The Dream Economy

August 24, 2021   •   By Stuart Whatley, Nicholas Agar

RICHARD BRANSON, the billionaire founder of Virgin Galactic, recently “made history” by becoming the first private citizen to launch himself into space (beating Amazon founder Jeff Bezos to the punch). But so what? The Soviets launched the first man into space 60 years ago. Among those advancing the technological frontier, Elon Musk is far more ambitious. He intends to establish a city of one million people on Mars by 2050, and his success in building the world’s leading electric-vehicle company suggests that his ambitions can’t be dismissed out of hand. Nobody wants to be like the investor who lost his shirt shorting Tesla.

Moreover, Musk has been thinking about Mars for years. He founded SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corp.) in 2002 with the goal of reducing space transportation costs. Then, in May 2012, he told PBS NewsHour, “I’m talking about sending ultimately tens of thousands, eventually millions of people to Mars and then going out there and exploring the stars.” In a 2014 interview with Aeon, he noted that “SpaceX is only 12 years old now. Between now and 2040, the company’s lifespan will have tripled. If we have linear improvement in technology, as opposed to logarithmic, then we should have a significant base on Mars, perhaps with thousands or tens of thousands of people.”

Then, in September 2016, SpaceX offered a clear and captivating vision for humanity’s future as a spacefaring species. In a short video introducing the “SpaceX Interplanetary Transport System,” settlers are shown launching off from Cape Canaveral and being serenely ferried to a terraformed Mars, complete with oceans and clouds. Once established on Mars, humanity will have become a multiplanetary species, ensuring that no mishap or misadventure on Earth will render us extinct.

To that end, Musk suggested in 2016 that SpaceX’s first Mars-shot would be in 2022. As of 2020, this target date had slipped back to 2024 for an unmanned flight, and to 2026 for a manned trip. In May 2021, SpaceX launched and successfully landed a prototype of its Starship spacecraft, and then announced plans to stage its first orbital launch test sometime in the next year.

Musk’s unbridled confidence helps to explain why he is now one of the world’s richest people. His ascent up the billionaire leaderboard is enabled by his command of the “dream economy,” which commoditizes thrilling visions of the future. In the dream economy, your ability to marshal persuasive evidence for the feasibility of your vision matters less than your status as a technological visionary, the kind of person who can embody our hopes for and fears about the future.

In the dream economy, Musk is a technological visionary in the way that Nelson Mandela was a moral visionary in the 1990s. Musk’s status as one of the world’s richest people suggests we — or at least the markets — are prepared to place our money where Musk’s mouth is. Adding to the economic heft of his vision is the fact that even NASA is looking to him to lead the way. Since the company has indeed chalked up genuine successes, why shouldn’t we believe that Musk’s dreams about Mars will come true?

“I’ve Got a Martian Bridge to Sell You”

In fact, there are good reasons to doubt Musk. We should be able to recognize his confident predictions not merely as hype but as a form of propaganda all too common in Silicon Valley. His plan for building and populating self-sustaining cities on Mars involves a staggeringly more complex process than the one needed to build an electric vehicle or even to land a man on the Moon. As journalist Shannon Stirone reminds us, the red planet is an unlivable hellscape:

Mars has a very thin atmosphere; it has no magnetic field to help protect its surface from radiation from the sun or galactic cosmic rays; it has no breathable air and the average surface temperature is a deadly 80 degrees below zero. Musk thinks that Mars is like Earth? For humans to live there in any capacity they would need to build tunnels and live underground, and what is not enticing about living in a tunnel lined with SAD lamps and trying to grow lettuce with UV lights? So long to deep breaths outside and walks without the security of a bulky spacesuit, knowing that if you’re out on an extravehicular activity and something happens, you’ve got an excruciatingly painful 60-second death waiting for you. Granted, walking around on Mars would be a life-changing, amazing, profound experience. But visiting as a proof of technology or to expand the frontier of human possibility is very different from living there. It is not in the realm of hospitable to humans. Mars will kill you.

To be sure, there is no logical principle or law of physics preventing Musk from being ready to launch a fleet of colony ships ferrying settlers to Mars in 2030. But that doesn’t mean you should bet on it. The journey from our current understanding to a future in which we are ferrying colonists to Mars requires a long sequence of steps, making it all but certain that there will be unforeseen failures and delays along the way.

The step-by-step specificity of Musk’s plan is a key feature of his sales pitch: it suggests that he already has everything figured out. But he doesn’t, of course. In this era of “fake news,” he is offering what amounts to a fake promise. When you make a fake promise, you undertake to do something in the future that you don’t actually know how to do in the present. If a beggar announces that he is a billionaire, he is lying (fake news). But suppose instead that he undertakes to give you a billion dollars in a week’s time. That would be a fake promise. There is no rational basis for trusting that he can get that sum of money together within a week.

