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A Political History of the Future: The Tech Billionaire

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Pictured: Star Trek‘s greatest shame

Welcome back, after a long hiatus, to A Political History of the Future, our series about how science fiction intersects with politics, economics, sociology, and the hot-button issues of the day. I have several essays planned for the rest of the year, but they’re going to be a bit different from previous installments. Instead of talking about a specific work in each one, we’re going to discuss a range of different works to examine how they approach a common theme. Starting with a topic that I’ve been thinking about for more than a year, the by-now common figure of the tech billionaire.

In his 2008 novel Anathem, a story that is fundamentally about the tropes and stereotypes that lie at the heart of civilization and which shape—and are shaped by—the convolutions of history, Neal Stephenson lays out the various “iconographies”—the images that permeate the popular imagination—that have accumulated around scientists (apologies for the neologism-heavy text; this, too, is part of the point of the novel):

The Muncostran Iconography: eccentric, lovable, disheveled theorician, absent-minded, means well. The Pendarthan: fraas as high-strung, nervous, meddling know-it-alls who simply don’t understand the realities; lacking physical courage, they always lose out to more masculine Sæculars. The Klevan Iconography: theor as an awesomely wise elder statesman who can solve all the problems of the Sæcular world. The Baudan Iconography: we are grossly cynical frauds living in luxury at the expense of common man. The Penthabrian: we are guardians of ancient mystical secrets of the universe handed down to us by Cnoüs himself, and all our talk about theorics is just a smoke-screen to hide our true power from the unwashed multitude.

Absent from this list—either because it just wasn’t as common in the mid-2000s, or because Stephenson (who has subsequently written novels where such figures are the heroes) wasn’t as interested in poking fun at it—is what Erik has just recently referred to as the entrepreneur-inventor. The man (and they are usually men) who not only creates technological innovations that meaningfully affect our everyday lives, but who leverages those innovations into a business career and a position as a public figure—a prophet of technology. He is a man who changes the world by giving us a new way to live; new tools, gadgets, and toys that we weren’t even aware we needed. And along the way, he makes a lot of money.

The genesis of this figure is in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with people like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. And here’s where things start to get tricky, because as we can see from both of those examples, a key component of such figures is that they are relentless self-mythologizers, and enabled in that effort by media and popular culture. There’s a fictional edifice that grows up around them, and gets taught to future generations, that sometimes bears only a glancing resemblance to the real man. Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, as the—to use Stephenson’s term—iconography of the entrepreneur-inventor was built upon and developed, the boundary between fiction and reality has become increasingly porous.

In the mid-20th century, an era of groundbreaking scientific discovery that also permeated pop culture, the figure of the industrialist who is also an inventor fades away in the real world. I have an instinct (though it will take a bit more research than I’m willing to do to prove it) that the two things are related. Many of the exciting scientific and technological developments of this period came from government programs—most obviously NASA—and research institutes like Bell Labs, which downplayed the role of any individual scientist or inventor. Perhaps the closest this period comes to the kind of figure we’re discussing are men like Jonas Salk—who famously declined to monetize his invention—and J. Robert Oppenheimer—who, as a government weapons researcher, had no ability to do so.

At the same time, however, fictional representations of this figure—very clearly inspired by the myth of Thomas Edison and his ilk—continued to proliferate. We see them especially in comics, in figures like Tony Stark and Hank Pym (but also in objectivist tomes like Atlas Shrugged). These are men who not only have the intellectual power to remake the world, but who are able to parlay that intellect into wealth and political influence. To become prophets of a new way of life.

It’s no doubt claiming too much to suggest that these fictional images laid the groundwork for the neoliberal shift of the 80s and 90s, when large-scale government investment in the sciences was scaled back, and public-private partnerships gave way to financialized industries with lucrative government contracts. But they probably didn’t hurt. The familiar figure—the iconography—of the industrialist who not only has the ear of those in power, but is a recognizable public figure who tells the people on the street how they should live, was there for people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and later, Mark Zuckerberg to step into long before these men had their great successes. Long before the media started treating them like prophets whose opinions on not just technology, but public policy and the shape the future would take, should be publicized and taken seriously. Long before politicians started behaving as if having created a successful social network made you qualified to save public education.

