Jonathan Taplin has had more careers than most folks — Bob Dylan and The Band’s tour manager, film producer (the Last Waltz and Mean Streets) Wall Street entrepreneur, teacher at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. In an exclusive excerpt from his latest book, “The End of Reality: How 4 Billionaires Are Selling a Fantasy Future of the Metaverse, Mars and Crypto,” Taplin lays out the dangers of becoming complacent in the face of the fantasy worlds offered by the leading technocrats.
Four very powerful billionaires— Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, Mark Zuckerberg, and Marc Andreessen— have created a world where “nothing is true and all is spectacle.” These technocrats are the new American oligarchs, controlling online access for billions of users on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and WhatsApp.
History has proven that fantasy is both a brilliant marketing tool and a powerful political tool. In the world of politics, it allows two-thirds of the Republican Party to believe the 2020 election was stolen. In the commercial realm Musk floats the notion that we will escape our planet’s inevitable extinction by building a new civilization on Mars. Zuckerberg promises you can escape the dreary reality of your life by putting on the Meta Quest 2 VR helmet. Thiel thinks we can live to be 160 and Andreesen believes with his software powering drones and killer robots, we can fight wars without human casualties. But as a society, should we invest $20 trillion in fantasy worlds (missions to Mars, crypto currency, and the Metaverse) when real-world solutions to the critical problems of our planet are currently available? The plans for these fantasy projects have already drained billions of dollars of government and private capital.
When I was working for Bob Dylan & The Band in the 1960s, the role of much of the pop culture was oppositional to the politics of the time. Musicians sang in support of the civil rights movement, and filmmakers made antiwar movies. Movie studios have always made fantasy films. But starting in the late 1970s with Star Wars and Superman, the fantasy blockbuster began to dominate the movie business. And that success bled over into video games, music, and other forms of pop culture so that the ground was laid for the Metaverse, in which you could become a fantasy film character in your daily life. And as the fantasy/superhero genre came to dominate the movies and video games, pop culture’s countercultural role faded away.
For forty-five years (since Star Wars) the fantasy genre has dominated the entertainment industry. We have lived our lives in these fantasy worlds in increments — two hours in a dark theater watching Black Panther, three hours at a computer playing World of Warcraft, two hours at the roulette wheel in Vegas. But now we are entering an era when fantasy is 24/7. Fifty million Republicans are living the fantasy of Trump’s lies. All the tools for creating alternate realities are here (even if they are crude), and even Musk’s computer visualizations of life on Mars or Thiel’s imagining of eternal life seem a bit more plausible, thanks to the years of collective magical thinking. I am well aware that for many citizens the reality of 2023 America is painful, and so escape (either through entertainment or drugs) has real power. But to truly be free, we must embrace reality and try and change our collective course — not run from the truth.
The rise of fantasy culture in America began with science fiction novels. All of our Technocrats immersed themselves in science fiction reading during their somewhat awkward childhoods. Musk and Thiel were bullied incessantly. Andreessen and Zuckerberg both had fits of anger that they had a hard time controlling. Both Musk and Zuckerberg cite Iain Banks’s nine-book “Culture” series as a seminal influence on their thinking. Marc Andreessen loves the hard science fiction (post-Singularity) of Charles Stross and Richard Morgan. And Peter Thiel cites The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson as one of his favorite books. All four of them also claim The Lord of The Rings series had a profound influence on them. J. R. R. Tolkien’s books are an attempt to construct new myths to help modern man deal with the moral chaos of our contemporary society. They are essentially very conservative pleas to “return “the king” to his rightful throne. There is a sense that everyone has a place in this semifeudal society and should be content with that. The four men who sit on top of our neofeudal technological order, of course, share a desire to maintain their status quo.
But the foundational science fiction texts in opposition to their vision are George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The notable media critic Neil Postman wrote about the difference between the two books:
In 1984, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism.
The rise of social networks has proven that Huxley was right and Orwell was wrong. Brave New World depicted a future in which humans don’t have much to do and end up blissed out on drugs and immersive entertainment. For Huxley’s idealized government, controlled by the plutocrats, this is an ideal situation because it prevents what Huxley called “the proles” from invading the mansions of the oligarchs. And today we are no longer dealing in fiction.
In creating his Brave New World, Huxley drew upon the ideas of the Roman poet Juvenal, who wrote about the decline of Roman politics in the first century AD as “Bread and Circuses.” Juvenal believed that the Roman populous could be kept from revolting as long as the ruling class provided them sufficient food and lurid entertainments (lions eating Christians) to keep their minds off the sorry state of their lives. This is the role of contemporary fantasy culture, whether in movies, TV, music, video games, or gambling.
