What comes to mind when you hear the word 'prepper'? Tin-foil hats? Woodsmen with cases full of dried macaroni? Well, there’s a new breed of survivalist in town – the Silicon Valley tech billionaire.
That's right. Super-rich survivalists are getting ready for the breakdown of society.
Some are buying multimillion-dollar luxury bunkers (complete with pools, gyms and private cinemas) that are capable of surviving a nuclear attack. Bill Gates is rumoured to have bunkers beneath his properties in Washington State and California.
Tim Chang, a managing director at the venture-capital firm Mayfield Fund recently told the New Yorker that he’s, “Stockpiling real estate […] to have havens to go to.”
Steve Huffman, the co-founder and CEO of Reddit, is getting laser eye surgery – because, he said, “If the world ends… getting contacts or lenses is going to be a huge pain in the ass.”
What, exactly, is going on?
I spoke to Antonio Garcia-Martinez, a former Facebook product manager, based on Orcas Island, Washington, who now spends his days writing, giving talks and advising start-ups.
Last spring, as the American presidential campaign raged on, he bought five acres of land on an island between Seattle and Vancouver and brought in solar panels, generators and thousands of rounds of ammunition.
“I dug a well, put in water-pressure pumps,” Martinez told me.
This will sound horribly pompous, but I think that techies in San Francisco live, not just in a technical future, but they live in the future socially and economically.Antonio Garcia-Martinez
He explained, “A lot of techies are thinking, ‘Wow, there are some dramatic economic and technological changes coming to society, that I don’t think most people realise, but we do.’”
Martinez thinks that people in Silicon Valley work in an environment that enables them to see these things earlier than most.
“This will sound horribly pompous, but I think that techies in San Francisco live, not just in a technical future, but they live in the future socially and economically.”
That future does not look good. Martinez believes that, “Automation and artificial intelligence are going to make it such that close to half of American jobs won’t exist in 20, 30 years.”
The speed with which industry may be wiped out could trigger massive social unrest - and some people with vast amounts of wealth want to shelter themselves from that.
Their shelter of choice may well be a luxury bunker.
Survival Condo is an American company that develops luxury condos that can survive a nuclear attack. Larry Hall, the company’s founder, tells me they cost up to $4 million each, and come with facilities like a pool, gym, and library.
Survival Condos Project
Hall got the idea after 9/11, when there was an increased interest in bunkers.
“Whenever there are natural disasters, or conflicts flare up, we see a spike in our calls,” Hall says. (Hall wouldn’t tell me who is actually buying these things.)
There is an entire luxury bunker resort under construction right now in Texas called Trident Lakes. It’s marketed as a “5-star playground, equipped with Defcon 1 preparedness”. The resort will include an athletic centre, golf course and polo fields. Armed security will guard the resort, with helipads for access.
In America, income equality is even more dramatic. According to figures from the National Bureau of Economic Research, 'Income has boomed at the top: in 1980, the top 1% of adults earned on average 27 times more than the bottom 50% adults. Today, they earn 81 times more.'
On top of all that, Martinez says, “there’s the political polarisation of society, and how social media has turned us all into a bunch of yammering idiots – all that together points to a negative outcome.”
Rioting, civil war and other dire scenarios are all feasible, he believes.
It’s like, look at these techie douche-bag a**holes, who helped destroy entire industries, and destroy our democratic political process... And now, when the shit hits the fan, they’re all gonna bail?!Antonio Garcia-Martinez
Many of the technologies changing society – automation, artificial intelligence, social media – have, of course, come from Silicon Valley. Now, it looks like the same people who brought us these innovations are preparing to get themselves well out of harm’s way when the fallout from those technologies hits.
“People react to that really strongly and I can see why,” says Martinez. “It’s like, ‘Look at these techie douche-bag a**holes, who helped destroy entire industries, and destroy our democratic political process by putting us all in social media echo-chambers. And now, when the s**t hits the fan, they’re all gonna bail?!’”
Martinez isn’t just planning to bail. He believes anyone hoping to survive the apocalypse would need their own militia, in order to “withstand the roving mob".
He tells me he knows that sounds a little “crazy” and “paranoid”, but, “if we regress to complete disorder, then of course we’d form a militia - because it’s gonna be societal chaos.”
The end may be nearer than we think. And if (when?) it comes, it may help to have some basic military training.
Plus, a few billion in the bank probably won’t hurt. NBD.