Adam Lawler wonders why tech conglomerates look beyond the afflictions of the present in their visions of the future.
On February 6th, Elon Musk’s SpaceX christened their new heavy-lift launch vehicle, Falcon Heavy, by launching a Tesla Roadster into space. It was a dummy payload used solely for the purpose of this important maiden voyage, testing what is the most powerful rocket in operation as of this year. The event was huge, drawing massive audiences and intense discussion as to the “reusable” nature of this new craft, the most powerful since Apollo. Falcon Heavy is an invaluable step forward for space travel, but many have rightfully asked: “what is the point?”
The exercise of launching a car into space was amusing on a surface level, an entertainment factor compounded by Musk’s pure glee surrounding the launch. One cannot help but marvel, however, at how superfluous the stunt was. It was a shameless and blasé, not to mention expensive, attempt to gain publicity and stoke conversation. To some it provided a perfect representation of so-called “tech bros” such as Musk, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg et al, and their fascination with spectacle and the unknowable future to the detriment of pressing present issues such as poverty and injustice. They claim to wish to advance humankind but harbour a competitive capitalist focus that does not factor charity or aid into its worldview, and so cars float in space while cities are without clean water.
They claim to wish to advance humankind but harbour a competitive capitalist focus that does not factor charity or aid into its worldview
What if Musk had indeed decided to donate to Flint and mend their water supply? Would this be called a vanity project as the rest of his projects are? Would op-eds decrying his self-serving meddling spring up in abundance? Most likely. The truth is, public trust for these billionaire “Tech Bros” is minimal, and even their supporters are shot through with an undercurrent of suspicion. This is partly earned from the situations and specific Musks and Zuckerbergs we are faced with, but it runs deeper than that. We do not like to think about the fact that our future, as well as our lives at present, is in the hands of the rich and privileged. We never have. Knowledge of the tech hierarchy coupled with uncertainty of motive make a powerful combination, and if they did try to help where needed, we would righteously demand that Silicon Valley keep its hands off places like Flint and water in general, because we are afraid of what they are capable of doing with natural resources. Let them tinker in the future, we seem to say. At least it cannot affect us right now.
This is understandable. Rich white men have not been known to always have the noblest of intentions, nor are rich white men in tech known to be the most socially aware. They may have suffered in a relative sense in their rise, but their privilege more often than not earns them their place in the end, and this privilege is inevitably passed on. Look at any picture from the SpaceX launch and witness a sea of white, male faces, to say nothing of reports of misogyny and sexual assault rampant in the tech industry.
Rich white men have not been known to always have the noblest of intentions
Their entitlement runs deep, and breeds a fascination with monopoly that borders on megalomania that goes unchecked. Recently Richard Branson declared his envy of Falcon Heavy and his desire to “upstage” Musk. Their primary goal is to make technological advancements that move the human race further into the future, but this goal is thread through with a competitive thirst that can prove damaging and beside the point.
It might be down to Steve Jobs’ original portrayal of himself as a futurist messiah, in tandem with the dominance of west coast tech capital, which gave a whole new generation of young innovators the freedom to strike gold with gambles and pet projects. This led to a technological hegemony fostered by the undeniable genius of their work, however unnecessary on a practical level, but also by their egos which push them to think progressively bigger in a way that is not rooted in any form of realism but a childish desire to impress. Practicality and morality never factor into a culture of grand gestures designed to strike awe in the public.
It is their broad vision that ultimately impedes their view. The devastating results of global warming are known by them to be inevitable, and so what choice do they have but to give up on the Earth and look beyond? Their innovations often stem from an overreaching, reactionary fatalism that partially explains the panic surrounding the exaggerated threat of automated labour. Are robots taking our jobs? Not in an immediately urgent way, but this does not seem to stop tech conglomerates from emphasising the danger of this impending future as a method to distract from thinking critically about how labour functions now. Diverting the world’s eyes to future apocalypse is a handy method of distracting from present societal ills, and so morality continues to function as a basic but necessary cornerstone in debates surrounding the tech industry.