To frame the commercialisation of space as being somehow related to ‘platform capitalism’ risks misunderstanding. It is certainly the case that Jeff Bezos, owner of Blue Origin, owes his wealth to Amazon but this has become a platform over time rather than being founded as one. Elon Musk, owner of SpaceX, owes his early success to PayPal, a finance platform which was purchased at great expense by a peer-to-peer commerce platform, but he is far from the quintessential platform capitalist. Meanwhile, there are other players in the commercial space industry, such as Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and brand-for-hire Richard Branson, who have little to do with what we talk about when we use a term like platform capitalism.
Therefore what I mean when I talk about the interplanetary horizons of platform capitalism is not the commercial history of the founders of these companies, though they have accumulated their wealth over the period where platforms have become ubiquitous and tech firms have become the most highly valued commercial entities on the planet. This has certainly facilitated their development, with Bezos largely self-financing his company until recently and Musk cross-fertilising his reputation and leveraging the Silicon Valley cult of the founder to win attention, overcome incumbents and force his way into the lucrative field of state contracts. But we miss what is most interesting about the commercialisation of space if we focus exclusively on these figures.
What interests me is how the platform, as an operable business model but also a heuristic working analogically to collapse the vast array of future opportunities into specifiable strategies, frames the new phase of space travel we are beginning to enter into. This is something Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen explicitly invokes on pg 266-267 of Christian Davenport’s The Space Barons:
Allen also saw parallels between the space frontier and the Internet. “When such access to space is routine, innovation will accelerate in ways beyond what we can currently imagine,” he said. “That’s the thing about new platforms: when they become easily available, convenient, and affordable, they attract and enable other visionaries and entrepreneurs to realize more new concepts.… “Thirty years ago, the PC revolution put computing power into the hands of millions and unlocked incalculable human potential. Twenty years ago, the advent of the web and the subsequent proliferation of smartphones combined to enable billions of people to surmount the traditional limitations of geography and commerce. Today, expanding access to LEO [low Earth orbit] holds similar revolutionary potential.”
The same case is made by Jeff Bezos is in terms of infrastructure. These firms are building the infrastructure which make commercial innovation in space feasible, creating facilitates and crafting pipelines which other players will be able to use. The ambition here is vast, seeking to save capitalism from itself by moving it into space. For Musk, hope lies with Mars and the extension of technological civilisation there to move beyond the confines of a dying earth. For Bezos, we must move industry beyond Earth and preserve our habitat as the place to live while commerce, mining and manufacturing expand outwards to the stars. There is a civilisational vision in both cases, necessary to recognise even if we don’t take it seriously.
It is easy to dismiss this as hubris, the outsized dreams of billionaires with too few restraints on how they spend their vast wealth. It is perhaps more fair, even if inaccurate, if we see it as an ideological front to cover expansion into the largest area of state spending which until recently remained untouched by private commerce. But I’m increasingly convinced there’s more going on here than either explanation can recognise. Platform capitalism has interplanetary horizons which we should take seriously because they make a difference, even if they prove logistically or technologically unfeasible in the longer term. This is the frontier of how digital elites think about capitalism and its future, liable to exercise an enormous influence upon our collective world in which these figures have near untrammelled power.