"The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed." William Gibson wrote that bon mot, and if he never wrote another word, that insight would be sufficient to guarantee him immortality.
Which got me wondering whether the future that is already here might include a class for whom space travel is not merely an interesting idea, but one that is affordable.
The discussion on the cultural and sociological attachment issues of the ideology of space colonization has raised some fascinating points about its origins among folks who were avid readers of a particular type of SF from the 1930s through 1960s, and how the idea of space colonization appeals to people who want to not have to live close to folks who are poor and non-white. From the crude racism of John W. Campbell through the effusions of the libertarian and objectivist fifth columns, American SF has been a safe haven for the predecessors of today's Tea Partiers; meanwhile, British SF has thrown up the corresponding phenomenon of the cosy catastrophe plot, wherein some mysterious disaster sweeps the world clean of annoying foreigners, lower class oiks, and anyone else with whom our author's protagonists do not sympathize. An ongoing unease about the Other thus pervades the literature that informed the views of many of the space cadets during their formative years.
A secondary issue that emerged from that discussion was that, barring miraculous discoveries (of the order of limitless free energy, or some form of reactionless propulsion) getting from Earth's surface into orbit (not to mention colonizing the solar system or going beyond) is almost certainly always going to be beyond the reach of poor folks. Either it's going to be a preoccupation of the elite, or it's going to have to rely on us establishing a civilization that is much, much wealthier than the one we currently live in (without wrecking our biosphere, but that's another issue entirely).
It occurs to me that there exists, today, a chunk of the future populated by exotic strangers who can afford to Live The Dream, should they so desire.
The Occupy movement has tapped a wellspring of political discontent around the world; their slogan, "We are the 99%", refers to the fact that 38% of the total wealth in the US is controlled by just 1% of the population. (My only quibble with this factoid is that it isn't even the top 1%; it's the top 0.5% — the second half-percentile (99%-99.5% of the way up the income ladder) are certainly very well off, but they barely make the cut for the real Masters of the Universe: such is the nature of an exponential distribution.)
Let's talk about the top 0.5%. Here is an investment manager's view of the top 1% and their upper echelon. The top 0.5% have a minimum income of $0.5M/year if they're working, and assets close to $2M if retired. Mostly they
make earn over a million a year: strikethrough deliberately added, because they are typically workers in the financial sector, CEOs in public corporations, or the odd lottery-winning anomaly (one of the first hundred hires at a successful IT company like Microsoft or Google or Apple).
These folks aren't going to go and colonize Mars (except for Elon Musk). If they feel uneasy about living cheek by jowl with poor folks, they're more likely to go live in a gated community and employ bodyguards. They might shell out for a holiday in space, but for the most part that's the limit of their engagement. But that's okay, because this essay isn't about space colonization. It's about the cultural assumptions we're likely to see emerging in a society that is rich enough to do that thing.
How does being one of the 1% affect people?
A valuable conceptual tool for reasoning about wealth from the outside (I assume that you, like me, are part of the 99%) is the law of diminishing marginal utility.
Loosely put: if you are homeless and destitute in the USA and somebody hands you a $100 bill, that money can change your life. It's enough to feed you for a couple of weeks to a month, to get you a new set of clothes, to buy time in a net cafe to search for a job online, to find shelter for a handful of nights during terrible weather.
But if you're Warren Buffett and you spot a $100 bill lying on the ground while you're out for your constitutional, it's barely worth the time it takes to stoop to pick it up; the annual income of the fund Mr Buffett administers can be approximated to $1Bn, which works out at $31.70 per second. Of course, being Warren Buffett, I'd expect him to pick up the banknote; he didn't get to be where he is today by ignoring free money. But it's hardly going to change his life.
The diminishing marginal utility law dictates that the more money we have, the less utility we get from any additional incremental gain. And this bites the top 1% very hard indeed.
Examine the world around us from the point of view of someone with a net income of $5M/year ...
