Chapter 9: Being Quiet
“Brim-fill the bowl,
it’ll spill over.
Keep sharpening the blade,
you’ll soon blunt it.
Nobody can protect
A house full of gold and jade.
Wealth, status, pride,
are their own ruin.”
~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)
This weekend, Richard Branson will, assuming all goes well, claim bragging rights for winning first place in the billionaire space race (BSR). I remember some years back Branson did a publicity stunt to celebrate an inaugural flight of his airplane company by bungee jumping off the Palms casino in Las Vegas. The winds were stronger than expected that day, and pushed his backside to graze the building during his descent. As he slowed down for his dismount, Branson looked dazed, shaken, and in serious pain. He flashed a smile for the crowd and the cameras, then limped off stage.
When you think about the hype around this space soap opera, it’s odd: we’ve put people in space before. So what’s new? The commercial aspects: companies are funding it, and the purpose is tourism.
The contrast between this and the moon-landing in 1969 illustrates how we have become what Ross Douthat calls “the decadant society”: “a victim of its own success.” No one was unconsciously rooting for the Apollo 11 to blow up. But not a few people I’ve talked to over the last couple of weeks about the BSR have ironically quipped that they wouldn’t be that upset if Bezos and co. don’t make it back. When Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon and intoned that it was “one small step for man, and one giant leap for mankind,” it was a world-historical moment, the completion of a national project announced by JFK a decade early, and cause for collective celebration. Where Armstrong was a pilgrim, Branson will be a tourist. When Branson and Bezos go up, it will be one small leap for the 1%. As Jamie Wheal quips, the BSR space-capades are like Atlas Shrugged in space.
Wheal relays the story of when technology writer Douglas Rushkoff was invited by a band of billionaires to give a talk about the future of technology. Rushkoff assumed he’d be giving a lecture to a large audience, but it turned out that his $50,000 speaking fee was for talking with just five men. The question each of these men paid $10,000 to ask him was this: “How do I maintain authority over my security force after the event?” The “event,” Rushkoff explained, “was their euphemism for the environmental collapse, social unrest, nuclear explosion, unstoppable virus, or Mr. Robot hack that takes everything down.”
The idea here is that the Chosen will escape to their sea-steading platforms, their New Zealand bunker fortresses, their space colonies, or upload their consciousness to the Cloud when their bodies give out: that they can protect their “houses made of gold and jade.”
But just as there would be no SpaceX without NASA and no Tesla without the Department of Energy, there would be no market without the rule of law and money would have no value without civilization. The men asking that question of Rushkoff failed to realize that men of their class planning for the apocalypse were hastening its arrival, brim-filling the bowl and over-sharpening the blade. They are, in effect, shorting civilization. Betting on ruin is a symptom of ruin.
Branson’s stunt, and the city where it happened, are revealing. There is no greater symbol of decadence in American culture than the Sin City. And while Branson was moving in the opposite direction he’ll be going in this weekend—with gravity rather than against it—and though the scale was dramatically smaller, the physiological effect will be similar: a rush of blood to the head, a passing euphoria, a sense of self-importance that swiftly fades, and then a restlessness and a need to move on to the next big thing. But what could get you higher than space?
Perhaps the quiet of space will evoke a mystical rapture among the .01%, a cosmic consciousness that shrinks their egos down to size, a literal conversion in the sense of a turning around, shifting their gaze from the heavens and back to earth, to escape the urge to Escape and embrace the need to Return. Perhaps then we will be cheering on the billionaire place race—the race to terraform not Mars, but Earth.
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”