Cover Image: The End of Reality

The End of Reality

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Member Reviews

Absolutely incredible breakdown of how rich men use the language of freedom and meritocracy to make (or inherit) their fortunes, and then harness government to prevent anyone from challenging their supremacy,
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A fascinating book. I learned a lot, but I felt like it glossed over some aspects that would have contributed more to the broader conversation. The last section of this book was lacking a bit for me, but overall, this was worth it to read and to better understand how and why these technocrats are selling the fantasies they are to us. 3.75/5
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An interesting take on the four so-called Technocrats, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Peter Thiel and Marc Andreessen: an analysis of their “move fast and break things” approach and their influence on our lives. The author dives deep into the history of libertarianism and offers fresh interpretations on the motifs and goals of these very rich and interconnected figures. It can be a little meandering at times but definitely worth reading.

Thanks to the publisher, PublicAffairs, and NetGalley for an advanced copy of this book.
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I like to think I help people comprehend complex issues by making them easier to understand, to put things in perspective by distancing myself from the mess, and getting to the bottom of claims that most  readers miss. But here is Jonathan Taplin, assembling the big four billionaire Technocrats and putting everything they are and want to do into crystal clear language, backed with their own words and deeds, pulling together facts that get by the average reader, and leaving me in his dust. His book The End of Reality is a masterpiece of connecting the fantasy, the fraud, the lies, the ulterior motives and the exceptional greed of the internet’s billionaire class. It will change how readers view the world.

On one level, The End of Reality is a profile of the present day Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Marc Andreessen and Peter Thiel. Each is a young billionaire and a major player in cyberspace. This makes for an incredibly rich, character-driven tale that pieces their stories, which everyone knows parts of, into a scandalous whole that is as ugly and offensive as anything in science fiction.

They are all extreme right wing, bordering on fascist, if not way over the line, and all have clear intentions to be even more unbelievably rich by reshaping the world to their own distorted vision.  Taplin cites one of Thiel’s heroes, the extremist Murray Rothbard, who in the 1950s, when America was great, said that the task of the New Right was “to break the clock of the New Deal…to repeal the 20th century.” Seventy years later, these four are hard at work on that.

On another level, they all have gigantic lifework projects. Taplin says and proves. “These four projects—the metaverse, crypto currency, human travel to and colonization of distant planets, and transhumanism—are an existential risk to the world in moral, political, and economic terms.” They are sci-fi, fantasy, unworkable and in complete denial of reality. That is what unifies them. Connecting these scattered dots is new territory.

The book is nicely divided into past, present and future, and how each of these Technocrats came to where he is today. Their cookie crumb trail points quite clearly to where they want to go, and it’s never pretty, except for them.

The hypocrisy begins as all four are rabid libertarians, insisting they have bootstrapped themselves and their companies without government aid, and wishing only to have no relationships with government whatsoever. And of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Social media firms for example, got an early and extremely valuable get out of jail free card from government, absolving them from lawsuits over words they published from others. Elon Musk, for all his go-it-alone bravura, has obtained loans, subsidies and grants totaling nearly $16 billion to build his empire, and now he wants trillions from taxpayers for a colony on Mars. Thiel and Andreessen have plowed their money into crypto, which is not doing so well, and they want zero regulation over it so they can continue to manipulate the crypto markets. Thiel in particular is funding high-profile libertarian political candidates who will toe this line in office. 

Zuckerberg is betting his company on the metaverse, which the public has almost no interest in. He fully expects and intends for everyone to spend seven hours a day wearing a virtual reality helmet and interacting with others they will never meet, rather than doing the same thing in the real world. The metaverse will function on crypto, of course (which is why Facebook tried to start its own coin), and everything will be available, for a price. Every little thing players see will be an ad from some brand, selling that object or experience. From the tiles on the floor to the shirts in the closet to the app on the phone, everything will have an ad attached, and a price in crypto for immediate delivery in the metaverse. Zuckerberg would like to force players to watch ads all day long, just like in Black Mirror. What such a life would do to a human is of no concern to him; it’s all about the ad revenues. Of the four, Zuckerberg is seen as the “intellectual lightweight” according to Kara Swisher. She says he adopted their libertarian ideals in order to fit in.

Between them they have a couple of trillion dollars of wealth, but won’t use it to solve any problems for humanity. It’s all about insane projects like defeating death – for themselves. All four of them, Taplin says, believe in transhumanism, from biological enhancements, to the singularity, to completely defeating death. They support growing new organs with their own DNA for implanting when they need them in their hundreds, uploading their minds to a computer, freezing their brains until the technology to restore their dead bodies is ready, and endlessly on. In other words, only the superrich need apply. The thought of these four living forever should send shivers up spines worldwide.

