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Engineering Territory: Space and Colonies in Silicon Valley

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 November 2023

University of Cambridge, United Kingdom
Alina Utrata, PhD Candidate in Politics and International Studies, Darwin College, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom,
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Although space colonization appears to belong to the world of science fiction, private corporations owned by Silicon Valley billionaires—and supported by the US state—have spent billions making it a reality. Analyses of space colonialism have sometimes viewed these projects as distinct from earthly histories of colonialism, instead locating them within traditions of libertarianism, neoliberalism, or techno-utopianism. By reconstructing technology elites’ political visions for celestial settlements within the literature on colonial-era corporations and property, this study argues that the idea of outer space as an empty frontier relies on the same logic of territorialization that was used to justify terrestrial colonialism and indigenous dispossession. It further traces how the idea of “engineering territory” has inspired wider Silicon Valley political exit projects such as cyberspace, seasteading, and network states, which, rather than creating spaces of anarchical freedom, are attempting to recreate the territorial state in new spaces.

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Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, two billionaire founders of Silicon Valley technology companies, have established private space corporations that can achieve something formerly only within the purview of states: traveling into outer space. Furthermore, both men have publicly articulated their visions and intentions not just to explore space, but to settle it through the establishment of human colonies. Although these space colonization plans may seem outlandish, the US government has taken their space colonization proposals seriously, in both providing billions of dollars in funding to these corporations through government contracts (Grush Reference Grush2019) and altering domestic and international legal property frameworks for outer space (Davies Reference Davies2016). In 2022, a NASA official stated that he believes humans will be living on the moon “for lengthy periods” by the end of the decade, demonstrating that space colonization is not just a billionaire whimsy project but a genuine policy initiative supported by both private industry and at the highest levels of US government (Corp Reference Corp2022).

Although Musk and Bezos explicitly use the rhetoric of colonialism when talking about their plans for outer space, space colonization is often presumed to be distinct from terrestrial colonization for two reasons. Firstly, as scholars (Bawaka Country et al. Reference Mitchell, Wright, Suchet-Pearson, Lloyd, Burarrwanga and Ganambarr2020; Sammler and Lynch Reference Sammler and Lynch2021; Trevino Reference Trevino2020; Valentine Reference Valentine2017) have noted, many individuals often point out that there are no indigenous communities in space; outer space is thus purported to be a genuine terra nullius, not burdened by the sins of earthly histories of colonization. For example, in his lengthy critique of space expansion, Daniel Deudney nonetheless states that “Expansion into space will be colonialism without imperialism and without guilt… there will be no indigenous populations in solar space… no conquest, domination, or displacement will be needed in order to begin space colonization” (Deudney Reference Deudney2020, 347).

Secondly, the role of corporations—rather than states—in leading the commercial space race is taken to be indicative of contemporary ideologies of neoliberal outsourcing or libertarianism, rather than as a continuation of colonial history as such. Analyses of Silicon Valley space colonists’ political ideas thus tend to orient their critiques within the literature on contemporary libertarianism, neoliberalism, or techno-utopianism (Dunnett et al. Reference Dunnett, Maclaren, Klinger, Maria, Lane and Sage2019; Johnson Reference Johnson2020; Tutton Reference Tutton2021; Valentine Reference Valentine2012), largely congruent with scholarly analyses of the Californian Ideology in interpreting the ideology of Silicon Valley more broadly (Barbrook and Cameron Reference Barbrook and Cameron1996; Crandall, Brown, and McMahon Reference Crandall, Brown and McMahon2021; Ferrari Reference Ferrari2020; Ray Reference Ray2021b; Turner Reference Turner2008). Less literature has explicitly examined the colonial underpinnings of Silicon Valley elites’ political ideology, with some commendable exceptions (Little and Winch Reference Little and Winch2022; Rubenstein Reference Rubenstein2022). While there is an excellent and burgeoning literature on space colonialism (Bawaka Country et al. Reference Mitchell, Wright, Suchet-Pearson, Lloyd, Burarrwanga and Ganambarr2020; Sammler and Lynch Reference Sammler and Lynch2021; Shammas and Holen Reference Shammas and Holen2019; Trevino Reference Trevino2020), it has not explicitly engaged with the history of corporations in colonialism.

In this study, I argue that Musk’s and Bezos’ plans for outer space colonization largely replicate terrestrial histories of colonization, both in how they impose political-legal property frameworks in space and in how they have leveraged their corporations to justify and impose territorialized forms of rule. It draws from recent historical work on corporations and company-states involved in colonization (Birchall Reference Birchall2021; Dalrymple Reference Dalrymple2019; Phillips and Sharman Reference Phillips and Sharman2020; Press Reference Press2017; Stern Reference Stern2011; Reference Stern2023) from the British East India Company to the Virginia and Massachusetts Bay Companies. This scholarship demonstrates that corporations and private individuals have always been embedded within the history of imperial and colonial expansion.

Furthermore, I demonstrate how the misattribution of terra nullius, a term not widely used until the twentieth century, has allowed for the construction of a legal strawman that obscures the ways in which outer space colonization resembles terrestrial indigenous dispossession. I argue that the depiction of space as an empty frontier relies on the logic of territorialization, or the construction of space as geospatial plots of territorial property, which colonial dispossession also deployed. Terrestrial colonists transformed land that indigenous communities did not and do not conceive of as property into territory, imposing certain forms of proprietary and political relationships (Nichols Reference Nichols2020). Similarly, would-be space colonists must transform space into territory before they can claim to own it: thus, the empty frontier must be invented.

Finally, I explore how territorialization underpins a wider range of political exit projects in Silicon Valley through a process I call “engineering territory.” Political exit projects, such as seasteading or network states, are attempts to exit existing territorial states by building sovereign communities in new spaces. By engineering territory—or leveraging new technology to construct territory in ostensibly empty spaces—they purport to have engineered genuine terrae nullius in outer space, cyberspace, and the sea. This newly created virgin territory can subsequently be claimed as territorial property.

Although these political exit projects are similarly often analyzed through neoliberal or libertarian frameworks (Craib Reference Craib2022; Lynch Reference Lynch2017; Rushkoff Reference Rushkoff2022; Smith and Burrows Reference Smith and Burrows2021), I argue that their true political goal is not creating spaces of anarchical freedom or even free markets, but recreating the territorially-based rule of states in new space. Corporations or private individuals can leverage their claims to rule these empty spaces as territorial sovereigns to gain legitimacy and recognition from other states, paralleling the history of many corporations involved in terrestrial colonialism.