Food is essentially free; you can afford to spend $1000 per meal, three meals a day, in the most expensive restaurants in London or Tokyo or Manhattan, and not make a dent in your income. (Oddly, even the hyper-rich don't typically spend $1000 on lunch every day: a more realistic expectation might be to dine out expensively twice a week, for $100K/year, and have the best of everything in-house the rest of the time, with a live-in chef, for another $100K/year.)
Clothing is essentially free; want a different $5000 suit for every day of the week? That's going to set you back only $35K! Spouse wants a dozen designer evening gowns a year? That's still going to be on the low side of $200K.
Housing is essentially free; $1000/day will rent you a penthouse suite in a five star hotel in Manhattan, while your mortgageable income will let you buy a palace in the $5-20M range. (There are places where you may need to spend more than $20M to buy a house; but not many of them.)
You don't have to do housework, interior decorating, cooking, driving, DIY home improvements, flight booking, or shopping (unless you want to). People can be hired to do any of the above for rates ranging from $15K to $100K per year, depending on the complexity of the job. And you earn $100K per week.
Travel: you have a car, or cars. Any cars you like. And a driver and a mechanic, either full-time employees or time-shared via an agency or a very exclusive garage. When you fly, you either go first class via the express security lane, or (airports are tedious) your driver takes you straight to the steps of the biz jet you hired. You are probably not rich enough to own a jet of your own, without making sacrifices elsewhere, but you can certainly afford to hire one once or twice a week.
Education: you, and/or your children, can afford any education you like, without having to go into debt to fund it. Even if the kids aren't that bright, you can afford to hire tutors to push them in just the right direction. And the high end universities where the children of the rich go to learn how their social class networks usually look kindly on a donation in six digits to their trust.
Law: you can afford the best defense lawyers, period, and meet any reasonable bail conditions. There's no guarantee that you can't be prosecuted and imprisoned if you break the law — especially if you commit high crimes against the 0.5% (Bernie Madoff springs to mind) — but the system can be bent, if not broken, on your behalf.
(Do you notice a pattern developing here? We're climbing Maslow's hierarchy of needs.)
There are some things that having an income of $5M/year, or even $5Bn/year, can't buy you.
First on the list is health.
Take Steve Jobs: billionaire (deceased). In '07-08, he allegedly kept a Gulfstream jet and a flight crew on standby, 24 hours a day, for three months, while waiting for a transplant liver matching his tissue type to become available. You and I certainly can't afford to do that. He also paid to have his genome, and that of his cancer, sequenced: a cool $100K (although that's due to drop to $1K in another few years). Despite having essentially unlimited funds available, money couldn't save him. Medicine and healthcare is one of the areas where, above and beyond a certain threshold, money makes zero difference to your prognosis. We're all going to die sooner or later; what kills us will be a condition for which there is no available treatment, and the only way money could help with that would be if you knew to throw a billion dollars at the problem several years before it happened.
More subtly, there's collective security. As Lemony Snicket put it, "Historically, a story about people inside impressive buildings ignoring or even taunting people standing outside shouting at them turns out to be a story with an unhappy ending." Your personal income of $5M/year, even if you devoted it entirely to Good Deeds, is insufficient leverage to deflect widespread public outrage at the class of people (half a million of them) with income in that bracket. At best, you might get let off the tumbril for good behaviour.
There are other forms of collective security, too. Threats of invasion by dastardly foreign dictators; security against crimes committed by the lumpenproletariat: environmental collapse: pandemics. In the final analysis, in each of these cases you're in the same lifeboat as everyone else in your civilization. You might be the richest Tyrannosaur on the block, but when the dinosaur killer comes, you're going to be just another dead Rex.
Next up, there's the impossible dream. If you want something that doesn't exist, you can pay people to make it for you ... up to a point. If what you want is a Boron-11 fusion reactor, and your name isn't Warren Buffett or Bill Gates, you may have a creditworthiness problem. Elon Musk has famously said he wants to retire on Mars; with only $200M, he's having to build his own space program and fund it with commercial launches in order to get there. The problem we face is that most of the low-hanging fruits to which we might aspire have been plucked; anything radically different is likely to be highly path-dependent, and iterating through all the intermediate steps is phenomenally expensive (even by the standards of the 1%).
