Episode Summary

For a number of years, surveys from every pollster have found that most Americans think the country is going in the wrong direction. Surveys in other countries like the UK have found the same. And it doesn’t matter which party or person is in charge.

We live in interesting times. And that’s not a good thing.

In the past several episodes of Theory of Change, we’ve been talking about some of the technological and political movements that have led humanity to its current situation. I highly recommend checking those out first before you get to this episode. And that’s because our guest for this show argues that the problems we’re facing aren’t just caused by political groups, but by a set of ideas that is pre-political and actually animates people who don’t think of themselves as political.

In this episode, we’re featuring Douglas Rushkoff, he’s the author of several books, including his latest, “Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires.” He’s also on Medium and hosts a podcast called Team Human.

You can follow him on Mastodon as well.

Preview Video


MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Welcome to Theory of Change, Douglas.

RUSHKOFF: Hey, good to be with you.

SHEFFIELD: All right, so let me just put up on the screen, so everybody who’s watching it can see it. There is the cover there. So I encourage everybody to check that out.

Alright, so, let’s get started here by first just telling us what your first chapter of the book is about. It’s a very interesting story and kind of inspired you to write the book, right?

RUSHKOFF: Yeah. Well, I mean, I’ve been writing and thinking about median technology and culture for a long time, so, Over the years, I get invited to do speeches and, talks and things for all different kinds of groups.

And the best paying ones are usually, like hedge funders and tech investors who are looking for some edge on what to invest in. And I got invited to do one of those. It was out in the middle of the desert for a group of they said they were tech investors. I figured there’d be a couple of hundred people in a, in a room that I’d speak to and then go home.

And while I was in the green room getting ready to go on for this thing, they brought five dudes into the room who sat around this little table and it turned out that was the talk, right? They didn’t want actually to hear my prepared talk. They just peppered me with all these questions about the digital future that first were like their sort of, their betting questions, what to invest in, virtual reality or augmented reality, Bitcoin or Ethereum.

And then one of them finally said Alaska or New Zealand. And we spent the whole rest of the hour talking about their bunker strategies, like, their, their water filtration and crowd control. And I started trying to kind of intimidate them a little bit by asking, well, who’s going to secure this place?

From, from the likes of us, when the event happens and you’ve got to be hidden away that the masses are going to want a little of that food and shelter. And they said how they had Navy Seals hired, and in standby with helicopters to just dart out to these locations once the event happens.

And I asked them well, how are you going to maintain authority over this security force once the event happens? Why don’t, they’re going to just take over the place? They kind of hadn’t really considered that. It’s like they didn’t have their Machiavelli 10 1 ready, like how do you keep control of your military?

So then they started to talk about shock collars and maybe they would be the only ones who know the combination to the safe. And the episode, it really made me think about the fact that here were certainly the most powerful wealthy people I had ever been in the same room with, yet they felt utterly powerless to impact the future, that the best they thought they could do with their money and technology is kind of hang on for the inevitable catastrophe and then insulate themselves from the likes of us as best as possible, whether it meant going to the moon or uploading their consciousness or building a, a metaverse or, or building a bunker.

And it, it set me on a several year journey to really look at what were the origins of this way of thinking. This sort of extreme techno solutionist, escapism and looking for the roots of this really in capitalism, technology science, and really the history of domination.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. You mentioned they were asking about, The Event, quote unquote. Did they actually use that term, The Event?


SHEFFIELD: What, what, what did they imply would be it, or did they just were speaking generically?

RUSHKOFF: Well, for them, The Event, I guess, is generic. It’s the electric magnetic pulse, the nuclear war, the climate catastrophe, the economic unrest, the pandemic or unforeseen, nano crisis or whatever happens that makes the world unlivable.

But the object of the game for these guys, because they’re always pedal to the metal in terms of exponential growth and developing more and more technology and having more and more freedom, is, can they build a car that goes fast enough to escape from its own exhaust? Can they earn enough money and deploy enough technology to insulate themselves from the reality they’re creating by earning money and deploying technology in that way?

So it’s a group of the same old capitalists that we’ve seen since, the 13th century, who understand that there’s tremendous harm being externalized through their operations, but they’re 21st century enough to understand that that harm will eventually come back to them.