Scholars of politics (Ciepley Reference Ciepley2013; Dahl Reference Dahl1959) and international relations (Babic, Fichtner, and Heemskerk Reference Babic, Fichtner and Heemskerk2017; Strange Reference Strange1991) have repeatedly called for corporations to be treated as political actors. Engaging with this longer history of corporations’ involvement in colonization sheds light on the ways in which corporations have participated in forging sites and forms of sovereignty, drawing attention to the need to broaden our understanding of the political role of corporations beyond workplace authority, as economic or market actors or as recipients of government outsourcing (Anderson and Macedo Reference Anderson and Macedo2017; Cordelli Reference Cordelli2020; Ferreras Reference Ferreras2017; Reference Ferreras2023; Landemore and Ferreras Reference Landemore and Ferreras2016; Singer Reference Singer2018), and furthermore calls into question the extent to which the neoliberalism of the late twentieth century is really new.

Indeed, as Phillips and Sharman (Reference Phillips and Sharman2020, 2) have noted, “what we now take to be the normal way of exercising political authority, through the sovereign state, was comparatively rare in most regions outside Europe until quite recently.” Examining engineering territory projects like outer space colonialism sheds light on how territoriality has come to be constituted as the sole legitimate basis of sovereignty in the postimperial international system of modern states. These projects both exploit territoriality to obscure the ways in which non-territorial entities such as corporations and indigenous communities already enact a kind of political rule, as well as capitalize on it by attempting to establish their own independence. One implication of this study is therefore that any effective resistance to space colonization, and indeed the power of Silicon Valley technology corporations and elites, will likely require a more holistic reconceptualization of the political role of corporations and the continued primacy of territoriality in constituting sovereignty. Instead, we should attend to calls for treating corporations as political entities, from democratizing corporations (Ferreras Reference Ferreras2023) to implementing platform socialism (Muldoon Reference Muldoon2022) to regulating certain companies as democratic utilities (Simons and Ghosh Reference Simons and Ghosh2020).

In Part I, I compare the political visions of contemporary Silicon Valley proponents of space colonization to past iterations of settler colonies and imperial expansion, particularly in how they imagine the role of corporations. In Part II, I examine how the idea that outer space is empty is primarily a conceptual, rather than technological, transformation of space into territory, relying on the same logic of territorialization that terrestrial colonists applied to indigenous land. In Part III, I examine how wider Silicon Valley political projects such as cyberspace, seasteading, and political exit initiatives have similarly attempted to engineer virgin territory to justify their corporations’ rule.


As the founders of private space companies Blue Origin and SpaceX, and the wealthiest men on Earth, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are two of the most public proponents for space colonization. While they frequently use the language of colonialism to describe their projects, implicit in Musk’s and Bezos’ arguments is the idea that—like the technology that will enable it—space colonization is unprecedented and therefore distinct from earthly histories of colonial expansion. In this section, I explore the history of corporations and company-states involved in terrestrial colonialism and how they compare to Bezos’ and Musk’s visions for outer space. I demonstrate that, although science fiction literature, twentieth-century celebrity engineers, and the larger techno-utopian movement may have influenced the billionaires’ ideas (Davenport Reference Davenport2018; Lepore Reference Lepore2021; McCray Reference McCray2012; Ray Reference Ray2021b; Scharmen Reference Scharmen2021; Stone Reference Stone2021), there are still clear continuities between how they imagine the rule of their corporations and those that were involved in colonization.

While the two men’s visions for space colonization may sound similar, Bezos’ and Musk’s ideas differ both technologically and in their political theoretical underpinnings, reflecting the subtle differences between settler colonialism and imperialism, respectively. As Arneil (Reference Arneil2021, 1156) has noted, imperialism “requires a metropole that conquers, dominates, and rules over foreign people and lands from above and afar… [whereas] colonialism rejects conquest and domination from afar but empowers colonial authorities at home and abroad.”

In line with settler colonialism, Musk believes that humanity should establish self-sufficient and politically independent colonies on Mars to preserve the human species if/when the Earth is destroyed (Musk Reference Musk2016). Bezos, on the other hand, envisions the creation of imperial infrastructure through the construction of artificial habitats orbiting Earth that could support trillions of humans, thus preventing civilizational stagnation by expanding capitalism to the stars (Bezos Reference Bezos2019). Both visions, however, depict corporations as political rulers from these different traditions. Musk invokes settler colonial companies turned revolutionaries and independent governments, whereas Bezos sees a kind of intergalactic British East India Company for interstellar trade. While this belief in corporate rule is often used to demonstrate the novelty—as well as the libertarian and neoliberal aspects—of these contemporary colonization projects, it maps closely onto the history of corporations in colonization, who often jockeyed for independence or power from the states that chartered them.

An analysis of historical and international relations literature on chartered corporations and company-states (Dalrymple Reference Dalrymple2019; Phillips and Sharman Reference Phillips and Sharman2020; Press Reference Press2017; Stern Reference Stern2011; Reference Stern2023) reveals that contrary to claims that the role of private enterprise in the commercial space race is unique to the neoliberalism of the late twentieth century, this is not the first time that states have outsourced colonizing ventures to corporations. Instead, a historical “torrent of companies flooding into all corners of the globe” produced “what one might call venture colonialism, a particularly prolific, if controversial, brand of overseas expansion that was bound across four centuries by the conviction that the public business of empire was and had always been best done by private enterprise” (Stern Reference Stern2023, 1–2). While it may have been states that first succeeded in traveling to outer space, corporations and the private individuals who own or operate them have for centuries mattered to both enacting visions of colonial expansion (Birchall Reference Birchall2021) and forging sites and forms of sovereignty (Phillips and Sharman Reference Phillips and Sharman2020).

Although there is a burgeoning literature about technology corporations and colonialism, these works have not specifically examined or engaged with recent historical literature about the role of corporations in colonialism. For example, scholarly work has considered how technology corporations’ power is embedded within continuing (Aouragh and Chakravartty Reference Aouragh and Chakravartty2016; Au Reference Au2022; Madianou Reference Madianou2019) or new (Kwet Reference Kwet2019; Oyedemi Reference Oyedemi2021) forms of colonialism, or whether new communications infrastructure and technology such as platforms have created a kind of informational imperialism (Fuchs Reference Fuchs2010; Jin Reference Jin2013; Winseck Reference Winseck2017). Other works on contemporary data practices have used colonialism as a framing device with which to consider the role of data in the evolution of capitalism (Couldry and Mejias Reference Couldry and Mejias2019; Thatcher, O’Sullivan, and Mahmoudi Reference Thatcher, O’Sullivan and Mahmoudi2016) or considered how data colonialism interacts with other forms of coloniality (Lehuedé Reference Lehuedé2023; Ricaurte Reference Ricaurte2019). There have also been some compelling critiques of the data colonialism framework, which historicize how data practices are entangled within existing colonial relationships (Calzati Reference Calzati2021; Gray Reference Gray2023).

