Tech billionaires’ dangerous game: selling escapist fantasies while ignoring urgent crises like climate change and income inequality.
This past week has been tumultuous, not just in Israel, Gaza, and Washington, but also in the tech world. Thirty-three states are suing Meta; X, formerly Twitter, has seen its revenue plummet by 54 percent; venture capitalist Marc Andreessen has published a manifesto on techno-optimism; and the battle against the unchecked power of AI is intensifying.
On this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast we are joined by Jonathan Taplin, a writer, film producer, and scholar. Taplin serves as the director emeritus of the Annenberg Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California and is a professor at USC’s Annenberg School, specializing in international communication management and digital media entertainment.
The author of The End of Reality: How Four Billionaires are Selling a Fantasy Future of the Metaverse, Mars, and Crypto, Taplin is a vocal critic of the “boys with toys” school of technology.
He argues that the grand visions of a few billionaires — Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, and Marc Andreessen — are not just fantastical but are diverting our collective attention away from real crises like income inequality, climate change, and the erosion of democracy. These men, Taplin contends, are selling us the blueprint of a future that benefits them while exacerbating the very problems they claim to solve.
Taplin decries the media’s role in glorifying these self-serving figures, but his critique extends to the broader culture, which he sees as increasingly enamored with antiheroes and pipedream fantasy, further detaching society from reality. Instead, he calls for a cultural renaissance that resists the allure of escapist narratives and focuses on tangible solutions to our pressing problems.
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. In today’s digital age, the narrative around technology often oscillates between two extremes. On one end, we have the techno-optimists, people like Marc Andreessen, who see technology as the panacea for all of society’s ills, a force that will propel us toward unprecedented growth, prosperity, and perhaps even a utopian future.
On the other end, we have voices like our guest today, Jonathan Taplin, who warns us that this techno-optimism is both naive and potentially perilous. In his new book, The End of Reality, Taplin offers a counterpoint to the boys with toys school of technology. He argues that the grand vision of a handful of billionaires Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, and even Marc Andreessen, are not just fantastical, but are actively diverting our collective attention away from the pressing crises of income inequality, climate change, and the erosion of democracy.
These are men, Taplin contends, who are selling us a future that benefits them, while in Taplin’s view exacerbating the very problems they claim to solve. So we must ask, “Are we on the cusp of a technological renaissance that will solve our most pressing problems as Andreessen would have us believe, or are we being led down a dangerous path by the four who Taplin argues are most interested in escaping to Mars, immersing in the metaverse, or hiding their fortunes in crypto, rather than tackling real-world issues?”
To dissect these polarizing viewpoints and to offer us his understanding of where we might be headed, I am delighted to be joined by Jonathan Taplin today. Jonathan Taplin is a writer, film producer, and scholar. He’s the Director Emeritus of the Annenberg Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California and a professor at USC’s Annenberg School. His personal journey has put him at the crest of many major cultural waves of the past century. It is my pleasure to welcome Jonathan Taplin here to the program to talk about The End of Reality: How Four Billionaires are Selling a Fantasy Future of the Metaverse, Mars, and Crypto.
Jonathan Taplin, thanks so much for being with us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Jonathan Taplin: It’s great to be here, Jeff.
Jeff: Well, it is a delight to have you here. Why should we care if people like Elon Musk want to go to Mars, if Peter Thiel wants to live to 200, or if Mark Zuckerberg wants to spend his life doing mixed martial arts in the metaverse? Why does that matter to us?
Jonathan: Well, Tim Snyder, who wrote the seminal book on the erosion of democracy, a Yale professor said, “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.” These four guys are the biggest wallets and they’re paying for the blinding lights that erodes not only democracy but erodes our ability to tackle the real problems that we need to solve. I’m not a luddite in any sense. I believe that technology can be an extraordinarily helpful thing.
Just the notion of solar power and wind power replacing digging coal and oil out of the ground seems to me to be a huge benefit. But their view of the future is very different from the one that I hold. And their view of the future is that the AI and robotic future will make employment for a great deal of people unreasonable. And so Sam Altman, who was the CEO of OpenAI said that he expects the marginal cost of intelligence to fall very close to zero within 10 years.
That means because AI will replace many, many kinds of normal jobs, copywriters in ad agencies and things like that, the earning power of many, many workers would be drastically reduced in that scenario. It would result in a transfer of wealth from labor to the owners of capital so dramatic that it could be remedied only by a massive countervailing redistribution known as universal basic income. That’s from a guy who’s the leading AI proponent in America. And that’s a vision of the future that I find terrifying. The notion that most people will sit home in their pajamas paid by the government to do nothing is not a world I want to inhabit.
