Star Power

Tech companies’ origin myths evoke the history of the universe to make their expansion seem inevitable

Full-text audio version of this essay.

On the 20th of January, Elon Musk’s company SpaceX launched 60 more of its “Starlink” satellites into orbit. Starlink’s aim is to achieve worldwide broadband by encircling the globe with moving belts consisting of tens of thousands of satellites (a “low orbit constellation”). The satellites themselves do not emit light, but in the hours following sunset and preceding sunrise, the sun’s rays glint off their highly metallic surfaces, making them visible to the naked eye. They appear as stars, pulled together into a bright, close, beaded train of lights.

The sight of tech in the stars is uncanny, because it’s not so much unfamiliar as it is a weird kind of mirroring. We are used to seeing the stars in tech. Galactic and cosmic scenes are commonly the default wallpaper on phones and computers, and the internet (cyberspace) is most often visualized as a kind of constellation: illuminated nodes in a dark, endless vacuum, overlaid by a web of lines of connection. In these renderings, the illuminated web hovers just above the earth’s atmosphere, as if the planet were spooling outwards.

The trope of space exploration in tech advertising is almost as old as the history of computing itself, dating back to the 1950s, but its meaning has changed subtly over time. Computer and internet advertisements from the ’80s and ’90s are laden with inter-planetary imagery, often complemented with domestic scenes — a computer surrounded by the friendly debris of a home office space, a family huddled around the screen — which tempered the alienness and expansiveness of the virtual realm with the promise that, with the click of a button, one could easily return home. The computer, at this point, was figured as a fixed portal to a (separate) cosmological sphere, a door that could be closed and opened at will.

The trope of space exploration in tech advertising is almost as old as the history of computing itself

In 2007, Steve Jobs launched the first iPhone. Its default wallpaper was NASA’s famous “blue marble” image of the earth as viewed from space. This wasn’t the first time Apple had employed this image — it was used to advertise the “clamshell” iBook in the late ’90s — but with the iPhone its significations were more aggressive, accompanying a device that would literally contain the world, as opposed to merely facilitating connections across it. In his keynote address, Jobs jumped frantically between apps, countries, and global data, pulling up weather, time zones, stocks. He demonstrated the satellite view accessible via maps, “going” to Washington, Paris, Rome, where his audience looked down from above. “This is the Washington Monument. Look at this. I can see people down there,” he said, as if aboard Apollo 11 and experiencing the view for the first time. “There’s the Roman Coliseum…. Unbelievable. Right on the phone.”

Gradually, as the aim of tech companies shifted away from creating a computer to many things that compute — an ecosystem, or constellation of interconnected “smart” devices powered by a web of satellites — the self-contained “blue marble” image of the earth was abandoned in favor of imagery that echoed this more networked and distributed vision: galaxies and starscapes. Meanwhile, the domestic scenes that accompanied earlier visions of cyberspace as in the ’80s and ’90s slowly fell away. While in the early days of the internet, outer space imagery spoke of freedom and wonder, it now speaks of omnipresence.

The literal insertion of a tech company into the night sky is the next step in a long discursive project by which tech companies tie themselves to cosmological imaginaries — a form of self-narrativizing that brings their own myths into association with scientific master-narratives of the histories of the earth and the universe. This co-optation hints at a more serious undertaking: adopting the totalizing authority of astrophysics and scientific cosmology, the “purest” and most conceptual of the sciences, in order to naturalize their exponential growth as fundamental law. Tech companies are laying the groundwork for their role in shaping earth’s futures, and our acceptance of this as inevitable.

The use of cosmic imagery by tech companies hints at a longer history by which corporate expansion has been linked to cosmic forces and therefore enshrined as universal law. “Cosmology” (from the Greek kosmos) is a broad term referring to a system of belief or worldview. In Western science, it describes the branch of astrophysics that concerns the study of the origin, evolution, and eventual demise of the universe — an adoption of a general term to signify a singular worldview which is deemed incontrovertible (for critic, philosopher, and novelist Sylvia Wynter, the imposition of European origin stories along lines of colonial expansion is part of the “overrepresentation of Man” and of its “descriptive statement”).