Earthly histories of colonization and imperial expansion are of course complex, differing depending on time, place, and actors. The history of these corporations does not perfectly map onto present attempts at outer space colonization. Most obviously, modern states are today far more powerful than the monarchies that initially granted charters to these voyaging companies. Private space companies, too, appear far less powerful than the “syncretic Frankenstein monsters” that were company states like the British or Dutch East India Companies, which often had standing armies, the ability to wage war, conduct diplomacy, raise taxes, and mint coins (Phillips and Sharman Reference Phillips and Sharman2020, 2). But while Blue Origin and SpaceX bear some resemblance to sixteenth-century ventures during which “colonial companies offered shares of property or profits that did not yet and might never exist or whose investors, as settlers, were themselves responsible for securing” in selling projects that have not yet reached outer space (Stern Reference Stern2023, 9), it is worth remembering that these corporations and their relationships with other political entities changed throughout their lifetimes.

For instance, the British East India Company began as a relatively modest trading company before turning into an enormous bureaucratic apparatus that ruled large swaths of the Indian subcontinent until being annexed—or, as Press (Reference Press2017) argues, essentially bought—by the British state. Other corporations, such as the Virginia and Massachusetts Bay Companies, were companies before becoming colonies, ultimately breaking away from their home states to establish their own. King Leopold II of Belgium through his ostensibly humanitarian association was able to establish “a private state over which he was the sole sovereign proprietor,” exploiting European power rivalry to gain recognition of the Independent State of the Congo before the government of Belgium was forced to annex it due to international outcry (Phillips and Sharman Reference Phillips and Sharman2020, 191). Thus, states may benefit from outsourcing colonial ventures to corporations—which can leverage the important inventions of joint stock and limited liability to amass capital and manage risk, as well as obtain funding from their government patrons—but may later be wary of them, as relationships and power dynamics change over time.

In the present era, Musk’s political vision for his Martian settler colonies invokes images of Manifest Destiny in the stars by discussing the brave independent settlers who will populate his settlements. Technologically, Musk has argued that humans should terraform Mars, or engineer the atmosphere to make it habitable for humans. One of his proposals—to allow individuals to purchase one-way tickets to Mars, which can be paid off through promised jobs in the new colony—has been likened to a form of Martian indentured servitude (McKay Reference McKay2020). He has emphasized the need for self-sufficiency on the Red Planet, stating that a colony should be able “to survive if the resupply ships stop coming from Earth for any reason” (Tangerman Reference Tangerman2020). Musk himself has stated that there is a “good chance you’ll die” on Mars, even starring in a Saturday Night Live skit in which settlers perish on a Martian colony he presides over through SpaceX (Utrata Reference Utrata2021).

The SpaceX founder has said that he believes it is highly likely that Earth is about to enter “another Dark Age” although he vacillates about its cause, citing inter alia the possibility of either World War III, the invention of artificial general intelligence, or an asteroid strike (Musk Reference Musk2016). Space colonization is thus a hedge against human extinction. Notably, however, although many of Musk’s companies are ostensibly green-oriented, he has not explicitly linked his plans for space colonization to escaping the climate catastrophe on Earth. Nor has Musk invoked his experience growing up in the settler colonial society of apartheid South Africa, instead cloaking his language in a civilizational discourse about preserving life and the human species.

Musk claims that his interest in outer space began as a child, sparked by a love of science fiction literature including Douglas Adams, Isaac Asimov, HG Wells, and Iain M Banks (Ray Reference Ray, Grant and Parson2021a; Rubenstein Reference Rubenstein2022). While science fiction literature has often influenced scientific research and vice versa—and the “boundaries between science fiction and realistic fiction have grown more difficult to discern” (Cole Reference Cole, Grant and Parson2021, 14)—it is sometimes difficult to parse whether a public admiration for the texts necessarily represents an ideological affinity with the politics of any of these works, especially given tech elites’ penchant for appropriating dystopian or villainous elements.Footnote 1 While Musk may draw inspiration from science fiction literature—for example, stating that he wants to name the first colonizing ship to Mars “Heart of Gold” after the spaceship in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy (Lepore Reference Lepore2021)it is not necessarily clear what this reveals about his political philosophy.

In later life, Musk aligned himself with the philosophy of longtermism, whose proponents explicitly advocate for space colonization (Musk Reference Musk2022). Evolving from the trans-humanism and effective altruism movements, many prominent longtermists posit that humanity should seek to maximize the number of humans in the very far future by terraforming planets and allowing humanity to create trillions of digital people who would exist on massive computer servers (Torres Reference Torres2021). Musk has also made statements suggesting that he believes we are living in a computer simulation akin to the film The Matrix (“the odds that we’re in base reality is one in billions”) (Rothman Reference Rothman2016).

Indeed, as Rubenstein (Reference Rubenstein2022) notes, prominent longtermist and Oxford Future of Humanity Institute research associate Robin Hanson has suggested that one of the best ways to behave if you are in a computer simulation is to attempt to participate in “pivotal” historical events—which presumably include space colonization—to avoid being deleted from the simulation for being historically insignificant. However, it is often difficult to determine to what extent Musk believes in many of his pronouncements or whether he is simply making outrageous remarks for public attention.

For example, in response to a tweet criticizing billionaires and wealth inequality, Musk replied, “I am accumulating resources to help make life multiplanetary & extend the light of consciousness to the stars” (Musk Reference Musk2021). Nevertheless, Musk has consistently repeated his intention to make humanity “multiplanetary” across a variety of private and public settings for decades, dedicating significant resources and energy toward enacting his vision (Davenport Reference Davenport2018). Therefore, it is clear that terraforming Mars has been a long-standing goal for the billionaire.

Although the idea of terraforming—or engineering planets to replicate Earth’s environment, first proposed by Carl Sagan in reference to Venus in 1961—has a long history, it is not clear whether it is technologically feasible to terraform Mars in the way Musk has suggested (Jakosky and Edwards Reference Jakosky and Edwards2018), such as dropping hundreds of nuclear bombs on the planet to “warm up” the atmosphere (Musk Reference Musk2019). However, these plans could easily be amended to lunar settlements. Indeed, NASA is already undertaking the construction of the Artemis Base Camp to establish a long-term human presence on the Moon by 2040, with SpaceX as a commercial partner, including the construction of civilian houses (Kamin Reference Kamin2023; Luscombe Reference Luscombe2022).

Furthermore, as Stern has noted of terrestrial colonization, “joint-stock colonial enterprise did not always need to be successful to succeed” (Stern Reference Stern2023, 49) and even failed colonizing attempts could secure political benefits. For example, the Scottish Highland leader Coinneach Mackenzie in the early seventeenth century bought the remaining shares of a failed colonial venture in Hebrides and “in essentially buying the company and its pretended rights to the territory… fortified his longstanding but contested hereditary claim to the lordship of Lewis, acquired legal and political recognition from the Stuart state, and established a regime that his family would command for a couple of centuries” (49–50). Similarly, although Musk may not actually succeed in colonizing Mars, attempting to do so may still result in a legal legacy of political rights and privileges for himself or SpaceX.

