July 2018, Week 4


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Sat, 28 Jul 2018 20:05:10 -0400
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 		 [ The wealthy are plotting to leave us behind]



 Douglas Rushkoff 
 July 5, 2018

	* [https://portside.org/node/17788/printable/print]

 _ The wealthy are plotting to leave us behind _ 

 , Matt Huynh 


Last year, I got invited to a super-deluxe private resort to deliver a
keynote speech to what I assumed would be a hundred or so investment
bankers. It was by far the largest fee I had ever been offered for a
talk — about half my annual professor’s salary — all to
deliver some insight on the subject of “the future of technology.”

I’ve never liked talking about the future. The Q&A sessions always
end up more like parlor games, where I’m asked to opine on the
latest technology buzzwords as if they were ticker symbols for
potential investments: blockchain, 3D printing, CRISPR. The audiences
are rarely interested in learning about these technologies or their
potential impacts beyond the binary choice of whether or not to invest
in them. But money talks, so I took the gig.

After I arrived, I was ushered into what I thought was the green room.
But instead of being wired with a microphone or taken to a stage, I
just sat there at a plain round table as my audience was brought to
me: five super-wealthy guys — yes, all men — from the
upper echelon of the hedge fund world. After a bit of small talk, I
realized they had no interest in the information I had prepared about
the future of technology. They had come with questions of their own.

They started out innocuously enough. Ethereum or bitcoin? Is quantum
computing a real thing? Slowly but surely, however, they edged into
their real topics of concern.

Which region will be less impacted by the coming climate crisis: New
Zealand or Alaska? Is Google really building Ray Kurzweil a home for
his brain, and will his consciousness live through the transition, or
will it die and be reborn as a whole new one? Finally, the CEO of a
brokerage house explained that he had nearly completed building his
own underground bunker system and asked, “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, unstoppable virus, or Mr. Robot hack
that takes everything down.

This single question occupied us for the rest of the hour. They knew
armed guards would be required to protect their compounds from the
angry mobs. But how would they pay the guards once money was
worthless? What would stop the guards from choosing their own leader?
The billionaires considered using special combination locks on the
food supply that only they knew. Or making guards wear disciplinary
collars of some kind in return for their survival. Or maybe building
robots to serve as guards and workers — if that technology could
be developed in time.

That’s when it hit me: At least as far as these gentlemen were
concerned, this _was_ a talk about the future of technology. Taking
their cue from Elon Musk colonizing Mars
Peter Thiel reversing the aging process
or Sam Altman and Ray Kurzweil uploading their minds into
they were preparing for a digital future that had a whole lot less to
do with making the world a better place than it did with transcending
the human condition altogether and insulating themselves from a very
real and present danger of climate change, rising sea levels, mass
migrations, global pandemics, nativist panic, and resource depletion.
For them, the future of technology is really about just one thing:

There’s nothing wrong with madly optimistic appraisals of how
technology might benefit human society. But the current drive for a
post-human utopia is something else. It’s less a vision for the
wholesale migration of humanity to a new a state of being than a quest
to transcend all that is human: the body, interdependence, compassion,
vulnerability, and complexity. As technology philosophers have been
pointing out for years, now, the transhumanist vision too easily
reduces all of reality to data, concluding that “humans are nothing
but information-processing objects

It’s a reduction of human evolution to a video game that someone
wins by finding the escape hatch and then letting a few of his BFFs
come along for the ride. Will it be Musk, Bezos, Thiel…Zuckerberg?
These billionaires are the presumptive winners of the digital
economy — the same survival-of-the-fittest business landscape
that’s fueling most of this speculation to begin with.

Of course, it wasn’t always this way. There was a brief moment, in
the early 1990s, when the digital future felt open-ended and up for
our invention. Technology was becoming a playground for the
counterculture, who saw in it the opportunity to create a more
inclusive, distributed, and pro-human future. But established business
interests only saw new potentials for the same old extraction, and too
many technologists were seduced by unicorn IPOs. Digital futures
became understood more like stock futures or cotton
futures — something to predict and make bets on. So nearly every
speech, article, study, documentary, or white paper was seen as
relevant only insofar as it pointed to a ticker symbol. The future
became less a thing we create through our present-day choices or hopes
for humankind than a predestined scenario we bet on with our venture
capital but arrive at passively.

This freed everyone from the moral implications of their activities.
Technology development became less a story of collective flourishing
than personal survival. Worse, as I learned, to call attention to any
of this was to unintentionally cast oneself as an enemy of the market
or an anti-technology curmudgeon.

