Sunday 20 January 2019

Television review: The American catastrophe

  • Secrets Of Silicon Valley (BBC2)

Jamie Bartlett... tech gods predict a brave new world by inventing it
Jamie Bartlett... tech gods predict a brave new world by inventing it
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

You wouldn't want to be the nervous type these days. Secrets of Silicon Valley sent Jamie Bartlett on a kind of a journalistic trip through the future as it is being created by the tech overlords of California.

Indeed, Bartlett himself was nervous about the disruptive technologies which are ripping up the old world, more nervous still because the overlords themselves don't seem to be nervous at all.

One of them, a 32-year-old tech god in T-shirt and jeans called Sam Altman, who says that "the best way to predict the future is to invent it", was even quite hostile to Bartlett's expressions of concern: "If you continue with this thrust of shouldn't we stop progress, no one is going to take you seriously," he droned.

But that was not Bartlett's thrust at all. His thrust was to try to establish what is going to happen when these fantastic technologies have taken over many of the activities which have traditionally provided millions of people with employment and some sort of purpose in life.

Most of us would "take you seriously" if you continued with that thrust, which means, I suppose, that we are indeed "no one".

Yet the encounter was fascinating because it implied that the journalistic way of life represented by Bartlett was itself redundant and frankly a bit of a nuisance when you're a Silicon Valley billionaire with an entire universe to disrupt, ideally before lunchtime.

These visionaries have, of course, already disrupted the ancient practices of journalism in fundamental ways, but ultimately you feel that they would prefer just to move on from it altogether. That this concept of some chap with a beard and a ponytail coming over from London with his BBC camera crew to ask ridiculous questions and generally to create a mood of negativity is so over.

Bartlett was told by an assistant that he would have 35 minutes with Sam, which tells us much about how Sam organises his day, indeed his life. It wasn't going to be "about half-an-hour", because as we know in the old world, that can easily drift towards 45 minutes or even an hour. And it wasn't 30 minutes, because 35 is somehow more precise, in this case not 34 minutes or 36 minutes, just the 35.

It's not that Sam hasn't thought about the consequences of all this disruption. He has this notion about a re-distribution of wealth, so that the multitudes who are no longer employable will just be given money, and we'll take it from there. Yet he doesn't seem to have factored in the question of what might happen just on the wild off-chance that this scheme of his doesn't pan out so well.

Antonio Garcia Martinez, by contrast, has been seeing his own visions of that massively disrupted society, and his response is best illustrated by the teepee he is constructing on a remote island north of Seattle where he hopes to survive the "violent revolt" that is surely coming. As a former Facebook executive who also mentioned a spell he had with Goldman Sachs, he has a certain credibility here. And he says that all the top tech people have made their own arrangements for surviving this new America that they are inventing.

At which point you may have noted that I have got through most of this alarmist piece without mentioning the important role which the President is playing in speeding up this narrative of American catastrophe. You have the Silicon Valley crowd predicting the future by inventing it, while Trump goes back to some Neanderthal past, inventing things that never were.

Disruption is coming from all sides. And while the tech variety may seem more sophisticated on the surface, it is primitive enough in its own authoritarian way. The only thing that any of us knows with absolute certainty about the future, is that whatever happens, those guys will be protected from the consequences of their actions, and so will Trump.

And they will both be making piles of money out of it.

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