Jeff: And yet when you paint with one brush for all these guys, does that present a problem? Because Andreessen, in fact, in his recent techno manifesto, talks about really the counter to that. He is very much opposed to this idea of people just sitting around, and tries to make the argument that in fact, what this will also do is bring down dramatically the marginal cost of goods and services in a way that makes everything more affordable for everybody.
Jonathan: Well, look, in a column this morning, Ezra Klein says that essentially what Andreessen is posing is a kind of reactionary futurism. He quotes the Italian fascist, Marinetti. He’s a guy who believes that there’s so many things that tech does and anybody who opposes that vision is essentially putting people in danger and killing people. But his creed is so filled with lies. “We believe in competition, because we believe in evolution.” Well, that’s nonsense. He doesn’t believe in competition at all. His OpenSea platform, which is the largest NFT platform in the world, has 88% market share.
Now, the fact that he sold in the fall of 2021, 20 million people NFTs like Bored Apes, and he sold them for 50,000 apiece, and the Wall Street Journal reported last week that you couldn’t get $50 for one of those Bored Apes that you bought. And he also was the biggest crypto player and was happy to sell his crypto at 60,000 a coin when he was having Matt Damon and Larry David and LeBron James tout crypto in the fall of 2021, and all the suckers came in, and by April of 2022, Bitcoin was down to 19,000 a coin. He’s not really telling the truth about this. And I know he opposes universal basic income, but Mark Zuckerberg and Peter Thiel and Elon Musk believe it’s probably the only solution.
Jeff: When we talk about the distraction, when you talk about, particularly with Musk and Zuckerberg being maybe the two stronger examples of those bright lights, and those distractions, is the fault with them, or is the fault with us for being taken in by it?
Jonathan: Well, it’s probably both. Yesterday, 42 Attorneys Generals, that is the Attorney General from 42 states sued Meta for purposely addicting their children to Instagram and Facebook. Now, they have lots of evidence, many from insiders who talk about how the A/B testing is used to make sure that people click on stuff, and it’s not healthy. You look at the point that the famous chart that has been published about what happened to teenage self-harm, that is suicide, self-poisoning, marking, stuff like that. It took off in 2011 and goes almost straight up. And that was the year that Facebook introduced the Like button and the next year they bought Instagram and put all those features into Instagram.
So I would say that certainly social media has been a net negative to society, but I think what’s worse now is that we are in a critical factor where actually technology could improve the society and Elon Musk is concentrating on asking us the taxpayers to give him $10 trillion to go to Mars with 50 people. Now, what reason we have to go to Mars, he won’t tell us other than to say we should be a multi-planet species. And the fact that there’s no oxygen on Mars, and it’s a totally dead planet, and we have been digging up the earth on Mars for 10 years with robots that don’t need oxygen, and are not going to get skin cancer for being exposed to the extreme radiation on Mars, says to me that this is a complete nonsensical idea. And yet, obviously, from Elon’s point of view, it’d be great because he makes about 25% gross margin on every flight he flies for NASA. So, a $10 trillion trip would put 2.5 trillion in his pocket. Never mind what good it would do for society.
And the other problem is someone once said, “Democracy’s assassins always need accomplices.” And these guys are the accomplices of the assassins of democracy. Donald Trump wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for social media. And here we are coming up to an election in 2024 in which the deployment of AI, deep fakes, fake video, fake audio, fake pictures, will be at scale in a way that will make the 2016 election look like child’s play. And yet they have no objection to it. They would like it to stay just the way it is. They like chaos. They like gridlock politically because no one will tax their trillion-dollar fortunes, nobody will regulate their companies, most of which are monopolies. So this is not healthy for a society.
Jeff: Talk about why these four, why you have singled in on these four in particular.
Jonathan: Well, they’ve all come down on the side of authoritarianism. They claimed years ago that they were libertarians, and maybe even that they were liberal. Some of them voted for Obama in 2008, but they have morphed in the last 10 years as the Andreessen screed, you noted earlier into reactionaries, and that the notion of liberty is completely missing. Peter Thiel finances JD Vance, who is so against the liberty of women to control their own body that it’s not even funny.
So Elon Musk calls himself a libertarian, but he’s really a crony capitalist. Everything he gets from SpaceX is from the US government. Every dollar he gets for his satellite company is from governments. And all the profits he gets, as I point out in my book, in Tesla comes from selling his clean car credits to other car companies that don’t have as large an electric vehicle fleet. So it’s total nonsense. And quite honestly, Thiel, Musk, and Andreessen are shading into fascism.
