Capital Flight, by Hari Kunzru

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Once upon a time in a galaxy not far from London, a group called the Association of Autonomous Astronauts was born. The AAA announced a bold “Five Year Plan for establishing a world-wide network of local, community-based groups dedicated to building their own space ships.” It wasn’t an organization, with members or rules or any money to speak of, coming as it did out of an anarchist tradition that abhorred all forms of top-down control. Depending on whom you asked, it was either an emancipatory political project, an elaborate prank, or an artistic avant-garde. No one was in charge—and that was the point. The AAA was an identity. If you wanted to go to space, it was yours to use.

A lot of people wanted to go to space.

In 1997, two years after the association’s founding, I traveled to Vienna as a delegate to the first AAA intergalactic conference. The AAA had spread around the world, from Bologna, Italy, to Hamilton, New Zealand. Local groups had proposed research programs on resisting gravity, astral projection, the three-body problem, DIY space suit construction, and zero-G sex, all with the aim, as the AAA slogan put it, of “moving in several directions at once.” At the conference, a new phase of the five-year plan was announced. “Dreamtime” called on would-be astronauts to imagine “what new activities will fill up the empty spaces that had previously fixed the limits of a complacent life back on planet earth.” One proposal was three-sided football—sport as anarchist pedagogy, played on a hexagonal pitch—but mostly we stayed up late and talked about who should go to space (everyone in the bar), what should happen there (a rave), and why nobody should be in charge.

The AAA had roots, intellectually and stylistically, in the experimental culture of the Sixties. In 1969, the Situationist International had published a statement called “The Conquest of Space in the Time of Power.” “Humanity,” it thundered,

will enter into space to make the universe the playground of the last revolt: the revolt that will go against the limitations imposed by nature. Once the walls have been smashed that now separate people from science, the conquest of space will no longer be an economic or military “promotional” gimmick, but the blossoming of human freedoms and fulfillments, attained by a race of gods.

In 2000, with the five-year plan at an end, the AAA disbanded, diffusing into the cosmos, where it influences present-day space exploration in subtle and occult ways. Space dreams, of course, say much about the dreamer, about what constrains them, the limits they’d like to move beyond. Talk of the “blossoming of human freedoms and fulfillments” wouldn’t be out of place in the marketing copy for a twenty-first-century corporate space program. The betterment of humankind through the conquest of space is a Promethean ambition, suitable for a world-famous billionaire. So Elon Musk has SpaceX and Jeff Bezos has Blue Origin, companies dedicated to achieving their respective visions of transcendence. There may be something adolescent about the wish to go to space, to fly away from the entanglements of terrestrial life, but Musk and Bezos, and their notions of what constitutes human progress, can’t be easily dismissed. For good or ill, they are powerful enough to impose their dreams on the rest of us.

Elon Musk’s goal is to colonize Mars. Why go there? Presenting his project in 2016, he shrugged. “Why go anywhere?” He spoke about a “bifurcation,” the proverbial fork in the road. In one future, we stay on Earth and go extinct. “The alternative is to become a spacefaring civilization and a multiplanet species.” He laid out a path by which SpaceX would grow until it had a fleet of a thousand or more reusable rockets, part of a system that would include orbital refueling and the production of propellant on Mars’s surface. Noting that Mars and Earth are close enough to make a flight practical only once every twenty-six months, Musk described an extraordinary moment, the climax of the first act of a real-life space opera: “The Mars colonial fleet would depart en masse, kind of like Battlestar Galactica.

Jeff Bezos has apparently wanted to get humans off Earth since high school. In a 1982 round-up of speeches by local valedictorians, the Miami Herald recorded the young Bezos’s desire to “build space hotels, amusement parks, yachts and colonies for two or three million people orbiting around the earth.” The founder of Amazon is famously single-minded. Eighteen years after his graduation speech, he started Blue Origin. Two decades after that, he presented a prototype moon lander, and shared his vision for a future that involved large numbers of people living near Earth on O’Neill colonies, giant cylinders that rotate to create artificial gravity. He showed pictures of Florentine cities and wilderness parks, all spinning majestically in orbit. With most factories and mines moved into space (the workers presumably being inhabitants of the colonies), “Earth,” he said, “ends up zoned residential and light industry.” The images of the space colonies were inescapably reminiscent of tracts distributed by religious groups, with their saturated-color renderings of paradise.

Bezos has no immediate plans to build this infrastructure, which he sees as a multigenerational project. He’s got a rocket and a space tourism program, but mostly what he’s got is enthusiasm and a knack for turning ideas into money. He wants us to buy into space. In his moon lander pitch, he asks us to choose either “stasis and rationing” or “dynamism and growth.” As he sells the virtues of life on his archipelago of orbiting exurbs, he sounds like a man trying to interest the audience in a Miami Beach time-share. A certain flatness to his tone suggests that while a new life awaits us in the offworld colonies, he may not be joining us there. We might find ourselves living in knockoff space Florence, working in an asteroid mine and spending the weekend hiking through fiberglass hills, but Bezos will remain earthside with his Promethean friends, enjoying the amenities of the pristine gated community that they’ve rescued from the tragedy of the commons.

Musk is trying to escape catastrophe, and get out before the earth dies. Bezos wants to make national parks, in the morally complex American tradition of population transfer, enclosure, and rewilding. Naturally, the two men are sniping at each other. Musk tweeted that Bezos’s ideas “make no sense.” It would, he said, “be like trying to build the USA in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.” Bezos retorted that Musk should go and live on Mount Everest for a year, “because it’s a garden paradise compared to Mars.”

