Addendum on Spacesteading

21 September 2012

Friday


A few days ago in 100YSS Symposium 2012: Day 3, Part II I mentioned the presentation made by Gabriel Rothblatt about spacesteading, and that I had written to ask him the following question:

If you have a spare moment, I would be very interested to know what you consider to be the essential distinction (if there is an essential distinction) between the social structures of colonialism and the social structures of spacesteading.

I certainly take your point about spacesteading, and it would be unfortunate to tie the settling of space to the history of colonialism, but I wonder how you would go about defining the distinction between colonialism and settlement in a cosmological context.

Mr. Rothblatt has been kind enough to favor me with a reply, and since I promised an addendum if he did respond, here follows Mr. Rothblatt’s answers to my questions:

To answer your question about distinctions between social structures I’d have to say purpose. Space colony social structures will be focused on workforce efficiency in production or extraction, with the colonies themselves existing as means to an end and resembling economic zones with policies otherwise incongruent with standards of modern civilized life. By definition and practice a colony will have no right to control its own organization and policy, therefore given the extreme circumstances and remoteness it is highly probable that exaggerated forms of exploitation will be introduced, much like they were in the Americas, which most closely resembles the space colony scenario to-date.

It’s important to consider here that most space enthusiasts are not suited or interested in performing labor and most people in a position to perform the tasks of a colony have no interest in opting to go to space to do so. Spacesteaders came to space voluntarily for the love and/ or the freedom and adventure. Space colonists do so under duress of their economic situations on Earth.

In contrast to space colonization the concept of spacesteading does not as clearly define a specific social structure. What it does is create space based communities that are free to govern themselves. Communities may engage in production and mining for commercial gain, but do not exist for that purpose. The spacestead is the end, the mining/production a means to maintain it. In the former scenario, you would see a homogeneous model of operations, regardless if Interplanetary or Sol Systems was operating the colony. In the latter model the Mormon spacestead may look somewhat different from the Terasemian Monastery and still yet different from the Space Gambit orbital laboratory for Interstellar R&D facility or the municipality of New Nairobi. All of them having in common with each other the right to establish their own laws and existing expressly to be free communities in space, not as feeders to a remote political and economic machine.

To conclude, it is not to say that every model of space colonization we’ve dreamed till now truly fits that definition, some are apt descriptions of spacesteads. I’m not the first to propose this separation nor even the first to use the term spacesteading. As we get closer to a realization of a community in space it becomes more and more important to distinguish between the different pixels in the picture. I foresee soon we will begin to look closer at government versus corporate space colonies, perhaps even religious (although I personally do not distinguish much between government and religion). It is also equally possible for a spacestead to achieve equal or greater degrees of immorality than a space colony, in my humble opinion however, it’s the most pragmatic safe guard against institutionalized human rights violations and an inevitable war of rebellion to interstellar colonialization.

Mr. Rothblatt has outlined several very important points here, and I realize now in retrospect that the paternalism and patriarchalism that I noted in 100YSS Symposium 2012: Day 3, Part II as implicitly figuring in many of the 100YSS presentations might also be cast in terms of colonialism — one of the most pernicious and perennial rationalizations of colonialism being that of a benign presence that oversees and attends to the moral edification of the residents of the colony.

Mr. Rothblatt is exactly right to point to the danger of space settlements being primarily economically motivated and therefore lacking self-governance and therefore control over policies, practices, and procedures. We have an image of this danger in the science fiction film Outland, which depicts a space mining settlement as a “company town” with all that implies. This is not a model of development that we should want to extend to the human future in space. The danger of close Earth control over space settlements what I had in mind when I previously opined that it would be unrealistic to think that controlling powers on the Earth could reach out over space and time to shape the lives of those who would be, by then, living under very different conditions.

I also find myself in agreement with Mr. Rothblatt that spacesteading need not define a particular social structure. In the event of multiple settlements in space, I surely hope that we will see a hundred flowers bloom in terms of the diversity of social systems that will be attempted. The political and social experimentation with novel (and perhaps also not-so-novel) systems of governance under new and unprecedented conditions for human beings will be, I think, very healthy for our species and its continued social development. Something genuinely new may come about as the result of social experimentation in parallel with spacesteading, and this ought to be very exciting for any political philosopher.

The social and political diversity of space settlements — not to mention on long distance generational starships — may also, as Mr. Rothblatt points out, be the best safeguard against rebellion and militancy. Any quasi-colonial scenario immediately suggests the possibility of colonists at a great distance from the political center choosing to assert their independence even if this is denied them officially. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine such a scenario not resulting in violent separatism.

As the human future in space slowly and steady grows in scope, it will become increasingly evident that what Thomas Paine said of the relationship between Britain and its American colonies — using an astronomical metaphor no less — must also be true of the Earth and those communities that come to be established off the surface of the Earth:

“Small islands not capable of protecting themselves, are the proper objects for kingdoms to take under their care; but there is something very absurd, in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island. In no instance hath nature made the satellite larger than its primary planet, and as England and America, with respect to each other, reverses the common order of nature, it is evident they belong to different systems: England to Europe, America to itself.”

The Earth is an island in space. In time, we will come to see it as such, and we will be forced to recognize that this small planet, as beautiful as it is, is but a fragment of the cosmos, and that space must belong to itself and not to the earth.

I would like the thank Mr. Rothblatt for his response, which highlights so many important issues for the social future of humanity in space.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Eo-, Exo-, Astro-

19 March 2012

Monday


This post has been superseded by Eo-, Eso-, Exo-, Astro-, which both corrects and extends what I wrote below.