And of course, with the rise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the victory of fantasy over realism is complete. Hollywood has always been considered a bastion of progressive ideology, but the reality is that libertarians, who have dominated the written science fiction genre for decades, are now dominating the big-budget film business as well. Now the rise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, complete with true believer libertarian heroes like Iron Man Tony Stark, has completed the takeover. Stan Lee, the creator of Iron Man, once said that he invented Stark to piss off leftists in the 1960s. He told an interviewer:
“It was the height of the Cold War, The readers—the young readers— if there was one thing they hated it was war, it was the military, or, as Eisenhower called it, the military-industrial complex. So I got a hero who represented that to the hundredth degree. He was a weapons manufacturer. He was providing weapons for the army. He was rich. He was an industrialist. But he was a good-looking guy and he was courageous . . . I thought it would be fun to take the kind of character that nobody would like—that none of our readers would like—and shove him down their throats and make them like him.”
In an ironic tribute to our Technocrats, Iron Man writer Jon Favreau identified Elon Musk as the inspiration for the screen version of Tony Stark; Musk even had a cameo in Iron Man 2. Imagining Elon Musk on a combat mission in Afghanistan stretches all credibility, but for Musk it was a way to enhance his brand. No longer was he the PayPal nerd; he was Iron Man incarnate. Musk tweets that his politics haven’t really changed; rather, the “woke progressives” have moved further to the left. In a string of tweets announcing his support for Republican candidates, Musk said he was abandoning the Democrats who had been “(mostly) the kindness party” but were now “the party of division & hate.” He continued in a paranoid vein, claiming, “Political attacks on me will escalate dramatically in coming months.”
This has been the magic trick of the Technocrats from the start. Their vocal embrace of cultural liberalism (gay rights, cannabis legalization, diversity in the workforce) has never interfered with their transgressive ability to use every tool in the capitalist arsenal to advance their businesses. In doing so, they continually bump up against the line of illegality. As Google’s Eric Schmidt once admitted, “The Google policy on a lot of things is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it.”
I produced two of Martin Scorsese’s early movies (Mean Streets and The Last Waltz), and I have to agree with his comments about the Marvel Cinematic Universe: “That’s not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them…is theme parks.” Marty has hit upon the crux of the matter. People who can fly through the air, see through walls, and throw ten-ton trucks down the street are not human. Novelist Saul Bellow bemoans the dilemma of those of us interested in the humanities instead of computer science in The Adventures of Augie March: “The humanities would be called upon to choose a wallpaper for the crypt, as the end drew near.” Bellow’s ironic assertion that poets, novelists, musicians, and painters will be relegated to picking out the velvet liner for their caskets would prove true in the age of AI, as Big Tech “trains” it’s generative AI’s on the work of musicians, photographer and writers without compensation. And of course the AI can then “generate” a Bob Dylan anti-war song, an imitation Steven King short story or a picture of Joni Mitchell. That of course is the heart of the actors and writers strike in Hollywood.
To teach at a large university, as I did, is to know that most of the funding would go to STEM, and the humanities departments would starve. As Apple’s Steve Jobs remarked at the launch of the iPad, “Technology alone is not enough…It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our hearts sing.” But Tech leaders like Jobs have disappeared replaced by men like Zuckerberg who think the banality of Chat GPT’s poetry is “good enough.” One thing I am sure of. An AI Chatbot will never write “Like a Rolling Stone” or “MacBeth”—never create the work of genius that has moved our culture forward over the millennia.
In 1972, the top-grossing film in the United States was also the best picture of the year. The Godfather won the Academy Award for Best Picture. That doesn’t happen anymore. In 2021, the top-grossing picture was Spiderman: No Way Home. It was not even nominated for best picture. Yet you can wander by a cinema today and see thirty-five-year-old couples lining up to see films targeting fifteen-year-old boys. Our ability to prolong cultural adolescence is quite extraordinary. Which leads us to the question of exactly what magnetic pull these fantasy worlds exert. The simplest explanation goes back to Max Weber’s concept of the “disenchantment of the world.” Weber believed that the rise of science in the late nineteenth century led us to believe that we could explain everything in rational terms. The world lost its mysteries, and the effect of that demystification was a world “leeched of mystery and richness—disenchanted.”
Fantasy culture re-enchants our lives. Marvel (and DC Comics) have been filling that need since the late 1940s in comic books, but only recently have they become a world-dominating cultural force, thanks to the magic of Hollywood special effects. Mark Zuckerberg named this as the value proposition of the Metaverse when he said, “It’s an extremely magical sensation.” Most psychologists feel that those who spend hours a day in a fantasy universe (game players) are engaged in fairly primitive “escapism.” And while no one doubts that obsessive video game play is escapism, researchers have identified both negative and positive modalities in such behavior. The negatives are depression, time wastage, negative mood, social anxiety, loneliness, and self-discrepancy. The positives are enjoyment, fun, and wishful thinking.
