NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, April 15th, 2018

Book Review: Author Christian Davenport, for one, welcomes our new “Space Barons”

The Space Barons is the longest and best-writ­ten press release I’ve ever read.

The Space Barons by Christian Davenport

The Space Barons, by Chris­t­ian Dav­en­port

When, in the end­ing acknowl­edg­ment, author Chris­t­ian Dav­en­port thanked the bil­lion­aires so gra­cious with their time, includ­ing his own ulti­mate boss at the Wash­ing­ton Post (Jeff Bezos), it became much clear­er how such a long work of this genre had come about and my dis­ap­point­ment resolved itself into a numb accep­tance.

The title the pub­lish­er chose promised a very dif­fer­ent sort of book, more crit­i­cal and hon­est­ly prob­ing than an employ­ee can rea­son­ably be expect­ed to write of their employ­er while main­tain­ing employ­ment. In a world where jour­nal­ism con­tin­ues to des­ic­cate because its lifeblood is dis­ap­pear­ing into the dis­tend­ed bel­lies of Face­book and Google, all jour­nal­ism resem­bles tech jour­nal­ism.

Oh gol­ly, wow! Which pub­lic-pri­vate space com­pa­ny is going to be the neat­est going for­ward? is about as much as a per­son could rea­son­ably ask for, and the com­pet­ing book Rock­et Bil­lion­aires by Tim Fern­holz end­ed up with the more ser­vice­able title and pos­si­bly the orig­i­nal premise.

How­ev­er, the title I had was The Space Barons, and I was not pre­pared for the sin­cere­ly fawn­ing devo­tion to a cyber­punk dystopia that I dis­cov­ered myself to be read­ing. Now, on the pro­gres­sive left, I ful­ly acknowl­edge that race, gen­der, and class crit­i­cism can veer from valu­able tool into a ham­mer in want of a nail too eas­i­ly. Not every book has to be about those things to be use­ful or is best served by being ana­lyzed on those terms.

But the myopia of The Space Barons is beyond par­o­dy. The most extreme exam­ple of this is the intro­duc­tion to Elon Musk and the straight-faced descrip­tion Dav­en­port allows Musk’s broth­er Kim­bal to give of their upbring­ing.

“It’s pret­ty rough in South Africa,” Kim­bal told Esquire. “It’s a rough cul­ture. Imag­ine rough — well, it’s rougher than that. Kids gave Elon a very hard time, and it had a huge impact on his life.”

The anec­dote goes on to relate that the boys attempt­ed to open a video arcade as teens with­out telling their par­ents, who were furi­ous the boys did so with­out ask­ing and would­n’t sign the per­mits.

I am entire­ly fine with pro­vid­ing Musk’s back­ground as a way to under­stand him, and I’m not in any way opposed to describ­ing the dif­fi­cul­ties of a non-neu­rotyp­i­cal per­son strug­gling in soci­ety with bul­ly­ing or abu­sive par­ent­ing.

I am, how­ev­er, fair­ly cer­tain I can imag­ine con­di­tions more dif­fi­cult than would be in effect for a white South African dur­ing apartheid with­out even need­ing to leave South Africa for the com­par­i­son.

Sim­i­lar­ly, I can empathize with Richard Bran­son’s expe­ri­ence of dyslex­ia and strug­gles with school but this is not quite the same thing as an under­dog sto­ry, not quite accu­rate to char­ac­ter­ize him as over­com­ing a hard­scrab­ble child­hood, when his learn­ing dis­abil­i­ty was in the con­text of a top-tier pri­vate school that his fam­i­ly could afford in the first place; his path to knight­hood is some­thing less of a sur­pris­ing achieve­ment when his grand­fa­ther Sir G.A.H. Bran­son was also knight­ed and a judge on the high court of Eng­land and Wales.

Dav­en­port ref­er­ences anoth­er book about Jeff Bezos, The Every­thing Store, and some­thing that comes across there but not in this is how much Bezos’s suc­cess is due not just to his own dri­ve and hard work, not even just to the for­tune of world events, but to the wealth of his fam­i­ly.

They could afford to send him to Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty, where he could get an excel­lent edu­ca­tion, make con­nec­tions, and go and work on Wall Street to make more mon­ey and con­nec­tions. He took advan­tage of these oppor­tu­ni­ties by mak­ing good impres­sions, but he still had to have fam­i­ly mem­bers will­ing and able to invest hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars in the idea of Amazon.com for it to get off the ground and make good on its poten­tial.

These are excep­tion­al peo­ple, to be sure, but they also had the excep­tion­al means to be able to cap­i­tal­ize on it. Nar­ra­tive­ly, it’s more sat­is­fy­ing to root for an under­dog than some­one who start­ed off with advan­tages they did­n’t squan­der, but that does­n’t mean every sto­ry is that or needs to be that. The Bible has many arche­typ­al con­flicts; not all are David against Goliath.

If any of these men had been less wealthy to start, or been iden­ti­fied as an unde­sir­able social group, it’s dif­fi­cult to imag­ine how they would have over­come the bar­ri­ers to their suc­cess even with their par­tic­u­lar bril­liance and hard work.

South Africa is nine­ty per­cent black; the Zulu and Xhosa-born genius­es of Musk’s gen­er­a­tion could not legal­ly open an arcade to fail or eas­i­ly emi­grate to some oth­er coun­try. Like­wise, had any been women, it’s unlike­ly their per­son­al­i­ties would have allowed them to have suc­cess as the heads of their com­pa­nies.