The Philosophical Significance of Astrobiology as a

Cosmological Extrapolation of Terrestrial Biology


In yesterdays’ Commensurable Perspectives I finished with this observation:

Ecology is the master world-narrative that unifies the sub-narratives employed by individual species in virtue of their perceptual and cognitive architecture. Ultimately, astrobiology would constitute the universal narrative that would unify the ecological narratives of distinct worlds.

The naturalistic narrative has the power to unify even across species and across worlds. This power may not be particularly evident at present, but in the long term future of our species (if our species does in fact have a long term future) this power will prove to be crucial.

If indeed astrobiology is the universal narrative of life, that gives astrobiology a privileged position among the sciences. That is a tall order. But what is astrobiology? At one time I had heard both the terms “exobiology” and “astrobiology” and I was not quite clear about the exact difference between the two, or how each was defined. Thereby hangs a tale. The distinction between the two is in fact a very interesting story, and it is a story to which an entire book has been devoted, The Living Universe: NASA and the Development of Astrobiology, by Steven J. Dick and James E. Strick.

I urge the reader to get this book and peruse it for yourself for the detailed version of the emergence of astrobiology as a scientific discipline. I will give only the bare bones of that story here, which will be only enough to grasp the crucial concepts involved. And our interest is in the concepts, not the personalities.

Joshua Lederberg before he had formulated the distinction between eobiology and exobiology.

Exobiology is the older term, introduced by Joshua Lederberg (first used in a public lecture in 1960), and contrasted by him to eobiology. Exobiology has some currency in the public mind, but I didn’t know about eobiology until I read about the history of the discipline. However, the contrast between the two terms is conceptually important. Exobiology is concerned with biology off the surface of the earth, while eobiology is biology on the surface of the earth. (cf. p. 29) In other words, all biological science prior to human spaceflight was eobiology, even if we didn’t know that it was eobiology. Another way to formulate this distinction is to say that eobiology is the biology of the terrestrial biosphere, while exobiology is the biology of everything else.

In the book The Living Universe: NASA and the Development of Astrobiology the authors give a lot of background on the internal politics and budgeting of NASA and how this affected the emergence of astrobiology. It is an interesting story, but I will not go into it here, as our interest at present is exclusively with the conceptual infrastructure of the discipline. Suffice it to say that in 1996 the first attempts were made to define astrobiology (cf. p. 202), and within a couple of years there was a virtual Astrobiology Institute.

The NASA astrobiology website characterizes astrobiology as follows:

“Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe. This multidisciplinary field encompasses the search for habitable environments in our Solar System and habitable planets outside our Solar System, the search for evidence of prebiotic chemistry and life on Mars and other bodies in our Solar System, laboratory and field research into the origins and early evolution of life on Earth, and studies of the potential for life to adapt to challenges on Earth and in space.”

The NASA strategic plan of 1996 gives this definition of astrobiology:

“The study of the living universe. This field provides a scientific foundation for a multidisciplinary study of (1) the origin and distribution of life in the universe, (2) an understanding of the role of gravity in living systems, and (3) the study of the Earth’s atmospheres and ecosystems.”

The important lesson to take away from this is that astrobiology is the more comprehensive concept, and that in fact we can consider astrobiology the union of eobiology and exobiology. This sounds simple enough (and it is), but it is important to understand the conceptual leap that has been taken here.

From the perspective of astrobiology, earth sciences are only fragments of far larger and more comprehensive sciences. Just as all biology was once eobiology, the same observation can be made in regard to the other earth sciences, and the same tripartite conceptual distinction can be brought to the other earth sciences. We can formulate eogeology and exogeology unified in astrogeology; we can formulate eohydrology and exohydrology unified in astrohydrology; we can formulate eovulcanology and exovulcanology unified in astrovulcanology; we can formulate eoclimatology and exoclimatology unified in astroclimatology. All of these are cosmological extrapolations of earth sciences. One suspects that, in the future, the prefixes will be dropped and we will return to climatology simpliciter, e.g., but while the conceptual revolution is underway it is important to retain the prefixes as a reminder that science is no longer defined by the boundaries of the earth.

I assert that this is a conceptual leap of the first importance because what we have with astrobiology is the formulation of the first truly Copernican science; astrobiology includes eobiology but it is not exhausted by eobiology; it is supplemented by exobiology. The earth, for obvious reasons, remains important to us, but it no longer dictates the center of our science. All mature sciences will eventually need to take this Copernican turn and dethrone the earth from the center of its concern.

We can take a further step beyond this conceptual formulation of Copernican sciences by observing that traditional earth sciences began as local enterprises, and it has only been in recent decades that truly global sciences have emerged. These global sciences have culminated in objects of scientific study that take the world entire as their object. Thus biology has converged upon study of the biosphere; hydrology has converged on study of the hydrosphere; glaciology has culminated in the study of the cryosphere. Copernican sciences based on the model of astrobiology can go one better than this, transcending earth-defined “-spheres” in favor of more comprehensive concepts.

When I spoke last year on “The Moral Imperative of Human Spaceflight” at the NASA/DARPA 100 Year Starship Study symposium it was my intention to spend some time on the emergence of Copernican sciences, but I didn’t have enough time to elaborate. I cut most of that material out and still was rushed. The point that I wanted to make there was that the concepts of the biosphere, the lithosphere, the geosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, atmosphere, anthrosphere, sociosphere, noösphere, and technosphere are essentially Ptolemaic concepts. (If the proceedings of the symposium are published, and if my paper is included, this contains my first sketch of Copernican sciences as transcending these earth-defined “-spheres.”) The Copernican Revolution entails the formulation of Copernican concepts to supersede Ptolemaic concepts, and this work is as yet unfinished. In some spheres of human thought, it has scarcely begun.