Elon Musk has probably pillaged government the most. His NASA and defense contracts typically provide him 30% margin, while the standard defense contractors in the military-industrial complex have managed to get massively rich on half that. He not only depends on government largesse, he rips them off in outrageous bids continually. Despite his rockets exploding and the Biosphere II project proving humans cannot live in an enclosed world, he is pressing ahead with a plan to colonize Mars and abandon the mess here.

Scientists say it is a total waste of time and money. That transporting humans and supplying their life-sustaining needs is unacceptably costly and pointless. We have robots and machines that will do it faster, cheaper, longer, more efficiently and with far less downside and drama. 

Rather than spend billions helping the ecosphere here, Musk wants the USA to spend ten trillion dollars for him to send a team of people to start over on Mars, a barren wreck where no civilization can flourish. His proposal to restart civilization there with his crew is flat out wrong, according to economists. They say it would take a hundred million people to do that. Anything less will fail. 

In addition to the planet’s surface being uninhabitable because of the constant bombardment of almost totally unfiltered deadly solar winds, Musk is actually proposing to explode nuclear bombs above the surface “every few moments”, to compress the atmosphere and warm the planet. This is precisely why geo-engineering to “save” the Earth must never be allowed. And why Elon Musk must be feared, Or in Jonathan Taplin’s more direct words: ”Musk’s idea of Martian space colonies is insane.”

Musk’s colony will not be a democracy; it will be run by Musk-picked engineers. This is the legacy of his grandfather, Joshua Haldeman, who loathed democracy as inefficient, cumbersome and ineffective. Far better to have a sensible, well-grounded engineer making all the decisions for everybody. It was Haldeman who began Technocracy Inc. in the 1940s. Musk has tweeted his desire to follow through with it, fulfilling his grandfather’s scheme and dream. At least on Mars where he will assume total control.

Thiel seems to be the most dangerous today. Aside from spending tens of millions on each of several extreme Republican candidates, he personally funded a lawsuit to bankrupt Gawker, which outed him as gay before he was ready. He doesn’t deny it, so there was no libel, but Thiel decided on the death penalty anyway. He is on record saying Apartheid South Africa was an economically sound system and that the moral issues of denying native blacks their civil rights were irrelevant. He wants to go back to the era of city-states defended by private militias, and do away with state and national government. And of course, his main vehicle, Palantir, thrives on government contracts, basically spying on citizens. 

He and Musk were in Paypal together, and seem to fight a lot. But then, these four are so single-minded, it is hard not to see them fighting, among themselves and with everyone who dares have another vision. But still, money comes first, so Thiel and Andreessen will still finance Musk if need be, for example buying out twitter on a whim, to promote right wing politicians and speech and restore Trump’s controversial account to him.

Marc Andreessen comes off as a know-it-all who cannot suffer fools, and pretty much everyone else falls into that category. He appears to be distant, arrogant and insistent. He knows how to make money, and those with their own ideas are just in the way.

Taplin explains how these four Technocrats fit into American society, where fantasy has become a way of life: “Fifty million Republicans,” he says “are living the fantasy of a stolen election. And early adopters are spending six hours wearing a virtual reality headset trying to navigate the metaverse. In this context, a colony on Mars and living to 200 seems a bit more plausible.”

Taplin explains precisely why crypto won’t ever be mainstream. It is far too slow to complete transactions, taking hours rather than milliseconds. It is expensive, consuming vast resources to accomplish what fiat money does for little or nothing. It is not at all private, as everyone can see transactions on the blockchain. It has proven not to be a stable store of wealth. And it is totally manipulated by the likes of Thiel and Andreessen and their minions, who will talk up a crypto coin and sell into the boomlet in volume (aka pump and dump). Musk is rightly infamous for talking up dogecoin on the internet and national television, too. Taplin cites a group of computer scientists who told Congress: “It is a technology that is not built for purpose and will remain forever unsuitable as a foundation for large-scale economic activity.” But the richest people in the world are hyping it daily. It actively destroys wealth, Taplin says, particularly among Blacks who fell for celebrity shills like LeBron James, and lost their life savings trying to get rich quick. But it is the cornerstone of Thiel and Andreessen’s formula for trillionairedom, and they and their lawyers will continue to actively push it.

I love the way Taplin has connected these seemingly disparate projects from these seemingly individual men. The web of connections he makes is not intuitive, but it is as busy as the neurons in a brain. It makes for a book that is very hard to put down, with revelation after revelation, connection after connection, and aha! moments galore.

