Engineering Illusions: Private Power and Technology
The orthodoxy of Silicon Valley staunchly propounds its liberating ethos — one that encourages free entrepreneurial exploration and creative collaboration. The scripture issues saintly stature to the entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and other actors who follow the “vile maxim” for their own ends, distributing to society the wonders of their works. Just as the state and its formative technology development programs, and its largesse remain ignored in such a conception, so too the legion of workers, who follow the mandates of managers and owners under the bright lights of freedom and liberty. Stripped are workers’ voices from the technical direction of the enterprise, while surplus value from productive work is syphoned by the enterprise as profit. Patent protections pretending to reward original inventors with rights instead reward the enterprise with more property to enforce monopolies. Distributed then are not necessarily the wonders of science and technology for the global population, but certainly the costs of environmental abuse, privacy abuse, antitrust rules abuse and labor abuse by the technology industry.
“Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself,” proclaimed economist and Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman. This would have surely served as brave dissent if articulated during Smith’s era. How emancipatory a free market appeared to those who toiled under the subjugation of the lord, the master and other private rulers. However, a tiny three-hundred-year detail is ignored in such hymns that exalt the markets. One would think that the Industrial Revolutions, and the resulting concentration of capital and workforces into few, global industrial operations never occurred. One would think the subordination of millions of minds by a few, erasing the voices of countless contributors to the scientific and technical enterprise, does not occur. One would think that reckless waste of our precious resources, time and energy by frivolous and vain projects, such as Elon Musk’s fatuous Boring Company city tunnels, will not continue to occur.
Workplace democracy, fostering socially cooperative behavior, not socially coordinated behavior, is a necessary condition to freedom. Just as the state has been disciplined to some extent with a continuous expansion of the democratic franchise, so must the private enterprise. Short of this, we only speak of the freedom of owners. This is hardly news to the masters of mankind, who always remain threatened by democratic advance. As Peter Thiel wrote in 2009, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.” He is correct. He speaks here of his freedom only, just as Friedman spoke only of the freedom of a few in his claim that “underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself.” In submitting the scientific and technical enterprise to the whims of a few plutocrats we shall find freedom, the scripture preaches. Of course, the benevolent owners are not against freedom; rather, like Thiel, they are staunch advocates of it. Whose freedom is the pertinent question. A young Karl Marx had observed, “No man fights against freedom; at most he fights against the freedom of others. Every kind of freedom has therefore always existed, only at one time as a special privilege, another time as a universal right.”
Short-sighted at best, reckless at worst are many decisions made by the private enterprise. A frenzy of profit-seeking and wealth-boosting endeavors that externalize every cost is the animating force behind our modern technical industry. Many engineers and scientists can attest to irrational and wasteful actions that can be laid at altar of thoughtless commerce. How then can such an industry claim to be a scientifically sound collection of deliberative actions? If the enterprise simply announced that its goals are to maximize profits with every technical and scientific trick that can be mustered, there wouldn’t remain much to be analyzed, only a lot to be opposed. But it is the dangerous pretensions of reason by industries like Silicon Valley that propagate the promise of intelligent technical construction to meet global needs, while pursuing the ends of a few owners.
In a 2018 report on gene therapy titled The Genome Revolution, Goldman Sachs observed, “The potential to deliver ‘one shot cures’ is one of the most attractive aspects of gene therapy, genetically engineered cell therapy and gene editing. However, such treatments offer a very different outlook with regard to recurring revenue versus chronic therapies.” The report cautioned, “While this proposition carries tremendous value for patients and society, it could represent a challenge for genome medicine developers looking for sustained cash flow.” As CNBC summarized the matter simply, “Is curing patients a sustainable business model?”
The Flight of Reason
In May 2019, the world’s wealthiest man unveiled his plan on how to save it. In his talk titled Going to Space to Benefit Earth, Jeff Bezos, also the founder of aerospace company Blue Origin, summarized his thesis by noting, “The earth is finite, and if the world economy and population are to keep expanding, space is the only way to do it.” Bezos reminded us of this finiteness by quoting Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, which observed that our planet is “a very small stage in a great cosmic arena.” Bezos repeated, “Earth is not big, humanity is big. It seems big to us, but it’s finite, and there is something we have to do.”
