Current Affairs

The Fake Nerd Boys of Silicon Valley

Managing Editor Lyta Gold on Star Trek, Silicon Valley’s lack of imagination, and the arrival of an unexpected future.

Would you like to own a working lightsaber? For a few hundred bucks, you can buy a realistic customizable imitation, made from plastic and LEDs. What about a Delorean, a.k.a. the time travel machine from Back to the Future? Starting in 2021, you might finally be able to buy a brand-new version of the classic 1980s car (flux capacitor not included). Would you like to hear a Silicon Valley luminary complain about the lack of real laser swords, time travel, flying cars, teleporters, or spaceships that can travel faster than light? Congratulations: that’s free, and it’s everywhere. Peter Thiel, the infamous libertarian-authoritarian investor, may have invented this trend a decade ago when he complained that the future—his present, now our past—didn’t measure up to expectations. “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters,” is a statement often attributed to him. In a 2011 New Yorker profile, Thiel expanded on his frustrations:

“One way you can describe the collapse of the idea of the future is the collapse of science fiction…Now it’s either about technology that doesn’t work or about technology that’s used in bad ways. The anthology of the top twenty-five sci-fi stories in 1970 was, like, ‘Me and my friend the robot went for a walk on the moon,’ and in 2008 it was, like, ‘The galaxy is run by a fundamentalist Islamic confederacy, and there are people who are hunting planets and killing them for fun.’”

In 2020, probably everyone not named Steven Pinker would agree that the “future” has been disappointing. Whether or not you were raised on a steady diet of whiz-bang heroic science fiction, the current dystopian hellworld of plague, economic depression, and looming climate disaster is nobody’s fantasy. Both Brianna Rennix and I have written about how the current run of science fiction and fantasy (SFF) tends toward stressful dystopias, mostly via the placid acceptance of capitalist realism (though to be perfectly honest I would probably read that planet-killing story.) There does seem to be a particular imaginative lack both in our popular fiction and in our reality, as we parse through the uncertainty of the next few months and the treacherous years to come.

Before the coronavirus crisis, Thiel and other Silicon Valley luminaries already had a solution: escape. Thiel personally favored seasteading, the art of building your own country on the high seas (a venture, as Aisling McCrea has chronicled for this magazine, that often ends in complete disaster). Jeff Bezos has set his sights on the moon, or pods in space, depending on the year. His space-faring company, Blue Origin, has been declared exempt from mandatory stay-at-home orders during the coronavirus crisis—not because the quest to colonize the solar system is considered “essential” to human flourishing, but because Blue Origin, like most other aerospace companies, has ongoing contracts with the U.S. government (Elon Musk’s SpaceX is also operational and intends to conduct tests in the near future). In fact, Blue Origin attempted to move forward with its scheduled April 10th launch of the New Shepard rocket, despite its Washington-based workers’ stated concerns about traveling to the Texas launch site and potentially carrying the virus with them to an under-resourced rural area. The New Shepard rocket, incidentally, is not intended for the salvation of humankind through multiplanetary homesteading, or even for some disturbing U.S. military project. Its purpose is “to eventually carry wealthy thrill-seekers to space where they’ll experience a few minutes of weightlessness” before returning back to earth. The tech outlet Verge quotes an anonymous employee, furious and frightened that they might be forced to travel to Texas and launch New Shepard during a pandemic: “What is essential about a vehicle that flies…billionaires to space?”

Elon Musk, famously interested in settling Mars, has also used the coronavirus crisis to engage in petty billionaire showboating. Having initially downplayed COVID-19 (he called early concerns “dumb”), Musk pressured his Tesla workers to report to their California factories despite the stay-at-home order. Since then he’s pivoted wildly to promoting hydroxychloroquine as a cure based on a faked scientific paper, and boasts of having delivered “ventilators” to stricken New York and California hospitals. These devices, as it turns out, were really sleep apnea machines capable of being cobbled together into makeshift second-rate ventilators, which to be fair is slightly better than nothing. Musk also claims that Tesla factories are hard at work making real ventilators, or ventilator parts, but as of the time of this writing they have yet to be finished or tested.

