“We will overthrow anyone we desire!” – the insufferable arrogance of Musk and other billionaire tech moguls.
Their failures are remarkable, almost like a modern-day Icarus who flew too close to the sun. Sam Bankman-Fried, once considered a god in the world of cryptocurrency, has now fallen from grace and caused a spectacular crash this month. This has transformed the narrative of his life from Michael Lewis’s optimistic biography, “Going Infinite,” into that of a supervillain. Even his potential prison sentence of 115 years seems more fitting for a larger-than-life comic book character, such as the Joker being taken away to Arkham Asylum, rather than a nerdy and deceitful currency trader.
This is the way that the current generation of wealthy tech entrepreneurs operates. In Walter Isaacson’s biography, Elon Musk is portrayed as someone who often shares selfies of himself dressed as the Marvel comic character Doctor Strange – the “Sorcerer Supreme” who protects the world from magical threats. Musk is so intrigued by characters like Iron Man that he even gave a tour of his SpaceX factory to actor Robert Downey Jr, who portrays Iron Man, and director Jon Favreau. In June, Musk even challenged fellow übermensch Mark Zuckerberg to a “cage match” after Zuck launched an app to compete with struggling Twitter. The two exchanged taunts in the manner of superheroes or possibly professional wrestlers. “I’m ready for a cage match if he is,” tweeted Musk. In response, Zuck tweeted from Instagram’s Threads, “Send me the location.”
The wealthy elite, whether traditional or modern, have existed for a considerable amount of time. However, there is a distinct characteristic among today’s technology moguls, as seen through the numerous books published about them. Learning about their underground shelters for doomsday scenarios, methods for prolonging life, bizarre statements on social media, ventures into space exploration, and aspirations to create virtual worlds, it is easy to forget that they are not part of a TV show or superheroes in a blockbuster film.
Modern billionaires no longer desire to have the largest mansion in their city, but instead aim for the largest settlement on the moon. However, unlike their predecessors, these wealthy individuals view themselves as separate from civil society and see civilians as obstacles to their advancement. They see the effects of their companies’ growth on society as necessary sacrifices and view civilization as something left behind in their pursuit of colonizing other dimensions, whether it be through underground lairs in New Zealand, colonies on the moon or Mars, or virtual reality servers in the cloud.
Although Peter Thiel’s proposal for a 193-hectare (477-acre) “doomsday” retreat, which would include amenities such as a spa, theater, meditation lounge, and library, was ultimately denied due to environmental concerns, he remains determined to create a floating startup community on the ocean. This community, known as “seasteaders,” would be free from government regulations and potentially shelter residents from any disasters that may occur on land.
Jeff Bezos envisions creating numerous space colonies on the moon, asteroids, and other parts of the solar system to alleviate issues such as poverty and pollution. These colonies would house trillions of people and utilize the resources of space for their inhabitants and those on Earth. Similarly, Elon Musk plans to establish a city of one million people on Mars by 2050, with an estimated cost of up to $10 billion per person. Meanwhile, Sam Altman, the mastermind behind ChatGPT, was recently ousted as CEO but has since returned with a desire to upload his consciousness to the cloud, assuming that the artificial intelligence he helped create will allow it.
Surprisingly, although their plans may be more extravagant, when considering each person separately, modern technology billionaires are not richer than those from the early 1900s. After adjusting for inflation, the amounts of $336 billion for John Rockefeller and $309 billion for Andrew Carnegie exceed the fortunes of $231 billion for Musk, $165 billion for Bezos, and $114 billion for Gates.
According to Peter Turchin’s book “End Times”, there are currently a significantly higher number of extremely wealthy individuals, such as centimillionaires and billionaires, compared to the gilded age. These individuals have also accumulated a larger portion of the world’s wealth. In 1983, there were 66,000 US households with a net worth of at least $10 million. By 2019, after adjusting for inflation, this number had increased to 693,000. In the past, the accumulation of elite wealth was limited by physical constraints such as the availability of resources for building railroads, steel mills, and oil wells. However, in today’s digital age, the creation of virtual commodities like likes, views, crypto, and derivatives can be replicated exponentially.
