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What Do the Oligarchs Have in Mind for Us?

There seems to be no good reason why a thoroughly scientific
dictatorship should ever be overthrown.
~Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited

The recent movement to investigate, and even break up, the current tech oligarchy has gained support on both sides of the Atlantic, and even leapt across the gaping divide in American politics. The immediate concerns relate to such things as the control of key markets by one or two firms, the huge concentration of wealth accruing to the tech elite and, increasingly, the oligarchy’s control over and manipulation of information pipelines.

What has not been discussed nearly as much is the end game of the oligarchs. What kind of world do they have in mind for us? Their vision of what our society should look like is not one most people—on the Left or Right—would like to see. And yet, unless unchecked, it could well be the world we, and particularly our children, will inhabit.

Almost 40 years ago, in his book The Third Wave, the futurist Alvin Toffler described technology as “the dawn of a new civilization” with vast opportunities for societal and human growth. But instead we are lurching towards what Taichi Sakaiya has called “a high-tech middle ages.” In his landmark 1973 work, The Coming of Post-Industrial SocietyDaniel Bell predicted that, by handing ultimate economic and cultural power to a small number of technologists and financiers the opportunity to monetize every aspect of human behavior and emotion, we would be handing them the chance to fulfill “a social alchemist’s dream: the dream of ordering mass society.”

The New Aristocracy

Like the barbarian princes who seized control of western Europe after the fall of Rome, the oligarchs have captured the digital landscape from the old industrial corporations and have proceeded to concentrate it in ever-fewer hands. Like the Medieval aristocracy, the ruling tech oligarchy—epitomized by firms such as Amazon, Google, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft—have never produced a single coherent political manifesto laying out the technocratic vision of the future. Nevertheless, it is possible to get a sense of what the internet elite believe and, more tellingly, to see the outlines of the world they want to create.

This tiny sliver of humanity, with their relatively small cadre of financiers, engineers, data scientists, and marketers, now control the exploitation of our personal data, what Alibaba founder, Jack Ma calls the “electricity of the 21st century.” Their “super platforms,” as one analyst noted, “now operate as “digital gatekeepers” lording over “e-monopsonies” that control enormous parts of the economy. Their growing power, notes a recent World Bank Study, is built on “natural monopolies” that adhere to web-based business, and have served to further widen class divides not only in the United States but around the world.

The rulers of the Valley and its Puget Sound doppelganger now account for eight of the 20 wealthiest people on the planet. Seventy percent of the 56 billionaires under 40 live in the state of California, with 12 in San Francisco alone. In 2017, the tech industry, mostly in California, produced 11 new billionaires. The Bay Area has more billionaires on the Forbes 400 list than any metro region other than New York and more millionaires per capita than any other large metropolis.

For an industry once known for competition, the level of concentration is remarkable. Google controls nearly 90 percent of search advertising, Facebook almost 80 percent of mobile social traffic, and Amazon about 75 percent of US e-book sales, and, perhaps most importantly, nearly 40 percent of the world’s “cloud business.” Together, Google and Apple control more than 95 percent of operating software for mobile devices, while Microsoft still accounts for more than 80 percent of the software that runs personal computers around the world.

The wealth generated by these near-monopolies funds the tech oligarchy’s drive to monopolize existing industries such as entertainment, education, and retail, as well as those of the future, such as autonomous cars, drones, space exploration, and most critically, artificial intelligence. Unless checked, they will have accumulated the power to bring about what could best be seen as a “post-human” future, in which society is dominated by artificial intelligence and those who control it.

What Do the Oligarchs Want?

The oligarchs are creating a “a scientific caste system,” not dissimilar to that outlined in Aldous Huxley’s dystopian 1932 novel, Brave New World. Unlike the former masters of the industrial age, they have little use for the labor of  middle- and working-class people—they need only their data. Virtually all their human resource emphasis relies on cultivating and retaining a relative handful of tech-savvy operators. “Software,” Bill Gates told Forbes in 2005, “is an IQ business. Microsoft must win the IQ war, or we won’t have a future.”

Perhaps the best insight into the mentality of the tech oligarchy comes from an admirer, researcher Greg Ferenstein, who interviewed 147 digital company founders. The emerging tech world has little place for upward mobility, he found, except for those in the charmed circle at the top of the tech infrastructure; the middle and working classes become, as in feudal times, increasingly marginal.

This reflects their perception of how society will evolve. Ferenstein notes that most oligarchs believe “an increasingly greater share of economic wealth will be generated by a smaller slice of very talented or original people. Everyone else will increasingly subsist on some combination of part-time entrepreneurial ‘gig work’ and government aid.” Such part-time work has been growing rapidly, accounting for roughly 20 percent of the workforce in the US and Europe, and is expected to grow substantially, adds McKinsey.

Of course, the oligarchs have no more intention of surrendering their power and wealth to the proletariat than the Commissars did after the 1917 revolution in Russia. Instead, they favor providing what Marx once described as a “proletarian alms bag” to subsidize worker housing, and provide welfare benefits to their ever expanding cadre of “gig” economy serfs. The former head of Uber, Travis Kalanick, was a strong supporter of Obamacare, and many top tech executives—including Mark Zuckerberg, Y combinator founder Sam Altman, and Elon Musk—favor a guaranteed annual wage to help, in part, allay fears about the “disruption” on a potentially exposed workforce.

Their social vision amounts to what could be called oligarchal socialism, or what the Corbynite Left calls “fully automated luxury communism.” Like the original bolshevist model, technology and science, as suggested by billionaire tech investor Naval Ravikant, would occasion “the breakdown of family structure and religion” while creating the hegemony of a left-wing identity-centered individualism.

Life in a world dominated by these oligarchs would depart from the model of democratic and competitive capitalism that emerged over the last half-century. Rather than hope to achieve upward mobility and the chance to own property, the new generation will be relegated largely to the status of rental serfs. For the next generation, this promises a future not of upward mobility and owned houses, but of rented apartments and social stagnation. Here in California, Facebook is leading the drive to vastly expand this kind of housing, where the serfs and technocoolies can lose themselves in what Google calls “immersive computing.”  The poor, most of whom simply want opportunity, will be relegated to permanent dependent status.

The World They Are Creating

To get a preview of the society the oligarchs want to create, the best place to look is where oligarchal domination is most complete. Wired magazine’s Antonio Garcia Martinez has called Silicon Valley “feudalism with better marketing.” In Martinez’s view, the new aristocratic class is an “Inner Party” of venture capitalists and company founders. Well below them is an “Outer Party” of skilled professionals, well paid, but forced to live ordinary middle-class lives due to high housing prices and high taxes. Below them lies the vast population of gig workers, whom Martinez compares to sharecroppers in the South, “…with the serfs responding to a smartphone prompt rather than an overseer’s command.” Further below still lie those who constitute, in Martinez’s phrase, “the Untouchable class of the homeless, drug addicted, and/or criminal.”

California, and particularly the Bay Area, already reflects this neo-feudal reality. Adjusted for costs, my adopted home state suffers the overall highest poverty rate in the country, according to the US  Census Bureau. Fully one in three welfare recipients in the nation live in California, which is home to barely 12 percent of the country’s population, while a 2017 United Way study showed that close to one in three of the state’s families are barely able to pay their bills. Today, eight million Californians live in poverty, including two million children. Roughly one in five California children lives in deep poverty and nearly half subsist barely above that.

For all its protestations of progressive faith, the Golden State now suffers one of the highest GINI rates—the ratio between the wealthiest and the poorest—among the states. Inequality is growing faster than in almost any state—it now surpasses that of Mexico, and is closer to that of Central American banana republics like Guatemala and Honduras than it is to developed countries like Canada and Norway. There’s even the return of medieval diseases such as Typhus tied to the growing homeless encampments. We could soon even see the return of Bubonic plague, although the mainstream media seems to be ready to blame this, like most ills, on climate change as opposed to failed social policy.

Urban website CityLab has described the tech-rich Bay Area as “a region of segregated innovation,” where the rich wax, the middle class wanes, and the poor live in increasingly unshakeable poverty. Some 76,000 millionaires and billionaires call Santa Clara and San Mateo counties home. At the other end are the thousands of people who struggle to feed their families and pay their bills each month. Nearly 30 percent of Silicon Valley’s residents rely on public or private assistance.

As recently as the 1980s, the San Jose area boasted one of the country’s most egalitarian economies. But in the current boom, cost-adjusted wages for middle class workers, Latinos, and African Americans in Silicon Valley actually dropped. Many minorities labor in the service sector in jobs such as security guard, for around $25,000 annually, working for contractors. There’s ever-greater segregation of minority and low income families, workers forced into mobile home parks or sleeping in their cars, as well as some of the nation’s largest homeless encampments. According to the Brookings Institution, in the last decade, increasingly tech-dominated San Francisco has suffered the most rapid growth in inequality while the middle class family heads towards extinction.

Needed: An Alliance of Progressives and Conservatives against the Oligarchy

Americans, enamored of the entrepreneurial spirit, were initially slow to see in the tech oligarchy a threat to the future of the republic. But public skepticism, notably in California, towards the tech lords is growing; many on both sides of the political divide see them much like modern versions of the gilded age mogul, successfully playing the political system to avoid regulation, anti-trust action, and taxes.

Yet overcoming the oligarchs will not be easy. Far more than the old industrial giants, they enjoy unprecedented sway through their manipulation of the information pipelines, as is widely evidenced in de-platforming of largely conservative voices on outlets such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. Nearly two-thirds of readers now get their news through Facebook and Google and their dominance among younger generations is, if anything, more overwhelming. As the Guardian put it: “If ExxonMobil attempted to insert itself into every element of our lives like this, there might be a concerted grassroots movement to curb its influence.”  

To this influence, they have added control over what is left of the traditional media they have helped to undermine. Often getting bargain basement prices, the oligarchs have been able to buy up prestigious outlets, including the New Republic in 2012, the Washington Post in 2013, the Atlantic in 2017, and Time last year.

In the coming political storm, the oligarchs will also retain some supporters on both the Left and Right, all aided by a huge, growing, and politically hermaphroditic lobbying operation. Some California progressives have backed the oligarchs on privacy and Senator Kamala Harris, one of the leading Democratic contenders, has gained widespread support from the oligarchs. Meanwhile, on the Right, some libertarians at places like the Wall Street Journal and conservative think-tanks, continue to defend the oligarchs as the rightful winners of dogged economic competition.

But these well-placed defenders may not be enough to fend off regulatory assaults, particularly as more people recognize how the world being created by the tech elites offers little promise for the middle class, democracy, or free thought. Rather than the saviors many once saw, the oligarchs now represent a clear and present danger to the most basic foundations of our democracy. Resisting them represents the great imperative of our era.


Joel Kotkin is a Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His last book was The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us (Agate, 2017).


  1. dirk says

    If we may believe Yuval Harari’s Homo Deus, the Oligarchy, the A.I.and ever better algorithms have the future, the liberal humanism, individualism and democracy (and conservatism of course) will be outdated soon. The Hongkong revolts at the moment seem to usher in this new pathway and direction.All this was already explained in the novel WE of Zamyatin, he foresaw all this a century ago. The dystopias of once will appear to be Utopias. Hail, hail!!

