Sunday


Late Adopter Spacefaring Civilizations:

Adoption-Lifecycle

The Preemption that Didn’t Happen


Wernher von Braun's design for a rotating space station that could simulate gravity.

Wernher von Braun’s design for a rotating space station that could simulate gravity.

Generalizing the Preemption Hypothesis

In The Preemption Hypothesis I advanced the idea that civilizations are sometimes suddenly preempted and rapidly supplanted by another kind of civilization. The paradigm case of this is the industrial revolution, which preempted a gradually emerging scientific civilization — a civilization I sometimes call Modernism without Industrialism — in favor of a radically different kind of civilization that changed the basic structure of life wherever the industrial revolution arrived.

A generalization of the preemption hypothesis suggests that any civilization is vulnerable to sudden preemption and rapid supplanting, should historical circumstances happen to line up — i.e., the ground is prepared for an innovation that arrives, which in the case of the industrial revolution meant that the legal and institutional framework of a commercial society was in place when the steam engine was invented, allowing this invention to be rapidly exploited, which in turn drove rapid social change.

The iconic space station featured in 2001: A Space Odyssey was an elaboration of von Braun's wheel space station.

The iconic space station featured in 2001: A Space Odyssey was an elaboration of von Braun’s wheel space station.

Unfulfilled Preemptions

If the generalization of the preemption hypothesis holds good, we would expect to be able to identify unfulfilled preemptions in history, and while any such judgment is inherently open to question, past preemptions that did not occur are not unfamiliar. On several occasions I have written about how Hero’s steam turbine did not trigger an industrial revolution in classical antiquity, nor did Taqi al-Din’s turbine trigger an industrial revolution in medieval Islamic civilization (cf. The Industrial Revolution and Scientific Civilization, Historical Disruption, and Hero’s Steam Engine and the Apollo Space Program).

In more recent history I would argue that an unfulfilled preemption occurred in the second half of the twentieth century. The industrial-technological civilization of the middle of the twentieth century (itself the consequence of preemption of the industrial revolution) might have been preempted by the sudden emergence of a spacefaring civilization. The technology was present, the ideas were in circulation, and even the economic basis of such an effort was in place. Nevertheless, this did not happen.

Often in the case of unfulfilled preemptions we find that a technology was present, but it is not yet fully exploited because a comprehensive conception of its use simply did not exist. I previously pointed this out in relation to the cluster of technologies that rapidly came into use during the Second World War (cf. Counter-factual Weapons Systems), when, during a period of five years, ballistic missiles, digital encryption, digital computers, radar, nuclear weapons, and jet propulsion all became available. While these technologies were individually put into use, the full comprehensive vision of how these technologies would function in concert was lacking, and it took several subsequent decades to draw out the consequences of these discoveries.

Another historical analogy: the first heavier-than-air powered human flight took place in 1903; the First World War began a decade later. The development of aircraft technology during the less than five year period of the First World War was in some ways as rapid as the technological developments that characterized the Second World War, and, moreover, by the end of the war the idea of strategic bombing had emerged, large fleets of airplanes communicating by radio were launching coordinated attacks on targets across national borders. It is arguable, on this basis, that the technologies available during the First World War reached a greater level of integration, and achieved that integration earlier, as compared to comparable technological innovations of the Second World War.

The NASA Integrated Program Plan (IPP) was an ambitious program that didn't get funded.

The NASA Integrated Program Plan (IPP) was an ambitious program that didn’t get funded.

What makes the transition to spacefaring civilization so fraught?

Spacefaring, as we know, is difficult. It is also dangerous and expensive. But it is not more dangerous or expensive than any number of routine human activities — though it may well be intellectually and technically more difficult than just about anything else accomplished by human civilization. If we had experienced a spacefaring preemption in the second half of the twentieth century, it is almost certain that many lives would have been lost in the effort to establish a demographically significant human presence in space. But we must place these casualties in context. We routinely accept automobile casualties in the tens of thousands every year (in the United States alone; global figures are much higher). A major spacefaring effort would have involved an increase in the loss of life, but it is unlikely that this figure would have even approached the 40,000 or so highway fatalities experienced every year, year on year. The commercial spacefaring industry is likely to mirror the commercial aviation industry, which does experience catastrophic failures and loss of life, but is statistically far safer than travel on any highway.

Similar arguments to those above could be made regarding the expense of a major spacefaring effort: it would have been expensive, but not radically more expensive than any number of other initiatives undertaken in human history. It would be difficult to argue that funding the space program at a level that would have made a spacefaring preemption possible would have “broken” the economy of either the US or the USSR, though this is often suggested. I would suggest, on the contrary, that if significant funding had followed the Apollo Program, rather than collapsing after the “space race” was won, that the unintended and unexpected technological spin-offs of a major space program would have transformed the terrestrial economy. However, counter-factuals are difficult if not impossible to prove, so I doubt I would convince anyone who did not want to be convinced on this score.