The bottom line is that these are all very dangerous men, Taplin says, because not only are they richest people in the world, but they control the major global means of communication, in the form of Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Twitter, and for hardware, Starlink. If their projects were not mad enough, there’s the aspect that they solve absolutely no human problem. These are purely selfish endeavors meant solely to enrich them individually. The stunning hubris of outrageous inequality is fully on display here. If a revolution is coming, these four will share a good portion of the blame.

David Wineberg
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This compelling book explores tech billionaires, their libertarian beliefs, and the possible repercussions of their pet projects. It is well-researched but felt more philosophical than journalistic in parts. It takes a wide, interdisciplinary lens in exploring its topic. The way the author layered in his own experiences in the entertainment, corporate and academic worlds was also really interesting. Though this was a fact-heavy book, it was a quick and engaging read. I couldn’t stop turning the pages!
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A review will be in Rain Taxi in the coming months...Jonathan Tapin's book is a masterpiece.  Please make sure you pick it up...and look out for my review soon.
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If a nonfiction book could be horror, this was it! Taplin talks about the past, present, and future of the efforts of the Technocrats (his name for the four billionaires he highlights) to essentially sell us all on a pack of lies to distract us from our real problems, all while making themselves vastly richer in the process. And it seems to be working!

The author talks at length as well about how the crisis of democracy has paved the way for these types of libertarian-fascists in the past and how those conditions are happening again. Scary, but a necessary read.
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One of the most important books of the year. As we enter the real AI era (as opposed to the background one that we’ve willingly given into) this book saliently explains how and why we’re willingly driving ourselves into a distorted reality that benefits the very few.

Taplin spends much of the book dissecting how four specific billionaires - which he calls the Technocrats - are not only hoarding wealth, but toying with the market to see just how much they can get away with (see the recent banking crash). He interplays this with the current nonsensical drive and investment in virtual reality and web3, and how the major players are testing the waters to defraud everyone while getting rich themselves (hello Tether).

This is one of those books that you read and suddenly things that have felt not quite right make so much more sense, and from which you walk away with a massive new TBR list.

Highly recommend for those in tech or who’ve been inundated by friends trying to get you to buy into crypto like it’s the new Lularoe.
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A great read for those who enjoyed, as I did, CHOKEPOINT CAPITALISM and SURVIVAL OF THE RICHEST. 

The book makes a strong case that Zuckerberg, Thiel, Musk and the oft-forgotten fourth of horseman of the technocratic apocalypse Andreesen would condemn all Americans to live as human debit cards making micropayments in their virtual realities, both an actual one, the Metaverse, and a virtual one, ironically,  that of real life itself as they've reconfigured it..

The book can feel a bit thin and repetitive at points, and it misses some opportunities, such as Andreeson being pressed on a podcast to describe exactly what the Metaverse is and being unable to really do so. (My take: It's an amusement park with no rides, food or fun, where you can talk briefly with strangers, most underage, about the lack of rides, food and fun.) I also wanted to know more about how they would compel people to join the Metaverse, such as whether FB will give VR goggles to certain schools the way Google gave out Chromebooks and Microsoft gives poor countries Office in order to create lock-in.

It's very strong, though, in showing how all four, especially the arguably neofascist Thiel, would turn America into an autocracy run by Trump if it would make them a dime--and they are counting on making way more than that. That said, it also shows that they are all profoundly incompetent despite their wealth. Zuck can't stop the slow MySpacing of FB as a result of it becoming an echo chamber of bigotry and rightwing revanchism. Musk is blowing up Twitter in a way that will take down Tesla too while his rockets have a terrible habit of simply blowing up. Thiel's Palantir couldn't find an apple on an apple tree. And Andreesen seems to excel at throwing good money at bad ideas, then throwing more good money at them. Their only real skill at this point it seems is sucking money out of the U.S. military for their hare-brained schemes, such as creating a colony Mars instead of fixing the dying Earth.

That this book is so up-to-date is remarkable when so much is changing so fast. For instance, today the wonderful newsletter Patent Drop reported that Facebook "is seeking to patent a method for tracking user engagement with content in an artificial reality space. This tech monitors user movement through a virtual reality environment, then displays additional media throughout the space depending on where you are. Along with placing ads where you move your avatar, this system also tracks engagement with those ads, checking metrics like 'minutes of experience,' interaction with the content such as shares or likes, body movement and face gestures during the experience. If you interact with an ad for a certain amount of time, have a certain reaction, or even just move past it slowly enough, this system will pick up on those nuances and feed you similar ads. It’s just like how targeted ads work on its main social media platforms, Facebook and Instagram, except more intense." In other words, exactly what Taplin is predicting.
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Politics, culture, media, business, and technology have conspired to create historic inequality and polarization, according to Jonathan Taplin, who has played a role in all those venues.