And although Zuckerberg is not quite there yet, he certainly goes along with their things. Kara Swisher has pointed out that when Zuckerberg came to the Silicon Valley a wide-eyed liberal kid and quickly saw that Thiel and Andreessen were the two smartest guys in the room, he got them to invest in his company, and has slowly morphed towards them.
Jeff: Expand that a little bit because all four of these guys have huge numbers of disciples, particularly in Silicon Valley, but even outside of the Valley.
Jonathan: As you noted in your intro, I grew up in a culture that was aspirational, and the culture heroes of my day were Bob Dylan and John Lennon. And today, the culture heroes are Elon Musk, and Sam Bankman-Fried, and other fraudsters and some of the biggest names in journalism like Walter Isaacson, or Michael Lewis, are hailing these guys as if they’re important people, like a slightly priapic Thomas Edison. And that’s just not true. And yet they are very good at hyping things.
Now, John D. Rockefeller controlled the oil business, but he didn’t control the media business. So Elon Musk controls both the space business. He’s the only rocket company the US government uses, and he controls the media business through Twitter. Even though as Bloomberg pointed out yesterday, Twitter’s finances are quickly falling into complete disarray. He’s losing users, and he’s lost advertisers completely.
And his reaction to that is to blame the Anti-Defamation League for having the temerity to point out that once he let all the Neo-Nazis and the Kanye West of the world back on his platform to flood it with antisemitism, that the ADL had the temerity to point that out to advertisers is what enrages Elon. This is a classic “Shoot the Messenger” syndrome.
Jeff: Is there a larger force though, in society, in our culture today that is driving the admiration for people like these four guys? Do we need to look deeper than just these four because as history tells us in terms of technology and in terms of business in general, that individual leaders of companies, stars in the business world come and go? There was a time when people knew who was running, maybe US Steel, or Kodak, or what have you, and these guys will fade away too, and it might be one of the leaders of the 1400 unicorns that are out there right now? But is there some deeper societal problem that is driving this?
Jonathan: There’s two societal problems. There’s a chapter in the book called Fantasy Culture. So our culture has morphed away from something that could be tied to realism, that could be tied to everyday concerns. And as my mentor and friend, Martin Scorsese, has pointed out, if you go to a Marvel movie, it’s not anything to do with cinema. It’s like a theme park ride. And the same thing applies to music. The kind of gangster rap is a nihilistic cultural aspirational notion of how many Maserati’s you own and how many women you’ve screwed, and it’s not healthy.
And if you think about the TV culture, just think about what’s happened since 2000. So, we get The Sopranos, and then we get Mad Men, and then we get Breaking Bad and Succession, and all of these are dark anti-hero dramas in which really bad people are battling other bad people for power. And is it any surprise that after 15 years of that, when we arrive at the election of 2016, that someone says, “Hey, we should have a president like Tony Soprano,” and that’s what we get. We get a gangster.
And that sense of gangsterism was really on display in the last three weeks in the Republican search for a leader. Those people who were not for Jim Jordan, had their lives threatened, their wives’ lives threatened, literal death threats because they didn’t vote for a guy who was a classic part of the election denying scheme. And now, just out of tiredness, we’ve got another election denier two steps away from the presidency.
Jeff: When one looks at those programs though, the ones that you mentioned, the ones that are driving the cultural zeitgeist at the moment, to what extent though, are those simply a reflection of what the public wanted?
Jonathan: Well, you have a point there in the sense that the time that I could find as of someone who’s a scholar of media and a producer of media, the time I could find that was similar to that was the early 1950s in what you and I know is film noir in which whether it was Humphrey Bogart or somebody else, again, you had these wounded dark anti-heroes in the dramas, and people did classically bad things. Think of Double Indemnity because he killed the husband. And why was that? Well, we just came out of a war, the atomic bomb had gone off, and we had a general sense of doom. I’m 76. So I actually grew up in the early ’50s doing duck and cover drills. That was a regular part of my primary education, as if the siren would go off in Cleveland, and everybody would have to get under their desk.
Now, of course that could lead to a kind of dark view. And it could be that the combination of 9/11, and then followed by 2008 Great Recession, maybe that put us in a bad mood and we thought, well, the gangsters are ruling on Wall Streets so why shouldn’t they rule on HBO, but that doesn’t mean that culture can’t have a renaissance. That ’50s dark period in the early ’50s and the thing was followed by the early ’60s which was a complete turn. Bob Dylan was saying the “times they are changing”. We would sing “We Shall Overcome.”