There is no non-pejo­ra­tive equiv­a­lent to “play­boy” for a grown woman. Women who act as demand­ing or ruth­less as Bezos or Musk typ­i­cal­ly aren’t respect­ed as con­fi­dent, exact­ing boss­es, but as shrews and worse.

Women, in gen­er­al, appear very rarely in the nar­ra­tive of The Space Barons except as props, such as an off­hand ref­er­ence to a man on an island who already had sex with every woman younger than six­ty there or wife who miss­es her over­worked hus­band as he tries to com­plete a project or bosomy Pamela Ander­son falling out of her dress dur­ing an event with Vir­gin Air­lines.

The one real excep­tion isn’t even an excep­tion: Dav­en­port quotes SpaceX pres­i­dent and Chief Oper­at­ing Offi­cer Gwynne Shotwell mul­ti­ple times for her per­spec­tive going as far back as the sev­enth employ­ee of the com­pa­ny but with­out ever receiv­ing any explana­to­ry biog­ra­phy or show­ing any inter­est in her except in her capac­i­ty to explain Musk.

This is in stark con­trast to the chap­ter he devotes to an incon­se­quen­tial bil­lion­aire gam­bler notable only because his attempt at a pri­vate space orga­ni­za­tion com­plete­ly failed before the oth­ers, or even mul­ti­ple para­graphs of back­sto­ry to a heli­copter pilot who crashed a plane car­ry­ing Jeff Bezos.

Bezos and Musk like to imag­ine them­selves as heirs to the dream of Star Trek and oth­er sci­ence fic­tion utopias, often quite lit­er­al­ly. Through their com­pa­nies, both have obvi­ous­ly done much to improve the world in cer­tain ways.

But unlike the book Dav­en­port some­times ref­er­ences, The Every­thing Store by Brad Stone explores the pow­er and inno­va­tion of Ama­zon with­out ignor­ing how it behaves night­mar­ish­ly to weak­er star­tups or to its own employ­ees and con­trac­tors, par­tic­u­lar­ly ware­house work­ers.

It’s all fine and good to remark how Bezos dreams of per­haps, you know, one day mov­ing all indus­try to space to make the sur­face of the earth some­thing clos­er to a glob­al park, but we don’t typ­i­cal­ly judge peo­ple on the things they’d like to do, just what they’ve done repeat­ed­ly and are doing.

Being asked to work sev­en­ty-three hours a week to get a com­pa­ny off the ground then being fired for orga­niz­ing labor isn’t a cute quirk. Yelling at employ­ees on a fac­to­ry floor when you’re their bil­lion­aire boss isn’t just an exam­ple of the unique pluck of start­up cul­ture: it’s abuse. Want­i­ng to track every moment of rest a labor­er has, steal their wages from when they’re forced to stand in line for the job, and hid­ing bil­lions in prof­its to avoid tax­es isn’t savvy. It’s exploita­tive.

I don’t think Cap­tain Picard ran the Enter­prise on the basis of every­one sign­ing non-dis­clo­sure agree­ments. We can believe these barons would like to some day behave in a dif­fer­ent way, but that does­n’t mean ignor­ing how they actu­al­ly treat peo­ple under their pow­er now, in the present.

Jour­nal­ism, to be good, does­n’t have to be strict­ly neg­a­tive, but it does have to include more than one point of view before it arbi­trates truth.

If you read a work uncrit­i­cal­ly relat­ing how the Sovi­et Union made supe­ri­or advance­ments in the Cold War space race by sub­or­di­nat­ing the val­ue of indi­vid­ual cos­mo­nauts’ lives to com­mon needs of its peo­ple’s space pro­gram while derid­ing how the Unit­ed States and NASA got hung up on bureau­crat­ic safe­ty pre­cau­tions due to being over­ly sen­ti­men­tal to its astro­nauts’ safe­ty, this would make sense in the con­text of Prav­da but not real­ly an objec­tive chron­i­cle of truth.

Pri­vate space com­pa­nies are will­ing to cut costs because some­thing will be “a whole lot cheap­er and prob­a­bly work just as well”; that’s fine, except that NASA has been respon­si­ble for the deaths of peo­ple and appar­ent­ly has the opin­ion human lives in the space pro­gram are intrin­si­cal­ly valu­able.

Risk­ing the lives of pilots with a space­ship that’s “unsafe, insuf­fi­cient­ly test­ed, and poor­ly under­stood” in order to get a big con­tract and advance tech­nol­o­gy isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly the wrong long-view to have. In the end, the ben­e­fits may bear out to be worth it. But I’m not con­vinced there’s any­thing brave about Sir Richard Bran­son stay­ing on as CEO because he had the courage to let some­one else die in order to make his com­pa­ny even more valu­able lat­er.

Bezos’s com­pa­ny Blue Ori­gin is exhaust­ing­ly praised through­out The Space Barons for its mot­to that “slow is smooth and smooth is fast”, but NASA’s unwill­ing­ness to put human lives in dan­ger is treat­ed as bureau­crat­ic intran­si­gence.

I am less both­ered by this being the con­clu­sion the book comes to than that the book nev­er both­ers to treat the start­up cult’s dis­re­gard of actu­al peo­ple as any­thing deserv­ing a sec­ond thought.

Again, this is tech jour­nal­ism and report­ing under patron­age in a nut­shell. With pri­vate com­pa­nies work­ing to take more of a share of satel­lite Inter­net, per­haps it’s future com­mu­ni­ca­tion in a nut­shell, too.

If we aren’t will­ing to demand more from the com­pa­nies and bil­lion­aires we have while they’re still large­ly lim­it­ed to the ter­res­tri­al sphere, we may not be able to ask more from them in the future.

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