Stressing grave threats faced by humanity, Bezos emphasized the need for settling in space. Distilling the threats into two categories, he noted, “There are immediate problems — poverty, hunger, pollution, overfishing in the oceans — these are the here and now problems.” In addition, “there are long-range problems — we will reach the end of Earth’s energy; this is just arithmetic, it’s going to happen. We can’t wait till the last minute lest they become immediate problems.”
Bezos declared that with finite resources on Earth, and an insatiable energy appetite, humans must venture out to space in search of more resources. He noted that with our current global energy demand, we would require solar panels to blanket an area as large as Nevada to meet it. At a 3% compounding annual growth rate, we would need to cover all of the Earth’s surface in 200 years. As noted earlier, focusing on increasing the efficiency of our energy systems is a necessary but insufficient condition, as the mandate of infinite growth requires the incessant expansion of energy resources. Bezos made the same argument. Upliftingly, technology stands ready to propel us to space for more resources, the businessman declared. Indeed, if the US is to continue to waste 30–40 percent of our food supply (133 billion pounds in 2010 according to the US Food and Drug Administration), or if the US is to continue to waste two-thirds of the energy produced in the country, or if the consumer electronics industry is to continue to monopolize repair that creates unfathomable waste, or if Amazon is to accelerate its perpetual expansion so investors, including Bezos, can be rewarded handsomely, and into perpetuity, there seems to be no other option but to forage in space.
To this end, Bezos resurrected the idea of O’Neil colonies, first conceived by his college professor, Gerard O’Neil in the 1970s. O’Neill colonies, or cylinders, are astronomical artificial space habitats. The concept envisions large, man-made ecosystems floating in space, essentially creating numerous satellite planets to live on. According to Bezos, each manufactured ‘world’ would house around a million people. Graphics shown during the talk depicted one of these absurdly astronomical cylinders next to the International Space Station (ISS) for scale. The comparison reduced the ISS, the most expensive man-made object ever built, to a pothole next to a man-made cosmic Grand Canyon. The comparison strains technical credulity.
On July 25, 2018, the Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness held a hearing called Destination Mars — Putting American Boots on the Surface of the Red Planet. Senator Ted Cruz, chairman of the subcommittee, expressed his excitement at the possibility of the first trillionaire minted by space exploration. He gushed, “I don’t know who it will be, and I don’t know what they will discover, or what they will accomplish,” Cruz said, “but I think it is every bit as vast and promising a frontier as the New World was some centuries ago.”
By explicitly associating genocidal and resource-plundering imperial exploits with space exploration, Cruz inadvertently made the connection between colonial hunts for materials and Bezos’ underlying ask of upholding the ravenous regime of consumption of raw materials and finished goods into oblivion. Under the aegis of the state, private enterprise sets the technical industry on a course to attend to its insatiable lust for greater accumulation. As correctly observed by Bezos, the world has proven to be insufficient, and science and technology must be directed to meet growing demands. Hence, the designation of the space habitats as colonies.
To build, deploy and maintain this grand system of man-made colonies, Bezos proposed the only answer Silicon Valley knows: unleash an ecosystem of entrepreneurs running thousands of companies. Private efforts for profits and monopolizing key technologies will spontaneously combust to produce the most efficient and just route to solving systemic challenges. According to Bezos, the very doctrines producing the problems of resource scarcity and ecological destruction shall be followed to develop the solutions.
Refreshingly breaking from free-market orthodoxy that casts private enterprise as the foundation of the high-tech economy, Bezos acknowledged that such a private project will require the largess of the state. Addressing the Washington, D.C audience, he clarified, “But these companies cannot exist today. Because the price of admission for doing things in space right now is just too high.” There does not exist the infrastructure upon which entrepreneurs can begin building their companies for space. As an analogy, Bezos explained that Amazon was only made possible by the USPS, home computers, global telecommunication and the internet, among other foundational technologies funded and developed by the state. The publicly funded research and technology development programs must precede the private feast; a feast that includes market protections, subsidies, development contracts and intellectual property enforcement for private enterprise.
