The day a tech billionaire takes over the world

Armies of online loyalists defend cult figures like Elon Musk. Is a corporate autocrat in our future?

Published September 18, 2019 7:00PM (EDT)

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg smiles while testifying before a joint hearing of the Commerce and Judiciary Committees on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 10, 2018, about the use of Facebook data to target American voters in the 2016 election. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik/Scribner/Salon)
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg smiles while testifying before a joint hearing of the Commerce and Judiciary Committees on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 10, 2018, about the use of Facebook data to target American voters in the 2016 election. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik/Scribner/Salon)

Excerpted from "THE DAY IT FINALLY HAPPENS" by Mike Pearl. Copyright © 2019 by Mike Pearl. Reprinted with permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Likely in this century? > Probably not, but watch out

Plausibility Rating > 2/5

Scary? > Extremely

Worth changing habits? > Yes

The glasses were there one day, and the next day it was like they’d never existed. Lee can’t be at fault. Lee is great. Everyone loves Lee.

Ever since they eclipsed smartphones, the market for augmented reality glasses has always been dominated by two Korean brands: Nex and Fantasee. Nex glasses, from Lee Cheong-Hoon’s company, Nex Corporation, are ugly and clunky, but everyone has a pair. Fantasee glasses are elegant and they work better, but they never sold as well, and Lee was always telling Fantasee president Kim Eun-hye that he wanted to buy her company. She always said no.

Kim always said she was friends with Lee. They were “rivals,” not enemies. Everyone had a sneaking suspicion that was a lie—that they hated each other’s guts—but no one would ever say that out loud.

For a decade, Nex Corporation had been the world’s most valuable company, presided over by the world’s richest man, Lee Cheong-Hoon. Nex was seemingly everywhere—its name advertised on restaurants, stores, news sites, clothing, and appliances—but it was also nowhere, because the company was governed, driven, and staffed by an advanced AI, which was a public relations masterstroke. Lee, ever the benevolent face of the company, could publicly scold the AI, his employee, for a particularly unseemly or underhanded hostile takeover, and people would continue to adore him.

You couldn’t go anywhere in the world without seeing “tributes” to Lee. Nex Corporation had more cameras than anyone could count on many cars, planes, drones, and satellites, and a simple tribute like “I LOVE LEE” cut into a field of wheat, or spelled out in roofing tiles, or projected into the sky, could be singled out for a prize. A prize from Nex could be something small, like a gift card, or something life-changing, like a visit from Lee. Regardless of what you won, you were the person of the hour. The impact on your social media score made it all worth it.

And if some moron who didn’t care about prizes spoke up and said something bad about Lee, or said they thought Kim was a better leader, the crowd knew what to do without prompting. Whenever Lee had a new enemy, winning the Nex leader’s favor became like a contest. Get the person fired, ruin their marriage, or get their kids taken away, and a great prize was in store.

But still, Fantasee had always been right there next to Nex on store shelves. Nex glasses were cheaper, and much more customizable, and if they broke, you could repair them yourself instead of taking them to an authorized repair shop. You could access unauthorized custom realities with Fantasee glasses. For a lot of people — especially those who didn’t care for Nex — these realities were their source of community. Winning prizes from Nex Corporation didn’t appeal to everyone, but outside of Fantasee communities, it seemed like everything everyone did was an attempt to win a prize.

In fact, even though no one said it (who would dare, when there were Nex microphones in all of the company’s products?), it was as if Nex had begun making all the rules. No matter what country you were in, the Nex terms of service document was the law. Lee was everyone’s “best friend,” or so they said. Since there was so much to gain from saying so, and since there was no telling what might happen if Lee heard you hated him, who would ever say otherwise?

But it was bewildering for everyone when Nex Corporation bought the last of the retailers that sold Fantasee glasses, and promised Fantasee would nonetheless stay in business. Almost everyone said the move was great news, and that Lee would definitely keep his word, but privately, people thought that couldn’t be true. Still, there was no sense making a fuss about it. What could anyone do?

But in the “deep realities” you could access only with Fantasee glasses (and only after “jailbreaking” them), you could find a lot of people who didn’t think this was going to be good. But by that time not a lot of people visited those places anymore. Everyone knew if you weren’t using official Nex channels, you couldn’t win a prize. And then all at once, they were gone. You couldn’t buy Fantasee glasses in stores, and as an added layer of surprise, Nex bought up all those unauthorized realities in one fell swoop. They were gone. Fantasee glasses were worthless. One day, Kim appeared on TV looking happy with Lee, and she said she couldn’t have been prouder of her friend Lee and his big success.

If anyone didn’t believe her, they never said so.

