‘We will coup whoever we want!’: the unbearable hubris of Musk and the billionaire tech bros | Society books

Even their downfalls are spectacular. Like a latter-day Icarus flying too close to the sun, disgraced crypto-god Sam Bankman-Fried crashed and burned this month, recasting Michael Lewis’s exuberant biography of the convicted fraudster – Going Infinite – into the story of a supervillain. Even his potential sentence of up to 115 years in prison seems more suitable for a larger-than-life comic book character – the Joker being carted off to Arkham Asylum – than a nerdy, crooked currency trader.But that’s the way this generation of tech billionaires rolls. The Elon Musk we meet in Walter Isaacson’s biography posts selfies of himself as Marvel comic character Doctor Strange – the “Sorcerer Supreme” who protects the Earth against magical threats. Musk is so fascinated with figures such as Iron Man that he gave a tour of the SpaceX factory to the actor who plays him, Robert Downey Jr, and the film’s director, Jon Favreau. As if believing he really has acquired these characters’ martial arts prowess, in June Musk challenged fellow übermensch Mark Zuckerberg to “a cage match” after Zuck launched an app to compete with the floundering Twitter. Musk and Zuck exchanged taunts in the style of superheroes or perhaps professional wrestlers. “I’m up for a cage match if he is,” tweeted Musk. “Send Me Location,” responded Zuck from Instagram’s Threads.Billionaires, or their equivalents, have been around a long time, but there’s something different about today’s tech titans, as evidenced by a rash of recent books. Reading about their apocalypse bunkers, vampiric longevity strategies, outlandish social media pronouncements, private space programmes and virtual world-building ambitions, it’s hard to remember they’re not actors in a reality series or characters from a new Avengers movie.Unlike their forebears, contemporary billionaires do not hope to build the biggest house in town, but the biggest colony on the moonUnlike their forebears, contemporary billionaires do not hope to build the biggest house in town, but the biggest colony on the moon. In contrast, however avaricious, the titans of past gilded eras still saw themselves as human members of civil society. Contemporary billionaires appear to understand civics and civilians as impediments to their progress, necessary victims of the externalities of their companies’ growth, sad artefacts of the civilisation they will leave behind in their inexorable colonisation of the next dimension. Unlike their forebears, they do not hope to build the biggest house in town, but the biggest underground lair in New Zealand, colony on the moon or Mars or virtual reality server in the cloud.While plans for Peter Thiel’s 193-hectare (477-acre) “doomsday” escape, complete with spa, theatre, meditation lounge and library, were ultimately rejected on environmental grounds, he still wants to build a startup community that floats on the ocean, where so-called seasteaders can live beyond government regulation as well as whatever disasters may befall us back on the continents.Elon Musk at the 2022 Met Gala. Photograph: Gilbert CarrasquilloTo escape “near-term” problems such as poverty and pollution, Jeff Bezos imagines building millions of space colonies housing trillions of people on the moon, asteroids and in other parts of the solar system, where inhabitants will harvest the resources of space for themselves and those left back on Earth. Elon Musk is convinced he will build a city of a million people on Mars by 2050 at a cost of up to $10bn a person. The ChatGPT impresario Sam Altman, whose board of directors sacked him as CEO before he made a dramatic comeback this week, wants to upload his consciousness to the cloud (if the AIs he helped build and now fears will permit him).Oddly enough, while their schemes are certainly more outlandish, on an individual basis today’s tech billionaires are not any wealthier than their early 20th-century counterparts. Adjusted for inflation, John Rockefeller’s fortune of $336bn and Andrew Carnegie’s $309bn exceed Musk’s $231bn, Bezos’s $165bn and Gates’s $114bn.But, as chronicled by Peter Turchin in End Times, his book on elite excess and what it portends, today there are far more centimillionaires and billionaires than there were in the gilded age, and they have collectively accumulated a much larger proportion of the world’s wealth. In 1983, there were 66,000 households worth at least $10m in the US. By 2019, that number had increased in terms adjusted for inflation to 693,000. Back in the industrial age, the rate of total elite wealth accumulation was capped by the limits of the material world. They could only build so many railroads, steel mills and oilwells at a time. Virtual commodities such as likes, views, crypto and derivatives can be replicated exponentially.What evidence we do see of their operations in the real world mostly take the form of externalised harm. Digital businesses depend on mineral slavery in Africa, dump toxic waste in China, facilitate the undermining of democracy across the globe and spread destabilising disinformation for profit – all from the sociopathic remove afforded by remote administration.Zuckerberg’s wife joked that three people went on their