The Space Barons by Christian Davenport
The Space Barons, by Christian Davenport

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 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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