One way to transcend our Ptolemaic concepts and to replace them with Copernican concepts, and thus to extend the ongoing shift to a truly Copernican perspective, is to substitute for the earth-defined “-spheres” a conception of the object of the sciences not dependent upon the earth, and this can be done by defining, respectfully, biospace (in place of the biosphere), lithospace, geospace, hydrospace, cryospace, atmospace, anthrospace, sociospace, noöspace, and technospace. In so far as we can facilitate the emergence of Copernican sciences, we can contribute to the ongoing Copernican Revolution, which will someday culminate in a Copernican civilization (if we do not first destroy ourselves).

We can pass beyond the earth sciences and the natural sciences and similarly extend our conceptions of a the social and political sciences. Although concepts from the social sciences are not usually expressed in geocentric terms — except for the above-mentioned anthrosphere, sociosphere, noösphere, and technosphere (which are not employed very often) — our social and political thought is usually even more tied to planetary prejudices than the concepts of the natural sciences. Thus we can extend our conception of politics by distinguishing between eopolitics and exopolitics, both of which are subsumed under astropolitics. Similarly, we can formulate eoeconomics and exoeconomics, subsumed by astroeconomics, eostrategy and exostrategy, subsumed by astrostrategy, and so forth.

As a final note, it is ironic that the breakthrough to a Copernican science should occur first with biology, because biology was among the latest of the sciences to actually attain a scientific status. Prior to Darwin, biological theories were essentially theological theories with but a few exceptions. Darwin put biology on a firm biological footing and created the discipline in its modern scientific form. Thus biology was among the last of the sciences to attain a modern scientific form, though it was the first to attain to a Copernican form.

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This post has been superseded by Eo-, Eso-, Exo-, Astro-.
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Grand Strategy Annex

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Friday


Do we court metaphysical danger

if we engage in cosmic impiety?


I think that it is not at all usual that when one reads a book early in one’s intellectual development, that the author’s ideas, and even his voice and his style, can become so interwoven in one’s own thoughts it can be difficult to recall exactly what was one’s own idea and what one borrowed from this ur-text. One must go back to the text itself to remind oneself how much one read and how much one read into what one read. My experience in this vein is wrapped up with Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy. When I began reading philosophy my mother gave me a copy of Russell’s book for Christmas. I still have this copy, though it is now in many pieces.

I found myself thinking of Russell again at the 100 Year Starship Study symposium, where several of the presentations touched upon the need for humility in exploration. In Russell’s chapter in his A History of Western Philosophy on the American pragmatist philosophy John Dewey, he has a long aside on what he calls “cosmic impiety” with a certain dread as to unspoken but potentially ruinous consequences:

“The attitude of man towards the non-human environment has differed profoundly at different times. The Greeks, with their dread of hubris and their belief in a Necessity or Fate superior even to Zeus, carefully avoided what would have seemed to them insolence towards the universe. The Middle Ages carried submission much further: humility towards God was a Christian’s first duty. Initiative was cramped by this attitude, and great originality was scarcely possible. The Renaissance restored human pride, but carried it to the point where it led to anarchy and disaster. Its work was largely undone by the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. But modern technique, while not altogether favorable to the lordly individual of the Renaissance, has revived the sense of the collective power of human communities. Man, formerly too humble, begins to think of himself as almost a God. The Italian pragmatist Papini urges us to substitute the ‘Imitation of God’ for the ‘Imitation of Christ’.”

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, p. 737

Russell further goes on to say on the same page:

“In all this I feel a grave danger, the danger of what might be called cosmic impiety. The concept of ‘truth’ as something dependent upon facts largely outside human control has been one of the way in which philosophy hitherto has inculcated the necessary element of humility. When this check upon pride is removed, a further step is taken on the road towards a certain kind of madness… I am persuaded that this intoxication is the greatest danger of our time…”

In so saying Russell was echoing his own earlier writings regarding the humility of scientific knowledge. I quoted several of these passages in Epistemic Hubris. I can imagine that what Russell formulated in terms of science and philosophy he would also have advocated in the case of technology: technological hubris is a danger, and we would do well to cultivate a sense of humility in our technological thought and activity.

While I don’t think that Russell explicitly formulated a principle of technological humility, it is implicit in what he wrote, and I furthermore think that this principle sums up much contemporary cautionary thought. The pervasive sentiment, common at least since the introduction of nuclear weapons, is that humanity’s technological development has outrun its moral development, and this places us in a position of existential danger. The prevalent apocalyptic narratives of our time largely draw upon this sentiment of looming danger from having harnessed forces ultimately beyond our control.

The idea of creating a spacefaring civilization and even constructing vessels to take us to the stars might well be taken as a paradigm case of technological hubris. Perhaps we have no moral right to such ambition. I mentioned in 100 Year Starship Study Symposium Day 3 that at least a couple of participants in the symposium voiced the need for humanity to “clean up its act” before it takes its problems with it into the wider universe. This is essentially an objection to metaphysical pride, presumably made in deference to metaphysical modesty.

I don’t think that there is much to be concerned with here, though I think that the moral issues must be taken seriously. I don’t think that the metaphysical pride and metaphysical ambition of extraterrestrialization should be a worry because of an analogy I would make between the precarious position of humanity as a planet-bound civilization today. Despite our enormous technological achievements, and the claim that humanity now lives in the geological era of the anthropocene due to the degree to which we have transformed our own planet, we are still very much at the mercy of earthquakes, storms, severe weather, and all manner of natural disasters. Our dominance of the planet and our technological achievements have not insulated us from the depredations of nature.

