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29 September 2021updated 30 Sep 2021 7:37am

The spirit of the age: Why the tech billionaires want to leave humanity behind

Jeff Bezos and his contemporaries are using their fortunes to achieve god-like ambitions for the future.

By Bruno Maçães

The American novelist F Scott Fitzgerald once wrote: “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.” To which Ernest Hemingway provided a rejoinder in his short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”: “Yes, they have more money.”

Hemingway was right, but Fitzgerald saw farther. There was a time when money could buy pleasure and comfort, even though comfort was a poisoned gift, removing one from the tussle of life as well as taking away the risks and glories that make life worth living. Today, however, money might take you to a higher form of existence. Those of us who are not billionaires have woken up to this reality too late.

Technologists such as the American inventor Ray Kurzweil say that the important thing is to live long enough to live forever. We are on the cusp of revolutionary technologies that could enable us to evade mortality – what a pity it would be to die just at the moment of salvation.

But Kurzweil’s point is not the whole truth. The technology putting an end to ageing is unlikely to be cheap. The important thing is to accumulate enough money to live forever. And not just to live forever: to enhance our intellectual capacities, to travel to Mars and to create human societies fit for the digital and interstellar age. In this particularly jarring scenario, Elon Musk would be able to use radically new technologies to extend his  life-span by centuries. We would hear about him a hundred years from now settling on Mars and, somewhat later, recording a podcast with an extraterrestrial interlocutor. The rest of us? Well, tough luck. Money is the  portal taking the happy few across to the technological self.

By combining the possibilities of money and technology, tech billionaires may claim to represent the highest human type today. Different epochs produce different forms of social organisation, different artistic styles, different technologies. Do they also create different human types? How would you describe our historical period? The age of the smartphone? The age of the internet? Or the age of the billionaire?

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This technological way of talking, of transposing people into the realm of manufactured products and describing them as human types, is hardly new. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Friedrich Nietzsche and  Oswald Spengler took this line of thought to its logical conclusion and taught us to regard human types as distinctive products of each historical period. In Beyond Good and Evil (1886), Nietzsche assumed politics created the conditions for the growth of the “plant man” and its highest exemplars, describing philosophers as “rare plants”.

The human type is a seductive, almost inescapable concept. What could be more important than defining and understanding the kinds of human being we hold as models? Did people in the Middle Ages become saints because they lived in the age of cathedrals, or were the cathedrals built because people lived in an age when sainthood provided the ideal for human existence? Did the navigators and explorers of early modern Europe – Vasco da Gama, Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan – simply find their caravels and galleons ready to use, or did they build them so they could pursue their historical mission? These figures seemed to organise themselves into distinct types, even competing among themselves to see who better exemplified them. And then the type as a whole would disappear, to be replaced by a successor myth. Did its representatives learn from previous examples? Did Captain Cook want to be like Columbus? When did young boys stop wanting to be like Captain Cook and start dreaming of becoming a revolutionary, such as the 18th-century Frenchman Jean-Paul Marat or the 19th-century Italian Giuseppe Garibaldi? Today they want to be the new Musk.

[See also: The new age of American power]

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The ruling human type in each historical period has taken over from the previous one the task of moving history forward. The saint; the explorer; the lonely scientist; the revolutionary. They seem to be on the right side of history, existing in areas where action is both possible and productive. It is difficult to speak of revolutionaries in ancient Greece, and it might be just as difficult to find a genuine exemplar of the revolutionary alive today, at least outside China, and perhaps Russia (the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has something of Lenin in him). But in 19th-century Europe the revolutionary type thrived. Where there is a ruling human type there is history to be made, but each type belongs to their historical period and cannot survive for long once history has moved on.

If we ask about the distinctive human type today, the main candidate is the tech billionaire. The billionaire is not the same as the tycoon. As a type, it expresses a form of radical individualism that would shock the old captains of industry. One wants the billionaire to have whims and personal dreams. When Musk smoked marijuana as a guest on Joe Rogan’s podcast in 2018, it was an act of liberation – but also an educational moment. The billionaire seems to have been granted a particular licence to be himself or herself, to express themselves fully. That cannot be on account of their billions. Andrew Carnegie or John D Rockefeller had a net worth equivalent to many hundreds of billions today, but they were serious and sober. They did not speak for technology, and much less for history. The contemporary billionaire, by contrast, has projects or missions and seems connected to the higher aspirations of mankind: space exploration for Musk, space and eternal life for Jeff Bezos, universal democracy for Mark Zuckerberg or Twitter’s Jack Dorsey.

