Billionaire capitalists are designing humanity's future. Don't let them | Matt Shaw

Tech barons like Jeff Bezos want to colonize space and our oceans. Their visions of the future aren’t public-spirited or democratic

Last year a group of cryptocurrency investors purchased a decommissioned cruise liner, the Pacific Dawn, and renamed it the MS Satoshi, after the alleged creator of Bitcoin. The investors were members of the “seasteading” community, an experimental movement that wants to create autonomous, floating city-states in international waters. The Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, a self-described anarcho-capitalist, is a major supporter of the movement – which, like space colonization, seems to attract the enthusiasm of a certain kind of fantastically rich and rightwing tech baron.

The MS Satoshi project was a failure. In a major blow to the seasteading movement, the ship was sold for parts in December, after the ship’s owners were unable to get insurance for their voyage into international waters. (They hold out hope, however, of creating a luxury development of science-fiction-esque pod apartments off the coast of New Jersey.)

The saga highlights one of the most troubling aspects of what could be called the futurism movement: a majority of the compelling and visible ideas about tomorrow are being conceived and developed by a tiny minority of ultra-wealthy individuals and private-sector companies.

It’s not hard to see the seductive appeal of these visions of the future. Beautiful digital renderings invite us into glowing and highly conceptual worlds, such as Elon Musk and SpaceX’s plan to build a glass-domed colony on Mars, or Jeff Bezos’s plan for floating space colonies. On Earth, Richard Branson’s Virgin Hyperloop One has worked with top architects around the world to produce spectacular, inspiring images of a world connected by zero-emission, 670mph vacuum–propelled pods. Uber, imagining self-flying taxis shuttling riders from roof to roof, unveiled 16 proposals for “skyports” designed by prominent corporate architecture firms. Underground, Musk’s Boring Company promises shorter commute times, while in our homes we are enchanted by the potential of Nest and Alexa. Like any good ideology, this privatized futurism affects everything from global infrastructures to kitchen appliances.

These kinds of projects use often fantastic imagery to inspire the public’s imagination and to build consensus around these visions. But unlike many of the forward-thinking proposals of the past – produced by a “public” of academics, artists and government agencies – today’s “future” is almost completely invented by private companies owned by tech billionaires. Why do they care about our imagination? What is at stake when we buy in? What does it mean when the future is privatized?

This kind of speculation is ultimately about dictating policy and ownership. If companies control the image of the future, then they control the future itself, and can control the infrastructure. Ultimately, they will define how society functions. Platforms like Amazon Web Services, Facebook and Robinhood have become massive infrastructures that control large parts of our economy and the public sphere.

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, shows a depiction of a human colony on Mars.
Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, shows a depiction of a human colony on Mars. Photograph: Morgan Sette/AAP

This is not a wholly new phenomenon. At the 1939 World’s Fair, General Motors presented Futurama, an “artistic conception” that outlined their vision for the world of 1960. As Norman Bel Geddes, GM’s designer, wrote about the plans: “There is a Federal obligation to develop the country’s resources of land, water, power, and natural wealth. And there is no single undertaking more important to these obligations than the development of facilities for national transportation.”

By arguing for federal government investment, and building public consensus with the help of imagery borrowed from avant-garde artists such as the Italian Futurists, GM contributed to the public consensus that led to the 1956 interstate highway system.

However, futuristic ideas about remaking society haven’t always come from private companies with private interests. In the 1960s and 1970s, there were many visions of the future made by artists, academics and public agencies. Technocratic proposals gave form to many of the countercultural ideas of the time. The US navy actually approved Buckminster Fuller’s plans for Triton City, a floating housing development designed for 100,000 people in Chesapeake Bay, and it was commissioned by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Today’s privatized futures take directly from the utopian proposals of that era. Bezos’s space colonization plan, Blue Origin, nearly copies the work of the physicist Gerard O’Neill’s 1975 work for Nasa. However, the politics are much different. Silicon Valley’s libertarian, technocratic ideals – themselves a curious mutation of the California counterculture – could extend the darker aspects of hyper-capitalism. SpaceX wants to shuttle settlers to Mars for $500,000 a ticket, with loans available that could be worked off. Given the labor record of the tech industry, that sounds awfully like indentured servitude packaged as frontier life. (The MS Satoshi is also a cautionary tale of renderings v reality.)

We must envision more public-spirited, collective futures – ones in which the market alone isn’t allowed to dictate everything from housing to environmental regulation to mining rights. Like the futurists of the 1960s and 1970s, can we think in ways that are both stunningly audacious and democratic? At the very least, we have to try.

Like the seasteading movement’s difficulties in literally unmooring from the legal system, it seems that every “new world” contains DNA of the old one. European land-use laws defined the United States, which extended into the government-led expansion into the American west. Because someone today has to define tomorrow, it is crucial that we do not leave the image of the future in the deciding hands of tech billionaires.

  • Matt Shaw is faculty at the Southern California Institute of Architecture

Matt Shaw

The GuardianTramp

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