The video game business continues to grow (spurred on by the pandemic); gross revenues rose from $34 billion in 2015 to $85 billion in 2021. Video games clearly plowed the earth for the seeds that Zuckerberg is planting in the Metaverse. They showed that people are willing to sit in front of a monitor for six hours in a fantasy universe killing people.
We are now at a point when you can make a living sitting at home playing video games and charging others to watch you, just like in the Culture series so beloved by Musk and Zuckerberg. At the time of writing, there are seventy million tracks on Spotify. Sixty thousand new tunes are uploaded to the platform each day. Five hundred hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute worldwide. According to Mediakix.com, there could be as many as thirty-seven million influencers online globally.
This is a half-serious question, but how much of this content passes the “who cares” test? Daniel Ek of Spotify boasts that there “will be 50 million creators” on his platform by 2025. George Orwell, in Confessions of a Book Reviewer, was probably closer to the mark when he wrote, “In much more than nine cases out of ten the only objectively truthful criticism would be, ‘This book is worthless.’” Or perhaps the famous Sturgeon’s law — that ninety percent of everything is crap”— applies. Technology does not increase the distribution of genius in society.
In making the decision to go all in on the Metaverse, Mark Zuckerberg has clearly been observing game platforms like Twitch and Roblox. In his view, if people will spend ten hours a day watching some guy play video games, getting them to spend seven hours a day in the Metaverse should be easy.
One cannot discuss the world of fantasy entertainment without acknowledging the growth of the greatest myth of all — that you can beat the house in gambling. Online gambling is opening up in most states, and the increase of sports betting is due in large part to the launch of legal wagering in thirteen states and more than $1 billion invested in marketing and advertising by some of the country’s largest sportsbooks, like FanDuel, DraftKings, Caesars, and MGM. Online gambling revenues amounted to $61.5 billion in 2021 and are forecasted to rise to $114.4 billion by 2028. In keeping with the marketing hook of heroin dealers (“the first one is free”), the sportsbooks are spending millions in incentives to get users addicted. University of Illinois economist Earl Grinols has estimated that the cost of gambling addiction (crime, lost work time, bankruptcy, and family hardship) is more than $54 billion a year. The small print at the bottom of sportsbook ads on TV direct you to gambling-addiction sites. I doubt they will be of use to the millions holding on to the fantasy that one bet will make them rich and secure.
For the creative community, there is a huge role to play in guiding us out of this chaos and despair. I think the philosopher Herbert Marcuse had it right: “In its refusal to accept as final the limitations imposed upon freedom and happiness by society, in its refusal to forget what can be, lies the critical function of the artist.” The transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau in the 1830’s was the first “great refusal” — the refusal to accept slavery and American Imperialism — long before politicians like Lincoln adopted those positions. Mark Twain’s 1873 satire, The Gilded Age predated Teddy Roosevelt’s attack on the plutocrats by 30 years. The Bebop music and beat poetry of the 1950’s led to Bob Dylan and the Civil Rights movement of the early Sixties. It is not that the art causes the political reform, but rather opens the collective mind to the psychology that rebellion is healthy. And around the world in the decades after the American cultural explosion of the Sixties, it was that spirit of rebellion that was admired and imitated by leaders like Vaclev Havel and Lech Walesa. Rock and Roll helped bring down the Berlin Wall.
It is clear that Musk or Zuckerberg are not interested in rebellion. The status quo has delivered them $200 billion fortunes. The political gridlock we find ourselves in is not a bug, but a feature for Musk and Thiel. The world they want for us will be straight out of Blade Runner – cyborgs and inequality on a level we have never experienced. So once again the artists are going to have to lead the resistance. Our task is to ask ourselves whether we want to continue down this road of techno-determinism and surveillance capitalism or whether we want to join the resistance movement. I see that movement every day on the picket lines around Hollywood studios. I hear that resistance every day when I listen to the handmade songs of Rhiannon Giddens or T Bone Burnett. I see that resistance in the 10,000 signatures on the Authors Guild letter to the AI Barons asking to be paid when their AI systems “train” on their books.
In thinking about our desire for a brighter future, I was reminded of a quote from Albert Camus’ The Rebel his long meditation about the role of artists and their audience in resistance movements. He wrote, “We are at the extremities now. At the end of this tunnel of darkness, however, there is invariably a light, which we already divine, and for which we have only to fight to ensure it’s coming. All of us, among the ruins, are preparing a renaissance beyond the limits of nihilism.”
The best advice I can give: Put down your phone and look up. Reject the lure and dream haze of fantasy culture and embrace the real. A renaissance awaits.
Excerpted from the book THE END OF REALITY: How Four Billionaires are Selling a Fantasy Future of the Metaverse, Mars, and Crypto by JONATHAN TAPLIN. Copyright © 2023 by JONATHAN TAPLIN. Reprinted with permission of PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books LLC., a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc. New York, NY. All rights reserved.