    • Heike says

      China is ruled by rationalists. Scientists and engineers, people who put facts first and feelings last. Atheists who crush backwards religious nutcases. Morons and mouth breathers are not allowed to vote or in any way interfere with the smart people who run society, like they do in America.

      You can’t be any geek off the street and get into the CPC. You have to be good, and smart, and work hard. It’s a meritocracy. One frankly wonders why today’s Left and tech elites hate China so much seeing that it’s put their dream into reality.

      • TarsTarkas says

        You funnin’ us? You really think the CPC is a meritocracy? The government of the Han Empire might be a tad more efficient than, say, the French bureaucracy before Colbert shook it up. But not much more. Their whole economic foundation is based on slave and peonage labor, intellectual theft, currency manipulation, massive backdoor exports to circumvent trade agreements, and outrageous tariffs. The only reason why the edifice hasn’t come crashing down is because they’ve been subsidized for years by their trading partners, primarily the American Empire. That’s over. Xi may have bought some time by allowing their Korean clients to slowly evolve into some sort of Asian Finland. But not a lot.

        I agree that you can’t be any geek off the street and expect to become a member of the Party. Certainly not an important one. You have to be born into the Party. Meet the new Mandarins, same as the old Mandarins.

        • staticnoise says

          Agree, China is rotting. Their landscape is so polluted to the point of being poisonous and the financial structure is wobbly as hell. There are things to admire about the Chinese people, but not that regime. We may be disgusted by the corruption here in the West, but it is pathetic next to Chinese corruption.

        • Heike says

          That’s simply false. CPC membership is not hereditary.

          To be in the Party, one must be smart, work hard, be an atheist, and embrace Marxism. What’s not to like? What’s wrong with it? They aren’t True Marxists? That’s what every Marxist sect says about all the others.

          Exploiting the working class? You mean the deplorables? The morons who keep society from progressive change? Intellectual property theft? You mean the legal fiction that only exists to enrich rent seekers?

          Admire the Chinese people? Huh? The animal torturing sharkfin soup lovers? The ones who can’t get a boner without rhino horn? You know these deplorables are superstitious idiots who believe in feng shui and astrology? Why is anyone pretending to be on their side?

          • Michael Walsh says

            Membership in the Chinese elite -which includes Party membership- is largely hereditary; the children of the rich cadres are guaranteed success no matter what they do (I’ve seen it myself as one of their professors). China is devolving into a strict class society; millions of workers are trapped in wage slavery, as per policy; though that means nothing to you. China is not run by the progressives of your imagining, Smart and rational, yes -for the most part- but they are men of power, in pursuit of power. As for your shameless racism and bigotry, the less said the better.

          • Caroline says

            There’s already bubonic plague in California It arrived 1900-1910 in ships of Japanese immigrants. Now it’s confined to chipmunks squirrels rats and other critters. With all the homeless sleeping outside, after killing a squirrel, the fleas might jump to the human sleeping in the bushes.

      • Kauf Buch says

        Heike, your splendid post exhibits remarkably clearly the traits of cognitive dissonance of today’s Left (or, did you just happen to forget your /sarc tag?).

      • deplorabledude says

        China is a communist country run by the elites. The masses live one step above poverty while the elites. They manipulate their currency and use political prisoners as slave labor. The country really only exists to make the party elite rich and sell cheap junk to the rest of the world.

      • Alan Gore says

        It’s not that the Chinese common folk are any more brilliant than in western countries. We have our anti-GMO lunkheads, while common Chinese believe that any tissue from an endangered species will magically cure impotence. The difference is that while we are governed by lawyers, the Chinese ruling hierarchy is studded with scientists and engineers. China can build the infrastructure we can only dream about because the hierarchy says the bullet train WILL go here, whether NIMBYs want it or not, and that the belching coal plants WILL be replaced by nuclear, as fast as they can be built. Chinese peasants can be as superstitious and anti-scientific as Californians, but the Chinese government just ignores them.

        Do the Democrats sincerely want to bring back the New Deal, with those huge infrastructure projects we still benefit by and which summoned nuclear energy into being? Then they’re going to have to find a way to bring back Franklin Roosevelt.

        • augustine says

          Alan Gore,
          Do you similarly admire the work of Mao, who brought his country into the then-modern age by herculean efforts? Some folks believe that the cost paid– 10-20 million human lives extinguished for starters– was worth the realization of that particular “dream”.

          Sounds to me like more of the same, ends justifying the means.

          • Alan Gore says

            The radical improvement in Chinese living standards did not start until Maoism was gone, and no dictatorship is necessary here. I’m just suggesting that we would all be better off if governments ignored complaints from people who are uninformed about science. Go ahead and scream into your own pillow about “chemtrails” or the evil of Big Vaccine – in western societies, expressing an opinion is your right. But the rest of us are not obligated to take you seriously.

  2. Monte Martinez says

    What is past is prologue. Jacques LeGoff and Marc Bloch both wrote about the legions of craftsman, merchants, and artists who were employed at the zenith of the Roman Empire; their descendants became surfs eking out a substance level of survival in Medieval Europe for about 1400 years after Rome’s collapse.

    I hope our tech overlords have a penchant for historical reading. Thing’s did not end well for the Romanov’s, the Bourbon Kings of France or the Hohenzollern either.

    • TarsTarkas says

      Taxation to support the armies and the bureaucracy did the Roman working and middle class in. Disarming the people to protect the tax collectors turned the populace against a government that had become no more than a giant protection racket that despite the exactions still couldn’t protect their subjects from the wandering barbarian bands forced over the border by the expanding Hun Empire. Not to mention the wandering Imperial hordes fighting for this or that Imperial candidate. The Western Empire collapsed because no one wanted to defend it any more.

      • Charlie says

        The acquirement of tens of thousands of slaves after victory in the last Punic War meant that the wealthy created vast estates. The wealthy using slave labour produced food cheaper than plebeian farmers who worked their own land. By AD 300 many plebians had been reduced to debt serfdom and these people provided the backbone of the army. By about AD 300 there were more foreigners in the army than Italian. The Equitaes, the equestrian middle class and Senatorial class by about AD 300 stopped joining the army. The debauchery, frivolity and general degenerate behaviour which was common by AD 300 meant the stern, austere and stoic character of Rome was largely gone. I would suggest that California looks like Rome in AD 300. For a start most of the tech guys are pretty puny and lack the robustness of combat soldiers. What is interesting is that Israel produces tech savvy people who are robust and serve in special forces. Part of the reason why Rome fell was that so many barbarians had served in their army they understood how it worked and fear of Romans had changed to contempt for their weakness.

        The weakness in the system is that they depend upon peoples desire for an easy life. Computers make life easy. No computer has produced a Shakespeare or Newton. It may be the case that the ease of computers is preventing the grit entering the oyster which creates the pearl. The saying is the pearl of wisdom. It is pressure and temperature which produces diamonds.

        A return to a world where people live a thrifty and useful life and appreciated craftsmanship would be the end of much of silicon valley. A life where people wrote thoughtful letters, dressed in clothes made of excellent material and tailored which lasted years, walked on shoes which lasted decades and could be resoled, kept themselves fit with a few basic exercises ( pull ups, press up, sit ups, runs., cooked local seasonal food, read books, played musical instruments, kept a garden, took part in amateur plays/musicals, etc. If people returned to being participants in life, who have high pain and boredom thresholds and a willingness to train hard to achieve excellence, of having an eye for quality ; not lethargic voyeurs, consumers of tat ; a desire to have our problems solved by others, to be spoon fed and given short snappy answers.

        • Kencathedrus says

          @Charlie: love this post and agree wholeheartedly with it.

        • “It is pressure and temperature which produces diamonds.”

          In a society dedicated to the removal of pressure and to mild temperatures should we be surprised by the abundance of coal?

        • Don Round says

          Yes, an end to the mindless “growth is good” & to the consumerist mentality that are producing so many “singularities” on so many fronts will be necessary for any viable civilization to exist in 20 years or so.

        • Mec B. says

          Reading history is not the same as inferring it to a new generation of humans based on your simple reading of history.
          Your romanticism of a previous generation stated here: “A life where people wrote thoughtful letters, dressed in clothes made of excellent material and tailored which lasted years, walked on shoes which lasted decades and could be resoled, kept themselves fit with a few basic exercises”; could well have been written in books for both 1940’s Germany as well as the USA at the same time. I really don’t know how you would equate this lifestyle better than ours. Further I know plenty of young people live that lifestyle nowadays and know boomers who lived a life of debauchery in the “olden times”.
          Secondly, a computer is an invention deserving of the case as being produced by a Newton or Shakespeare. The computer took a very talented few to design, something that I would not have been able to imagine, and to dismiss as a trivial matter is ludicrous.

          • Charlie says

            Mec B. The well made woollen sports jacket made in the UK ended up being worn by Pushtun on the Khyber Pas; how is that for recycling. The bespoke suite made for my Father lasted 50 years and my Mother altered the trousers to fit her. I wear hand made leather shoes ( leather and upper soles ) made for My Father 50 years ago. The physically fit person who has swum in cold water and worked out of doors in the cold wet British winter has a high metabolic rate due to all those mitochondria in the muscles working hard. Wearing woollen clothes, especially sports jacket with a keeper’s weave and containing the lanolin keeps one warm when it is wet and lets out the sweat. Wool, leather, linen, cotton and silk are all natural fibres which last and can be recycled, even composted. Fast fashion fills up landfills. The women who has undertaken hard farm work has denser bones and protects herself from osteoporosis. Consequently people used less energy to keep warm and did not produce so much waste which fills landfills.

            Obesity and type 2 diabetes were rare in the 1930s.

            Much modern day business is selling tat to people. Computers enable equation which have already been derived to be undertaken quickly. Computers do not create the genius, they perform vast numbers of dull calculations very quickly. People who use computers but do not understands the theory which underpins the software can make awful mistakes.

            It is the success of technology in making our lives comfortable which is providing a challenge to the affluent west. The 1960s was the first time in history when vast numbers of comfortable middle class were free from hardship and danger- no wars or hard work..

            If we look at the last 75 years, millions of gone to art school yet the Italian Renaissance has not been recreated. In a population of 5.5million between 1660 and 1730 Newton, Hooke, Wren, Locke and Milton were at work and in late Elizabethan England there was Shakespeare, Marlow and Johnson. The vast increase in education in the English speaking World since 1945 has not reproduced people of the calibre of Newton, Hooke, Wren, Milton and Locke. The reality is that we can produced quantity , whether it is tee shirts or humanities graduates ; we cannot produce Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Newton. . Increasingly we are not producing the tough freedom fighter forged on the farms, rugby pitches and boxing rings. In WW2 boys left school and the age of nineteen years they commando officers leading men into combat. The comfortable warm air conditioned offices of silicon valley do not produce future commandos.

            One cannot buy a pill or a software programme to obtain spirit. One cannot buy or produce the spirit of a Michelangelo, Newton or a Charles Upham VC and Bar.

            Descartes said ” I think, therefore I am “. Too many people say I spend or I possess therefore I am. People are possessed by their possessions. Someone who has an eye for quality, is fit and can defend themselves, is skilled, cultured, possessed of self control is free. Someone who understands the difference between need and want. Someone who is controlled by the base desires, seven deadly sins or is cowardly lazy and venal is a serf to their worst instincts.

