The End of Reality, Jonathan Taplin review: Musk v Zuckerberg

Why bother engaging with reality when it’s easier to escape into your phone? For instance, why go out to run errands when an app can bring food and laundry to your door? Or suffer the smells and sights of a degraded public-transport system when a tap can order a private car? Our desire for convenience and aversion to responsibility have made the tech sector powerful and rich – and the more we long to escape, the worse the flesh-and-blood world can seem.

That’s the quandary at the heart of Jonathan Taplin’s The End of Reality: How Four Billionaires Are Selling Out Our Future. Taplin, a scholar and tech writer, tracks the fortunes of Elon Musk (PayPal/Twitter/Tesla), Peter Thiel (PayPal), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) and Marc Andreessen (Netscape), who have grown wealthy by disconnecting the public from real life and plugging it into a fantasy, whether through social media, “disruptor” apps or artificial intelligence. Now these technocrats want to push things further by exploring the possibility of escaping centralised banks, planet Earth – and perhaps even death itself. 

Taplin sees this retreat from the real world as deeply troubling, and wants to track the development of the impulse behind it. The End of Reality is thus a more philosophically minded book than his 2017  bestseller Move Fast and Break Things, which was a vitally cynical look at the tech industry when most journalists on the beat were writing credulous puff-pieces. 

The popularity of Move Fast helped to create an environment in which, at last, the tech industry’s utopian aims and fantastical claims could be criticised. It didn’t hurt that the book’s publication preempted the downfalls of “founders” Elizabeth Holmes and Adam Neumann, and the revelations about Facebook’s role in the spreading of disinformation before 2016’s EU referendum and US presidential election. In other words, it was a “right place, right time” moment – not the result of some world-beating insight Taplin had.

In The End of Reality, this shows. Taplin is right to say it’s dangerous to hand so much power to weirdos and malcontents just because they’re ludicrously wealthy and seem vaguely competent. He’s convincing, too, when he identifies the ideological core of these billionaire overlords as technocratic libertarianism: “dictatorship by engineers”. But he struggles to get a firmer grasp on the philosophical underpinnings of such beliefs, and can’t communicate the implications without relying on hyperbole. He makes wild rhetorical leaps to connect Silicon Valley to the fascist movements of the early 20th century. “Like a young Mark Zuckerberg,” Taplin writes, “[futurist Filippo Tommaso] Marinetti could have easily chosen ‘Move Fast and Break Things’ as his mantra.” He also compares something Peter Thiel says about the Lord of the Rings books with the Nazi leadership’s interest in the occult.

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