While the whole ventilator stunt is clearly another brand-building event for Musk, even in the most charitable interpretation it’s merely scrappy. He’s not building a better ventilator, some thrilling innovation that will save hundreds of lives, just giving away already-existent medical devices and (maybe) churning out some parts. His recent announcement of further SpaceX rocket tests—for the SN4, which had to be built after the SN3’s fuel tank dramatically failed in a previous test—feels similarly stunt-like and insufficient. “Elon Musk is determined neither the coronavirus nor anything else will stop him from making humankind a space-faring species,” an opinion columnist scribbles desperately in the Hill. “…It is by such determination that we shall defeat the virus and then go forth to the stars.” It is? How? We’ve built rockets before, including ones that didn’t explode. It doesn’t sound like any of our tech overlords’ efforts, from Tesla/SpaceX to Blue Origin, are remotely revolutionary, or futuristic, or even that exciting. None of it seems likely to get us much closer to building a civilization in outer space, or curing the microscopic virus that has crippled this one.

What went wrong? Why has the future been such a disappointment? It’s not the coronavirus itself; after all, the sense of future-failure has been present for the last decade or more. Peter Thiel, having seemingly given up on seasteading some years ago, is rumored to have moved to his bunker in New Zealand to wait out the virus, once again slightly ahead of the curve. In 2018, NASA released a report about the unlikelihood of settling on Mars, gently warning that Elon Musk’s plans to terraform the red planet are science fiction at best. We don’t have anything approaching the necessary technology, NASA reminded everyone, and we’re unlikely to develop it any time soon. Musk, while revising his Mars plan into domed cities for wealthy tourists, said rather plaintively, “You want to be inspired by things. You want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great. And that’s what being a spacefaring civilization is all about. It’s about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past.”

Honestly, I do want to wake up and be inspired by things. Right now, living in Queens in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, I would really, really like to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great. In fact, right now I would settle for “not a complete fucking nightmare.” But Elon Musk’s vision was clearly never going to get us there. His dreams have always been dystopian. In Salon, Keith A. Spencer gamed out what Musk’s rich-people resort on Mars would actually look like:

“Imagine signing away years of your life to be a housekeeper in the Mars-a-Lago hotel, with your communications, water, food, energy usage, even oxygen tightly managed by your employer, and no government to file a grievance to if your employer cuts your wages, harasses you, cuts off your oxygen. Where would Mars-a-Lago’s employees turn if their rights were impinged upon? Oh wait, this planet is run privately? You have no rights. Musk’s vision for Mars colonization is inherently authoritarian.” 

In a previous article for this magazine, Nathan J. Robinson pointed out similar truths about Jeff Bezos. Should the Amazon overlord succeed in his desire to build Moon colonies or space pods or orbital stations—rather than just send billionaires up and down in thrill rockets—he’ll have made another corporate dictatorship, Amazon in space. It’s already rather obvious if you look at Blue Origin. When workers expressed concerns about testing the New Shepard rocket during coronavirus, executives threatened to fire them. Jeff Ashby, the ‘senior mission assurance director,’ reportedly told employees, “I would say that you should ask yourself, as an individual, are you acting as a toxin in the organization, fanning discontent, or are you really trying to help our senior leaders make better decisions?” It does not appear to have occurred to Ashby that the senior leadership itself is the toxin in the organization, the virus, the heartless robot issuing orders that could get human beings needlessly killed. Utopia never arrives, despite all their dreaming, and management still doesn’t understand why.

Ironically, if Silicon Valley CEOs and the tech writers who adore them took a closer look at the science fiction and fantasy they profess to enjoy so much, they might find the answers right on the page. In a 2017 article for the New York Post, journalist Stephen Carter enthuses about Musk’s plans for Mars. He says they remind him of Philip K. Dick’s 1966 story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” (which may be better known as the source material for the Schwarzenegger movie Total Recall.) The first line of the story is, famously: “He awoke—and wanted Mars.” Carter says he first read this in an anthology in high school, which is reminiscent of Thiel’s nostalgia for that 1970 anthology with its robot pals on the moon. However, if you go back and reread Dick’s story, the out-of-context first line takes on very different qualities.