            Basically people are selling their freedom for a mess of potage. Esau sold his birth right because he was hungry and could not resist the temptation of food . The modern day version is selling our privacy and freedom for the convenience of social media.

            P. Nosekin Rosekin and Ronit, thank you for compliments.

        • P. Nosekin Rosekin says

          Magnificent thoughts and great metaphors, but “acquisition”, not “acquirement”.

        • Ronit says

          @Charlie….. Spot on analysis of a man of vision….!!!

          Seem you are well prepared, study diligently your subjects ( topics) well enough to predict their future move. Reading your impressing and well balanced accurate assessment one can only hope you may perhaps be able to advice to such tech companies who lack your knowledge regarding history it’s lessons and valuable insight.

          A sharp criticism of our society resonated particularly well with me…. no one could have said it any better while delivering a sliver of hope as in some room for improvement.

          Your understanding captures all levels of society as you understand very well the system and the people at work.

          Would love to see more of your writing to raise awareness for the so called “ marginal ones in our society “
          Bravo for being one of the worlds brilliant altruist

        • The Silicon Valley elites are creating a world that can only be sustained by employing lots of armed young men as professional skull-busters. The problem with this approach is best summarized by that ancient troubadour of armed young men, Rudyard Kipling:

          For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an` Chuck him out, the brute! ”
          But it’s ” Saviour of ‘is country ” when the guns begin to shoot;
          An’ it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please;
          An ‘Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool – you bet that Tommy sees!

          If they’re re-creating feudalism, they’d do well to remember that many storied royal houses had their beginnings in a previously storied royal house getting put to the sword by their own retainers…

        • Matt Bracken says

          Terrific reply to a very thoughtful column.

        • …and stay off my lawn! There was no such age. People were and are always mostly sh*ts. If anything, SiValley people are more robust and hardworking than average of this or any age. But, the average is quite low.

      • Gibbonis Lector says


        I’m not sure Gibbon agrees with you. Wasn’t his thesis that the rise of Christianity created a shadow society within the Roman world? Christian society had its own rulers, its own taxes, and its own priorities. Monks didn’t join the army, etc.

        He lays this out in chapters 15 and 16 of that magnum opus. Chapter 15, in particular, is brilliant. Never have I seen such ruthless criticism, scrupulously covered in the sweetest admiration, as I have in that chapter. I giggle to remember it.

  3. asdf says

    California is a natural result of having a wide bell curve. Its recent immigrants were either the sucked up high IQs from all over the world or Mexican/Central American peasants. Most of its middle class has move away over that same time.

    It’s natural to squeeze the middle class. There is nothing to squeeze from the poor. The rich can avoid being squeezed. That leaves a single target with something worth stealing but no means to defend themselves.

    It is interesting that the neoreactionary set that I’m familiar with originated entirely from venues going through this dynamic. Either Silicon Valley or the DC area.

    • Monte Martinez says

      Can the rich avoid the guillotine? That is the question they should be asking themselves. That is unless Elon Musk is farther along in his Space Station/ Mars colony for the super rich, young and beautiful than we think.

      • asdf says

        Crowds of people with guns was pretty powerful 1750-1950 or so. During that time we got Democracy largely because the elites feared the guillotine.

        However, crowds of people with guns aren’t that formidable anymore. So the idea of focused violence to overthrow the system is quite laughable. No doubt a particular mob in a particular place might temporarily surprise a particular elite or small group of elites and commit violence upon them before they know what is up, but individual elites can be replaced. The mob will never again be a threat to the system of elites (it was barely a threat in its heyday, and usually just replaced one set of elites with another).

        • TarsTarkas says

          Crowd of people with guns aren’t that formidable any more? Tell that to any vet who fought in Fallujah or any other ‘pacification’ battle in Iraq. And those armed crowds in waiting in America are a lot better trained than those irregulars were. Especially the vets.

          • asdf says

            America was holding back. If America committed to indiscriminate genocide it could easily have “won” in Iraq, at a minimum by killing all the Iraqis and claiming the now empty territory.

            If you really threatened to overthrow the elites, do you really think they would hold back? They would bomb you from the sky.

          • Space Viking says

            asdf, the elites in question do not have access to aircraft to do this bombing. Even if they could convince the elites that do, it’s questionable the pilots would comply (depending on the scenario). You get past that, it would be political suicide.

          • asdf says

            The US military has access to aircraft. If people are ordered to drop bombs they will. Excuses will be given and accepted.

            BTW, they won’t even have pilots do it. It will be done by drone.

            Political Suicide? Why? You’re posing a scenario where the elites are going to be guillotined. Do you think they would even allow politics at that point? The CCP did this in Tiananmen and the elites running our society would do the same if it came to a point.

          • Space Viking says

            Yes, the US military has access to the necessary delivery platforms but the tech elite does not have direct access to the US military. They would have to convince the political elite to “unleash the dogs of war”. And there is the problem.

            I’m a former Army officer and I can tell you in no uncertain terms I would refuse to fire on a mob of American citizens in almost any circumstance you could imagine because that is how I was trained. They train Air Force, Navy and Marine officer the same way. Short of a scenario with the trappings of secession or some sort of Zombie Apocalypse, it’s not going to happen. The politicos understand this so they’re not going to give such an order.

          • Violence is really good and necessary for overthrowing whatever tyranny currently in place, but it is worthless for establishing a just system to replace the tyranny, which is why there are lots of insurrections and revolutions but precious few free societies which enjoy ordered liberty under the rule of just laws.

            For some reason people are toofa king stupid to appreciate the absolute necessity of limiting the power and scope of government. The essence of liberty IS the limitation of government. But most people want the government to take care of them, and then they are shocked at how the government takes care of them, alright.

          • asdf says

            I take “elites” too broadly mean elites in general. If your killing one segment of elites (a few tech CEOs) but leaving all the other elites in place, I fail to see how the system will change. If your going to kill them all, then they will

            Believe me, acceptable excuses will be made. The rioters will be racists, terrorists, etc etc. Deplorables all. An immediate threat to the system that must be stopped. Do you think that someone sitting in some bunker somewhere piloting their drone on a video screen won’t be able to push the button? Given the right carrots and sticks. Given the right narrative to tell themselves.

          • Kory d'Entremont says

            “You cannot invade the United States. There would be a rifle behind every blade of grass.”

            Misattributed to Yamamoto

        • Space Viking says

          Disagree as in this situation these elites are quite vulnerable given they’re easily isolated and don’t have the means be truly autonomous. Instead of rampaging mobs scouring Palo Alto for Googler throats to slice all one needs to do is barricade a couple roads. In a couple of days the shelves will be empty and the lights will go out.

          As to elites just being replaced by other elites, that’s certainly true but not necessarily relevant. It’s always been that way.

        • Blahblah says

          asdf, I believe I agree with you “a particular mob in a particular place might temporarily …commit violence …but…The mob will never again be a threat to the system of elites”.

          There is no point in attempting to explain it to those with probable delusions of future grandeur who were nursed on marvel comics and weaned on RPG’s. In their heads, they will be heroes, the last line of defense, the over-comers, when the “SHTF”.

          There will be pockets of resistance for you heroes to attach or lead; but the revolts will not bring freedom from the globalist, techno elites who watch our every move.

          The end is nigh.

          As an aside, “Aldous Huxley’s dystopian 1932 novel, Brave New World” is suspect, IMO.
          I read half of this mess and chucked it, unfinished. I’m cool with being too stupid to “see literary merit” in a novel where children are groomed as sex slaves and encouraged to enjoy S&M or be shamed.

          What we consume has the ability to change us. In less than a hundred years since this book, little children attend “pride” events where they are subjected to nude adults and public displays of sexual activity. Huxley wasn’t prophetic, he was part of the problem that made perverts think about bringing these things to pass.

      • cynthia curran says

        Hey, he is building the rockets more in Brownsville Texas. Musk is doing us a favor in the long term Musk and Bezos will shift software and engineering out of Silicon Valley to Florida, Texas, Alabama and many other states. Musk is oddly enough a good guy compared to Mark Zuckerburg. Zuckerburg might have less money in 10 years than Palmer Luckey who he fired. Luckey has the UK military contract for his defense company for military software.

    • Peter from Oz says

      Methinks you need to brush up on your definitions. The vast majority of those working in the tech industry are middle class.
      What you really mean is that middle income people have been forced out of California.

  4. Geary Johansen says

    Niall Ferguson has compared the current technological revolution to the invention of the printing press, the only difference being that the this time the disruption is happening ten times as fast. For us, this cultural change may well seem like the inquisition, with virtual heretics burned at the stake, in the virtual sense, which only impacts social reputation and careers, but, for the most part doesn’t physical health and safety, yet.

    It is worth noting that some restrictions already exist to Free Speech in law, on this subject, in relation to slander and libel. It may well be possible to extend and expand this protection to include deliberate and malign misrepresentation of another’s viewpoint, but it’s tricky, and I wouldn’t hold my breath for the politicians to develop a nuanced approach to policy anytime soon. Interestingly, I believe there was a case in which damages were awarded for a dodgy review, even though the review was subjectively true- but for the average citizen, I don’t see this protection being practically applicable without legal resources.

    On the subject of the current tech giants, I wouldn’t be too pessimistic though- they are currently having to tread a very fine line in negotiating free speech issues, and this is only the beginning. This is only one of the very tricky problems they are having to tackle, but there are many more (such for as in order for AI to function optimally it will have to re-calibrate itself to diversity of thought). Probably the biggest threat to their oligarchy, is the fact that they are mainly staffed by ‘woke’ liberals incapable of seeing their own extreme bias when looking at cultural issues- or indeed just how unpopular these viewpoints will become once Main st. is exposed to them. The Oberlin College fiasco is just the beginning…

    • David of Kirkland says

      The law is the province of the rich. Experienced this first hand with a patent that cost me so much to be awarded due to legal expenses, and then it turns out I didn’t really own anything that didn’t require spending $100k to $1M+ to “defend” this supposed right.
      Solutions that require law just mean the rich win.

    • G Roberge says

      This particular oligarchy as strong as their economic future appears-will be doomed to failure as a direct result of their unwillingness to allow ANY diversity of thought inside a very thick, very (now) established, tidy leftist “bubble”. Inside these tech “bubbles” lie groups of individuals for whom the power of their tech overlords-their influence upon a group-think ideology- for them is tantamount to another day at the office as they all ensure the hiring and perpetuation of like minded lock-step lefties. As a result, and as our President’s influence over the political landscape (and liberal Washington group-think) has changed Washington, DC forever, the same will eventually happen to S. Valley and P. Sound through a very eerily similar cause and effect that stopped every HRC voter in their tracks wondering almost 3 years later, exactly what happened to their godess and why she isn’t our first female President. The fact that mostly conservative and some liberal oriented sites are being targeted for extinction simply for exercising their 1A rights ultimately means that because both sides of the aisle are being targeted, eventually Congress will finally turn the tables and put the bulls-eye right where it belongs.

    • Peter from Oz says

      Slander and libel are not merely speech. They are in fact actions, because they have the purpose of ruining someone’s reputation. That is why suing someone for defamation is not an abrigement of free speech.
      SImirlarly if you walk down the middle of a busy street clutching a protest sign, you will be arrested for obstructing the public highway, not inrelation to your speech.

  5. The Protocols Of The Youngsters Of California?
    In short:-
    The sky IS falling!
    We’re all doomed!
    A small alien cabal is taking over!