The proof of their actions in the physical world mostly manifests as harm inflicted on others. Companies that operate online rely on exploiting minerals in Africa, illegally disposing of hazardous waste in China, supporting the downfall of democracy worldwide, and spreading false information for financial gain – all while remaining emotionally detached through remote control.
The behavior of the newly wealthy elite in disregarding the well-being of others and their surroundings is striking and lacks historical precedent. Zuckerberg’s admiration for Augustus Caesar, dating back to ancient Rome, is almost obsessive. He even models his appearance after the emperor, with his haircut being inspired by Augustus. On his honeymoon to Rome, he joked that three people were present: himself, Augustus, and his wife. He named his daughter after the emperor and would end Facebook meetings by proclaiming “Domination!”
Although we should appreciate that he has decided to imitate Augustus rather than someone like Caligula, his aspirations still lie in achieving the ultimate power and hairstyle of a Roman dictator. In an interview with the New Yorker, Zuckerberg stated, “Through a strict approach, he was able to establish two hundred years of world peace,” acknowledging that it came at a cost and required certain actions. This type of top-down mindset led Zuckerberg to create an independent oversight board at Facebook, referred to as the “Supreme Court,” with plans to potentially expand it to encompass other companies in the industry.
Mark Zuckerberg’s authoritarian actions are at least presented as decisions made by a well-meaning ruler. However, Elon Musk does not show the same level of restraint. In light of allegations that the US government intervened in Bolivia’s government in order for Tesla to gain access to lithium reserves, Musk tweeted: “We will support a coup against anyone we choose! Accept it.”
Musk is able to post these tweets boldly because Twitter/X is his own platform, which he purchased. This is also true for Tesla. This may be the crucial difference in this unusual time. During the previous era of extreme wealth, each mogul held complete ownership and power over a major industry. For example, Rockefeller had a monopoly in oil, Carnegie reigned over steel, Vanderbilt controlled shipping and railroads, and JP Morgan was a dominant banker.
Elon Musk is the owner of not only X and Tesla, but also SpaceX, StarLink, the Boring Company, Solar City, NeuraLink, xAI, and hopes to add another finance company similar to PayPal (which he co-founded with Thiel before selling it to eBay) in the future. Similarly, Jeff Bezos holds control over not just Amazon, the world’s largest retailer, but also the Washington Post, IMDb, MGM, Twitch, Zoox, Kiva, Whole Foods, Ring, Ivona, One Medical, Blue Origin, and Amazon Web Services which has a significant share in the cloud computing market. In Bill Gates’ 20 billion dollars’ worth of Microsoft stock and assets, he includes Microsoft Azure (which holds 23% of the cloud market), LinkedIn, Skype, and GitHub. He also possesses 109,000 hectares (270,000 acres) of farmland in the US.
This is an exceptionally extensive form of power, often referred to as “horizontal” power. The remarkable success achieved across a diverse range of industries has led tech billionaires to overestimate their own expertise. For instance, Gates, who frequently gave advice on vaccines and public health in televised interviews, even went as far as to evaluate each country’s response to the pandemic as if he were a more knowledgeable teacher than every nation’s health department (no country received an A grade).
During the 1800s and 1900s, wealthy business owners recognized the value of supporting established institutions as a way to allocate funds where they were most needed. As a result, they generously donated to hospitals, libraries, and universities. JP Morgan even came to the rescue of the US government on two separate occasions. In today’s world, billionaire philanthropists often follow the mindset of “effective altruism” and contribute to their own organizations, typically in the form of their own company stock. They also have the final say in how the money is utilized since they consider themselves experts in all fields. Instead of giving to universities, Thiel’s Fellowship offers a $100,000 grant to young individuals who prefer creating new ventures over attending classes. Meanwhile, initiatives like Musk’s X Prize and Singularity University focus on developing “exponential technologies” that address global challenges. These ambitious endeavors reward innovative thinking that strives to make significant improvements.
Their language and behavior imply a perspective on life, technology, and business that I refer to as “The Mindset” – the idea that having sufficient wealth enables one to avoid the negative consequences of earning money in a certain manner. It is a belief that possessing enough intelligence and advanced technology allows them to transcend the limitations of ordinary people and exist on a completely different level or planet.
