The companies that survived the dot-com boom had one thing in common: they had gone meta. Tim O’Reilly, the technology book publisher, called it Web 2.0. He said that Web 2.0 companies, like Google and eBay, treated the web as a platform, and leveraged the activity of users rather than spending money on their own people and merchandise. Unlike Yahoo, Google didn’t hire human employees to create taxonomies of the web; it used algorithms to catalog everyone’s existing hyperlinks and then organized them into a searchable database. Unlike the many storefronts that opened online, eBay developed an automated platform that connected sellers and buyers. Web 2.0 companies and projects, from Wikipedia and Blogger to SourceForge and iTunes, relied on peer production. They were themselves meta operations that simply aggregated everyone creating value at the level below.
What made a business truly digital was whether it could rise one level above the competition. Each new level amounted to an exponential leap, from x to x-squared to x-cubed and onward. A travel platform (Expedia, Travelocity) goes meta on the airlines, aggregating the data from all their websites to show you the best prices it can find. One level above that, an aggregator of those aggregators (Kayak, Orbitz) can show you which aggregator is doing this the best. Don’t focus on the content, experts like O’Reilly insisted, but the platform on which everyone posts the content. And if there are already a bunch of platforms, become the platform of platforms. “The medium is the message” became the business mantra for The Mindset, while Marshall McLuhan himself earned a posthumous place on the Wired masthead as the magazine’s “patron saint.”
According to Peter Thiel, any new business idea should be 10x better than what’s already out there—literally, an order of magnitude better. Borrowing from his former Stanford philosophy teacher, René Girard, Thiel believes that “competition is for losers.” Everyone in the world is engaged in a simple game of copying one another, or what Girard calls “mimesis.” While this is a great way for kids to learn from their parents, among adults it creates a culture of competition, where everyone covets what their neighbors have. They go on like this until the competition gets so extreme or even violent that they eventually choose a scapegoat (Jews, immigrants, queers, or even an individual) on whom to blame their conflict. Violence then relieves the tension, and the competition starts over again. (Girard and Thiel believe that Christ was meant to end this cycle of violence by serving as the last and ultimate scapegoat. The crucifixion and resurrection of the son of God could liberate humanity from the cycle of violence—if only people could be encouraged to believe in the myth as literal truth.)
The implication for businesses, though, is to avoid competing with everyone else and instead innovate on the next level. We are to achieve this by maintaining a “fidelity to an event”—a singular devotion to a future that others can’t yet see. Thiel saw this most clearly in Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook: Instead of competing to build the best website or personal homepage, Zuckerberg leveled up to build the platform where people and companies can do this. Rather than imitating, he transcended the game. He took that exponential leap, one order of magnitude above mere mortals and into the realm of success, autonomy, self-determination, and salvation. Amazingly, now that Facebook’s business model has come under scrutiny, Zuckerberg is at it again, going meta on the net by rebranding his own company as Meta. He is preemptively attempting to aggregate yet-to-be-invented virtual and augmented reality technologies into a single “metaverse” over which he will preside from one level up.
The postmodern style of business warfare, where companies each seek to leapfrog one another’s paradigms, takes place in the financial markets capitalizing them, as well. Investors race to invent new derivatives and meta-derivatives capable of subsuming or aggregating those that came before.
But the real leap came once traders replaced themselves with algorithms capable of aggregating data from all the trading platforms and executing high-frequency trades at a rate and volume beyond the cognitive capacity of hundreds of human beings. These derivatives markets quickly outpaced the traditional trading activity on the stock market. Derivatives trading became so dominant that the New York Stock Exchange was actually purchased by its derivatives exchange in 2013. The stock market—already an abstraction of the real marketplace—was swallowed by its own abstraction. Meanwhile, still more technologists attempt to level up again and again by selling the trading algorithms, the machine learning to devise those algorithms, or the platforms to support machine learning. Each level of abstraction begets the next.
Yet they all depend on the initial contention of the digital revolution that anything that matters can be digitized. Just as maps abstracted land into monetizable parcels, computers convert things into their digital counterparts, rendering them grist for the exponential mill and supporting the underlying need under capitalism for money to grow. Nowhere has this been made more clear than in digital’s replacement for central currency—crypto.
Initially conceived alongside Occupy Wall Street, the bitcoin protocol offered a way for people to authenticate transactions without involving banks, fees, and usurious intermediaries. But, just like the monarchs behind central currency, speculators were less concerned with facilitating transactions than profiting off them and raising the price of the Bitcoin token. Millions of computers around the world now have no other purpose than to prove the value of Bitcoin by spinning their cycles and spending electricity on purposeless calculations—amounting to a bit more than the total energy consumption of all of Sweden. We are quite literally burning the real world to prove the value of digital symbols—feeding reality to its more scalable digital counterpart.