Finally, there's the point (unpleasant to contemplate for some) that income inequality can't increase beyond the level it has already reached today without massive and unpleasant social consequences, some of which may be non-obvious side-effects of the drive towards a security state strong enough to protect the elite. By some estimates, 20-25% of the labour employed in the USA today is guard labour, work devoted to preventing the poor from expropriating the rich. Widespread application of anti-terrorism statutes to criminal enforcement suggests to me that the War on Terror has proven its utility as a useful pretext for expansion of the guard labour state; in light of which, reversal of Griswold v. Connecticut would pave the way for the deployment of ubiquitous surveillance techniques. (Which suggests a possible reason why the moneyed-elite faction of the Republican party are willing to tolerate the demands of the abortion-and-contraception-hating religious wing of the party.)
Anyway, let me get to the point ...
Let us postulate that over the next century we manage to get past the crises that beset us. Let me postulate that we and our descendants mitigate climate change, find substitutable alternatives for fossil fuels as energy sources, invent qualitatively better systems of economic and political governance that increase the overall wealth of our society and reduce income inequality at the same time.
In this happy shiny future, the third world no longer exists — it has developed fully, and is as healthy and wealthy as everywhere else. Let us throw in vast progress in medical sciences, such that the collection of diseases we call "cancer" become manageable nuisances, and coronary heart disease, autoimmune disorders, dementias, and a whole bunch of other conditions become essentially curable and affordably so for all. Let's throw in some reduction in total human population — not by violence, but by natural attrition and reduction in total fertility. We probably also need progress in robotic control systems to the point where many current "unskilled" jobs can be automated, and a major cultural shift away from the "work for pay" paradigm (which is so pervasive as to be unquestioned today) so that even if we can't find useful work for people to do, they don't feel excluded and they have a sufficient share of the wealth to be comfortable.
This isn't going to be a world that feels rich, any more than today's middle class EU or USA feels wealthy, until you compare the average standard of living to that of previous centuries. We evaluate our status by referring to our neighbours; if none of our neighbours are starving and homeless, starvation and homelessness drop out of the attributes we measure ourselves against. If everyone has a cornucopia machine, then mere possession of physical property (that isn't hand made or bespoke or of historic interest) stops being a status signifier. If we have flexible humanoid robot servants then employing a cook or a gardener stops being a status signifier. And so on. By the standards of 1811, or 1911, we're almost all extremely rich: we don't get polio or smallpox, we don't have to go hungry or sleep 12 to a room, we have running water and indoor heating and lighting, and many of us own our own private automobiles.
In such a post-developed world, we can reasonably say that the normal and average standard of living should approximate that of today's 1%: everyone has not merely the bare necessities (which today too many people do not) but a level of provision for basic needs that approximates to today's wild luxury, and which should encompass the cost of trips into low earth orbit at equivalent cost to a trans-Pacific business class ticket today.
What would drive people in such a society? Because unlike today's 1%, they're not running to stay one step ahead of the herd.
It's not going to be fear of starvation or homelessness; fixing those problems was implicitly part of the background. Indeed, we can probably ignore the bottom of Maslow's pyramid of needs. What we're left looking at is the top half, the stuff money has difficulty buying: esteem, self-actualization, love, respect, creativity. (Also their dark siblings: jealousy, self-abnegation, hate, contempt, conformism. Which are mostly defined by contrast, so we're unlikely to ever be free of them.)
More subtly, we can probably anticipate a pervasive spread of WEIRD socialization — (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic); the typical citizen won't be ethnically Western, but the rest of the package looks likely to apply, and the relatively homogeneous traits of the 1% around the world today suggest convergence at the base of the pyramid tomorrow.
This is similar to the population from which today's space cadets are drawn, with three added twists: it's rich, comfortable, and only minority-western. Is it a population from which it is reasonable to expect a viable space colonization movement to grow?