    As Indiana Jones famously put it “What a vivid imagination!”
    As an antidote, I suggest the Human Progress website, not least to the Mr. Kotkin himself.
    He DOES make some good points, but undermines them with his hyperbole and hysteria.

    • Etiamsi omnes says

      By all means you ought to write soothing and comforting pieces on Quillette for us Doomsday preachers.

      • On the contrary, far be it from me to interfere with your right to panic and despair!

  6. As the author suggests, what we are seeing is a kind of modern High-tech Feudalism which mirrors in many ways Medieval Christian feudalism. All of this is grounded on the metaphysical presumption that reality can be broken into pieces (digital information) and those pieces can be reconfigured as we please – everything follows from this.

    Once reality is “revealed” to be information then those who best know how to control and manipulate this information must and will rule – this is our Priesthood of Experts. When reality is understood to be the manipulation of information then a human being, or even society itself, is merely a configuration of information, a kind of technology. Moreover language itself becomes a mere construct to be manipulated along with everything else – nice words are nice deeds – Happy Talk rules.

    The power of these new “oligarchs” is wholly dependent upon our own abstraction from experience. Education itself has become a form of propaganda which convinces us of the arbitrariness and relativity of ideas and language. We all are vulnerable to the power of our new beneficent Grand Inquisitors to the extent we don’t know who we are. We’ve been taught to actually distrust experiential reality and we have been convinced to look to others (Experts) for our salvation.

    Wendell Berry once said over twenty years ago that he could imagine the next great political divide to be between those who see themselves as machines and those who don’t.

  7. Jackson Howard says

    This piece fits so well with “Favela Chic” / “Gothic Hi-Tech” narratives of William Gibson. Uncanny.

    But I’m not too worried. We are not in completely unknow territory. This is just a second Gilded Age, in times, it will recede and the history pendulum will swing back once more.

  8. I always wondered where I’d wind up after the revolution of 1972.*

    It turns out I’m a tenured outer party apparatchik; excellent! In the 17th C. I’d be entitled to a “de” or “Herr” before my surname.

    Nevertheless, I hate it. I came from the working lower middle class, when such a thing existed in the US, and I’m an old time constitutional democratic-republican at heart.

    *We revolted in 1972 and Nixon finally resigned in 1974. The comrades with their wits about them went immediately into the federal civil service and upon retirement enjoyed the benefits of old Civil Service Retirement System, a very generous defined benefit plan that was closed in 1983.

  9. David Turnbull says

    And yet somehow we survived those oligarchs Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Randolph Hearst.

  10. Pingback: "What Do the [Tech] Oligarchs Have in Mind for Us?" - The Locker Room - The Locker Room

  11. bumble bee says

    “Unlike the former masters of the industrial age, they have little use for the labor of middle- and working-class people—they need only their data.”

    I am not sure exactly what this means. I understand currently the selling of personal information for the purpose of targeted sales as well as societal manipulation, it does however elude me how the selling of personal information is going to produce anything when/if this feudal society come to pass.

    If as posited, the working masses are going to be left in the dust only to survive on some government pittance which will most likely be only enough for the basic minimums, then how is any information associated with this new serfdom going to benefit these oligarchs? How are they going to make money when so many no longer have the ability or potential to purchase their so called “goods”?

    Then of course, where is the government going to get all this money to pay people if no one has an income? Are the uber wealthy going to be giving their billions/trillions to the government? This whole scenario is not even self sustaining, unless that is the objective. Like Logan’s Run everyone over a certain age will be permanently removed, reproduction will be denied/granted by agencies, and anything else that is deemed a burden eliminated.

    I would also like to know, in the same vein of a Carbon Footprint, how influential would this dystopian outlook effect those who limit their exposure to technology. Is tuning out the best offense in limiting their reach? We should be able to have some control on whether or not such futuristic scenarios are plausible, or how much we contribute to their agenda.

    • Fran says

      Rather like this comment. I am a parasite on Google Scholar, and have managed to keep interpersonal communications out of Facebook. I still own a flip phone, and if you with to interact with me, you have to phone or come over. Email is great for long distance contacts.

      • TarsTarkas says

        I’m pretty much the same. Maybe even less so. I don’t log on to or comment on sites that requires any significant personal information. I have no need to detail my boring existence to anyone other than a few.

      • Lightning Rose says

        Exactly. We’re not yet helplessly embedded in The Matrix. Those of us who came of age before the PC are perfectly able to operate in the off-line world. Yes, it’s fun and useful to buy on Amazon and have the thing in your mailbox in 24 hours; but we also can shop local.
        I also have a flip-phone, rarely text, and tell people “Hey, if you want me, CALL ME!” A great many misunderstandings can be avoided by an old-school voice communication. I enjoy e-Bay, but sometimes I don’t buy for months at a time. I do not use social media at all, nor “smart” speakers, nor GPS. I grew up without all these things and do not miss them.

        I also pay strictly CASH for daily staples like food, pet food, vet bills, discretionary local purchases and almost everything else that would enable data-miners to form an attractive “profile” on me. I don’t fall for “discount clubs” or anything you have to “join” where your purchases are tracked. Online, I use as a Chrome anonymizer and full AdBlock which is AWESOME. I also clear browsing history and cookies EVERY time I log off.

        I’m still exposed, of course, but I like to think orders of magnitude less than those who upload every foolish thing including nude pictures. They can figure out what news and commentary sites I read, and my shoe and clothing size I suppose, but not too much more personal than that. The flip-phone stays on the kitchen table when I go out. Criminals out on bail are now fitted with “GPS ankle bracelets;” please explain the difference between that and carrying your “smart” phone around? I don’t see any! Like a tagged sea otter!

        Pretty sure they’ve got me filed under “Boring Old Luddite Deplorable.” Which makes me completely uninteresting to Oligarchs and their algorithms for the same reason TV has always ignored us. But we pay attention . . . and we vote . . . and we’ve read our history books for decades. Nobody ever won a battle by underestimating their opponents!

    • @bumble bee, good questions. I think you under-estimate the ways you can indeed get blood from a stone. Let me give my own personal observations.

      I work in a high poverty urban school district (all students are on free lunch). These students cannot afford winter jackets and may rely on the school to feed them two solid meals. I purchase pencils out of pocket for them.

      And yet they all have smart phones with unlimited data. Not merely smart phones—the latest brand. They make fun of my Samsung Note 8.

      How is this possible?

      They get highly subsidized phones and data as they are all high poverty. IT’s a government program. At school, they all have chrome books and are always wired in (the newest fad in our area; a few years ago it was iPads, which are currently functioning as very expensive paperweights.)

      If you have masses of people like this, even though they cannot afford individually high ticket items, as an aggregate, they offer a very rich market. They buy games and game add-ons. They learn what they want through social media, and buy this as soon as they can. Many have the best electronic devices while living in subsidized housing and unable to pay their heat bills.

      What the Oligarchs want – they have already said it – is for taxpayers to give these people a universal basic income so if they choose not to work (Aoc’s proposal, which she later claimed was a rough draft but I’m quite certain was intentional) or work part time or with gig work and gov’t subsidies, they can accrue quite a bit of wealth for the Oligarchs. Remember how large a population they are. It adds up.

      As far as where the gov’t will get this money from–I don’t think the Oligarchs are worried about this. They are not looking long term. Or at least not past 10 years or so.The money is there for the next 10-20 years. They don’t look past this. If they bankrupt all of America with hyper-inflation by churning out money to pay for universal health care, universal basic income, and free colleges, and turn it into a large california at best, they won’t care. They are global Oligarchs. They can move wherever they want and import workers as needed (as they’ve also stated openly).

      • Charlie says

        Bread and circuses for the urban plebs nothing new. Rural plebs reduced to debt serfdom.

    • Ray Andrews says

      @bumble bee

      “how is any information associated with this new serfdom going to benefit these oligarchs? How are they going to make money when so many no longer have the ability or potential to purchase their so called “goods”?”

      Exactly. It is one of the built in dilemmas of capitalism that what is good for each individual business — driving down wages so as to maximize profits — destroys the system when everyone does it. As you say, the information economy supposes that I have enough money to spend that Google can sell my potential consumerism to its various advertisers and (now) those who buy my data. Frankly they can buy/sell my data if they want, cuz I don’t have enough surplus money to buy almost anything of the sort that these people are hoping to sell me.

  12. Jonny Sclerotic says

    All of the roubles, all of the marks
    Paid to the sheikhs, geeks, sharks & oligarchs

  13. Serenity says

    “…on the Right, some libertarians at places like the Wall Street Journal and conservative think-tanks, continue to defend the oligarchs as the rightful winners of dogged economic competition.”

    “Rightful winners”? I’d say the whole article is about abuse of dominance. What about more efficient and better implemented antitrust / competition law? Split the monsters. Don’t allow mergers and acquisitions beyond certain threshold. If monopoly is inevitable – regulate to enforce consumer protection.

    • David of Kirkland says

      Indeed, M&A needs to be focused once a company reaches a certain size in wealth without regard to market share, pricing or the like. We pretend that competition is good, but mostly watch it disappear. Groupthink/conformity tend to focus others to seek out and “demand” such singular powers.
      But hoping for government regulation to resolve matters by law is likely fruitless, as the political class and the law are the bastion of the wealthy.
      These problems mostly came about due to our inability to handle Liberty and Equal Protection, with ever more limits on who can be in business (try selling a hotdog in most street corners), licensing restrictions, focus on selling ever more expensive university degrees that are primarily signaling than actual intellectual advancement, with laws that give corporations advantages over mere humans (try writing off expenses on your taxes) and taxes not applied evenly on all transactions, but just those that tend to focus on masses rather than the richest.

    • Ray Andrews says


      All of this was figured out a century ago when they broke up Standard Oil.

  14. ADM says

    That sounds like where I live in the Bay Area.
    And the oligarchs will not give up their power or money willingly. They have achieved regulatory capture, they donate overwhelmingly to the Democratic Party, they have data on everyone in the world who uses FB, Google, WhatsApp, Twitter, etc. They push for tech visa workers so that they can keep tech wages low & their profits high. And they seem to be unaffected by the negative aspects of their policies, nor to care about the dying middle class or the increasing poor. I see now that they seem to be the ones pushing the UBI that a bunch of presidential hopefuls are pushing in various forms. Is that not serfdom?
    It’s not all doom & gloom, though. The Bay Area is still a beautiful place to live, with some wonderful people, but achieving the comfortable middle class lifestyle of our parents is out of reach for many when a fixer upper house costs over $800k and college costs over $60k per year.

  15. The nobles of the Mosuo tribe in China, destroyed their families in order to rule over them more easily. Learn from the Mosuo.

    As idealistic as this sounds, scholars have countered all sides of the argument. Author of “Quest for Harmony”, Chuan-Kang Shih, says that this system was put in place to ensure marriage came secondary, as the priority was placed on family, sex and reproduction. Cai Hua, in his book, “A Society without Fathers or Husbands: The Na of China”, points out an important historical fact that their social organisation has traditionally been feudal, with a small nobility controlling a larger peasant population.