In her series Cosmopolitics, philosopher Isabelle Stengers turns her attention to what happens when different cosmologies come into contact with one another. She argues for a perspective that does not strive towards totality, but rather pays attention to the practices by which knowledge is formed and put to use. The approach of Western science, Stengers argues, has always been to legitimize itself by disproving all competing visions; it functions as a “war machine” that aims to destroy any cosmologies which it cannot subsume within itself. It posits truth as something universal which waits, already fully formed, to be discovered bit by bit.

As Stengers, Wynter, and other philosophers of science have argued, the reality of how science is done is messier than the confident, totalizing face it projects. The live “core” of science, where its narratives are produced, is often deeply experimental, deeply political, and hidden from view, while the narratives themselves are disseminated as ready-made, incontrovertible facts. (MC Hammer recently put this succinctly in a tweet: “When you measure include the measurer.”) As a result, these narratives — particularly those that correspond to Western modes of linear storytelling — become powerful tools by which to naturalize other systems of relations.

The Big Bang provided a blueprint for a convincing story of limitless growth

One relatively well-known example is the Darwinian view of evolution, a theory bound up with processes of racialization and the colonial agenda, which also drew on principles of free-market economics emerging at the time. In a paper published in Frontiers in Cellular and Infection Microbiology, Emiliano Salvucci draws on examples from different areas of biology to demonstrate the ways in which the discipline is steeped in the language of free-market capitalism (“competition between proteins and between genes, the selection pressure, fitness, cost-benefit ratios, arsenal, weapons, war, exploitation, self-serving punishment, coercive strategies, mafia, policing […] the destruction of others, the ‘problem’ of altruism”). “Natural selection,” Salvucci writes, “is a linguistic trap.”

Inside the machinery of scientific knowledge-production, there are hierarchies between different forms of scientific inquiry. Generally speaking, the more theoretical and the closer to “pure maths,” the higher a science is within this hierarchy. In this sense, physics and astrophysics trump chemistry, and chemistry trumps biology — the assumption being that the more a science must take its evidence from earthly matter, the more likely it is to become “tainted” by human bias. This partly explains why the origin stories of Western astrophysics — like the Big Bang — often escape cultural scrutiny. In situating its field of inquiry beyond the boundaries of earth, astrophysics lays claim to a mathematic purity that obscures its biases.

All mathematical and scientific work is determined by social and political factors, from the point of research to the point at which a “discovery” is shaped into narrative. The question of exactly how a scientific model becomes popularized is always socially determined: certain parts of the story become more famous than others. The principle that the universe has continued to expand since its origin is better known, for example, than the fact that it is gradually cooling down, perhaps because the idea of a natural law of expansion maps easily onto colonial and libertarian paradigms (for sociologist Howard Winant, whose work fed into Wynter’s, the analogy is so apt that the “liftoff” of capitalism and the invention of race can be said to constitute “Big Bang” processes).

In a paper from 2009, historian Craig Howard White argues that the American Observatory Movement — the rapid construction of numerous observatories across North America that took place in the United States in the 1840s and ’50s — coincided with a political project to justify the economic and geographical expansion of the American Empire. He argues that the “cosmology of growth” that was supported by astronomical research worked to “declare expansion a natural law for the heavens and for North America.” The law of cosmic growth, in other words, was adopted as a scientized iteration of “manifest destiny.” The metaphor of capital as cosmic expansion stuck: the mass financial deregulation that took place on the London Stock Exchange under Thatcher in the 1980s is referred to as the “Big Bang,” a term that was taken up and applied to later instances of deregulation, such as that of Japanese financial markets in the late 1990s. The Big Bang provided a blueprint for a convincing story of limitless growth, which became part of the ways in which companies — and tech companies in particular — narrated themselves.

