A Mammoth Meatball of Plutocratic Failure
This is how modern life became one big trash pile—and what it will take to extricate ourselves from the rubbish.
This week, there’s some good news for everyone who likes to see our titans of innovation doing what they do best: working at the remotest possible margins of the problems that currently assail the world. A “cultivated meat company” named Vow has created a meatball manufactured from the resurrected flesh of the woolly mammoth. Why, for God’s sake? Vow’s goal, as CEO George Peppou put it, is to “transition a few billion meat eaters away” from eating conventional meat, so they’re going to reinvent it: “We chose the woolly mammoth because it’s a symbol of diversity loss and a symbol of climate change.” I guess someone should let the doomsayers at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change know that we’re well on the way to fixing the world, one plate of woolly mammoth bolognese at a time.
It’s hard to find a more incisive bit of entrepreneurial whimsy to highlight in a week where we’re all a little less certain about where all our money went and to what purpose it’s being put. The trains are still derailing, our health care system is still a nightmare, and mass shootings are still as regular as rain, so we can all safely assume that our nation’s considerable wealth isn’t being funneled toward ameliorating these problems. I hate to be cynical, but I’m starting to wonder if maybe our free market isn’t quite matching capital to need with the ruthless efficiency we’ve been promised.
As everyone knows by now, the avatar of this profligate era, Elon Musk, has used $44 billion to break Twitter, essentially taking the median lifetime earnings of more than 25,000 ordinary Americans and setting it on fire, for thrills. (Musk now says Twitter is worth less than half what he paid.) Another heaping pile of cash was recently given to Silicon Valley Bank to repair the damage caused by several of Musk’s fellow travelers, who somehow managed to summon a bank run into existence over a group chat, after which they used Twitter’s desiccated remains to bully the Federal Reserve into providing a bailout.
For the rest of us, navigating the world well beneath these plutocratic aeries, everything seems to be descending into newer and ever more elaborate levels of what Cory Doctorow refers to as “enshittification”—the process by which a platform first treats its users well, then abuses them for the benefit of its business customers, then finally abuses those customers in order to “claw back all the value for themselves”—at which point only a cruddy, zombified version of the original product remains. If it doesn’t sound familiar to you, try buying something from Amazon or take Google for a spin.
In a recent newsletter, writer and P.R. professional Ed Zitron gave voice to everyone who’s simply in the mood to just burn it all down:
The problem is that it’s been a minute since we’ve seen anything new from tech that has truly improved most people’s existence. People have been able to justify the opulence and societal hero complex of the Valley because of the vague promise that life would improve as a result of giving them that space. Except the last decade of tech has been filled with broken promises: the average person was not enriched by cryptocurrency, virtual reality remains … broken, and autonomous cars have mostly resulted in a dangerous open-air beta test on the world’s roads.
While it may feel good to contemplate digging some ditches for the oligarchs of Big Tech, it’s important to remember that they hardly accomplished all of this rack and ruin on their own. This malformed world has been shaped, principally, through public policy—and bad public policy at that. As The New Republic’s Tim Noah reported in September 2020, a study from the Rand Corporation laid out in no uncertain terms that a substantial amount of wealth owed to ordinary Americans was stolen, thanks to a half-century of unjust and inequitable economic policymaking. Over the course of decades, hundreds of wrong decisions have been made about whom to tax and what to regulate, who should get punished and what should get bailed out, and which finger should go on what scale. It is those decisions that have put us here: knee-deep in the Great Enshittening.
Here’s a campaign platform, if anyone wants it: Things should work. Trains should not derail. Rich nations should not struggle to provide pandemic relief. Concert ticket receipts should not look like epic poems. The internet should not be a wilderness of junk. And hey, just spitballing here, but maybe the next big pile of money should actually go to, say, the millions of college students who played by the rules and are now shackled with a lodestone of debt rather than going to the same old band of rich narcissists who put us in this hole. These are the kinds of political choices that we can and should make: Let’s bench this cabal of ungrateful plutocrats and put some fresh starters on the field. It took one set of policies to create this mammoth meatball of shit and failure we’ve all been asked to eat; it will take another set of policies to set a new table for the future.
This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.