    “The Mosuo nobility practiced a ‘parallel line of descent’ that encouraged cohabitation, usually within the nobility, in which the father passed his social status to his sons, while the women passed their status to their daughters. Thus, if a Mosuo commoner female married a male serf, her daughter would be another commoner, while her son would have serf status”. Cai theroises that the matriarchal system of the Mosuo lower classes was enforced by the nobility to minimise threats to their power.

    Destruction of the family: permanent serf status.

  16. Byron says

    The author rightly condemns social programs meant as window dressing over an enormous, unaccountable concentration of power. But it’s quite something to go from describing UBI and similar programs as, in the words of Marx, “proletarian alms bags” (I quite agree with this description) to pinning the very same on the “Corbynite Left,” who have very explicitly named this unaccountable oligarchy as Enemy #1.

    Socialists are concerned primarily with social control over capital: in our ideal world, a company like Facebook would be owned and democratically governed by its workers and users. (Granted, that might not be possible in its current centralized form – a federated, decentralized platform like Mastodon might provide a more useful model.)

    I’m all for taking down the Oligarchs, but let’s dispense with cheap mischaracterizations.

  17. Lydia says

    Anyone here pay attention to George Gilder? He seems to think their day of reckoning is coming due to block chain and our craving privacy. He sees a downside to their vast server farms, etc. He says they stifle innovation by either gulping up new stuff or making it impossible for them to receive venture capital. So they either submit or leave the country.
    I don’t know but I have always found him interesting.

    Of course they will still be rich but not as powerful.

  18. Low-Technocrat says

    This is in stark contrast to the future envisioned by the more traditional brand of oligarch, whose wealth derives primarily from resource extraction. Their plan reads as follows:
    Exactly the same plan, except take out all that stuff about the oppressive serfdom imposed by social spending and UBI and whatnot, and replace it with “the poor will be left to fend for themselves, dying in the streets as they tear themselves to bits far away from our gated enclaves. We will have no further truck with them, excepting on such occasion as it is necessary for our robot servants to venture into their ghettos in order to harvest them for their organs.”

    Which of these glorious visions of the future will get your vote? Sadly, we ran out of room on the ballot, so their are no other choices on offer. Enjoy!

  19. Christopher Chantrill says

    Maybe, but maybe the tech oligarchs, like the 19th century “robber barons”, are not that interested in power. They broke up Standard Oil. So what? John D. Rockefeller retired at age 50 and invented modern philanthropy.

    More likely is that the SJW fools chasing the “haters” on social media will embarrass their bosses and provoke a political reaction that will break them up like Standard Oil just about the time that some new technology comes in and changes the rules, like oil in Texas a century ago.

    • staticnoise says

      Mr. Chantrill, my favorite AT writer! You are probably right. Something new did come along to make the so-called robber barons less relevant, it’s likely to happen even faster this time with the high-tech oligarchs. I do worry that modern business and even the public is putting everything in the Internet ‘basket’. My 20+ years in corporate IT has seen many technological upheavals and shifts. But this rush to the Internet connected ‘cloud’ (to 2 or 3 major players) seems a fools errand to me.

  20. San Fernando Curt says

    Unlike the past, our elites apparently have no sense of responsibility to the country, to the people in the country. Without them it’s sparsely developed real estate.

    Our Elites like most other people in the country are shielded from any sense of responsibility to their countrymen and ours because we are steeped in sin. We are ciphers to our coastlines. We are increasingly problematic burdens, with long history of hatred, racism, and genocide. it would be better, and much more economical (and that’s always, really, key) to replace us. And so that’s being done.

    Your ideological catechism edits immigration right out. It’s not an elephant in the room, it’s the issue hungrily chasing us through the woods at night.

    Read the part here where worker pay is falling. A ready, constantly regenerating cheap labor force does that. You know that.

    I cannot believe that these same people, the ones with the money and power to keep the immigration floodgates open, are doing so out of their deep love of humanity. low wages do more than keep workers from buying nice things. It also retards inflation, so fortunes remain fortunes.

    There are other reasons for our super rich to support open borders, but the big overriding one is that open borders are in their own best interest.

    Is it in yours? If so, there’s nothing wrong with self interest, continue supporting it. Even if that support is coy hypocrisy of side-stepping discussion of something you know is poison for the balance of the population.

  21. Peter from Oz says

    I think the article suffers from one flaw. The author is guilty of the zero sum fallacy. The inference is that if these tech blokes and blokesses hadn’t amassed lots of lovely lucre, then the same lucre would have been in the pockets of the rest of us.
    That of course is untrue. The economy isn’t a zero sum game.Weath is invented not subtracted from the system. The other day a move in stock value on the world’s exchanges meant that some of the tech companies lost billions in value, and the wealth of the oligarchs was temporarily reduced because it comprises motly shares in the tech companies. Did the resuction in the oligarch’s welth mean that the poor or anyone else was immediately richer? Of course it didn’t.
    There may be many problems with the fact that there are a few very weealthy people in society, but the idea that their welth is wealth that somehow would have been accrued across the masses is absurd and will cause much evil if it forms the basis of any politcal philosophy with the chance of putting people into power.

    • neoteny says

      Good comment; one cannot repeat enough times that the free market economy isn’t a zero sum game.

      The voluntariness of exchanges between market participants is a necessary (and sufficient) condition for the exchange to deliver more worth to both buyer & seller: then it is true that both parties value more what they receive than what they give — meaning that they’re both richer after the exchange than they were before.

      • Nakatomi Plaza says

        I never hear people arguing that money is subtracted, except for you two. Rather, I see that wealth distribution is handled very unevenly. Amazon is worth ridiculous amounts of money; meanwhile, they hire contract drivers with no benefits to deliver their crap.

        It doesn’t have to be zero sum to be a failed system. And you realize that the economics you’re defending are also an excellent justification for slavery and feudalism?

        You make the author’s point for him.

        • neoteny says

          I never hear people arguing that money is subtracted, except for you two.

          You must live an extremely sheltered cognitive life.

          It doesn’t have to be zero sum to be a failed system.

          An utterly meaningless assertion …

          you realize that the economics you’re defending are also an excellent justification for slavery and feudalism?

          … plus a stupid ad hominem to boot.

          If you have some rational & reasoned criticism of my economic (praxeological) statements, present them and I will answer them to the best of my capabilities. But I don’t care about your common scold shtick.

          • Byron says

            Perhaps you should revisit the definitions of “assertion” and “ad hominem.” And while you’re at it, expand your reading list beyond

          • staticnoise says

            Thanks for that. enough said.

          • neoteny says

            Perhaps you should

            If you have some rational & reasoned criticism of my economic (praxeological) statements, present them and I will answer them to the best of my capabilities. If not, then buzz off.

          • Ray Andrews says


            It doesn’t have to be zero sum to be a failed system.

            An utterly meaningless assertion …

            On the contrary, I find the meaning very clear. Nakatomi says that the metric by which the economy is to be judged has nothing to do with ‘zero sum’ questions but rather with the fairness of the distribution of the fruits of economic production.

          • neoteny says

            Nakatomi says that the metric by which the economy is to be judged has nothing to do with ‘zero sum’ questions but rather with the fairness of the distribution of the fruits of economic production.

            There are at least two problems with this:

            1) in zero-sum games (like poker), in order for one participant to win (make gain, have income), at least one other participant has to lose (have negative income, i.e. costs exceeding income). So it has to do a lot with “‘zero sum’ questions”: were economic — free market — exchanges zero-sum games, in order for one have gain from the exchange the other participant would have to lose. But no one participates intentionally in a loss-producing exchange: were economic — free market — exchanges zero-sum games, no one would participate in exchanges.

            2) there’s no metric to the “fairness of the distribution of the fruits of economic production”. Is it fair that JK Rowling hacked together more than a billion dollars with the Harry Potter series? She got all that money because tens (hundreds?) of millions of people judged that it worth more for them to consume one (or more) of her books that the money they had to pay for it. They thought that it was a fair deal for them: Rowling’s economic production transferred into their possession, and their money (the fruits of their economic production) transferred into the possession of Rowling (and everyone else who worked on the publishing of the copy purchased by the consumer). Who is to say that it was unfair when all participants agreed to the fairness of the exchange by dint of participating in the exchange(s) on their own volition?

      • Jackson Howard says

        You can have an overall positive sum game (growing economy) that work as a negative sum game for a subset (or even the majority) of the participants.

        While the voluntariness of exchange is nice in theory, there are cases where this hypothesis does not hold true. Especially for low skill labour when there is an excess of workers available. Sure, one can voluntarily choose not to work for a depressed wage and permatemp work conditions and become destitute, but is that really a choice ? High power differential make the voluntariness of exchanges hard to hold.

        What we have is a growing economy (is it really as good as the numbers show, given the creative ways employed to measure inflation ?), that while being a positive game in principle, delivers falling real income and net worth for the lower 2 quintiles, stagnation for the 2 next quintile, and growth for the upper one. It is a way to say that the positive game surplus has been captured by the upper quintile, and then some.

        • neoteny says

          You can have an overall positive sum game (growing economy) that work as a negative sum game for a subset (or even the majority) of the participants.

          How? If every exchange benefits both parties, how it is possible at all to have “a negative sum game for a subset (or even the majority) of the participants”?

          one can voluntarily choose not to work for a depressed wage and permatemp work conditions and become destitute, but is that really a choice ?

          Yes: everything is a choice which isn’t coerced out of somebody by the application of physical force or its credible threat.

          economy (is it really as good as the numbers show, given the creative ways employed to measure inflation ?), that while being a positive game in principle, delivers falling real income and net worth

          It isn’t the economy which delivers anything to anyone: economic actors create value which gets distributed to its creators. When Anne, who is Walmart cashier, buys an iPhone, she exchanges the value created by her by serving Walmart customers to the value created by the makers of the iPhone. It wasn’t the “economy” which delivered the cashiering services to the Walmart customers: it was Anne. It wasn’t the “economy” which delivered the iPhone to Anne: it was the makers of the iPhone. All all deliveries happened in exchange for some other goods (which are valued by their consumers).

          • Jackson Howard says

            All the exchanges do profit both parties. The problem is that a bad deal is often preferable to no deal when we are speaking of primary needs like housing, food and healthcare. You can’t choose not to buy things to eat. There are deals you can’t turn down, because no deal is worse.

            In an iterative game, if there exist a strong power differential between the parties involved in a deal and there is a limited offer from the strong side (mono- or oligopoly), the strong side can iteratively squeeze the weaker one. All exchanges are voluntary, all benefit both parties, and yet the weak side gets worse and worse deals.

            That’s the point I’m making.

            My point about inflation is that stuff like hedonic health care adjustments are pure statistical massaging tools. Or choosing consumer baskets that do not reflect the reality.

          • neoteny says

            There are deals you can’t turn down, because no deal is worse.

            Precisely: because the no-deal case is worse.

            the weak side gets worse and worse deals

            Each of those deals is better than the no-deal case.

            That’s the point I’m making.

            You’ve failed to make the point: all of those “bad” & “worse and worse” deals are better than the no-deal cases; i.e. in each & every case both parties are better off (richer) if they make & consummate the deal than if they do not.