Jeff Bezos, on the other hand, does not invoke the history of hardy individual settler colonists but the construction of imperialist infrastructure akin to the gargantuan company states of the British and Dutch East India Companies. For Bezos, the apocalyptic scenario for humankind is not an “extinction event,” but an energy crisis in which finite resources on Earth ultimately place a cap on capitalist growth (Davenport Reference Davenport2018; Levy Reference Levy2018; Stone Reference Stone2021). A Malthusian logic underpins his calculations about the limit to the population that can be supported on Earth, and he has repeatedly stated that civilization will be doomed to a life of “rationing and stasis” unless we expand to the stars where “resources are, for all practical purposes, infinite” (Bezos Reference Bezos2019). Relying on the cyclical logic of capitalist growth of past iterations of colonial-capitalists, Bezos argues that imperial expansion must be undertaken to support the endless growth of the home population. The Amazon founder does not believe that humans should terraform the Moon or Mars, but instead build floating structures like the International Space Station orbiting close to Earth. These structures could contain the perfect artificial environment in space (“Maui on a good day, with no earthquakes”), which would allow Earth to be zoned as a national park (Bezos Reference Bezos2019).

Like Musk, Bezos has been interested in space since childhood, mentioning space colonization in his high school valedictorian speech, and has professed a lifelong love of the science fiction television series Star Trek, even naming his dog after the show’s character Kamala and taking Star Trek actor William Shatner on a Blue Origin rocket launch. He cites Iain M Banks, Isaac Asimov, Phillip K Dick, Jules Verne, Neal Stephenson, and William Gibson and—as Rubenstein (Reference Rubenstein2022) notes—occasionally Madeleine L’Engle, the sole woman on the list, as literary inspiration. Bezos’ technological plans and political justifications for space colonization, however, are mostly based on Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill.

O’Neill—who McCray (Reference McCray2012) has called an example of a “visioneer”—was an engineering professor who helped promote the idea of space colonies in the United States, especially among early techno-utopian followers of the counter-culture magazine The Whole Earth Catalogue published by Stewart Brand (Turner Reference Turner2008). Bezos has repeatedly cited O’Neill’s ideas, having attended his lectures while an undergraduate at Princeton where he was the president of its campus chapter of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (Davenport Reference Davenport2018).

The Princeton professor argued that humanity should establish orbiting cylindrical structures, allowing Earth to become “a world-wide park, free of industry, and slowing recovering… from the Industrial Revolution” (O’Neill Reference O’Neill1975, 7). These space colonies would have “virtually unlimited clean source of energy for everyday use” through asteroid mining and “an abundance and a variety of food and material goods” (7). It would also, O’Neill claimed, allow the human population on Earth to stabilize. Kilgore (Reference Kilgore2003) has argued that O’Neill’s work, published in the wake of Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb and Garrett Hardin’s The Tragedy of the Commons, which popularized widespread white American fears about overpopulation, was another version of white flight into suburban utopias. He notes that O’Neill envisioned these space colonies as a kind of “safety valve for the terrestrial pressure cooker… [of] restlessness and discontent [O’Neill] saw on campus and in the cities of the 1960s… that must be escaped by flight into space” (Kilgore Reference Kilgore2003, 157).

O’Neill’s preoccupation with overpopulation is clearly reflected in Bezos’ rhetoric around civilizational stasis and the potential for trillions of humans to populate outer space. However, he has subtly updated some of O’Neill’s talking points to position them within contemporary fears around the climate crisis, juxtaposing the unlimited resources in space with deliberately absurd interpretations of green energy solutions on Earth. For example, as Bezos explained in 2018:

“If you take your body – your metabolic rate as a human… you burn about a 100 Watts… But if you extrapolate in developed countries where we use a lot of energy, on average in developed countries our civilizational metabolic rate is 11,000 Watts… And it’s growing. For a century or more, it’s been compounding at a few per cent a year – our energy usage as a civilization. Now if you take baseline energy usage globally across the whole world and compound it at just a few per cent a year for just a few hundred years, you have to cover the entire surface of the Earth in solar cells. That’s the real energy crisis.” (Clifford Reference Clifford2018, emphasis added).

In Bezos’ framing, space colonization is positioned as a technological solution to the climate crisis, one that would not require any change to the underlying extractive growth models of colonial-capitalism.

This framing closely aligns with geographer Harvey’s (Reference Harvey2001) concept of a spatial fix, or an outer spatial fix as Dickens and Ormrod (Reference Dickens and Ormrod2007) have updated it. Akin to the idea of a technological fix, Harvey has argued that capitalism has always sought geographical expansion to solve its inherent contradictions. Similarly, Bezos imagines that his imperial infrastructure will permit capitalism to expand into outer space while preserving Earth, allowing Blue Origin to “build a road to space” while unleashing a “whole new space industry” that will allow “space entrepreneurs to start a company in their dorm room” (Bezos Reference Bezos2019). Outer space will thus become another space that can be developed by private companies so that infinite capitalist expansion can continue into this new endless frontier.

Notably, while Bezos and Musk clearly invoke different visions of space colonization, they both appear to believe that corporations should rule these space colonies. For example, Musk has stated that he believes his Martian colony should be a direct democracy and the terms of use for his company Starlink’s satellite service state that users must “recognize Mars as a free-planet and that no Earth-based government has authority or sovereignty over Martian activities” (Brown Reference Brown2020). However, while Musk advocates for direct democracy on Mars, Crandall, Brown, and McMahon note that he has not given “workers on Earth any democratic control on the factory floor” (Crandall, Brown, and McMahon Reference Crandall, Brown and McMahon2021, 855), reflecting what they argue is “a magical civilizational discourse that underwrites and obscures its attendant forms of domination” (855, 842). Therefore, while the free planet of Mars may suggest political sovereignty free from interference by earthly states, this does not necessarily translate to freedom for future celestial settlers or indentured laborers, who will be highly dependent on Musk’s corporations not just for their livelihoods but forms of life support such as breathable air.

Bezos has not been as explicit about the political jurisdiction of his space colonies and is generally less public than Musk about his broader political views, although he is reportedly a libertarian (Stone Reference Stone2021). Gerard O’Neill, however, did gesture toward these space colonies having “independence from largescale governments” (O’Neill Reference O’Neill1975, 7). As Little and Winch (Reference Little and Winch2022) have noted, O’Neill’s speculative fiction portion of his book The High Frontier envisions space colonies operating “under the jurisdiction of the Energy Satellites Corporation (ENSAT)… a multinational profit-making consortium under UN treaties,” suggesting that Bezos may also imagine his orbiting colonies independent from any earthly state, free to pursue profit. Indeed, O’Neill’s novel notes from the perspective of a future space colonist that “ENSAT keeps us on a fairly loose rein as long as productivity and profits remain high—I don’t think they want another Boston Tea Party,” thus explicitly harkening back to a colonial past in which settlers rebelled against their home state (O’Neill Reference O’Neill1977, 15).