(It’s a little outside the scope of this article, but it’s interesting to note that Gates has taken a different—and arguably more effective—approach to embodying this trope. He’s far less of a public figure than his fellow tech billionaires, though he still did a lot of self-mythologizing in the 90s and 00s with his charity work. And he used that image to insinuate himself into global policymaking, as we saw during the pandemic with his—alas, successful—efforts to prevent copyright-free distribution of COVID vaccines.)

By the 2000s, as personal computing and the internet became the new frontier of technological development, the entrepreneur-inventor had completed his transformation, from the more materially-grounded industrialist of Edison and Ford’s type, to a prophet of cyberspace. Even when he was selling us physical gadgets—as Jobs did with the iPod and iPhone—what he was really selling was a way of life. A new way of communicating, gaining knowledge, forging relationships, and learning about the world. Which only further entrenched the perception that men like this had some insight into the human condition—and into how the future might change it—that the rest of us did not.

Unsurprisingly, that same alteration began to occur in fiction. When Tony Stark made his way to the big screen in 2008’s Iron Man, he was explicitly likened to Paypal, Tesla, and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. Bestselling 2011 novel Ready Player One (later adapted into a movie by Stephen Spielberg) posited a world where everyone spends their time in the VR playground of a long-dead, Jobs-esque tech guru, who has, Willy Wonka-like, left behind clues for his most ardent admirers to follow so that they can be elevated to his position. CBS’s Person of Interest (2011-2016) cast Michael Emerson as a tech entrepreneur who builds an AI capable of predicting crime, and then decides that the government can’t be trusted with so powerful a tool. A 2017 Fox series, APB, imagined a future in which a billionaire fixes policing by purchasing a police precinct and outfitting it with the latest technology. Three years later, the channel returned with Next, in which John Slattery plays, yes, a tech billionaire, who is the only person on the planet who realizes that we are on the verge of being taken over by a malevolent AI. And, in what is probably the nadir of the entire franchise, Star Trek—supposedly set in a post-capitalist utopia that doesn’t even understand money—had a character drop Elon Musk’s name as an example of a world-changing scientist who made a major contribution to human progress.

Here’s where things, once again, get a bit tricky. The late-Xer and millennial CEOs who have become—or who aspire to become—the prophets of the new technological era grew up watching and reading the same media as the rest of us. They, too, have Thomas Edison and Tony Stark embedded in their minds. And it is increasingly clear that they spend as much (and perhaps even more) of their time on self-invention as they do on creating new technologies. This is in no way to excuse the writers and producers who went along with it, but it’s now commonly accepted that Musk paid for that Star Trek: Discovery namedrop. And one of the things that strikes you while reading Jon Carreyrou’s Bad Blood (2018) or watching The Dropout (2022) is how badly Elizabeth Holmes wanted to become Steve Jobs. How she modeled her physical appearance on his, hired designers from Apple, and even employed Apple’s advertising film, all in an effort to cargo cult the same success he had, without ever possessing a working product to justify the hype.

At the same time, the tech billionaire iconography’s real-world stock was plummeting. Zuckerberg’s attempts to present himself as a Gates-esque public policy leader ran aground on things like the Cambridge Analytica scandal or revelations about Facebook’s enabling of genocide in Cambodia. Musk was suppressing labor organizing, and enabling racist abuse, in his factories. And Elizabeth Holmes, of course, was exposed as a fraud. Pop culture suddenly realized that it had spent a decade bigging up hucksters and bad actors. A correction was in order.

Leaving aside The Social Network—a film that, for all its retroactive patina of relevance, genuinely doesn’t understand what is wrong with either Mark Zuckerberg or Facebook, and instead settles for its writer’s reflexive dislike of the internet (not to mention his bone-deep snobbishness)—my first indication that the tide was turning was the 2019 Black Mirror episode “Smithereens”. In it, a hostage-taker (Andrew Scott) demands a phone call to the CEO of a social media company (Topher Grace), so that he can explain to him how destructive, how pointlessly and damagingly addictive, his product has become. Even here, however, the criticism is muted. Grace’s character, a blatant stand-in for Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, is presented as well-meaning, but hapless and pitiable, helplessly explaining to Scott that his company has “gotten away from him” due to the influence of money men. 

Things get a bit sharper in 2021’s Made for Love, which ran for two seasons on HBO Max. Based on the 2017 novel by Alissa Nutting (who also co-created the show), it follows Hazel (Cristin Milioti), the wife of tech mogul Byron Gogol (Billy Magnussen). After a single-date courtship and proposal, Byron whisked Hazel away to The Hub, his futuristic, AI-run home-slash-research-facility, where she has been slowly losing her mind from isolation, manufactured perfection, and mostly from having to accommodate Byron’s narcissism and neediness. As the series opens, Hazel learns that Byron has implanted a chip in her brain that is intended to merge their personalities—creating, to his mind, a perfect marriage—which spurs her to escape.