Probably among the least likely factors to be cited regarding the difficulty of the transition to spacefaring civilization would be the intellectual forces that shape history, but I think in the case of the spacefaring preemption that did not happen that it was the intellectual infrastructure that was the decisive element that derailed this potential historical disruption. Humanity was not ready to become a spacefaring species in the second half of the twentieth century; our concerns remained overwhelmingly terrestrial concerns, and those who tried to get their fellow Earth-bound human beings (Earth-bound in mind as well as in body) to see the possibilities for humanity beyond Earth were largely ignored. It was and still is routine to dismiss large-scale spacefaring as an impossible dream, notwithstanding proven technology and numerous space exploration successes, including human spaceflight.

Gerard K. O'Neill's conception of a spacefaring civilization with current technology was widely discussed, but never funded.

Gerard K. O’Neill’s conception of a spacefaring civilization with current technology was widely discussed, but never funded.

Crossing the Spacefaring Chasm

The absence of a relatively rapid spacefaring preemption of industrial-technological civilization in the recent past does not mean that terrestrial civilization will never make the transition to spacefaring civilization. This transition could come about as the result of a later preemption — perhaps as the result of new newly available technology that drastically reduces the cost of transport to Earth orbit — or as the result of a gradual and incremental transition that involves no preemption incident. In the latter case, it is entirely possible that planetary industrial-technological civilization might continue for hundreds or thousands of years, and hundreds or thousands of years of gradual transition would characterize the eventual emergence of a spacefaring civilization.

In several contexts (e.g., Getting to Starships and The Zoo Hypothesis as Thought Experiment) I have emphasized that human terrestrial civilization cannot be thought of as an “early adopter” spacefaring civilization. An early adopter spacefaring civilization would be a spacefaring civilization that came about as a result of a preemption episode in the early history of space travel. In the case of spacefaring, this did not happen; we did not widely adopt spacefaring technologies as soon as they were available and employ them to begin a human diaspora in the cosmos.

If our civilization does become a spacefaring civilization (we cannot yet say if that will happen), it will do so decades or centuries after having possessed the technological capability to do this, and so must be considered a late-adopter spacefaring civilization, if it is (or will become) any kind of spacefaring civilization at all. Spacefaring civilization has experienced is symbolic firsts, but it has not experienced its horizon — at least, not for human civilization (if there are other civilizations in the cosmos, there may be a civilization or civilizations that have experienced a spacefaring preemption). The temporal distance between spaceflight symbolic firsts and a spaceflight horizon is yet to be determined.

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Sunday


proprioception

In the spring of 1914, just before the outbreak of World War 1 (and exactly one hundred years ago as I write this), Bertrand Russell gave a series of Lowell Lectures later published as Our Knowledge of the External World. This is a classic exposition of Russell’s thought which had a significant influence on Anglo-American analytical philosophy.

In the audience for one of the later iterations of these lectures was Will Durant, the noted American historian, whose The Story of Philosophy was so successful in the inter-war years that it freed him up to write his multi-volume The Story of Civilization. In The Story of Philosophy Durant wrote of Russell’s 1914 lectures:

“When Bertrand Russell spoke at Columbia University in 1914, he looked like his subject, which was epistemology — thin, pale, and moribund; one expected to see him die at every period. The Great War had just broken out, and this tender-minded, peace-loving philosopher had suffered from the shock of seeing the most civilized of continents disintegrate into barbarism. One imagined that he spoke of so remote a subject as ‘Our Knowledge of the External World’ because he knew it was remote, and wished to be as far as possible from actualities that had become so grim. And then, seeing him again, ten years later, one was happy to find him, though fifty-two, hale and jolly, and buoyant with a still rebellious energy. This despite an intervening decade that had destroyed almost all his hopes, loosened all his friendships, and broken almost all the threads of his once sheltered and aristocratic life.”

Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy, New York: Time Incorporated, 1962, pp. 442-443

Others were more moved by Russell’s thin, pale, and moribund epistemology. Rudolf Carnap read the lectures in book form, and describes the experience in terms reminiscent of a religious conversion:

…in my philosophical thinking in general I learned most from Bertrand Russell. In the winter of 1921 I read his book, Our Knowledge of the External World, as a Field For Scientific Method in Philosophy. Some passages made an especially vivid impression on me because they formulated clearly and explicitly a view of the aim and method of philosophy which I had implicitly held for some time. In the Preface he speaks about “the logical-analytic method of philosophy” and refers to Frege’s work as the first complete example of this method. And on the very last pages of the book he gives a summarizing characterization of this philosophical method in the following words:

The study of logic becomes the central study in philosophy: it gives the method of research in philosophy, just as mathematics gives the method in physics…

All this supposed knowledge in the traditional systems must be swept away, and a new beginning must be made… To the large and still growing body of men engaged in the pursuit of science,… the new method, successful already in such time-honored problems as number, infinity, continuity, space and time, should make an appeal which the older methods have wholly failed to make… The one and only condition, I believe, which is necessary in order to secure for philosophy in the near future an achievement surpassing all that has hitherto been accomplished by philosophers, is the creation of a school of men with scientific training and philosophical interests, unhampered by the traditions of the past, and not misled by the literary methods of those who copy the ancients in all except their merits.