“We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” is the tale of a “miserable little salaried employee” who desperately wants to travel to Mars but can’t afford the trip. Consumed by his desire, he goes to a memory implantation center, hoping to be instilled with the memory of being a cool secret agent who’s been to Mars. In a classic Dickian twist, it appears that the protagonist is in fact a secret agent who already went to Mars (for the purposes of assassinating someone) and his deep-state former employer has succeeded in erasing his memory of the event except for his vestigial yearning to recover his past. Behind the scenes, the government is working with the memory-implant corporation to try to suppress the agent even further. Of course, if you haven’t read the story in years, you might only remember that first sentence and the protagonist’s desire for Mars, not the revelation of why he wants to go there, or the dystopian, paranoid, and psychologically distorted nature of Dick’s writing. That is, you might have forgotten what the story is really about.

Dystopian narratives like Dick’s were common in the 1960s and 1970s. A lot of utopian science fiction dates from this era as well, and it wasn’t all, or even mostly, “cool robot friends on the moon.” To start with, there are a number of excellent 1970s feminist utopias. But the best-known utopia of the time is, of course, Star Trek. The many iterations of Trek’s space-faring future are popular in Silicon Valley, but Thiel himself happens to not be a fan. When Maureen Dowd interviewed Peter Thiel for the New York Times, he revealed why he prefers Star Wars to Trek:

“I like ‘Star Wars’ way better. I’m a capitalist. ‘Star Wars’ is the capitalist show. ‘Star Trek’ is the communist one. There is no money in ‘Star Trek’ because you just have the transporter machine that can make anything you need. The whole plot of ‘Star Wars’ starts with Han Solo having this debt that he owes and so the plot in ‘Star Wars’ is driven by money.”

Thiel is likely being somewhat cute here (the Star Trek machine he’s referring to is a replicator, not a transporter, which could have been a mental error on his part but is probably a dig at pedantic nerds.) But, at the risk of being a pedantic nerd, it’s worth unpacking the rest of what Thiel said, because “the whole plot” of Star Wars is not, in fact, remotely driven by money. The original Star Wars movie begins with a long shot of the terrifying Star Destroyer, a gigantic piece of Imperial technology shaped like an enormous spearhead, which is chasing down a tiny ship of desperate rebels carrying the secret which can destroy the Empire’s greatest weapon. Capitalism is certainly present in the story—the smuggler Han Solo does have a debt that he owes—but it’s a minor element in the narrative at best. Star Wars is generally not much interested in political economy; its conflicts tend toward the political-philosophical-familial. And even when capitalism does appear, it doesn’t come off too well. At the end of The Empire Strikes Back, Han Solo is frozen into a slab of carbonite and shipped off to Jabba, his creditor, to be displayed like a trophy in Jabba’s palace. In the opening of the next movie, the heroes stage a brave rescue, and Jabba is strangled to death by one of his employees/slaves. The prequel and sequel Star Wars movies rarely reference capitalism at all, but in one of the more intelligent moments from The Last Jedi, a character points out that no matter who’s winning the war, the rich profiteers will always get their cut. It’s hard to imagine watching any of the Star Wars films and concluding, “You know what’s great? Capitalism!”

In general, capitalism does not make for plausible utopian, the-future-is-great fiction [1]. When capitalist societies appear in SFF, they’re usually a backdrop for dystopia or epic conflict. The obvious counterexample you might offer would be Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged—another favorite of both Thiel’s and Musk’s. But Galt’s Gulch is not a closed society, like most utopias; it’s dependent on capital derived from the labor of many other people who are still living outside, in a dystopian civilization. This, for Rand, is perfectly fine; the poor, as far as she’s concerned, are undeserving grotesques. Atlas Shrugged is essentially the flip side of a capitalist dystopia like The Hunger Games or Altered Carbon—there are the rulers, and the ruled; a utopia for a few, and a dystopia for most.

This accords perfectly well for someone like Thiel, who is not a fan of equality. An open supporter of Donald Trump, Thiel has stood by through the worst of Trump’s immigration restrictions, voter disenfranchisement, and environmental degradations. In the New Yorker, George Packer explains Thiel’s mindset: “In Thiel’s techno-utopia, a few thousand Americans might own robot-driven cars and live to a hundred and fifty, while millions of others lose their jobs to computers that are far smarter than they are, then perish at sixty.”

