by Jonathan Taplin
Illustration by Khoa Tran.
from Getty Images.
your short-list for books this year 'The End of Reality:
How Four Billionaires' are Selling a Fantasy Future of
the Metaverse, Mars, and Crypto.
Author Jonathan Taplin strikes the hammer to nail
Technocracy and Transhumanism to the prime actors:
Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, and Marc
These billionaires represent the tip of the spear.
How Musk, Thiel,
Are Creating an
Four very powerful
creating a world where "nothing is true and all is spectacle."
If we are to
inquire how we got to a place of radical income inequality,
post-truth reality, and the looming potential for a second American
Civil War, we need look no further than these four,
wallets," to paraphrase historian Timothy
Snyder, "paying for the most blinding lights"...
I call them the
Technocrats, in recognition of the influence of the technocracy
movement, founded in the 1930s by Elon Musk's grandfather, Joshua
make up a kind of interlocking directorate of Silicon Valley, each
investing in or sitting on the boards of the others' companies.
Their vast digital
your personal information
billions of people live, work, and love
chaos, inciting mob violence and sparking runs on stocks
These four men have
long been regarded as technologically progressive heroes, but they
are actually part of a broader antidemocratic, authoritarian turn
within the tech world, deeply invested in preserving the status quo
and in keeping their market-leadership positions or near-monopolies
- and their multi-billion-dollar fortunes secure from higher taxes.
for suckers," Thiel once posited...
Indeed, they are
American oligarchs, controlling online access for billions of users
(own by Elon Musk)
80 percent of the US population.
Moreover, from the
outside, they appear to be more interested in replacing our current
reality - and our economic system, imperfect as it is - with
something far more opaque, concentrated, and unaccountable, which,
if it comes to pass, they will control.
I use the term techno-determinism to
describe the path
the Technocrats have dictated for our country
because they have sold, and we have bought into, the idea that,
are going to deliver us a bright future... (sic)
The future they are
now selling us, however,
the merger of the human
and the computer via AI
the prospect of spending our lives in the Metaverse or on Mars,
To quote Snyder
once more, Donald Trump has shown that he,
"was lying not
so much to deny the truth, as to invite people into an
sleight-of-hand applies here as well.
The alternative reality that
these men are focused on is a world of technodeterminism, one
which AI may eventually do all the real work and a large number of
humans may be rendered useless to society.
The Technocrats do
not hide the fact that they plan to feed at the government trough to
finance some of their more outrageous schemes.
Their plan for your
future involves nothing less than confronting the nihilism of a
And four of the projects they are pursuing to
address their visions will need tens of trillions of dollars of
(mostly public) investment capital over the next two decades.
project, supported by Andreess
Thiel, and Zuckerberg,
is Web3, a virtual world (the Metaverse) accessed by virtual
reality (VR) headgear, which, despite all of the clear
benefits that it promises, may end up converting the free
web into an online theme park in which every door requires a
crypto token to open.
project is the support of crypto currency. As Adam
Fischer, Israel's top-ranked venture capitalist,
has pointed out,
"Crypto is not so much an investment idea
that aligns with the libertarian political ideology, as it
is a virulent strain of libertarian political ideology
leveraging human greed through the blockchain."
project involves supporting Elon Musk's $10 trillion pipe
dream of sending
humans to live on Mars.
But of all
the myths the Technocrats peddle, none is more far-fetched
transhumanism, a concept dear to the heart of Peter
And to understand
what could well be the Biggest Lie of Big Tech requires a deep dive
into this social movement, which is focused on R&D for
"human-enhancement technologies" that might someday allow people to
live to the age of 160 or more.
Needless to say,
access to these age-extension systems, which have not yet been
invented, will be incredibly expensive, so, under this scheme, the
only ones destined to survive well into their second century will
likely be the multimillionaires.
These four projects
- the Metaverse, crypto, interplanetary colonization, and
transhumanism, not to mention AI - are an existential risk to the
world in political, economic, and, perhaps most fundamentally, moral
The moral danger
comes from the fact that all four projects embody
first steps toward a realized transhumanism.
and biological enhancements will allow humans to live for
several lifetimes, migrate to other planets, and merge our
brains with computers so that our individual consciousnesses can
Web3 is the
first step to a wearable human technological augmentation.
Living on Mars
would require a permanent technological augmentation.
transhumanism itself envisions a point at which human and
machine meld into some new species of cyborg.
