In the course of writing our book on the men who found, own and run the big tech companies, The New Patriarchs of Digital Capitalism, we found a deep and abiding interest in space colonisation as a new frontier for capitalist exploitation. While only peripheral to our central concerns, the ideological appropriation and subsequent development of space travel technologies occupies a central location in the celebrity mythologisations of our case studies and particularly, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, both of whom run rocket-ship companies. Narratives around space travel are central to the way in which they legitimate their wealth and power, promising to save humanity from its own rapacious demands on our planet even as they promulgate and profit from a kind of destructive, oligarchic capitalism which accelerates the very things they proffer to save us from.

The historic Western Frontier, with its promise of great wealth and freedom, along with its raced and gendered ideological frame, has long been understood as central to the project of Silicon Valley’s elite technologists. And yet, the problematic histories of the American West have forced a toning down of that sort of rhetoric as the brutal reality of its histories for subaltern groups have become more widely accepted. Space, as opposed to actual colonialism, seems to be a more convenient analogue for technology that profits from the colonialisation of ordinary life that digital economy depends on. Far better to use a vision of a Star Trek style future than the historic colonialisations of the Americas, Africa and Australasia. Less encumbered by human suffering, space presents a possible vision of a frontier society without any indigenous peoples to dispossess, enslave and murder.[1]

In a 2018 interview with Mathias Döpfner, in front of a screen showing a scene of an empty Texas desert, replete with one of his Blue Origin rocket ships in the background and cactuses on stage, Bezos rehearses his justification for his great wealth and power. He wants to avoid a ‘civilisation of stasis’ on a long time frame because of baseline energy needs.

Now if you take baseline energy usage, globally… and compound it a few percent each year for just a few hundred years, you have to cover the entire surface of the Earth in solar cells [to maintain civilisation]… so take the alternative scenario where we move out into the solar system.

Aside from all the problems with this Malthusian argument in terms of technological development and the displacement of current problems for an abstract future projection, this is not some great insight from a genius founder.[2] Instead, his argument comes paraphrased from the second chapter of a 1976 book by Gerard K. O’Neill, The High Frontier. O’Neill, a physics professor at Princeton University, taught the young Jeff Bezos as a student. Bezos follows the ideas and justifications of this book very closely in the articulation of his vision for the rocket company Blue Origin and the economic development of space. And it is in the early pages of this book that we can see the proposed political economy of space colonisation and why it is so attractive to the current generation of tech oligarchs – who exercise near absolute control over their companies.

In the opening chapter, O’Neill imagines a fictional and generic (read white, middle-class, heterosexual) couple, Brian and Nancy, who are thinking about moving from Earth to an artificial habitat in space. The couple receive a letter from space attributed to an equally fictional and generic couple, Edward and Jenny, who are space pioneers. The letter offers a utopian vision of life beyond Earth. We learn from the letter that, after various trials lasting around three weeks, Brian and Nancy will find out whether or not they are anatomically and psychological suited to life in space. And if they are – gee whiz – do they have a life ahead of them!

The prospective settlers are told they will have a lifestyle like Edward and Jenny who live in an artificial habitat in space with ‘a Hawaiian climate’ and variable gravity in different parts of the construct. The settlement has gardens and trees, cinemas and theatres and outdoor low-gravity concerts. The new arrivals will be able to go on ‘zero-gravity’ pedal powered flights at sunset, and swim in low gravity pools. If they are keenly adaptable to changing gravitational circumstances, there will be higher pay. Its current residents, Edward and Jenny grow papayas in their garden and can sunbathe ‘without ever getting bitten by a mosquito’. They are all contracted to a corporate multinational called ENSAT – a profit-making entity – but there are benefits. Given most space expenses are covered by the firm, the part of their salaries paid in Earth currency means that returns to Earth are luxurious (pp. 3-10), though Edward and Jenny prefer living in space now, especially given the promise of even greater wealth and the chance to build a colonial dynasty:

We’re thinking of homesteading one of the smaller asteroids, and the numbers look reasonable. Especially if our daughter and son-in-law decide to come along, with the grandchildren, I think we’re more likely to move further out than go back (p.10).

These fictional pioneers are happy and content in the utopia of space.

This libertarian vision is one subscribed to, promulgated and propagated by many tech founders, though in contested forms and to different degrees. Bezos is an orthodox follower of O’Neill; Musk rejects the Princeton professor’s proposal of creating colonies located on man-made orbiting habitats and advocates instead for “occupying Mars”; Thiel celebrates the concept of technological frontiers, but initially wants the colonies to remain on planet Earth, at sea (“seasteads” he calls them), presumably because this frontier strategy is more pragmatic.