By combining a distorted interpretation of Nietzsche and an accurate one of Ayn Rand, they believe that although “God is dead,” the future übermensch can use pure reason to surpass traditional religious values and create a world based on their own interests. Nietzsche’s language, especially when taken out of context, gives tech enthusiasts justification to assert superhuman authority. In his book Zero to One, Thiel cites Nietzsche to argue for the supremacy of the individual, stating that “madness is rare in individuals, but in groups, parties, nations, and ages it is the rule.” In Thiel’s words: “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.” This distorted portrayal of the übermensch as a god-like creator, confidently pushing towards their clear vision of how things should be, remains a crucial aspect of The Mindset. One cannot achieve exponential stock growth without such all-encompassing, dominant thinking.
According to Thiel, any novel business concept must be significantly superior to existing ones. Rather than comparing oneself to others, one should strive to operate on a higher level than the competition. Thiel refers to this as being a “definite optimist”. Most entrepreneurs focus too much on the process and make incremental decisions based on market response. Instead, they should follow in the footsteps of visionaries like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, who are driven by their singular vision regardless of feedback. The definite optimist does not let feedback affect their progress, but forges ahead with their idea for a better world. This process is described as “ex nihilo”, meaning “from zero to one”. In a similar manner to a supervillain constructing an all-seeing eye, Thiel has built Palantir, a massive data analytics system that allows him to anticipate and prevent threats before they arise – all while preparing for potential disaster.
Drawing inspiration from his mentor Thiel, Zuckerberg also aims to surpass his competitors. Facebook was among the earliest and most prosperous aggregators on the internet, thriving off the social rivalry among users and earning profits regardless of whose generic profile page received the most likes. It led us from web 1.0 to web 2.0. As competition intensified between the social networks of web 2.0, Zuckerberg once again took a “meta” approach and asserted dominance over a vague fusion of virtual reality, cryptocurrency, and AI, which he dubbed “web 3”.
According to Yanis Varoufakis in his latest book Technofeudalism, this is not a capitalist system. While capitalists aimed to profit from workers by separating them from the value they produced, they were still involved in creating goods. In contrast, feudalists pursue a completely passive income by taking a “meta” approach to business. They are rent-seekers who strive to control the platform on which others conduct their work.
The ideas of the feudal lord are more focused on personal gain and theoretical concepts than even the most self-centered displays of the capitalist. For instance, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was a way for the largest retailer in New York City to express gratitude to the city where it operates. While it was also an advertisement, it served as a valuable public event that took place on public streets. However, when Bezos took his first flight in his Blue Origin spacecraft (demonstrating nothing more than the fact that an individual with private means can now do what we collectively achieved over 50 years ago), he portrayed it as a mission with public benefit. He openly acknowledged, “I want to thank every Amazon employee and customer because you all paid for this.” He then added in a strangely detached and impersonal manner, similar to that of a customer service representative, “Thank you very much from the bottom of my heart. It is greatly appreciated.” The launch was like Amazon’s version of the Macy’s parade, except instead of marching down Broadway with giant character balloons for children, the company’s generosity consisted of allowing us to witness its founder’s extraordinary accomplishment. In an effort to acknowledge the anticlimactic nature of the event, Bezos invited William Shatner to join Blue Origin’s next flight for added entertainment value.
This is the actual situation. The behaviors of the dominant tech leaders are more suited for fictional tales than for creating realistic solutions for a sustainable future. Musk and Zuckerberg engage in public challenges as a means of promoting their companies. Musk is more of a chief troll than CEO of X. They are not deities, but rather performers.
Instead of imitating them, we should initially find humor in their actions and then disregard them. They resemble participants on the show “Survivor,” competing to be the sole survivor on an island. It’s oddly entertaining, and can be difficult to turn away from. This same instinct is what drives many Americans to support Trump – not necessarily because they want him as their president, but because he will make for more captivating television.
It is now time to end this spectacle and reject the chaotic vision of the future driven by technology. Instead, we must focus on taking back control from the current era’s wealthy and greedy elite. These individuals should not be idolized or admired.