We have met the enemy and he is us.
Steve Jobs may be the most significant human of the past century. Sure, that’s a huge claim, but with a series of innovations – Apple, the Mac, iTunes, the iPhone – he first envisioned, and then delivered, entirely new ways of living and relating to the world and the data that comprises it. Star Trek’s Borg are an artistic metaphor speaking keenly of this relationship and a culture in which machines have been integrated into the meat of our collective bodies and brains. The “technocolonization” of the human mind, as scholar Andrew Ross put it, didn’t start with Jobs, but he more than anyone who ever lived brought it to the masses.
Many believe (me among them) we are literally a new species: the posthuman, denizen of the Anthropocene era. We are fundamentally technical creatures now, at both the individual and collective levels, and we’re probably more different from humans circa 1900 than they were from humans 10,000 years ago.
Mark Zuckerberg’s impact has been massive, too. Thanks to “social media,” human interaction has morphed into something barely recognizable as social – those who call it “anti-social media” have no problem offering up examples to prove their point. Petabytes of examples. We have so many new modes of connection, but they’re more remote, less personal and often alienating in the extreme. Posthumans are at once the most connected beings in history and the least.
Facebook isn’t the only social media platform but it’s easily the largest, and Zuckerberg, the Harvard whiz kid, is the face of the revolution. He didn’t invent social, but he’s the one who integrated it into the collective mind and changed what it means to be social.
Jeff Bezos didn’t invent ecommerce, but he perfected it. There are fewer stores today – entire chains going out of business, malls trying to reimagine their place in the socio-economic landscape – and remember books? Those who fetishize entrepreneurialism talk incessantly about disruption, “innovation that creates a new market and value network and eventually disrupts an existing market and value network, displacing established market-leading firms, products, and alliances.”
Few businesses have been more disruptive than Amazon, Bezos’ online retail empire. For millions, online shopping is now the default – for books, for clothes, for furniture, even groceries. If it can be sold, odds are pretty good you can buy it online.
By the standards of modern capitalist/consumerist culture, Jobs, Zuckerberg and Bezos are three of the most successful, important human beings to ever walk the face of the Earth. On this point there is no possible argument. They came, they saw, they conquered. They innovated, they disrupted in ways few people have ever even dreamed of disrupting, and they literally changed, forever, what it means to be a social animal, a citizen, a consumer and a human. Factoring in Jobs’ fortune at the time of his death the three are/were worth north of $200 billion (and this is after the Bezos divorce, in which Jeff’s wife MacKenzie got $38 billion). If they were a nation they’d be the 50th largest economy in the world.
What if we evaluate them by standards other than capitalist and consumerist? I’m not here to do a hit job, but we live, quite literally, in a world they created, and to understand that world we should reflect on the men who built it.
By pretty much all accounts Jobs wasn’t a terribly nice man. Google [steve jobs sociopath] and it will return more than 800,000 results. I’m not a clinical psychologist, but click the link and read for a while. At the very minimum you’ll come away with a picture of a complete, festering asshole who cared almost nothing about people, even those closest to him.
Visionary? Absolutely. But was that vision driven by anything remotely like human values (to the extent “human” still has any meaning)? Not at all.
Zuckerberg is about as bad. For him, humans exist for the sole purpose of monetization. A search for [zuckerberg sociopath] only returns a comparatively modest 55,700 results and again, that list isn’t dominated by clinical analyses. But he’s proven, time and again, to be pathological in his commitment to scraping and using subscribers’ private data, even when faced with massive blowback by world governments. People are worth what he can sell them for and nothing more.
As for Bezos, “disruption” has other, less fawning meanings.
1. (tr) to throw into turmoil or disorder
2. (tr) to interrupt the progress of (a movement, meeting, etc)
3. to break or split (something) apart
The retail industry isn’t dead yet, but it has certainly come down with a nasty, life-threatening case of Amazon poisoning. How many stores has he put out of business? More to the point, how many jobs has he eliminated? What has been his ultimate impact on the earnings potential of American families? Yes, shopping is more convenient, but convenience comes at a cost.
He talks about how we’re destroying the Earth, but hasn’t actually done much about it. Instead, he’s more concerned with space. He isn’t wrong when he notes the impact we’re having on the planet, nor is he necessarily wrong to argue that our long-term future depends on getting off this rock. But if it looks like the richest man in the world has given up on the world, that’s probably not unfair. You might wonder what he could accomplish if, instead, he pumped all that vision and energy into addressing climate, poverty, deforestation, population and so on.
What else? Well, there’s Peter Thiel/Palantir. There’s Rekognition. There’s the $600 million a year he gets from the CIA. So at a conceptual level, anyway, he seems unopposed to the idea of an … orderly state.
Am I forgetting anything? Oh, right – hot off the presses:
As the article points out:
Even after his divorce, Bezos is worth $114 billion. So he could give each of those 1,900 workers $500,000 dollars — and still have $113 billion.
What do Jobs, Zuckerberg and Bezos say about us?
These three men are visionaries. So add it all together and think about what their societal vision looks like. It’s a society with very cool toys, but one in which the toys matter more than people. It’s a world in which our interactions are about generating data for marketers, in which we’re consumers rather than citizens. It’s Minority Report, but you can buy nearly anything with one click. It’s a world made for exploitation, not stewardship.
They built it, but they did so with our money. Our consent. Our help. So if the vision is troublesome we have to not only look outward at the overlords, but inward to our complicit, Vichy souls. We have to confront the bargain we have so willingly made. As Walt Kelly put it, we have met the enemy and he is us.
And lest you think I’m lecturing and scolding, I need to make something clear. I’m typing this on my iMac and sitting just to me left is my iPhone. Six inches away on my desk is my work MacBook, which I lobbied hard for. I have an old MacBook of my own, an old iPad 2 and a huge iPad Pro. I’ve been a member of Facebook since they threw the doors open to the general public. And I shop with Amazon.
I’m not talking about you. I’m talking about us. And I fear the people we’ve allowed to build and dominate our society tell us more about ourselves than we’d like to admit.
They are us, and we leave much to be desired.
I’m well aware of the fact there are a number of other people who could be on this list. If we stick to the techno/posthuman theme we could talk about Gates and Ellison and the Don’t Be Evil Brothers, Page & Brin. But the three I focused on seem the most illustrative and iconic examples of the rot I feel around me. Gates might seem an obvious target, although a) his philanthropy (flawed as it is in spots) stands him as the least corrosive in the category, and b) in truth, I’ve always felt like Gates wasn’t entirely a thing. Had the courts gotten the Apple vs Microsoft case right he wouldn’t even be in the conversation.