There was a great deal of hope maybe somehow tied to John Kennedy’s presidency, maybe just somehow tied to the sense that we were tired of those very conformist republican notions that we have been living under all through the ’50s. But cultures can change and it is my hope that our culture is going through a change and part of that is the resistance to AI.
So we’ve been having two major labor strikes here in Hollywood and they’re both about AI. So the screen writers, the studios wanted to put all the screenplays they owned into a large learning mill. And so Marvel could then have some guy instead of a screenwriter just write a four paragraph thought, oh, The Hulk meets Iron Man in Iceland, and then in the second act, Black Widow comes in, and in the third act something else happens. And in an hour or so, they have a first draft screenplay.
Now, of course, it would be banal and stupid and not very good, but it would be a first draft screenplay. And then because they couldn’t get a copyright on something that’s written by a machine, they’d hand it to some poor out of work screenwriter and say, “Fix this.” And he’d work on it for three weeks for $10,000 a week, and zoom, they have a ready screenplay in a month as opposed to the usual nine months and $750,000. Marc Andreessen says, “This will revolutionize Hollywood. It will make it much more efficient.” Well, at one point in the history of culture efficiency has been an important issue.
Was the Told Story worried about efficiency? You can go down to the Bob Dylan museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma and see 10 individual handwritten drafts of a Rolling Stone. It didn’t come in two minutes out of a machine. It came from a guy’s heart and hard work, and that’s what needs to be maintained. And so hopefully, the artist will at least be the holdouts. I’m aware that AI will replace the people who have been doing x-ray for years, or people who’ve been accountants, or people who’ve been copywriters at ad agencies.
I don’t think we can resist that, but the artists are holding out and the actors are saying, “You cannot scan somebody’s body and own them forever,” which is what the studios want. They want to be able to create a bank of extras that are virtual.
Jeff: Well, there’s this economic pushback to AI. Are you surprised that there isn’t more cultural pushback within the arts community? That there hasn’t been more over the past five or six years in terms of creative efforts that pushback against this culture that we’re talking about the same way that we saw it in the ’60s with movies, with music, et cetera, we don’t see even a hint of that I don’t think at this point.
Jonathan: I’m sad. Look, there is pushback in the sense that 10,000 individual writers signed a letter organized by the Authors Guild to the big AI Barron saying, we want to get paid if you use our content to train your models.
Jeff: But that’s about economics.
Jonathan: I understand. Look, it could be that the mantle of cultural leader has been passed from the musicians to the sports heroes. You think about Coco Gauff saying, “Hey, those people who glued their sneakers to the concrete in the tennis stadium and interrupted my match had a perfect right to do that,” or Lebron James giving $1 million dollars to get people to register to vote. It could be that they are the new leaders of the counterculture.
I am clear we need a counterculture, and whether the traditional creative artists like painters, photographers, musicians, and novelists will step up is yet to be determined. You are totally correct in that. They have not shown up yet. Whether they will is probably the most critical question that we have.
Jeff: Otherwise, the culture gets determined by the Peter Thiels and the Elon Musks and the Mark Zuckerbergs.
Jonathan: And these are people who don’t care about art. Obviously, if Marc Andreessen is going to sell you a Bored Ape for $50,000 in the fall of 2021 because he can make it by machine in a minute, he doesn’t give a damn about art, and he doesn’t give a damn about artist. And if Stable Diffusion can steal 12 million photographs from Getty Images, all of them copyrighted, and use it to train their AI generator, and then just tell Getty to pound sand, and all the photographers whose work was on Getty. This is not right and this has to be fixed.
I just want to say one other thing that worries me. So Andreessen has this company called Anduril and it is the premier manufacturer of autonomous weapons. And for your audience, an autonomous weapon is sometimes known as a killer robot. And you might have thoughts of Terminator or RoboCop, but it’s not far from that. In other words, it’s a weapon that has a gun in which the AI, not some operator in a trailer in Las Vegas, the AI makes the decision to pull the trigger.
Now, in testing these, the AI has had a very hard time telling at a 100 yards between a man with a gun and a man with a broom. But that being said, when at the UN last year, every country in the world, including China with the exception of the US and Russia wanted to ban these weapons, and the US and Russia both vetoed the resolution. So that tells you this is a notion. When Andreessen in his screed says, “We believe there is no material problem whether created by nature, by technology that can’t be solved with more technology.” Is that the problem he’s trying to solve? It’s disturbing.
Jeff: Jonathan Taplin, his book is The End of Reality: How Four Billionaires are Selling a Fantasy Future of the Metaverse, Mars, and Crypto. Jonathan, I thank you so much for spending time with us today on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Jonathan: It’s great to be with you, Jeff.
Jeff: Thank you, and thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org\donate.