honeymoon to Rome: Mark, Augustus Caesar and herselfIndeed, there is an imperiousness to the way the new billionaire class disregard people and places for which it is hard to find historical precedent. Zuckerberg had to go all the way back to Augustus Caesar for a role model, and his admiration for the emperor borders on obsession. He models his haircut on Augustus; his wife joked that three people went on their honeymoon to Rome: Mark, Augustus and herself; he named his second daughter August; and he used to end Facebook meetings by proclaiming “Domination!”While we should be thankful he has chosen to emulate Augustus instead of, say, Caligula, he is nonetheless aspiring toward the absolute power – and hairstyle – of a Roman dictator. Zuckerberg told the New Yorker “through a really harsh approach, he established two hundred years of world peace”, finally acknowledging “that didn’t come for free, and he had to do certain things”. It’s that sort of top down thinking that led Zuckerberg to not only establish an independent oversight board at Facebook, dubbed the “Supreme Court”, but to suggest that it would one day expand its scope to include companies across the industry.At least Zuckerberg’s anti-democratic measures are expressed as the decrees of a benevolent dictator. Musk exercises no such restraint. In response to the accusation that the US government organised a coup against Evo Morales in Bolivia in order for Tesla to secure lithium there, Musk tweeted: “We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it.”Musk has the gumption to tweet this way because Twitter/X is his own platform. He bought it. So is Tesla. And that may be the key distinction of this strange moment. In the last gilded age, each titan owned and controlled pretty much one major industry. Rockefeller may have had the monopoly in oil but Carnegie dominated steel, Vanderbilt had shipping and the railroads, and JP Morgan was the banker.skip past newsletter promotionDiscover new books with our expert reviews, author interviews and top 10s. Literary delights delivered direct you”,”newsletterId”:”bookmarks”,”successDescription”:”Discover new books with our expert reviews, author interviews and top 10s. Literary delights delivered direct you”}” config=”{“renderingTarget”:”Web”,”darkModeAvailable”:false}”>Privacy Notice: Newsletters may contain info about charities, online ads, and content funded by outside parties. For more information see our Privacy Policy. We use Google reCaptcha to protect our website and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.after newsletter promotionJeff Bezos addresses the media at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs in 2017. Photograph: Isaiah Downing/ReutersMusk not only owns X and Tesla but also SpaceX, StarLink, the Boring Company, Solar City, NeuraLink, xAI, and someday, he hopes, another finance company like PayPal (which he co-founded with Thiel but then sold to eBay). Similarly, Bezos doesn’t just control Amazon – the world’s biggest ever retailer, if that even does justice to the monolith – but the Washington Post, IMDb, MGM, Twitch, Zoox, Kiva, Whole Foods, Ring, Ivona, One Medical, Blue Origin and, of course, Amazon Web Services, which owns at least one-third of the cloud computing market. Included in Gates’s 20bn dollars’ worth of Microsoft stock and assets are Microsoft Azure (his 23% of the cloud), LinkedIn, Skype and GitHub. He also, incidentally, owns 109,000 hectares (270,000 acres) of US farmland.This is unprecedentedly broad, or what could be called “horizontal” power. It is success across such a wide spectrum that has given today’s tech billionaires false confidence in the extent of their own expertise. Gates, who regularly dispensed advice on vaccines and public health in television interviews, eventually issued a report in which he graded each country’s pandemic response as if he were a school teacher who knew better than every nation’s department of health (no one got an A).In the 19th and 20th centuries, industrialists understood that giving money to existing institutions meant that it could be distributed wherever it was needed, and so they donated to hospitals, libraries and universities. JP Morgan actually bailed out the US federal government on two separate occasions. Today’s billionaire philanthropists, frequently espousing the philosophy of “effective altruism”, donate to their own organisations, often in the form of their own stock, and make their own decisions about how the money is spent because they are, after all, experts in everything. Rather than donating to a university, Thiel’s Fellowship pays $100,000 “to young people who want to build new things instead of sitting in a classroom”. Meanwhile, contests such as Musk’s X Prize and Singularity University focus on “exponential technologies” that solve “global grand challenges”. Such moonshots reward the bold thinking that “aims to make something 10 times better”.Their words and actions suggest an approach to life, technology and business that I have come to call “The Mindset” – a belief that with enough money, one can escape the harms created by earning money in that way. It’s a belief that with enough genius and technology, they can rise above the plane of mere mortals and exist on an entirely different level, or