The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the richest shield themselves from danger — at our expense

In his new book, Douglas Rushkoff offers some ideas about how to improve our economy and future, with mixed results

A worker places a smartphone in a rack on an assembly line at a factory in Noida, India. Douglas Rushkoff takes aim at tech companies for creating the illusion that such devices are produced by magic — not by people working in substandard conditions. (Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg News)

Douglas Rushkoff’s new book, “Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires,” opens with a surreal scene: For a fee equal to one-third of his annual salary as a professor, Rushkoff flies to a luxurious resort to advise five ultrawealthy men on how to survive the collapse of civilization. The unnamed men discuss such pressing questions as how to maintain authority over their private security forces after the “event,” and they brainstorm solutions. Maybe the guards could wear some sort of disciplinary collars? Better yet, what about using robots as guards?

It’s a dark and revealing episode. More terrifying than the men’s Hollywood-derived nightmares is their naive and profoundly antisocial response: They’d rather optimize their bunkers than work to avert the apocalypse. Rushkoff describes their attitude as a “faith-based Silicon Valley certainty that they can develop a technology that will somehow break the laws of physics, economics, and morality to offer them something even better than a way of saving the world: a means of escape from the apocalypse of their own making.”

While few have the means to indulge dystopian fantasies so lavishly, the men are an extreme instance of a broader trend. Bunker sales in America are soaring, and the market now caters to a range of income levels, from $40,000 starter bunkers to a nearly $10 million Luxury Series “Aristocrat” that offers a pool and a bowling lane. Many people now seem fixated on stockpiling enough money to protect themselves from the rest of the world, rather than considering the sort of world they are creating by making money in these ways.

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Rushkoff, a professor of media theory and digital economics at the City University of New York who consults and lectures on media and technology, calls this dynamic the “Insulation Equation.” Anyone who asks some version of the question — can I earn enough money doing X to insulate myself from the effects of doing X — is considering the Insulation Equation. Think of Jeff Bezos launching himself into space with money earned from a business model widely condemned for its treatment of low-wage workers and its environmental impact. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.) Think of the cryptocurrency traders who can afford to live in relatively pristine environments by hawking speculative, volatile financial products that generate vast amounts of air pollution.

The Insulation Equation is a provocative and illuminating concept, and Rushkoff devotes much of the book to tracing the manifestations and origins of a mind-set that seduces people into believing they can insulate themselves from harms they help create. As a large-scale manufacturer of illusions — like the myth that by effortless swipes all one’s desires can be satisfied without damaging other humans or the environment — Silicon Valley is a major target of his criticism. So is the relentless financialization of new technology through venture capital, which has helped to transform the open-source, democratic and collective ethos of many early technologists into the contemporary tech landscape of monopolies built on data theft and expertly engineered addiction.

One of the most chilling examples he cites involves the production of cellphones. At the end of the assembly process, workers wipe down each device with a toxic solvent to remove their own fingerprints. The chemical causes miscarriages, cancers and reduced life span, but it maintains the illusion that the phones are created by frictionless magic, not by workers in appalling conditions. Rushkoff sees in this an instance of a more pervasive phenomenon: “Some of Amazon’s most clever innovations exist entirely to shield Prime members from the reality of working for the company,” he writes.

Rushkoff provides a powerful critique of the attitudes and technologies that enable these deceptions. His arguments about their ultimate origins and his suggestions for how to improve our economy and future, however, are not persuasive.

The trouble starts with a confused and simplistic attack on empirical science and quantification. Attempting to recast the terms “Western” and “empirical” as insults, he rails against a “Western, empirical approach to science that breaks everything down into parts rather than emphasizing the connections and interactions between all these things.” This is a cartoonish portrait; many ecologists, biologists and other scientists study interactions both within and between complex systems. It’s a shame that the book stoops to such ill-considered broadsides.

It’s also hard to take seriously his assertion that because “Western language systems … tend to be more noun-based than many of their counterparts … our language has enabled certain forms of industrialism and capitalism, among other systems (like slavery and domination) that rely on objectification and categories.” Perhaps to ask for evidence for this claim or a way to rule in or out other explanations of these phenomena is to manifest the very empiricism he opposes. But such exemption from standards of evidence and falsifiability puts the claim on the same epistemic level as astrology or climate skepticism.

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The core problem is a confusion between science and how it is used. Scientific methods are not evil because they help some people locate oil deposits or good because they help others treat brain tumors; they enable both good and bad actions. The methods themselves should not be condemned because of how they are sometimes used. The right response is to refrain from immoral uses of science, not to condemn science.

Rushkoff’s proposed solutions, rehearsed in a rapid paragraph near the end of the book, focus on consuming less and regulating and taxing industries more. These are good if familiar ideas, but they cannot be implemented well without careful empirical study. How much less do we need to consume, and in what sectors of the economy, and over what time frame? What is the comparative efficacy of different potential regulations, and what green technologies are most promising?

These sorts of questions should not be answered by scientists alone; they also have moral and political dimensions. But they are impossible to answer without careful scientific analysis. Science is necessary to creating a livable future. It’s just not sufficient.

Nick Romeo is a critic and journalist based in Athens. His new book, which explores the people and ideas building a fair economy, will be published in 2023.

Survival of the Richest

Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires

By Douglas Rushkoff

Norton. 224 pp. $26.95

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