How earthly notions of conquest — and Big Tech power moves — are playing out in the stars
THE NEW UTOPIA
The summer is over and the secret is out about Flannery Associates, the once-mysterious company that has bought thousands of acres of land east of the San Francisco Bay as part of a Silicon Valley billionaire-backed venture to build a “new California city.” The New York Times reported in late August that some of the industry’s biggest names — including Reid Hoffman, Marc Andreessen and Michael Moritz — plan to build a techno utopia in largely rural Solano County and have already spent around $800 million to make it happen. Investors and other sources familiar with the pitch said the new city was billed as a bustling metropolis that would bring thousands of jobs to the area, be “as walkable as Paris” or New York’s West Village and even help solve the Bay Area’s housing crisis.
This kind of magical thinking is nothing new — it has deep roots in northern California, and in some ways it echoes visions of a utopian cyberspace that people like Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder and Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow espoused. But the kind of undertaking that Flannery Associates has in mind takes a special kind of hubris and a ton of money. The hubris and the money are not new for people of this ilk. But the effects of their actions are becoming bigger and more consequential for the rest of us.
Indeed, a new kind of utopia seems to be emerging, whether in Solano County, California or in Saudi Arabia’s Neom, which my colleague Oliver Bullough described earlier this week as “a blandly-named but horrific new city that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has decided to build in the desert because he can.”
But why limit yourself to earthly endeavors? This must have been the question on Elon Musk’s mind when he built SpaceX. In space, there is literally no one to answer to. Musk, the ultimate techno utopian conquistador of our times, can do almost anything he wants. And he has.
Starlink, the satellite internet service offered by Musk’s SpaceX has shot roughly 4,000 satellites into low Earth orbit, far outnumbering all the other satellites by impressive margins, and he plans to launch plenty more in the coming years — up to 42,000. Meanwhile, China plans to create its own satellite internet service with a “constellation” of nearly 13,000 small satellites that will have to find a way to share the orbit with Musk’s Starlink battalion.
How humans are engaging with space, specifically in low Earth orbit — a place where, unlike in cyberspace, there is no real jurisdiction or system of governance — is a compelling question for anyone interested in forging new social systems or societies.
Science writer Sarah Scoles brought us a sharp new feature this summer wrestling with some of the hard realities of the new space race. Who can send satellites into space? What do we do when two satellites get in each other’s way? How do we handle the rapidly accumulating debris from satellite crashes of the past? When you think about all the things that satellites provide for us on Earth — from internet access, to GPS technology, to communication networks for conflict zones — it’s not so hard to see why we should care about what happens up there. Sarah’s piece gives us a glimpse into the potentially catastrophic future that may unfold in space if governments and companies don’t figure out how to answer these questions, fast. It also makes a great companion to some of the summer’s deep dives on Musk’s power in the stars, from the New York Times and The New Yorker.
I see the evolution of the internet as a cautionary tale for the new space race. In the early 2000s, the civil libertarian spirit that defined the early internet and inspired communities like Barlow’s largely gave way to a culture and legal ethos firmly tied to the tenets of free market capitalism and an expectation of lax or no regulation. Fast forward to last year’s Twitter takeover, and we the internet users find ourselves at the mercy of people like Musk. Since he snapped up one of the world’s most powerful platforms for free speech and information-sharing, Musk has essentially dismantled it, because he can. Chew on that the next time you gaze up at the stars.
Big Tech is literally in space, and virtually in the cloud, but these companies also have a huge footprint on Earth — the quantities of data that Google and Microsoft wield require massive data centers that generate a lot of heat on the ground. How do we cool them down? Water is an effective solution, of course, but it too is an exhaustible resource. In southern Uruguay, Google has plans to build a data center that would require an estimated two million gallons of tap water a day to keep its servers cool. Last month, Uruguayans facing the country’s worst drought in 74 years took to the streets of Montevideo to voice their anger and frustration over the water shortage and the impending Google contract. The company and Uruguayan officials say they’re looking for ways to reduce the burden on the country’s water supply, but the bigger issue isn’t going away. And Uruguay is just one among dozens of countries experiencing the environmental effects of Big Tech.
Another one is Saudi Arabia, where both Google and Microsoft have set up data centers over the past two years: I wrote about this in more depth in June. But this isn’t the biggest story out of the kingdom this week.
X is facing new allegations that it looked the other way when the Saudi government infiltrated the company to spy on its critics back in 2015. A new court filing in the 2019 bombshell case against X purportedly includes evidence that the company, then known as Twitter and under Jack Dorsey’s leadership, either knew or willfully ignored the fact that two Saudi Arabian employees were working on behalf of the Saudi government to gather up the data of an estimated 6,000 users who criticized the regime. Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered and dismembered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, was one of them. Lest anyone think that those grisly days are somehow behind Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a Saudi court sentenced a retired schoolteacher to death for his activities on X and YouTube just last week. Muhammad Al-Ghamdi is the brother of a Saudi scholar who lives in the U.K. and runs Sanad, a group that advocates against human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.