Following the rise of Apple, the Silicon Valley “garage” where Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak reportedly built the first Apple computers became a tourist attraction; in 2013 it received official historical status (Wozniak eventually admitted that the story was “a bit of a lie”). Versions of the garage story have been employed so often by multinational corporations that it has now become a cliché. Dell, HP, Microsoft, Amazon and Google were reportedly all founded in garages, and Nike boasts that it was founded “in the boot of a car.” The “humble beginnings” garage trope is familiar, because it is the story Western science tells us about our own universe: created in a moment of explosive growth from a condensed kernel of energy. The smaller the point of a company’s origin (garage, car boot, shoebox), the closer it resembles the story of the Big Bang, which is one of impossible extremes (atom to universe).

From there, with the overarching mega-narrative in place, the appeal to more terrestrial scientific creation narratives is easy. The company universe is driven by Darwinian evolution. It is populated by successive “generations” of products, which evolve and overtake previous generations. Successful products thrive in the tech “ecosystem,” while others fail. The stories that tech companies tell about themselves mirror the ones we are told about the earth.

The tech industry in particular gets away with this because of its discursive proximity to scientific R&D, and the notion of linear human progress as propelled by technological innovation — associations that have been enshrined in imagery and hardware. As Jathan Sadowski wrote recently in an article on utopias for Real Life, tech companies actively promote “the idea that they are simply conduits for the spirit of progress, an autonomous force of nature that acts on its own accord […] with each upgraded iPhone another step toward the materialization of a divine digital destiny.” The goal of this form of narrativization is temporal and spatial omnipresence: In evoking narratives that reach way back to the origin of the universe, the tech industry legitimizes its ability to reach way into the future; in reaching beyond the physical bounds of the earth, it legitimizes its interference at every scale of existence.

The presence of tech companies in outer space, as we see now with projects like Starlink, is the culmination of a long process that is figurative and discursive as well as material. The past two decades have seen the rapid growth of the NewSpace industries (also known as the “Billionaire Space Race”), a moniker that distinguishes the corporatized and commercialized realm of outer space today from the “Old Space” of the Cold War, in which states were the primary actors. SpaceX (Elon Musk) and Blue Origin (Jeff Bezos) are among the companies who plan to profit from the passage of the 2015 SPACE (Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship) Act, which explicitly allows “US citizens to engage in the commercial exploration and exploitation of ‘space resources’ [including… water and minerals].”

In evoking narratives that reach way back to the origin of the universe, the tech industry legitimizes its ability to reach way into the future

The danger of the 2015 SPACE convention lies as much in the assignation of corporate control over the discursive space of the cosmos as it does in the legalization of material processes of extraction. The NewSpace industry consciously employs the language of colonialism, figuring outer space as a “new frontier” to be conquered. In doing so, it naturalizes the neocolonial processes on earth that drive its “innovation”: the large-scale mining of rare-earth minerals, the export of electronic waste to lands branded worthless or empty, the positioning of the Global North as economic center. As Lou Cornum points out, such projects are often accompanied by the invocation of “all mankind,” appealing to a vague universalism that obscures the exclusionary aims and deep colonial legacies of the NewSpace industries. Those working in the space of Indigenous and Afrofuturisms have long recognized that pasts, presents, and futures are intimately connected: even if Elon Musk’s drive to “colonize Mars” is not likely to imminently come to fruition, its evocation of cosmological imaginaries is already working in the present to tie neocolonial and neoliberal relations to a scientized view of destiny, rendering them inevitable and natural.

The future projected by NewSpace industries — in which a privileged few escape to a terraformed Mars, moon, or distant planet (the process of escape itself entailing a huge cost which falls on people and places considered disposable to this grand aim) — contains, as Sadowski and Cornum both argue, the inbuilt certainty of the earth’s destruction due to existing corporate and neocolonial processes. Techno-determinist futures, then, are used to habituate us to the present. At the same time, corporate cosmologies carry the values and prerogatives of the corporate world into the future.