The billionaire as an ideal type is also a founder. In the mythology created around people such as Zuckerberg or Bezos, they received a mandate from Heaven, unequivocally expressed in an original intimation about the future. And they went through a series of trials meant to test that intimation, almost like chivalric knights in the old Arthurian novels. In one popular account, Zuckerberg was tempted to sell Facebook to Yahoo in 2006 for the incredible sum of $1bn. He was 22 at the time and stood to gain $300m personally. As a former Facebook employee put it recently, how could he say no? But according to the myth, Zuckerberg knew something others did not: he had seen the future. By 2006 he knew exactly where Facebook would be ten years later.

The figure of the billionaire is specifically American, because it is in the United States that they find no political rival. We have even seen how the Chinese Communist Party has told Chinese billionaires such as Jack Ma that they should not aspire to become “billionaires” – they should think of the collective rather than themselves. In China the ruling type is still the revolutionary, represented by Xi Jinping, a prodigal son of the Cultural Revolution – so the new cold war is also a clash of types. Can China win its great power competition with the US without tech billionaires? That is the defining geopolitical question of our time.

In 19th-century Europe revolutionary figures such as Napoleon Bonaparte,
portrayed here by Jacques-Louis David, changed the course of human history

The billionaire seems best defined as a person with enough money to change the world – the only human being able to rise above the logic of capitalist circulation and become the heir to the revolutionary. But because every human type is by definition an ideal, existing billionaires are permanently under the threat of failing to live up to their own status.

Some embrace the failure. Listening to Warren Buffett and the investor Charlie Munger attack Bitcoin at a recent public session, I could not repress the thought: so many billions and so little interest in acting in history. Just the little game of capital accumulation, money creating more money, the product of a mere thing. At the opposite end stands Satoshi Nakamoto, the creator of Bitcoin, whose net worth is forever frozen in the blockchain, not to be used except as pure symbol, a rallying cry for historical change. No wonder Munger called Bitcoin “disgusting and contrary to the interests of civilisation”.

In the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna takes his pupil through a painful learning process with two main discoveries. First, that human action for the sake of individual goals such as pleasure or money is ultimately void of value. Second, that overcoming these personal goals does not mean replacing them with quiet contemplation or mystical experience. They should be replaced with historical action: effort by the individual to become the carrier of large historical forces in his or her actions. This is the question the figure of the tech billionaire poses: does any other actor have the same ability to act in history? And is anyone else at greater risk of wasting that ability?

Much has been written about the growth of a new “tech oligarchy” in the US. To use the term “oligarchy” may seem surprising, as the tech giants do not seem to need to exploit political connections for favours or contracts in order to thrive. Yet these oligarchs are also billionaires. They represent a human type. The Faustian bargain they tempt us with goes something like this: leave us alone, allow us to keep our mammoth fortunes – the 20 richest tech titans are worth a combined $1.2trn – and you may see the future. Bring us down and all you have left is an eternal present.

[See also: Apple vs Facebook: how the war between the Silicon Valley giants is changing tech]

Facebook, Tesla, SpaceX and Amazon want to change the world, creating new experiences that were once the preserve of science fiction: a privatised global financial system; the colonisation of space; advanced artificial intelligence; autonomous cars that can be summoned across the country using a mobile phone; swarms of delivery drones; and an interface linking the human brain to the internet through a surgical procedure (as Musk described his Neuralink project: “We will painlessly laser-drill the holes into the skull, place the threads, plug the hole with the sensor, and then you go home”).

Bezos, in addition to chairing the Amazon board, runs a spaceflight company called Blue Origin. Among the ideas Blue Origin has considered is the settlement of artificial habitats in orbit around the Earth, each of them with a potential population of one million. Some of these manufactured worlds would be large cities, others natural parks, while others could be uninhabited and contain the most heavily polluting industry. Since the colonies would allow the human population to grow without earthly constraints, the species would realise its potential as never before: “We can have a trillion humans in the solar system, which means we would have a thousand Mozarts and a thousand Einsteins. This would be an incredible civilisation,” Bezos said.

Bezos is also rumoured to be a prominent investor in Altos Labs, a new company pursuing biological reprogramming technology aimed at prolonging human life. In his final letter as CEO to Amazon shareholders this April, Bezos included a quote by the biologist Richard Dawkins: “Staving off death is a thing that you have to work at. Left to itself – and that is what it is when it dies – the body tends to revert to a state of equilibrium with  its environment.”

So the question arises: should a modern society use its powers against those whom we expect to bring about the greatest historical transformations? Should it strive to keep things as they are? Or should it give those people free rein, with all the dangers that could carry for democratic and social values?