Despite being the backbone of the original book, the Hazel storyline is where Made for Love is weakest—it’s notable that the brain chip disappears almost entirely in the show’s second season. What makes the show interesting, rather, is how it constructs Byron. It’s not just that he’s a figure of disgust and contempt—for example by revealing that he is sexually perverse and has a history of stalking and domestic abuse—but that he is fundamentally weird. And, because of his wealth and success, he is convinced that his weird preferences are, in fact, universal. He hates smells, so the Hub is completely odorless. He has trouble connecting to people, so he imagines that the sublimation of Hazel’s personality into his own is the equivalent of a successful relationship. Byron’s underlings not only enable this belief—by, among other things, never once challenging him to imagine himself in someone else’s position—but help him produce technology that will reshape the human race in his image, fueled by a cult of personality that, as we see in the second season, leads people to give up their entire lives for a chance to work in the Hub.

This, to me, is what’s most interesting about the recent depictions of tech billionaires in fiction. Everyone likes to point to Glass Onion (2022) as a killer takedown of Elon Musk, puncturing his carefully curated image as a rare genius and tech prophet to reveal a man of limited intelligence who lobs ridiculous ideas at his underlings and lets them figure out which ones can be massaged into workable, sellable technologies. But—as much as I appreciated Glass Onion holding the enablers of such figures to account—I’m not sure it goes far enough. It’s easy to poke fun at rich elites, especially from the safety of having been funded by them yourself. It gives the audience the nice warm feeling of being rebellious and iconoclastic, without forcing them to acknowledge the way that these men are enabled not only by craven or greedy individuals, but by systems that we, in other contexts, support and admire.

At their best, stories about tech billionaires grasp that what’s terrifying about these figures is less the men themselves as the way that media and political establishments buy into their mythology. This was what I found most interesting about Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up (2021), in which a tech mogul played by Mark Rylance convinces the US government not to blow up a species-destroying asteroid on a collision course with Earth, because he wants to mine it for rare earth metals. The most fascinating—and terrifying—scenes in the movie are the ones in which Rylance uses technological flim-flam—fancy touchscreens, impeccable product design, black-and-neon color schemes—to obscure the fact that the technology with which he intends to capture and harmlessly divert the asteroid is untested and, as it turns out, not fit for purpose. He isn’t held to any professional standard before the future of the Earth is placed in his hands, because the entire political and media ecosystem has been trained to believe that having gotten rich by selling technology makes him an expert on it.

Another riff on this type of story can be found in Vauhini Vara’s 2022 novel The Immortal King Rao, which reimagines Steve Jobs as a dalit, immigrant tech entrepreneur who ends up remaking the world in his image. Awkward, brilliant grad student King Rao creates a revolutionary computer called the Coconut, and then gradually, through both impeccable industrial design and careful shepherding of his appearance and public image, reinvents himself as a guru of the new technological age. Unlike Jobs, Vara’s version of the man lives into the mid-21st century, witnessing the worsening climate crisis, the rise of far-right nationalist movements, and the hollowing out of government services as the rich are taxed less and less. He’s in the corridors of power when the world’s governments admit that they can’t (and maybe no longer want to) provide the services their citizens expect, and is there to offer technological solutions—first, the wholesale privatization of government services, and then, the replacement of government itself.

Under Shareholder Government, policies would be guided not by corrupt and biased politicians but by the Master Algorithm, developed by Coconut. Using people’s Social Profiles and inputs, the  Algo would make informed decisions using not only demographic markers but lived experience. Rather than pledging one’s labor to any single corporation, trading hours for dollars, kyats, or cedis, Shareholders would sell it at will and be compensated in Social Capital, based on the Algo’s prediction of the actual value they had produced. The public’s vote share would no longer be dictated by geographical circumstances; it would be allocated using the Algo. People’s needs—food, water, energy, Internet, roads, shelter, schools, hospitals, protection, detention—would be fulfilled not through complex taxation and appropriation, but with an innovative model where, instead of paying taxes, people would have a portion of their Capital extracted monthly, the Algo determining the most efficient investment of funds. 