Analogously, I think that if we should create a spacefaring civilization and the extraterrestrialization of humanity proceeds apace, that we will find that we continue to be subject to the depredations of nature, though nature on a wider scale and not confined to potential planetary natural disasters. An extraterrestrialized civilization would face natural disasters on the level of galactic ecology, with the dangers at each stage in the growth of civilization roughly proportional to the extent of that civilization. That is to say, both metaphysical pride and metaphysical modesty are subject to metaphysical danger.

W. R. Kramer of the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies made humility central to his presentation, titled, “To Humbly Go… Breaking Previous Patterns of Colonization.” Mr. Kramer discussed the dangers of employing the language and images and concepts of past colonial efforts, and certainly when we look back on the record of colonialism there is a rich record of perfidy defended as ideals. This is not a pattern we would want to repeat.

But how exactly could a spacefaring civilization be humble? The very project, as I implied above, can be seen as the height of hubris — hubris on a cosmic scale. Of course, even if the project of extraterrestrialization is hubris, that doesn’t mean that individuals involved in such an enterprise couldn’t adopt a proper spirit of humility and modesty, although, as I said above in regard to metaphysical dangers, I don’t think that humanity will have all that difficult a time in retaining its humility once it has experienced a few hard knocks from the universe on a grand scale.

One specific proposal made by W. R. Kramer in the interest of going humbly into the cosmos was that human efforts in colonizing other planets, should other planets harboring life be found, should focus not on terraforming other worlds, but on adapting human physiology to alien worlds. I found this an interesting proposal. I don’t doubt that by the time a spacefaring civilization reaches other worlds we would have the technology to engineer descendants who could live in an alien biosphere. Just this scenario has been featured in some science fiction novels (in my dated experience of reading science fiction novels, I remember this from Ben Bova’s Exiled from Earth trilogy).

There is definitely something of Stalinist gigantism in the very idea of terraforming a planet, and I can easily imagine someone identifying such an engineering enterprise as a paradigm case of cosmic impiety à la Russell. But notice that it is an engineering challenge. In this sense, finding an alien planet with a biosphere and intending to settle such a planet with human beings, would present us with the choice between two engineering challenges: terraform or adapt. Both are engineering challenges. Both, we will assume, would be difficult but possible. Each engineering challenge presents opportunities and dangers, and each poses moral conundrums that cannot be glossed over.

W. R. Kramer apparently thinks that engineering human beings to live in an alien biosphere is morally preferable to terraforming. I neither agree nor disagree, but it must be pointed out that there are many people who regard genetically tampering with our species with moral horror. One need only read up a little on the reaction to transhumanism to find the things that have been said about purposefully altering human beings. For such a practice would also certainly result in speciation, and it might result in beings that had a problematic relationship at best to the unaltered remainder of the species.

Of course, terraforming might also be regarded with moral horror. Thus we are confronted with a choice between moral horrors: the horror of human speciation or the horror of terraforming. One would expect that changes in civilization between now and some future time when this dilemma might be faced will involve changes in our perception of moral dilemmas, but one also expects that the people of that future time will be divided by this choice. Some will be horrified at the prospect of transforming the biosphere of an entire planet, while others will be more horrified by the prospect of altering human beings until they are perhaps no longer recognizable as human beings.

In the case of terraforming sterile but potentially habitable worlds (like Mars, which is close to home and therefore more likely to be a moral dilemma in the nearer-term future), one feels that the moral objection to terraforming would be somewhat less (and therefore possibly less a moral horror than altering human beings), but I can still easily imagine those who would feel a moral horror at the prospect of utterly transforming this sterile but pristine environment for human purposes. It could be argued that no alternation in human physiology could make it possible for human descendants to live on Mars because of its sterility, and this might well be the basis of a future standard in the coming debate over whether to terraform or not to terraform.

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Wednesday


In a previous post (100 Year Starship Study Symposium Day 1) I mentioned the influence that science fiction had obviously had over the participants at the 100 Year Starship Study symposium, and how it had been suggested more than once that science fiction can be understood as a thought experiment with the future. Certainly science fiction had its influence upon me as well, and while I don’t read science fiction any more (although I do view a lot of science fiction films), all the science fiction novels I read once upon a time exercise a continuing influence over my thought.

During my years of reading science fiction I especially enjoyed the works of Robert Heinlein and Poul Anderson, and more especially in the oeuvre of each I enjoyed those vast panoramic views of the future worked out across multiple novels that were sometimes called future histories. No doubt there are authors writing today who are creating their own future histories, and I am simply unaware of it.

There is perhaps something a little tendentious if not pretentious about calling a series of novels a “future history,” though there is also a sense in which it is apt, and is to the future what Balzac’s Comédie humaine was to Balzac’s present. Friedrich Engels said that, “I have learned more [from Balzac] than from all the professional historians, economists and statisticians put together.” Similarly, an imaginative science fiction writer might present to us a concrete vision of the future that surpasses all the efforts of the futurists.

In so far as science fiction is future history, it is always revisionary history, since each author always brings his or her vision of the future to the task of creating an imagined world. More and more, history simpliciter is becoming revisionary history as the equally imagined world of the past is disputed by historians who bring a particular vision to the explication and analysis of the past.

This similarity between the imagined worlds of the distant past and the distant future was a theme of one of the presentations at the 100 Year Starship Study symposium, “The Inertia of Past Futures” by Dr. Kathryn Denning, Associate Professor, Dept. of Anthropology, York University. Dr. Denning also emphasized the abstract character of thought as it is progressively further removed from the concrete realities of the present, so that the distant past and the distant future both share in this abstract quality.

We should welcome the vigorous emergence of revisionary history as a development of contemporary thought that helps to keep us honest. In so far as we uncritically accept the narratives bequeathed to us from the past, we usually accept at the same time the morals these narratives were formulated to support. This was another theme of Dr. Denning’s presentation: that we get “boxed in” by the inertia of past futures. Revisionary history gives us a different vision of the past, and therefore also a different moral.