It is different in Europe. A European entrepreneur such as those responsible for dozens of unicorns (start-ups valued at more than $1bn) in fintech or retail is much more likely to cash in their big idea quickly so they can spend their time travelling around the world, having romantic affairs and meeting interesting people. In Silicon Valley they would be mocked as being in the “lifestyle business”. Interestingly, the idea has a certain correlate in capital markets. Maybe finance has become dominant in our societies because we no longer want money to be spent on dangerous historical transformations. As the venture capitalist Peter Thiel points out, finance plays a much more important role if the future is indefinite. In a definite future, money is a means to a specific end such as eternal life or space exploration or intelligent machines. In an indefinite future money is pure choice, never realised in the world. In a world where specific purposes seem too dangerous for social order, finance may become the only game in town. It can be really strange. Someone builds a successful company and sells it. Not knowing what to do with the money, he gives it to a bank. The bank does not know what to do with the money and gives it to a portfolio of institutional investors. Investors give it back to the original investor, and so on – an eternal recurrence (Nietzsche again).

Billionaires are supposed to break that cycle. They have as much money as an investment fund or a portfolio of investors, but they are human beings with passions and dreams and images of the future they want for themselves and others.

[See also: Shades of gold: Why California is a bellwether of the world to come]

The point is that our societies are afraid of the future and trying to find ways to stop the historical clock. That may seem counterintuitive, but the paradox dissolves once we realise that historical change looks less attractive for those who believe that we already live in a fundamentally just and nearly perfect society. If our societies exist at the end of history and our values express the final development of human reason, the promise of technology to take us to unimaginable futures acquires almost criminal tones. The power and resources needed to satisfy the wildest dreams of the tech oligarchy would usher in a society where an increasingly greater share of economic wealth would be generated by a smaller group of highly creative people, while everyone else would increasingly subsist on welfare and precarious gig work. To the monopolisation of existing and future industries the tech oligarchs add the control and manipulation of our main sources of information. Unless checked, they could accumulate the power to create a radically unequal and unfree society.

Every ruling type is a bridge between two historical epochs. The saint was a bridge between the classical and medieval worlds. Navigators and explorers such as Columbus were bridges between the medieval and modern worlds. The revolutionary was a bridge between the modern and the contemporary worlds. As for the tech billionaire, he or she stands on the threshold of a future technological world, holding the promise – or  the threat – to take us across. But the path is narrow.

Is it too late to dream of a modern society that has all kinds of wondrous technologies at its disposal and never ceases to invent new ones, that also remains committed to the question of what human life is for and how human beings should live, without allowing the answer to be technology?

At one extreme, technology is imposed from above. Society is ruled according to a single, dominant vision of the future and moves in a predetermined direction. Liberal political societies are fragmented and diverse, with social forces moving in different directions, often resulting in a noisy and agitated state of paralysis. But authoritarian societies can move in unison. In this case the transition to a technological world leads to the disappearance of human autonomy and freedom.

At the other extreme, technology becomes the object of social and political resistance, even widespread suspicion. Tech entrepreneurs are forced to cede control of their core activities to society. This would mean that the full ambition of their projects is sacrificed. Technology is placed in the service of already existing social relations and structures rather than the transformation of social life in its present form.

The middle path is the path of the billionaire, but when Bezos announced he would be flying to space on the first crewed flight of the rocket ship made by Blue Origin, one felt he had decided to evade or postpone the question of historical transformation, making it disappear into mere entertainment. It was like Arjuna telling Krishna that action for the sake of purely personal goals suits him fine after all. Or Prince Henry the Navigator – the 15th-century Portuguese visionary who initiated the so-called Age of Discovery – telling the shipbuilders he had assembled in Lagos in 1420 that the caravels would be used for his personal recreation.

[See also: Why the billionaire space race is the colonial fantasy reborn]

Many were rightfully shocked by the many billions Bezos spent to fly in space, or something close to space, for just four minutes. Why not build a city on Earth, or save thousands of lives by investing in healthcare, or try to bring peace to a troubled area of our own planet? In fairness to him, a certain amount of frivolity was to be expected. If Bezos faced so much difficulty attempting to build a new headquarters for Amazon in New York, how would these larger missions hop over all the regulatory and political barriers in their way? The misalignment of private fortune and larger social purpose is close to complete.

I have met or corresponded with famous tech billionaires such as Peter Thiel or Marc Andreessen several times. More than with great statesmen or artists, there is a somewhat strange expectation that they should be closer to the truth and have an inkling of what the truth is. As Hegel noted after watching Napoleon ride past at Jena in 1806, “I saw the Emperor – this world spirit – go out from the city to survey his realm.” Something like that. The reason, I think, is that a billionaire no longer needs fellow human beings for anything. He has left humanity behind. To go towards something else, one imagines.

So on these occasions I stood there, appropriately silent, waiting that the word be spoken. Which word? I have no idea. I am not a billionaire. The word only they could know. In the end, of course, we know that the billionaire is mute, because history speaks through them, but not in their voice.

Bruno Maçães was the Portuguese Europe minister from 2013-15 and is the author of “Geopolitics for the End Time: From the Pandemic to the Climate Crisis”  (C Hurst & Co)

This article appears in the 29 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spirit of the Age