I felt as if this appeal had been directed to me personally. To work in this spirit would be my task from now on And indeed henceforth the application of the new logical instrument for the purposes of analyzing scientific concepts and of clarifying philosophical problems has been the essential aim of my philosophical activity.

Rudolf Carnap, “Intellectual Autobiography,” in The Philosophy of Rudolf Carnap, edited by Paul Arthur Schilpp, p. 13

Russell’s works set the tone and, to a slightly lesser extent, set the agenda for analytical philosophy, in writing such words that inspired and influenced the next generation of philosophers. While Carnap felt himself to be called to a new kind of philosophical work by Russell’s stirring pages, Russell was nevertheless following in a long and distinguished line, which is nothing other than then mainstream of Western philosophy from Aristotle through Descartes and Kant to Russell himself. Descartes is usually remembered for the “epistemological turn” that defines modern Western philosophy, but Descartes was very much schooled in Scholasticism, and Scholasticism was deeply Aristotelian, so that the unbroken line of European philosophy from Aristotle to Russell and beyond may be compared to the “Golden Chain” of philosophers in the Platonic succession of classical antiquity.

The Aristotelian succession of scientifically-minded philosophers tends to be logical rather than intuitive (Aristotle was the first to formulate a formal logic), analytical in its method rather than synthetic or eclectic, and empirical rather than idealistic. But all philosophers, Platonic or Aristotelian, are interested in ideas, and it is the way in which ideas are expressed and incorporated that differs between the two camps. The Aristotelians can no more do without ideas than the Platonists, though ideas tend to enter into Aristotelian thought by way of schematic conceptions that leave their imprint upon the empirical data, and subtly guide the interpretation of all experience.

Aristotle himself is perhaps the best exemplification of this schematization of empirical knowledge according to philosophical categories. The canonical quinquipartitie division of the senses goes back at least to Aristotle’s On the Soul (commonly known as De anima). That our senses consist of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching is an idea due to Aristotle’s De anima, and while this division is based on human faculties of perception and has intuitive plausibility, there are ways in which the division is arbitrary. This is one of my favorite works by Aristotle, so I hope that the reader will understand when I say that Aristotle’s division of experience into five senses is arbitrary, that I say so as a reader who is sympathetic to Aristotle’s account.

The Aristotelian division of the senses into five has bequeathed us an impoverished conception of the self. If we think of how the sense of touch is described and incorporated into accounts of the senses, it is as though we were only capable of experiencing bodies as objectified, touched (or touching) from the outside but not felt from within. And yet we experience ourselves from within more continuously than any other form of human experience — even when we close our eyes and stop our ears. Interoception is how we experience our own bodies from the inside. That to say, a part of the world is “wired” from within by our nervous system (which is itself part of the world in turn), and reveals itself to us viscerally. This is one of the consequences of the fact that we human beings constitute the universe experiencing itself (albeit not the whole the universe, but only a very small part thereof).

Recently philosophy has made significant strides in doing justice to what we feel and what we know through our bodies, which is both complex and subtle, and therefore particularly vulnerable to schematic over-simplifying accounts such as Aristotle’s. (I have noted in several posts that recent philosophy of mind has focused on the embodiment of mind, which may be considered another expression of the felt need to do justice to the body.) There is, for example, a wide recognition of what are called kinesthetic sensations, which are the kind of sensations that you feel when you engage in physical activities. When you run, for example, you don’t merely feel the onrush of air evaporating your sweat on the surface of your skin, you also feel your muscles straining, and if something goes wrong you will really feel that. And unless you have one of many disorders, your body has an almost perfect subconscious knowledge of where each limb is in relation to every other limb, which is why we are able to feed ourselves without thinking about it. Because we don’t think about it, but have reduced this knowledge to habit, we don’t think of it as either sensation or knowledge, but it is both.

Even Sam Harris, who doesn’t spend much time on general epistemological inquiries in his books, made a point of citing a litany of bodily sensations:

“Your nervous system sections the undifferentiated buzz of the universe into separate channels of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch, as well as other senses of lesser renown — proprioception, kinesthesia, enteroreception, and even echolocation.”

Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005, “Reason in Exile,” p. 41

In this quote, with its allusion to the “undifferentiated buzz” of experience, there is a hint of William James:

“The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming, buzzing, confusion; and to the very end of life, our location of all things in one space is due to the fact that the original extents or bignesses of all the sensations which came to our notice at once, coalesced together into one and the same space.”