Not only Dr. Denning, but also Alexander Wong of Yoyodyne General Systems who spoke on the third day of the 100 Year Starship Study symposium, made an explicitly revisionary treatment of history a central theme of their talks. Dr. Denning began her presentation by asking the audience if they thought that Magellan was the first to circumnavigate the globe, and then went on to point out that Magellan himself was killed halfway through the voyage. Alexander Wong took the Wright brothers as his theme for revisionary history, and pointed out how, once granted a patent, the Wrights used their patent to sue aircraft manufacturers in the US into non-existence, to the point that when the First World War was underway there was no US domestic aircraft industry, with the unintended consequence being that the aircraft that are remembered from the First World War were all European aircraft.

Both Dr. Denning and Alexander Wong more or less explicitly drew the moral that these figures, commonly represented as the great “winners” of history were also in a sense among history’s great losers. Dr. Denning went on to assert that the commonly received principle that the victor writes the history is not only bad for the victims, but is also bad for the victors. So whether or not we’re talking about armed conflict, it would seem that romanticized history written from the perspective of history’s “winners” is as bad for these winners as it is for the excluded and marginalized losers.

In her presentation, Dr. Denning repeatedly told her audience that the historical theses she was presenting were in no sense exceptional or marginal, but that they represented mainstream views in contemporary academic historiography. While it is more than a little mildly ironic that the authority of a given set of historical theses should be defended on the basis of their mainstream character by an historian who very clearly represents the tradition of “history from the bottom up” which seeks to recover the voices of the excluded and marginalized figures of history, I was even more surprised by the conclusion of her presentation.

Dr. Denning finished her presentation by making the remarkable claim that it was the capital extracted from the New World and sent back to Europe that funded the industrial revolution and made possible all that followed. This is remarkable because it represents the same abstract approach to history that Dr. Denning criticized in other areas of historical thought, but here it has been transplanted into the history of economics, asserted without justification, and set up as a strawman to prove the indebtedness of European industrial development to wealth looted from the peoples of the New World.

There is no question that European colonialists in the New World looted a massive amount of wealth from the New World and shipped it back to Europe. The Spanish were particularly systematic about this, collecting their booty on an annual basis and shipping it back to Spain on a fleet of treasure ships once a year. A few times these treasure fleets were captured and looted in turn by English privateers, but the vast majority of it made it to Spain, and Portugal also extracted a good deal of wealth from the New World and shipped it back to the Old World.

Just as the theses that Dr. Denning defended were unexceptionally mainstream, so in economic historiography it is unexceptionally mainstream to recognize that the massive importation of gold into Spain more or less ruined the Spanish economy through runaway inflation. Until David Hume and Adam Smith there was no theoretical framework available to analyze or understand macro-economic forces, but people certainly at the time knew that something was wrong, though they didn’t know exactly what to do about it. One finds in the writings of contemporaneous economists a struggle to understand what was happening to the Spanish economy.

It has also been argued — though this is less mainstream and more controversial — that the wealth shipped back to Portugal led to a steady diminution of domestic industry that led to the long twilight of the Portuguese economy and made it, as I have written elsewhere, the Bolivia of Western Europe, subject to extreme poverty and repeated political coups.

As I wrote above, English privateers did capture some of the Spanish treasure coming from the New World, but this was the exception rather than the rule. The early English colonies in the New World were not notable for their success or their wealth extraction, but for their repeated financial failures. Certainly the English did what they could to extract wealth from the New World, but they weren’t very successful at it. And after King Philip’s War they were essentially pushed back to a thin strip of land along the coast and lost nearly a century’s worth of progress of expansion into the interior of the continent.

All of this contrasts sharply with the record of the Iberian powers in the New World, with their encomiendas of thousands of native slaves working in plantation conditions and the extraction of enormous gold reserves from the civilizations of South America. Both the Spanish and the English colonial regimes were brutal, but the English mostly lost money from their brutalities, while the Spanish mostly profited. And in one of the notable ironies of history, the Spanish were ruined by their profit while the English were preserved from the “resource curse” of the New World through failed commercial ventures.

The industrial revolution that began in Europe and which therefore initiated industrial-technological civilization in Europe, began not in a Spain awash with gold from the New World, but in England, which had become so frustrated with having to spend money on the defense of its New World colonies that it tried to tax the colonials to pay for said defense. Spain and Portugal remained European backwaters of industrial development well into the twentieth century, isolated from the rest of Europe not only by the Pyrenees, but also by the stranglehold that the Catholic Church maintained over education in the Iberian Peninsula — perpetuated into the second half of the twentieth century by Generalissimo Francisco Franco.

The lessons of colonialism both from the traditional narrative celebrating colonization of the New World and from the now-dominant narrative of revisionary history that expresses horror over the colonization of the New World are both of them part of our moral legacy. It does not help to understand matters by adopting an abstract historical method in respect to one while criticizing the same in respect to the other.

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My Spaceflight Utopia

4 October 2011

Tuesday


In my account of the 100 Year Starship Study Symposium Day 3 I touched on the utopian character of many of the presentations. This utopianism was not limited to those who presented in the philosophical and religious track, but was perhaps most obvious in those discussing the institutional, organizational, and financial aspects of a starship project.

In my own presentation (which I discussed in 100 Year Starship Study Symposium Day 2) I explicitly foreswore utopianism, emphasizing that the future of civilization as I saw it was in no sense a utopian endeavor; even if we do not destroy ourselves or suffer a crippling failure of nerve that keeps us from striving toward greater things, the long-term human future as a spacefaring species will be as mixed as the human record on the earth.

