A former junior minister who’d been a publicity magnet while in office once told me that it’s impossible to travel on the tube when you’re famous – except in morning rush hour, when everyone glumly hides behind their newspaper. (This was some while ago, before smartphones.)
It was the first time I’d realized that if you were going to be famous it was wise to also be rich enough to buy yourself some personal space. The problem we face today is that we have multi-billionaires who are so rich that they can surround themselves with nothing *but* personal space, and rain in the form of other people never falls into their lives.
In fact, as Douglas Rushkoff writes in Survival of the Richest, this class of human sees the rest of us as an impediment to their own survival. Instead, they want to extract everything they can from us and then achieve escape velocity as completely as possible.
Rushkoff came to realize this when he was transported far out into the American southwestern desert by a pentangle of multi-billionaires who wanted advice: what, in his opinion, was the best way to hide from out and survive various prospective catastrophes (“The Event”)? Climate change, pandemics, mass migration, and resource depletion – where to go and for how long? Alaska, New Zealand, Mars, or the Metaverse: all their ideas about the future involved escaping humanity. Except: what, one wanted to know, would be the best way to keep control of their private security force?
This was the moment when Rushkoff discovered what he calls “The Mindset”, whose origins and development are what the book is really about. It is, he writes, “a mindset where ‘winning’ means earning enough money to insulate themselves from the damage they are creating by earning money in that way. It’s as if they want to build a car that goes fast enough to escape from its own exhaust”. The Mindset is a game – and a game needs an end: in this case, a catastrophe they can invent a technology to escape.
He goes on to tease out the elements of The Mindset: financial abstraction, Richard Dawkins’ memes that see humans as machines running code with no pesky questions of morals, technology design, the type of philanthropy that hands out vaccines but refuses to waive patents so lower-income countries can make them. The Mindset comprehends competition, but not collaboration even though, as Rushkoff notes, our greatest achievement, science, is entirely collaborative.
‘Twas not ever thus. Go back to Apple’s famous 1984 Super Bowl ad and recall the promise that ushered in the first personal computers: empower the masses and destroy the monolith (at the time, IBM). Now, the top 0.1% compete to “win” control of all they survey, the top 1% scrabble for their pocket change, and the rest subsist on whatever is too small for them to notice. This is not the future we thought we were buying into.
As Rushkoff concludes, the inevitability narrative that accompanies so much technological progress is nonsense. We have choices. We can choose to define value in social terms rather than exit strategies. We can build companies and services – and successful cooperatives – to serve people and stop expanding them when they reach the size that fits their purpose. We do not have to believe today’s winners when they tell us a more equitable world is impossible. We don’t need escape fantasies; we can change reality.