William James, The Principles of Psychology, 1890, CHAPTER XIII, “discrimination and Comparison”

James in this short passage has put his finger right on two crucial aspects of perception: that the world comes to us in an undifferentiated welter of sensations, and that we somehow seamlessly knit together this welter into one and the same world. Much as our familiar senses are fully integrated in our experience, so that we experience one world, and not a world of sight, a world of sound, so too our visceral sensations of proprioception, kinaesthesia, and interoception are so subtly integrated that it is only with difficulty that we can distinguish them.

The example of echolocation (which Harris includes in his litany while admitting in a footnote that is not very acute in human beings, but is still present in a limited sense) is especially interesting, because it is a function of hearing that is not exactly identical to hearing as we usually think of hearing (that is to say, hearing that lies outside the Aristotelian template). Moreover, the sensory apparatus inside our skulls that is responsible for hearing is also responsible for vestibular sensations (see glossary below), so that one and the same sense organ allows us more than one perspective on one and the same world.

The seamless integration of sense experience is one of the great unappreciated aspects of the senses in philosophy. Of course, Kant’s transcendental aesthetic was centrally concerned with this problem, there is Husserl on passive synthesis, and there is (or was) Gestalt psychology, and other theories as to how this happens, but none of these are quite right. None of these formulations really drive home the blooming, buzzing confusion of sensation and the unity of the world this sensation reveals. This is the paradox of the one and the many as its manifests itself in sensation.

The feeling of weight, of how one’s body relates to the Earth and to other bodies, is a sensation and that is so subtle and complex, involving both the senses recognized by Aristotle as well as the bodily sensations that Aristotle passed over in silence, that it is extraordinarily difficult to say where one sensation of weight leaves off and another picks up. Consequently, the feeling of weight is difficult to analyze, and most especially its relation to sight — which seems to provide the greater part of our conscious experience of the world — is negligible. When we realize how we typically express knowledge in visual metaphors — e.g., I see what you mean — the disconnect between sight and the feeling of weight takes an a special significance.

To introduce the feeling of weight immediately suggests also the feeling of weightlessness — zero gravity or microgravity conditions, as one experiences in Earth orbit or in deep space. Only a very small number of human beings have experienced weightlessness, and I am not among those few, but I will assume that interoception is fully implicated in the experience of weightlessness. But it is much more than this. Simply put, the experience of weight is the experience of gravity, and, by way of interoception, our body entire is an organ for the sensation of the very fabric of spacetime — our knowledge of the external world by way of our knowledge of the internal world.

When we stand on the surface of Earth and look up at the stars, we also feel the gravity of Earth throughout our body, pulling insistently on every part of us and forcing us to recognize continuously and without exception our physical relationship to Earth. In the most intimate and visceral ways we sense through our animal bodies the great forces that shape planets, stars, galaxies, and the universe entire. We know spacetime not as a mere abstraction, but as a constitutive part of our being. This intimate knowledge of spacetime has shaped our intuitive knowledge and understanding of our place in the cosmos, much as our ability to see the stars has similarly shaped our sense of ourselves as part of the universe. (This is what I called, in a recent post on my other blog, Visceral Cosmology.)

It is not only the visceral sensation of our own spatiality that we know through interoception, but also our own temporality. We not only sense time in the Aristotelian sense as the measure of motion (seeing change in the world), but our minds also give us a personal consciousness of the passage of time. This is as remarkable as our sensation of gravity (i.e., spacetime curvature). Our internal time consciousness, so tied up in our personal identity, reflects the larger temporal structure of the universe, pointing in the same direction as the other arrows of time, and giving us another immediate form or intuition into the very structure of the world. The gnawing tooth of time that ultimately shapes everything in the world also gnaws away inside us.

Our minds and the intuitions that it has about the world have been no less shaped by gravity and time than have our bodies. And in so far as gravity is the distortion of spacetime in the presence of mass, our visceral feelings of weight, as well as our consciousness of time, gives us an immediate intuitive perception of the curvature of spacetime. We possess a kind of interoception of the cosmos. We feel the world in our bones and sinews, as it were.

Here lies a crucial clue to understanding the Overview Effect (cf. The Epistemic Overview Effect, The Overview Effect as Perspective Taking, Hegel and the Overview Effect, and The Overview Effect in Formal Thought) Discussions of the overview effect tend to focus on seeing the Earth whole from space, and this is no doubt crucial to the experience, but the viscerality of the experience comes from the countless sensations of microgravity that are too subtle to describe and too numerous to clearly differentiate. It is the visceral experience of being off the surface of Earth combined with the evidence of one’s eyes that Earth lies before one, suspended in space as one is oneself suspended in space, that is the overview effect.

