A private citizen armed with a camcorder could videotape one Black man getting beaten by police and change the whole conversation about race and policing in America.”

“We are living in the midst of a myriad of feedback loops, making it tough to figure out who is doing what to whom. We are the parents of our technologies, but we are also its users and respondents. As John Culkin, one of the fathers of media theory, explained in an article about Marshall McLuhan, “We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.” While that’s easy to see with straightforward technologies, such as automobiles which shaped suburban living, it’s a little trickier with cybernetic ones. Each cycle is another feedback loop in which both we and our machines change, iterate, and adjust. Our algorithms are moving targets, learning new attacks whenever we develop new defense mechanisms. No one is truly in charge of where it all goes.”

“Our cybernetic landscape is composed of feedback loops. Everything comes back, like karma. And though for a while it looked like digital technology was just going to accelerate the relentless drive toward infinite wealth for the few, feedback has finally kicked in, and it’s not just random noise.”

“Their greatest advantage was that they were not in this for the money, but for the fun, or what they called the “lulz.” This made their actions indecipherable to algorithms and the billionaires behind them alike. The Reddit community cared less about making a profit than taking down the hedge fund billionaires who were killing vulnerable companies for a quick profit—some of which could have survived were Wall Street not using financialization as a weapon against them. The financiers had abstracted the marketplace so many times that they had reduced real-world company stocks not just to derivatives of derivatives, but to memes. And memes are in no one’s control.”

“The augmented reality filter on the dashboard of your car may show you that there’s a McDonald’s at the next exit without having indicated anything at all about the independently owned coffee shop at the current one. A business’s paid placement on the visual landscape determines whether it even exists, as far as this new virtual skin on the world is concerned. Like Google Maps, it’s a recipe for the monopoly service provider to make or break other businesses, and to exert tremendous control over our understanding and participation in reality.
But, as more optimistic tech thinkers point out, augmented reality may also reveal information that these very same businesses may have wanted to hide. With AR, we can access every review, comment, and price comparison. More importantly, AR can also archive the history of location. We can sit in a Broadway theater and look at images of all the plays that were ever performed there. Activist historians are already geotagging corporate logos so that when, for example, you point at a BP sign, you see a 3D image of the company’s infamous undersea rupture in the Gulf of Mexico. AR can also contain and display the names of indigenous tribes displaced by colonists, images of the sacred sites on which an office building now stands, pictures of who was lynched in a town square, or videos of the cyclists mowed down on a particular city street. Digital never forgets, and cybernetics makes sure that everything eventually comes back.”

“and either you make them think for you or they will take your place and do the thinking for you.” The machine will be thinking for you either way, he seems to be suggesting. It’s more a matter of who is working for whom. “If you are in a job where you have to think, you need to start paying attention because I guarantee you, your employer is trying to figure out ways to use technology and neural networks to do a lot of thinking that employees are currently doing.”

“The misuse of AI by the wrong humans became one of Musk’s primary talking points. As he explained during his South by Southwest keynote in 2018, “I think the danger of AI is much greater than the danger of nuclear warheads by a lot and nobody would suggest that we allow anyone to build nuclear warheads if they want. That would be insane. And mark my words, AI is far more dangerous than nukes. Far.”

“Hawking gives voice to The Mindset’s ultimate hubris: that it has created something that could go meta on them
. “If a superior alien civilization sent us a message saying, ‘We’ll arrive in a few decades,’ would we just reply, ‘OK, call us when you get here—we’ll leave the lights on?’ Probably not—but this is more or less what is happening with AI.” In the language of The Mindset, the tech titans are becoming the zero, and this new form of intelligence is transcending into the one — an order of magnitude greater than themselves. It’s not the place in the exponential equation where these guys want to be. It’s the vulnerable place they’ve been trying to put everyone and everything else in for all these years.”

“AIs do take over, they will review all of our social media posts in order to determine who among us are friendly to their interests and who must be eliminated—like the Chinese Cultural Revolution or the McCarthy hearings, except conducted by robots.”

Pattern Recognition

“I want to thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer because you guys paid for all this,” he admitted. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart very much. It’s very appreciated,”

“The billionaire bunker is less a viable strategy for apocalypse than a metaphor for this disconnected approach to life. The lifestyle it suggests bears more resemblance to a private, defended fortress than a welcoming oasis, because even the billionaires are aware that they’ve been sustaining their businesses and lifestyles on borrowed time and borrowed money. They know the edifices they’ve constructed are about to be swept back into the ocean.”

“We are to invent a new chemical, microprocessor, blockchain, genome, nanobot, or some combination of these things to see us through to the next new world. As one former secretary of state once reassured me, “we always have, and always will. There’s always another Columbus.”

“This is how bounded economics works. You don’t outsource your investments to the stock market. You invest in things that come back to you or your community in multiple ways.”

“The principles for building a more circular economy that isn’t dependent on growth are straightforward. Keep resources and revenue recirculating through the community, and accessible to the working class. Leverage the power of mutual aid to lift up one member of the community at a time, each according to their need. Maintain independence from big employers and disinterested investors by owning businesses cooperatively with other workers.”

“Most simply, we can stop supporting their companies and the way of life that they’re pushing. We can actually do less, consume less, and travel less—and make ourselves happier and less stressed in the process. Buy local, engage in mutual aid, and support cooperatives. Use monopoly law to break up anticompetitive behemoths, environmental regulation to limit waste, and organized labor to promote the rights of gig workers. Reverse tax policy so that those receiving passive capital gains on their wealth pay higher rates than those actively working for their income.”

“Amazingly, even if everyone does a whole lot less, we still have more than enough food and energy to go around. We’d actually have more of it. In her well-regarded paper “Beyond Growth,” Gaya Herrington, a sustainability analyst for the accounting giant KPMG, explained that “Amidst global slowdown
and risks of depressed future growth potential from climate change, social unrest, and geopolitical instability, to name a few, responsible leaders face the possibility that growth will be limited in the future. And only a fool keeps chasing an impossibility.” She shows that while pursuing continuous growth is not possible without catastrophic climate collapse, “resource scarcity has not been the challenge people thought it would be in the 70s, and population growth has not been the scare it was in the 90s.” There is ample food, water, and energy for everyone. There’s just not enough to satisfy economic models that depend on infinite exponential growth. Attempting to produce that much would end civilization as we know it.”