Beyond science fiction and the disturbing dreams of billionaires, capitalist utopian schemes are not particularly functional in real life. An attempt to build Galt’s Gulch in Chile—a “completely transaction-based community”—ended up being an immediate grift and a fraud. People “bought” pockets of land that were not actually available for purchase, and lost thousands of dollars in the process. But, given the nature of capitalism, this is hardly a surprise. If, as capitalists insist, greed and selfishness are the human condition, then there can be no cooperation, no democracy, no utopia—only a permanent, rugged battle for survival. In a “completely transaction-based community,” you’re either the cheater or the cheated. The great RJ Eskow points out that “Atlas Shrugged actually celebrates fraud—at least against those whom Rand despises. These [fraud] charges [in Galt’s Gulch Chile] aren’t an aberration. They’re the inevitable outcome of Rand’s own philosophy.” 

Rand’s philosophy is marked by an unresolvable tension between its own vaunted utopianism and its actual, predictable outcomes. For all that socialism is the ideology derided as dreamy utopianism—and authoritarian communist states the inevitable outcome of such radical schemes as universal healthcare—it’s capitalism that positions itself as the true promised land that can never be reached, the ever-distant American dream. Neoliberalism, capitalism’s current flavor and direct descendant of Rand’s philosophy, is particularly guilty of this. Neoliberals, as George Monbiot writes, believe in a “utopian, millenarian faith describ[ing] a neutral force; a kind of biological law, like Darwin’s theory of evolution.” Witness Steven Pinker, the high priest of neoliberalism, telling us over and over that the world is constantly getting better thanks to capitalism and development. The New York Times ran an article titled “Steven Pinker Thinks The Future is Looking Bright” in 2018, the same year Vox praised Pinker in a syrupy interview titled “The Case for Optimism.” This was all infuriating at the time, but now, mid-COVID, it’s bitterly hilarious. The neoliberal utopia of the past three or four decades was one in which many people were permitted to suffer, as long as the suffering was slowly being reduced according to cherry-picked data points such as access to cell phones, clean water, and nominal democracy. It seems that neoliberalism is a system that cannot weather crises, either a pandemic or the weather itself, which is still slowly and inexorably turning on us, and taking those cell phones and clean water and nominal democracy with it.

The days are growing darker. I would guess that after nostalgic space dreams, the next imaginative phase for Silicon Valley will be neo-feudalism. This is an easy prophecy to make, because it’s already begun. The best-known proponent of neo-feudalism in Silicon Valley is Curtis Yarvin, a “mouthbreathing Machiavelli,” as Corey Pein described him in the Baffler. Voluntarily writing under the pen name “Mencius Moldbug,” Yarvin advocates an anti-democratic ethos known as the “Dark Enlightenment,” which “oppose[s] popular suffrage, egalitarianism and pluralism.” You might expect Moldbug to be just some internet crank, but he’s relatively wealthy and influential—largely thanks to Peter Thiel, who has invested in several of Moldbug’s ventures. As Pein points out, “there is definitely a whiff of something Moldbuggy in Thiel’s own writing. For instance, Thiel echoed Moldbug in an infamous 2009 essay for the Cato Institute in which he explained that he had moved beyond libertarianism. [Thiel wrote] ‘I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.’” Thiel also said that the extension of voting rights to women plus the existence of too many “welfare beneficiaries” makes “capitalist democracy” impossible (after public outcry, he walked back his comments about women’s suffrage at least.)

Thiel does not often write directly about his ideology; Moldbug, on the other hand, once churned out lengthy purple-prose screeds about the glories of authoritarianism. (He took a long hiatus, but recently returned to publishing on the right-wing site The American Mind, a project of the conservative think tank known as the Claremont Institute.) Moldbug’s interminable posts—which somehow, even through a computer screen, carry an odor of mildew—involve a lot of tired references to The Matrix and are also “heavily informed by the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and George Lucas.” It’s not hard to imagine Thiel reading this tripe with an approving nod. Thiel, as we already know, loves Star Wars. Beyond his affection for its latent capitalism, that 2011 New Yorker profile noted that a building housing several of Thiel’s venture capital firms is “decorated with statuary of Darth Vader and Yoda,” and the London offices of his company Palantir features at least one stormtrooper in a bullet-proof vest. Capitalism can’t buy utopia, or happiness, or rockets that don’t explode, or even kingship (yet), but it can absolutely buy fiberglass statues of pop culture characters.