All human history up until the flight of Yuri Gagarin had taken place on the surface of Earth. In Wittgensteinian terms, nothing up to that point in time had contrasted with the form of terrestrial experience (cf. Nothing contrasts with the form of the world). With the visceral experience of being in space, suddenly there is a contrast where before there was none: the sensation of being on Earth, and the sensation of being off the surface of Earth, and subject to distinct (and distinctively different) gravitational conditions. The conditions of weight and weightlessness now define polar concepts, between which are a continuum of graded sensation; the polar concepts take part of their meaning from their contrast with the opposite polar concept, as do all points of experience along the continuum of the experience of weight.

Further technological developments that allow for unprecedented forms of human experience will also result in novel experiences of interoception. When we eventually build large artificial structures in space and spin them in order to imitate terrestrial gravity, there may be some individuals who cannot distinguish between this imitation of gravity and gravity on the surface of Earth, while other individuals may feel a difference. Some individuals may be made ill by the sensation, and in this way artificial structures will be strongly selective of who remains there — and therefore strongly selective of who does and does not create the human future in space.

When, in the further future, our technology allows us to travel at relativistic velocities, we will have yet further experiences of acceleration and of our personal consciousness of time in relation to time dilation, and the twin paradox that I have recently discussed (e.g., in Kierkegaard and Futurism) will prove to be not a limitation, but rather a revelation. We will learn things about ourselves and about the human condition that could not be learned in any other way than the actual experience of living in various extraterrestrial environments.

The overview effect is only the beginning of the human, all-too-human experience of space travel. The exploration of space will not only open new worlds to us beyond Earth, but will also open new inner worlds to us as the human condition expands to comprise unprecedented experiences that can have no parallel on Earth.

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A Note on Terminology: terminology is important, because our vocabulary for the internal experience of our bodies is relatively impoverished in comparison with the vocabulary at our command when it comes to our knowledge of the external world. Neither interoception or “enteroreception” appear in the Oxford English Dictionary. The Free Online Dictionary defines “interception” as “sensitivity to stimuli originating inside of the body.”

I found this distinction made between “enteroreception” and “exteroreception”: “Enteroreception or changes within the organsim that are detected by receptor cells within the organism. Exteroreception or changes that occur outside the orgnasim that are detected by receptor cells at the surface of the organism.”

I am here using “interoception” as a blanket term to cover all forms of visceral perception and sensation, though it might to worth considering coining a new term to cover all these uses, such as, for example, endoception.

There is an interesting glossary of terms related to interoception in The Senses of Touch: Haptics, Affects and Technologies by Mark Paterson (New York and Oxford: Berg, 2007):

Haptic Relating to the sense of touch in all its forms, including those below.

Proprioception Perception of the position, state and movement of the body and limbs in space. Includes cutaneous, kinaesthetic, and vestibular sensations.

Vestibular Pertaining to the perception of balance, head position, acceleration and deceleration. Information obtained from semi-circular canals in the inner ear.

Kinaesthesia The sensation of movement of body and limbs. Relating to sensations originating in muscles, tendons and joints.

Cutaneous Pertaining to the skin itself or the skin as a sense organ. Includes sensation of pressure, temperature and pain.

Tactile Pertaining to the cutaneous sense, but more specifically the sensation of pressure (from mechanoreceptors) rather than temperature (thermoceptors) or pain (nociceptors).

Force Feedback Relating to the mechanical production of information sensed by the human kinaesthetic system. Devices provide cutaneous and kinaesthetic feedback that usually correlates to the visual display.

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The Overview Effect

The Epistemic Overview Effect

Hegel and the Overview Effect

The Overview Effect and Perspective Taking

The Overview Effect in Formal Thought

Our Knowledge of the Internal World

The Human Overview

Personal Experience and Empirical Knowledge

Cognitive Astrobiology and the Overview Effect

The Scientific Imperative of Human Spaceflight

Brief Addendum on the Overview Effect in Formal Thought

A Further Addendum on the Overview Effect in Formal Thought, in the Way of Providing a Measure of Disambiguation in Regard to the Role of Temporality

The Overview Effect over the longue durée

Civilizations of Planetary Endemism

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Astronaut-in-Microgravity

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The Epistemic Overview Effect

14 September 2013

Saturday


earth-from-space-1

OVERVIEW from Planetary Collective on Vimeo.

The Overview Effect

The “overview effect” is so named for the view of the earth entire — an “overview” of the earth — enjoyed by astronauts and cosmonauts, as well as the change in perspective that a few of these privileged observers have had as a result of seeing the earth whole with their own eyes.

One of these astronauts, Edgar Mitchell, who was on the 1971 Apollo mission and was the sixth human being to walk on the moon, has been instrumental to bringing attention to the overview effect, and has written a book about his experiences as an astronaut and how it affected his perception and perspective, The Way of the Explorer: An Apollo Astronaut’s Journey Through the Material and Mystical Worlds. A short film has been made about the overview effect, and an institution has been established to study and to promote the overview effect, The Overview Institute.