In an unpublished paper written in the early 1900s, then President of Princeton University Woodrow Wilson had declared, “Since trade ignores national boundaries and the manufacturer insists on having the world as a market, the flag of his nation must follow him, and the doors of the nations which are closed against him must be battered down. Concessions obtained by financiers must be safeguarded by ministers of state, even if the sovereignty of unwilling nations be outraged in the process. Colonies must be obtained or planted, in order that no useful corner of the world may be overlooked or left unused (Against Empire, Parenti).” We may append this by noting that no useful corner of space may be overlooked or left unused, and the state shall continue in its long tradition to fund and follow the manufacturer, or in general, private enterprise, with “the flag of the nation.” Doors may need to be “battered down” in the process. As President Donald Trump announced upon establishing Space Force, the sixth branch of the U.S military, “Space is the world’s newest war-fighting domain. Amid grave threats to our national security, American superiority in space is absolutely vital. And we’re leading, but we’re not leading by enough. But very shortly we’ll be leading by a lot.” A general felt compelled to dignify the comedy, noting, “This is not a farce. This is nationally critical. We are elevating space commensurate with its importance to our national security and the security of our allies and partners.”
Bezos’ quoting of Sagan, intended to inspire a spirit of curiosity and adventure, was unfortunately left incomplete. As Sagan had rebuked,
“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”
Certainly not from Amazon.com
Man-made Paradise, and the End of Evolution
German mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler published his laws of planetary motion in 1609. Concurrently, he wrote his Somnium, dubbed one of the first works of science fiction by Sagan. Latin for ‘The Dream,’ Somnium depicted Kepler’s vision of a journey to the Moon. Like many of his contemporaries, Kepler’s profound religiosity compelled him to direct his scientific endeavors in pursuit of the divine. “There is nothing I want to find out and long to know with greater urgency than this,” he wrote in a letter, “Can I find God, whom I can almost grasp with my own hands in looking at the universe, also in myself? (Religion of Technology, Noble).” In this confinement on Earth away from God, Kepler sought to identify some saving grace. He declared, “If there is anything that can bind the heavenly mind of man to this dusty exile of our earthly home and can reconcile us with our fate so that one can enjoy living — then it is verily the enjoyment of the mathematical sciences and astronomy.” Like many who have been terrorized by terrestrial tragedies like war, hunger, famine and disease, Kepler dreamt of escaping to the stars. Wrote Kepler to a friend, “Would it not be excellent to describe the cyclopic mores of our time in vivid colors, but in doing so — to be on the safe side — to leave this earth and go to the moon?” Emphasizing the importance of his work, he declared, “As we are driven from this earth, [my astronomy of the moon] will be useful to us as a viaticum on our wandering to the moon.”
Inspired by Kepler, Anglican clergyman John Wilkins, a founder of the Royal Society, wrote of the glorious purpose behind seeking refuge on the moon in Discourse Concerning the Discovery of a New World in the Moon in 1638. He noted that for various reasons “many affirmed that paradise was in a high elevated place: which some have conceived could be nowhere but in the moon: for it could not be in the top of any mountain; nor can we think of any other body separated from this earth, which can be a more convenient place for habitation than this planet; therefore they concluded that it was there.” Excited at the prospects of ascension, Wilkins declared, “Kepler doubts not, but that as soon as the art of flying is found out, some of their Nation will make one of the first colonies that shall inhabit that other world.” Damning the inadequacy of the “dusty exile of our earthly home,” Wilkins declared, “All this place wherein we war, and travel, and dispose of kingdoms, is but a point far less than any of those small stars, that at this distance are scarce discernible. Which when the soul does seriously mediate upon, it will begin to despise the narrowness of its present habitation, and think of providing for itself a mansion in those wider spaces above; such as may be more agreeable to the nobleness and divinity of its nature.”
