Going Meta
Why the tech billionaires want to rise above the rest of us, and why it’s so stupid you have to laugh

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Medium on 1 September 2022

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While Mark Zuckerberg was sitting down to talk with Joe Rogan last week, I was in a studio recording the audio version of my upcoming book, Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires. (Yes, available September 6!)

As the title suggests, the book uses the ludicrous apocalypse bunkers and fortified island retreats of the tech titans as its starting point. But what I realized as I read the text out loud is that it’s really much more concerned with the sort of virtual escape imagined by tech visionaries like Zuckerberg. In fact, the pathetic and ultimately self-destructive, anti-human hallmark of the digital age is the desire not just to survive catastrophe, but to rise above mere mortals and exist on a different plane, altogether.

Sure, an actual apocalypse literalizes this transcendence — at least if we all die and they get to go to Mars. But the more pressing and active form of escape these guys are already practicing looks a lot more like Zuckerberg’s vision of “Meta.” Think about it: Facebook’s subscriber base has peaked along with the public’s tolerance for the platform’s impact on our psychology and society. So what does Zuck do? He goes “meta” on the platform by announcing Meta, an undefined combination of as-yet unrealized meta-technologies from virtual and augmented reality to the blockchain and AI. “Web 3.”

Silicon Valley developers and investors like Zuckerberg are afflicted with what I dubbed “The Mindset” — a belief that with enough money and technology, they can escape the catastrophes of their own making. But the catastrophes — things like pandemics, climate change, authoritarianism, and social unrest — are really only justifications for what these guys wanted to do in the first place.

Stewart Brand told us “we are gods and we might as well get good at it,” and these tech bros took him literally. As gods, they want to rise one level above mere mortals, and either direct us from above or abandon us completely. That’s what Peter Thiel means by Zero to One: a business shouldn’t compete with its peers but rather rise “one order of magnitude” above them. It’s what Tim O’Reilly meant when he defined Web 2.0 as the ability to aggregate businesses on a meta-platform rather than just being in a business oneself. It’s the underlying logic of the utterly contradictory notion of “self sovereignty,” where the libertarian technologist is supposed to become king of himself — both sovereign and subject, and a “meta” form of existence. Or it’s The Mindset’s ultimate version of heaven, to rise above the chrysalis of matter and upload one’s pure consciousness in the machine.

Of course, it also dovetails brilliantly with the process through which capitalism lets financial players go meta on the real economy. Instead of earning money, they lend money and go meta on the work of their debtors. When shareholding is not enough, they go meta on that in the form of derivatives, derivatives of derivatives, and so on. And in a digital environment, where everything is just a symbol of something in the real world, this ability to go meta is amplified — so much so, that a derivatives exchange actually purchased the New York Stock Exchange in 2013. Think about that: the stock exchange, which was already an abstraction of the market (which was already an abstraction of social exchange) was in turn consumed by its own abstraction!

As I read the stories of my experiences of these dudes out loud, and saw so clearly how everything they do is geared toward going meta on us and this world, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. We had to stop recording several times just so I get it out of my system and read on.

And the funniest part of all was not their plans for bunkers or domes or rockets or seasteading colonies or injecting their minds into avatars; it was how their commitment to the idea of going meta has generated yet another fear: AI. One actually told me to keep his comments about AI “off the record” because he didn’t want the future AI’s to read the book identify him as an enemy. They are deathly afraid of Artificial Intelligence, because they believe AI is the one thing that can go meta on them.

I hope, like me, you find the stories and pathos of the tech billionaires so funny that you feel free from any compunction to pursue their dead-end strategy of winning through selfishness and separation. They’re not just going meta, but metastasizing. It’s time for a definition of success that doesn’t involve rising above everyone else, but finding ways to bring everyone into the fun.