Here is an extract from the declaration of The Overview Institute:

For more than four decades, astronauts from many cultures and backgrounds have been telling us that, from the perspective of Earth orbit and the Moon, they have gained such a vision. There is even a common term for this experience: “The Overview Effect”, a phrase coined in the book of the same name by space philosopher and writer Frank White. It refers to the experience of seeing firsthand the reality of the Earth in space, which is immediately understood to be a tiny, fragile ball of life, hanging in the void, shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere. From space, the astronauts tell us, national boundaries vanish, the conflicts that divide us become less important and the need to create a planetary society with the united will to protect this “pale blue dot” becomes both obvious and imperative. Even more so, many of them tell us that from the Overview perspective, all of this seems imminently achievable, if only more people could have the experience!

We have a hint of the overview effect when we see pictures of the Earth as a “blue marble” and as a “pale blue dot”; those who have had the opportunity to see the Earth as a blue marble with their own eyes have been affected by this vision to a greater extent than we can presumably understand from seeing the photographs. Here is another description of the overview effect:

When people leave the surface of the Earth and travel into Low Earth Orbit, to a space station, or the moon, they see the planet differently. My colleague at the Overview Institute, David Beaver, likes to emphasize that they not only see the Earth from space but also in space. He has also been a strong proponent that we describe what then happens as a change in world view.

Deep Space: The Philosophy of the Overview Effect, Frank White

In the same essay White then quotes himself from his book, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, on the same theme:

“Mental processes and views of life cannot be separated from physical location. Our “world view” as a conceptual framework depends quite literally on our view of the world from a physical place in the universe.”

Frank White has sought to give a systematic exposition of the overview effect in his book, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, which seeks to develop a philosophy of space travel derived from the personal experience of space by space travelers.

sunset

The Spatial Overview

There is no question in my mind that sometimes you have to see things for yourself. I have invoked this argument numerous times in writing about travel — no amount of eloquent description or stunning photographs can substitute for the experience of seeing a place for yourself with your own eyes. This is largely a matter of context: being in a place, experiencing a place as a presence, requires one’s own presence, and one’s own presence can be realized only as the result of a journey. A journey contextualizes an experience within the experiences required the reach the object of the journey. The very fact that one must travel in order to each a destination alters the experience of the destination itself.

To be present in a landscape means that all of one’s senses are engaged: one not only sees, but one sees with the whole of one’s peripheral vision, and when one turns one’s body in order to take in more of the landscape, one not only sees more of the landscape, but one feels one’s body turn; one smells the air; one hears the distinctive reverberations of the most casual sounds — all of the things that remind us that this is not an illusion but possesses all the chance qualities that mark a real, concrete experience.

I have remarked in other posts that one of the distinctive trends in contemporary philosophy of mind is that of emphasizing the embodiedness of the mind, and in this context the embodied mind is a mind that is inseparable from its sensory apparatus and its sensory apparatus is inseparable from the world with which it is engaged. When our eyes hurt as we look at the sun we are reminded by this visceral experience of sight — one might say overwhelming sight — that we experience the world in virtue of a sensory apparatus that is made of essentially the same materials as the world — that there is an ontological reciprocity of eye that sees and sun that shines, and it is only because the two share the same world and are made of the same materials that they stand in a relation of cause and effect to each other. We are part of the world, of the world, and in the world.

Presumably, then, to the present in space and feel oneself kineasthetically in space — most obviously, the feeling of a micro-gravity environment once off the surface of the earth — is part of the experience of the overview effect, as is the dramatic journey into orbit, which must remind the viewer of the difficulty of attaining the perspective of seeing the world whole. This is the overview effect in space.

temporal overview

The Temporal Overview

There is also the possibility of an overview effect in time. For the same reason that we might insist that some experiences must be had for oneself, and that one must be present spatially in a spatial landscape in order to appreciate that landscape for what it is, we might also insist that a person who has lived a long life and who has experienced many things has a certain kind of understanding of the temporal landscape of life, and it is only through a conscious knowledge of the experience of time and history that we can attain an overview of time.

The movement in contemporary historiography called Big History (which I have written about several times, e.g., in The Science of Time and Addendum on Big History as the Science of Time) is an attempt to achieve an overview experience of time and history.

I have observed elsewhere that we find ourselves swimming in the ocean of history, but this very immersion in history often prevents us from seeing history whole — which is an interesting contrast to the spatial overview experience, which which contextualization in a particular space is necessary to its appreciation and understanding. But contextualization in a particular time — which we would otherwise call parochialism — tends to limit our historical perspective, and we must actively make an effort to free ourselves from our temporal and historical contextualization in order to see time and history whole.

It is the effort to free ourselves from temporal parochialism, and the particularities and peculiarities of our own time, that give as a perspective on history that is not tied to any one history but embraces the whole of time as the context of many different histories. This is the overview effect in time.