Having outsourced their ability to get to space to these private corporations, the US or other states might find it practically difficult to enforce their rules and regulations in outer space. Indeed, company-states like the British East India Company, as Phillips and Sharman noted, sometimes “came to wield more military and political power than many monarchs of the day” (Phillips and Sharman Reference Phillips and Sharman2020, 1). Colonists could also enact passive resistance against the rule of states, as Stern documented in cases where North American colonists sometimes “ignored, scorned or mocked” the proclamations of the British Crown (Stern Reference Stern2023, 156). Thus, Musk’s and Bezos’ corporations do not necessarily need to develop military capacities before they become powerful political actors, consolidating their corporations’ rule or even challenging existing terrestrial states in company space.


Although there are clear similarities between Musk’s and Bezos’ visions and justifications for space colonialism and earthly histories, proponents of space colonization often assert that it is fundamentally different because no humans live in outer space. Rubenstein sums up this seductive logic by explaining that while the earthly frontier:

“was guided by the principle of terra nullius… corporate space enthusiasts insist that the game is different this time because the lands they’re aiming for aren’t inhabited. The Europeans mistook Africa, the Americas, and Australia for empty land… But when it comes to space, the terraformers insist, there’s actually nothing there. In space, we can finally feel good about frontierism because we’ve finally got an empty frontier” (Rubenstein Reference Rubenstein2022, 101, 156–7).

Scholars and activists have pointed to many important and valid reasons why space colonization might be harmful, including that it is enabled by and exacerbates existing colonial relationships on Earth, such as the continued dispossession for rocket launch sites (Sammler and Lynch Reference Sammler and Lynch2021; Trevino Reference Trevino2020), or disrupts the practices of indigenous communities that have existing political and spiritual relationships with the skies and outer space (Bawaka Country et al. Reference Mitchell, Wright, Suchet-Pearson, Lloyd, Burarrwanga and Ganambarr2020; Rubenstein Reference Rubenstein2022).

Notwithstanding these excellent critiques, in this section I explore how the misattribution of terra nullius, a term not widely used until the mid-twentieth century, as a justification of terrestrial colonizers has allowed for the construction of a legal strawman that obscures the ways in which outer space colonization resembles indigenous dispossession. I argue that the idea of outer space as an empty frontier is a conceptual invention. It relies on the colonial logic of territorialization, or the construction of space as geospatial plots of territorial property, a prerequisite to claiming territorial property rights.

As I explain, territorialization is primarily a conceptual transformation and can be applied to a variety of spaces besides land. Doreen Massey has noted that space is not a place, but “the product of interrelations” (Massey Reference Massey2005, 9). She explained that “envisioning space as always-already territorialised… misunderstands the ever-changing ways in which flows and territories are conditions of each other. It is the practices and relations which construct them both” (99). To think of outer space as territorial property—and therefore as a potential site of sovereignty—requires a similar conceptual transformation to that of conceptualizing earthly land and spaces as territory.

Territorialization furthermore constitutes the basis of a wider phenomenon of what I call “engineering territory,” or the leveraging of new technology to construct virgin territory in ostensibly empty spaces that can then be claimed as territorial property. This process allows would-be space colonists and their corporations to amass and exercise political power in ways that would not be permitted under different conceptualizations of space.

Territorial dispossession, one of the violent processes of colonialism, involves the disruption of indigenous communities’ relationship with place, people, and nature (Bhandar Reference Bhandar2018; Goeman Reference Goeman2008). However, as Nichols (Reference Nichols2018; Reference Nichols2020) has noted, the term “indigenous dispossession” often appears paradoxical: Although indigenous communities did and do not think of land as territorial property, indigenous lands are still claimed as “stolen,” a form of theft that implies a property right. As Nichols explains, this tension can be resolved if colonial dispossession is understood as the simultaneous imposition of European forms of property relations and their negation. As he described:

“Colonization entails the large-scale transfer of land that simultaneously recodes the object of exchange in question such that it appears retrospectively to be a form of theft in the ordinary sense… ‘dispossession’ may be coherently reconstructed to refer to a process in which new proprietary relations are generated but under structural conditions that demand their simultaneous negation” (Nichols Reference Nichols2018, 14).

In other words, land is transformed into territorial property at the same time that it is taken away.

As Nichols (Reference Nichols2018; Reference Nichols2020) and others (Fitzmaurice Reference Fitzmaurice2014) have pointed out, however, this does not mean that colonized communities did not have, or that colonizing powers did not recognize they practiced, any other form of property rights. For example, indigenous Māori communities observe functional property rights in which certain families might be bequeathed the right to harvest fruit from certain trees at certain times or fish in specific areas of rivers (Nichols Reference Nichols2020). Nevertheless, this understanding of property is not necessarily commensurate with European colonizers’ conception of territorial property, in which a geospatial grid is used to divide the land into plots and an individual or entity granted a monopoly of associated rights of use over that area and enforced through the structures of the state (Bhandar Reference Bhandar2016).

As Cheryl Harris noted in her canonical article Whiteness as Property, property is “a right, not a thing, characterized as metaphysical, not physical” (Harris Reference Harris1993, 1725). Property always involves abstraction, or a specific conceptual understanding of what something is and what our relationship to it should be.

Although would-be space colonists argue that outer space is empty because no one has claimed it as territorial property, there are many different ways of using or relating to outer space, which construct and imply different political relationships. For example, many communities on Earth, from astronomers to celestial navigators to animals, use the Moon as a form of light. As light, the Moon is a common resource: No one can own it exclusively. When orbiting satellites or light from cities disrupts our ability to see the Moon or the night sky, it is not considered trespassing or theft, but light pollution.

However, we can also conceptualize the Moon in different ways, which imply and impose different property rights and relationships. The passage of the 2015 SPACE Act, for instance, allowed private individuals and corporations to enforce property rights in US courts over resources extracted from space.Footnote 2 By mining minerals from the Moon, the celestial body is transformed into objects, which can be possessed and protected under traditional US legal property frameworks.

Objects and light, however, are still different from claiming the Moon as territorial property. For example, in 2022, the libertarian-cum-neoliberal Adam Smith Institute issued a report calling for a “clear, morally justified, and efficient system for assigning and governing property rights in space,” advocating for allocating “plots of moon land” through a homesteading system to preempt a celestial land rush (Lowe Reference Lowe2022, 11). Unlike the SPACE Act, this call does not conceptualize celestial bodies as objects, but as territory. Rather than something that can be broken down and extracted, the Moon is instead conceptualized as a surface upon which individuals can claim “plots of moon land.” Owning pieces of the Moon as territorial property or as an object thus confers different sorts of rights upon the owner.