The Immortal King Rao is narrated by Athena, Rao’s daughter, who reveals that, unsurprisingly, the system does not work quite as advertised. The Algo just happens to keep the rich rich and drive the poor into ever-greater precarity. Social Capital is earned primarily by consuming Coconut products, and the most viable career path for those not already rich is to become an influencer who peddles the party line. And yet the cult of King Rao persists, only slightly dinged by later-in-life revelations about his personal behavior, and the failure of his latest killer app, a brain chip (this again) that allows direct access to the internet, and which just happened to kill its early test subjects.

Here, once again, is where things get tricky. Even as this shift towards viewing tech billionaires as sinister and contemptible is happening in fiction, the real equivalents of these characters are spinning new stories around themselves. And, because these people are all science fiction fans, those stories have a pronounced science fiction flavor. I don’t just mean “let’s invent the torment nexus” (though that does keep happing with alarming regularity). The more you listen to people like Musk, Bezos, Zuckerberg, and Dorsey, the more obvious it becomes that they truly believe that the SFnal tropes they grew up with—things like AI, self-driving cars, brain chips, medbeds, the colonization of outer space, and virtual humans who live in a simulation—are not just possible, but inevitable. And what a lot of them want is to be the man who gave humanity that world-changing technology. To be Zefram Cochrane, without any of the pesky anti-capitalist philosophy that Cochrane would eventually be won over by. And they will cosplay that figure—and continue to convince media and politicians that they are him—even as the technology they’ve promised failed to materialize.

It’s not surprising, therefore, to learn that the animating philosophy of so many of these figures, the creed that they more or less commissioned from like-minded academics, has more than a whiff of science fiction about it as well. Like Elizabeth Holmes’s belief that “what if medicine worked like it does on Star Trek” was a viable business plan, Silicon Valley’s favorite new movement, longtermism, is rooted in the assumption that what science fiction imagines must be inevitable. That there will one day be trillions of humans—either living in far-flung space colonies or in vast simulated worlds—whose existence dwarfs the mere billions living right now on Earth. And, like all philosophies of the rich and powerful, what this is really in service of is an ethos of selfishness, capitalistic excess, and the rampant concentration of power in the hands of a select few. As Émile P. Torres writes:

In 2021, [William MacAskill, chief academic proponent of longtermism and author of What We Owe the Future]  defended the view that caring about the long term should be the key factor in deciding how to act in the present. When judging the value of our actions, we should not consider their immediate effects, but rather their effects a hundred or even a thousand years from now. Should we help the poor today? Those suffering from the devastating effects of climate change, which disproportionately affects the Global South? No, we must not let our emotions get the best of us: we should instead follow the numbers, and the numbers clearly imply that ensuring the birth of 1045 digital people — this is the number that MacAskill uses — must be our priority.

In other words, it’s OK if we let climate change devastate the world and kill billions, so long as there remain technological enclaves where the real work of preserving the future—of researching space colonization, AI, and virtual reality—can continue. It should go without saying that this is a deeply eugenicist philosophy, one that implicitly—and, in some cases, explicitly—views some people as more worthy of survival and propagation due to their supposed intelligence and ability to contribute, a classification that just happens to coincide with race, culture, and ethnicity. (Or maybe the real reason is that, like Byron Gogol, these people are incapable of imagining the humanity of anyone who is not like them.) But it’s also a creed that requires the existence of a tech prophet, some figure who can remake the world in his image and ensure that these enclaves exist, unencumbered by pesky ideas like democracy or human rights. This is what happens in The Immortal King Rao, in which the title character remakes the world in his image, even as he’s consumed by the edifice he’d erected around himself. And it’s the barb at the end of Don’t Look Up, in which the elites who had escaped in Rylance’s just-in-case spaceship colonize a world where he will have the freedom to shape both the future and their ideas about the past—leaving us to wonder whether this wasn’t, in fact, the plan all along.

For the last time, then, I’m going to talk about the slippage between fiction and reality. As much as pop culture has become disenchanted with the figure of the tech billionaire—at this point I think we’re more likely to encounter him as a villain than as a hero or even neutral figure—the popular conversation moves more slowly. Politicians remain dazzled by technological flim-flam, and the rich and powerful will always have the ear of those in power. We need new stories—new iconographies—that teach us how to see through the fantasies peddled by Silicon Valley. And we need our media and political leaders to pay attention to the kind of fantasies they buy into.

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