Knowledge Tree

The Epistemic Overview

I would like to suggest that there is also an epistemic overview effect. It is not enough to be told about knowledge in the way that newspaper and magazine articles might tell a popular audience about a new scientific discovery, or in the way that textbooks tell students about the wider world. While in some cases this may be sufficient, and we must rely upon the reports of others because we cannot construct the whole of knowledge on our own, in many cases knowledge must be gained firsthand in order for its proper significance to be appreciated.

Elsewhere (in P or not-P) I have illustrated the distinction between a constructive and a non-constructive point of view being something like the difference between climbing up a mountain, clambering over every rock until one achieves the summit (constructive) versus taking a helicopter and being set down on the summit from above (non-constructive). (I have taken this example over from French mathematician Alain Connes.) With this image in mind, being blasted off into space and seeing the mountain from orbit is a paradigmatically non-constructive experience, and it is difficult to imagine how it could be made a constructive experience.

Well, there are ways. Once space technology becomes widely distributed and accessible, if a person were to build their own SSTO from off-the-shelf parts and then pilot themselves into orbit, that would be something like a constructive experience of the overview effect. And if we go on to create a vibrant and vigorous spacefaring civilization, making it into orbit will only be the first of many steps, so that a constructive experience of space travel will be to “climb” one’s way from the surface of the earth through the solar system and beyond, touching every transitional point in between. It has been said that the journey of the thousand miles begins with a single step — this is very much a constructivist perspective. And it holds true that a journey of a million miles or a billion miles begins with a single step, and that first step of a cosmic voyage is the step that takes us beyond the surface of the earth.

Despite the importance and value of the constructivist perspective, it has its limitations, just as the oft-derided non-constructive point of view has its particular virtues and its significance. Non-constructive methods can reveal to us knowledge that is disruptive because it is forced upon us suddenly, in one fell swoop. Such an experience is memorable; it leaves an impression, and quite possibly it leaves much more of an impression that a painstakingly gradual revelation of exactly the same perspective.

This is the antithesis of the often-cited example of a frog placed in a pot of water and which doesn’t jump out as the water is slowly brought to a boil. The frog in this scenario is a victim of constructivist gradualism; if the frog had had a non-constructive perspective on the hot water in which he was being boiled to death, he might have jumped out and saved himself. And perhaps this is exactly what we need as human beings: a non-constructive (and therefore disruptive) perspective on a the familiar life that has crept over us day-by-day, step-by-step, and bit-by-bit.

An epistemic overview of knowledge can give us a disruptive conception of the totality of knowledge that is not unlike the disruptive experience of the overview effect in space, which allows us to see the earth whole, and the disruptive experience of time that allows us to see history whole. Moreover, I would argue that the epistemic overview is the ultimate category — the summum genus — that must contextualize the overview effect in space and in time. However, it is important to point out that the immediate visceral experience of the overview effect may be the trigger that is required for an individual to begin to seek the epistemic overview that will give meaning to his experiences.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Tuesday


There’s a lot of room in our solar system. The intrastellar or intersolar neighborhood is vastly beyond the scope of the ambition of most mortals. (The Thomas Digges chart of a Copernican solar system from 1576.)

The Advent of Intersolar Civilization

Before human civilization has achieved a robust interstellar presence, and has conquered, or begun to conquer, those nearly insuperable problems associated with the vast distances between the stars — which are as much temporal distances as spatial distances, because of the limiting velocity of the speed of light — it is likely the there will be a robust human presence within our native solar system. That is to say, it is likely that we will have an extraterrestrial civilization within out solar system before we have an interstellar civilization.

As I said, there’s a lot of room in our solar system. More importantly, there are more resources and more energy available than even a greatly expanded human civilization could consume in the foreseeable future.

Elsewhere I have identified this stage of industrial technological civilization as a Stage II civilization, but since no one is familiar with my terminology, it would be more straightforward to refer to interplanetary civilization. However, “interplanetary civilization” implies human spacesteading on naturally occurring celestial bodies, which is an arbitrary limitation. It is to be expected that spacesteading will involve as much or more settlement in artificial environments orbiting celestial bodies or in low- or micro-gravity environments of the asteroid belt. I will use the more comprehensive term “intersolar” to refer to all possible forms of human habitation and travel in the vicinity of our native sun and within our native solar system, but exclusive of other stars and their solar systems. (This could just as well be called “intrasteller” as “intersolar” but I suspect that the former term might be confusing, so I will prefer the latter.)

There’s really no need to hoist up one’s resources from the bottom of a gravity well like the surface of the Earth. The moons of our solar system have plenty of resources and much lower gravity.