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If I’m perfectly honest, I’d love to be the emperor of the entire world. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I live my life with the goal of ascending to some position of global power, and I don’t think I actually deserve this kind of power—no one does. If you came up to me in a bar and asked me if I want to be the Lord of All That Exists, I would say, “No, absolutely not, don’t be stupid,” like a reasonable person. But things would be different if you shook me out of a sound sleep and said,

“Quick! I have to get rid of the Crystal of Infinite Power!” I’m certain I would shout, “Give me the crystal!” before some nobler part of my superego had time to step in to tell me to cast it into a volcano instead of trying to possess it.

I suspect, however, that there are people who have the same wicked urges as I do, and would happily act on them given the chance. It’s just that universal domination is kind of a vague concept.

That seems to be the whole joke in "Pinky and the Brain," a cartoon in which a hyper-intelligent lab mouse wants, in no uncertain terms, “to take over the world.” To do this, he usually wants to mix together some mind control drug with a silly secret ingredient, or he plans to distract the populace by some silly means, ostensibly so he can access the levers of power. But again, he never gets that far. Then there are the "Star Wars"movies. If you recall the evil emperor Sheev Palpatine in the Star Wars universe, he apparently rules over all known planets, even though his empire doesn’t seem to govern with a heavy hand, which leaves large pockets of dissent all over the galaxy.

The clearest articulation I’ve seen of world domination in fiction was on "The Simpsons." In the episode “Treehouse of Horror V,” we briefly see a universe in which Ned Flanders is “unquestioned lord and master of the world.” Flanders appears in the homes of his “slaverinos” via a dual-purpose surveillance and propaganda delivery screen a la the viewscreen in "1984," and naturally, Big Brother Ned just wants everyone to be cheerful. When Homer expresses negativity, he’s sent to a reeducation camp, given smile therapy, and, when that fails, he’s placed in line for a lobotomy.

Silly as all this “taking over the world” stuff may sound, according to Hans Morgenthau’s 1948 "Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace," one of the foundational texts on foreign policy theory and power politics, it’s a wonder it hasn’t happened already. Morgenthau writes that theorists “have conceived the balance of power generally as a protective device of an alliance of nations, anxious for their independence, against another nation’s designs for world domination, then called universal monarchy.” The position of universal monarch has, thankfully, never been achieved, not even by Alexander the Great, who, according to legend, “wept for there were no more worlds to conquer.” (Alexander actually stopped conquering worlds when he got to western India.)

But what if instead of killing your way to owning the world, you bought it instead?

Until Jeff Bezos came along — a guy whose fortune briefly topped the $150 billion mark in 2018 before a slight downturn — John D. Rockefeller was probably the richest person in history, assuming you adjust for inflation. His company, Standard Oil, had a monopoly in the US, and considerable control over the US economy — a grip that proved very difficult to loosen. But while Rockefeller may have possessed many Bond villain powers, he also confronted fierce global competitors who kept him in check, and Standard Oil itself was far from impervious to the intervention of the US government. The company’s monopoly was eventually dissolved by order of the US Supreme Court in 1911.

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Today’s ultra-rich, on the other hand, create networks of power that can extend to any — and perhaps every — country in the world. Much of the control over the corporate world now appears to be in the hands of a single “super-entity,” according to “The Network of Global Corporate Control,” a 2011 study produced by three systems theory researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. They analyzed the power structures of 43,060 transnational corporations, culled from the world’s “30 million economic actors,” and found that nearly 40 percent of the control over the global economy is held by a group of 147 transnational corporations that in turn form a single coherent entity with control over its own actions.

Taking things a step further, that study notes that about 75 percent of the businesses in that group are “financial intermediaries,” or, in other words, banks and bank-like financial entities, such as pension funds. This means the reins of power are in the hands of the people who make those companies’ investment decisions—though the study also points out that according to some theories of corporate control, “financial institutions do not invest in equity shares in order to exert control.” But in any case, it looks like we’ve been headed down a path for some time toward the decline of states as the centers of global power, and toward a more corporate-dominated world.

According to sociologists like Gary Gereffi, emeritus professor at Duke University, the modern corporation isn’t a citizen of any state, but a giant transnational blob having what he refers to as a “global value chain.” There’s a famous group of powerful individuals with notoriously expansive global value chains: the titans of Silicon Valley. Their business ethos is known as “disruption”—creating a piece of technology that violates norms and upsets the status quo. And some of them want to disrupt literally everything.

Balaji Srinivasan, a Silicon Valley big ideas guy and the chief technology officer of the cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase, believes that the momentum of tech companies is reaching an escape velocity that may soon propel them beyond being mere companies. Ultimately, that momentum will allow them to (A) do absolutely whatever they want, and (B) make governments obsolete. Consumer demand, he argues, is a force that simply won’t be cowed by government regulators. “Uber, Airbnb, Stripe, Square, and of course y’know, the big one, Bitcoin, are all things that threaten [Washington,] DC’s power,” Srinivasan told a start-up conference in 2013. “It is not necessarily clear that the US government can ban something that it wants to ban anymore.”