But it’s Tolkien that Thiel is really fascinated with, and you could make the argument that the Lord of the Rings is the ur-text of Silicon Valley, even more so than Atlas Shrugged. While basically everyone who loves the polemical Atlas Shrugged cites its politics as the chief attraction, the politics of Lord of the Rings are somewhat more ambiguous. Tolkien variously described himself as an anarchist and an “unconstitutional monarchist,” and his books are simultaneously a critique of power and a celebration of monarchy. Rather than tease out these interesting and often contradictory themes, the Tolkien superfans of Silicon Valley seem to have a somewhat shallower appreciation of the books. Alex Farr, the CEO of a startup called Zammo, told CNBC, “It just is a great story…It’s just a beautiful story of which direction in your life you can go.” The CNBC article—titled “Why Silicon Valley Is Obsessed With ‘Lord of the Rings’”—mentions that Farr has named his cars after Legolas, his horses after Gandalf, and his own home after the Shire. “[Farr] also frequently attends and hosts LOTR [Lord of the Rings]-themed dinner parties and events with others in the tech industry.” He’s hardly the only one in Silicon Valley to express his fandom through property names or themed parties. Sean Parker—the founder of Napster and a friend of Thiel’s—had a Tolkien-themed wedding on Big Sur, spending $4.5 million to turn sections of the California park into “a wooded fantasyland.” And Thiel himself has named at least five companies after people, places, and artifacts in Tolkien’s works.

The best known of these companies is probably the aforementioned Palantir, the all-purpose surveillance and “data processing” corporation. In Tolkien’s legendarium, a palantir is a “seeing-stone,” a sort of crystal ball that can reveal things far away in both space and time. There are seven in total, and they can communicate with each other. Since the chief villain Sauron possesses a palantir of his own, and anyone who attempts to use one of the other palantiri is almost certain to fall under his control, this ends up being a fairly serious problem. “Maybe Palantir didn’t really think through the connotations that come with that,” said Andy Ellis, yet another Silicon Valley Tolkien fan interviewed by CNBC. “But maybe when you look at the company and its clients, it might be an appropriate name.” 

You may be familiar with Palantir from such scandals as: Operation Laser, a Minority Report-esque project of the LAPD “to identify and deter people likely to commit crimes”; a similar predictive-policing tool used in New Orleans; and, most infamously, Palantir’s contract with ICE. Palantir helped ICE “build profiles of immigrant children and their family members for the prosecution and arrest of any undocumented person they encountered in their investigation” and provided data support for other acts of cold-blooded cruelty that were deemed “mission critical” by ICE. Palantir CEO Alex Karp (another massive Tolkien fan who refers to the Palantir office as ‘the Shire’) refused to stop working with ICE even as employees reportedly begged him to end the contract. As detailed by the Wall Street Journal, Karp reassured his employees that “Palantir helps stem the cross-border flow of drugs, not separate families.” This, according to internal documents obtained by the Intercept and the immigrants rights organization Mijente, is a bald-faced lie. Thanks to Palantir’s data work, “unaccompanied children were taken by border agents, sent to privately-run facilities, and held indefinitely. Any undocumented parent or family member who came forward to claim children was arrested by ICE for deportation. More children were kept in detention longer, as relatives stopped coming forward.”

You can see why Thiel, who at least once identified as a libertarian, and Karp, who has variously described himself as a socialist and a neo-Marxist (whatever the fuck that is) might be uncomfortable with admitting to having aided and abetted ICE in separating families, if only for—as the Wall Street Journal puts it—Palantir’s “public-perception problem.” But working with organizations like ICE is part of Palantir’s original mission. In 2011, Thiel said “civil libertarians ought to embrace Palantir, because data mining is less repressive than the ‘crazy abuses and draconian policies’ proposed after Sept. 11.” He argued that “the best way to prevent another catastrophic attack without becoming a police state…was to give the government the best surveillance tools possible, while building in safeguards against their abuse.”

