Infernal Machine   /   February 2, 2017

Silicon Valley’s Survivalists

Chad Wellmon

Bunker 318, Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge, Maynard Massachusetts. Wikimedia Commons.

Seventeen years ago, just outside of Birmingham, Alabama, my wife's grandfather built floor-to-ceiling shelves in his basement and filled them with toilet paper, tuna, Twinkies, and batteries. He was prepping for Y2K, the Millennium bug. Boom Boom, my wife's normally calm and reasonable grandfather, was convinced that computer programmers had set civilization up for collapse by representing the four-digit year with only the final two digits. Once the digital clocks and computers tried to register the year 2000, electric grids and so all things electronic would crash. Civilization wouldn't be too far behind. My father, in the foothills of western North Carolina, didn't stock his shelves. But he did load his shotgun.

Today, prepping isn't just for old southern white guys. The tech titans of Silicon Valley, as Evan Osnos recently wrote in the New Yorker, are buying bunkers and waiting for the breakdown of society as well. But Silicon Valley's survivalists are different from Boom Boom and my dad. They are preparing for a civilizational collapse they otherwise celebrate as disruption and innovation.

The CEO of one tech company, reports Osnos, described the Valley's survivalist impulses as a rational reaction to our all-digital world:

“It’s still not at the point where industry insiders would turn to each other with a straight face and ask what their plans are for some apocalyptic event.” He went on, “But, having said that, I actually think it’s logically rational and appropriately conservative.” He noted the vulnerabilities exposed by the Russian cyberattack on the Democratic National Committee, and also by a large-scale hack on October 21st, which disrupted the Internet in North America and Western Europe. “Our food supply is dependent on G.P.S., logistics, and weather forecasting,” he said, “and those systems are generally dependent on the Internet, and the Internet is dependent on D.N.S.”—the system that manages domain names. “Go risk factor by risk factor by risk factor, acknowledging that there are many you don’t even know about, and you ask, ‘What’s the chance of this breaking in the next decade?’ Or invert it: ‘What’s the chance that nothing breaks in fifty years?’”

Silicon Valley's techno utopians trumpet the promises of technologies, while personally preparing for catastrophe.

The stories of tech preppers aren't surprising. Peter Thiel, Trump's favorite techie and founder of PayPal, donated half a million dollars to the Sea Steading Institute, which is planning an autonomous colony on a remote French Polynesian island. And Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, hopes to colonize Mars and make humanity a "space-faring civilization and a multi-planetary species."

These are not simply utopian visions of civilizations renewed and restored to former grandeurs and grace. These are visions of civilizations and societies transcended and overcome. Musk and Thiel describe these new worlds as autonomous, liberated, and free.

But their notion of freedom is simply negative. They want to be free from bureaucracy, regulation, and, ultimately, politics—a life lived with and for others. In “The Education of a Libertarian,” Thiel longs for an “escape” not to some island paradise but from democracy, politics, and any common life. He dreams of a world in which common goods are reserved for those who disrupted but had the wherewithal to escape.

Like so many of his Silicon Valley techno-libertarians, Thiel's technological boosterism obscures a more basic belief in technological salvation and in the limitless potential and inherent right of creative individuals to remake themselves and the world in their own image. The disruptors and innovators promise a future that they have no intention of sharing.