For years, one of the most smirked-at subspecies in the technology ecosystem was that of the Silicon Valley Prepper. You were always hearing about them, these men with soft jobs and hardened paranoia. The $0.99 game developer with a bug-out bag; the venture capitalist with a bunker in New Zealand; the cloud administrator learning to bowhunt for a survivalist future. The preppers were living in flush times in a beautiful region, but it seemed like the first thing they did with money was steel for the apocalypse.
Now, with Covid-19, they feel vindicated. Because they are. The coders and founders long snickered at for stockpiling flour and toilet paper were absolutely right.
Properly masked and drenched in Purell, they are railing against a tech press that they feel mocked them as late as February for reducing travel and not shaking hands. They are — of course they are — making a slew of Covid-related start-up investments. And a coolheaded blog called The Prepared, with features like “Prepping Checklist for Beginners” and “Rational Reasons You Should Prepare,” is emerging as the voice of a movement.
John Ramey, a longtime Silicon Valley entrepreneur, started the site in 2018. “People are realizing the last few stable decades have been a fluke,” he told me by phone, from somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. “It’s the coronavirus now, but people have been watching climate change, inequality, late-stage capitalism, post-World War II systems falling apart. Our institutions have dropped the ball.”
Observing all of this is one thing. Acting on it is another. The moment when you first started prepping for coronavirus has become perhaps the hottest new credential in Silicon Valley. Noticing it early signaled that you were someone who kept a close eye on China, ignored official channels of information, brushed off snark and knew how to parse data.
Why, in the techno-futurist worldview, is disaster always near? Surely it’s relevant that the industry is built atop an earthquake zone. But there may also be something about making money in a heartbeat that predisposes you to imagine it disappearing in one.
It could be that if you spend all day thinking of ways to break a system, you realize how easily everything can be broken.
But perhaps most of all, it could be that in Silicon Valley, the best people train themselves to be happy to be surprised. There is a sense among them that the East Coast is the old world, conservative, backward-looking. But in the start-up world, discovering that you’re wrong or that an assumption is flawed is great. It probably means there’s an opportunity to make money.
Goofball hobbyists vs. cutthroat survivors
Sam Altman, the head of OpenAI, a group studying artificial intelligence, became a figurehead of the Bay Area prepper movement after a 2016 New Yorker article appeared in which he acknowledged amassing “guns, gold, potassium iodide, antibiotics, batteries, water, gas masks from the Israeli Defense Force, and a big patch of land in Big Sur I can fly to.”
He’s not in Big Sur today — not yet, at least. When I called him recently, he was still in San Francisco, where he has been working with his brother, Max Altman, to organize a bulk order of one billion single-use masks from China.
To Mr. Altman, the early days of the coronavirus captured a long-running tension between tech leaders and a press they view as dismissive and overly negative. “The interesting question isn’t ‘Why did Silicon Valley get it right?’ It’s ‘How did everyone else get it so wrong?’” Mr. Altman said. “One theory is that because initially it was mostly the tech industry saying this was bad, and the media seem to like to say whatever the tech industry thinks is wrong, particularly if it will get some clicks, they mocked the people raising the alarm.”
In January and February, he watched as prominent Silicon Valley investors — notably Balaji S. Srinivasan, Paul Graham, and Geoff Lewis — began tweeting prolifically about the coronavirus.
On Feb. 13, when Vox published an article headlined “‘No handshakes, please’: The tech industry is terrified of the coronavirus,” many tech preppers became incensed, convinced they were being mocked — and that the public was not listening. Much of the mainstream news coverage at the time relied on the World Health Organization and government messaging that discouraged mask-wearing and downplayed the virus’s risks.
But the tech prepper ranks grew. One convert is Ari Paul, the chief investment officer of BlockTower Capital, a cryptocurrency investment firm, who saw Mr. Srinivasan’s tweets and began stocking up in February. “I bought some nitrile gloves, a month of food, a month of water, and a few months of cash,” Mr. Paul told me, from an undisclosed rural location. He has started keeping a machete by the door, just in case.
A second is Julie Fredrickson, who recently sold Stowaway, a venture-backed makeup brand. She had become “a China watcher” out of necessity: It was where she sourced cosmetics. Because she was in the habit of reading supply chain reports, she perked up at early, disturbing reports from Wuhan. “China doesn’t shut down cities,” she said. Ms. Fredrickson was raised in the Bay Area but now lives in Manhattan, where “we enjoy showing off our water bricks in our one-bedroom and the go-bags in the couch.”
And then there’s me. For years, I watched Silicon Valley preppers as an eccentric local tribe — at best goofball hobbyists, at worst elite separatists who fantasized about leaving the rest of us behind to die.
But in January, when I started to notice preppers in an especially high-pitched tizzy about some kind of pneumonia in China, I bought some Lysol. Then some gloves, a couple masks. I found The Prepared and devoured its advice. The site’s central argument made sense: that preparing myself meant I would take up one less spot in the health care system in a crisis. I started to think about what I take for granted. It was kind of a game to play at night, trying to imagine how different parts of my world might falter and how I would stay alive.
Soon I had a prepper box. Inside was flu medicine, headlamps, sardines, gloves, goggles, duct tape, a tarp, a Vipertek VTS-989 stun gun, some whistles. Because of it, I’ve been able to mail supplies to my parents, and I’ve been able to give precious hand sanitizer and high-quality masks to friends. I ended up over-prepping, so I donated the extra to a local clinic.