One twist in Musk’s case is that his wealth and access to capital almost imbue his fake promises about Mars with the air of self-fulfilling prophecies. Almost, but not quite. Suppose your local handyman publicly commits to build the world’s tallest skyscraper, exceeding the height of Dubai’s 829-meter Burj Khalifa by 10 meters. It’s unlikely that anyone will pay any attention. He has zero experience in building big buildings and thus has issued a manifestly fake promise. But suppose his promise also comes with Muskian charisma and the capacity to generate near-unlimited capital. That could make all the difference, allowing him to fake it until he makes it.

Now suppose that people were to read about the handyman’s commitment and draw inspiration from the sheer ballsy-ness of it. He might start to amass supporters who would front him money through GoFundMe. Local news coverage might lead to national and international coverage, allowing him to market himself through interviews on CNN or Fox News.

At no point in this marketing campaign does the handyman need to learn anything about engineering or architecture. That doesn’t matter, because, surely, he can find relevantly skilled professionals whom he will pay handsomely to help him achieve his — and his investors’ — objective. The handyman’s confident statements about being able to construct the world’s tallest building may contain engineering and architectural falsehoods and absurdities, but if these fibs and exaggerations generate the money to realize the dream, they have done their job.

We should view Musk’s bold pronouncements about Mars in the same way. They’ve done their job if they generate the capital SpaceX needs to build sufficiently cool rockets, thereby keeping Musk’s Martian dreams alive. Again, the twist in Musk’s case is that the barriers to colonizing Mars are far greater than those blocking the handyman’s construction project. The expertise to build an 839-meter building is certainly out there. The handyman and his investors could start by searching out the same team of engineers and architects who completed the Burj Khalifa in 2010. But no amount of money or charisma will get you a team of people who already know how to settle humans on Mars.

Prediction Is Propaganda

Ultimately, Musk fits the description that Henry David Thoreau applied to a proto-Muskian hype-man of his own time: “He has more of the practical than usually belongs to so bold a schemer, so resolute a dreamer. Yet his success is in theory, and not in practice, and he feeds our faith rather than contents our understanding.”

In his Mars vision, Musk is promising something that still lies over the horizon. But his overly confident predictions reflect method, not madness. For him, hype serves a useful purpose that goes beyond merely generating free press (though it certainly does do that). To mobilize capital and public excitement, it is important for him and his marketing department to suggest that Mars will be inhabited not by our distant descendants but by some of us living today. Here, his Mars vision dovetails with another pillar of the dream economy: anti-aging “rejuvenation” technologies. If these arrive as quickly as the people promoting them have promised, investors in their 40s could hope to live to the end of the century, when Mars supposedly will have been terraformed (according to the aforementioned SpaceX video).

Like those forecasting a millennial lifespan or an AI singularity, Musk is in the mythology business. As the fin de siècle French theorist Georges Sorel observed, social myths exploit the unpredictability of the future by “framing” it in ways that are useful for “acting on the present.” For someone in Musk’s position, a vague, indeterminate expectation that humanity will colonize Mars is a lucrative thing. As expressions “of a will to act,” myths bring “few inconveniences.” In issuing bold predictions, Musk has little to lose and much to gain. The potential realization of his vision lies far enough in the future that he need not worry about being disproved anytime soon.

Sorelian myths are the currency of the dream economy. The content of what they promise is secondary to the attitude they instill:

A knowledge of what the myths contain in the way of details which will actually form part of the history of the future is then of small importance; they are not astrological almanacs; it is even possible that nothing which they contain will come to pass — as was the case with the catastrophe [the Rapture] expected by the first Christians.

In this way, the act of prediction becomes an act of propaganda.

As a futurist-propagandist, Musk and other contemporary techno-utopians are part of a long tradition. Since Thomas More’s Utopia in 1516, the great sci-fi bibliographer I. F. Clarke reminds us, “the idea of the future” has been contested. Detailed fictional descriptions of what lies over the horizon serve “as prelude to the real business of exploring the range of possibilities in contemporary society.”

Those who can articulate a compelling prophecy are not merely making a guess about the future. They are actively determining which aspirations will “define the direction of future developments.” Hence, Simon Lake, the American engineer who invented one of the first submarines, revealed in his memoir that he took his inspiration from the father of science fiction, Jules Verne.

If we bear in mind that prediction is, in fact, propaganda acting on the present, we will be better placed to sort between hype and sound forecasting. The task for all of us is not just to determine if there is a strong rational basis for believing what the exponents of Silicon Valley are promising us. We also must explore and keep alive the alternative imaginaries that have been crowded out by billionaire dreams. For example, instead of aspiring to render Mars inhabitable, we could focus on ensuring that Earth remains so.

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Stuart Whatley is a senior editor at Project Syndicate.

Nicholas Agar is the author of How to Be Human in the Digital Economy (MIT Press).