These conceptualizations of space are not exhaustive. For instance, many communities also consider the Moon to be a person—as a spiritual or divine being, an ancestor, or a relative—and therefore the imposition of any property rights as inappropriate. Rubenstein (Reference Rubenstein2022), drawing on Lynn White Jr, has described how imperial Christian worldviews transformed pre-Christian animist understandings of nature as people into objects. This conceptual transformation of people permitted the treatment of the world as things, a prerequisite for the imposition of property rights, and, ultimately, capitalistic extraction and the current climate catastrophe. As she explains:

“The Christian victory over paganism turned a world full of people into a world full of things… [and] view[ed] the natural world as composed of objects… If the stones were persons, we couldn’t frack them. If the forests had spirits, we’d hesitate to clear-cut them. If the rivers were sacred, we wouldn’t fill them with radioactive waste… thanks to the victory of imperial Christianity, Western communities and institutions don’t have these sorts of relationships with the land… the land isn’t a person we might relate to in the first place” (Rubenstein Reference Rubenstein2022, 37–8).

Notably, the conceptualization of nature as persons has been legally upheld by some states, which have drawn on legal personhood doctrines initially developed for corporations. For example, Māori indigenous communities have gained legal recognition for natural entities such as the rainforest Te Urewera, the volcanic mountain Mount Taranaki, and the river Whanganui who now have rights as legal persons and, as Nichols (Reference Nichols2020) has noted, in effect exercise a form of self-ownership, cared for by shared guardianship between Māori tribes and the government of New Zealand.

While all ostensibly about the same space, these different conceptual understandings of the Moon as light, objects, territory, or persons change the kind of political rights and relationships that can be imposed in reference to it.

Although these transformations may be technologically mediated, they are primarily conceptual. It may be easier to think of the Moon as territory if rocket ships exist that allow humans to reach its surface, but claiming the Moon as territorial property does not require it. Similarly, European colonists did not necessarily need to travel to colonies to claim to own land there.

For example, Humphrey Gilbert in the late sixteenth century issued grants for “obscene amounts of territory that [he] did not actually occupy or possess and in fact had never seen… though Gilbert died on his way home from his first voyage, he left behind a legal legacy… that had transformed and disseminated his wholly theoretical patent into a somewhat legally defensible, if still geographically vague, set of distributed property rights” (Stern Reference Stern2023, 37). Terrestrial colonists could rely on abstracted legal claims to territory they may have never seen or occupied, their claims backed up by the coercive violence of states and corporations.

These different conceptions of property imply and impose specific kinds of political relationships. As Morris Cohen noted in his famous Property and Sovereignty, “a property right is a relation not between an owner and a thing, but between the owner and other individuals in reference to things… dominion over things is also imperium over our fellow human beings” (Cohen Reference Cohen1927, 12). For example, if space is conceptualized as commons, then all community members have a right to collectively govern or care for that space with one another. However, if land is enclosed and transformed into private property—as Polanyi ([1944] Reference Polanyi2001) noted of the transition from feudalism to capitalism in Europe—then property rights are upheld by and enforced through the apparatuses of the state. Instead of community governance, the state becomes the arbiter and ruler of property and territory.

Outer space and much of the Earth’s atmosphere are currently codified as commons in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (van Eijk Reference van Eijk2022), although this conceptualization is currently being challenged by many states, including the United States. This has implications for political rule: For example, satellites orbiting the Earth are not governed by any particular state, as they are above states’ airspace and thus their sovereign territory, but by international conventions and coordination. If, however, “plots of moon land” were allocated as territorial property, communities on Earth would not necessarily have equal rights to collectively govern light from the Moon; they would then be someone’s territorial property and thus outside terrestrial state boundaries. Similarly, if Bezos claimed his orbiting space structures as territorial property, communities on Earth would not have the right to object to them in the way they currently can to satellites obscuring the night sky. These different conceptualizations of space and property thus imply and impose different types of political relationships and rule.

This issue of how sovereignty ought to be thought of in outer space was explicitly discussed during the Cold War, when concerns arose over how and when states might claim sovereignty over celestial bodies. For example, as Fitzmaurice (Reference Fitzmaurice2014; Reference Fitzmaurice, Fassbender and Peters2012) has documented, the 1959 book Controls for Outer Space and the Antarctic Analogy considered the proposal for projecting sovereign zones above states’ territory into space, similar to how the invention of airplanes propelled states to claim airspace as extensions of their sovereign territory. However, the authors decided that the difficulty of determining when constantly moving celestial bodies and objects entered in and out of these projected cones was too logistically challenging to be feasible (Taubenfeld and Jessup Reference Taubenfeld and Jessup1959). Still, this conceptualization of space as an extension of sovereign airspace would have legitimated an altogether different kind of political rule than treating it as commons.

Indeed, these discussions about whether planting flags on the Moon might be sufficient to stake a sovereignty claim catalyzed interest in the legal doctrine of terra nullius (Fitzmaurice Reference Fitzmaurice2014). But although terra nullius arguments have been retroactively attributed as a popular legal justification of terrestrial colonizers, the term was not frequently used until the mid-twentieth century and was usually to discuss the polar regions and outer space.

Legal doctrines deployed to justify European claims to rule land did not necessarily rely on claims of empty space. For instance, Belgium King Leopold II’s legal arguments for his private association’s claim to a protectorate over the Congo relied on territorium nullius, a species of rights argument that posited that African political communities did have limited sovereignty, and even property rights, but did not practice territorial sovereignty and were therefore not “fully” sovereign (Fitzmaurice Reference Fitzmaurice, Fassbender and Peters2012; Reference Fitzmaurice2014; Press Reference Press2017). Just as with claims to outer space, conceptualizations of space as territory, or political rule based on territoriality, were seen as more advanced and therefore more legitimate.

Property rights, however, as King Leopold II was well aware, do not spring into existence simply because individuals claim to own something. Northern California resident Dennis Hope, for instance, has famously written to the United Nations to claim ownership over territory on the Moon (Rubenstein Reference Rubenstein2022). Most people do not take Hope’s pronouncements very seriously; no state recognizes his claims, and he has no real capacity to enforce them. However, if Bezos or Musk were to declare plots of Moon land as their corporations’ territorial property, or announce their intention to carry settlers to the Moon in order to claim land under a homesteading system, this might prompt a very different reaction from states, both because Blue Origin and SpaceX may genuinely have a technical ability to occupy and use space as territory and because the US state has an interest in their success.

