As a humanist who writes about the impact of digital technology on our lives, I am often mistaken for a futurist. The people most interested in hiring me for my opinions about technology are usually less concerned with building tools that help people live better lives in the present than they are in identifying the Next Big Thing through which to dominate them in the future. I dont usually respond to their inquiries. Why help these guys ruin whats left of the internet, much less civilisation?
Still, sometimes a combination of morbid curiosity and cold hard cash is enough to get me on a stage in front of the tech elite, where I try to talk some sense into them about how their businesses are affecting our lives out here in the real world. Thats how I found myself accepting an invitation to address a group mysteriously described as ultra-wealthy stakeholders, out in the middle of the desert.
A limo was waiting for me at the airport. As the sun began to dip over the horizon, I realised I had been in the car for three hours. What sort of wealthy hedge-fund types would drive this far from the airport for a conference? Then I saw it. On a parallel path next to the highway, as if racing against us, a small jet was coming in for a landing on a private airfield. Of course.
The next morning, two men in matching Patagonia fleeces came for me in a golf cart and conveyed me through rocks and underbrush to a meeting hall. They left me to drink coffee and prepare in what I figured was serving as my green room. But instead of me being wired with a microphone or taken to a stage, my audience was brought in to me. They sat around the table and introduced themselves: five super-wealthy guys yes, all men from the upper echelon of the tech investing and hedge-fund world. At least two of them were billionaires. After a bit of small talk, I realised they had no interest in the speech I had prepared about the future of technology. They had come to ask questions.
They started out innocuously and predictably enough. Bitcoin or ethereum? Virtual reality or augmented reality? Who will get quantum computing first, China or Google? Eventually, they edged into their real topic of concern: New Zealand or Alaska? Which region would be less affected by the coming climate crisis? It only got worse from there. Which was the greater threat: global warming or biological warfare? How long should one plan to be able to survive with no outside help? Should a shelter have its own air supply? What was the likelihood of groundwater contamination? 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? The event. That was their euphemism for the environmental collapse, social unrest, nuclear explosion, solar storm, unstoppable virus, or malicious computer 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 raiders as well as angry mobs. One had already secured a dozen Navy Seals to make their way to his compound if he gave them the right cue. But how would he pay the guards once even his crypto was worthless? What would stop the guards from eventually choosing their own leader?
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