Why sending William Shatner to space was 'a marketing victory' for Jeff Bezos
Culture writer Ted Anthony explores how Star Trek’s utopian vision of space flight compares to the reality
By sending William Shatner on a brief trip into space, Jeff Bezos has crafted a narrative of optimism and hope, instead of one about, for example, the privatization in space flight or the ethics of Amazon's labour policies, says culture writer Ted Anthony.
Shatner, 90, who portrayed Capt. James T. Kirk on the original Star Trek series and films, made history as the oldest person in space on Wednesday as he blasted off in a rocket built by the Amazon CEO's company, Blue Origin.
But Star Trek's post-capitalist, utopian vision of space exploration is a far cry from the modern reality of celebrities riding rockets funded by billionaires.
Anthony, a culture writer and self-professed Star Trek fan, recently wrote about these contrasting ideals for The Associated Press. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off.
[What] does Jeff Bezos get out of this? Why do you think it was so important to him to have William Shatner there?
Jeff Bezos gets the aura of Star Trek surrounding his space endeavour. It's an interesting sort of overlay in that as we look at the increasing sort of privatization of some of space travel, at the same time, we're bringing in this modern myth about what space travel could be that is something that, as Star Trek has represented, has generally been good and positive and humanistic and ethical.
Bezos stands to benefit greatly from having those traits associated with his own business. And for him, I think it's definitely a marketing victory.
What is the kind of vision of space travel that Star Trek represents?
It posits a future where people have learned to get along, where inequality is largely a thing of the past … and where people recognize that, you know, exploration and the pursuit of knowledge and things like that are in the front seat when it comes to space travel and exploration.
It always comes back to the notion that human beings moving into space is a good thing for human beings, and a good thing for space. And that's a very strong message to bring to proceedings like these.
What is the contrast between what you've just described and what this ... Blue Origin flight represents?
I think, in the United States at least, that we're trying to figure out what place space travel occupies in the culture. Certainly there are elements of both the romance and the competitive nature between nations that space travel represented in the 1960s.
There's certainly an element of the privatization of a lot of things in the culture, and the fact that this is not necessarily a mission for a country, but a mission for a company, and as Bezos frames it, a mission for people.
I spoke to someone for a piece I wrote about this who said that, you know, governments and countries lack a narrative for space travel right now, whereas corporations and companies have a good one.
Jeff Bezos [is] one of the richest men in the world, and [his] wealth … comes from Amazon.… We have done many stories on this show, as your agency has, about the exploitation of [Amazon] workers, how they're treated, how they live paycheque to paycheque. So what can Jeff Bezos accomplish by associating himself not just with space flight, as you're describing it, but also with Star Trek? What do you think he's trying to perhaps gloss over?
It's clear from his history that he has been someone who adores Star Trek for many, many years. One of his biographers said that one of the original concept website names for Amazon was MakeItSo.com, which is what another Star Trek captain, Jean-Luc Picard, used to say all the time. So I certainly think that it's infused in how he approaches the world.
In terms of, you know, what he's trying to get, I mean, I suspect that any time that one can take something that is so revered and adored by multiple generations, by multiple places, something that has a reputation for diversity, a reputation for people having a seat at the table and being heard, I think those are things that, depending on how you're looking at it, either elevate a company like Blue Origin or offset some of the criticism that the Blue Origin has been receiving of late.
Because this morning's flight was very much about Shatner and about optimism and about hope. And that's something that I suppose any corporation would want to associate itself with.
ProPublica had exposed that … Jeff Bezos and [SpaceX CEO] Elon Musk have paid little to no taxes, personal taxes, that their wealth is enormous, and yet they contribute very little to the finances of the country they live in. So ... by putting all his money into this kind of space travel, does that represent any contribution, or is it just another way of exploiting his wealth?
You have a lot of people who are lovers of space and space travel who are going to feel like this offsets those things. And you're going to have folks who say: OK, there are a lot of indications that these companies and these billionaires could do a lot better with the world.
I think either side gets a lot of fuel and ammunition for furthering their narrative by a project like this.
And so the theatre of today, and how it creates this kind of swashbuckling quality — what questions does that distract us from, perhaps?
I think it covers up solid questions that are being asked about, you know, how does this stack up to other priorities in the world? Is it an either/or? Do we have to have either space travel or attention to inequity and climate change?
What narratives like the big epic ones tend to do is they tend to tell us that something is either this way, or it's this way. And it leaves very little space in between. And what I'm saying is that I think that asking the right questions about this type of endeavour makes us look at the in-betweens and say: How can we solve this in a way that isn't necessarily purely cinematic?
Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Kate Swoger. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.