          • Ray Andrews says


            “How? If every exchange benefits both parties, how it is possible at all to have “a negative sum game for a subset”

            Monsanto corners the market on seeds and quadruples the price. You’d still rather plant than sell the farm, so you pay. It ‘benefits’ you to pay, so by your logic there is a positive sum. I have no contest as to what the sum is, I say that the transaction is not just because Monstanto’s return is not proportional to their creation of value. In a fair economy no one envies the rich guy because everyone can see that his hard work and/or his brilliance got him what he got deservedly. As I always say, Musk can keep his billions, cuz he’s earned them. Even back in the days of the Tycoon capitalists, guys like Ford and Edison were not hated, they were celebrated by one and all. You didn’t want to end capitalism, you wanted to JOIN it. Even the unions liked capitalism, even tho they knew they’d have to fight for their slice of they pie.

          • neoteny says

            I say that the transaction is not just because Monstanto’s return is not proportional to their creation of value

            According to Monsanto’s customers — from whose payments for Monsanto’s goods Monsanto’s return accrues — for each & every one of them Monsanto created more value than what they paid to Monsanto: by paying the price for Monsanto’s goodies they reveal their preference for Monsanto’s goodies over the price they pay to Monsanto.

            All value is subjective to the consumer. You can’t decide the value of any good for someone else (and of course no one else can decide the value of any good for you). You’re unable to decide how much value Monsanto created to its customers. Even if you yourself buy Roundup, you don’t know how much value that can of Roundup represents for you: only that it represents more value than the price you paid for it to Monsanto.

            Accordingly, you might say that the transaction isn’t just, but you can’t back that call up with any objective measurement of the value created by Monsanto.

        • Ray Andrews says


          “There are at least two problems with this:”

          There may be several, but in any case Nakatomi’s claims were not meaningless. One might debate their accuracy or ethical assumptions, but they had meaning.

          ” So it has to do a lot with “‘zero sum’ questions”

          Economics of course has much to say about such things, but one might have no dispute or issue with any claim for or against ‘zero sum’, and still say that an economic system fails for other reasons. I myself am centrist on this: I believe that first we have to have some pie, then we should worry about how to slice it. But I would say that an economy that is grossly unfair to the producing class is a failed economy even if it is very much a positive sum economy.

          “there’s no metric to the “fairness of the distribution of the fruits of economic production”.”

          I disagree. For me to tend my garden only to have you come and steal my produce would not be fair, and that’s true if you are an honest thief or if you are a feudal lord or if you are a rent seeker or a charlatan or any one of a host of other folks who do not earn what they take.

          “Is it fair that JK Rowling hacked together more than a billion dollars with the Harry Potter series?”

          Yes, it’s absolutely fair. JK has no lobby in government, buying her books is entirely recreational and she has nothing like a monopoly on reading. Same with sports billionaires — you pay to go to the game, or you spend your money elsewhere. These folks should be taxed but otherwise there isn’t the slightest reason to interfere. But when Microsoft crushed Netscape and OS2, that was not fair, the bad guy won. Standard Oil claimed that they just won in a competitive market, but the government and the courts of the day understood that their monopoly position was counter to the good of the country.

          • neoteny says

            any case Nakatomi’s claims were not meaningless

            Yes they were: they had no reasonable meaning.

            still say that an economic system fails for other reasons

            Nakatomi did not — and neither did you — present any such theory. And without such a theory, establishing the mere possibility that an economic system might fail for other reasons is useless.

            For me to tend my garden only to have you come and steal my produce would not be fair

            Stealing isn’t a voluntary exchange on the free market; of course stealing isn’t fair.

            a charlatan […] who do not earn what they take

            According to the charlatan’s consumers, she does earn her income: when people give their monies to fortune-tellers, seers, diviners & other assorted forecasters, then they get entertained in exchange for those payments.

            when Microsoft crushed Netscape and OS2, that was not fair

            According to what metric of ‘fairness’?

          • Ray Andrews says


            You’re a smart guy N, but you should fold when you only have a pair of two’s. Come on. You make one unsupportable attack on Nakatomi, we’ve all done as bad, why not let it go? A mistaken claim is not necessarily a meaningless claim.

            “establishing the mere possibility that an economic system might fail for other reasons is useless”

            It is very useful. My moral stance is than any economic system where rewards are not proportional to inputs is undesirable and thus fails. Not that it fails in the sense of falling apart, only that it fails my moral requirements for it. By that standard most economies in the West are starting to fail, and the US is among the worst.

            “Stealing isn’t a voluntary exchange on the free market; of course stealing isn’t fair.”

            But exorbitant rents or monopoly prices aren’t fair either, are they? Nor, BTW, is excessive taxation. Right wingers are always talking about the government ‘stealing’ from them, and case can be made.

            “According to what metric of ‘fairness’?”

            According to the metric that the best economy is the one that rewards the best product and that breaks up monopolies and that forbids anti-competitive conduct. This is the liberal-captialist tradition and I support it. Others are free to advocate for cleptocracy or communism or anarchy or Galt’s Gulch, or whatever they like. I vote for regulated capitalism but that’s just me.

          • neoteny says

            You make one unsupportable attack on Nakatomi

            You haven’t shown yet how was my attack on Nakatomi’s plain assertion

            It doesn’t have to be zero sum to be a failed system.


            It is very useful.

            Nope; without such a theory, establishing the mere possibility that an economic system might fail for other reasons is useless.

            My moral stance is than any economic system where rewards are not proportional to inputs is undesirable and thus fails.

            Previously I’ve mentioned the ~$1K I spent on a PC. Well, I bought parts in 2014 and put the machine together myself. The CPU I chose at that time was the i7 4790K: an unlocked 4 core (8 HyperThread) CPU which runs at 4.0 GHz and in turbo mode goes up to 4.4 GHz. As part of my research, I was running some code written by me which was utilizing a CPU core to 100% (barely any memory access, almost all data in CPU registers). And I was running 8 copies of this code in parallel. And I did this 24/7, for several months at a time, for four years.

            To make a long story short, I fried my CPU. It happens rarely, but then I’m gifted at breaking things (and learning in the process). Anyhow, I went back to, from where I got the goodies, and intended to pick up another i7 4790K (I was very happy with its performance). In 2014 I paid altogether $360 for the CPU; was I some upset, when I’ve seen that the price of it went up to $600+ (nowadays $800+)! Can you imagine? An outdated CPU chip which isn’t manufactured by Intel any more goes up in price?!

            Yet it did — and I couldn’t do anything about it. Actually, I could & I did: mosied over to eBay, and picked up an used one (meaning a perfectly good one) from some Vietnamese vendor for about $350.

            But the point of this story is that all those vendors on jacked up the price of their existing i7 4790K CPU stock once the demand appeared for it. Their reward was contingent on the demand for the CPU, not on any input from the vendors (well, they did held on to those CPUs until its price shot up, but I’m not sure at all that such holding on was a conscious entreprenurial decision).

            The moral of the story: the price of a particular good depends only on its supply & the demand for it; inputs have nothing to do with it. It is not the producer’s costs which determine the price at which the sale happens: that determines ‘only’ how much profit the producer (the seller of the good) makes.

            In this economics textbook, the author explains on some 14 pages that prices form in barter:

            This thought experiment is about kids who trade Halloween candy, i.e. candy which they picked up gratis in their neighbourhood, i.e. their input into the production of the candy were minimal. Yet there are various amounts of various kinds of candy to be traded; and the kids have various preferences for the different kinds of candy. And prices appear (in barter!) because of the diverse preferences (demand) and the different kinds and amounts of candy available.

            But exorbitant rents or monopoly prices aren’t fair either, are they?

            Why wouldn’t they be? Rents can be only as exorbitant as the most somebody is willing to pay; any more exorbitant rents simply don’t get paid.

            And as far as ‘monopoly’ prices go: only the government can set up monopolies. If a manufacturer makes a product no one else makes because no one else knows how to make it, then the manufacturer has a monopoly on that particular product, but not on the whole product class. Apple has monopoly on the iPhone; but it has no monopoly on cellphones or smartphones or smartphone OSes or anything.

            But when a municipality sets up a muni corporation for example for community waste removal and only that company is allowed to provide community waste removal, that’s indeed a corporation in legal monopoly of community waste removal.

          • neoteny says

            According to the metric that the best economy is the one that rewards the best product and that breaks up monopolies and that forbids anti-competitive conduct.

            This is no metric at all: this is a wish list or a list of aims & ambitions or something of that sort, but this is no metric.

          • neoteny says

            I wrote: In this economics textbook, the author explains on some 14 pages that prices form in barter

            What I meant is: In this economics textbook, the author explains on some 14 pages (from page 84) how prices form in barter

        • Ray Andrews says

          @Jackson Howard

          Well said. Indeed one can be free to starve, but is that really freedom? I have a pension that covers my needs, and so any work I do now is genuinely voluntary — if I want the job I name my price and the offer is taken or not. The Free Market in all it’s glory. But that is not the case when someone is hungry and desperate — their ‘freedom’ is imaginary. It’s the reason I support UBI — one should never be desperate. Other than that, let the market rip, just so long as no monopolies are permitted to form.

          • Ray Andrews says

            @Jackson Howard

            “Each of those deals is better than the no-deal case.

            That’s the point I’m making."

            That is not in dispute tho. What is in dispute is whether that is the sort of economy that we want to have. It is better to be a galley slave than to be crucified (some say), but the better question is whether we should have galley slaves OR crucifixion at all.

            And just in case you want to say that the Free Market is the only possible arbiter of what is good, I disagree. All economies are designed and regulated and the Free Market is mostly a fiction. It exists in small, local personal situations like mine, but the macro economy is always designed. The question is who it is designed to serve. Big Money thinks it should serve them, and they purchase governments accordingly. I think the economy should serve the producing class, with charity (in moderation) for the poor, and no lack of incentives for the genius either. Keep the money Elon and thanks for cool cars and the Buck Rogers rocket.

          • neoteny says

            that is not the case when someone is hungry and desperate — their ‘freedom’ is imaginary

            Not at all: they’re really free to create some product/service which is valuable to some consumers & then exchange such products/services for food — usually indirectly, i.e. with the intermediate use of money.

            I support UBI

            Universal Basic Income? And who produces those goods which gets given to everybody without them exchanging anything for said income?

            If the UBI mandates that everybody gets a pound loaf of bread every day, who makes all that bread? and who grows all the wheat for it? and who produces all the natural gas which heats the baker’s oven? What do those people get in exchange for all the bread they produce?

            UBI is a pipe dream; it is socialism on steroids.The only way UBI can work if there’s a host of autonomous robots which are able to satisfy all ‘basic’ needs & able to design, manufacture & maintain themselves. When that comes around, there’ll be no scarcity of any goods needed to satisfy ‘basic’ needs; there’ll be no more economy, because people will not economize on ‘basic’ goods: they’ll have to make no trade-off, they will be able to have their cake & eat it, too.

          • neoteny says

            That is not in dispute tho.

            That is not your call. I’m having a discussion with Jackson Howard; you can’t take over his argument & then immediately abandon it & switch to a different argument. I won’t stand for it.

    • Kauf Buch says

      TO Peter from Oz

      You are mistakenly focusing on “wealth v poverty,” rather than freedom/servitude described in the article.

      • Ray Andrews says


        ” I won’t stand for it.”

        Pardon sir, but it is an open forum and anyone can comment on anything else. Those are the rules and in the best tradition of the Free Market, if you don’t like it you are free to leave, but I am not under your authority on the matter.