It is a movement
that would undo the idea at the heart of political liberalism:
wealth would determine one's future prospects.
to quote philosopher and political scientist Francis
most dangerous idea"...
envisions a future in which,
intelligence and robots, ruled by the Technocrats, will do most
of the work, and a significant portion of the population will
sit at home, living a fantasy life in the Metaverse, subsisting
on government-paid crypto universal basic income, which would
cover your broadband bill and your Metacoin micropayments for
all the concerts and clubs you attend virtually...
Anyone who thinks
this is some kind of dystopian fantasy should visit Amazon's
research-and-development facility to see the future of whole
warehouses operated by five humans and 5,000 robots.
When Peter Thiel was three years old,
according to his biographer,
he asked his father, Klaus, about the hide rug on
the living room floor of their Southwest African
apartment in the town of Swakopmund.
father explained that it was from a dead cow.
"Death happens to
all animals. All people," Klaus told his son.
This idea of his own mortality supposedly frightened
the young Thiel in a way some believe he never
really recovered from.
Since at least 2006, he has invested millions on
research that involves trying to beat death.
could be that he has listened to computer scientist
Ray Kurzweil, famed for his support
the Singularity, which prophesizes the end of
the human era and the dawn of a new kind of
superintelligence that will continue to upgrade
itself and advance technologically at an
the Oxford University philosopher who is considered
the dean of transhumanist studies, wrote
Superintelligence, which makes
the case that we are nearing the point where machine
intelligence will surpass human intelligence.
Bostrom warns that if this happens, this new
superintelligence could supplant humans as the
dominant "life form" on Earth.
This would mean that the quasi-human machines could
continually improve their own intelligence much
faster than their fully human inventors. The monster
could easily turn on Dr. Frankenstein.
While Kurzweil views this singularity with optimism,
Bostrom (and others, including Musk, so
he has cautioned) believes,
we could be heading
toward an existential catastrophe...
don't think we have to wait for the Singularity to
see the moral downside of the
the idea that humans should transcend their current
natural state and limitations through the use of
This is because whatever problems we currently have
with social inequality will be multiplied
exponentially by the kinds of biological
enhancements Thiel and others are seriously
If people resist or are denied
enhancement, in time, they will become subservient
to the enhanced class.
the early virtual reality (VR) pioneer, makes an
eloquent case for resisting technological
enhancement and the Singularity.
"The reason to
believe in human agency over technological
determinism," he has noted, "is that you can
then have an economy where people earn their own
way and invent their own lives.
If you structure a
society on not emphasizing individual
human agency, it's the same thing operationally
as denying people clout, dignity, and
four of the Technocrats can be described as
Libertarians in general would argue that if genetic
or technological enhancement of humans is possible,
they should be afforded the freedom to enhance their
intelligence, tailor their appearance, or lengthen
these enhancements will not be cheap, and once the
elite have access to them, the unenhanced will have
to fight to acquire the bioenhancements necessary to
stay in the new rat race.
This raises the specter of designer babies at
considerable cost, which would become a normal
expense of parenthood.
CRISPR-Cas9, for instance, has already been used
in China to alter nonviable human embryos,
ostensibly to see if it can be done.
Applications to regulatory authorities in the United
Kingdom and the United States have been made to
experiment with the tool to edit out mutant genes
that could cause some severe, mostly very rare,
history of technological advancement would suggest
that if something can be done, eventually some
ambitious scientist will do it.
the day is coming when the embryo you and your
spouse have created in vitro will be tested for many
characteristics, and you might be presented with a
menu like this:
Higher-than-average risk of type 2 diabetes
and colon cancer.
Lower-than-average risk of asthma and
light brown hair, male pattern baldness.
chance of coming in above the 50th
SAT tests (if SAT tests
haven't been completely abolished by then).
would be up to you to decide if you wanted, for a
very high price, to edit the genes of your embryo
before it was implanted.
Peter Thiel seems open to over-the-top strategies
that might prolong his life.
55-year-old Thiel told a writer from Inc.,
"I'm looking into
parabiosis... This is where they did the young
blood into older mice and they found that had a
massive rejuvenating effect."
Thiel denied that he had personally used such
transfusions, saying he had not "done anything of
Thiel has also backed the Methuselah Foundation,
which sponsors an annual Methuselah Mouse Prize,
awarded to the research team that breaks the record
for the world's oldest mouse.
second prize is offered for the team that develops
the best late-onset rejuvenation strategy for mice.
Preposterous? Of course...
Prolonging the lifespan of organisms in the
laboratory is a far cry from extending the lives of
human beings by many decades - or reversing the
human aging process.
