My fascination with the technological fantasies of billionaires might seem like a peculiarly nerdy version of a familiar preoccupation with the super rich. However as Yuval Noah Harari observes on loc 3304 of Homo Deus, the dreams of technological salvation which the rich and powerful invest themselves in have important consequences for the rest of us because they condition how these groups orientate themselves to the existential risks which we all face:
How rational is it to risk the future of humankind on the assumption that future scientists will make some unknown discoveries? Most of the presidents, ministers and CEOs who run the world are very rational people. Why are they willing to take such a gamble? Maybe because they don’t think they are gambling on their own personal future. Even if bad comes to worse and science cannot hold off the deluge, engineers could still build a hi-tech Noah’s Ark for the upper caste, while leaving billions of others to drown. The belief in this hi-tech Ark is currently one of the biggest threats to the future of humankind and of the entire ecosystem. People who believe in the hi-tech Ark should not be put in charge of the global ecology, for the same reason that people who believe in a heavenly afterlife should not be given nuclear weapons.
As a Guardian article last year put it, “Among the tech elite, space exploration is now the ultimate status symbol“. This reflects the ascendancy of a distinct elite, with converging dispositions reinforced by the peculiar niche within which they have accumulated their wealth and power. There are cultural and biographical explanations we can offer of their preoccupations, as well as sociological ones of how these ambitions spread amongst this intensely self-referential group of elites. However it also worth inquiring into the potential consequences of this passion given the control these people have over the future direction of technological development and the opportunity costs they confront in doing so:
Musk, who founded SpaceX in 2002, is arguably the most visible billionaire in the new space race. The apparent inspiration for Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark character in Iron Man, Musk has become a god-like figure for engineers, making his fortune at PayPal and then as CEO of luxury electric car firm Tesla and clean energy company Solar City. Yet it is his galactic ambitions, insiders say, that really motivate him. “His passion is settling Mars,” says one.
When pondering this stuff, it’s hard not to wonder occasionally if you’re being overly cynical, throwing sand at people seeking innovations which could transform human life. But when I hear Jeff Bezos say that “You go to space to save Earth” I feel renewed confidence this is something we ought to critique. If these investments fail then our engineering philosopher-kings have wasted countless billions of dollars pursuing the endless frontier which could have been better spent improving our life here on earth. If these investments succeed then what does this mean for those left on earth when the super-rich go to space?