real rivals or false quarrel? Our research gives a clue
Browse a news feed on your phone and you’re likely to be scrolling through an article discuss passionate rivalries of the new space race. Forget the geopolitical struggles of a cold war. This time it’s Tesla CEO Elon Musk vs. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos: the two richest men around the world are arguing over whether SpaceX or Blue Origin, their respective companies, will be the dominant force in the new private spaceflight industry.
Occasionally, Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson is also mentioned, but the Briton being a relative poor and his space plane lacking the phallic majesty of his fellow billionaire rockets, he has received less and less attention in recent weeks. .
Musk’s rivalry against Bezos gets good press and is sometimes fueled by tweets from both sides, but is it real? Probably not, according to our research published in the book The New Patriarchs of Digital Patriarchy: Founders of Tech Celebrities and Power Networks, which analyzes 95 popular books on the tech industry.
It’s easy to see that at a basic level, Musk and Bezos’ stated plans for space dominance are complementary, rather than competitive. Bezos dismisses Musk’s plan to colonize Mars as unrealistic, while Musk believes it will take too long to build the infrastructure for the giant orbiting space stations that Bezos is proposing. Read between the lines and you can see how they rhetorically divided the space industry into separate monopolies even before their rockets broke the “Karman line”- a definition of where outer space begins.
The reality is that, as with other tech billionaires, such as Alphabet’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, or even Palantir’s Peter Thiel, their interests more often align than they diverge. This new space race is in part a celebrity publicity stunt to generate click-bait headlines that raise awareness and popular support for a new business frontier. If we focus on rivalry and keep asking who wins, we might not be asking the big guys why of commercial space colonization.
In general, tech barons have little interest in working against each other. Written in his 2014 book Zero to One, Thiel claimed that “competition is a relic of history”, and because a competitive market is seen as fundamental to capitalism, “monopolists lie to protect themselves”. These billionaires, all monopolists, can indeed use their celebrity profiles to create the illusion of competition where there is none. Google co-founder Larry Page also said in a speech that the billionaires of Silicon Valley “travel like pack dogs and stick together like glue.”
We’ve learned from our research that the West Coast billionaires who dominate the tech industry do support each other financially and strategically. We performed a digital search of a 10 million word database, containing the books we studied, which is known as a large context collocation. The algorithm looked for cases where entrepreneurs were listed together and sorted them by context, such as collaboration, rivalry, friendship, political lobbying, and philanthropy. This allowed us to identify a dense network, which you can see in the diagram.
So while Bezos and Musk didn’t directly support each other financially, they are part of a larger system that did. Bezos was one of Google’s early funders, and in turn, Google’s founders invested in Musk’s businesses as early as 2006. As Ashlee Vance writes in her Musk bio, Google endorsed Tesla to the tune of $ 5 billion (£ 3.6 billion) in 2013 when it looked like it was about to sink, as well as invest large sums in SpaceX at critical times.
Race to the bottom?
There are plenty of good reasons to explore space, but we just don’t know whether these billionaires will prioritize profit or science, benefit to humanity, or a much narrower substrate of the rich. The signs don’t look good, as Musk is launching thousands of Starlink satellites that risk turning low Earth orbit into a dumping ground. Meanwhile, the ten minutes of weightlessness offered by Bezos are a affordable luxury only at 0.01% – not to mention being harmful to our planet.
As a group, entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley exhibit a common belief in using technological solutions to social problems. Social media platforms are designed to better connect us by fostering divisions, and spaceships offer a way to escape a planet that may no longer be able to comfortably support us. These solutions and the problems they claim to solve have been presented to us, since the days of Steve Jobs, the former president of Apple, as the result of the vision of the “genius founder” – a clumsy but dazzling leader: a figure which pushes back the frontiers of human effort. It started with personal computers and then got online and now it’s skyrocketing in space.
Instead of dividends (another relic, like competition), these companies are valued in headlines, tweets and “vision.” Tesla is the world’s most valuable auto company, based almost entirely on Musk’s fame, inspiring a legion of fans to invest in the business. Amazon is a ruthless monopoly that has secured its market lead after aggressive tax evasion and punitive hours for its staff. But because Bezos is touted as an inspiring CEO, a culture of overwork has morphed into the vibrant spirit of the American border.
These entrepreneurs tell us fascinating stories about their lives, their businesses and their vision. We’ll never know if they’re real, groomed and styled the way they are thanks to one of the most successful advertising machines in history. So if we find ourselves swimming in click traps on these men, it’s no accident that we find them alongside celebrity news: it’s absolutely fundamental to their business strategies and therefore a source key to their wealth and power.