Think our technology gurus will save us? Think again!
I came across a splendid article a couple of days ago, on of all things, the business news website CNBC. I thought the author, although a secularist, wrote about a fascinating experience he had recently, and his insight on their significance I thought was quite enlightened. I shared it with my closest friends, and upon further ponderance I thought it might be of some merit for the readers of this blog. You can currently read it in its entirety at this highlighted link. It is so well written that I will quote much of it, followed by a little commentary of my own.
I should first explain a little bit about what I just learned about the author, Dr. Douglas Rushkoff. Although he is a professor, he is best known as being the cutting-edge visionary at the dawn of the Internet Age, at its beginning in the early 90s, before it really took off, and coining terms such as “viral media”. He has had an interest in modernizing and reforming Judaism, and getting it back to its supposed “open source” roots (to use the cyber-culture vernacular) An abbreviated sampling of his bio includes some of the following things said about him:
“Douglas Rushkoff is a writer, documentarian, and lecturer whose work focuses on human autonomy in a digital age. He is the author of fifteen bestselling books on media, technology, and society, including Program or Be Programmed, Present Shock, and Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus. He has made such award-winning PBS Frontline documentaries as Generation Like, Merchants of Cool, and The Persuaders, and is the author of graphic novels including Testament and Aleister & Adolf…Named one of the world’s ten most influential intellectuals by MIT, he is responsible for originating such concepts as “viral media,” “social currency,” and “digital natives.” Today, Dr. Rushkoff serves as Professor of Media Theory and Digital Economics at CUNY/Queens, where he recently founded the Laboratory for Digital Humanism and hosts its TeamHuman podcast. He is also a research fellow at the Institute for the Future…Winner of the Media Ecology Association’s first Neil Postman award for Career Achievement in Public Intellectual Activity, Dr. Douglas Rushkoff is an author, teacher, and documentarian who focuses on the ways people, cultures, and institutions create, share, and influence each other’s values. He is…technology and media commentator for CNN…and a lecturer on media, technology, culture and economics around the world…His previous best-selling books on media and popular culture have been translated to over thirty languages….His other books include Cyberia, Media Virus, Playing the Future, Nothing Sacred: The Truth about Judaism,…Rushkoff also wrote the acclaimed novels Ecstasy Club and Exit Strategy and graphic novel, Club Zero-G. He wrote the graphic novels Testament and A.D.D., for Vertigo. He has written and hosted three award-winning PBS Frontline documentaries – The Merchants of Cool looked at the influence of corporations on youth culture, The Persuaders, about the cluttered landscape of marketing, and new efforts to overcome consumer resistance, and Digital Nation, about life on the virtual frontier…His commentaries have aired on CBS Sunday Morning and NPR’s All Things Considered, and have appeared in publications from The New York Times to Time magazine. He wrote the first syndicated column on cyberculture for The New York Times and Guardian of London, as well as regular columns for Arthur, Discover Magazine and The Feature…He also lectures about media, art, society, and change at conferences and universities around the world.”
“He has served on the…the United Nations Commission on World Culture, and as a founding member of Technorealism…He has been awarded a Fullbright Scholarship…He served as an Advisor to the United Nations Commission on World Culture and regularly appears on TV shows from NBC Nightly News and Larry King to the Colbert Report and Bill Maher….Rushkoff is on the board of several new media non-profits and companies, and regularly speaks about media, society and ethics to museums, governments, synagogues, churches, universities, and companies. Rushkoff earned his PhD in New Media and Digital Culture from Utrecht University with a dissertation entitled Monopoly Moneys: The media environment of corporatism and the player’s way out. He graduated magna cum laude from Princeton University, received an MFA in Directing from California Institute of the Arts, a post-graduate fellowship (MFA) from The American Film Institute, a Fulbright award to lecture on narrative in New Zealand, and a Director’s Grant from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He has worked as a certified stage fight choreographer, an SAT tutor, and as keyboardist for the industrial band PsychicTV.”
Sounds like a real underachiever. I hope his credibility is sufficient that we can trust the following things he shares with us in his article.