Again, this parallels examples in the broader history of terrestrial colonialization. As previously discussed, the US SPACE Act of 2015 has been criticized for using a legal loophole in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty that allows private actors, but not states, to claim private property rights over minerals extracted from outer space and uphold those rights in US courts. This process of non-state actors using legal loopholes to claim property, and subsequently lobbying states to recognize their claims, also occurred in terrestrial colonialism. As Press noted, during the nineteenth century:

“treaty-making adventurers and cynical statesmen manipulated a particular loophole in international law to their own ends. The loophole theoretically allowed private individuals or companies—as distinct from preexisting states—to claim first that they bought sovereignty through treaties, and thereafter, with some luck, to found an empire accepted by the international community as enjoying equality and reciprocity with its other members: states…” (Press Reference Press2017, 7).

For instance, when attempting to establish his African colony, King Leopold II of Belgium negotiated a series of treaties with political communities in Africa. Although the signatories were often misled about the contents of these treaties, the Belgian regent used them as a diplomatic tactic to get other European states to recognize his claims (Press Reference Press2017).

By conceptualizing outer space as territory, corporations and private individuals similarly have the opportunity to claim the right to rule these spaces in ways that are not currently permissible under international or domestic laws. While terrestrial and celestial colonization is obviously not identical, the same logic of territorialization underpins the invention of the empty frontier. Space colonization is thus not completely unlike terrestrial colonialism as it may first appear.


Once territorialization is understood as a primarily conceptual transformation that can be applied to a variety of spaces, we are better placed to grasp the broader phenomenon of political exit projects undertaken by Silicon Valley elites that capitalize on these invented territories. Territorialization thus constitutes the conceptual basis of a wider trend I call “engineering territory,” or leveraging new technologies to construct virgin territory in ostensibly empty spaces.

Political exit projects are attempts to exit existing territorial states by building sovereign communities in new spaces. While these projects have often been dubbed libertarian exit and explained through neoliberal or libertarian frameworks (Craib Reference Craib2022; Johnson Reference Johnson2020; Lynch Reference Lynch2017; Rushkoff Reference Rushkoff2022; Smith and Burrows Reference Smith and Burrows2021), I refer to them here as political exit projects because it more accurately describe their objectives. Examples include outer space colonization, but also—as I will explore—the construction of seasteads in the ocean or network states on the Internet.

I argue that rather than escaping into anarchical spaces of freedom or even utopian free markets, these projects are instead attempting to exit existing states’ boundaries by recreating territorially-based rule in these newly constructed spaces. By claiming to have engineered genuinely virgin territory in spaces such as outer space, cyberspace, and the sea, Silicon Valley figures assert the right of their corporations to rule these empty spaces as territorial sovereigns whose independence must be respected by other states.

Exit, as Raymond Craib has noted, “goes beyond expatriation because ideally it would allow one to leave one’s country and become a member of an alternative, even if state-like, territorial entity… But that requires a space upon which to forge such a polity” (Craib Reference Craib2022, 9). Engineering territory is thus, I argue, a prerequisite to claiming sovereignty in these constructed empty spaces and recreating the territorially-based rule of states.

As I explore, while these projects are often positioned as feats of engineering, they rely primarily on a conceptual transformation of space into territory. In this way, political exit projects both traffic upon a romanticized colonial past and mimic many of the tactics of colonializing corporations. I thus suggest that analyzing outer space colonization and other engineering territory projects should problematize the ways in which territoriality has become the sole legitimate basis for sovereignty in the post-imperial international state system.

One prominent example of the process of engineering territory is the invention of cyberspace, or the rhetorical construction of the Internet as territorial space. As scholars have documented (Bills Reference Bills2001; Cohen Reference Cohen2007; Shuler Reference Shuler2005), early techno-utopians deployed explicitly colonial imagery such as the “electronic frontier” or “virtual homesteading” to describe the Internet. Thus, the Internet—which is literally a series of interconnected computers—was depicted as a free, open, and empty space that territorial states could not control (Turner Reference Turner2008). This is perhaps most famously encapsulated in John Perry Barlow’s 1996 Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace in which he informed modern states that “cyberspace does not lie within your borders… you have no sovereignty where we gather.”

While it quickly became clear that states could and would control the internet (Goldsmith and Wu Reference Goldsmith and Wu2008), this conceptualization of the Internet as territorialized space has captured the public consciousness and even been reflected in everyday language (e.g., to “visit” a website). As this demonstrates, engineering territory does not require land. Instead, it is a conceptual transformation that can be applied to a variety of spaces. Through it, networked computers come to be imagined and understood as territorialized space.

Like Barlow’s Declaration, the idea of exiting the state into newly engineered territory constitutes the core of another variety of Silicon Valley-supported projects called seasteading. The Seasteading Institute, founded by Patri Friedman, the grandson of Milton Friedman, and funded by the likes of PayPal and Palantir founder Peter Thiel, is attempting to build floating platforms in the ocean in order to “enable innovations with new political and social systems” (The Seasteading Institute 2009). Friedman explained that he started The Seasteading Institute because “we’ve run out of frontier… If we can solve the engineering challenges of sea-steading, two-thirds of the Earth’s surface becomes open for these political start-ups” (Abrahamian Reference Abrahamian2013).

While heavily influenced by texts such as Albert Hirschman’s Exit, Voice and Loyalty and William Rees-Mogg and James Dale Davidson’s The Sovereign Individual, it is clear that the creation of territory is the core of the project (Steinberg, Nyman, and Caraccioli Reference Steinberg, Nyman and Caraccioli2012). Although seasteads—a play on homesteads on the colonial frontier—may resemble land more than the Internet does, the project relies on the same conceptual transformation of space into territory. What, for instance, separates seasteads from ships or oil rigs, which are governed by complicated forms of international and national laws? Thus, like outer space and cyberspace, constructing the ocean as a territorial space leverages new technology to conceptually transform it into territory.

Although these projects are being pursued and funded by a variety of different Silicon Valley figures, I argue that political exit projects are conceptually linked by their attempts to engineer territory. Indeed, Peter Thiel has explicitly linked space colonization, cyberspace, and seasteading together through their potential for creating new frontiers. In an address to the Cato Institute, he stated:

“Because there are no truly free places left in our world, I suspect that the mode for escape must involve some sort of new and hitherto untried process that leads us to some undiscovered country; and for this reason I have focused my efforts on new technologies that may create a new space for freedom. Let me briefly speak to three such technological frontiers: (1) Cyberspace… (2) outer space… (3) Seasteading” (Thiel Reference Thiel2009, emphasis added).

