100YSS Symposium 2012: Day 3, Part II

17 September 2012

Monday


In 100YSS Symposium 2012: Day 3, Part I I discussed the interview with Le Var Burton and the talk given my Jill Tarter, both of which events took place during the plenary sessions. Now I will consider some of the other presentations of the day when the group split up into its various tracks.

During one of the plenary sessions it was announced that a presentation that did not appear on the program would be taking place, and this sounded quite interesting to me, so I went to it, and this was “Existential Risk, Human Survival, and the Future of Life” by Heath Rezabek. Mr Rezabek identified himself as a librarian, and his concern was with archiving human civilization. To this end he explained Nick Bostrum’s categories of existential risk (which I first encountered last year at the 2011 100YSS symposium), briefly discussed the Fermi paradox (which I mentioned in my last post), and then went on to detail the possibility of setting up vast archives of human civilization based on Paolo Soleri’s arcology designs.

Based on Nick Bostrum’s conception of existential risk, Mr. Rezabek asserted that “survival is not enough,” because mere survival may play into those categories of existential risk that include permanent stagnation or flawed realization. After Mr. Rezabek’s presentation I asked if the existence of a comprehensive archive didn’t hold the inherent risk of stagnation. Mr. Rezabek responded that the archive would not aim at comprehensiveness, and another guest in the audience said that the archives would create their own artifacts and therefore not fall into stagnation. However, I was unconvinced. This sounded to me much too much like a futurologist’s Byzantium which preserved the works of classical antiquity and even added to them, but not in a way that was robust or vigorous from the perspective of civilizational growth. Another lecturer had mentioned the Corpus Iuris Civilis, better known as Justinian’s digest of Roman law, I thought about going into an explanation of how knowledge tends to get embalmed under such circumstances, but I realized that it would have taken too long to try to make my case.

After Mr. Rezabek’s presentation I stayed on for Gabriel Rothblatt’s “Spacesteading — Settling the High Frontier.” Mr. Rothblatt, who identified himself as a politician, visited a question that was discussed much in last year’s 100YSS symposium, which was the problematic nature of referring to the “colonization of space,” because of its associations with the odious history of colonization. It probably would be better to stop speaking in terms of “space colonization” and instead to speak of “spacesteading,” though I don’t think that the contemporary conception of space colonization is deeply indebted to the tradition of colonialism, and if we focus too much on words and how they offend people rather than on ideas and actions there is a danger that we will never emerge again into the light of day. I wrote down Mr. Rothblatt’s e-mail address and sent him a question by e-mail (to which he has not yet responded; if he does respond I will include it in an attachment) as I didn’t have an opportunity to ask this question after his presentation:

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.

After this, I went to another room to catch another presentation, and found that the schedule had been scrambled a bit, though I was fortunate as I managed to catch the presentation of Stephen Andrew Taylor about the opera that he wrote based on a work of noted science fiction writer and Portland resident Ursula LeGuin. I had spoken to Mr. Taylor the previous day and so had hoped to see his work, and his presentation included a couple of clips of a production of his opera. I had asked him if he wrote the libretto, and he said that it was taken from LeGuin’s text; like many of LeGuin’s stories, the idea behind the opera was both compelling and inventive, involved with the emergence of a new religion on a generational starship.

I found myself very intellectually engaged in the final afternoon session of the “Becoming and Interstellar Civilization” track, as I enjoyed all the presentations. Steven Brant of Trimtab Management Systems spoke on “Humanity must see itself as one human family before it can go to the star.” I had spoken with Mr. Brant at lunch prior to his presentation, and mentioned that I had tried to see his talk earlier but thought I had missed it because of the changed schedule. He told me he was next up, so I hadn’t missed it after all. Mr. Brant was particularly concerned that human beings overcome their destructive tribalism, which overcoming he termed “the necessary transition.” Mr Brant also gave a quick thumbnail sketch of James Burke’s views on how societies can become transformed by adopting a new perspective on matters. He particularly cited Burke’s 1985 PBS television series The Day the Universe Changed, which I had watched in rapt attention during its first PBS run, and had even videotaped in order to watch again later.

Steven Brant’s presentation during the Becoming an Interstellar Civilization track.

