When Elon Musk, the mega-rich founder of Tesla motors, launched a car into space last month, the internet uttered a collective, “Dude, why?”
After making billions of dollars on the terrestrial project of mass-producing electric cars, Musk seems to have turned his attention to space, where a handful of other eccentric innovators also are mounting private expeditions. While launching a car into space might seem like an ostentatious display of frivolity, that’s arguably the point, as Musk’s most common response to the rhetorical question posed above is, “Because I can.”
While Musk penetrated the atmosphere, some of his peers were punctuating their wealth with water-borne expeditions. Peter Thiel, the notorious creator of PayPal and destroyer of Gawker, planned to finance a private island nation in the South Pacific. The island project – which was slated to exist in a not-at-all menacing sounding “special economic seazone” – seemed imminent until earlier this week. Then, the government of French Polynesia pulled the plug. According to The Outline local officials kiboshed the project, due to their fear that the “influx of libertarian tech bros would use their water colony to evade taxes at their expense.”
Musk and Thiel have much in common, including their propensity for the sort of ostentation that wouldn’t look out of place if wielded by a Bond villain. Their habits are germane to their tribe, as the earth-bound technology sector has long evinced signs of untethered decadence. It has almost become trite to point out that the tech bros of Silicon Valley seem less interested in social progress, than in indulging a taste for making their own lives more interesting and convenient.
More troubling than the deployment of space bling, however, is the fact that both of these recent endeavors test the boundaries of private wealth. Musk and Thiel are operating on a different plane, and we should be worried about how their other-wordly largesse enables flirtations with state-like power. That’s why I was so troubled when I read this tweet from tech investor Jason Calacanis:
The basic problems with this idea are manifold. To go point by point, the first bullet relies on the unproven notion that more cops will drive down crime, when evidence suggests that there is no statistical linkage between lowering crime and increased spending on uniformed officers. Moving down the list, increasing surveillance through the use of cameras is unlikely to serve as a deterrent, as there are already millions of handheld cameras floating through America’s streets everyday. Moreover, given that facial recognition technology will rely on both algorithms and statistical data sets curated by law enforcement, one can assume that said technology will be systematically biased against people of color.
As for the idea that we would have “no bail” for breaking into a car? That’s just cruel, and if implemented, would have negligible effects on crime, while causing the incarceration of more poor people.
Calacanis’s ideas here are bad, as was his mechanism for sharing them; twitter’s character limits have a way of condensing terrible thoughts into even worse ones. But as with the dalliances of Musk and Thiel, there is something more sinister at work here, namely the migration of powers, which we normally assign to the nation-state, into the hands of private, wealthy individuals and companies.
While designing apps to expedite laundry is a questionable use of capital, intellectual and otherwise, the outcome is mostly harmless, with some downstream effects on labor markets. Not so with technology that further weaponizes the criminal justice system. Calacanis is suggesting that we take the fruits of the tech sector – which were designed of, for, and by wealthy white men – and apply them to a system that is notorious for criminalizing and dehumanizing black lives. This alone should scare us, without even considering such a system’s vulnerability towards exploitation, by both outside actors and international agents.
Putting this into even more specific geographic context, the gentrification of the entire Bay Area has driven up housing prices, pushing out everyone but the wealthiest residents. In the meantime, the San Francisco police department has dealt with crisis after crisis, all of which revolve around manifestations of personal and institutional racism. The idea of making the region’s public systems even more susceptible to the whims of a few lucky, wealthy, white male tech titans is not just laughable, it’s dangerous.
Wealth and power are interrelated, but they are not interchangeable. The modern concept of the nation-state is imperfect, and there are signs that the twenty-first century will see even more challenges to the idea of geographically-bound national sovereignty. Despite those imperfections, the idea of concentrating more power in the hands of men like Musk, Thiel, and Calacanis ought to give us more than a bit of pause. Anyone who launches a car into space just because he can is not a dilettante; a person who wants to deploy the might of algorithmic supercomputing in the service of incarcerating more people has mutated from technocrat to autocrat.