Extraterrestrial dictatorship or democracy?

Jacob Lawrence x David Colby Reed

by David Colby Reed

Oct. 11, 2019


By David Colby Reed

The space environment will likely produce authoritarian social relations. How might engineered and social technologies and create democratic counterweights?

What might life be like for human beings living and working in an environment in which the essentials of life (such as oxygen and water) will be produced through capital-intensive, algorithmically- and robotically-mediated industrial processes undertaken by private actors? 

Today, national space agencies and private actors are preparing to build human habitations and mining operations on the moon and on Mars. Accessing  materials on these and other celestial bodies will require concentrated capital, coordinated technology development, and tight operational controls. The emerging property rights regime that will determine the incentives of future spacefarers also favors first-movers. The features of these future space activities suggest that those activities will be undertaken by wealthy entities who exercise control through system and algorithm design and the accumulated effects of path dependencies.

Authoritarian relations would appear to be the likeliest social arrangement, for it is difficult for a free society of equals to take root in a context in which surveillance is total, government is private, and, due to the hostility of the space environment, noncompliance with authorities is lethal.

How might we imagine alternative patterns of social relations? What scope is there for democratic government and democratic social relations in our future space economies and habitations? How might we think about the ethics and politics of technology development in extreme environments, generally? 

This talk is my preliminary effort to draw together ideas from philosophy, economics, law, and design to frame these challenges and introduce some tools for thinking about interventions. Stay tuned for further work!

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