SHEFFIELD: It’s kind of fascinating because it’s really no different, and in many cases, literally the same kind of suppliers looking to build them that are also are building them for lunatic religious cult members who want go live underground in Idaho or Arizona because Jesus is going to come back, or they have to stay there until Satan is captured or, or something like that.

RUSHKOFF: Yeah. What’s the difference really? It’s the same thing. And then what, what, what I realized along the way is they’re not doing this because they are afraid of the coming catastrophe. They’re doing it largely because they’re looking forward to it. This is their fantasy.

This is like, I mean, are you old enough to remember the Little Rascals? Remember, they, they would the, they, they, these little boys. It was these old black and white movies I saw when I was a kid, and it’s this little, these little boys and girls and the boys make these little clubhouses, they make a little clubhouse.

They say, oh, the, the, the boys only club no girls allowed, and they’ll have a little treehouse. That’s what this is. It’s to make that little fantasy treehouse the island Seasteading private nation with your own little, self-sufficient Game of Thrones reality. So it, it’s like, Millionaires used to have these really elaborate train sets in their basement.

They’d build these little villages, you see a lot of them had those things. Or William Randolph Hurst had his own little castle, almost like this little miniature nation he built that, that we saw, in Citizen Kane, kind of satirized. So these guys are just taking it to the next level using, I would say, using climate change and imminent catastrophe as the excuse to build what they’ve always wanted from the beginning.

A an isolated bubble, safe from nature and women, and darkness and scary stuff, where everything’s predictable and where they are. They use the word all the time where they are self-sovereign.

SHEFFIELD: Now you mentioned seasteading. So for people who haven’t heard that term, what, what is that? Because it was like the, sort of the earlier iteration of this idea in a lot of ways.

RUSHKOFF: Yeah. And although it’s still, it’s still around. I mean, seasteading was this idea that you would kind of build these giant rafts. Current nation states are not up to the future. They have regulations on cloning and nanotechnology and all sorts of stuff, and they’re restricting you. You can’t have sex with everyone you want to have sex with, and you can’t have as much power. They’re not totally libertarian. I’m not totally free in any of these existing countries.

So if I can’t have land, I’m going to go out on the ocean, going to connect a whole bunch of rafts together, and then declare that my nation, and then I can have whatever rules I want. It’s sort of like, when a writer leaves a magazine to go on Substack, this is like a person leaving nations to go and form their own.

And the fantasy is that, you’ll have these solar-paneled regenerative nations floating out in the ocean, and you and your family, you get one of these little raft things and you go out and you attach to the nation of your choice as long as you like their laws and their regulations and the way they do things.

And then if they pass a law that you don’t like, you detach and you float out to a nation that has better ones, as if nations are this giant kind of freeform shopping mall of nation states, and you just float effortlessly from one to the other. As if a community doesn’t have any– it’s a fantasy, right?

It’s being in a community with no ties that bind. It’s being in a relationship that has no structure around it at all. As if, as if that could work. I mean, and for some people, for some amount of time, you could kind of live like that, but it’s not a great way for fostering community or, or, mutuality or interdependencies.

SHEFFIELD: And these are fantasies that, as you mentioned earlier, they kind of go back really far. And what’s kind of interesting, and you talk about this to some extent in the book, that these are people who they don’t see themselves as political at while having very hardcore ideologies.

They don’t think that they’re political. Talk about that a little bit if you could.

RUSHKOFF: Well, they’re not educated. I mean, is the problem. They get plucked. When you’re 18, 19 years old, you’re a freshman in college and in your dorm at Stanford or Harvard and then you come up with some idea and a venture capitalist plucks you out and says: Okay, we’re going to build Facebook. We’re going to build, whatever this, this idea you have.

And that’s before these kids have taken economics and history and ethics and philosophy. So they don’t have the benefit of knowing what Hobbes said about how to treat native human beings. And they don’t have the benefit of history on their side.

And instead they go and they transfer parental authority onto some hedge fund dude, or some VC in his Patagonia outfits in Silicon Valley, and they build empires. So you end up with these childlike visions like Mark Zuckerberg, poor little thing. He envisions himself, he models himself after Augustus Caesar, that’s his hero.

