Rich men are leaving the planet. Richard Branson, the 70-year-old British billionaire, was purported to have reached the edge of space with his Virgin Galactic spacecraft on July 11. Jeff Bezos, the American centibillionaire, expects to go slightly higher than Branson with his company Blue Origin on July 20.

Some celebrate human ingenuity and the arrival of space tourism; others disparage the trips as vanity projects and decry billionaires using space as their new playground. ‘Do not allow Jeff Bezos to return to Earth’, a petition on Change.org has over 158,000 signatures (the link is included, sign at your pleasure). But the trips go deeper than this. These flights are the latest step in the long march of the cult of technology, headed by Branson, Bezos and — most prominently — Elon Musk.


Technology = Salvation

Musk, the ringleader of the cult of technology, has never been one to shy away from a bold statement. He repeatedly talks about the inevitability of humans living on Mars (his company SpaceX makes this aim explicit), seeks to ‘solve the problem of soul-destroying traffic’ with his ‘The Boring Company’, and claims that his start-up Neuralink could make human language obsolete in ten years’ time. It doesn’t matter to his followers that he often fails to deliver on his grand claims, or that he — despite presenting himself as a daring innovator — invented none of the technologies he uses. Or indeed, that the man has proved so erratic (the Bitcoin/Tesla debacle proved his fickleness) that investing in him is akin to gambling. The faithful follow the hype and believe in his overarching vision: that technological advancement is humanity’s salvation.

This belief is at the heart of Silicon Valley. And leading the march of Silicon Valley, that cult of technology, are the three genius philanthropic billionaires: Branson, Bezos and Musk. In their own way, each believes that technological advancement can save humanity from its current woes: the climate crisis, the pandemic, rampant inequality. I don’t buy it. It’s not that I’m a Luddite, it’s just that there are too many flaws in this creed for it to be believable.

Winners and Losers

Most importantly, there’s the question: who will the new technology benefit? Some claim that: ‘there is public value in the private space programs, because all ambitious technological ventures spawn new discoveries, anticipated or not’. This is incontrovertible, but I’m interested in what segment of the public this refers to. It’s not likely that it’s the poorest, who surely cannot afford any new technological advances for years and years, but rather the richest 1 per cent. They are the ones who will flee to Mars with Musk if the Earth becomes too hot to live on. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that if we can’t live on the planet that birthed us, we’re unlikely to be able to live anywhere else in the universe either. The value in these programs lies, for the foreseeable future, with the wealthiest then — a small section of ‘the public’. And it’s a real shame when you consider that some of the best and brightest engineers, mathematicians and physicists are sucked into the allure of SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic. That same talent could be helping the poorest and most vulnerable and advancing humanity in a different way. But I suppose solving sanitation in rural India doesn’t have the same glamour as introducing yourself at parties with: ‘Hi, I’m a rocket scientist’.

Masters of our fate?

But even the belief itself — that technological advancement is humanity’s salvation — has its challenges. Technology is impressive: we can contact relatives on the other side of the world; put humans on the Moon; vaccinate against and eradicate diseases which, in times gone by, would have killed countless. All these things would have seemed impossible a short while ago. It’s so impressive, we’re forgetting technology’s limits. We apotheosize it. And in doing so, we place technology on a pedestal and claim it will allow each human to become ‘master of my fate, captain of my soul’.

Technology has become the new god for a secular age. But it’s a false idol. Technology will never allow us to escape the constraints that other animals face, despite the ravings of billionaires. And it will never change our human nature. With or without all the tech in the world, you’re still the same person: all that changes are your capabilities. If we wish to know what a world of genetically enhanced humans would be like, we’re best off consulting the Ancient Greek myths: warring gods.

With or without technology, we’re still animals: flawed, biased and irrational. It’s the predominant human condition. Advancements in technology won’t change that. I feel slightly sorry for those lonely billionaires, able to orbit Earth by profiting from planned misery, thinking that the technology they champion will advance humanity and redeem them. It won’t.