In May, Jeff Bezos unveiled his long-term vision for humanity’s future. During an hour-long presentation in Washington, DC, the Amazon billionaire described how humans will need to leave Earth if we’re to maintain “growth and dynamism” in the future.
For Bezos, our future is a series of free-floating space colonies called O’Neill cylinders in close proximity to Earth. This proximity, he argues, will help the planet to avoid exceeding its capacity as the population swells into the trillions. Such a development, argues Bezos, will allow us to produce thousands of “Mozarts and Einsteins.” But what about everyone else?
The richest man in the world with an intent to “save the Earth,” Bezos has claimed that space travel is “the only way” he can see to effectively deploy his enormous wealth — a statement he saw fit to make while simultaneously working to defeat a small tax increase in Seattle that would have bolstered programs to help the city’s soaring homeless population.
The quest for space habitats is essential, Bezos argues, because we’re destroying the planet. He says this as he nonetheless courts the oil and gas industry. Amazon workers have demanded their boss take stronger measures to address the company’s environmental footprint, but even his renewed pledge doesn’t go far enough. Its inaction is of course motivated by the logic of profit maximisation — at the expense of planetary destruction. This is the same imperative that has driven Bezos to look to the stars.
Bezos is convinced that humanity will fall prey to “stasis and rationing” if we remain on Earth. The Jeff Bezos brand of never-ending growth will require constant population gains, increased energy use, and more resources than our planet can provide — so, into the stars we must go.
As is so often the case with the analyses of billionaires, a lot gets left out of the picture. The utopian future put forward by Bezos has blind spots so big you could pilot a starship through them. When they’re filled in, Bezos looks a lot more like Niander Wallace, the replicant manufacturer in Blade Runner 2049, than the saviour he thinks himself to be.
Sci-Fi glimpses of an unequal future
In the aftermath of Bezos’s announcement, his vision of a population living in space colonies was most frequently compared to Neill Blomkamp’s film Elysium — and it’s clear why. Inequality is a defining feature of the world of the film, with the rich sequestered in a space habitat in orbit while everyone else has to fend for themselves on a ravaged Earth with ruthless robot police to keep them in line. With a billionaire proposing our own ascendance into habitats that look similar to those in the film, it was an obvious reference point, but the reality could be even worse.
Blade Runner 2049 also takes place in a bleak future, but it’s altogether different from that of Elysium. In the film’s vision, Los Angeles in 2049 is suffering the effects of climate change, the aftermath of an electromagnetic pulse, and the fallout from a vaguely-alluded-to nuclear war. In order to sustain its human life at home, off-world colonies have been established to extract exportable resources, and to provide territory for resettlement. To go to the colonies is presented as a privilege — the “grand life off-world,” as the orphan slave driver Mister Cotton says — though an ambiguous one. In both the original Blade Runner and in its sequel, characters describe being left on Earth because they failed to pass a medical test.
Also read: A Gadfly’s Perspective on Human Spaceflight
Colonisation is a huge undertaking, and in 2036, industrialist Niander Wallace, who created genetically modified foods to keep humanity alive after the “blackout” of 2022, argues that it isn’t happening fast enough; if humanity is to survive, he’ll need permission to begin manufacturing human-like robots called Replicants once again.
Strict regulations have “chained the hands of progress,” he tells lawmakers — a phrase that could have easily been uttered by any of today’s tech billionaires. In a typical “ask forgiveness, not permission” move, Wallace has already developed new Replicants, and after demonstrating that his new model is unable to resist orders given by humans, making them the perfect source of labor for the colonisation project, the lawmakers rescind their restrictions. The Replicant program is officially back online.
But by 2049, Wallace is stuck. He sees his Replicants as “angels in the service of civilisation”, but he can’t produce enough to colonise the cosmos as quickly as he wants to, and he’s failed to figure out how to make Replicants breed. He airs his frustration in a monologue that sounds eerily as though he’s hit a roadblock en route to a future envisioned by Bezos:
“Every leap of civilisation was built off the back of a disposable workforce. We lost our stomach for slaves — unless… engineered. And I can only make so many. We need more Replicants than can ever be assembled. Millions so we can be trillions. More. Worlds beyond worlds, diamond shores. We could storm Eden and retake her…”
Disposable humans in a billionaire’s world
Bezos’s future, as far as we know, does not include human-like androids, but that could make it even worse than what Wallace had tried to achieve. Like Wallace, Bezos wants humanity to grow to a trillion people, but beyond the thousands of “Mozarts and Einsteins” he imagines, he has little to say of the consequences for the hundreds of billions of people who won’t make it to the top of their fields.
Wallace is frustrated that humans can no longer be treated as disposable, but Bezos has no such limitation. He has a net worth in excess of $100 billion because he’s been able to squeeze Amazon workers to the bone, and we lack the collective impetus to boycott the digital platform to force the company to improve its working conditions. Convenience is our highest value.
Bezos has been working on automating aspects of Amazon’s fulfillment process, but in the meantime, he’s succeeded at turning human workers into virtual robots who have almost no autonomy and are treated as disposable inputs from which to extract labor at the lowest possible cost. He then discards them once they’re spent.
Handheld scanners double as instruments of surveillance, with workers’ every movement timed, including bathroom breaks. Conditions are dire, with the company opting to have medics on standby rather than fit warehouses with air conditioning systems. With all the scanning and walking on concrete floors, injuries are common. Who needs Replicants when you can grind down the working class in the pursuit of your grand vision?
The disposability of Replicants and the denial of their humanity is a key theme in the Blade Runner films, but by treating workers in such a horribly degrading and inhuman fashion, Bezos refuses to recognise the humanity of the very workers on whose backs his success was built. Throughout the original film, the chief antagonist, Roy Batty, is trying to have his four-year lifespan extended, but as he prepares to die, he delivers a touching monologue that calls into question the humanity of those who would deny his own.
I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like… tears in rain.
Jeff Bezos doesn’t care about you
To many in the world of Blade Runner, both the original and the sequel, Replicants exist to serve the needs of the humans that can afford them, as miners, soldiers, “pleasure models,” and executioners; their lives are only valuable as long as they serve the need for which they were purchased. To people like Bezos, human workers are just as expendable as Batty, and in the pursuit of space colonisation — the next civilisational leap, to put it in Wallace’s terms — they will be treated as nothing more than a disposable means to an end.
Ordinary people don’t feature in Bezos’s imaginings, and this shouldn’t surprise anyone. A billionaire who, at a time of rampant inequality, climate crisis, and a broken US health system, believes his money is best spent on a vanity project to colonise space is no ally.
Like Wallace, Bezos wants to see himself at the centre of history. Where Wallace used the profits from GMO foods to build an empire of off-world colonies on the backs of humanoid robots, Bezos has developed a book-selling platform into a monopolistic mega-corporation that works an army of precarious workers to the bone as it extends its reach into new sectors, ultimately beyond Earth’s orbit.
Jeff Bezos’s dystopian vision of the future cannot save us. If we want to avoid the hellscape of Blade Runner, we shouldn’t make the mistake of following billionaires to our doom.
Paris Marx is a socialist writer and urbanist. They are the editor of Radical Urbanist and have previously written for NBC News, CBC News, and Toronto Star.
This article was published on Jacobin. Read the original here.