Today I got into it with Jonathan Taplin, Director Emeritus, Annenberg Innovation Lab at USC (University of Southern California). He and I have pretty different perspectives on AI, blockchain, and technology in general and where it is taking us as a society. Jonathan was the founder and first director of USC Annenberg’s Innovation Lab. Long before that, he managed tours for Bob Dylan and the Band; produced movies, among them Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets; became the VP for media mergers and acquisitions at Merrill Lynch; created a pioneering video-on-demand service; and is now chairman of the Americana Music Foundation.
Taplin wrote one of the earliest tech-critical books, MOVE FAST AND BREAK THINGS, in 2017. Now he is back with another incisive assessment of Silicon Valley. In THE END OF REALITY: How Four Billionaires are Selling a Fantasy Future of The Metaverse, Mars, and Crypto (September 5, 2023), Taplin explains how tech billionaires Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, and Marc Andreesen are distracting us from the very real problems facing the world today—income inequality, climate change, and failing democracy—with schemes that are totally divorced from reality: the metaverse, cryptocurrency, space travel, and transhumanism. Taplin provides perceptive insight into the personal backgrounds and cultural power of these billionaires and shows how their tech monopolies have brought middle-class wage stagnation, the hollowing out of many American towns, a radical increase in income inequality, and unbounded public acrimony. Meanwhile, the enormous amount of taxpayer money to be funneled into the dystopian ventures of “The Four,” the benefits of which will accrue to the elite, exacerbates these disturbing trends. Taplin illustrates the technocratic movement as part of a broader antidemocratic, authoritarian turn, whose proponents spout libertarian principles while feeding at the public trough for the billions to help finance their schemes. He advocates replacing the warped worldview of these billionaires with a vision of regenerative economics that seeks to build a sustainable society with healthy growth and full employment. This is a book that speaks to the breaking news about AI that’s happening every day (Taplin was interviewed this summer about AI and the Hollywood strike and about Meta’s launch of Threads), but also takes a long historical look at these technologies’ cultural and sociological importance. Why are we so taken with these billionaires’ ideas—and what is our obsession distracting us from?