Fooled By the Robot Men

In my early twenties, when I was Very Involved in politics, some of the fiercest disagreements I had with close friends was in regards to space exploration and the objectivity of technology and civilization divorced from a capitalist context. I’ve surmised a lot of my steadfastness, even in the face of what I’d conceded as good arguments I also agreed with, came from a profound appreciation for perceived left-wing science fiction from writers like Ursula K. Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson. Marx’s premise of “technology liberating the worker” as laid out in Capital also resonated with me; as did an understanding that Earth seems to be fresh out of frontier and I had a theory that even if it was a business or state enterprise getting us apes off the rock, that could open up space for horizontal social and economic experimentation as well as the hopeful opportunity of marginally more bloodless pushes for autonomy by becoming pioneers on dead worlds.

Colonization without displacement, subjugation, or genocide but with all the possibilities of homesteading in intentional communities. Literal distance creating freedom by simply being ungovernable far enough away from authority. Sowing arguably, at this moment in human history, the rarest resource in the known universe: life, in an effort to back up consciousness and continue observing where time, space, and entropy take existence.

Anarchists on the Moon

It’s some real Stephen Hawking stoner bullshit, perhaps, having a desire to existentially preserve the species by ensuring nuclear war, global warming, disease, or some other cosmic calamity on Earth doesn’t wipe out the only confirmed sentience so far. The most common counterpoint I heard was usually about how the money and resources invested in even the present nascent space programs could be spent fixing problems we have on Earth. While I don’t disagree, there’s something to be said about return on investment. Scientific and technological breakthroughs made through that research have helped revolutionize a variety of fields that could help mitigate a myriad of issues, particularly in the Global South, in regards to things like water sanitation and food cultivation in harsh environments.

Medical marvels like modern prosthetics and the CAT scan were developed largely in part because of technological advances made in the Space Race. It’s easy to reduce launching giant missiles into orbit as basically a weapons test dick waving contest between geopolitical rivals, but you’re discounting the scientific progress that has genuinely helped millions of impoverished and/or sick people by utilizing the harsh laboratory of space. These ballistics can sometimes have ulterior motives.

Why couldn’t the same be true for social sciences? There’s a powerlessness, lack of space, and opportunity to do just about anything as an alternative to capitalism associated with living on a planet which has already had it’s land carved up and parceled out by a dominant economic and political culture. Time after time, revolutionary movements are crushed or co-opted by a stagnant status quo that has seemed to engineer its soft power in a way that makes even small rips in an oppressive social fabric colossally difficult to pull off. What if voluntary association, a central tenant to most anarchist philosophy, was actually an option and people could just… leave?

The capitalist will tell you that because the system is designed to promote competition, the best ideas and solution rise to the top in the marketplace of ideas. Observing western civilization since the fall of the Soviet Union, however, certainly makes the case that capitalism festers into a min/max game of widening inequality and nepotistic cronyism becomes the dominant social force once there isn’t a “sufficient” rival.

Means and Ends

It’s been said that many consumer electronics and computer programs were developed by people who grew up on Star Trek and wanted to make it real. Without a doubt, the same is true for the new tech titans of industry developing their own rocketry and launch systems with SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic. While attempting to gain the ability to reach beyond Earth orbit is an interesting hobby, especially for people seemingly not invested in using that skill for intercontinental ballistic missiles, there’s an obvious massive profit motive for some of the richest men in the entire world to suddenly be competing with each other to expand into what will surely be a lucrative new industrial sector. Even pulling one asteroid into Earth’s orbit and strip-mining it would yield such an amount of precious metals it would likely collapse the global economy. Utilizing one’s vast existing wealth to corner the emerging market that will create the first trillionaires is kind of a no-brainer when you have all of the money in the world.