I have noticed an instinct among those who first mocked Silicon Valley preppers as alarmist is now to call them smug. Certainly, some of them are. But the fact remains that they saw this — or something like it — coming a long ways off.
‘How do I get a gun?’
About a decade ago, Mr. Ramey was living in San Mateo, Calif., and working as the chief executive of isocket, an online advertising start-up. One day, after coffee with a fellow founder, Mr. Ramey opened the trunk of his car, inadvertently revealing something he referred to as his “Get Home Bag,” full of the things he might need if disaster suddenly struck. (“Basic stuff,” he said: first aid kit, food and water rations, radio, multitool, map, compass, jumper cables, a blade to cut someone out of a seatbelt after a crash.)
It was, Mr. Ramey said, the moment that made him “one of the first outed preppers” in the Silicon Valley community. “Other founders and investors started coming to me ad hoc,” he said. “And they’d say, ‘How do I put a kit together?’ And then they’d get really quiet and ask, ‘How do I get a gun?’”
Later, Mr. Ramey began working as an innovation adviser to the Obama White House. He co-founded the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, a Pentagon project to improve ties between the Department of Defense and the technology industry — a formerly tight relationship Mr. Ramey felt had grown cold. The project has since dropped the “Experimental” label and become a permanent organization within the Pentagon. But Mr. Ramey’s experience in government did not make him confident about the nation’s ability to withstand a crisis.
“I had this wide-eyed belief that there are rooms full of smart people working on critical problems that we face, and once I got into that room, I realized just how wrong I was,” Mr. Ramey said. “They literally still ran our nuclear codes on floppy disks.”
When Donald Trump was elected president, Mr. Ramey decided it was time to get serious about prepping. In 2016, he moved from the Bay Area to a patch of land in Colorado. He wanted to get the message out.
He felt more than ever that all Americans should prep. But first, he had to reckon with popular perceptions of the prepper type: rural, deeply conservative and paranoid to an extreme, readying their bunkers for a nuclear sneak attack or the Book of Revelation.
“Just to figure out how to put an earthquake kit together, you had to listen to someone talk about how Hillary Clinton was going to steal your children,” Mr. Ramey said.
He wanted to make the prepper scene more welcoming to a cosmopolitan cohort — urban, liberal, concerned about climate change and social instability, afraid the Trump administration would exacerbate problems or bungle a crisis.
At first, Mr. Ramey put together advice in shared Google Docs. When that got unwieldy, he started The Prepared and brought on Jon Stokes, one of the creators of the tech news site Ars Technica. “In my own circle, there was a sense of a kind of rupture where something was widely not expected to be possible suddenly happens,” Mr. Stokes said, of the election of Mr. Trump. “And, you know, people were just like, well, maybe the world doesn’t work the way I thought it works.”
Mr. Ramey describes the audience for The Prepared as “rational preppers.” They are people who like to calculate risk and see prepping as a bit of a game. The content, Mr. Ramey said, inevitably attracts anti-vaxxers, but moderators try to keep them off the site, mindful that their tribe is put off by unfounded conspiracy theories. Many of Mr. Ramey’s readers preferred to prep inconspicuously, not wanting to seem kooky or paranoid to friends and neighbors.
The coronavirus changed that, and took prepping mainstream. The Prepared has quadrupled its staff, from three to 12. Investors include co-founders of LivingSocial, Square, the creator of Google AdSense and Coinbase, as well as early executives at Facebook and Twitter.
There is irony to this, of course. Prepping is required in part because technology helped make America’s economic infrastructure so efficient. Grocery stores adopted just-in-time delivery systems perfected by Silicon Valley. Hospitals would keep only a few days of extra gear.
“Prepping is really a decision to take the slack that we’ve ‘optimized’ out of the system and put it on your own balance sheet,” Mr. Stokes said. He’s riding out the pandemic on a farm near Austin, Texas. “I have the slack in the form of solar panels and batteries on the electrical grid. And I have grocery store slack. I have medica
l equipment slack.”
‘They’re going to come for our food’
Even as layoffs hit start-ups, many see the chaos as an opportunity to build.
Investors have been hunting for start-ups that might evolve around the pandemic. One prominent social network executive told me that the virus would bring five years of change in five months. Doctors that had resisted telemedicine are now peering at moles on Zoom. Schools that were skeptical about online courses are streaming lectures. Offices of all kinds are settled into fully remote work. Demand for online grocery shopping is overwhelming.
The list is endless. Movie theaters have completely given way to home streaming; gyms to video and fitness trackers. Maybe even failed 2010s trends like virtual reality will revive.
If even more of the American economy accrues to Silicon Valley, these changes could accelerate the biggest danger the “rational preppers” fear: revolution-level social strife. Inequality breeds instability, they argue.
“You’re seeing more awareness,” Mr. Ramey said. “The billionaire class are saying, ‘Yeah, you know, hey guys, we can’t keep doing this. They’re going to come for our food.’”
And so as affluent urban preppers ride out the coronavirus crisis — perhaps with their wealth intact, or even enhanced — they are increasingly aware of a new danger.
Danielle Morrill, an entrepreneur who sold an analytics start-up in 2017, is an investor in The Prepared. She recently moved from San Francisco to Denver, where she has more space and is getting deeper into prepping.
“I find it kind of empowering, and it’s a little taboo,” Ms. Morrill said.
“I’m not some O.G. prepper,” she added, “but after this, I’m already thinking — what do I have to prepare for next?”