After my presentation a fellow approached me and asked what I thought was the best approach to initiating a spacefaring society. I said that open markets, commercial competition, and low barriers to entry are the best bet for our future in space. Some of the earlier speakers had expressed their open suspicion of market-based economies, and when there was an open discussion after the presentations I grabbed the microphone for long enough to say that no planned economy has ever functioned efficiently. Stuart Brand began to take issue with this, and I added that there are, of course degrees of planning. In any case the point is that more planned economies are almost always less efficient than less planned economies, with the result being that unplanned economies almost always overtake planned economies, and this is one reason the plans of utopian communities almost always go awry and the utopia is transformed into a dystopia.

In any case, when I was pressed for more details by the fellow who was asking me questions after my presentation (I’m sorry I didn’t get his name), I responded, “Here’s my own personal utopian vision for human spaceflight.”

I went on to mention the African Space Research Program, that I previously wrote about in An African Space Program, and I suggested that if one of the Persian Gulf oil Sheikdoms such as Qatar or the UAE or Kuwait, looking for a place to put their billions, invested a large amount of money in the ASRP that the latter could afford to buy the equipment that they need and to hire the outside expertise that would make the difference.

Many of the Gulf oil Sheikdoms are awash in money from high oil prices, many of them are looking to invest that money, and many of them spend vast amounts of money on futuristic cities in the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula. It seems to me like the perfect opportunity to invest in a project with potentially great rewards in the future, to demonstrate one’s forward-thinking by becoming involved in a space program, and to do all this without the bureaucratic, institutional, and regulatory entanglements that threaten to smother the older and more established space programs of the Western world.

It would be a real competitive shot in the arm to the state-sponsored space programs of the US, Europe, Russia and China to be blindsided by the effort like this. Chris Mnamba of the ASRP has shown that he has the vision; the Gulf Sheikdoms have the money; to me it looks like a match made in the heavens. And one would think that at least one of the sheikdoms would like to add a spaceport to their gleaming modern cities.

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Headed Back to Portland

3 October 2011

Monday


I am headed back to Portland after having come to Florida for the 100 Year Starship Study public symposium in Orlando. I’ve chronicled my reactions to the symposium in three posts that I wrote on the evening of each day of the symposium while the events were still fresh in my mind: 100 Year Starship Study Symposium Day 1, 100 Year Starship Study Symposium Day 2, and 100 Year Starship Study Symposium Day 3.

I certainly learned some important lessons. If I ever get the chance to make another presentation, my first question will be, “How much time do I have?” My second question will be, “Do you have any limit on the number of slides that I can use with my presentation?” These are the parameters of public speaking. On a blog one can write as much or as little as one likes. The format is as flexible as one’s inspiration of the moment. When the personal time of others is involved, however, one’s degrees of freedom are constrained. That is a valuable lesson.

While I will not get a second chance to make a first impression, the ideas that I incorporated into my presentation will get a second chance, as one of the requirements for speaking at the 100YSS was to submit a paper, with the intention of the paper to be published in some future number of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society.

While I was working on my paper and my presentation I conceived a great many ideas that I could not include in my paper, and it would only take me a few months to write it all up in a book-length manuscript if I chose to do so. I may do this eventually, simply because of the intrinsic interest that I have in the ideas, but an earlier lesson learned is that no one buys and almost no one reads the books that I have self-published, so I hesitate to do any more self-publishing except for definitive manuscripts that express my point of view and which I wish to be preserved in some form, regardless of their being commercially non-viable.

I will continue to work on these ideas, since it was my intrinsic interest in the ideas that made me formulate the thoughts in the first place, and this ultimately led to my being present at the 100YSS symposium. As always happens with my philosophical projects, the ideas ultimately “leak” over into other projects, and I have already found important points of connection between these ideas about the moral value of a spacefaring civilization and more general concerns I have in metaphysics and ontology. While this intertextuality of my projects makes it extraordinarily difficult to finish any one project (which is a disadvantage), it also gives a robust philosophical context to any one idea, so that if I am able to give expression to a given idea, I also have a great deal of background material that gives consistent theoretical underpinnings to my work (which is an advantage).

Note added later

In so far as I filled fourteen pages of my notebook during my flights back from Tampa through Atlanta to Portland, the influence of having attended the symposium seems to be “jelling” in my mind and proving fruitful so far. We shall see if any really first class ideas come out of it.

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Sunday


The third and final day of the 100YSS symposium wound up exactly at noon, but I had incorrectly remembered the starting time as 9:00 am whereas it began in fact at 8:00 am, so I was late for the first panel discussion among the track chairs and missed most of it. The second panel, from 9:00 am to 10:30 am was about organizational considerations, sounded deadly dull but was in fact quite interesting. The third panel from 10:30 am to noon, which comprised the celebrities, was less interesting.

During the second panel there was a lively debate and some disagreement about the proper organizational framework for a 100 year starship project. The initial remarks by Alexander Wong of Yoyodyne General Systems received whoops of approval, and throughout the proceedings Mr. Wong repeatedly threw cold water on the contributions of the others. Mr. Wong was very much the hard-headed banker, exemplifying the line from Stendhal that, “Pour être bon philosopher il faut être sec, clair, sans illusion. Un banquier, qui a fait fortune, a une partie du caractère requis pour faire des découvertes en philosophie, c’est-à-dire pour voir clair dans ce qui est.” Mr. Wong urged the participants to, “Talk to investment bankers; they deal with trillions of dollars every day.”

Part of the apparent disagreement (call it a “disconnect” if you like) was really the members of the panel talking at cross-purposes to one another. There was no clarification as to whether the goal was to discuss the creation of a particular organization or institution that would last a hundred years and eventually be instrumental in the building of a starship, or whether what they were ultimately talking about was an overall change in the direction of contemporary civilization that would, in the fullness of time, result in humanity building a starship. These are very different visions and goals.