I have a confession to make: many of my heated disagreements about these subjects all those years ago, with friends long-gone, were predicated by a curious, hesitant admiration for Elon Musk. Musk, who made his fortune as one of the central figures behind PayPal and went on to start electric car company Tesla and leading private space launch provider SpaceX, has built much of his public persona on being a real-life Tony Stark of sorts. If you’re as jaded as I was/am about Captain of Industry types from decades passed, Musk seemed like a breath of fresh air, at least for a billionaire: he had a handle on nerd culture, knew how to work the media, and seemed like a guy who just wanted to “make shit happen.” Fossil fuels are a finite resource, but for some reason there isn’t a viable electric car? Musk decides he’s going to do it. What happened to NASA and landing on the moon? Why haven’t we colonized Mars? Elon decides he’s not just going to do that, but revolutionize rocket production and recovery processes to drastically reduce launch costs across the industry. Even relatively recently, after deciding his Southern California commute took too long, Elon Musk decided it was time for a “new” form of public transit and has started a tunnel drilling company to experiment with what essentially amounts to small-occupancy subway cars operating at high speed within magnetic tubes.

But… Are You Extremely Online?

Twitter has probably ruined the mystique, career, or reputation of thousands people since its inception. Elon loves Twitter. He used to be a lot more sparing with it, primarily live-tweeting launches and keeping things pretty business oriented, but within the last year or so, Musk will argue with just about anyone, exchange pleasantries with the Rick & Morty creators, and even get all tween-non-sequitur with snail emojis shortly after going public with his relationship with pop singer Grimes. It’s all pretty over-the-top, bordering on self-parody, and completely betrays a lot of his internalized beliefs in a way that isn’t curated or thought through. 500 limited-edition flamethrowers later and he’s really coming off as kind of a douche.

This might still come off as “refreshing” or eccentric to some, but his most erratic statements come largely in response to his defense of hostile labor negotiations with his workforce. Tesla, the highest (over)valued car manufacturer in America, has rumblings of a union after poor working conditions have lead to horrific injuries and pay disputes have plagued the company that has just laid off 10% of its workers, despite seeing massive wealth for shareholders. This abuse of workers has been waved off both by Musk and his fan club, the logic being that these are bleeding-edge tech fields, and those employees are dying to just do the work, compensation be damned. That might fly at the start-ups Musk cut his teeth on and helped nurture into massive companies, but a man with this much corporate power and projection of ethics has a responsibility to his workers. SpaceX has been hit with similar allegations for long hours and burning out employees. Jeff Bezos, arguably Musk’s chief rival and the founder of Amazon and rocketry company Blue Origin, has been similarly put under scrutiny for horrific labor practices within order fulfillment warehouses.

After the internet piled onto Musk’s present main squeeze and noted self-proclaimed anti-imperialist Grimes for stating she had visited factory floors and spoke to workers who “didn’t want to unionize,” Musk went on to ominously question “who controls the media?” without any real follow-up answer despite a predictable uproar, declared himself a socialist with anti-Marxist social Darwinism qualifiers that sounded suspiciously like how Germany’s National Socialism was described by supporters as “true socialism” and then claimed he was a “utopian anarchist” while citing Iain Banks.

Problematic, Indeed

A cautionary tale for those that understand capitalism as a way to accelerate technological progress, the lesson here is that a greener capitalism with technocrats namedropping Douglas Adams as an influence is also not the way forward for social progress. You would think after studying radical politics and developing an analysis for more than ten years, I’d learn not to be seduced by my own curiosity of the unknown beyond and desire for cosmic spectacle and new possibility. Even with trepidation, based entirely in an admiration for engineering feats and a fleeting idea to use the inescapable totality of capital as a means to eventually secede from it, was a dangerous trust put into someone who (of course) turns out to be a reactionary looking to hold onto wealth and expand their own privilege.

The reality of automation is wider inequality under capitalism, not a liberation from work. The rocket men’s future looks more like the film Elysium, not the altruistic, fledgling anarcho-transhumanism of the Federation from Star Trek. Industrial civilization won’t materialize the solutions for ecological collapse through technological innovation, but merely devise escape ropes for the ruling class as the clock runs out for the rest of us. It seems my friends were always right, at least in critique, if perhaps not solution, and I was wrong and naive to hope that maybe these Silicon Valley capitalists, birthed largely from the primordial anarchistic networks of the early idealistic internet, would be any fucking different.

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