Given the history of tech companies reinforcing systems of white supremacy (from enabling hate speech, to racist algorithms, to targeted surveillance and predictive policing), the construction of corporate cosmologies is also inextricably tied to the totalizing ambitions of whiteness. While working on this, I kept returning to a recent New Yorker article on Pixar’s new film Soul by Namwali Serpell, a professor of English at Harvard. Despite the rich and multi-layered depictions of African-American life by Black artists in many of the film’s scenes, Serpell draws attention to how studio biases meant that the film’s ethereal and immaterial spaces — its “cosmic” spaces — are coded as white (it is worth noting, perhaps, that Pixar was co-founded by Steve Jobs, who remained its biggest shareholder until his death; and the current shareholders of its parent company, Disney, include Blackrock Inc, the Vanguard Group, and State Street Corporation).

In Soul, the “You Seminar,” the realm before life, is figured as corporatized and digital-looking, stuffed with the rounded forms distinctive to a Silicon Valley tech campus. Souls are matched with mentors in a glitzy affair reminiscent of a TedX convention, and clerks are abstracted geometric figures (“Platonic forms,” in Serpell’s words), that look like variations on the Mac OS logo/Finder icon. Serpell asks:

What would a Great Beyond and a Great Before informed by black culture look like? Would greenish white be the right color for new souls? Would pitch-black be the right color for lost ones? Would the Beyond and the Before be on separate planes? Would soul counsellors be two-dimensional abstractions? Would Mystics Without Borders include an obeah woman or a bokor? Would people in a fugue state of flow float up to the spirit world, or would the spirits descend into them — ride them, as we say?

Serpell’s analysis draws attention to the ways in which whiteness projects totalizing worlds formed in its own image, passing off these depictions as neutral. “Whether on Earth or in the heavens,” Serpell writes of the film, “whiteness is ethereal, mindful; blackness is heavy, obsessive.” Corporate technological determinism, with its white-supremacist agenda, ties itself to figures of lightness, immateriality, and abstraction — stars, points of light, digital ether, the elusive glint — and calls itself essence, atom, a distilled and fundamental truth.

The visual language of the universe, of cosmic space, is a powerful tool because it is also the language of universalism — of totality, incontrovertibility and literal inescapability (how do we escape a story that claims to contain us)? If techno-capitalist expansion is now figured as a law of physics, then part of the task of countering it is to question the hegemony of the knowledge systems that work to support it. Not in refuting scientific claims, but, as Stengers argues, by understanding them as inflected by particular values and agendas; and by acknowledging the multiplicity of ways we conceive of our shared histories and futures. The Big Bang is not the only version of events.

Another part of the task surely has to do with countering the consistent dematerialization and mystification of tech, the ways it is figured as elusive and cosmic, analogous to space-matter. If the internet had not been abstracted to a constellation of lights hovering just above our heads, would SpaceX have been able to execute Starlink, a project that literalized that vision, so easily? What if the internet were visualized instead as physical infrastructure, as undersea cables, data centers and open-cut mines — images that speak of neocolonial violence and ecological degradation — but also of mundanity and failure?

In the middle of the South Pacific Gyre is a spot known as the “Spacecraft Cemetery,” a point so far from any other landmass that the humans closest to it are often those aboard the International Space Station. Because of its remoteness and its biological inactivity, falling satellites are often directed here, and the ocean floor is littered with space debris. This is the deep underside of projects like Starlink, a site where all the bulk and finitude excluded from corporate cosmology accumulates. It is also where the ISS itself will end its life in approximately 2028.

In 2020, the first SpaceX/NASA astronaut launch attracted 10.3 million concurrent online viewers, the most ever recorded by NASA. In 2028, the ISS will crash quietly into the ocean without a single human witness beyond those orchestrating it via a monitor.

Lauren Collee is a London-based writer and PhD student. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in Another Gaze, Uneven Earth, Eyot Magazine and others.