        • neoteny says

          anyone can comment on anything else

          Most definitely can comment; but can’t expect a meritorious answer. You can’t decide what is (or was) in dispute between me & Jackson Howard. It is not your call; I won’t stand for it.

    • Ray Andrews says

      @Peter from Oz

      “but the idea that their welth is wealth that somehow would have been accrued across the masses is absurd”

      On the contrary, it is mathematically necessary. All wealth is that which workers have produced. Workers produce stuff for themselves, or for others — economy cars for themselves, or Bugattis for the ultra rich. We are told that productivity has tripled in the last few decades, but the workers are poorer, therefore someone else must have upped their consumption otherwise what happened to it? Stuff does not vanish.

      “Did the resuction in the oligarch’s welth mean that the poor or anyone else was immediately richer? Of course it didn’t.”

      Indeed of course not, but that’s not the test. Stock values translate to consumption some time down the road, not instantly, but at some point they do translate. The real problem is not that a few innovators coined it, that’s fine, the problem is that they now exert effective monopoly power and they have enough money to control the government, which would seem to me to be why they pay next to no tax.

      • neoteny says

        in the last few decades, but the workers are poorer

        The other day I was browsing through some online scans of old Byte magazines from the late 80s to the early 90s. The ads were extremely educational: commodity PCs (i.e. non-brand name ones) were selling for $2-3K. Three decades later I bought a machine some 250 times more powerful for ~$1K. And at that time cellphones (the dumb variety) were brick-sized and cost a fortune.

        It is exceedingly hard to compare how well off people are over decades in an as rapidly changing economy as we live in. At that time video rentals were booming; at the end of the 90s, some 200,000 people were employed in the video rental business (in the USA). Today the # of such employees is approx. zero. But there’s Netflix (and torrenting, but of course nobody uses that to download copyrighted movies).

        I acquired my 1st email address in 1989: an ex-colleague of mine was running Xenix, a Unix lookalike, on his 386 at home and gave me an acct on his machine into which I could dial in with my 2400 baud modem & write emails which were forwarded once I hung up my connection and his modem was free to dial up his machine’s upstream connection &c. Anyhow, at 1st my email address was of limited use: there were very few people at that time I could email. Although I had access to “cutting edge” technology, I was poorer than now: not enough other people had access to email for it to enrich my life to the same extent as it does now.

        I could go on, but I’m sure you get my drift. I think it is a fool’s errand to try to ‘objectively’ compare how poor or rich were & are people separated by 2-3 decades’ time.

        • Ray Andrews says


          Right about the tech of course.

          “It is exceedingly hard to compare how well off people are over decades in an as rapidly changing economy as we live in.”

          Too true. Nevertheless we can take an honest stab at it. When jobs with pensions are almost extinct, and when even working people sometimes have to live in their cars, whereas in my parents day any normal working family expected to own their own home with a yard and a dog and a set of swings for the kids, and when women mostly did not have to work, it seems to me that life was sweeter notwithstanding the fact that the guy sleeping in his car has an iphone. Surely?

          • neoteny says

            Nevertheless we can take an honest stab at it.

            I can’t see any way to keep any such stab honest enough in any meaningful sense.

            I mean one can compare commodity prices over a decade (or more) by calculating their time-price: i.e. how much time the average Joe had to work for a barrel of Brent oil let’s say in 1974 and 2014. Not perfect, but good enough for observing changes in trends.

            But that’s about commodities, which have a pretty uniform price because they’re pretty uniform goods. But if we think of telecom, how can be landlines compared to (plain) cellphones? Cellphones do everything landlines did and they can be carried around.

            What would happen if tomorrow morning all cellphones disappeared the world over, even if a landline appeared in place of each disappearing cellphone? Civilization wouldn’t collapse, but people would definitely feel poorer until they manufactured & bought new cellphones.

            But be of good cheer: I’m entirely willing to entertain the concept that over the last four decades, there was lots of economic stagnation & wastage. But you’ll not like my (meaning the Austrian School’s) explanation: it is because of government planning, i.e. socialism.

      • neoteny says

        All wealth is that which workers have produced.

        Not if your category of workers exclude entrepreneurs and/or investors.

  22. mitchellporter says

    I come away from this article not knowing what the author hopes will happen. He wants a progressive-conservative coalition to force regulation upon the oligarchs – but what kind of regulation, and to what end?

    Also, it’s not enough to just talk about this “surveillance capitalism” which collects data on billions of people – the surveillance state also still exists, and works through those corporations, even if their relationship is sometimes antagonistic.

    The article mentions any number of real phenomena of Internet society, which will form some part of the world’s political concerns in the years immediately ahead. But it also talks about artificial intelligence; and the endgame of AI, of the AI revolution, is a transformation of a different nature than mere rearrangements of human power and human values as codified in cultures and political systems, even though those rearrangements can feel all-encompassing while they are happening.

    AI, first of all, is something whose development is not tied to any particular oligarchy or economic system. America could expropriate and lobotomize all its current IT billionaires, and switch to any new social system you can think of – Yang-Gabbard pacifism with a basic income, a patchwork of racially purified ethnostates, open-borders vegan anarchosyndicalism – and so long as computer hardware and software, and scientific R&D, continued in anything like their present abundance, then the real endgame of AI would eventually arrive, namely the creation of superhuman intelligence.

    The logical consequence of a superintelligence is that its goals prevail over all competing goals espoused by lesser intelligences. And given what we now know about nature, it seems that a triumphant superintelligence could remake the world according to its agenda, from the atoms up. That is the real apex of power which seems to lie at the end of the computer revolution. We see intimations of it, in the lab animals whose brains are mapped down to the neuron, in the uncanny deepfakes and simulacra that AI can already produce, and in the political and cultural sway of the big data oligarchy.

    But those are just foreshadowings. The true rule of superintelligence implies a world in which all beings are transparent to the governing intelligence, can be made and remade according to its will, and in which the governing intelligence encompasses the entire Earth, and the space beyond it. And while the data oligarchs inhabit, and lie atop, a social and technical infrastructure that appears capable of hatching such an entity… how personally ready are they to create, master, or become such a being? I suppose a few of them, or a few among their majordomos and employees, have daydreamed about such eventualities.

    Given the inherent inconceivability of the reality of life after such a transition, I belong to the school of thought which says that our best chance of an outcome that is good rather than bad, is to at least identify what values should govern a superintelligence. (Having done that, it is then up to the correctly guided superintelligence to make the concrete decisions about which way to push the world.) There is a well-known subculture which has labored for years at answering this question. Previously the thing which they sought to define and design was known as “friendly AI”; nowadays they talk of “AI alignment” – alignment with the right set of values, if only we knew what they are. Their methods involve, for example, using machine learning to extract the true implicit values of human beings from cultural, behavioral, and neuroscientific data, and using those actual human values as the kernel of the moral and practical ideal that a superintelligence would follow.

    They may or may not manage to answer the question correctly; they may or may not get a say over those who actually develop superintelligence. But be clear about one thing; the trends taking us towards superintelligence are independent of the efforts of these AI safety activists to answer the question of machine values. The movement towards superintelligence arises out of progress in the field of algorithms and abstract computational methods of problem-solving (which in turn is affected by progress in pure mathematics). If people trying to design human-friendly AI do not win the race to superintelligence, it just means that the race will be won by some other group with some other purpose – e.g. perhaps they will be trying to make a national strategist AI, whose values (if American) are some combination of “the constitution” and “obeying the executive branch”. In which case, the Earth, the solar system, and some portion of our interstellar neighborhood, may end up remade in the image of an AI’s interpretation of those ideals; an interpretation which could easily be ghastly or grimly comic, some impressionist parody of the notion of “men pursuing happiness”.

    Well, perhaps I have discredited myself a little by attempting, science-fictionally, to present some picture of what the world might look like, if superintelligence won but got its human values slightly wrong. But the reality is still there: the gene and the brain are surrendering to scientific analysis, just as the atom previously did, and the enormous contingency of human form and human nature stands revealed. All that is up for a makeover if and when superintelligence arises; not just the culturally codified tables of values that differentiate one human civilization from another, but the very wiring of our brains, the impulses, the mental organization, the basic dispositions. Perhaps something about the nature of reality will intervene to prevent such an outcome, but I believe it is rational to expect that the world really will succumb to some kind of “scientific dictatorship”, but one that is not even ruled by human beings. That’s the real endgame, and it presents a slightly different problem than the problems of politics and policy involved in regulating today’s oligarchs.

    • dirk says

      You (Mitch) should read Jevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopia (or utopia?) WE, or did you already,and is this a succinct abstract of a 2019 version of the book?

    • Your mystical vision of the universe as God in state of evolution is probably very similar to that believed by many of the techno-“oligarchs” mentioned here. (cf. the burning man ritual). Unfortunately, those who don’t yearn for the end of the world must combat not only common human greed and desire for power on the part of the tech elite, but the fanatical mystical and religious beliefs underlying the entire technological project.

      • mitchellporter says

        @dirk – I read “We” long ago. It’s a powerful and distinctive possibility depicted in that book, one way in which the future could go wrong, but just one way. Another way – this has surely been depicted somewhere in SF, but I cannot think of an example – would be a future in which there are no people at all, in the sense of conscious beings, but only bots and other simulacra. The problem here lies in the definition of personhood; a mechanically supervised social system may be programmed to pursue “the greatest good of the greatest number”, but if it can’t tell the difference between, say, video game characters and actual people, it may facilitate the emergence of a world in which actual conscious life dies out entirely, but that’s OK because the automatically maintained data centers are full of nonplayer characters getting ever-higher scores in the game of life.

        The actual range of possible futures is enormous, which is why solving the problem of friendly AI would mean devising intelligent agents which can weigh up the full range of possibilities and judge them appropriately, as good, bad, or just not good enough. A very hard task which we may not manage to accomplish in time; though the human race has managed to achieve difficult things before.

        @breathnumber – I guess you mean a kind of cosmic evolutionary perspective which builds on the Saganesque sense of wonder – we were stars, then stardust, then primordial soup, then red in tooth and claw – and extends it into a posited future in which Homo sapiens as such may cease to exist, but that’s OK because we were a step towards greater things. I agree that such an outlook must exist in many places in Silicon Valley. Microsoft’s Myhrvold spoke of uploading our minds into Windows 2048, Jeff Bezos talks about a future solar system with a trillion people living in space colonies.

        However, I meant something a little different, more of a piece with the 20th century concept of evolution as a contingent process occurring in a universe with no inherent purpose, rather than the 19th century concept of evolution as progress and transcendence. The basic observation is that technology, especially AI, is leading to a kind of extreme and concentrated power beyond anything that has ever existed on Earth; but the way that power will be exercised is highly contingent. Some outcomes may be much more likely than others, but there is no telos which guarantees utopia, dystopia, or any other specific flavor of post-singularity existence. We should expect that overwhelming power will be wielded in the service of some agenda, but we still have a chance to influence what that agenda will be.

  23. Closed Range says

    Although the article is entertaining, I’m not sure it really hits the mark as a serious sociological piece. The issue I have is that it only mentions various bits of data on poverty but doesn’t really examine if they are actually related to the topic at hand

    For instance, it is clear that there is a serious poverty problem in California, but is that poverty due to tech or something else? Last time I walked through San Fran, it seemed pretty clear that the real poorest were afflicted by drugs, and this was being encouraged by the lax approach of the local gov, welfare, lack of police etc. I think the documentary Seattle is Dying shows the same for Seattle.

