Survival of the Richest

Robots revolt in R.U.R., a 1920 play

Professor and media theorist Douglas Rushkoff recently penned an article that went viral,
“Survival of the Richest.” It outlines how the super wealthy are preparing for doomsday. Here is a recap followed by a brief commentary.

Rushkoff was recently invited to deliver a speech for an unusually large fee, about half his academic salary, on “the future of technology.” He expected a large audience but, upon arrival, he was ushered into a small room with a table surrounded by five wealthy men. But they weren’t interested in the future of technological innovation. Instead, they wanted to know things like where they should move to avoid the coming climate crisis, whether mind uploading will work and, most prominently, how to “maintain authority over [their] 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 supercomputers, 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: escape.

Rushkoff continues by expressing his disdain for transhumanism,

The more committed we are to this [transhuman] 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.

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.

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, forever.

It is such thinking that leads the tech billionaires to want to escape to Mars, or at least New Zealand. But “the result will be less a continuation of the human diaspora than a lifeboat for the elite.”

For his part, Rushkoff suggested to his small audience that the best way to survive and flourish after “the event,” would be to treat other people well now. Better act to avoid social instability, environmental collapse and all the rest than to figure out how to deal with them in the future. Their response?

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.

But for Rushkoff:

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.

Reflections – I don’t doubt that many wealthy and powerful people would willingly leave the rest of us behind, or enslave or kill us all—a theme endorsed by Ted Kaczynski in The Unabomber Manifesto: Industrial Society and Its Future. But notice that these tendencies toward evil have existed independent of technology or any transhumanist philosophy—history is replete with examples of cruelty and genocide.

So the question is whether we can create a better world without radically transforming human beings. I doubt it. As I’ve said many times our apelike brains—characterized by territoriality, aggression, dominance hierarchies, irrationality, superstition, and cognitive biases—in combination with 21st-century technology is a lethal combination. And that’s why, in order to survive the many existential risks now confronting us and to have descendants who flourish, we should (probably) embrace transhumanism.

So while there are obvious risks associated with the power that science and technology afford, they are our best hope as we approach many of these “events.” So if we don’t want our planet to circle our sun lifeless for the next few billion years, if we believe that conscious life is really worthwhile, then we must work quickly to transform both our moral and intellectual natures. Otherwise at most only a few will survive.

8 thoughts on “Survival of the Richest

  1. I’m quite amused by the desperate foolishness of those wealthy people. They realize that society is destabilizing and instead of trying to save society, they are looking for some way to survive social armageddon. There is no fallout shelter deep enough to protect you from a collapse of civilization. Their selfishness has played a major role in the ongoing social destabilization, and now that same selfishness leads them to attempt the absurd. The central social problem America faces is inequality, and they are the cause of that inequality as well as its beneficiaries. If the American polity collapses, they will be primary targets of the rage of the population. If they want to have any hope of surviving, they need to use their wealth to try to stave off disaster.

    While it’s true that wealthy people on the Titanic had more seats on the lifeboats, the fact is that wealth didn’t provide much protection against the icy waters. If the ship is heading towards an iceberg, your best strategy is to make every effort to change its direction, not try to get a seat on a lifeboat.

  2. ‘So if we don’t want our planet to circle our sun lifeless for the next few billion years, if we believe that conscious life is really worthwhile, then we must work quickly to transform both our moral and intellectual natures. Otherwise at most only a few will survive.’

    I agree John. However, for moral transformation there is a need for spiritual transformation that seamlessly unites faith in love in the pursuit of integral science,
    not just physicist materialism.

  3. Progressive taxes are redistribution, absolutely. And that’s a good thing. Striving, dominant personalities are useful to society, as long as they are LEASHED to society.
    This “event” planning is Phase Two for profoundly unpleasant personalities who already accomplished Phase One with low taxes and deregulation.
    Provide a firm base to Maslow’s pyramid, and those at the peak don’t have to worry about flying away in a balloon … those beneath you will prop you up, if you keep them healthy.

  4. In short, in the absence of a sense of collective destiny, the most enduring social arrangement is feudalism. These “event preppers” are imagining they will emerge from the ashes as a largely intact aristocratic class.

  5. Len writes: “Progressive taxes are redistribution, absolutely.”

    Here’s another way to think of the matter: the distribution of wealth in our society is ALSO a matter of redistribution. When a wealthy person collects a million dollars in rents while a burger flipper makes $8/hour, that’s just as much a biased form of distribution as any redistribution. The burger flipper is contributing his labor to society, while the wealthy person is contributing his capital to society. The fact that society places so much more value on the wealthy person’s contribution is, to some extent, a subjective matter partly governed by political factors heavily influenced by the wealthy person. My point is that wealth is redistributed from the very beginning; adding another layer of redistribution really isn’t an aberration.

  6. “However, for moral transformation there is a need for spiritual transformation that seamlessly unites faith in love in the pursuit of integral science,
    not just physicist materialism.”

    Agreed– plus you would also need behavioral modification. If there is to be no comprehensive behavioral modification, there will be no comprehensive pursuit of integral science, either.

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