While Thiel contemplates eternal life, the lifespan
of many on Earth is getting shorter. And with the
acceleration of the effects of climate change,
things could get worse - quickly.
his 2021 book,
A Natural History of the Future,
Rob Dunn makes the frightening
claim that as the planet warms, the same tropical
pests that have plagued the Southern hemisphere will
establish themselves in much of the southern United
States, for example.
They will carry with them,
"some complex mix
of the dengue virus and the yellow fever virus,
but also the viruses that cause chikungunya,
Zika fever and Mayaro."
the decades to come, people living in, say,
Mississippi may experience earlier death because
tropical diseases will be moving north - even as
people like Thiel propose having us live to 200 or
These climate change repercussions are solvable
Thiel's investments indicate that he may be more
concerned with experiments focused on individuals'
personal longevity than in efforts that might more
directly impact the lifespans of millions of his
fellow citizens in the here and now.
Writing in the Journal of Medical Ethics,
Martien Pijnenburg and
Carlo Leget try to answer the ethical
question of spending millions on life-extension
research when so many are dying at a young age:
"With regard to a
better society, in a globalizing world as ours
is, there is a moral challenge to expand our
view of the common good to encompass good for
inevitably raises the urgent question of whether
we can morally afford, as a question of moral
integrity, to invest time and money in trying to
extend our lives while sidelining the whole
issue of unequal death."
of the men who coined the term transhumanism
(along with Julian Huxley) was English cryptologist
Irving John Good.
Good wrote in 1965,
"Since the design
of machines is one of these intellectual
activities, an ultra-intelligent machine could
design even better machines; there would then
unquestionably be an 'intelligence explosion,'
and the intelligence of man would be left far
Thus the first
ultra-intelligent machine is the last invention
that man need ever make."
ChatGPT heads us in
This vision of the future is so at odds with my
beliefs that, to explain the divide, I need to
revert to the Greek philosopher Epicurus and his
ideas about what made a good and fulfilling life.
Epicurus highlighted three elements:
The company of
and autonomy to enjoy meaningful work
life" built around a core faith or
could be argued that the transhumanists who are
...apparently don't care if
you achieve any of these goals.
If your friends are
other avatars whose real identities are cloaked, you
don't have the company of good friends.
you sit home all day wearing your VR helmet (because
your job has been assumed by an AI), subsisting on
government universal basic income payments, you have
neither freedom nor the autonomy to enjoy meaningful
much of what you do is based on a virtual fantasy
existence, you certainly don't have an examined
You will have become a cyborg at
The End of
clear convergence of man and computer raises many
ethical issues that we as a society will need to
But, to date, individual researchers and firms have
been left to decide the ethical boundaries.
near-term possibility of artificial general
intelligence (AGI) - the ability of an intelligent
agent to understand or learn any intellectual task
that a human being can - has led many eminent
scientists to worry.
2012, no less an authority than cosmologist Stephen
Hawking weighed in:
futures of incalculable benefits and risks, the
experts are surely doing everything possible to
ensure the best outcome, right? Wrong.
If a superior
alien civilization sent us a message saying,
'We'll arrive in a few decades,' would we just
reply, 'OK, call us when you get here - we'll
leave the lights on'?
Probably not - but
this is more or less what is happening with
[artificial intelligence (AI)]."
AI analyst Eliezer Yudkowsky,
cofounder of the Machine Intelligence Research
Institute, has observed,
people find it far less scary to think about
destroying the world than to think about never
amounting to much of anything at all.
people I have met who think they are going to
win eternal fame through their AI projects are
This is not science fiction...!
British philosopher Toby Ord, in
The Precipice - Existential Risk and the Future
of Humanity, describes the
following very real scenario that many AI
notes that in a 2018 survey of the top AI
respondents estimated that the probability of
the long-term impact of artificial general
intelligence (AGI) being 'extremely bad (e.g.,
human extinction)' was at least 5 percent."
often do you find a field where a substantial
proportion of participants believe that there is a
one-in-20 possibility that their work will end life
as we know it?
men (and they are mostly men) who are inventing this
world of super machine intelligence and biological
engineering, tend not to believe in religion. But
they want to be gods...
the writer and commentator G.K. Chesterton
contended in 1932,
"The truth is that
Irreligion is the opium of the people.
people do not believe in something beyond the
world, they will worship the world.
all, they will worship the strongest thing in
Today the strongest thing in the world is Big
Until we stop worshiping at the temple
of Saints Peter or Elon or Zuck or Marc, we will be
trapped in the future they want...