In building Reddit, a community of thousands of discussion threads, into one of the most frequently visited sites in the world, Huffman has grown aware of the way that technology alters our relations with one another, for better and for worse. He has witnessed how social media can magnify public fear. “It’s easier for people to panic when they’re together,” he said, pointing out that “the Internet has made it easier for people to be together,” yet it also alerts people to emerging risks. Long before the financial crisis became front-page news, early signs appeared in user comments on Reddit. “People were starting to whisper about mortgages. They were worried about student debt. They were worried about debt in general. There was a lot of, ‘This is too good to be true. This doesn’t smell right.’ ” He added, “There’s probably some false positives in there as well, but, in general, I think we’re a pretty good gauge of public sentiment. When we’re talking about a faith-based collapse, you’re going to start to see the chips in the foundation on social media first.”
Huffman has been a frequent attendee at Burning Man, the annual, clothing-optional festival in the Nevada desert, where artists mingle with moguls. He fell in love with one of its core principles, “radical self-reliance,” which he takes to mean “happy to help others, but not wanting to require others.” (Among survivalists, or “preppers,” as some call themselves, FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, stands for “Foolishly Expecting Meaningful Aid.”) Huffman has calculated that, in the event of a disaster, he would seek out some form of community: “Being around other people is a good thing. I also have this somewhat egotistical view that I’m a pretty good leader. I will probably be in charge, or at least not a slave, when push comes to shove.”
This group consists of people who live in tornado, hurricane, flood, wildfire, earthquake or heavy snowfall-prone areas and want to be prepared for possible emergencies. They invest in material for fortifying structures and tools for rebuilding and constructing temporary shelters. While assuming the long-term continuity of society, some may have invested in a custom-built shelter, food, water, medicine, and enough supplies to get by until contact with the rest of the world resumes following a natural emergency.
He thinks that mainstream news organizations are biased, and he subscribes to theories that he knows some find implausible. He surmised that “there is a deliberate move by the people in Congress to dumb America down.” Why would Congress do that? I asked. “They don’t want people to be smart to see what’s going on in politics,” he said. He told me he had read a prediction that forty per cent of Congress will be arrested, because of a scheme involving the Panama Papers, the Catholic Church, and the Clinton Foundation. “They’ve been working on this investigation for twenty years,” he said. I asked him if he really believed that. “At first, you hear this stuff and go, Yeah, right,” he said. But he wasn’t ruling it out.
“And carnal nature said, ‘I’ve got eight shots, they’re not by their weapons, I’m going to kill every damn one of them.’ And then I saw the women. Hollow-faced, it looked like you had draped skeletons with cloth. Horrible, and the children were the same way. Far, far worse than anything I had ever imagined. I could see it, I could smell it, I could taste it, I could feel it. It was real. It’s going to be an experience you don’t want to go through.”—A dream Len Pense had, circa Fall 2017.
He ushered me through, and, in the darkness, I could see the outline of a vast concrete dome, with a metal blast door partly ajar. I was greeted by Larry Hall, the C.E.O. of the Survival Condo Project, a fifteen-story luxury apartment complex built in an underground Atlas missile silo. The facility housed a nuclear warhead from 1961 to 1965, when it was decommissioned. At a site conceived for the Soviet nuclear threat, Hall has erected a defense against the fears of a new era. “It’s true relaxation for the ultra-wealthy,” he said. “They can come out here, they know there are armed guards outside. The kids can run around.”
Recently, I spoke on the phone with Tyler Allen, a real-estate developer in Lake Mary, Florida, who told me that he paid three million dollars for one of Hall’s condos. Allen said he worries that America faces a future of “social conflict” and government efforts to deceive the public. He suspects that the Ebola virus was allowed to enter the country in order to weaken the population. When I asked how friends usually respond to his ideas, he said, “The natural reaction that you get most of the time is for them to laugh, because it scares them.” But, he added, “my credibility has gone through the roof. Ten years ago, this just seemed crazy that all this was going to happen: the social unrest and the cultural divide in the country, the race-baiting and the hate-mongering.” I asked how he planned to get to Kansas from Florida in a crisis. “If a dirty bomb goes off in Miami, everybody’s going to go in their house and congregate in bars, just glued to the TV. Well, you’ve got forty-eight hours to get the hell out of there.”