NEWSLETTER

Ethics in Space, Morals on Earth

Planet has built the world’s largest constellation of satellites. The company has deployed more than 300 Dove satellites; about 140 are active.
PHOTO-ILLUSTRATION BY ALTA
Planet has built the world’s largest constellation of satellites. The company has deployed more than 300 Dove satellites; about 140 are active.

If you’re reading this post, you’re likely being watched right now. Each of us is surveilled as we shop online, as we cross city streets, as we sit on a bus. Most people are aware that when we’re out in public or surfing the web, we are, as charachters like to say in The Handmaid’s Tale, under his eye. But there are new armies of satellite cameras floating unseen above us—and their existence is raising important questions about the pros and cons of the ever-evolving ways in which we watch ourselves.

In his first piece for Alta, writer Po Bronson reports on a satellite surveillance company called Planet. Based in San Francisco, Planet has released about 140 shoebox-size satellites, called Doves, that orbit Earth and capture over one million images a day. Planet’s Doves have been able to provide earthbound humans with vital information from above California wildfires, North Korean nuclear tests, and major human rights violations.

Bronson describes Planet as a technological Batman, “catching bad guys red-handed, and monitoring the machinations of evil profiteering.” But with hundreds of satellites—Planet’s and its competitors’—snapping and selling photos of every inch of the planet, there’s rapidly increasing room for misuse of this medium.

While scientists are expected to be collaborative, as evidenced by this 2018 Alta piece from Jennifer Ouellette on the many talented minds who collaborated to solve the mystery of gravitational waves, can we expect corporations and governments to work together for the common good?

For example, what happens to this technology that we toss into space? Last week, India shot down one of its own satellites, leaving a debris field of space junk in its wake and ticking off scientists around the world.

According to Bronson, ethics in space isn’t the question. Morality on Earth is. He expands on his Alta piece with these thoughts on human standards for space.

Society always projects both its fears and its desires onto new technology. But we go through phases where we are much heavier on fear, and it feels like we’re entering such a phase again. Society is unsettled; when we look to space, we want to play the role of the conscience.

In “A Dove’s Eye View,” I made it clear that what Planet is doing is guided by the founders’ moral axis. Ethics and morals are not the same. Ethics come from external, community norms. Morals come from internal philosophy and views. I believe morals are actually more important than ethics, make a bigger impact in real terms.

I think the biggest mistake that’s made, when we look at new technologies, is we jump to ethics. What standards or rules should the community set? The Outer Space Treaty is over 50 years old, and we do have many very real ethical standards that need to be addressed. Does whoever gets to an asteroid first get to mine it for precious metals? Even if we cannot claim any part of the moon as territory, under the treaty, will we act as if we do own it? Who will private corporations pay for the rights they want? These kinds of questions the mind instantly dreams up.

But it’s missing something. Because morals guide us into new domains better than ethics do. Ethics are extremely speculative. Should we edit the DNA of our kids to not feel pain? Should we create an international law that asteroids fall under the same nonterritorial rules as the moon? Should clones be allowed to vote? They’re all fascinating questions, but have almost zero to do with the actual cutting edge of any technology.

At that actual cutting edge—the nonspeculative edge—where the work is being done, it’s really about morals. Morals determine how people treat each other; morals inform critical decisions. Companies have a kind of morality—it’s called their “mission statement”—but I’d argue even then, less guidance extends from the mission statement than from the founders’ moral axis.

All over the world, we see ethics being obliterated, by individuals without morals. They ignore what the community has decided. Ethics, functionally, don’t stop people. Ask forgiveness, not permission. — Po Bronson 

*An edited version of this post appears in Alta’s April 4, 2019 newsletter. Our weekly Thursday email includes the latest from Alta magazine and AltaOnline, the best in West Coast writing from around the web, and a collection of upcoming author events, panels, and discussions with Alta and our partners throughout the state. Subscribe for free!