A careful viewing of Burke’s television series, especially in contrast from his earlier television series called Connections, reveals the profound change of perspective in Burke’s own views as he studied the history of science and civilization. Burke’s Connections was very much in the established tradition of scientific realism, but apparently there came a day when James Burke’s universe changed, since in The Day the Universe Changed he adopted a strong perspectivalist position. Mr. Brant adopted Burke’s perspectivalism and gave an informal exposition of the theory-dependence of observations, though without going into all the implications that this has for Kuhnian incommensurability. This then set up a tension in the later part of his talk, as he went into Amory Lovins’ emphasis on the need for political decisions based upon facts and being able to root out misinformation and what is untrue while giving everyone the idea that it is OK to make mistakes. The problem here is that if observations are theory dependent as in a strong perspectivalist position, then there are not facts to get right or wrong, and no facts on which to base political decisions.

All of this may sound rather arcane, but it cashes out in important ways. The idea of humanity as one human family is a construction of Enlightenment universalism. For better or for worse, Enlightenment universalism has proved to be less durable than ethnic identity. The great mass of human beings take their identity (again, for better or worse) from their ethnic background, and if this ethnic identity is attacked or dismissed as illusory or unimportant, you immediately encounter resistance, because no one wants to be deprived of their identity. There is a fact of the matter on both sides of this question: both the reality of a single hominid species and the reality of ethnically distinct enclaves of the human family that identify more with each other than with outsiders. However, I will allow that Mr. Brant’s exposition of Burkean perspectivalism does constitute a proof of concept that profound changes in our perception of our relationship to the world can in fact come about.

The problematic nature of ethnic identity and human unity was, in fact, cashed out in the very next presentation, when Bob Hawkins spoke about the perception of human spaceflight in Turkey, which is a developing country with almost no space industry but with a popular interest in space travel. Mr. Hawkins discussed how the Turk’s own ethnic identity plays into the interest in space travel, since the Turks self-identify as nomads for whom space is simply the next frontier for a nomadic existence in the future. After his presentation I asked Mr. Hawkins if he was aware of George Friedman’s The Next 100 Years, since this book has quite a bit of futuristic speculation on a Turkish space program. He didn’t know the book, but once I mentioned it another member of the audience identified himself as part of Strategic Forecasting (which is Friedman’s consulting company) and who supplied Mr. Hawkin’s with some documentation on the details of my reference so he could look it up later.

Kathleen Toerpe’s presentation to the Becoming an Interstellar Civilization track

Next was Kathleen Toerpe on “From the Moon to the Stars: tapping into share culture to create public momentum for interstellar travel.” I was very impressed with Professor Toerpe’s thoughtful and incisive presentation, which was the most coherent formulation yet of concrete proposals for public outreach, which she called a “Culture Strategy.” If I were myself putting together the 100YSS initiative, I would take the business plan vision outlined by Marsal Gifra that I had seen the previous day and use this to implement the culture strategy outlined by Professor Toerpe. With these two programs together, I really could believe that the necessary momentum to sustain human spacesteading and to avoid permanent stagnation is possible.

Next was Antoine Faddoul who gave a great presentation on how to connect people to the stars, which he sees (rightly) as a common human experience. Mr. Faddoul’s presentation was both systematic and practical in terms of relating stories of the stars to the lives of ordinary people. Lastly in the track, and followed by the question and answer period that took the session to 5:30 pm, which was a half hour beyond the official wrap up of proceedings, was Chris Radcliff of Global Spin on “Generation Zero: Fostering a Culture of Spacefarers.” Generation Zero is the generation that builds and facilitates a generational starship; generation 1 is the generation that embarks on a generational journey, and generation n is the generation that arrives. Mr. Radcliff was concerned to identify contemporary “Maker” culture with Erik Erikson’s generativity stage of human development. I would have given it a rather different exposition, since Mr. Radcliff’s “makers” seem to me to have more to do with Richard Florida’s “creative class” than with Eriksonian generativity.

Chris Radcliff’s presentation to the becoming an Interstellar civilization track

While I found myself more or less nodding in agreement that a generation zero would need to foster a culture of spacefaring, and I really liked his idea of selecting among small pre-existing colonies in the asteroid belt (presumably present by the time a starship is built) to see whom might be best positioned to enter into a generational starship with the least amount of conflict and the greatest degree of comity, but I was made a little uneasy by the many references in Mr. Radcliff’s talk about “choosing generation 1.” Why would anyone want to be “chosen” by some quasi-patriarchal entity? Who is doing the choosing? If these makers had the temperament implied by Mr. Radcliff, they would snort at being “chosen” by anyone who would presume to offer then any way of life different from that which they had chosen for themselves.

