Innovation Slaves and Lurking Technoplutocorporatism

Company Blockchains LLC, co-owned by a millionaire Jeffrey Berns, bought over 67,000 acres in Northern Nevada in 2018. The plan is to build infrastructure including hotels, truck stops, and housing according to the latest technological achievements. This purchase is part of the project Innovation Zones. It aims at providing a space for innovation by employing advanced technology in real life. It wants to implement such solutions as “blockchain, autonomous technology, the internet of things, robotics, artificial intelligence, wireless technology, biometrics and renewable resource technology.”

Such projects may appear as lofty fantasies. It echoes projects of the past, which have not been well-received despite the promise of technological advancement. A nineteenth-century Illinois-located town built from scratch by an investor, George Pullman, did not appeal to the inhabitants despite being at the top of infrastructure innovation for that time. Many people moved out because they did not find activities and spaces resonating with their needs. The fact that they could not own property was also a disturbance.

The landlord business was criticized by activists. The President of the American Railway Union said in 1894 speech: “I believe a rich plunderer like Pullman is a greater felon than a poor thief, and it has become no small part of the duty of this organization to strip the mask of hypocrisy from the pretended philanthropist and show him to the world as an oppressor of labor…The paternalism of the Pullman is the same as the interest of a slaveholder in his human chattels. You are striking to avert slavery and degradation.”

Sidewalk Labs, a Google subsidiary, failed to implement its “smart city,” also called “Google city” in Toronto. The fears around privacy generated a backlash. The company withdrew abruptly in 2020.

Nevada project illustrates that technological elites’ appetite for control is growing. It seems that their increasing power makes them more audacious in their demands. Jeffrey Berns has contributed over 100,000 dollars to back the current Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak and its partisan family, the Democrats. An unprecedented proposal by the incumbent governor followed in February 2021. Sisolak proposed a bill that would cede much autonomy to investors who buy at least 50,000 acres and commit to spending one billion dollars on the project. In exchange, they would have a say in appointing a supervisory board over the territory and be given “the same authority as a county, including the ability to impose taxes, form school districts and justice courts and provide government services, to name a few duties.”

Past attempts may not have been successful because the affected citizens had too much autonomy. Accumulating control over this particular juridic zone’s residents may foster the dystopian agenda of the technological elites. COVID-19 has brought favorable conditions for such a plan. The recent pandemic has enabled even more concentration of capital. The dispossession and the spike of evictions among the vulnerable part of the population may lure them towards such projects as the antidote to homelessness. Technological unemployment deprives them of the power to withdraw labor to have a say over living conditions. A corporation possessing judicial authority may easily strip the residents of legal protections.

David Graeber wrote that society was at the brink of the end of capitalism. The new system may be worse than the current one, about which we tend to complain. I call this new system that is unfolding in front of us technoplutocorporatism. My book Imagine a Sane Society juxtaposes two kinds of utopias, driven either by the technological elites or citizen self-organization. The former type, such as the Innovation Zones project, may become laboratories filled with human guinea pigs. Without monetary exchanges, property rights, and the need to be employed, residents’ status may shift to innovation slave. They would not work as we conceive work in the employment system. However, they may be owned by the corporation.

With the advancement of research and innovation, laboratory rats and monkeys lose their utility for the furtherance of technology. The temptation to replace them with humans may become irresistible. Power corrupts. We can imagine that inhabitants immersed in controlled living conditions would bring opportunities to undertake studies impossible to implement before. Following the research methodology developed with animals, a corporation may manipulate the outer stimuli to conduct experiments and measure reactions. Data camps may emerge. They will constitute a new venue of post-capitalist exploitation and extractivism.

  • Image credit: Softpanorama
  • Katarzyna Gajewska, PhD, is the author the books A School from a Saner Future (2020) and Imagine a Sane Society (2021). Read other articles by Katarzyna.