The Current

Who wants to build a doomsday bunker? Nervous billionaires, says author

In his new book Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires, tech journalist Douglas Rushkoff explores the billionaires building bunkers to survive a potential apocalypse — and the philosophy that inspires them.

‘They feel utterly helpless to avoid the inevitable event’: Douglas Rushkoff

Author Douglas Rushkoff explores the billionaires building bunkers to survive a potential apocalypse — and the philosophy that inspires them — in his new book. (Rebecca Ashley, submitted by Supipi Weerasooriya)

When American media writer and theorist Douglas Rushkoff was invited to give a talk at a desert resort in the American Southwest, he thought he was going to attend some sort of conference.

It turns out that it wasn't a conference at all. Rushkoff found himself in a private conversation with five of the world's wealthiest men about the future of the planet — including two people he described as "documented billionaires."

"[At] first, I think it's just because they want to know where to invest their money," he said. "And then finally one of them [asks], 'Alaska or New Zealand?'"

"I'm like, oh man, they want to know where to put their doomsday bunkers," he told The Current's Matt Galloway.

Rushkoff initially questioned why they had turned to a self-described "anarcho-syndicalist media theorist" for advice on their doomsday bunkers. 

Nonetheless, they spent an hour debating topics like how they can maintain control of their security force after their money becomes worthless in an apocalyptic scenario.

"I realized, you know, here are the wealthiest, most powerful people I've ever met," he said. "Yet they feel utterly helpless to avoid the inevitable event; you know, the climate crisis or pandemic or social unrest that leads to a revolution or mass unrest and renders the world unlivable for any of us."

They're willing to disrupt the cab industry, the hotel industry, the book industry. But they're not even thinking once about disrupting the underlying architecture of kind of extractive capitalism.- Douglas Rushkoff, media writer and theorist

Rushkoff believes the billionaires were "testing the underlying philosophy" of what he calls "the Mindset" — a Silicon Valley-style certainty that they can escape a catastrophe of their own making so long as they have enough money and the right technology.

"It's this idea that [might ask questions like]: Can we use technology to build a car that drives fast enough to escape from its own exhaust?" he said. 

"If we can, then the only real question is how do we use technology to solve the problem of all these other people around, rather than anything else?"

He explores this mindset in his new book, Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires.

The dumbwaiter effect

Rushkoff said powerful people like the men he spoke to not only know they're the cause of the real world coming apart; they mean to escape it by doubling down on tech-focused solutions more interested in saving themselves, rather than the wider population.

In most cases, it's by building some piece of incredible technology — like a bunker or spaceship — that "hides them from the externalized problems of what they've done," he said. 

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"A lot of times we think that we're developing a technology ... to make someone's life easier, but it's usually more about kind of hiding a painful life from us," he said.

One example of this is the dumbwaiter effect, named after the small freight lifts that were used to transport food and drinks throughout multi-floored buildings.

Rushkoff said powerful people like former U.S. President Thomas Jefferson used these devices, not to make their lives easier, but to sweep the exploitation of enslaved people under the rug.

"The dumbwaiter was not developed to save the enslaved people labour. It was invented to hide the enslaved people's labour from the guests, so that you could sit there with your dinner guests in the upstairs dining room, blissfully unaware of what was going on over there."

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Rushkoff said the mindset also exists in the average population, not just among Silicon Valley elites.

He remembers his father, who grew up in a poor neighbourhood in difficult conditions. He would say things like: "I worked hard, I got a job so I could get out of that neighbourhood and raise you in a better one."

But Rushkoff said that mentality won't always work, especially in an apocalyptic scenario.

"You can't adopt that idea of let's just get out to a better neighbourhood and leave those ones behind," he said. "You've got to finally turn around and say, no, we've got to make the whole neighbourhood better for everyone."

He said this mindset has especially trickled down in the pandemic.

"If you're wealthy enough … you could stay in your home and order things on Amazon and have workers deliver it [and] externalize the risk to all these other people," he said.

Ends justify the means no more

According to Rushkoff, the billionaires of today are in positions of power unlike anything seen before — and they've adopted "the most kind of rapacious form of venture capitalism as their religion."

"They're willing to disrupt the cab industry, the hotel industry, the book industry ... but they're not even thinking once about disrupting the underlying architecture of kind of extractive capitalism," he said.

Nonethless, Rushkoff believes most people are operating outside of the mindset, and realize how futile outrunning an apocalyptic scenario using wealth alone is. 

"I think we're becoming a bit less 'ends justify's the means' about things," he said. 

"I think we're coming to realize that if … you're not doing it in the moment, if you're not actually treating other people and your family and your community in a way that makes sense for everybody, it's going to catch up with you."

Produced by Julie Crysler.

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