Incidentally, this sounds like something straight out of Lord of the Rings. In fact, it sounds like a very specific scene from The Fellowship of the Ring, where the wizard Saruman—fresh from using his palantir and being ensnared by the evil Sauron on the other end of it—tries to convince Gandalf to join them, claiming that Sauron’s victory is inevitable:

“As the Power grows, its proved friends will also grow; and the Wise, such as you and I, may with patience come at last to direct its courses, to control it. We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order…”

A number of Tolkien scholars have pointed out that this particular speech of Saruman’s may be a riff on Neville Chamberlain’s arguments for appeasing Hitler. Whether or not art initially imitated life, life has once again imitated art: Tolkien superfans Thiel and Karp have ended up parroting their favorite book’s second-rate villain, aiding ICE in work that would make an evil wizard blush.

“Whatever else you might think about Peter Thiel,” writes Maria Bustillos in New York Magazine, “he is a terrible literary critic. The Lord of the Rings is his favorite book, but he has apparently got no earthly idea what it is about.” Tolkien’s work is thematically complex, and there’s plenty of racism, feudal nostalgia, and reactionary sentiment mixed in, but it’s pretty clear that however much these Silicon Valley nerds like to attend Lord of the Rings-themed parties or name their prized possessions after its characters, they don’t really understand the larger meaning of the books at all—especially the clear warnings against allying with evil, the corrupting influence of power, and the negative effect of greed on the natural world. Sean Parker, the Napster founder with the Tolkien-themed wedding, had to pay the California Coastal Commission a legal settlement of $2.5 million because of “potential destruction to old-growth redwood forest from all the digging, bulldozing and building of fake ruins.” Destroying ancient trees for some tacky Lord of the Rings wedding! It’s hard to imagine anything less in keeping with the story’s themes, or more hateful to Tolkien himself.

We’ve all known the sort of geeks who will quote at length from their favorite pop culture movies, and make constant, out-of-context references to the stories they love. You may have once been this geek yourself. But you probably left it all behind in high school, retaining your fondness for these stories but developing a more critical, nuanced understanding of these narratives and why you love them so much. Not so our tech overlords. As George Packer noted for the New Yorker, “[Thiel] seems uneasy with the world of grownup feelings, as if he were still a precocious youth.” Packer goes further:

“Thiel and his circle in Silicon Valley may be able to imagine a future that would never occur to other people precisely because they’ve refused to leave that stage of youthful wonder which life forces most human beings to outgrow. Everyone finds justification for his or her views in logic and analysis, but a personal philosophy often emerges from some archaic part of the mind, an early idea of how the world should be. Thiel is no different. He wants to live forever, have the option to escape to outer space or an oceanic city-state, and play chess against a robot that can discuss Tolkien, because these were the fantasies that filled his childhood imagination.”

Contra to Packer, I think there’s actually a lot of value in retaining childish wonder, and never losing your ability to imagine a different world. This specific Silicon Valley obsession with pop culture objects is certainly a function of immaturity, but it’s not really about imagination. In fact, it’s something of the opposite.

A few years ago, David Rose, an inventor and proponent of “the Internet of Things” made headlines for what he termed “enchanted objects.” The reason, he said, that people were reluctant to adopt Google Glass and smart fridges and wifi-enabled toilets is that these devices lack a sense of drama and enchantment. Rose argued that these objects needed to feel magical. Inspired by—you guessed it—Lord of the Rings, Rose created such useful inventions as an umbrella handle that glows when it’s about to rain, and an orb that displays the weather. (The specific reference point from Tolkien’s legendarium is the sword Sting and other blades from Gondolin, which turn blue when people of a hated race get too close.) Rose’s light-up umbrellas and glowing orbs sound quite pretty, but so is the view out your window. The “Internet of Things” still remains less popular than projected, not because the objects that comprise it lack enchantment, but because no matter how nice the design, none of this shit is really that imaginative, or useful. The Juicero ended up being a $400 substitute for ordinary, unenchanted human hands that can squeeze a smoothie packet. Nobody has ever needed the “Internet of Things”: it’s always been a catalog of ain’t-it-cool garbage for unhappy nerds with more money than sense.