It is worth noting the heteronormative household structure that is assumed in the High Frontier letter. It is written by Edward, who speaks on behalf of his wife, though it is signed by both of them. Note, too, how patrilineal social reproduction is raised. Also significant is that homestead is a legal term, the basis for territorial claims in the nineteenth-century US Acts; while the American frontier spirit is also invoked in the notion of the trials to be endured on arrival, which will separate the lucky few from those who simply are not settlement material. But the feature that might particularly capture the attention of the tech patriarchs is the political structure O’Neill imagines:

Legally, all communities are under the jurisdiction of the Energy Satellites Corporation (ENSAT) which was set up as a multinational profit-making consortium under UN treaties. ENSAT keeps us on a fairly loose rein as long as productivity and profits remain high – I don’t think they want another Boston Tea Party. There are almost as many different kinds of local government as there are national groups within the colonies; ours happens to be a town meeting style … all of us are much too busy to make a hobby of electioneering (p.7).

This is the stuff of tech dreams: a space where corporate colonial interests override the democratic rights of citizens in ways that are similar to the forms of para-juridical governance preferred by Facebook, YouTube and the rest for managing the online spaces they dominate (think Terms of Service and content moderation). But this is not all: the high frontier also offers a space for America to be reborn. Re-imagining the founding of the US through reference to the Boston Tea Party, the corporation is both facilitator of the frontier space – literally creating and owning the habitats that people live in – and the ultimate power in this new world. Once the new American revolution in space happens, the bounty of the frontier will offer itself to this new space-faring nation: a New America will emerge, made up of the strongest and toughest of immigrants (presumably in the image of Edward and Jenny, Brian and Nancy), drawn from all nations. They will set up their homesteads on profitable rocks in the remote recesses of the solar system in a process that Alina Utrata adeptly calls ‘invented territorialisation’ through ‘engineering space’ (2022).

As we argue in our book, this imaginary, which reflected that of Frederik Jackson Turner in the late nineteenth century,[3] was reborn in the 1960s and 1970s in the countercultural intellectual spaces curated by Stewart Brand; it was then picked up again by the internet celebrants of the early 1990s, and was subsequently embraced by the post-2008 crash tech industrialists themselves. It is a pure expression of the spirit of the frontier. This is the spirit that motivates and drives American capitalism in its imperial impulses. It is what legitimates the actions of the men like Jeff Bezos and it is what their corporations are designed to reproduce in multiple forms. It is also the foundation of their claim to their form of liberal corporate sovereignty. These founders are heroic figures, who bring into being a new world for the rest of us to inhabit. But they are also masters of the terrain they invent – their corporations are patriarchal households modelled on the liberal sovereignty offered by John Locke is his Second Treatise which striates other bodies beneath them – master, wife, children, servants, (slaves) – and space offers an imaginary in which to renew that patriarchal authority.

The endless frontier, with its pioneers and homesteads, is reproduced again and again in American culture, presided over by its masculine dyads of heroes and masters. In the eighteenth century it was the pioneer and the founding father; the nineteenth century and the early 1900s it was the cowboy and the industrialist; in the twenty-first century it is the hacker and the founder. Meanwhile the asteroid homesteader and the space tycoon are currently looming ever-nearer. Facebook, Google, Palantir, Amazon, SpaceX/Tesla – and their masters – all have their roles and their stake in this future-history. Through this recurring cultural pattern, currently being reproduced through the celebrified public profiles of the richest men in the world, America’s corporate past is being projected through the digital present and on into America’s imperial future in space.


Ben Little lectures in Media & Cultural Politics at University of East Anglia and Alison Winch lectures in Promotional Media at Goldsmiths. Their book, The New Patriarchs of Digital Capitalism: Celebrity Tech Founders and Networks of Power, came out in 2021.

This is the fifth contribution of PERC’s series on the Silicon Valley ideologyEach week for the next two months, experts from the fields of political economy, political theory, economic history, cultural studies and law will share their research perspectives on the recent trends that have animated the Silicon Valley bubble. If you wish to get involved or would like to pitch an idea for a contribution, get in touch with our editor Carla Ibled (c.ibled[at]



[1] Alina Utrata makes a similar and more detailed version of this argument in her paper ‘Engineering Territory: Space Colonies, Silicon Valley, and the Colonial Underpinnings of Cyberspace’ using many of the same resources we draw on here. We would highly recommend her work when it is more widely available. See also Misha Kavka ‘Roadsters and Rockets in Space: Elon Musk and the Space-steading of Entrepreneurial Masculinity’ 9th February 2022 for MIPMC Research Seminar.

[2] As Matthew Johnson argues: ‘Space mining and colonisation is a dangerous fantasy, because it presents a grandiose techno-fix as a feasible solution to the wholescale degradation of Earth’s capacity to support life.’ (p. 257)

[3] See for instance: ‘The result is that to the frontier the American intellect owes its striking characteristics. That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom – these are traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier’.