PayPal Galactic: Building Better Worlds

"Once space colonies exist, PayPal Galactic might be useful, but until then the announcement of PayPal’s new initiative appeared to primarily confuse space commercialization with space exploration." Image Source: NASA/Ames via The Space Review.

The Space Review had some sharp words to respond to PayPal's recent announcement that the latter will make their online financial transaction service available from space with the help of the non-profit SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. Writer John Hickman expects that this is a sign of coming commercialization of space exploration. More specifically, he felt he detected a libertarian, anti-statist message in reporting on this story, which he did not like:
Where would we be without our shared delusions? Perhaps no longer trapped in low Earth orbit. Physical danger, lack of funding, and legal uncertainty are widely acknowledged as obstacles to human exploration and economic development beyond Earth orbit, but the constraint imposed by ideological belief goes largely unrecognized. Evidence for this proposition is found in the news coverage of the recent announcement that PayPal would sponsor an effort to figure out how to conduct financial transactions in space. ...

In a Fox News article, Michael Roppolo quotes PayPal executive Anuj Nayal as saying, “As we travel through space and explore new planets, we will still need to pay for life on Earth and out there…” There is no indication that he stopped Nayal to ask the obvious. Explore new planets? What new planets? ...

Although it is tempting to simply dismiss all of this as the product of an endemically sycophantic business press, that explanation would overlook the ideological message for the space news audience. What we are meant to believe is that private firms managed by brilliant entrepreneurs can and will take over responsibility for human space exploration from government agencies. We will soon be touring the solar system—or is it the galaxy?—all thanks to the magic of free enterprise. ...

The problem with this particular millennial vision is that private firms do not open new frontiers. States do. Private firms profit from frontiers after they have been opened by states. The reason for this division of institutional labor is that opening a new frontier involves accepting high risk and absorbing unrecoverable cost. Businesses hate both. That’s why they wait for governments to do the heavy lifting. Mind you, if the real space frontier that lies beyond low Earth orbit is ever reopened to human exploration and opened to economic development, private investment will have an important role to play. However when humans return to the Moon and if they land on Mars for the first time, count on a state to have paid the freight. The real question is not whether but which state will be writing the check.

The persistent anti-statist message in space news coverage is therefore a puzzle. Although it is tempting to think of the reporters as shills for corporate executives, they should be credited with exercising more agency than that. More probably, reporters and the executives they quote or misquote share the same libertarian convictions. That would be harmless if it had no effect on public opinion about space policy. Unfortunately, it leaves the naïve waiting for business to do what only government will.
This argument reflects the recession-driven tension between cash-strapped government-sponsored space programs and the big money of private space initiatives. Even our future empires are up for grabs in the Millennial political debate.

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