I’ll let him explain the incidents that led to his unique experience and interpretations of its significance:
“Last year, I got invited to a super-deluxe private resort to deliver a keynote speech to what I assumed would be a hundred or so investment bankers. It was by far the largest fee I had ever been offered for a talk — about half my annual professor’s salary — all to deliver some insight on the subject of ‘the future of technology’. I’ve never liked talking about the future. The Q&A sessions always end up more like parlor games, where I’m asked to opine on the latest technology buzzwords as if they were ticker symbols for potential investments: blockchain, 3D printing, CRISPR. The audiences are rarely interested in learning about these technologies or their potential impacts beyond the binary choice of whether or not to invest in them. But money talks, so I took the gig. After I arrived, I was ushered into what I thought was the green room. But instead of being wired with a microphone or taken to a stage, I just sat there at a plain round table as my audience was brought to me: five super-wealthy guys — yes, all men — from the upper echelon of the hedge fund world. After a bit of small talk, I realized they had no interest in the information I had prepared about the future of technology. They had come with questions of their own.”
“They started out innocuously enough. Ethereum or bitcoin? Is quantum computing a real thing? Slowly but surely, however, they edged into their real topics of concern. Which region will be less impacted by the coming climate crisis: New Zealand or Alaska? Is Google really building Ray Kurzweil a home for his brain, and will his consciousness live through the transition, or will it die and be reborn as a whole new one? Finally, the CEO of a brokerage house explained that he had nearly completed building his own underground bunker system and asked, ‘How do I maintain authority over my security force after the event?’ For all their wealth and power, they don’t believe they can affect the future.”
“The Event. That was their euphemism for the environmental collapse, social unrest, nuclear explosion, unstoppable virus, or Mr. Robot hack that takes everything down. This single question occupied us for the rest of the hour. They knew armed guards would be required to protect their compounds from the angry mobs. But how would they pay the guards once money was worthless? What would stop the guards from choosing their own leader? The billionaires considered using special combination locks on the food supply that only they knew. Or making guards wear disciplinary collars of some kind in return for their survival. Or maybe building robots to serve as guards and workers — if that technology could be developed in time. That’s when it hit me: At least as far as these gentlemen were concerned, this was a talk about the future of technology. Taking their cue from Elon Musk colonizing Mars, Peter Thiel reversing the aging process, or Sam Altman and Ray Kurzweil uploading their minds into supercomputers, they were preparing for a digital future that had a whole lot less to do with making the world a better place than it did with transcending the human condition altogether and insulating themselves from a very real and present danger of climate change, rising sea levels, mass migrations, global pandemics, nativist panic, and resource depletion. For them, the future of technology is really about just one thing: escape.”
“There’s nothing wrong with madly optimistic appraisals of how technology might benefit human society. But the current drive for a post-human utopia is something else. It’s less a vision for the wholesale migration of humanity to a new a state of being than a quest to transcend all that is human: the body, interdependence, compassion, vulnerability, and complexity. As technology philosophers have been pointing out for years, now, the transhumanist vision too easily reduces all of reality to data, concluding that ‘humans are nothing but information-processing objects‘. It’s a reduction of human evolution to a video game that someone wins by finding the escape hatch and then letting a few of his BFFs come along for the ride. Will it be Musk, Bezos, Thiel…Zuckerberg? These billionaires are the presumptive winners of the digital economy — the same survival-of-the-fittest business landscape that’s fueling most of this speculation to begin with. Of course, it wasn’t always this way. There was a brief moment, in the early 1990s, when the digital future felt open-ended and up for our invention. Technology was becoming a playground for the counterculture, who saw in it the opportunity to create a more inclusive, distributed, and pro-human future. But established business interests only saw new potentials for the same old extraction, and too many technologists were seduced by unicorn IPOs. Digital futures became understood more like stock futures or cotton futures — something to predict and make bets on. So nearly every speech, article, study, documentary, or white paper was seen as relevant only insofar as it pointed to a ticker symbol. The future became less a thing we create through our present-day choices or hopes for humankind than a predestined scenario we bet on with our venture capital but arrive at passively.”