And on the one hand, we should be thankful it’s Augustus and not Caligula, right? Which would be worse, but it’s still, he is modeling himself after a Roman dictator. That’s sort of the fantasy of being the great builder, the great titan emperor of a society. And it’s a childhood dream that some of these technologies, and certainly this amount of capital, gives these guys a lot more room and leverage to try to realize some of these fantasies at everyone’s expense.

SHEFFIELD: Mm-hmm. And even for a lot of them that may have some education, some college and even postgraduate education, they tend to have not had any real background in the humanities. And they’ve restricted themselves to math and science or, they pretend to have done so like Elon Musk.

RUSHKOFF: Right. Or they shoehorn the philosophies that they see in college to their preexisting belief to the Ayn Rand Fountainhead, whatever that they read in middle school.


RUSHKOFF: So then you get a guy like Peter Thiel going to Stanford and taking philosophy with Rene Gerard. And Rene Gerard is famous for having a kind of scapegoat theory that everybody competes and competes down here. And eventually this competition yields leads to us picking a scapegoat, killing them or kicking them out.

And that the way to get beyond that is to transcend competition, to move one level above everybody else.

So Peter Thiel hears that and being a libertarian kind of techno capitalist, translates that to in his book, going from zero to one. That’s his whole idea that in business and in life, you don’t stay down at the level of everybody else. You see what they’re doing, and you move one level up.

It’s what we used to call Web 2.0, that all these dot coms are competing, and if you want to make real money, you create a website above that, that aggregates all of the people competing at that level.

And then once there’s a bunch of aggregators, then you move up and become the aggregator of aggregators, I guess, and so on, and so on. It’s this exponential leap up above whoever else.

Ultimately, it becomes a weird spiritual transcendent urge that does dovetail perfectly with this sort of very specific sort of Catholicism that Thiel and some of these guys also buy into this, this kind of eschatology for rising above, going from zero to one, going meta on everything that is.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and, and there are of course some atheistic viewpoints of that same idea.


SHEFFIELD: As well. And Ayn Rand obviously, very strongly atheist.

So in your own personal writing though, you have talked about the idea that this idea of transcendence, it actually in to a large degree, in your opinion, it goes against a lot of the ideas of the Hebrew Bible that there is no afterlife. This life is all that we have, and we are all that we have.

Talk about that a little bit if you could, please.

RUSHKOFF: Yeah. Well, I mean, I wouldn’t try to say that, the Hebrew Bible’s better, right? But, but it is true, the Hebrew stayed with the matza, right? The unleavened bread, and by the New Testament, you get the, the completion. Instead of Passover, you have Easter. So the bread rises, right? Christ goes up, and, and you get, you get that.

But not all Christianity is necessarily, is supposed to be if you, certainly, if you listen to, to Jesus or, read the Jefferson Bible where he’s redlined what Jesus actually says in there, is quoted to have said, it’s not about getting to the next, he talks about that very little.

It’s about how, how much do you love? How well do you treat other people? What Jesus was trying to do by going from kind of, straight lines to curved lines, really from straight lines to parabola, was trying to go from kind of discreet logical law to something more heartfelt, saying, okay, there’s all this law, and you can keep going with the Torah and get evermore granular in the way that you’re trying to orchestrate and contain human behavior.

But eventually you’ve got to just feel it. Because you’re going to be in more situations than you could ever list in your laws. So I understand what he was trying to do is to bring a little bit of intuition into the, into ethics to have a more, a more improvisatory felt ethical template rather than always running to the rabbis, ‘Well who’s in charge, what do we do here? Do I get three grains for this, for two cows?’

Which was a great, which was a great idea. So we’re not really talking about Christianity and Judaism so much as much of the way that these things got popularized.

SHEFFIELD: Interpreted. Yeah.

RUSHKOFF: Interpreted, yeah, interpreted. But most specifically, the kind of religion that’s in form in Silicon Valley is something called Russian Cosmism. It was a particular sect, a new age sect of Russian Orthodoxy that got introduced to our tech bros at Esalen.

They did these things called the two track diplomacy meetings in the eighties. This is when Gorbachev and Glastnost and some of that stuff was starting to happen in Russia. They did these meetings at the Esalen Institute, which is the hot tubs at Big Sur, California. And you had John Lilly and people from the early Apple days meeting with these crazy Russians who are swimming with dolphins and trying to upload human consciousness into robots.