As long as we live under capitalism, new hardware and software will only have two real purposes: to collect data, and to sell it. Inventors and investors can claim whatever specific inspiration from Tolkien they like, but every single one of the enchanted objects in our midst is a palantir. Suburban neighbors use Google Nest or the aptly named Amazon Ring to spy on each other (and to let the police spy on them); employers use a variety of techniques to monitor their employees’ every move. As Nicole Aschoff writes in Jacobin, “Microchips, mobile spyware, and perpetual, individualized monitoring are all part of capital’s fantasy of twenty-first-century scientific management—a future in which our movements, impulses, and rhythms are perfectly adapted to the needs of profit-making.” ‘The future’—our present—is capital’s fantasy, and that’s why it’s a nightmare. We live in a hell of black magic, and it’s not even composed of original or imaginative spells: just random objects dragged out of previous works and remembered for us, half-sale. 

“I think it is important that we become a space-faring civilization,” said Elon Musk in 2019, “and be out there among the stars… We want the things that are in science fiction novels and movies not be science fiction forever. We want them to be real one day.” Notice what he wants to be real: the things. The objects. I am sure that Musk and his fellow Silicon Valley nerds’ love of science fiction and fantasy is genuine, but they appear to love it for all the wrong reasons: for its trappings, its gadgets, its settings, its stuff. Lightsabers and spaceships, time travel and epic battles, magic swords and magic stones.

Art by Chris Matthews

Science fiction and fantasy, of course, are not simply stories about being in space, or possessing enchanted objects (which, in most stories, invariably comes at a cost). And they aren’t really stories about what is going to happen, or should happen, in the future. Ursula K. Le Guin claims in the introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness that novels set in the future aren’t actually about the future at all. She writes:

All fiction is metaphor. Science fiction is metaphor. What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors, drawn from certain great dominants of our contemporary lifescience, all the sciences, and technology, and the relativistic and the historical outlook, among them. Space travel is one of these metaphors; so is an alternative society, an alternative biology; the future is another. The future, in fiction, is a metaphor.

A metaphor for what?

If I could have said it non-metaphorically, I would not have written all these words, this novel…

To be fair, it would probably be easier for Silicon Valley luminaries to understand the metaphoric qualities of fiction if they didn’t have such contempt for the humanities. Thiel is openly opposed to higher education for most people: he offers a paid fellowship for kids who will skip college in favor of launching startups. In 2018 he said on Dave Rubin’s podcast, “One of the downsides of too much education is that you get the most brainwashed.” Musk too has recently scoffed at higher learning, saying, “You don’t need college to learn stuff.” I agree this may be perfectly true for some people, but Thiel and Musk themselves could stand to take a middle-school literature course.

The problem, ultimately, is not what these men have read or how they read it, but that they possess the capital to try to launch their misunderstanding of SFF into reality. And when that reality fails to materialize—as it always will, because capitalism forbids real utopia, and, as Vanessa A. Bee has explained, also inevitably stifles innovation—they become frustrated and either retreat with all their billions, or simply set about conquering humanity.

Jeff Bezos is one of these would-be conquerors. He also happens to love science fiction, and Star Trek in particular. According to a recent, slavish Atlantic profile, Bezos identifies particularly with Captain Jean-Luc Picard, although he’s enamored with the entire property and all its spinoffs. “[Bezos] has a holding company called Zefram, which honors the character who invented warp drive. He persuaded the makers of the film Star Trek Beyond to give him a cameo as a Starfleet official. He named his dog Kamala, after a woman who appears in an episode as Picard’s ‘perfect’ but unattainable mate.” Again, names, references, objects, even deep cuts from bad episodes: but not anything resembling meaning, theme, purpose. Star Trek, as Thiel said, is the communist one—and Bezos is the living antithesis of communist ideals. He’s currently worth $139 billion. He has fired workers who organized to protest the unsafe conditions in his warehouse, both during the pandemic and before it. He has been trying, through Amazon, to achieve complete market dominance in every sector. “The man who styles himself as the heroic Jean-Luc Picard,” Franklin Foer writes nervously in the Atlantic, “has thus built a business that better resembles Picard’s archenemy, the Borg, a society-swallowing entity that informs victims, You will be assimilated and Resistance is futile.” 