Whether it’s the boredom, the crowds, or the prospect of resource scarcity that bothers you about staying on Earth, the real sin is stasis. If you’re not growing exponentially, you’re not growing fast enough. This mindset is fundamental to the Silicon Valley culture that created the space billionaires, as is a model of innovation that pushes beyond the ostensible business goals of better, faster, cheaper. Promethean billionaires must think transformatively. They must think big thoughts and solve hard problems, and one of the biggest thoughts you can have is about human extinction. Existential risk (or X-risk) is a fairly new field, dedicated to speculative catastrophizing. Of course, people have thought about risks of all kinds since (please imagine that I am doing a Carl Sagan voice) we sat round the campfire, listening for the stealthy tread of the sabertooth tiger, but as a term, X-risk has come to be associated with a particular school of utilitarian philosophy centered on Oxford University. Musk is one of several tech billionaires who have funded Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, run by the philosopher Nick Bostrom, a prophet of X-risk known for his worries about the dangers of runaway artificial intelligence.

For a Promethean, hedging against X-risk is a good reason to go multiplanetary. If one planet fails, you have another in reserve. From an existential perspective, ordinary risks seem trivial. Even quite large events such as “Chernobyl, Bhopal, volcano eruptions, earthquakes, droughts, World War I, World War II, epidemics of influenza, smallpox, black plague, and AIDS” are, as Bostrom once wrote, just “ripples on the surface of the great sea of life.”

At the beginning of Hard Times, Dickens’s satirical take on English utilitarianism, the schoolmaster Gradgrind declares, “Now, what I want is, Facts.” The lofty pleasure of viewing things sub specie aeternitatis has blended with the bean-counting calculation of this English tradition to produce a moral system perfectly suited to the outlook of billionaire engineers, known as effective altruism. It’s altruistic because it rejects self-interest in favor of utilitarianism’s famous concern for “the greatest happiness of the greatest number,” and effective because it counsels the disbursement of an individual’s time and resources in whatever way reason and evidence suggest will do the most good.

Effective altruism is supported and promoted by a network of well-funded foundations, and its adherents can be enthusiastic to the point of cultishness. It’s opposed to the boneheaded greed-is-good Ayn Randianism that passes for a worldview at many of the world’s most lavish dining tables, but, importantly for the rich, it doesn’t necessarily imply redistribution. It asks “How much good can my dollar do?” but generally leaves aside the question of how I came by that dollar. Effective altruism might, for example, lead you to calculate that up to eight hundred thousand people die a year from malaria, and that by distributing cheap bed nets soaked in insecticide, you could save many of those lives. It may also lead you to conclude that you must maximize your income by working at an investment bank, so you can buy more nets.

Effective altruism, or at least the flavor known as “longtermism,” has a strange relationship to the future. Its presiding spirit is the late Derek Parfit, a fellow of All Souls College at Oxford who, in the mid-Eighties, published Reasons and Persons, in which he chipped away at cherished ideas about personal identity and tried to work through questions such as “What weight should we give to the interests of future people?” and “Is it better if more people live?” Parfit scolded economists for undervaluing posterity. It is conventional, when putting a present-day value on future projects, to apply a so-called social discount rate: good things that are far off are worth less than good things that will come soon. This may be appropriate when thinking about money, but can it really be that the lives and happiness of those not yet living are worth less, from a moral perspective, than the lives of people alive today? Isn’t that just cognitive bias? Since the future might go on for ages, when you add up all those unborn people, there’s a lot of moral weight. “If thousands of people making a concerted effort could, with a 55% probability, reduce the risk of premature extinction by 1 percentage point,” writes the Oxford effective altruist Benjamin Todd, this could save twenty-eight future generations. “If each generation contains ten billion people, that would be 280 billion additional individuals who get to live flourishing lives.”

Exponential flourishing could have all sorts of upsides, some of which Bezos laid out in his moon lander presentation. “The solar system can easily support a trillion humans. And if we had a trillion humans, we would have a thousand Einsteins and a thousand Mozarts and unlimited, for all practical purposes, resources and solar power.” The vision of a trillion-strong spacefaring civilization may lead one to believe that issues such as inequality and poverty ought to be put into perspective. What are the deaths of a few billion humans in the present when compared with the effectively infinite moral claims of such a glittering future? That part of humanity not composed of billionaires or the billionaire-adjacent may have to accept that its interests are secondary to the bliss of the future masses. The Autonomous Astronauts wanted bliss for everyone now, and encouraged would-be space travelers to dream of their own fulfillment. Longtermism discounts the present, and overvalues a speculative and uncertain future.

When Musk used his old Tesla Roadster as a dummy payload for a 2018 rocket test, sending it into orbit around the sun, he put a quartz-glass disc in the glove compartment microetched with the text of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, a science fiction classic that narrates the birth of a new civilization from the ashes of a decaying galactic empire. The quasireligious yearning to leave the dying Earth and be born anew has been the basis of all sorts of space dreams. In the giddy ferment of postrevolutionary Russia, an anarchist poet named Alexander Svyatogor traveled around making speeches about what he called “biocosmism,” his hope that humankind would achieve “victory over space,” and eventually, immortality. He urged revolutionaries to address “the problem of how to master cosmic space, how to become a citizen of the cosmos and an active participant in life in space, regulating and transforming the cosmic bodies at will through our wisdom, and reshaping the old and creating new worlds.” The modern Promethean may find himself asking if it wouldn’t be more fun not just to save humanity in the name of unborn generations, but to be around to take a bow. Immortality—the conquest of time—has always been intrinsically linked to the conquest of space, and as with any desirable commodity, it is unlikely to be evenly distributed. Blasting off in your pod, away from the ethical complexities of life among the current masses, is another side of the transhumanist dream of the ultimate escape, a way to cheat death, en route to a rendezvous with the stars.


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