Photo by CarlosYudica
Remember that theme “make the world better” that’s been pitched, promoted, and even believed by many a Silicon Valley innovator? Well, according to Evan Osnos, writing for The New Yorker, a considerable number of tech-industry billionaires, rather than ask themselves what they might do as leaders to effect positive social change, are instead preparing for the day we all decide to kill them.
Doomsday planners, referred to as “preppers,” are described in Osnos’s in-depth article covering the history, psychology, and various styles of backup plans pursued by the very wealthy. It is certainly not just internet-industry tycoons who’ve invested in post-apocalyptic, luxury lifeboats; but I was particularly struck by the rationale of those who imagine that mass unemployment through automation could bring about a violent revolution. “The fears vary,” writes Osnos, “but many worry that, as artificial intelligence takes away a growing share of jobs, there will be a backlash against Silicon Valley, America’s second-highest concentration of wealth.”
Among the on-the-record subjects Osnos interviewed was LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, who estimates that more than fifty percent of Silicon Valley’s billionaires have invested in some form of escape route. Examples cited include property in New Zealand with an emergency flight plan via private plane; a private island off the US coast; or a three-million dollar luxury bunker apartment at the Survival Condo Project, built inside a disused nuclear missile silo in Kansas and guarded by heavily-armed mercenaries.
Personally, when I think about various doomsday scenarios, the first question I ask is whether or not I’d even want to survive, and most of the time the answer is No. I mean I wouldn’t even want to live at a time in human history prior to the invention of the flush toilet, so I don’t maintain active fantasies of slugging it out in a medieval, Mad Max-like world. These are fun thought exercises or the premises of some good fiction writing, but I think it’s adorable that the wealthy “prepper” imagines not only surviving the collapse of civilization but goes so far as to expect a rather comfortable survival at that.
The investment in these plans reveal the kind of arrogance that assumes that in a collapsed civilization, these folks would still maintain their status at the top of the food chain. For instance, I’m not surprised that a private security team is happy to be paid today to guard that bunker; but on the other side of the cataclysmic threshold, where money might become meaningless, those same trained killers may decide the bunker is theirs and that the former billionaires can work for them.
Surviving a doomsday scenario naturally depends on the causes and the extent of collapse, but it seems to me that most of the possible histories present a world not worth surviving. Even the description of Osnos’s tour of the Survival Condo Project with its founder Larry Hall sounds doomed to me:
The complex is a tall cylinder that resembles a corncob. Some levels are dedicated to private apartments and others offer shared amenities: a seventy-five-foot-long pool, a rock-climbing wall, an Astro-Turf “pet park,” a classroom with a line of Mac desktops, a gym, a movie theatre, and a library. It felt compact but not claustrophobic. We visited an armory packed with guns and ammo in case of an attack by non-members, and then a bare-walled room with a toilet. “We can lock people up and give them an adult time-out,” he said. In general, the rules are set by a condo association, which can vote to amend them. During a crisis, a “life-or-death situation,” Hall said, each adult would be required to work for four hours a day, and would not be allowed to leave without permission. “There’s controlled access in and out, and it’s governed by the board,” he said.
I’m not sure which is my favorite implied folly—the classroom full of Macs for a world that might be devoid of electricity and almost certainly will no longer have a working internet; or Hall’s projection of internal governance and justice maintained by the condo board of the apocalypse. Often, such scenarios end in cannibalism, so I’d rather be taken out with the first strike, thank you.
Alternatively, Osnos writes that the growth industry in supplying the survivalist imaginations of “preppers” also brings out high-profile critics, like PayPal co-founder Max Levchin, who considers his colleagues’ pricey lifeboats a “moral miscalculation”, and whom Osnos quotes thus: “It’s one of the few things about Silicon Valley that I actively dislike—the sense that we are superior giants who move the needle and, even if it’s our own failure, must be spared.”
The best way to survive—indeed probably the only way to survive—the end of civilization is to invest in civilization itself and to hedge against collapse. For all the many millions these people are wasting on exit strategies that would likely end in their grisly deaths anyway, they could put this wealth and their intelligence to better use.
For instance, Van Jones, on CNN last night, hosted a discussion with a group of West Virginia coal miners. They are representative of a large segment of the American population left behind by globalization and generally ignored by both Democrats and Republicans in Washington. Their votes for Donald Trump, in an economic context, sound like a Hail Mary play—a roll of the dice that a man who seems to be an outlier will shake up the system enough to restore some political clout to the “rust belt” and provide them with economic opportunity that has been in decline for decades.
I assume that many of these “prepper” billionaires—be they tech wizards of Silicon Valley or capitalists of New York—are skeptical that Trump’s approach to restoring opportunities for these American workers is in any way realistic. Certainly they imply as much with some of their fears as to how social collapse might occur. As such, perhaps their survivalist dollars and imaginations would be more wisely, to say nothing of more morally, invested in helping to develop solutions to some of the problems their own industries have created. For instance, if there is truly no avoiding the march of automation toward the unemployment of tens of millions of people, these folks might want to devote their resources to meeting that challenge. Because nobody can stockpile that much ammo.
CORRECTION: First publication of this post inadvertently stated that Van Jones visited miners in Pennsylvania.