His core thesis in "The End of Reality": While our nation and the world cope with existential threats, the “technocrats” that lead our biggest businesses are chasing after high-cost, low-reward fantasies.

Taplin’s timely book is forcefully opinionated, but is well sourced. He’s qualified to synthesize modern developments in business, entertainment and media, having been something of a Forest Gump: managing Bob Dylan’s tours in the ‘60s, producing Hollywood films and documentaries in the ‘70s, overseeing media mergers in the ‘80s, pioneering video on demand in the ‘90s, and directing the Annenberg Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California in this century. (I read the pre-publication version, and hope that an author bio is prominent at the beginning because he makes references throughout to his many personal experiences).

He draws mostly on authoritative media and academic sources to support his contention that fascism and libertarian dogma grew together in the 20th century. He further contends that this dogma has influenced Silicon Valley and especially four “technocrats” who are his chief villains: Marc Andreessen, Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, and Mark Zuckerberg. He provides bios of each that paint a picture of socially awkward young men who by genius and luck are now among the richest and most influential in the world.

I found “Part I: The Past” to be confusing. He bounces around on the timeline and takes numerous side excursions. At one point, he refers to Filippo Marinetti’s “rage against feminism” several pages before the actual quote to which he refers. He too often cites media opinion writers as authorities. He sometimes over-reaches, as when he claims that our current polarization is mostly the result of Barack Obama’s election and Facebook. These all serve to weaken his argument, which I generally found compelling.

Taplin warns that we are at risk of falling for a fantasy future laid out by the technocrats, whose underlying motive is to maintain their stranglehold on the world’s wealth. Rather than repair community, Zuckerberg would have us put on a $1,500 helmet and make fake connections in the metaverse. Rather than cooperate internationally, Andreessen would have us dissolve nation-states in favor of a marketplace governed by cryptocurrency, which he and a few other whales can manipulate. Rather than make basic health care available to everyone, Thiel envisions “transhumanistic” technology that would enable the super-wealthy to live to 160. And rather than solve the climate crisis, Musk would have us colonize Mars.

The four technocrats, who Taplin says are leading purveyors of Silicon Valley libertarian dogma, are hypocritically recipients of past and future government support. Musk’s Tesla was saved by the 2008 bailout of the auto industry and now sucks in billions of defense and space dollars. Zuckerberg’s properties benefit from regulators’ hands-off approach. And Thiel, who pumps millions into Republican campaigns, will need public investment in his cyborg/transhumanism scheme.

Taplin taps into his arts and media background to discuss how our cultural institutions have helped the technocrats create an environment in which their fantasies make sense: 

<blockquote>“To what extent did popular culture’s consistent view that only corrupt liars survive in America lead to the assumption that we need a president like Tony Soprano, someone who can kick ass and take names? And this sense of fatalism is reinforced by the social networks that lead us to believe that corruption is the steady state of American politics. And for the Technocrats, deeply invested in the status quo, that’s all good. “</blockquote>

Taplin proposes “a new way of thinking about the economy—regenerative economics,” in which “businesses that utilize natural resources should restore those precious resources rather than treat them as natural capital to be used up.” He points to more companies that place value in the process of their endeavors -- empowering their workforce, engaging with their communities and customers, and thus innovating outside of the technocracy. “America is best when citizens imagine themselves as part of an intergenerational movement to preserve our planet and our democracy.”

He makes concrete suggestions for how we can head off the technocrats. He makes the best case I have seen so far for the elimination of Section 230, which protects digital platforms from being held responsible for damage caused by misinformation and attacks made by their users. He calls for government-sponsored panels to discuss the goals and guardrails of artificial intelligence and transhumanistic projects. He suggests science-based decisions regarding space exploration. He urges the breakup of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. And he recommends that crypto be regulated by the Security and Exchange Commission.

More broadly, he says the solution lies in putting humans and society in the diver’s seat:

“The forces of technology can be part of the solution in creating a more perfect union rather than part of the problem. For this to happen, the Technocrats can’t take the lead. The humanists—the writers, musicians, filmmakers, and artists—have to provide a vision for where we want to go.”
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The End of Reality by Jonathan Taplin is a thoroughly engrossing examination into the four billionaires at the heart of the new tech economy- now and in the future. Both fascinating and, in some ways, frightening, this book is an extremely worthwhile read.
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