Tech Billionaires Need to Stop Trying to Make the Science Fiction They Grew Up on Real

Tech Billionaires Need to Stop Trying to Make the Science Fiction They Grew Up on Real

December 20, 2023

5 min read

Today’s Silicon Valley billionaires grew up reading classic American science fiction. Now they’re trying to make it come true, embodying a dangerous political outlook

By Charles Stross

3D illustration of male science fiction humanoid cyborg rising behind modern city against ominous sky

Science fiction (SF) influences everything in this day and age, from the design of everyday artifacts to how we—including the current crop of 50-something Silicon Valley billionaires—work. And that’s a bad thing: it leaves us facing a future we were all warned about, courtesy of dystopian novels mistaken for instruction manuals.

Billionaires who grew up reading science-fiction classics published 30 to 50 years ago are affecting our life today in almost too many ways to list: Elon Musk wants to colonize Mars. Jeff Bezos prefers 1970s plans for giant orbital habitats.  Peter Thiel is funding research into artificial intelligence, life extension and “seasteading.” Mark Zuckerberg has blown $10 billion trying to create the Metaverse from Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash. And Marc Andreessen of the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz has published a “techno-optimist manifesto” promoting a bizarre accelerationist philosophy that calls for an unregulated, solely capitalist future of pure technological chaos.

These men collectively have more than half a trillion dollars to spend on their quest to realize inventions culled from the science fiction and fantasy stories that they read in their teens. But this is tremendously bad news because the past century’s science fiction and fantasy works widely come loaded with dangerous assumptions.

SF is a profoundly ideological genre—it’s about much more than new gadgets or inventions. Canadian science-fiction novelist and futurist Karl Schroeder has told me that “every technology comes with an implied political agenda.” And the tech plutocracy seems intent on imposing its agenda on our planet’s eight billion inhabitants.

We were warned about the ideology driving these wealthy entrepreneurs by Timnit Gebru, former technical co-lead of the ethical artificial intelligence team at Google and founder of the Distributed Artificial Intelligence Research Institute (DAIR), and Émile Torres, a philosopher specializing in existential threats to humanity. They named this ideology TESCREAL, which stands for “transhumanism, extropianism, singularitarianism, cosmism, rationalism, effective altruism and longtermism.” These are separate but overlapping beliefs in the circles associated with big tech in California. Transhumanists seek to extend human cognition and enhance longevity; extropians add space colonization, mind uploading, AI and rationalism (narrowly defined) to these ideals. Effective altruism and longtermism both discount relieving present-day suffering to fund a better tomorrow centuries hence. Underpinning visions of space colonies, immortality and technological apotheosis, TESCREAL is essentially a theological program, one meant to festoon its high priests with riches.

How did this ideology come about, and why do I think it’s dangerous?

The science-fiction genre that today’s billionaires grew up with—the one that existed in the 1970s—goes back to inventor and publisher Hugo Gernsback. Gernsback published general articles about science and technology and then fiction in that vein. He started publishing Amazing Stories magazine in 1926 as a vehicle for fantastic tales about a technological future. His magazine’s strain of SF promoted the combination of the American dream of capitalist success, combined with uncritical technological solutionism and a side order of frontier colonialism.

Gernsbackian SF mirrored Italian futurism’s rejection of the past and celebration of speed, machinery, violence, youth and industry, and both were wide open to far-right thought. Gernsback’s rival, John W. Campbell, Jr. (editor of Astounding Science Fiction from 1937 until 1971), promoted many now famous authors, including Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. But Campbell was also racist, sexist and a red-baiter. Nor was Campbell alone on the right wing of SF: for example, bestselling author Ayn Rand held that the only social system compatible with her philosophy of objectivism was laissez-faire capitalism. The appeal this holds for today’s billionaires is obvious.

Perhaps SF’s weirdest contribution to TESCREAL is Russian cosmism, the post-1917 stepchild of the mystical theological speculation of philosopher Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov. It’s pervasive in science fiction—seen in topics from space colonization to immortalism, superhumans, the singularity, mind uploading, and more.

Cosmism’s contribution to the TESCREAL ideology is a secular quasi-religion with an implied destiny—colonize Mars and then the galaxy, achieve immortality, prioritize the long-term interests of humanity—that provides billionaires with an appealing justification for self-enrichment. We can see this with Thiel, who co-founded analytics company Palantir Technologies with a Lord of the Rings–themed name and recently told the Atlantic that he wanted to be immortal like J.R.R. Tolkien’s elves. And we can see it when Musk lands his rockets on barges with names taken from a science-fiction series by Iain M. Banks (ironically enough, one about a galactic socialist utopia). TESCREAL is also heavily contaminated with Christian theological reasoning, Campbellian white supremacism, Randian ruthlessness, the eugenics that was pervasive in the genre until the 1980s and the imperialist subtext of colonizing the universe.

But there is a problem: SF authors such as myself are popular entertainers who work to amuse an audience that is trained on what to expect by previous generations of science-fiction authors. We are not trying to accurately predict possible futures but to earn a living: any foresight is strictly coincidental. We recycle the existing material—and the result is influenced heavily by the biases of earlier writers and readers. The genre operates a lot like a large language model that is trained using a body of text heavily contaminated by previous LLMs; it tends to emit material like that of its predecessors. Most SF is small-c conservative insofar as it reflects the history of the field rather than trying to break ground or question received wisdom.

Science fiction, therefore, does not develop in accordance with the scientific method. It develops by popular entertainers trying to attract a bigger audience by pandering to them. The audience today includes billionaires who read science fiction in their childhood and who appear unaware of the ideological underpinnings of their youthful entertainment: elitism, “scientific” racism, eugenics, fascism and a blithe belief today in technology as the solution to societal problems.

In 2021 a meme arose based on writer and game designer Alex Blechman’s tweet about this issue (which was later posted to Mastodon):

Sci-Fi Author: In my book I invented the Torment Nexus as a cautionary tale

Tech Company: At long last, we have created the Torment Nexus from classic sci-fi novel Don’t Create The Torment Nexus

It’s a worryingly accurate summary of the situation in Silicon Valley right now: the billionaires behind the steering wheel have mistaken cautionary tales and entertainments for a road map, and we’re trapped in the passenger seat. Let’s hope there isn’t a cliff in front of us.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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