Notably, as Little and Winch (Reference Little and Winch2021) have pointed out, this description of a world with “no free spaces” is a subtle invocation of a romanticized colonial past. Thiel, in his coauthored book Zero to One, wrote that unlike in the eighteenth century, “there are no blank spaces left on the map anymore” (Thiel and Masters Reference Thiel and Masters2014, 97). During the early period of colonialism, Thiel and Masters argue men who “tired of the multiculturalism of Europe” could escape to new territories, whereas contemporary men have no such options (97). Thus, the technological solution to the lack of empty space, and therefore the end of colonialism, is simply to engineer more territory—in cyberspace, outer space, and the sea.

Political exit projects like seasteading thus traffic on an imagined colonial past. The freedom of Thiel’s free spaces is not individual liberty or even free markets, but the creation of empty spaces—or a purportedly genuine terra nullius—which are free for the taking and claims of political rule. In so doing, they are attempting to reproduce a colonial history in which private individuals and their corporations were able to leave their home states and claim territory elsewhere, amassing their own form of political privileges, rule, or even sovereignty along the way.

One explicit example of this logic can be found in Silicon Valley venture capitalist Balaji Srinivasan Reference Srinivasan2022 treatise advocating for the creation of network states, one among many methods he suggests to “start a new country” (13). Like Thiel, Srinivasan argues that the colonial frontier has historically been an important pressure valve for society, allowing individuals to exit when the political order no longer suits them.Footnote 3 By using the “cloud first, land last” model, he argues that individuals can ultimately “reopen the physical frontier” (Srinivasan Reference Srinivasan2022, 98) through the crowdfunding of territory among digital communities, or creating territorial jurisdictions that are geographically dispersed like an archipelago. After building cloud towns, cloud cities, and ultimately network states, these communities will be able to gain diplomatic recognition from other states, which will allow them to access sovereign debt markets, negotiate trade and passport deals, pass laws, and prevent invasions.

While this plan may sound nonsensical—and indeed, like outer space colonization, is unlikely to succeed on exactly its own terms—it is worth noting that it bears resemblance to the tactics of King Leopold II, who leveraged the existence of legally nebulous treaties with African communities in order to gain recognition from European states of his claim to a protectorate, ultimately paving the way to his personal control of a colony through his International Association of the Congo (Press Reference Press2017). Exit is thus not necessarily about free individuals leaving spaces where the state can control them, akin to what Scott (Reference Scott2009) has termed “the art of not being governed,” but leveraging claims of territoriality in order to gain recognition as a political sovereign, with all its attendant privileges.

What this should suggest, I argue, is that rather than refuting claims that outer space is truly empty, resisting space colonization should problematize the ways in which territoriality has come to be configured as the sole legitimate basis for political rule in the post-imperial international system. Indeed, we can see that territoriality is still a key issue at stake in negotiating the relationship between states and indigenous communities. As Kevin Brunyeel noted in the Third Space of Sovereignty, it is often said that “indigenous tribes and nations claim a form of sovereignty that is unclear because it is not easily located inside or outside the United States,” unsettling our understanding of what it means to be part of a sovereign political community (Bruyneel Reference Bruyneel2007, xiii).

The primacy of territoriality further obscures the ways in which non-territorial entities like corporations already enact a kind of political power. As Stern pointed out, while we often understand the British East India Company as “having transformed from a commercial into a political body only with its acquisition of territory in the middle of the eighteenth century… it had actually been a form of government, state, and sovereign in Asia for some time” (Stern Reference Stern2011, 3). Non-territorial entities like corporations have historically been and continue to be involved in forging sites of sovereignty and political rule. Rather than being wholly new, outer space colonization and other attempts at engineering territory are in fact a continuation of this history.


Staffers at Wired, the digital counter-culture magazine that became emblematic of the Californian ideology, used to joke that “as Californians, they were the descendants of people who, when they didn’t like something, preferred to pack up and leave” (Kunzru Reference Kunzru2022). While the quip centers and emphasizes exit, what it truly describes is the legacy of colonialism. Indeed, Silicon Valley has long benefitted from historic structures of colonialism, located on land taken from the Muwekma Ohlone tribes, its corporations only able to travel to outer space because of the fortunes amassed through colonial-capitalism. But while Silicon Valley may be “a place that likes to pretend its ideas don’t have any history” (Daub Reference Daub2020, 3), this study has demonstrated that corporations’ imagined role in outer space colonization has clear continuities with the corporations of terrestrial colonization. New technology, by claiming to offer a “guilt-free colonialism in outer space,” does not change the fundamental dynamics at play so much as it offers another tool to shield these corporations from criticism by claiming to be new and thus a rupture from the colonial past.

This analysis further points to the necessity of conceptualizing non-territorial entities as political actors. Indeed, much of the critical literature on Silicon Valley technology corporations has advocated tighter state regulation to return them to their proper role as economic actors. However, historicizing the ways in which states and corporations have jockeyed for power throughout colonial ventures may instead point to the need for other methods of control over corporations and to “shift our focus from ‘privacy, data and size’ to ‘power, ownership and control’” (Muldoon Reference Muldoon2022, 2). For example, Muldoon (Reference Muldoon2022) has advocated for social ownership of digital assets, such as creating public or municipal cloud computing services; Isabelle Ferreras and Hélène Landemore have called for the democratization of corproations (Ferreras Reference Ferreras2023; Landemore and Ferreras Reference Landemore and Ferreras2016); and Josh Simons and Dipayan Ghosh (Reference Simons and Ghosh2020) have argued for regulating certain infrastructures as democratic utilities. Resisting space colonization thus requires a more holistic reconceptualization of the continued primacy of territoriality in constituting the basis of political rule or sovereignty and treating non-territorial entities as fully political.


I would like to thank Benjamin Tan, Jason Sharman, Duncan Bell, David Runciman, Maha Rafi Atal, Abbas Milani, Stefanie Felsberger, and Carl Pierer for their advice on previous versions of this essay, along with countless others whose scholarship and engagement on this topic made this work possible. I am also grateful to the four anonymous reviewers and the editors for their thoughtful and generous feedback and comments. All views and errors are my own.


The research for this article was supported by a Gates-Cambridge Scholarship.


The author declares no ethical issues or conflicts of interest in this research.


The author affirms this research did not involve human subjects.


1 For example, Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse is taken from the dystopian future virtual world in Snow Crash; Peter Thiel’s Palantir is the all-seeing eye of the evil Lord of the Rings character.

2 Silicon Valley figures such as PayPal’s Peter Thiel and Google’s Larry Page and Eric Schmidt have been involved with the company Planetary Resources, which lobbied for the passage of the 2015 SPACE Act (Johnson Reference Johnson2020).

3 The narrative is full of larger conspiratorial claims, as well as historical revisionism about North American settler colonialism. For example, Srinivasan argues that it is “healthier to think of the Native Americans more like the 300 Spartans than as helpless victims,” that European settler colonists should be considered “n+1 tribe,” and that North American communities would have invaded Europe if they had developed the technological capacity (Srinivasan Reference Srinivasan2022, 96).



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