A rant on technology, capitalism, and the future.
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Today, I reveal parts of my incessant internal monologue as I contemplate technology, late-stage capitalism, and our collective future. I don’t claim to have the answers. I enjoy being challenged and, generally, would like to be proven wrong.
I recall when blockchain-enabled cryptocurrencies started to explode as a financial opportunity seven or eight years ago. For a brief time, crypto promised a parallel financial system made of exciting speculative assets and shiny digital collectibles. Some people — early adaptors in my extended (Burning Man/tech) communities — suddenly became very rich.
There was a lot of idealistic and even prophetic rhetoric around blockchain and Web3 back then. While some of this rhetoric was libertarian, some of it also focused on reducing wealth inequality, enhancing democratic participation, and supporting ecologically regenerative practices. I still hope we might use blockchains to engineer a systemic redesign of our political and economic system along these lines. This hasn’t happened yet.
Before interest in blockchain exploded, back around 2012–2015, there was uncertainty about the future and growing awareness of the severe ecological threats. At least in the communities I was part of, crypto took over much of the space available for meaningful discussion of our planetary plight. The crypto boom unleashed yet another wave of amnesia about our existential threat. Many people saw a great opportunity: They could reap astounding financial gains while maintaining the rebellious stance of a system-breaker.*
Now we have reached yet another threshold of uncertainty — one that is murkier, far more unsettling, than that last uncertainty crest. We all sense that the terrain of our society is shifting quickly. Fascism is on the rise. The ecological data is terrifying. With this piece, I hope to propose a bigger context for what is going on. Feel free to argue with me — rant, rave, cavil — in the comments.
Important bellwethers right now include Elon Musk’s seemingly unhinged Twitter rampage/midlife crisis. This has a number of implications and requires ongoing analysis. Luke Savage writes in Jacobin:
Thus far defined by impulsive decision-making, abrupt shifts in policy, and a transparently incoherent definition of free speech, Musk’s management style is bound together by the fifty-one-year-old’s embarrassing attempts at posting through the chaos. … There’s no great promethean genius, elaborate game of multidimensional chess, or modern day philosopher king hiding behind the Mars talk, product recalls, and epic bacon memes. All that exists behind the curtain is a garden-variety capitalist doing the kinds of things that capitalists have always done — in this case very badly.
Also, there is Mark Zuckerberg’s startling failure to make the metaverse remotely interesting to just about anyone. His failure has cost Meta/Facebook 75 percent of its market cap, falling from $1 trillion to $236 billion in one year, dropping his personal net worth an estimated $100 billion.
Another piece of the puzzle is the rapid decline of Amazon. This is anecdotal, but twice recently I ordered stuff from Amazon to my home in New York City, and both times the main items were lost or stolen before they reached me. This seems quite bizarre for a company that built a global reputation for its delivery service, eliminating thousands of local retail stores in the process. Amazon, it seems, currently struggles to perform its most basic function. (I’m curious if others have similar stories).
Post-COVID (with the effects of the Ukraine war), global supply lines are increasingly challenged. The UN warns of the potential for devastating food shortages as early as next year. Commentators from across the spectrum say we are entering a recession, an economic contraction, that could last for a long time — indefinitely, or even (if we face ever-intensifying resource constraints) permanently.
A vision of global expansion and infinite growth drove the success of Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, and other “big tech” companies, as well as crypto. We may look back, soon, to realize this growth-fixation was an innate “system flaw” of late-stage capitalism. The global economy requires incessant growth and innovation just to maintain itself. Otherwise, debts become unserviceable. The machine slows, and then stops.
Rosa Luxemburg understood: Capitalism is inherently unstable. For capitalism to perpetuate itself, we must keep finding things outside of the market economy that we can assimilate, repackage, and turn into new products and commodities. Hungry entrepreneurs hunt for the next big thing — the next huge payout. Until recently, this meant the speculative crypto market. Today, entrepreneurs also push to commodify psychedelic experience as a new growth industry.
In DoubleBlind, Alnoor Ladha and Rene Suša critique this ongoing effort to integrate psychedelics into capitalism:
Baked into the current notion of the psychedelic renaissance is the sense that it already knows where it wants to go: more scale, more global distribution, more money, more people, more markets, more “social impact.” Psychedelics are the new Terra Nullius, new, uninhabited ground for the market to expand into and human ingenuity to uncover.
Hundreds of new companies pursue this overhyped field, even though psychedelics are still far from legal, and revenue models are mere projections.
Let’s step back to see this historically: People used to tell stories around the fire, take care of their own children in holistic (tribal) communities, grow and hunt their own food, and drink fresh water from local streams. Now they watch television or play video games, buy food from restaurants and supermarkets, send their kids to day care, and buy bottled water if they can afford it. The more that people are separated from each other, siloed in nuclear families or living alone, and removed from self-replenishing natural environments, the more that all of their personal needs must be satisfied via commercial exchanges. These are good for profit margins but bad for ecosystem health and integrity.
We created the Machine, to do our will, but we cannot make it do our will now. It has robbed us of the sense of space and of the sense of touch, it has blurred every human relation and narrowed down love to a carnal act, it has paralyzed our bodies and our wills, and now it compels us to worship it.
— EM Forster, “The Machine Stops”
There is, finally, a limit to this kind of progress: a threshold beyond which it can’t continue and, therefore, must end.