And they really did help instill us with some of that kind of transcendental urge. But these traditions have been in America since the theosophists and the early days of Think and Grow Rich. And it’s part of us. And it’s just that digital technology creates a new landscape to actually imagine going from zero to one. To actually transcend, to go like Ray Kurzwell and rise from the chrysalis of matter as pure consciousness in a Google AI machine.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Just to go back to the religious aspect, you look at a lot of right wing activists and politicians — Donald Trump I think is the best example of this. They’re continually frustrated Jewish people do not go along with their ideas.

And it’s because there, there is in the sort of religio-political culture that it does, it sort of militates against this idea that we’re all we have. And it’s why there is a, a tradition of atheistic Judaism, whereas like–


SHEFFIELD: That doesn’t really exist, atheistic Christianity. There is a little bit, but not much.

RUSHKOFF: Yeah. I mean it’s interesting. There’s a lot of ways to look at it, but partly because Jews have always been kind of the strangers. They’ve been immigrants for most of their existence. This Israel thing is really new.

Jews with nation state is like, oh my God, we haven’t done this since Solomon. It’s hard to manage. But as kind of perennial immigrants, we were always a little concerned when people believed too dogmatically in their gods, because they tended to want to cleanse those who didn’t.

So we’re very predisposed to be suspicious of, kind of ends justifies the means journeys, keep your eyes on the prize and march through whatever you have to now to get to that glory in the future.

Many philosophers and historians recognize when you focus too much on the goal and not enough on your theory of change, to quote your title. You’re, you’re, you’re fucked, right?

So for me, and what I’m always going at is saying, no, no, no. Your theory of change is what you’re doing. That that’s the only thing you know that you’re doing is your theory of change. And if you have an appropriate theory of change that can iterate based on changing conditions on the ground, then you stand a chance of steering somewhere positive.

But if you just have your north star, your telos, and you go toward that, no matter what, boy, the destruction you leave in your wake is like what the tech bros are doing with this kind of techno utopian drive towards the Omega point that they imagine is that great point in the future. The other problem though, on the other side, there is a kind of could you call it Christian atheism?

There’s the kind of atheism that a Richard Dawkins or, or Daniel Dennett, or Stephen Pinker, that kind of atheism, and I talk about it in the book because I ended up getting in a big argument at a cocktail party in the nineties with Richard Dawkins who was arguing that there’s nothing, basically nothing to see here. There’s nothing weird going on. There’s no spiritual dimension. There’s nothing strange happening between you and me that can’t be explained with completely materialistic science and that anything else is just superstition and crazy.

And I was trying to explain to him that he’s coming from a perspective that he’s, he’s living within a meaning system. That the belief that we live in an evidence-based reality is itself an assumption made without evidence. And it’s possible we are also spiritual beings. It’s possible we are created. It’s possible that time preceded matter. That consciousness preceded that.

They look at things in a way, materialistically, and say, okay, so consciousness is an emergent phenomenon of complex matter because there’s this moment of an emergent phenomenon happens when things change state, and they kind of just wave their hands.

Emergence, right? So atoms become molecules. Molecules become cells, cells become organisms. Organisms then develop consciousness. Consciousness becomes culture. It’s like, what do you mean? What is that moment there, right?

They can’t explain that either. But this kind of atheism when applied to society, when you act or speak as a Richard Dawkins saying, Well, you’re not really here. You’re just a collection of genes. Your consciousness is an illusion perpetrated by your DNA, so that you keep it going.

That’s why people like Jeffrey Epstein want to fund people like Richard Dawkins. That’s how Richard Dawkins ends up on the Lolita Express going out to the TED Conference because they can’t critically think about: Well wait a minute, all we are is genes and preserving our genes is all that matters.

Then that justifies the kind of proto eugenic philosophy of a guy like Jeffrey Epstein who has plans for dormitories of young girls to live in New Mexico and just carry his seed forward. Because if the object of the game is to spread your seed, and Richard Dawkins and real scientists say, this is true, then of course I’m justified in going and building that reality.

Then of course, Elon Musk can use effective altruism to say, oh, I’m not building for you, 8 billion people, you 8 billion larval humans. I’m building for the 40 trillion post-humans that will be spread out through the universe.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. I mean the very idea of zero to one, it is literally implying that everything other than yourself is worth nothing.

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