Q&A: Media intellectual on billionaires’ mindset, relationship with tech

By Edward Pimenta

Editora Globo

São Paulo, Brazil


American professor and writer Douglas Rushkoff is one of the most influential intellectuals in the media and technology sphere in his country. He is the founder of the Laboratory for Digital Humanism, a professor of media theory and digital economics at the City University of New York (CUNY/Queens), a technology and media commentator for CNN, a researcher at the Institute for the Future, and a sought-after speaker worldwide. He has also authored more than 20 books.

Rushkoff offered transparent insight into how tech billionaires see their place in the world at SXSW.
Rushkoff offered transparent insight into how tech billionaires see their place in the world at SXSW.

In his latest book, Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires (2022), Rushkoff rails against the major investors in Silicon Valley who, in his opinion, “have the illusion that they can subvert the laws of physics, economics, and morality, and, in the end, escape the tragedy they themselves are creating.”

In other recent works, he argues we have failed to build the distributive economy the digital world seemed capable of promoting. “Instead, we have doubled down on the old concept of the industrial era, prioritising profits above all else,” he wrote.

Rushkoff recently gave a lecture at the innovation and culture festival SXSW in Austin, Texas. In front of a packed auditorium, the author launched a disconcerting and ironic critique of the mindset of billionaire technology company owners who, according to him, have the illusion of being above the rest of humanity and treat people as objects.

In an interview that started in person and ended via e-mail, Rushkoff spoke with me about the need to place humans at the centre of technological decisions.

Q: In your book, you contend 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 colonise Mars. What is this perspective they share?

A: The main thing they share is a belief they can go “meta” on the rest of humanity. They believe they can operate one level above the rest of us. You know how derivatives allow investors to operate one level above and beyond the regular stock market, by betting on the performance of stocks, rather than buying the stocks themselves? That’s similar to the way these men think about success.

Peter Thiel wrote a book called Zero to One. His idea is that everyone competes down on one level. But the true master moves from zero to one — an order of magnitude beyond the competition — and controls the platform on which everyone competes.

So, you don’t open a dotcom shop; you create a platform where all the dotcom shops compete. You aggregate them. That’s what it meant to go from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0. And now Zuckerberg wants to go from the social Web — Web 2.0 — to what he is calling Web 3. He doesn’t even know quite what it is. Virtual Reality? Blockchains? AI? But whatever it is, it’s one order of magnitude greater.

Ray Kurzweil takes it most literally. He wants to upload his mind to the cloud. He will move from the physical reality up to the universe of digital symbols, where he can live forever. The idea of The Mindset is to escape from the rest of us. Leave humanity behind and get off the planet.

Q: How do ordinary people succumb to The Mindset?

A: Well, regular people experienced aspects of The Mindset during COVID. Many of the people who could afford it simply stayed at home and let gig workers bring them stuff. They moved to the summer houses and disconnected from the rest of humanity. They were served by Amazon and streaming media, as if they were living in an apocalypse bunker.

But people also succumb to it when they think they are in this life alone. When they realise they have to make enough money in their own working years to keep them alive when they are older. When they decide that having a community is a weakness, rather than a strength. When they look to technology for solutions that are social in nature. When they think humanity is the problem, and technology is the solution.

Q: Where does The Mindset come from?

A: It took me a whole book to trace it, but most simply it came from “scientism” and capitalism.

Scientism is not science. It’s the use of science as a religion of control. It comes from Francis Bacon, the founder of empirical science, who said science would “let us take nature by the forelock, hold her down, and submit her to our will.” It’s a fantasy of rape and control. Nature is a woman who needs to be subdued. The human is the man, apart from nature. Her dominator.

The other main thread is capitalism, which seeks to make money not by creating value, but by extracting value from those who are. So, you don’t make something and sell it. You try to own the market in which the transactions are taking place. This is why central currency was invented in the late Middle Ages: you just charge interest on the money everyone has to use to conduct business. This needs to pay back more than one borrowed meant that markets had to grow. So, the banking system itself required colonialism, growth, and expansion.

So, you have these two forces: one that says we should kill and control everything, and the other that says we survive by extracting the value out of every living thing. This led to a mindset where wealthy technologists saw other human beings as beneath them. As animals to be exploited.

Q: You describe The Mindset as a failure to appreciate our humanity. How so?

A: If you see other people as fodder, as animals, as slaves, as objects to exploit, then it becomes hard to see them as sacred beings worthy of respect and care. When you see other people as “users” of your technology, who are only valuable for their data and engagement, you tend not to see them as holy or equals. If anything, because you are actively abusing them and controlling them, you tend to become rather sociopathic. When you actively abuse others, you find yourself having disdain for them.

Studies I reference in the book have shown that billionaires lose their empathic responses. If you show a picture of a starving baby to a billionaire, the parts of the brain that are supposed to light up — the parts of the brain associated with identification or empathy — they remain inactive. They actually lose their empathic response.

Q: You argue that a more “humane” approach to building and using technology can’t stop The Mindset. Why?

A: If the effort involves using technology on people, controlling people with technology, or manipulating people through technology, then the dynamic is all wrong. You can try to control people more “humanely,” the same way we can raise chickens “humanely” before slaughtering and eating them. It’s nicer than being mean, but it’s still control. It’s still looking for human triggers, or “exploits,” through which to steer human behaviour.

The only truly humane way to deploy technology is to reverse that polarity. Don’t teach technology how to use people; teach people how to use technology.

About Edward Pimenta

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