A widespread sense of anxiety grips our society. Climate change, economic upheaval, or another pandemic loom as catastrophes.
In the new book “Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires,” Douglas Rushkoff contends that many of the richest and most powerful people are not immune from this anxiety. They are also scared and feel vulnerable, because they see the same problems that we do. The difference, Rushkoff argues, is that they have fueled these problems and intend to deal with them by leaving the rest of us behind.
Even more tragically, Rushkoff says, many of us have internalized their self-centered worldview, which he calls The Mindset — a desire to use technology to escape a reality that technology is making worse.
Rushkoff is a professor of media theory and digital economics at CUNY/Queens, hosts the Team Human podcast, and is the author of several highly acclaimed books on technology and media theory. In “Survival of the Richest,” he explains how The Mindset gained traction and offers an alternative vision for a better future. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.
In your book, you contend that there’s a common outlook among wealthy investment bankers building doomsday bunkers, Mark Zuckerberg constructing the metaverse, Ray Kurzweil aspiring to upload his mind into a supercomputer, and Elon Musk preparing to colonize Mars. What is this perspective they share?
They believe they can earn enough money to insulate themselves from the problems they are creating by earning money in this way. As if they can somehow build a car that drives fast enough to escape from its own exhaust. Every one of these guys has what business people call an exit strategy — take the money and leave your shareholders holding the bag — about life itself. They think civilization is inevitably doomed but that their money and technology will let them escape. Whether they go to a bunker, to space, or to the metaverse, they’re not bringing us along — at least not as anything but servants.
I call this set of beliefs The Mindset — a fatalist drive to rise above and separate from the rest of humanity, either to control everyone else as if we were programmable robots, or simply to get away from us before we turn on them.
How do ordinary people succumb to The Mindset?
The Mindset trickles down to us. We use technologies that are designed to make us feel powerful — apps where we can “swipe left” and put anything out of sight and out of mind. Likewise, our economic system leads us to think of ourselves in competition with everyone else — retirement depends on our individual savings, not our collective resilience.
We try not to see the human beings on the other side of our technologies, or who are impacted by our choices. We’re aware in the back of our heads that our smartphones weren’t hatched from robots. Somewhere a Chinese child is working in a toxic factory. At the end of the assembly process, a poisonous chemical removes the child’s fingerprints so there’s no trace of human involvement.
On some level, putting it out of our minds is healthy self-preservation. But it adds up. When COVID came, I saw all my friends locking down. But there were still people laboring in meatpacking plants and Amazon warehouses. DoorDash workers brought stuff to your house. People who are wealthy enough to close their eyes to what’s happening and look at the outside world through video on their Amazon doorbells are in some small middle-class pedestrian way living true to the same Mindset as Jeff Bezos.
Where does The Mindset come from?
The Mindset comes from two main tributaries. One is empirical science. In the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, Francis Bacon and his contemporaries looked at nature as scary, dark, feminine, and unpredictable. They wanted to lock things down and make reality more predictable. They developed a sterile understanding of the world that’s led to today’s super-reductive scientific view of human beings.
There are parallels to the early works coming out of the MIT Media Lab. These guys were trying to build a new womb for themselves: a safe place isolated from the scariness of real life, a nerd’s paradise where computers predict your every need.
The second tributary is capitalism. I’m not a Marxist, but you can’t look at capitalism without realizing that it was invented to keep the rich rich, not help an economy flourish or make people happy. Capitalism led to the idea that individuals need to separate themselves from their communities and get rich enough to not belong to the masses of working idiots.
You describe The Mindset as a failure to appreciate our humanity. How so?
The Mindset centers everything on the human as an individual. It’s not an “us” phone — it’s an iPhone.
If you talk to any competent biologist, anthropologist, or sociologist, they will tell you that being human is a team sport. Human beings exist in a community and in communion with others. And not just humans with other humans, but humans with other animals, nature, ants, and trees. We are all part of an orchestra.
You argue that a more “humane” approach to building and using technology can’t stop The Mindset. Why?
The people involved in the humane technology movement are major shareholders in all the companies that make the technologies they want to reform. The orientation is wrong. Figuring out how to treat people more humanely as we extract their value as data or make them work as Uber drivers and gig laborers is like seeing human beings as chickens raised on a cage-free farm.
Let’s acknowledge the anti-humane qualities of our technology. Let’s let people see how cruel, manipulative, dominating, and extractive these technologies are. Let’s see if people really want to use this stuff once they know what’s going on.
Let’s say people better appreciate the true nature of these technologies. What can they do with this awareness?
Well, if a person is aware of the human and environmental cost of buying a new smartphone — the human cost of sending children into mines at gunpoint for the rare earth metals, or the health cost to the peasants who pick through the toxic waste at the end of the phone’s life cycle, they may choose to purchase a phone every three years instead of every year.
Likewise, if a person becomes aware of how social media networks are programmed to make us more afraid and suspicious of one another, they may choose to spend less time on them — or at least to remember that their paranoia about people, government, and doctors has been triggered by algorithms. When a disaster like COVID or a hurricane comes, they can think about it first from the perspective of the community: How can we get through this? Rather than “How do I barricade my house?” Or, worse, “Where’s my gun?”
Why do you call your alternative approach “team human”?
We have to accept the premise that we all get there or none of us get there. There is no way to insulate yourself from what happens to the rest of humanity. If there is massive climate change and hundreds of millions of refugees, there’s no wall you can put between Texas and Mexico that will stop that crisis.
The same things you would do to prepare for a disaster are the things that will limit the possibility of there being one. You know, doing things locally: helping your friends and others and having a sense of mutuality. Then there will be people to help you. I would rather depend on my neighbors in a difficult future than on a government or corporate solution.
I’m asking people to spend less. If you spend less, you can earn less, meet other people, and stop thinking we owe something to an obsolete economic model. You don’t have to get the next iPhone. And if I’m in the suburbs and we buy one lawn mower for everyone on the block to share, is that a good or bad thing? It’s a good thing for us on the block. It’s bad for the lawn mower company.
Evan Selinger is a professor of philosophy at the Rochester Institute of Technology and an affiliate scholar at Northeastern University’s Center for Law, Innovation, and Creativity. Follow him on Twitter @evanselinger.