‘What would you like for dinner sir?’
‘What do you recommend?’
‘The grilled cicadas are very fine, sir. Or the fried cockroaches.’
Smiling, I look around the table of the Sun Valley restaurant where billionaires from Jeff Bezos to Tim Cook have convened to talk shop in a safe environment. It is a kind of tech-based relative of Bilderberg — the annual conference at which presidents, prime ministers and assorted other elite figures quietly come together.
No journalists allowed, I was told.
‘I’m not a journalist!’
‘What are you then?’
‘I’m a thought leader.’
‘A public intellectual.’
‘I have a column in the New York Times.’
It wasn’t true but it got me in. Asked for a name, I offered ‘David Friedbrooks”.
The Sun Valley Lodge is a beehive of billionaires. Bezos is here, and so is Cook, and so are Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffett, Reed Hastings of Netflix, Brian Roberts of Comcast and Brian Chesky of Airbnb. Even Bill Gates has made an appearance. Perhaps hanging out with Jeff, Mark and the boys will help him to get over his divorce.
Sweaters, slacks, polo shirts and jeans are all over the place. I had expected ‘smart casual’ but this is veering towards ‘casual casual’. This lot make Howard Hughes at his worst look like a snazzy dresser. The calculated drabness is downright oppressive.
Topics on the agenda include climate change, inflation and criminal justice reform. A lot of words like ‘progress’, ‘diversity’ and ‘sustainability’ are being thrown around like colorful balloons. Part of me is disappointed not to hear elaborate plans for world domination but perhaps these guys prefer to talk about such things on Zoom.
I would have expected a tad more of a bleak tone. The promise of openness and enlightenment that bubbled in Silicon Valley in the 1990s has led up to a decade of hot geopolitical and epistemic division. Still, most of these men and women have done well out of the last two years. People stuck at home have had a lot of spare money to spend on Amazon and a lot of spare time to spend browsing Netflix. Outside, in Blaine County, Idaho, the gulf between the rich and poor is stark. ‘COVID-19,’ reports KBTV, ‘exacerbated the discrepancy between the local workers and others who moved from larger cities and could stretch their dollar more in rural areas.’ Inside the lodge, though, it is all smiles.
‘What do you think about the conference, Mr Friedbrooks?’
It is a young man wearing the beige, cotton uniform of the start-up CEO.
‘As an, er, “thought leader”, what do you think about what you have heard?’
I frown and rub my chin, trying to adopt an intellectual air.
‘I think the leaders of your industry understand data very well. But people? Communities? Not so much.’
I look across the table. It is a soft-featured man in a gray t-shirt. He looks like a wary turtle. It is none other than Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
‘Don’t understand people? I understand you better than you understand yourself. Your name isn’t David Friedbrooks. It’s Ben Sixsmith.’
‘How do you know that?’
‘Location data,’ he says, unblinkingly, ‘And you aren’t a public intellectual. You’re a glorified blogger.’
‘That’s typical of you people,’ I say, ‘You steal our information. You ruin local communities…’
‘What information have we stolen?’ asks a gray-haired, bespectacled man I recognize as Tim Cook of Apple, ‘We didn’t make you post photographs online. We didn’t make you ask embarrassing medical questions. We didn’t make you search for nudie pictures when you were 15.’
‘And ruin local communities?’ Asks the bald Jeff Bezos, ‘No one forces you to buy all of your books on Amazon.’
‘No one makes you spend hours watching Netflix,’ adds Reed Hastings, ‘When you could be at your local theater or art gallery.’
I am silent. They are right. They do understand people. They understand our weaknesses and our temptations. They understand our desire for the novel and convenient over that which is familiar and takes hard work. I might lament their exploitation of the darker and weaker sides of human nature, but I succumb to it, every day.
Something is happening. I feel myself shrinking, first to the size of a child, then to that of a baby. My skin hardens, blackens and grows strange lumps and protrusions. With horror I realize what I am becoming. Like Samsa in Kafka’s story, I am turning into a bug.
A man in a gray cashmere sweater picks me up between his finger and his thumb and puts me on his plate.
‘Incorporating insects into the human diet allows us to make economic and environmental progress by using natural diversity to find sustainable nutrition sources,’ he says, brightly.
I wave my little limbs in mournful, futile dissent. Let me live! Let me find a dirty, musty, dusty corner to wallow in.