M-Theory: The tragic flaw of Doomsday prep Melanie Baker February 2, 2017 Columns, Communitech, Featured, M-Theory There’s this weird quirk of human cognition wherein we equate being rich with virtue — that mere accrual of assets makes you somehow smarter, more trustworthy, and more credible. I don’t know if that notion is entirely snuffed out or not by the time the first Molotov cocktail is thrown. The doomsday preppers we chuckle at on TV have wild beards and weird, off-grid bunkers and stockpiles of ammo. The doomsday preppers featured recently by The New Yorker in an article headlined Doomsday prep for the super rich have laser eye surgery, own missile silos or vast tracts of New Zealand … and stockpiles of ammo. Until the power grid goes down and we all lose internet access, those preppers are also the people whose social networks we spend our lives on. They run the search engines we use as surrogate brains, and are the folks who manage our investments (or we ask them for startup investments). But even though some of them are very nouveau riche, they’re quick studies. They have learned a key bit of education and opportunity for the rich: Wealth buys you isolation. Isolation from whom? From the rest of us. Those who can’t afford adjacent bunker condos (the new ivory towers, y’all!), or coastal acreage south of Auckland, or security to ensure we get to our private jets safely when it all goes pear-shaped. That is what they believe could happen. The breakdown of the social fabric and rule of law, the rabble storming the ramparts and North American civilization crumbling into blood-soaked dust. They might be right. And if it happens, it’ll be their fault. Another quirk of human cognition is that we are woefully bad at learning from our past mistakes: everything that led to a historical tipping point; how chaos and terror rolled out; who seized control, manipulated, and profited from it; who lost everything. We have forests’ worth of books detailing when and how these things happen. Every time, every place. Where in the Revolution is Carmen Sandiego? But they keep happening. Once we arrive at the outer limits of a single human lifetime, apparently it all gets too nebulous and removed from our personal experience. Hubris unlocks the door to arrogance, greed, and self-absorption, and next thing you know you’re choosing a soothing colour to paint your bunker and trying to figure out if you have to bring your private pilot’s entire family with you on your escape plane. I wonder if those wealthy preppers Google that sort of thing? It makes one wonder what they know that we don’t. Just how much of a foregone conclusion is it that everything’s going to go to hell? Does big data tell them how easily the denizens of the dark web will be able to shut down the systems that run our world and throw things into chaos? Have our social posts generated a futuristic portrait of destructive capability that we’re too distracted to see? Is a cat video sometimes not just a cat video…? Perhaps they know things that we don’t (yet) about why we’d head straight for them, pitchforks in hand. What have they really been doing, from which no amount of pre-emptive philanthropy will save them? Or maybe the idea of trying to prevent or reverse, rather than expand, the income and inequality gap never occurred to them. Too focused on shareholder value and coddling the elite few who are … useful. Trying to improve people’s lives to the point where they don’t feel a need to riot and pillage? What a notion. What could one little billionaire even hope to accomplish? Let’s face it, by the time a CEO is making hundreds of times the salary of the average worker, very few of them retain vestiges of the Average Joe they may once have been. And many started from extraordinary privilege even before becoming titans of industry and never had a clue how the other half live. Imagine all that privilege and all those tycoons cooped up in a fortified bunker, though. No more empires to build or eyeballs to monetize. No sunshine, no fresh air, just all the comforts money can buy and massive egos bashing into each other. Playing Risk with the wasteland of North America for whatever comes later. Semi-feral dudes hiding out in the woods are one thing, but that sounds like some reality TV. I mean, they always talk about changing the world. Perhaps they should have been more specific? Couldn’t happen here, though, right? Frankly, sometimes we drip smugness like a tapped maple tree drips sap. But we’re a little friendlier, a little more egalitarian. Tall poppies don’t get too tall. Waterloo Region still has a lot of small town feel, which you’d think would be something of a bulwark against ridiculous extremes of inequality and alienation. But are we so immune to the follies of excess? All those former industrial spaces we’ve converted to tech playgrounds: How many who used to work there now work at the companies that have taken them over? Those near-condemned properties in prime locations that have been redeveloped for millions of dollars: How many of the people who were living there are now enjoying shiny amenities for young professionals? Money buys isolation. Even here. Remember the days when we thought the apocalypse was going to be all about zombies? How innocent we were. Of course, the real warning of the zombie apocalypse archetype has always been that the danger is us. One final quirk of human cognition: We gravitate toward those like ourselves. Similar appearance, similar beliefs, similar experiences. Except that those forests of stories about human history have also taught that the more we do that, the worse off we end up. We can come together to work toward helping everyone do better … or we can come together at the walls of those ivory towers, pitchforks sharpened and torches blazing. Photo: 1 de Septiembre: Abusos policiacos, by Eneas De Troya, is licensed under CC BY 2.0 M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached @melle or firstname.lastname@example.org.