So instead of considering the practical ethics of impoverishing and
exploiting the many in the name of the few, most academics,
journalists, and science-fiction writers instead considered much more
abstract and fanciful conundrums: Is it fair for a stock trader to use
smart drugs
Should children get implants for foreign languages
Do we want autonomous vehicles to prioritize the lives of pedestrians
[https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5343691/] over those of
its passengers? Should the first Mars colonies be run as democracies
[https://www.popsci.com/who-would-rule-colony-on-mars]? Does changing
my DNA undermine my identity
Should robots have rights

Asking these sorts of questions, while philosophically entertaining,
is a poor substitute for wrestling with the real moral quandaries
associated with unbridled technological development in the name of
corporate capitalism. Digital platforms have turned an already
exploitative and extractive marketplace (think Walmart) into an even
more dehumanizing successor (think Amazon). Most of us became aware of
these downsides in the form of automated jobs, the gig economy, and
the demise of local retail.


But the more devastating impacts of pedal-to-the-metal digital
capitalism fall on the environment and global poor. The manufacture of
some of our computers and smartphones still uses networks of slave
These practices are so deeply entrenched that a company called
Fairphone, founded from the ground up to make and market ethical
phones, learned it was impossible
(The company’s founder now sadly refers to their products as
“fairer” phones.)

Meanwhile, the mining of rare earth metals and disposal of our highly
digital technologies destroys human habitats, replacing them with
toxic waste dumps, which are then picked over by peasant children and
their families, who sell usable materials back to the manufacturers.

This “out of sight, out of mind” externalization of poverty and
poison doesn’t go away just because we’ve covered our eyes with VR
goggles and immersed ourselves in an alternate reality. If anything,
the longer we ignore the social, economic, and environmental
repercussions, the more of a problem they become. This, in turn,
motivates even more withdrawal, more isolationism and apocalyptic
fantasy — and more desperately concocted technologies and
business plans. The cycle feeds itself.

The more committed we are to this view of the world, the more we come
to see human beings as the problem and technology as the solution. The
very essence of what it means to be human is treated less as a feature
than bug. No matter their embedded biases, technologies are declared
neutral. Any bad behaviors they induce in us are just a reflection of
our own corrupted core. It’s as if some innate human savagery is to
blame for our troubles. Just as the inefficiency of a local taxi
market can be “solved” with an app that bankrupts human drivers,
the vexing inconsistencies of the human psyche can be corrected with a
digital or genetic upgrade.

Ultimately, according to the technosolutionist orthodoxy, the human
future climaxes by uploading our consciousness to a computer or,
perhaps better, accepting that technology itself is our evolutionary
successor. Like members of a gnostic cult, we long to enter the next
transcendent phase of our development, shedding our bodies and leaving
them behind, along with our sins and troubles.

Our movies and television shows play out these fantasies for us.
Zombie shows depict a post-apocalypse where people are no better than
the undead — and seem to know it. Worse, these shows invite
viewers to imagine the future as a zero-sum battle between the
remaining humans, where one group’s survival is dependent on another
one’s demise. Even _Westworld_ — based on a science-fiction
novel where robots run amok — ended its second season with the
ultimate reveal: Human beings are simpler and more predictable than
the artificial intelligences we create. The robots learn that each of
us can be reduced to just a few lines of code, and that we’re
incapable of making any willful choices. Heck, even the robots in that
show want to escape the confines of their bodies and spend their rest
of their lives in a computer simulation.


The mental gymnastics required for such a profound role reversal
between humans and machines all depend on the underlying assumption
that humans suck. Let’s either change them or get away from them,

Thus, we get tech billionaires launching electric cars into
space — as if this symbolizes something more than one
billionaire’s capacity for corporate promotion. And if a few people
do reach escape velocity and somehow survive in a bubble on
Mars — despite our inability to maintain such a bubble even here
on Earth in either of two multibillion-dollar Biosphere
trials — the result will be less a continuation of the human
diaspora than a lifeboat for the elite.

When the hedge funders asked me the best way to maintain authority
over their security forces after “the event,” I suggested that
their best bet would be to treat those people really well, right now.
They should be engaging with their security staffs as if they were
members of their own family. And the more they can expand this ethos
of inclusivity to the rest of their business practices, supply chain
management, sustainability efforts, and wealth distribution, the less
chance there will be of an “event” in the first place. All this
technological wizardry could be applied toward less romantic but
entirely more collective interests right now.

They were amused by my optimism, but they didn’t really buy it. They
were not interested in how to avoid a calamity; they’re convinced we
are too far gone. For all their wealth and power, they don’t believe
they can affect the future. They are simply accepting the darkest of
all scenarios and then bringing whatever money and technology they can
employ to insulate themselves — especially if they can’t get a
seat on the rocket to Mars.

Luckily, those of us without the funding to consider disowning our own
humanity have much better options available to us. We don’t have to
use technology in such antisocial, atomizing ways. We can become the
individual consumers and profiles that our devices and platforms want
us to be, or we can remember that the truly evolved human doesn’t go
it alone.

Being human is not about individual survival or escape. It’s a team
sport. Whatever future humans have, it will be together.

_Douglas Rushkoff is the author of the upcoming book _Team Human
(W.W. Norton, January 2019) and host of the _TeamHuman.fm
[https://teamhuman.fm/]_ podcast._


	* [https://portside.org/node/17788/printable/print]







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