Now, I many be seriously misinterpreting Mr. Radcliff’s point, and I’m sure he would have put it in different terms if I had had a chance to ask my question of him directly, but this wasn’t a problem exclusive to Mr. Radcliff’s presentation. Like the subtle undercurrent of the Fermi paradox to which I alluded yesterday, the secondary sub-theme of the 100YSS 2012 symposium was that of a benign but patriarchal entity that would build the starship, select its crew, and send them on their great adventure as though wishing their children happiness and success in life. It is not difficult to imagine what a Freudian or a Foucauldian critique would make of this. And this is important, because if the social context of a journey for the stars is wrong, nothing will come of it. It is the lack of political and social will to sustain the space program that marginalized popular space exploration consciousness after the Apollo program. If this isn’t addressed in an effective and realistic way, it will be a very long time until we get to the stars, if we do not in fact fall prey to the existential risks of permanent stagnation or flawed realization.

With that, the 100YSS for 2012 was at an end for me, and I grabbed my bags and hopped on a taxi to the airport without so much as a backward glance at Houston.

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Note Added 21 September 2012: I noted above that I had sent a question to Mr. Gabriel Rothblatt about his presentation at the 100YSS 2012 symposium but hadn’t yet received a response as of my writing the above. Mr. Rothblatt has since responded to me, and I have copied his response in Addendum on Spacesteading.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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One Response to “100YSS Symposium 2012: Day 3, Part II”

  1. J.N., a friend pointed me to your excellent summary of your 100YSS experience, including our short Q&A at my session on Vessel Archives. I was pleased to get the question, and would love to continue poking holes in the hull to see what does and doesn’t leak. So, I wanted to clarify:

    In saying that no single Vessel Archive would be comprehensive, it’s more of a concession that no single installation *could* be. This would be why one’d seek to sample widely and deeply, and as extensively as possible, all the whole assuming that you couldn’t possibly have sampled the sum of human knowledge. At some point you have to rest in some confidence that the handful can stand for the sack-full. (In the analogy of a bag of marbles.)

    When you asked whether stagnation from within the habitat archive was a risk, what I meant to convey is that no single instance of such a habitat could solve for that issue alone; rather, this would depend on robust and diverse attempts at many different Vessel Archive habitats by many other concerns, each with its own priorities and solutions. We cannot know what will lend selective advantage in a crisis, so we have to be open to many approaches.

    Within any single Vessel Archive habitat, of course stagnation would be a risk; but in comparison to the far larger risk of global stagnation in the case of a catastrophe, I think that small-scale stagnation is a risk we could plan for. Remember, we’re talking about a worst-case scenario, where stagnation of colony archives would be the least of humanity’s problems.

    Yet even today, methods exist to help assure that any such hardy folk would had access to the world’s wealth of information (given time to rediscover it), even if networks were down and none of the Vessel Archives were functioning as relays or beacons. Recent work by Church, Gao, and Kosuri brings us a method for storing binary data in DNA which could yield the storage of the worlds’ store of digital information (2011), clocking in at about 1.8 zettabytes, in about 4 grams of DNA. http://wyss.harvard.edu/viewpressrelease/93/

    Of course, the small community of a few thousand humans would face its own stagnation issues, as you suggest. But at least they’d have access to ideas, information, methods, tools, and so on, all in one place. These are also issues we’ll need to work out for any eventual interstellar habitat as well; so may as well apply our space dividend on Earth.

    This last bit also speaks to my own take on your larger critique: For me, if our efforts do not first and constantly speak to improving the lot of life on Earth, then we will have already failed, whatever becomes of the space-farers. My proposal, and some others encouragingly seen at the conference, points out something that could be done in the short and medium term which could improve the prospects for life on Earth enough that a long term might even be possible. I’m at deep peace in leaving that long term for future others, and throwing my very best at these closer problems, while we can.

    One last note: In reading your post, it seems like you might enjoy some of Nick Bostrom’s other material. http://www.nickbostrom.com/ He uses some intriguing logical arguments and thought experiments to edge closer to some deep challenges than I’ve most often seen attempted.

    Anyhow, thanks for the question and thoughts! I’d love to talk more in the future, and am getting my open specification site for Vessel Archives up as we speak.

    Be well,

    – Heath Rezabek, Austin TX

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