The opening remarks by James Schalkwyk of the University of Cape Town was a very interesting historical sketch of institutions that have lasted over extended periods of time (more than a hundred years), citing examples as diverse as the Roman Catholic Church and the General Electric corporation. Throughout the proceedings of the symposium the Catholic Church and religion more generally were cited as paradigmatic long-term institutions toward which any starship project should look for inspiration. But in the many examples cited throughout the symposium I never heard anyone mention the Hanseatic League, which seems to me an altogether better historical parallel than the other examples reviewed. The Hanseatic League had a loose but coherent structure, lasted for hundreds of years, left a permanent imprint on the culture of northern Europe, and was profit- and market-driven.

Throughout the symposium and during the second panel, it was both stated and implied on several occasions that humanity needs to put its own house in order and fix its problems before it sets out for the stars. Tan Huei Ming of the National University of Singapore implied this by saying that if we failed to do so, we would only take our human, all-too-human pollution and political problems out amongst the stars. In a subtle and unstated way this tied in to the utopian character of many of the presentations, as the speakers struggled to define the kind of society that could possibly survive a long-term, long-distance interstellar flight. Obviously, if we are going to wait to undertake interstellar journeys until we have our house in order on earth, these journeys will never happen. Humanity is not about to suddenly turn a corner and mutually participate in some great historical enterprise. Conflict is not going to come to an end. And in so far as competition is a form of conflict, conflict may well be the spur that does eventually put human beings in space for the long term.

Overweening ambition and conflict are virtues when it comes to undertaking grandly visionary projects — that is to say, projects like building a starship when the technology is not yet available to do this. During the European Middle Ages, civic pride together with eschatological hope drove ambitions for worldly achievement.

As I have noted, the building of cathedrals has been mentioned many times at 100YSS as an analogy for an multi-generational project. We would do well to recall that, in the building of these cathedrals, city-states (in fact, though not in name) competed with each other to erect the grandest edifice that would not only edify the local citizenry but which would also swell their hearts with pride to see the works of which they were capable and how this effort outshone that of their neighbors.

Another theme that emerged at least twice (yesterday during the presentations and today during the second panel) was the idea that one influence that may be behind contemporary apathy in relation to space exploration is that people mostly cannot see the stars. I hadn’t before thought of this as an unintended consequence of urbanization, but it certainly can be construed in this way. With the greater part of the species concentrated in cities with pervasive electrification and therefore pervasive lighting, the spectacular display of the heavens simply doesn’t feature in most people’s lives. This changes the human relationship to the stars. Now a rare vision of the heavens is associated with wilderness rather than civilization, because the lights of civilization blot out the stars, and it is only in a wilderness that we see the stars as our ancestors saw them.

While I was listening to the discussion of the organizational second panel I came to realize the potential value that the creation of a concrete and focused particular institution devoted to interstellar travel could have, though the approach I would intuitively favor (of the two implicitly contrasted) is that of guiding a change in contemporary civilization toward a spacefaring society. By adopting an extremely ambitious plan such as building a starship at the earlist possible time, however, certain advantages appear:

1) intermediate goals short of the final goal become routine,
2) intermediate goals short of the final goal become part of the ordinary business of life,
3) the sting is taken out of failures to achieve intermediate goals short of the final goal, because it is understood that continued attempts will be made until the intermediate goal is accomplished, and
4) A distant goal is like an ideal that remains out of human reach even as it seems tantalizingly close to our grasp, and therefore remains as a perpetual motivation.

In the meantime, humanity would build a spacefaring civilization on the way to attaining intermediate goals, and this spacefaring civilization is what would ultimately make the building of a starship practicable. Once in orbit with a sufficient workforce, building large-scale projects could proceed much more rapidly than many people realize. The slow and incremental part is the creation of an industrial infrastructure off the surface of the earth — that is to say, the industrialization of space. It would be difficult to rally public support for the industrialization of space — indeed, the very sound of it would be off-putting — but it might be realistic to rally public support behind something as visionary as a journey to the stars.

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Saturday


Today I had my opportunity to speak at the 100 Year Starship Study symposium. Prior to arriving, nothing was said about the length of individual presentations, or about the number of one’s PowerPoint slides. Upon arrival, my first contact with organization staff consisted of being scolded for the number of slides I had prepared (132). Also, the speakers were held to a close 20 minute time limit, with no appreciable time between speakers.

As a consequence, I had far too much material. I had to talk fast in order to give the better part of my presentation, and I had to skip over a good deal of material. So this was dissatisfying. My sister suggested that I gestured too much with the remote control for the slides, that I didn’t look at the audience enough but rather looked at the screen, and that I said “so” too many times. These constructive criticisms were welcome, as they were valid.

The result was that my talk was less than optimal, but I still managed to get my point across in a few areas. Given my near total lack of experience in public speaking, if I judge myself leniently for my inexperience, I could say that I didn’t do too badly. But it could have been much better. A couple of people approached me after I spoke and expressed an interest in what I had to say, which was rewarding.

Beyond my own presentation, which was the very last of the philosophical and religious talks which were held in one room (which was the poor cousin of the room where technical talks were held, in which latter there was standing room only), there were several other speakers. The most intellectually rigorous presentations were given by two German Protestant theologians, C. Weidemann and M. Waltemathe, both from Ruhr-Universität Bochum, who presented, respectfully, “Did Jesus Die for Klingons Too?” and “A Religious Vision for Interstellar Travel?”