At the end, the collector’s mania for the objects of science fiction deepens into a desire to literally become an object, to absorb all life into itself; to become, like the Borg, an extended living thing. The quest for eternal life, or brain-uploading, or to have a perfectly optimized body—all popular Silicon Valley obsessions—are really about controlling the messy unpredictability of fate, the future that can’t be predicted or directed. When it comes to Amazon and the “Internet of Things,” we’re told by the tech press that “resistance is futile” precisely because it isn’t. If it were, why insist on it? If there’s nothing to be done, why bother to tell us that all hope is lost?

In the third volume of Lord of the Rings, Denethor, the Steward of Gondor, looks into his palantir and tries to see the future. Thanks to Sauron’s subtle manipulation of his perceptions, Denethor sees his city burning. This is a true event that will happen, but one that has been decontextualized; it’s not the end of Gondor’s history, just one event that will happen. However, convinced that the city will be destroyed and the future is lost, Denethor commits suicide, nearly taking his son with him in the process. Power always tries to convince us that the future it sees is inevitable, but it rarely ever is, unless we allow it.

I’m obviously very fond of science fiction and fantasy, even if these fake nerd boys keep trying to ruin it for everyone. These are, again, complex works open to varying interpretations, including disturbing and reactionary ones. But at the end of the day, stories are about things, not merely receptacles for things. Looking at Thiel’s best beloved Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, we see a shared plot element in both narratives. The heroes are trying to destroy the most dangerous object in their respective universes: the Ring of Power and the Death Star. What these objects represent metaphorically is complicated (as Le Guin says, if it could be summed up easily there would be no need for the stories.) But, in oversimplified form, the Ring stands in for the seduction of absolute power and authoritarian control; the Death Star is a similar ultimate weapon of empire. You can, of course, buy a replica One Ring off the internet, or a Lego Death Star (the first Death Star or the second, and even Starkiller Base from the rehashed new films) but there is no getting around the fact that within these narratives, these powerful objects end, and they are supposed to end, and their ending causes or dovetails with the destruction of a cruel authoritarian regime. This is not a minor plot point like Han Solo’s debt to Jabba. It’s not the cool ornamentation of less important objects like shiny blue swords. This is the entire thrust of these stories. But the fake nerd boys of Silicon Valley don’t want the objects to end. They want it all to continue forever. And so the future will always be, for them, terribly disappointing. 

In his 2009 Cato Institute essay—the same one in which he said democracy was incompatible with freedom—Thiel wrote: 

“…we are in a deadly race between politics and technology. The future will be much better or much worse, but the question of the future remains very open indeed. We do not know exactly how close this race is, but I suspect that it may be very close, even down to the wire…The fate of our world may depend on the effort of a single person who builds or propagates the machinery of freedom that makes the world safe for capitalism.”

In 2020, the question of the future still remains open. The race is now closer than ever; we stand, maybe, on the edge of a knife. “Making the world safe for capitalism” is even more laughably impossible now than it was in 2009; thanks to the coronavirus it’s clearer than ever that capitalism is a system that can only devolve into destruction and death. This either hasn’t occurred to Thiel, or he doesn’t mind so long as its costs are borne by people who are not himself. He doesn’t also seem to notice or care that there is no such thing as “the machinery of freedom” and that utopia is only meaningful if founded for everyone and not just for some. In The Two Towers, Gandalf explains to the other heroes that they have an advantage; Sauron would never assume they would try to destroy the Ring of Power. He would expect them to use it as a weapon, destroying Sauron and replacing him at the top of the social order. Gandalf says, “That we should wish to cast him down and have no one in his place is not a thought that occurs to his mind. That we should try to destroy the Ring itself has not yet entered into his darkest dream.”

[1] The only real exception to the rule of capitalist utopias that I know of is Nancy Kress’ underrated—and deeply disturbing—Beggars in Spain (1993). Operating under a slightly less cold-blooded version of Rand’s ideology, Kress posits a utopian society of genetically sleepless, hyper-efficient elites ruling over a mass of stupid citizenry made passive by drugs and entertainment (yes, this is portrayed as a good thing). It’s a well-written and functional story, but only if you accept its basic meritocratic-feudalistic premise that some people are simply born smarter and more deserving than others.

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