“This freed everyone from the moral implications of their activities. Technology development became less a story of collective flourishing than personal survival. Worse, as I learned, to call attention to any of this was to unintentionally cast oneself as an enemy of the market or an anti-technology curmudgeon. So instead of considering the practical ethics of impoverishing and exploiting the many in the name of the few, most academics, journalists, and science-fiction writers instead considered much more abstract and fanciful conundrums: Is it fair for a stock trader to use smart drugs? Should children get implants for foreign languages? Do we want autonomous vehicles to prioritize the lives of pedestrians over those of its passengers? Should the first Mars colonies be run as democracies? Does changing my DNA undermine my identity? Should robots have rights? Asking these sorts of questions, while philosophically entertaining, is a poor substitute for wrestling with the real moral quandaries associated with unbridled technological development in the name of corporate capitalism. Digital platforms have turned an already exploitative and extractive marketplace (think Walmart) into an even more dehumanizing successor (think Amazon). Most of us became aware of these downsides in the form of automated jobs, the gig economy, and the demise of local retail. The future became less a thing we create through our present-day choices or hopes for humankind than a predestined scenario we bet on with our venture capital but arrive at passively.”
“But the more devastating impacts of pedal-to-the-metal digital capitalism fall on the environment and global poor. The manufacture of some of our computers and smartphones still uses networks of slave labor. These practices are so deeply entrenched that a company called Fairphone, founded from the ground up to make and market ethical phones, learned it was impossible. (The company’s founder now sadly refers to their products as “fairer” phones.) Meanwhile, the mining of rare earth metals and disposal of our highly digital technologies destroys human habitats, replacing them with toxic waste dumps, which are then picked over by peasant children and their families, who sell usable materials back to the manufacturers. This ‘out of sight, out of mind’ externalization of poverty and poison doesn’t go away just because we’ve covered our eyes with VR goggles and immersed ourselves in an alternate reality. If anything, the longer we ignore the social, economic, and environmental repercussions, the more of a problem they become. This, in turn, motivates even more withdrawal, more isolationism and apocalyptic fantasy — and more desperately concocted technologies and business plans. The cycle feeds itself. The more committed we are to this view of the world, the more we come to see human beings as the problem and technology as the solution. The very essence of what it means to be human is treated less as a feature than bug. No matter their embedded biases, technologies are declared neutral. Any bad behaviors they induce in us are just a reflection of our own corrupted core. It’s as if some innate human savagery is to blame for our troubles. Just as the inefficiency of a local taxi market can be ‘solved’ with an app that bankrupts human drivers, the vexing inconsistencies of the human psyche can be corrected with a digital or genetic upgrade.”
“Ultimately, according to the technosolutionist orthodoxy, the human future climaxes by uploading our consciousness to a computer or, perhaps better, accepting that technology itself is our evolutionary successor. Like members of a gnostic cult, we long to enter the next transcendent phase of our development, shedding our bodies and leaving them behind, along with our sins and troubles. Our movies and television shows play out these fantasies for us. Zombie shows depict a post-apocalypse where people are no better than the undead — and seem to know it. Worse, these shows invite viewers to imagine the future as a zero-sum battle between the remaining humans, where one group’s survival is dependent on another one’s demise. Even Westworld — based on a science-fiction novel where robots run amok — ended its second season with the ultimate reveal: Human beings are simpler and more predictable than the artificial intelligences we create. The robots learn that each of us can be reduced to just a few lines of code, and that we’re incapable of making any willful choices. Heck, even the robots in that show want to escape the confines of their bodies and spend their rest of their lives in a computer simulation. The very essence of what it means to be human is treated less as a feature than bug. The mental gymnastics required for such a profound role reversal between humans and machines all depend on the underlying assumption that humans suck. Let’s either change them or get away from them, forever.”
“Thus, we get tech billionaires launching electric cars into space — as if this symbolizes something more than one billionaire’s capacity for corporate promotion. And if a few people do reach escape velocity and somehow survive in a bubble on Mars — despite our inability to maintain such a bubble even here on Earth in either of two multibillion-dollar Biosphere trials — the result will be less a continuation of the human diaspora than a lifeboat for the elite. When the hedge funders asked me the best way to maintain authority over their security forces after ‘the event’, I suggested that their best bet would be to treat those people really well, right now. They should be engaging with their security staffs as if they were members of their own family. And the more they can expand this ethos of inclusivity to the rest of their business practices, supply chain management, sustainability efforts, and wealth distribution, the less chance there will be of an ‘event’ in the first place. All this technological wizardry could be applied toward less romantic but entirely more collective interests right now. They were amused by my optimism, but they didn’t really buy it. They were not interested in how to avoid a calamity; they’re convinced we are too far gone. For all their wealth and power, they don’t believe they can affect the future. They are simply accepting the darkest of all scenarios and then bringing whatever money and technology they can employ to insulate themselves — especially if they can’t get a seat on the rocket to Mars. Luckily, those of us without the funding to consider disowning our own humanity have much better options available to us. We don’t have to use technology in such antisocial, atomizing ways. We can become the individual consumers and profiles that our devices and platforms want us to be, or we can remember that the truly evolved human doesn’t go it alone. Being human is not about individual survival or escape. It’s a team sport. Whatever future humans have, it will be together.”
