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Tech Billionaires Are Building Their Utopias Without Asking Us

Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are charting humanity's future, and there's little the rest of us can do to influence them.

S.A. Applin

Image Composite: Getty Images & Daniel Oberhaus

S. A. Applin, Ph.D. is an anthropologist whose research explores the domains of human agency, algorithms, AI, and automation in the context of social systems and sociability. You can find more @anthropunk.

Tech billionaires share extraordinary wealth, visions for their (and our) global future, and some competitive—and very expensive—hobbies. Their ideas of Utopia may differ from ours, but the difference is that they have the means to realize their Utopias, without input from the rest of us.

Michael Lewis’s 1999 book The New New Thing documented the story of Silicon Valley titan Jim Clark. Clark founded Silicon Graphics and Netscape and became very wealthy doing so. He directed part of his wealth to the pursuit of the fastest sailboat. For a time, he and Larry Ellison, founder of Oracle, competed for that title, and in doing so, their masts got taller and their hulls got longer (stop giggling.) Clark fashioned his boat with the latest technology available and those who saw it compared it to the Bridge in Star Trek. Ellison did similar. The book is a spectacular look at the Silicon Valley of the 1990’s with a burgeoning web and a society not yet subsumed by smartphones usage—likely only because they were not yet invented—and enormous wealth and power raised through technological development. In this book, the sea is the utopian frontier for both Clark and Ellison, and the playing field by which they measured their technological and other forms of worth against each other.

Today, billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos compete in the realm of space. Perhaps neither one was particularly ocean-going, or perhaps the wealth and impact of what they wanted to do fulfilled different dreams, but the competition to privately fund space exploration has taken off between these two men.

Competition is one facet of these ‘hobbies’ of the technological billionaire elite. Another is the movement towards realizing the vision of a utopia—and sometimes they are one in the same. Musk has actively spoken about getting men to Mars, and has camaraderie in this endeavor from Buzz Aldrin, the second astronaut to have walked on the moon. Aldrin tours the globe wearing tee-shirts proclaiming the slogan, “Get your ass to Mars!” and his ShareSpace Foundation’s goal is to support manned missions to Mars in the future by seeding young minds with the desire to explore space. Aldrin is not a captain of industry, but it could be that with the Apollo missions, Aldrin seeded the Utopian vision that inspired Musk and Bezos to follow suit decades later. With SpaceX, Musk is working hard to build the pieces of space rocketry that will “revolutionize space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets” and Jeff Bezos is developing rockets as well as both a “culture around methodical innovation and exploration" and a “vision of millions of people living and working in space.”

What makes a desirable Utopia is often wanting to escape from some unbearable present. Escape can happen in two ways. One is to improve the lot where one is. For example, one can envision a place without childhood diseases, with clean running water, with good education and healthcare, and one can work towards those Utopian goals.

Some billionaires, like Bill Gates, envision these utopias, funding research and science to help millions on Earth. The second way to escape trouble is to remove oneself. For people whose homes are bombed and unrecognizable and who have survived war but lost any assemblance of structured society, the concept of Utopia might be a warm bath in a secure home in a city with a functioning government and no conflicts. For others, Utopia might be a trip to Las Vegas and a generous gambling budget, or a trip to Hawaii or two weeks at Burning Man. Still for others, Utopia might be their own bomb shelter in New Zealand, a smart city in Toronto, control of congressmen or senators, a tunnel to help them escape traffic, their own airport lounge, or, for the extremely wealthy, escape to another planet.

To some extent, we all carry visions of our own utopias, working towards betterment of self, community, or dreaming of an escape. It’s how we focus intent for what we want. The game changes though, when people who have resources can suddenly begin to realize those changes in their Utopian visions, and those visions being realized may begin to conflict with others who have less money and power to realize theirs.

For example, Elon Musk has started to build a tunnel prototype in Los Angeles. With the Boring Company, he wants to build a 17 mile tunnel from the Los Angeles San Fernando Valley to the Los Angeles International airport. There are many reasons why this isn’t a good idea, spanning from environmental hazards and risks to private land concerns. Others have argued it isn’t a practical solution for the area and that it would make much more sense to build a “light rail” to the airport, where more people can benefit. Musk has dismissed this, not wanting anything “public,” as he prefers to avoid other people in his commuting space and expects others to feel the same.

Thursday, Musk described his new plan to improve transit in Los Angeles, “If you can do hundreds of tunnels and you can have many small stations woven throughout the fabric of the city, you can actually—without the city even appearing different—you could solve the transport problem.”

Musk described building a series of intersecting Loops and hyperloops (e.g. a privately run subway system), under the publicly run transportation system on the streets. He is already taking steps to build this with the seeming buy-in of politicians and the local government for a pilot test. The people do not seem to be a part of his plan. This is “disruptive innovation” at its worst, seeking a ‘greenfield’ space underground from a legacy system that is already well established. To access it, Musk will likely have to stop traffic from functioning where the project will be digging. He has chosen a section of Sepulveda Boulevard, a main artery of Los Angeles, for this experiment—and the citizens, seem to have little say about it.

It is the last bit of this that gives us pause, for when people with extraordinary wealth and its resultant power make assumptions about others’ needs and desires, and indeed those peoples’ own utopias, the assumptions become problematic and cause conflict. Unfortunately, for those with less, those with power and resources can have a closer shot at realizing their Utopian visions than the rest of us, and some of us can become very inconvenienced or downright harmed by others’ enacted utopian dreams.

Many people flock to other’s visions as a way of joining a Utopia that meshes with their imagined future

Jeff Bezos’s dream of Amazon is as “Earth's most customer-centric company, where customers can find and discover anything they might want to buy online, and endeavors to offer its customers the lowest possible prices.” To do this, Amazon has systematically eliminated competition in local communities by offering lower prices, and/or more selection in various types of retail, from low-end to high-end goods. This has impacted people’s experiences in their communities, and changed the way they have had to secure items no longer available to them locally. People have gone out of business, or have modified their businesses to work through Amazon, giving it a piece of their profits and working “for” an organization of sorts, when previously they had autonomy. Customers work within algorithmic constructs to purchase goods and no longer interact with live humans in real time for purchases. All of these changes intersect with others’ visions of what their Utopia could be, in the same way that Elon Musk’s desire for his Utopia intersects with what other people may want for their transportation—and their daily commute.

One way to cope is to join ‘em, and many people do flock to other’s visions as a way of joining a Utopia that meshes with their imagined future, giving them a sense of participation even without the ability to directly participate in crafting it.

In April, In April the US House of Representatives passed an Act that says, “outer space shall not be considered a global commons.” This means that for all of our own dreaming (and the dreaming of other countries), unless we are in the United States, and incredibly wealthy, we aren’t allowed to make outer space part of our personal Utopia—it belongs to the rich, which right now means SpaceX and Blue Origin.

What will really be interesting is how these titans will divide up how they conquer space, and whether or not within space, there will be space for all of their Utopian visions to co-exist.