For holders of The Mindset, all this wasted power is like the first stage of the rocket ship taking them to the next level. It spends a lot of fuel before it is discarded and allowed to crash back to the planet while the astronauts continue on their journey. Don’t look back, just look forward. Of course, the real money will be made by the companies who go meta on this trend. While crypto investors gamble through investing or eke out small margins by mining coins themselves, smarter players look to become the casino and build the exchanges where all this trading takes place. In April 2021, Coinbase was the first of these exchanges to go public, with an IPO valued at about $100 billion. As if aware that someone had gone meta on their holdings, institutional crypto traders began cashing in their tokens that week, leading to a crash in crypto currencies.
When value is best created by going meta, the data points about our world tend to become more important than whatever is in the world itself. Pork belly futures are more fungible and scalable than the actual pork bellies. Data is just cleaner, lighter, and faster than its real-world analogs. May as well convert everything to digital. We are each becoming more valuable as data than we are as real-world consumers or even humans. This leads to a disconnection between benefits and incentives. The companies behind our activity trackers and exercise apps often make more money off our data—usually anonymized—than off making us healthier. Our social networks can make tremendous profit off a teenage girl’s data profile, even if the platforms themselves make that girl more likely to self-harm or worse. The cloud doesn’t care. The teenage girl has ceased to be a girl. She has become pure, abstracted data. It’s digital heaven for those who know how to ascend, and something else entirely for those of us left behind.
In fact, the most devout holders of The Mindset seek to go meta on themselves, convert into digital form, and migrate to that realm as robots, artificial intelligences, or mind clones. Once they’re there, living in the digital map rather than the physical territory, they will insulate themselves from what they don’t like through simple omission. Just as our proprietary GPS maps don’t show us the restaurants that refuse to advertise on the platform, the digital landscape to which they have migrated will be free of poverty, pollution, and whatever else the rest of us have to deal with.
As always, the narrative ends in some form of escape for those rich, smart, or singularly determined enough to take the leap. Mere mortals need not apply. I got into a heated discussion about this with transhumanist Ray Kurzweil. Being interviewed for a TV show, Ray and I had each just shared our most optimistic visions for the ways technology would redefine what it means to be human.
For me, it was about enhanced connectivity and maybe a newfound appreciation for the non-technological, sacred weirdness of corporeal existence. For him, it was about transcending mere mortality and merging with the machines as pure data. He explained that within just a couple of decades (and he’s now been saying this for a couple of decades) human beings will achieve immortality by uploading their minds to the cloud and downloading them into fresh hardware. Everything about us that can be converted into data will be preserved. Anything that cannot, well, that stuff isn’t real, anyway.
I made an impassioned plea for aspects of the human experience that cannot be transferred to the cloud. “What about the soft, squishy stuff?” I offered. Human beings can embrace and sustain paradox over time. Not everything about us can resolve to a one or a zero.
Kurzweil called that “noise.” He explained that my perspective was far too human-centric. Information was really in charge here, evolving ever since the formation of the universe toward higher states of complexity. Once computers can support greater complexity than the human brain, information will inevitably migrate from our biological processors to the superior digital ones, now presumably being engineered by his team Google, where he currently serves as a senior technologist. After that, human beings will only be important insofar as we are needed to service the machines. Then, we must learn to accept our obsolescence. If we want to be a part of the future in any form, we need to drive with singular vision toward “the singularity” itself, and offer up whatever about us can be converted to pure data.
Kurzweil’s vision is a platform-agnostic understanding of life, mind, and information. The data we contain—the software we run—is equally at home on a silicon chip as it is on the wetware of brains. As Google co-founder Larry Page puts it, human DNA is just “600 megabytes compressed, so it’s smaller than any modern operating system . . . So your program algorithms probably aren’t that complicated.” This model of human biology is as reductive as Dawkins’s contention that “life is just bytes and bytes and bytes of digital information.” Just as Francis Bacon and the early empirical scientists denied any aspect of nature that could not be quantified, today’s digital reductionists would have us deny any aspect of the human experience that cannot be quantized as code. Everything can be represented as symbols. It’s all just information. Nothing weird, wet, or truly wild. The ultimate nerd religion.
By refusing to recognize anything that can’t be quantized to a one or zero, this analysis misses everything in between. It depicts an autotuned reality, where every note must be averaged up or down to the nearest quantized notch. The subtleties of a vocalist’s interpretation—what true music lovers listen for most—are discounted as “noise.” The emphasis on life as a form of code also ignores the context and culture in which that life is unfolding. More nuanced scientists recognize that DNA is important, but it’s not even half the story of how a life form expresses itself. Rather, DNA is a set of potentials entirely dependent on the protein soup in which it finds itself. Our bodies and minds may be no more the tool for the preservation of DNA than DNA is a mere scaffold for human and other life to express itself.
The reduction of reality to information and humans to genotypes all-too-conveniently dovetails with capitalism’s imperative to render everything into a suitable form for the marketplace. Everything is data, and everything has a price, and everything can scale. The described, codified object is all that matters; anything else falls away like junk DNA, inferior species, or the majority of human beings. The wealthy technologist makes it into the cloud, while the masses are left behind competing against one another in the realm of matter. Like Christ or any other saved figure, only the fully encoded individual can be transubstantiated to the next level.
So goes the atheistic eschatology of The Mindset.