planet, altogether.Instead of emulating them, we should first laugh at them, and then dismiss themBy combining a distorted interpretation of Nietzsche with a pretty accurate one of Ayn Rand, they end up with a belief that while “God is dead”, the übermensch of the future can use pure reason to rise above traditional religious values and remake the world “in his own interests”. Nietzsche’s language, particularly out of context, provides tech übermensch wannabes with justification for assuming superhuman authority. In his book Zero to One, Thiel directly quotes Nietzsche to argue for the supremacy of the individual: “madness is rare in individuals, but in groups, parties, nations, and ages it is the rule”. In Thiel’s words: “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.” This distorted image of the übermensch as a godlike creator, pushing confidently towards his clear vision of how things should be, persists as an essential component of The Mindset. You don’t get hockey stick stock charts without such totalised, dominion thinking.Any new business idea, Thiel says, should be an order of magnitude better than what’s already out there. Don’t compare yourself to everyone else; instead operate one level above the competing masses. For Thiel, this requires being what he calls a “definite optimist”. Most entrepreneurs are too process-oriented, making incremental decisions based on how the market responds. They should instead be like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, pressing on with their singular vision no matter what. The definite optimist doesn’t take feedback into account, but ploughs forward with his new design for a better world. It happens ex nihilo – literally “from zero to one”. So like a supervillain constructing an all-seeing eye, Thiel builds a giant data analytics system, Palantir, through which he can observe and predict threats before they even manifest – all while preparing for Armageddon, just in case.Following his early investor and mentor Thiel’s advice, Zuckerberg, too, seeks to rise far above the competition. Facebook was one of the internet’s first and most successful aggregators, thriving off the social competition of users and profiting no matter whose cookie-cutter profile page garnered the most likes. It took us all from web 1.0 to web 2.0. As competition between the social networks of web 2.0 increased, Zuckerberg again went “meta” to claim sovereignty over some ill-defined combination of virtual reality, cryptocurrency and AI he would call “web 3”.Mark Zuckerberg at Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service in 2019. Photograph: Carlos Jasso/ReutersThis is not capitalism, as Yanis Varoufakis explains in his new book Technofeudalism. Capitalists sought to extract value from workers by disconnecting them from the value they created, but they still made stuff. Feudalists seek an entirely passive income by “going meta” on business itself. They are rent-seekers, whose aim is to own the very platform on which other people do the work.The visions of the feudalist are more self-interested and abstract than even the most egotistical displays of the capitalist. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, for example, was New York City’s biggest retailer’s way of thanking the city in which it operated. Yes, it was an advert, but it was also a great public service, taking place in public streets. When Bezos took his first flight in his Blue Origin space vehicle (demonstrating little more than the fact that a private individual could now afford to do what we had accomplished collectively more than 50 years ago), he acted as if the mission had public virtue. “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,” he added, in the strangely passive, impersonal language of a customer service rep. The launch was like Amazon’s version of the Macy’s parade, except instead of marching down Broadway with giant balloon characters for our kids, the company’s largesse consisted of letting us bear witness to its founder’s superhuman achievement. As if recognising the anticlimax, Bezos put William Shatner on Blue Origin’s next flight, for improved entertainment value.For that’s what is really going on here. The antics of the tech feudalists make for better science fiction stories than they chart legitimate paths to sustainable futures. Musk and Zuckerberg challenge each other to duels as a way of advertising their platforms. Musk is less X’s CEO than its troll in chief. They are not gods; they are entertainers.Instead of emulating them, we should first laugh at them, and then dismiss them. They’re like the contestants in an episode of Survivor, trying to be the last one on the island. It’s perversely amusing, and sometimes hard to look away. It’s the same impulse that leads many Americans to vote for Trump – less because they want him for president than because he will make for better television.But it’s time to turn off this show, this car accident of a tech future, and get on with reclaiming the world from this new generation of robber barons rather than continuing to fund their fantasies. These are not the demigods we’re looking for. Douglas Rushkoff is the author of Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires (Scribe).


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