I was reminded this past month of Grant Curtis’ April blog, for I too felt something like “head-splitting cognitive dissonance” as I followed the drama of the billionaire space race. For those living under a rock the past month — well, first let me say I envy you, but secondly let me fill you in. On July 11th, Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, flew to space — or at least space loosely defined — in his Virgin Galactic rocket plane, beating out Amazon founder Jeff Bezos by nine days. Elon Musk, the last member of the billionaire space-race triumvirate, has booked a future ride with Virgin.
The utopian in me wants to believe that these forays into space, frivolously eccentric though they may be, are indeed the beginnings of a new era of humanity’s technological achievement. The dystopian in me sympathizes with those who see this space race as “the ultimate symbol of capitalism’s flawed obsession with growth,” the very same obsession hurtling our world toward climate catastrophe and a new era of techno-feudalism. Head-splitting cognitive dissonance indeed…
Given all the talk on Twitter about billionaires escaping into space, I wasn’t at all surprised to find the odd reference to Elysium, the 2013 sci-fi film starring Matt Damon. A Google search revealed that such a reaction had been anticipated and had been dubbed the Elysium Effect. I had yet to watch the film, but I knew the basic premise: in the future, the elite live in a habitat orbiting Earth while those on the surface live in dystopian squalor. So, I fired up Netflix and watched the film, and while it did not relieve me of my news-induced headache, it helped me think through a few things.
Unlike other films set on an increasingly inhospitable Earth, such as Mad Max or The Road, which depict the dystopian struggle as affecting everyone relatively equally, Elysium sets its dystopia alongside a paradisal yet parasitic utopia. In ancient Greek mythology, Elysium was the paradise to which heroes were sent after death. Its namesake in the film is no less idyllic; in addition to the usual fare of garden parties and poolside relaxation, the Elysian elite have access to “Med-Bays,” AI-powered beds that can diagnose and cure all ailments, diseases, and physical traumas. Those on the Earth, by contrast, toil in unsafe factories constructing the very same robots used to police them, and should a life-threatening mishap occur, as it does to Damon’s character, the afflicted factory worker is denied access to the Med-Bays that would save their life.
One would be misguided in interpreting the film as a piece of speculative fiction imagining a future scenario that “could really happen.” Instead, the film is more aptly read as an allegory, or extended metaphor, for the way in which technological innovation — whether in healthcare, communications, transportation, etcetera — disproportionately benefits the wealthy. There is no sense given in the film that the Elysium habitat is anything but a blissful utopia, no suggestion that a life free from struggle leads to boredom or that an extended lifespan leads to ennui. Technological development can legitimately improve human well-being and quality of life, the film suggests, and it is only the arbitrary withholding of access to this technology that divides the utopia from the dystopia.
The money that today’s billionaire space-racers are investing in space infrastructure might indeed bring about new technologies that could dramatically improve human life: new renewable energy sources such as solar panels in space or devices to catch solar wind; asteroid mining that would ensure we could procure the materials for green energy technologies without polluting the Earth; off-Earth manufacturing that could improve NASA’s research missions. But the key word here is “might.” The democratization of technology is not, as some argue, the inevitable result of the initial investment of the rich, and given the people leading the charge are Bezos, Branson, and Musk, we have every reason to be skeptical.