Then Srinivasan transitioned into talking about “rule”—suggesting quite openly that Silicon Valley may soon be the center of power, at least for the US. He argued that Silicon Valley deserves to be in charge, despite the fact that, as he said, “the emerging meme is that rule by [Silicon Valley] is rule by terminators,” so he offers a counterargument: “DC’s rule is more like a ruined building in Detroit.” And then he noted that trying to win a war against the US is probably unwise, saying, “They have aircraft carriers. We don’t. We don’t actually want to fight them.” Nonetheless, “warfare is going to become software. Laws are going to become code. Management via robotics is going to become automation.”

You probably already see where this is going, but I’ll spell it out for you anyway: Srinivasan, with his antigovernment views and his clear megalomaniacal streak, would like to work for, of all things, the United States government. Specifically, he met with the US president in 2017 about possibly becoming head of the US Food and Drug Administration, an organization he allegedly thinks shouldn’t exist.

Before I get carried away, please know that I am not about to take a hard right turn into conspiracy theories. Srinivasan hasn’t expressed any interest in establishing a world government with himself as its figurehead, and I’m not saying that he could do so, even if he worked for the US government. But I am saying Srinivasan and his ilk clearly have the best shot at accomplishing this sort of thing. Srinivasan isn’t nearly as rich as some of his disruptor friends like PayPal billionaire Peter Thiel (one of the venture capitalists who partly funded Coinbase and recommended

Srinivasan to the president), but he’s part of the tech establishment, a group that, for whatever reason, almost universally believes in the pursuit of limitless wealth and total autonomy as a kind of birthright.

But real-world domination probably requires a bigger fortune than Thiel’s or Srinivasan’s, and at the moment that means a good person to look closely at is Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who cultivates a more affable image than his frenemy, the more openly villainous Thiel. Bezos nonetheless has well-publicized libertarian leanings. That’s not a crime, but as of this writing, Bezos is (according to my own back-of-the-envelope number crunching) the proud owner of so much wealth that approximately 1/2000th of all the money or assets in the world belongs to him.

The sheer size of one tech titan’s fortune is troubling when you consider that what Srinivasan said about regulations is actually very true. As Barry Lynn, executive director of the Open Markets Institute, a liberal think tank, told New York Times commentator Farhad Manjoo in 2017, “Individuals, lawmakers, we’re all feeling a rapid loss of control and power around [tech] companies.”

And as Manjoo pointed out, Bezos’s massive wealth accumulation is coming at a time when tech companies are “creating machines that could one day approximate and surpass human intelligence—a technological achievement that may come with as many complications as the advent of nuclear weapons.” Manjoo added that tech profits produce “vast riches to a relative few employees and investors in liberal West Coast enclaves, while passing over much of the rest of the world.”

Philosopher Peter Asaro, spokesman for the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, shares my fear (which I learned when I was investigating “the singularity” for Vice). The singularity risk that people worry about—the threat of computers becoming so powerful that they’ll outsmart us and enslave us—doesn’t make much sense on closer inspection, but Asaro pointed out to me that true artificial intelligence is nonetheless pretty scary if AIs start running companies with “no individual and no group of people [able to] really guide them anymore.”

For a preview of what it would be like for everybody to be ruled by one unofficial but undeniable corporate dictator, one only need look at the soft power a large company is able to project when it flexes its muscles. The kind of reverence people once exhibited toward monarchs seems to be hardwired into their DNA, but today they seem to only show this kind of fealty toward corporations.

For instance, when Amazon announced plans to build a second headquarters outside of Seattle, city governments all over North America signaled their willingness to do absolutely anything to win the contest: New York City mayor Bill de Blasio turned every possible light in his city orange; Tucson, Arizona, offered up a giant saguaro cactus as a tribute; and the Ottawa Senators compelled a stadium full of hockey fans to cheer as loudly as possible for Amazon. Meanwhile, Tesla founder

Elon Musk commands an army of social media followers who attack his critics, seemingly in their spare time, just because they admire Musk. In 2018, a Musk critic named Erin Biba was hounded on Twitter, on Instagram, in email, and elsewhere after the billionaire’s followers saw him fire back at her. Messages she received included “Go shove your fake news up your grimy c**t.”

In some ways, it’s hard to imagine that an undisputed corporate overlord would have much of an interest in operating like a twentieth- or twenty-first-century despot. While Latin American dictators, for example, crack down on free speech, and kidnap and murder their critics, corporations, on the other hand, normally get what they want by offering people opportunities to advance or by simply giving them free stuff. Although it’s worth noting that corporations like Chiquita are alleged to have been complicit in the activities of Colombian death squads in the late nineties and early 2000s. So maybe a corporate autocrat would be just as bloodthirsty as a regular autocrat.

Still, it’s unlikely that Jeff Bezos or some other tech billionaire is on the verge of staging a global coup any time soon.

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Excerpted from "THE DAY IT FINALLY HAPPENS" by Mike Pearl. Copyright © 2019 by Mike Pearl. Reprinted with permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

By Mike Pearl