Three hundred years later, Wernher von Braun, the German-born American aerospace engineer and key figure in the space programs of Nazi Germany and post-war America at NASA, expressed similar sentiments as Wilkins. A theologian asked von Braun in a Christian Century magazine letter, “…could it be that you and your colleagues are but the half-conscious agents of man’s flight from a habitat irrevocably condemned, a planet appointed to destruction? Is your true name Noah, are your hapless rockets the forerunners of a new ark?” Emphatically reciting the interstellar millenarian yearning that many a pious thinker had expressed before, von Braun replied, “…The material benefits to mankind which will accrue from expanded physical frontiers will permit a greater number of homo sapiens to inhabit the universe — will permit the survival even of this species when our own solar system in some far distant eon is a collection of cold dead rocks floating in the dark airless void — as it surely someday must be. More importantly, perhaps, man may even be the master ecological link of all life. Upon his survival may perhaps depend the sole survival and expansion of life in the universe. If this should be so, if man is Alpha and Omega, then it is profoundly important for religious reasons that he travel to other worlds, other galaxies; for it may be man’s destiny to assure immortality not only of his race, but even of the life spark itself.” Decades later, referring to his company’s rocket, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk regurgitated, “[It is] the key to making life multi-planetary and protecting the light of consciousness.”
Amidst all the dreamers and prognosticators, nineteenth century novelist Jules Verne was perhaps the most prominent of interstellar oracles. A pious Christian stirred by Kepler’s original visions, Verne developed the very concept of science fiction, laced with prominent religious themes. As writer Ray Bradbury summarized Verne’s motivation of exploring the highest heights, “…we go there because we are nearer the stars, and if we reach the stars, one day, we will be immortal.” Emphasizing Verne’s omnipresence in the philosophy of space travel, Bradbury declared that “we are all, in one way or another, the children of Jules Verne. His name never stops. At aerospace or NASA gatherings, Verne is the verb that moves us to Space.”
In his short story The Eternal Adam, Verne described the end of the world and the concurrent ascension of man. “Earth is now identical and coterminous with the Empire. The dream of Empire has finally been realized…Humanity is now ready for the Truth.” This universal imperium “recalls the Garden of Eden.” Watered by four rivers, it is a “man-made paradise, a mirror image of Genesis, the end of evolution.” “Scarcely has man appeared on earth than he immediately begins and unceasingly continues his ascent. Slowly but surely, he approaches his end, which is the perfect knowledge and absolute domination of the universe.”
Futuristic Technologies Orbiting the Past
The nationalism of the state, the profit-seeking mandates of private power, and the unfounded zeal of religious doctrine are the operating principles of the technology industry. In some combination of the three manifest the motivating forces that underpin various projects and policies that drive our scientific and technical institutions. The final stage of this terrestrial enterprise, hypothesized to be found in extraterrestrial new worlds, comprehensively illustrates all three of these forces. Bezos’ talk amply illuminates the unceasing hunt for resources and profit, Space Force and other defense technology investments lay bare techno-nationalism, and Verne’s science fiction supplies the fantasies for divine ascension.
Under pretensions of judicious and reasoned technology development lies this ceaseless perversion of our technical efforts. Professed humanitarian goals provide cover for the whims of private enterprise and the state. The cement of religious mythos holds firm the very marketable axioms of the technology industry: the imminence of technical paradise, humanity’s release from its earthly shackles, and the promise of an enhanced mortal existence while we wait. To fully realize the rational, responsible and humane development and use of our technical capabilities requires challenging these gross ideologies that control the industry. Far from being an autonomous agent, technology is guided by very specific hands, despite what Silicon Valley’s nihilistic submission to the “technological imperative” would suggest, as Marc Andreessen put it. Unfathomable wealth inequality, needless poverty, homelessness and hunger, and the looming existential threats of climate breakdown and nuclear obliteration is hardly a shining legacy for a supposed agent of deliverance. Herein lies the ironic tragedy of it all. In our search and wait for our liberation by technology, ignored was the very bondage of our scientific and technical work under the spell of crazed legends, the boot of the undemocratic state and the “vile maxim of the masters of mankind.”
Up Next: Engineering Illusions: Conclusion