One new capitalist project seeks to outsource our immune systems to pharmaceutical companies via forced vaccinations. The easiest way to do this is to make vaccine passports required for travel, in the event of future (likely, if not inevitable) pandemics. This extends the fatal logic of our system. It represents an unholy alliance between drug corporations, who are often bad actors, and global governing institutions. Our immune system is yet another thing that can be turned into a service, then sold back to us, unless we stop this.
Other important aspects of this systemic unfolding happen in parallel: First, the system’s increasingly devastating ecological impact; second, the tendency of late-stage capitalism to concentrate wealth in fewer and fewer hands. Invasive surveillance and police state tactics are an inevitable tendency of this systemic trend. Third, the ongoing manipulation of mass consciousness via the media. It is imperative for the ruling elite to keep the people from understanding what is happening to them. This means confusing them and misdirecting their rage onto various scapegoats (homosexuals, Jews, other minorities).
This is a tried and true practice that Musk is currently following on Twitter. He keeps giving the microphone to far-right and racist voices. (let’s recall Musk’s personal connection to South African apartheid). At the same time, I sympathize with Musk’s desire to reduce restrictions on free speech, to get rid of certain forms of censorship that have mutated into techniques of social control. Our current situation is strange, perilous, and ambiguous.
Capitalism innovated beyond its last systemic crisis through the evolution of information technology, which created new markets (smart phones, etc.) and new desires. The “information revolution” of the last twenty years gave the multitudes an opportunity to become media creators, to build their own audience. However, what we have tended not to notice is that all of this creative ferment and the hypnotic distractions still depend on the global fossil fuel infrastructure that powers the whole capitalist machine. We use huge amounts of fossil fuel energy to build, distribute, and power our devices, as well as mine the rare minerals and manufacture the plastics.
The speed of innovation in media technology fooled most of us (including many tech billionaires) into believing that we could just as easily innovate our way past the climate and ecological crisis unleashed by cheap fossil fuels. But actually it is clear that we can’t accomplish this. We have already missed the window of opportunity to avert globally catastrophic impacts caused by the engagement of many positive feedback loops: heating, drought, melting glaciers, burning forests, disintegrating coral reefs, massive decline of insect populations, loss of the albedo effect, etc. These trends all coalesce with each other in unanticipated ways, accelerating our deeply interconnected and surprisingly fragile global civilization toward partial meltdown, or even complete collapse.
We can build fancy machines to remove small amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere, but we have no way to remove anything close to the 1 million tons of CO2 we release every hour. We can pretend that people or companies can act virtuously by buying carbon credits, while ignoring that it takes decades for the trees planted to sequester anything close to what we expel in one jet flight. We can similarly feign virtue by buying Teslas or other electric cars, ignoring the huge amount of fossil fuel energy required to make and service these vehicles. And so on.
This is where our whole system is currently stymied: We constructed the ideology as well as the economic engine of late-stage capitalism on the myth of infinite growth, on continuous innovation and development. Progress means more shiny products, more efficiency, and more ways to express your unique individuality (from Facebook to Instagram to TikTok), no matter how shallow, banal, and empty this self-expression might be. Even the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals include the necessity for rapid economic growth in “emerging market” countries, although this directly contradicts any hope of moving toward sustainability.
From within the political system, the corporate power structure, or even the neo-spiritual self-help subculture (Tony Robbins, Deepak Chopra, etc.), it is basically career suicide to say what needs to be said: We can’t continue this kind of capitalism anymore and hope to survive as a species. This also means that not everyone can be a millionaire or achieve whatever materialist dream has them hooked, despite the “law of manifestation” or “the seven spiritual laws of success,” and so on. Also, and in any case, the shiny ideal of progress enshrined by this system has failed us. It increasingly leaves a taste of ashes — death and grief — in its wake. Wherever we thought technological progress was taking us a generation ago, it becomes increasingly obvious: There is no “there” there. We need to take a new direction entirely.
The reality that nobody is talking about is that we must quickly evolve and innovate out of capitalism itself, or we will all die.
The abject failure of Zuckerberg’s metaverse, Musk’s bizarre Twitter meltdown, the spectacular crash of Sam Bankman-Fried and FTX, as well as other crypto-meltdowns, along with the apparent breakdown in Amazon are all “tells.” They reveal that the current model of capitalist progress — the collusion of big tech, finance, and government — has started to tailspin.
It can’t continue much longer. Its inner logic requires infinite growth and endless new markets. Now it can only create more Ponzi schemes, more virtual wastelands that nobody wants, and more consumer goods that don’t satisfy anybody’s deeper yearnings, as it continues to funnel capital to the lucky few at the top of the pyramid.
The good news: We have an opportunity here, I believe. Given this new murky ambiguity, there is a chance to convey a more authentic understanding of what is actually happening to us and through us. If this becomes common knowledge (and I know that seems unlikely), perhaps we have a chance to redesign and redirect our political/economic/technological machine before it crashes and burns, taking all of us down with it.
A version of this piece was originally published in Daniel Pinchbeck’s newsletter.
*This was the case even though bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies use massive amounts of energy. According to this article from the European Central Banks (admittedly a biased source), bitcoin “consumes energy on the scale of entire economies. Bitcoin mining is estimated to consume electricity per year comparable to Austria. Second, it produces mountains of hardware waste. One Bitcoin transaction consumes hardware comparable to the hardware of two smartphones. The entire Bitcoin system generates as much e-waste as the entire Netherlands.” Ethereum, at least, has now shifted to “proof of stake,” giving up decentralization to reduce energy consumption and enhance transaction speeds.