A Political History of the Future: The Tech Billionaire at Lawyers, Guns & Money

It's been a long hiatus for A Political History of the Future, my LGM series about how science fiction depicts shifts in political, social, and economic systems. But the post that I finally got around to publishing today has been in the works for more than a year, and part of the reason that I took so long to put it together is that there kept being new material to incorporate and discuss. My topic is the figure of the tech billionaire, the internet-based successor to inventor-entrepreneurs like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, and how he's been depicted in fiction--and especially science fiction--in the last few decades.

By the 2000s, as personal computing and the internet became the new frontier of technological development, the entrepreneur-inventor had completed his transformation, from the more materially-grounded industrialist of Edison and Ford's type, to a prophet of cyberspace. Even when he was selling us physical gadgets—as Jobs did with the iPod and iPhone—what he was really selling was a way of life. A new way of communicating, gaining knowledge, forging relationships, and learning about the world. Which only further entrenched the perception that men like this had some insight into the human condition—and into how the future might change it—that the rest of us did not.

Unsurprisingly, that same alteration began to occur in fiction. When Tony Stark made his way to the big screen in 2008's Iron Man, he was explicitly likened to Paypal, Tesla, and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. Bestselling 2011 novel Ready Player One (later adapted into a movie by Stephen Spielberg) posited a world where everyone spends their time in the VR playground of a long-dead, Jobs-esque tech guru, who has, Willy Wonka-like, left behind clues for his most ardent admirers to follow so that they can be elevated to his position. CBS's Person of Interest (2011-2016) cast Michael Emerson as a tech entrepreneur who builds an AI capable of predicting crime, and then decides that the government can't be trusted with so powerful a tool. A 2017 Fox series, APB, imagined a future in which a billionaire fixes policing by purchasing a police precinct and outfitting it with the latest technology. Three years later, the channel returned with Next, in which John Slattery plays, yes, a tech billionaire, who is the only person on the planet who realizes that we are on the verge of being taken over by a malevolent AI. And, in what is probably the nadir of the entire franchise, Star Trek—supposedly set in a post-capitalist utopia that doesn’t even understand money—had a character drop Elon Musk's name as an example of a world-changing scientist who made a major contribution to human progress.
As I go on to discuss, one of the most interesting things about this figure is how porous the boundary is between fact and fiction where it is concerned. Many of the most famous real-world tech moguls of our era are clearly inspired by science fiction, cosplaying as figures from fantasy without any technological foundation for their self-mythologizing. And unfortunately, media and political leaders can be just as caught up in that fantasy as the men themselves, buying into technological flim-flam on the assumption that a person who has made money on the internet must be a prophet of technology. As I write in the article, this is a case where fiction has direct, and extremely dangerous, effects on reality, leaving us desperately in need of a new narrative about these sorts of men.


Z said…
I choose to believe, in Trek's defense, that the fact the Musk namedrop is eventually revealed to have come from a Machiavellian inhabitant of the evil Mirror Universe was in fact a pretty fair long joke.

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