Jeff Bezos Faces Down “The Overview Effect” In Space

Jeff Bezos, by Daniel Oberhaus, 2019

Jeff Bezos created a bleak empire. Amazon’s warehouse workers are run until their bodies are in agony. Amazon overseers “track our every move”, as one told Congress. Amazon’s own internal pamphlets suggest warehouse workers “monitor their own urine color”. This grim treatment of worker bees appears to stem from a contemptuous view of humanity: One of Bezos’ own former vice presidents recently said that Bezos regards people as inherently lazy, which is why he didn’t want to keep warehouse workers around for a long time, and why he was obsessed with instant ordering.

Which raises an interesting question about Bezos’ upcoming flight to space this Tuesday.

Specifically: Could it fix him?

Could it give him a deeper devotion to his fellow humans?

“The Earth’s limb”, by NASA

There’s a phenomenon in spaceflight known as “The Overview Effect”, in which people who’ve been to space come back with a renewed commitment to humanity. The author Frank White — who coined the term in his eponymous book — interviewed dozens of astronauts, and they all described it as an experience that gave them a new level of compassion. Specifically, it seems to boil away individualism: They grasp, more profoundly than ever, how deeply fragile and interconnected is our common fate.

And the Space Shuttle astronaut Don Lind told White …

I guess you would call [it] a feeling of brotherhood … You looked down and you could see how incredibly thin the Earth’s atmosphere wis and realize that if we pollute it, we all breathe it in, and if we are so dumb as to start a thermonuclear war, we all go together; there is no lifeboat, and everybody is in it together.

Eugene Cernan said a similar thing:

You look back “home” and say to yourself, “That’s humanity, love, feeling, and thought.” You don’t see the barriers of color and religion and politics that divide this world. You wonder, if you could get everyone in the world up there, wouldn’t they have a different feeling — a new perspective?

Gerald Carr, who circled the planet in Skylab, said he came back with an enhanced curiousity about people …

… a feeling of universality, or the commonality of human beings … I came back with a real interest in people, a humanist or behaviorist attitude, you might say.

This went across national boundaries, too — the cosmonauts from the USSR describing feeling newly bonded to humanity, as with Anatoly Berezovoy:

Any person who has been in space values his own place on Earth in a new way. He begins to think more, and his thoughts become broader and his spirit kinder.

So: Is this gonna happen to Bezos?

“Astronaut Scott Kelly in the cupola”, NASA

Imagine it did, and the skies parted in his mind. Bezos would certainly have the power to improve the lives of many, many people. Imagine him suddenly decreeing that it’s brutal to force humans to work at the pace of robots, and reforming work conditions in his Blakean shipping mills. Or imagine him suddenly concerned about finding ways to see Amazon’s many-tentacled logistics empire to work with local businesses, helping to repollinate the landscape of local retailing? This is just the tip of the iceberg with an empire as vasty as Amazon. (I know Bezos stopped being CEO as of a few weeks ago, but hey: If he wills it, it’s going to happen.)

A space-station drawing by Rick Guidice for NASA from the 1970s

Alas, I don’t think it’s likely.

Bezos has been dreaming about spaceflight for a very long time. He took a college course with Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill, who envisioned humanity living in mammoth space stations; when Bezos released his own images of the space stations he hopes will be the result of his own Blue Origin space efforts, they were the same concept. When I interviewed experts last year for a story about the private-sector boom in space travel, most suspected a Bezosian spacesteading future would be strikingly like our Amazonian present: Living in a world run by megacorporations who have complete control over deliveries of not just books and t-shirts but your supplies of oxygen and water. Or as they put it more bluntly: If you think people like Bezos have too much control over your life now, wait until they determine whether or not you can breathe. (To wargame that, you could watch The Expanse, a sci-fi show that details the horrific lives of corporate peons in the asteroid belt, and which is streaming … as an Amazon original.)

Motivation matters. Going to space for the glory of exploration and the human spirit is one thing; regarding space as a new field of just-in-time logistics is another.

What’s more, context matters. When all those astronauts went to space, they flew as part of a national program. They understood that spaceflight was a collective creation. It took the labor of tons diligent public servants, and the money of the public, to give them this rare opportunity. It made them humble. As Russell Schweickart said, after flying on Apollo 9 …

You think about what you’re experiencing and why. Do you deserve this, this fantastic experience? Have you earned this in some way? Are you separated out to be touched by God, to have some special experience that others cannot have?

You know that the answer to that is no. There’s nothing that you’ve done that deserves that, and earned that; it’s not a special thing for you … You look down and see the surface of the globe that you’ve lived on all this time, and you know all those people down there and they are like you, they are you — and somehow you represent them.

This is another reasons Bezos may not experience a traditional Overview Effect. He owns his own spaceflight company, so he’s more likely to feel the congealed narcissism of the industrialist: I did this, all by myself, with my own hard work and merit! Space-travel could make billionaires even more self-mythologizing.

Of course, it’s just that: Mythology. All these recent private-sector forays into space are deeply reliant on public goods, ranging from the deep learnings of NASA’s decades of work to the USA’s national apparatus for supporting spaceflight to — most crucially — the boatloads of taxpayer dough that Blue Origin and SpaceX have received from government contracts. The private sector is moving heavily into space travel, but their main client for now, and for the foreseeable future, is the government.

I’m rocket-engineering nerd from way back, so I deeply admire the the technical genius of Blue Origin and SpaceX. But nobody goes to space alone. We are, as those astronauts realized, deeply entwined. We’ll find out whether, peering out the window of the his New Shepard spacecraft, Bezos sees this.

(If you liked this piece, you can read David Weiss’ thoughts on whether space will change Bezos, which Weiss sum up as: “Nope. Nope. Nope.”)

Clive Thompson is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, a columnist for Wired and Smithsonian magazines, and a regular contributor to Mother Jones. He’s the author of Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World, and Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing our Minds for the Better. He’s @pomeranian99 on Twitter and Instagram.

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I write three times a week about tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer for NYT mag/Wired; author of “Coders” and “Smarter Than You Think”

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Clive Thompson

Clive Thompson

I write three times a week about tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer for NYT mag/Wired; author of “Coders” and “Smarter Than You Think”

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