In his exposition of the principle of mediocrity, C. Weidemann made an analogy with a lottery ticket, which was both insightful and a fruitful way to think about mediocrity after the Copernican Revolution (which is something I think about often). He suggested that most holders of a lottery ticket realize that they hold the “average” ticket, which is to say that they don’t win the prize. However, with further investigation you may discover that you have in fact won the prize and that the ticket you hold is an exception to the mediocre rule. This incorporates a perspective of increasing knowledge into the formulation of the principle of mediocrity, which corresponds better to our actual epistemic perspective than an unstated assumption of static knowledge.

In another talk, as well as in remarks following the presentations, K. Denning of York University offered another good example of a highly optimistic estimate of the accuracy of futurist predictions, which is something that I discussed previously in Synchronicities of Futurism. Professor Denning in particular cited H. G. Wells’ 1908 work The War in the Air as preternaturally accurate futurism.

I should emphasize that this was not the focus of Professor Dennning’s talk, but only a comment made in passing, but I think that this is revelatory of a particular conception of history, as I also had in mind when I mentioned this in connection with Michio Kaku and the Tofflers. If you hold that history can be accurately predicted (at least reasonably accurately) a very different conception of the scope of human moral action must be accepted as compared to a conception of history that assumes (as I do) what we are mostly blindsided by history.

A conception of history dominated by the idea that things mostly happen to us that we cannot prevent (and mostly can’t change) is what I have previously called the cataclysmic conception of history. The antithetical position is that in which the future can be predicted because agents are able to realize their projects. This is different in a subtle and an important way from either fatalism or determinism since this conception of predictability assumes human agency. This is what I have elsewhere called the political conception of history.

Perhaps it is only when I see this perspective up close that I realize how different it is from my own point of view. When I originally formulated the idea of the political conception of history I saw much of myself in it, but now that I realize that it corresponds to a commitment to the accuracy of futurism, I see in concrete detail why I must reject it except for special cases that are the exception to the rule.

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The political conception of history.

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Friday


I am just back from the first day of the 100 Year Starship Study symposium. The largest conference room used for the keynote address was filled to capacity with what I estimate were several hundred people. The first session and several subsequent sessions were standing room only, so the event is quite well attended.

It is obvious that many of those in attendance have been inspired by science fiction. One theme that came up several different times in different talks was that of science fiction as a thought experiment for the future. I wrote a longish post about science fiction — The Role of Science Fiction in Industrialized Civilization — but did not even consider this theme. In retrospect, it seems obvious, but apparently wasn’t obvious to me previously.

Another theme that occurred throughout the talks to which I listened was the question of the institutional framework that would be needed to take responsibility for a very long term project such as a one hundred year initiative to build a starship. These discussions pose an obvious question: is it only possible to undertake a large-scale, long-term project as an institutional undertaking? What are the alternatives?

Recently in This could go somewhere, or it could go absolutely nowhere… I contrasted the heroic conception of science with the iterative conception of science, as extensions of my previous discussions of The Heroic Conception of Civilization and The Iterative Conception of Civilization. It strikes me now that the idea of planning a starship has something heroic about it, but in so far as it is planned as part of a large-scale institutional undertaking it also falls under the iterative conception.

Comparisons were made between multi-generational projects like building the pyramids or the cathedrals and building a starship. These historical analogies also involve both the heroic conception of the project and the institutional iteration that allows the project to be continued. Probably most great projects in history are like this: an admixture of the heroic and the iterative. Yet to realize that a presupposition is being made obviously suggests the possibility of an alternative, and in so far as science fiction has served as a thought experiment (as mentioned above) this suggests a thought experiment of a large-scale, long-term project that is not conceived or carried out as an institutional undertaking.

There was also a good deal of earnest discussion over how to interest the public and keep the public interested. There were many interesting ideas (things I wouldn’t have thought about, like video games), and lots of proposals were formulated. That makes this symposium a hopeful start.

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On my way…

29 September 2011

Thursday


By the primitive expedient of a jetliner I am on my way to the 100 Year Starship Symposium, which will be held this weekend in Orlando, Florida. I will be making a presentation on “The Moral Imperative of Human Spaceflight,” and will also write about whatever else I happen to encounter at the symposium. The symposium has a comprehensive agenda (I suspect that most will view the “religious and philosophical track” as a sideshow), so I looking forward to hearing what others think about the future of spaceflight, and especially the ambitious agenda of travel to the stars.

I expect the other participants will be as eager as I am to see the expansion of life and civilization in the universe, and no doubt there will also be something of an air of impatience with living in a time when this dream is yet beyond our capacity. I would suggest as a motto for the symposium a famous line from Bobby Burns:

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?

What’s a heaven for? Heaven is a receptacle into which we pour our dreams and visions and ambitions and prophecies. It is a warehouse of hopes… but not merely hopes and dreams. Now, the heavens are more concrete — and more concretely accessible — than ever before. Whereas the heavens were once nearly exclusively the province of mystery, now the skies are an object of knowledge.

For classical antiquity, and possibly before then back into our prehistoric past, the heavens were a place, one place among other places. It was an inaccessible place, but it was a home of the gods who lived more grandly than we do, but still they lived recognizable lives in a recognizable setting. Then western civilization entered its long twilight in which all knowledge was organized theologically, and much that had once been concrete became abstract, ethereal, and almost unimaginable. The heavens were lost to us. All things solid had melted into air.

After the scientific revolution, and especially the work of early cosmologists like Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler, the heavens once again became solid and concrete. The heavens were still a realm of hopes and dreams, but they also became in addition a real aspiration that was to be fulfilled in the fullness of time. This process continues today, and so it is with concrete hopes and dreams that we can look to the starry heavens above as our future abode.

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There was an article in the New York Times about the 100 Year Starship Study symposium: Offering Funds, U.S. Agency Dreams of Sending Humans to Stars

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