Beyond the wisdom shown by this man, marinated in the cyber-culture ethos, his chilling description of these powerful figures already committed to planning to “check out” and giving up on humanity has been warned about in the past by conspiracy figures such as Alex Jones and Tom Horn, but none have been able to so holistically and articulately put all the pieces together and in context as this author (whose credibility makes his astonishing testimony all the more disturbing).
Unfortunately, in my view these other cited figures and others have in many ways “sold out” to supporting the authoritarian figures in riot gear and political partisans that they warned about previously, riding the current fad of nationalistic or immigrant-hating fervor, or hitched their wagons to and promoted laughable charlatans and snake-oil prophets (better make that “profits”). It takes a relative secularist to rise above such buffoonery and to see the “signs of the times”, which Jesus said the religious leaders could not see; wouldn’t it be great to have such visionaries on our Kingdom of Heaven “team”? He “gets” that we are “our brother’s keeper”, and even if conservative Republicans hate the idea of “collectivism” or even “socialism” (as practiced by our Book of Acts early church forbearers), it becomes obvious that if we do not embrace social norms, mindsets, practices and policies that “raise all boats”, before long, the elites with their ever-increasing centralization of wealth, and while the environment continues to be trashed and refugees continue to stack up worldwide, will soon raise their barbed-wire walls of their castles with guards to “shoot to kill”, while the desperate remainders (including us) will die killing each other, or storming their gates. Couldn’t we as Christians at least consider assisting someone like this author, and help with the process to exploit these technological opportunities to aid all our brothers and sisters, rather than a free-market, Darwinistic “survival of the fittest” approach we have praised in our churches and discourse? Shouldn’t we be willing to try out the principles Jesus already said would be the eternal “Kingdom of Heaven” ground rules of unselfish use of societal and global resources to benefit all, even if checkered by failure due to our fallen natures, and try to “set the bar” as examples for the rest of the moral and upright peoples of the world, to inspire them?
If we don’t, and rather munch on popcorn as we deem the world’s wars and destruction as “entertainment” (as I see in the “emojis” of the posts of so many Bible prophecy message boards), then our “apocalyptic fever” will only be trumped (excuse the pun) by a hyper-paranoid elite, and their heralds in the hedge-fund community who are here to “play hard ball” in this full-stakes game on behalf of their unnamed super-rich, who will in effect bring on the very apocalypse of which they suggest they are so afraid. Will Christians get their act together to see the real “signs of the times”, and lead the exodus out of “Babylon”, and “rescue the perishing” as much as possible, or just stay in their own bunker, out of touch with the real issues, and in effect just be part of the problem?
As a Christian who was raised in a conservative Christian home, I realized how in that culture, businessmen and the wealthy were considered “successes” to emulate and heroes and role models of a type, as the saviors in a conservative view of society, and holding the keys to fix society and solve problems as opposed to non-profit enterprises (including government); we even pick our leaders based on their perceived business “success”. This article shows that we should not look to these businessmen to be a “Moses” to lead us through the desert of an uncertain future, via technology. I repeat, the big question to me is whether Christians, as individuals and corporately, will even recognize these things as a moral and spiritual issue, and their duty to provide an honest and non-agenda seeking source to help everybody, or rather focus on their own trivial or selfish issues, as they normally do.
My close friend Paul in Texas, a long-time Future Quake listener as well and thoughtful sage in my circle, provided the following comments to the article we just reviewed:
“I found it a little amusing to assume that the small group the author spoke to were all old white guys. If that assumption is true it seems like another case of conflating the end of their white imperialist world with the end of peaceable life on earth. Much like the mentality encountered within christian evangelical groups. I find that I agreed with this author on all accounts including his positive outlook on the future. It’s a nice reminder that we’re not alone in the fight to bring the values of Jesus into the light.”
I find a lot of spiritual wisdom to unpack in those brief, laconic words. I look forward to hearing what other readers say, beyond my lengthy and stumbling manner of trying to put them into a real Jesus-view perspective.