For many tech company founders, the answer seems to be turning their sights towards shaping the future of humanity. Whether that means putting your billions in a tax-free charitable group, hunting media organizations, or trying to go to space.
In all these fine pursuits, of course, there are debates about how the act in question ought to be done. This week, at Recode's Code Conference, we got to witness a slight, but telling difference of opinion between Silicon Valley philosopher king Elon Musk (co-founder of PayPal and head of Tesla) and world economy dominating Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.
The difference between Musk and Bezos, each of whom have spent more than a decade putting considerable wealth into their respective space transportation startups, SpaceX and Blue Origin, isn't huge. But they do represent two different ways of looking at privatized space travel, and while Musk's is more grandiose on its face, Bezos's is both more vast and more dangerous.
Musk's dreams involve humans living in other places besides Earth and becoming an interplanetary species. SpaceX, his private space transport and exploration company, is valued at $12 billion and recently achieved the major milestone of landing one of its rockets at sea. Musk claims that "if everything goes according to plan we should be able to launch people probably in 2024 with arrival in 2025."
Which is an incredibly ambitious claim, and ignores the current shortage of plutonium-238, a power source needed for deep space missions. But despite the obstacles, Musk is already thinking through what will happen when we settle Mars. When asked by the audience about the governance of Mars, Musk said his suggestion would be a direct democracy, where everyone votes on policy, with sunset provisions so that all laws would have to be renewed occasionally by a popular vote. The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, might want to talk to him about that, though the issue isn't pressing quite yet.
Bezos, speaking a day earlier, has a very different vision for how humans will use space. He wants to go to space to save Earth.
"Let me assure you, this is the best planet. We need to protect it, and the way we will is by going out into space," Bezos said. "You don't want to live in a retrograde world where we have to freeze population growth."
Bezos told Mossberg that he sees building the infrastructure to make space exploration easier for humans as "my job."
"I believe I know what you need to do to put that infrastructure in place so that future generations of entrepreneurs can have a solar system as dynamic and interesting and varied as what we see on the internet today," said Bezos. "I want thousands of entrepreneurs doing amazing things in space. And to do that we have to dramatically lower the cost of access to space."
The dynamic and varied internet Bezos is talking about though is one that is increasingly closed off in ecosystems of a handful of companies, including his own. As activist Hossein Derakhshan wrote in 2015 after being released from an Iranian prison, "We seem to have gone from a non-linear mode of communication — nodes and networks and links — toward a linear one, with centralization and hierarchies." If space exploration evolves the same way, what we're talking about is privatization of space beyond even what we're already seeing as NASA's budget shrinks.
So, to simplify, Musk wants us to put some Mars colonists on a one-way rocket to the red planet while Bezos wants to put a thousand mini-Bezos (patent pending) into orbit around the Earth.
When Walt Mossberg asked Musk about the differences between his and Bezos's views on space, he gently pooh-poohed the limited scope of the Amazon founder's vision.
I think both Jeff and I believe that it's important for the future to be a spacefaring civilization…ultimately be out there among the stars….I think when I say multi-planet species, that's really what we wanna be. It's not like, y'know, still being a single planet species but moving planets. It's really being a multi-planet species and having civilization and life as we know it expand to the rest of the solar system and ultimately other star systems.
Space exploration as Bezos seems to imagine it is cheaper, but he and entrepreneurs like him control the access point. It imagines space not, as the UN's Outer Space treaty does, as "the province of all mankind," but one where the control mechanisms are in the hands of the few (if that sounds familiar, welcome to living under capitalism).
This is not to say Musk's idea for Mars colonies is an egalitarian utopia; you can bet his imagined Martians voting on all policies are a fairly wealthy strata of humans. But Bezos's idea paints a starker reality. And his idea of slowing population growth as "retrograde" ignores the role of population growth and unchecked consumption as a force that has already overwhelmed Earth, choosing instead to view that sort of consumption as a virtue.
Both Musk and Bezos are looking at the future, but their ideas, which are increasingly shaping space exploration, ignore some of the mistakes of the past.
Ethan Chiel is a reporter for Fusion, writing mostly about the internet and technology. You can (and should) email him at firstname.lastname@example.org