    So are we not conflating two things here? It seems to me that yes the tech industry has created an ultra rich class, leaving the middle classes in the dust with house price inflation etc, but the extreme poverty problem seems more like a drug related issue.

    • cynthia curran says

      Good point, plus Silicon Valley is on the verge of being has been. The next industry pushed is not in Uber or Lyft but rockets. Guess what, People like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are expanding to Brownsville Texas and Huntsville Alabama. Silicon Valley does not have the room or the talent for space rocketry. In fact, Silicon Valley wealth will be cut in half by the end of the next decade as places like Florida space coast get far more talent to send people to the moon. Boeing has already moved its space division headquarters from Virginia to Florida.

    • Space Viking says

      Big Tech is certainly not the whole story. In let’s say 1985 California still had a large, vibrant middle class which subsisted off a host of defense contractors and military bases. Heck, a significant number of Silicon Valley tech companies at the time primarily worked on military/aerospace endeavors. When the Cold War ended the contractors downsized and more often than not left the state. Add to that almost all the major military installations in the northern 2/3 of the state closed. Not surprisingly, the middle class employees left with their employers for greener pastures like Seattle or Texas.

      Without the moderating influence of these folks, Democrat politicians and left leaning techies still in Silicon Valley went full out crazy.

  24. Kauf Buch says

    RE: “Needed: An Alliance of Progressives and Conservatives against the Oligarchy”

    If the author is using the term “Progressives” here as is used today regarding Leftist totalitarian “Democrats,” FORGET IT: they are the Useful Idiots of the author’s “oligarchy.”

  25. Sadie Slays says

    The oligarchs want a dumbed down raceless and genderless class of slaves who have no history, culture, or religion that would otherwise inspire them to revolt against the oligarchs.

  26. Goy Boy says

    “What Do the Oligarchs Have in Mind for Us?” What happened after the Russian revolution is a good guide. For example, anti-semitism will be subject to the death penalty as it was back then, and a paradise of egalitarianism will emerge, with no more than a hundred million murders. Tops!

  27. MSA says

    If a few oligarchs have the power to create “Brave New World” for all, a nastier subset of them can make it “1984” for many of us. Tocqueville could be right and wrong, at the same time.

  28. Papa Buckland says

    By the year 2050 there will be only two branches of government…Amazon and Google.

  29. Vicky says

    You appear to assume that the new feudalism will respect the right of people to live. I dont think it will. It seems much more likely that the poor, disabled, and old will be killed. There is a reason for identity politics and I don’t think it is to celebrate diversity.

    The best thing imo is to legislate and enforce strict limits on the data that can be harvested and there must be limits on the amount of time that data may be kept. There needs to be independent auditing.

  30. Lightning Rose says

    You people are going way over the edge into hysteria here. People have been shivering under the bed about this crap since science fiction began in the late 1800’s. I think just about every major social question on the board today could benefit from A LOT more RATIONALITY and a whole lot LESS emotion. The bottom line is someone still has to decide to BUY the technology. Unpopular ideas will die on the drawing board. It has been ever thus.

    • Kauf Buch says

      Agreed…with the caveat that, I assume today’s problems of hi-tech censorship will be resolved like other monopolistic break-ups done earlier in American history.

      Removing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act would go a LOOOONG way to that end.

  31. Pingback: What Do the Tech Oligarchs Have in Mind for Us? | Big Sky Headlines

  32. Weasels Ripped My Flesh says

    I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords.

  33. R Henry says

    “What kind of world do they have in mind for us? Their vision of what our society should look like is not one most people—on the Left or Right—would like to see.”

    I am not sure there is a Grand Strategy in play here. I believe Big Tech is simply working to maximize is profits. I believe they are mostly tactical, rarely strategic.

  34. Barney Doran says

    You want to resist this oligarchy? Stop using their technology. People lived very well just a few years ago without the Big Five. Seriously, you cannot communicate without Facebook; you cannot shop without Amazon; you cannot find anything on the internet without Google; you cannot phone someone and take their picture without Apple, and you cannot even use the internet without Microsoft. Stop being so damn lazy and stop allowing yourself to be a data prole. Follow this advice and these characters will be history in a heart beat. Yes, someone will try to take their place, but by then we will understand the antidote and shut them down too if they get too big. Remember, we are the bosses in this business. And what will it cost you? Nothing. And you will be free. Think about it.

  35. TheSnark says

    R Henry is right. The tech elites have no political or cultural strategy per se, if they do anything in those spheres it is merely aimed at keeping the businesses going and increasing their stock price.
    But the side effects, the collateral damage, that their business models inflict on our politics and culture is enormous.

    As another poster noted, it is like the invention of printing, only much faster. Gutenberg wasn’t out to change anything other than his own bank balance, but the entire culture and politics of Europe was forced to change as a result of that invention and its profound effect on the dissemination of information. The end result was the Modern World, which is pretty good, but remember that the path to the Enlightenment was littered with many decades of extremely brutal religious wars.

    The collateral damage of the current round of technology may result in the end of liberal democracy. The Roman Republic fell when the farms run with slaves outproduced the citizen-peasantry. The citizens then fled to the cities, where they were placated with bread and circuses. They were “citizens” in name only. And it worked: the Republic was replaced by the Empire, which lasted for several hundred more years.

    Maybe when the tech elite’s AI’s are more productive than the workers, the workers will be placated with UBI and Netflix. The US might do well too, but when the mass of the people are on UBI and Netflix, they are no longer the citizen required by a functioning liberal democracy.

    The only chance to avoid this is to regulate the tech giants. They are natural monopolies, breaking them up is not a good option. They need to be treated like regulated utilities, like we did with Ma Bell. But even that might not avoid the threat to the Republic: the fundamental change the internet has made in communications might still cause a lot of collateral damage to our political culture.

  36. Dan Silverman says

    OMG, amazing article, one of the best I’ve ever read. Some how, some way, be it on the left or the right, we need to take back our country from the tech oligarchs and their sycophants.

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  38. Sean Leith says

    I stopped read at time I see the word “Marx”. What the hell.

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  40. Joe William says

    This is just run of the mill class warfare propoganda. The government is the problem here. California state and local governments (and Seattle) run by far left democrats have turned these regions into the 3rd world dumps that they are with their price controls and socialist policies. On the federal level, we need to get the money and power out of Washington and increase transparancy to end the crony capitalism and rent seeking that is stiffling competition and picking corporate winners and losers.

  41. Albigensian says

    “For an industry once known for competition, the level of concentration is remarkable.” Umm, when was that? IBM dominated the mainframe market for 25 years, then Microsoft dominated the PC desktop for another 25. The nature of software is that is that developing it has high fixed costs, but once it’s developed the marginal cost of distributing another copy is close to zero. Businesses with high fixed costs and near-zero marginal costs are going to trend toward winner-take-all, as the winners can afford to spend the most on new development. Not that incumbents are never toppled; remember MySpace? But it’s not easy.

    “Ferenstein notes that most oligarchs believe “an increasingly greater share of economic wealth will be generated by a smaller slice of very talented or original people.” Sort of like what happened to musicians and the music business when it became possible to record performances: a few musicians became fabulously wealthy, and the remainder mostly learned to keep their day jobs. But that happened a century ago: it’s not as if this sort of thing has never happened before.

    “Adjusted for costs, my adopted home state suffers the overall highest poverty rate in the country, according to the US Census Bureau.” Yes, that would be California. Which has permitted huge numbers of low-skilled illegal immigrants to remain, and then decided it “must” provide costly social services to them. Which has a top marginal state tax of 13.3%, yet still can’t pay its bills. Which has made it all but impossible to build new housing, even though demand has so outstripped supply in many coastal areas that rents and purchase prices are among the nation’s highest. It’s regulated electric utilities into long-term unprofitability and made it nearly impossible to build new generating capacity, and is then surprised that electricity has become costly and unreliable.

    These miseries are what California’s voters continue to vote for, yet somehow it’s all fault of those evil “oligarchs”? This purple prose might be funny if only it weren’t so pathetic: a state with a magnificent climate, world-beating industries in entertainment, airospace, semiconductors and software, yet it can’t pay its bills and its citizens are increasingly impoverished.

    “It’s the oligarchs.” Yes, sure it is. Have you looked in a mirror? Perhaps you have met the enemy, and the enemy is … you?

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  43. Vicky says

    We need to bring privacy law into this century, to address todays challenges. Breaking up tech would be a mistake, but it is certainly the case that the tech sector needs to be redirected legislatively away from hoarding and selling peoples personal data and back into a more positive (and less destructive) direction. We should applaud SpaceX and similar efforts. We need privacy laws. Good privacy laws.

  44. Michael Walsh says

    Mr. Kotkin writes: “Their vision of what our society should look like is not one most people—on the Left or Right—would like to see. And yet, unless unchecked, it could well be the world we, and particularly our children, will inhabit.” It should be “if unchecked”.

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  46. It’s unclear to me how the author of this essay seems themselves simultaneously as a champion of capitalism and as an advocate of heavy regulations and breaking up monopolies. In true capitalism, there must be a separation of state and business. Regulations should only be a matter of ensuring fair rules or the game, which apply to all equally. Targeting specific companies or industries in order to privilege other companies or industries is not capitalistic. That’s the kind of corporate favoritism that has given us kleptocratic control of government.

    Tech savvy capitalists favor a UBI precisely because it is a way of phasing out our current tax and spend welfare programs – the burden of which falls on income tax payers (who are mainly upper middle class). A UBI is not means tested, so it’s essentially tax relief for those who pay taxes. If it doesn’t stack on welfare, as Andrew Yang’s Freedom Dividend would not, then it helps people escape the welfare cliff and join the gainfully employed. If it is funded by a VAT on internal business expenses, then it doesn’t add to the taxes paid by workers. Instead, the burden falls on large corporations such as Amazon and Facebook who wouldn’t be able to avoid a VAT the way they do current tax schemes.

    Meanwhile, putting millions of dollars each directly into every local economy, via the hands of regular people every month, means currently dying small towns would thrive again. It would be a stimulus of local businesses. Coffee shops, hair salons, tailors, plumbers, landscapers, and dog walkers would have more local clients willing and able to afford their services. That keeps people employed, and it keeps the gig economy strong too.

    Rather than kleptocratic corporate favoritism, the brightest future is a form of capitalism that doesn’t start at zero, where everyone gets a basic income that is meant to stimulate productive work – not replace it. The whole point is to prevent a handful of people from capturing every market, and a UBI does this by enabling people to become gainfully employed, open businesses, and patronize local companies around them.

    Preventing private companies from inventing technologies and profiting from them is not the answer. Automation, outsourcing, and legal immigration are all good for capitalism. The “alt right” is left wing, using the same bleeding heart anti-capitalist arguments the left has always used to oppose corporate power, stir up resentment of profit, and justify big government interventions in the market in order to “save jobs” for a select class. We need to grow the pie and grow the middle class by empowering individuals to take charge of their destines. Let folks compete in a free market. Calling advocates of a plan to save capitalism socialists is rubbish.

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  53. Michael says

    What the oiligarchs wants is the old Technocracy Inc – energy/resource based economy – implemented. Today it is called Sustainable Development.
    Look up Patrick Wood and his research into this.

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