One of the distinctive features of human extraterrestrial civilization within our native solar system (i.e., intersolar civilization, as defined above) is that it will not be a one way trip. There will be an expectation that those who go into space will be able to return to the Earth if they so desire, and to do so on a timetable of days, weeks, or months, and only at the outside would travel times be reckoned in years.

Even better than the low gravity environments of the solar system’s moons are the micro-gravity environments of the asteroid belt.

This contrasts dramatically to interstellar voyages that we might contemplate in the next hundred years or so, which, given our contemporary understanding of science and our expectations for technology based upon that science, would be one-way journeys, or, if return was contemplated, the round trip would require years or decades, and optimally would involve some sort of induced hibernation or other biological stasis technology.

Even if early spacesteaders choose not to return to the Earth, they would want to maintain their connections and communications with the Earth and its inhabitants, unless they had purposefully chosen to isolate themselves for ideological or ethical reasons. While we cannot rule out the possibility of self-imposed isolation from Earth, this is likely to be the exception rather than the rule.

Given these assumptions, how would the members of an intersolar civilization communicate with each other? How would the Earth communicate with spacesteads, and how would spacesteads communicate with each other and with the earth?

An Internet for Intersolar Civilization

The internet is becoming the de facto planetary brain of human civilization, the central clearing house for all information, and therefore also, in a sense, the blueprint for the construction and maintenance of industrial-technological civilization. It is also a universal communications network that can not only carry familiar forms of communications traffic such as email, but is increasingly used for voice and visual communications. It is to be expected that these developments will continue and that internet-enabled communications devices will be the norm and the standard for future communication.

Moreover, the internet is not a closed and finished system, but is growing and changing every day. This means that the blueprint for industrial-technological civilization is growing and changing every day, and if any community wishes to be a part of this tradition, it must have access to the internet in real time.

Real time” is the rub. The limiting velocity of the speed of light is not only a physical limit but also a social limit, because the speed of light marks the limits of the possibility of communication. Within the sphere of intersolar civilization, this limit would be felt, but it would not be felt so keenly as to abandon communication as pointless.

While interstellar distances would involve delays of years or centuries in communication between humanity’s home planet and any representatives of our species having found their way to other stars and their solar systems, interplanetary distances involve delays of seconds, minutes, hours or days. This is a problem, but it is possibly a problem that we can deal with in creative ways, and perhaps with some unavoidable compromises, and not an insuperable problem.

We will here assume that the limitation of the speed of light is observed. There has been significant discussion of the possibility of communication based on quantum entanglement, and while this possibility cannot be ruled out, it also cannot be counted upon. If this possibility materializes, our communications difficulties will be addressed on the basis of instantaneous universal communication, and some (but not all) of the problems discussed here will become irrelevant.

One of the features of the internet throughout its development has been that of striving after ever higher speeds, requiring ever higher bandwidth, and enabling technologies that rely upon very high speeds and very large bandwidth, such as watching streaming video, whether of a live conference or of a film. Instantaneous access to ever more data-rich environments and instantaneous communication has become the norm and the expectation.

How can we make this planetary brain of the internet into an interplanetary brain, or an intersolar brain, so that the blueprint of industrial-technological civilization is universally and nearly instantaneously available?

When the Earth and Mars are on opposite sides of the sun it takes much longer to exchange a radio signal than when the planets are at their closest approach to each other.

If an individual is using their internet-enabled device on Mars, between 3 and 22 light minutes from Earth (depending upon the relative positions of the Earth and Mars), and is accessing the most recent scholarship on farming techniques in iron-rich soils, they will not want to wait for 6-44 minutes for the turn-around time between each query and response.

An obvious first step would be to build internet “repeater” stations in Earth orbit, or perhaps on the moon or at the Lagrange points. An internet repeater station could continuously access internet content from the Earth, updating everything much as search engines are continuously seeking new content to index. Such a repeater would be a “mirror” of the entire internet, or as much of the internet as a given facility could store and update.

Individuals at a distance from the Earth would have to restrict their chatting and their webcam sessions to others nearby, where the delay was short enough so that it was not too obvious, but the content of the internet other than streaming live content could be made available to everyone at speeds approximating those of the present, depending upon one’s position in the solar system and the nearest internet mirror station.

Popular social media such as Facebook and Twitter would be delayed by minutes between the farther reaches of intersolar civilization, but this would not seriously impact any but the most dedicated followers of their friend’s status updates. Those for whom such matters loom large may choose to remain on the Earth, although by doing this they would still experience delays in status updates from extraterrestrial friends. Still, lives and careers have been decided on slimmer grounds, and such considerations could have a cumulative selective effect over time.

Ramifications for SETI of an Intersolar Internet

The future of intersolar civilization may involve a network of internet mirrors throughout the solar system, much as we now have a network of satellites surrounding the Earth that give as immediate information on our position on the surface of the Earth (and which in doing so must take account of relativistic effects like frame-dragging).

In so far as this network must be based on some kind of radio technology (as we are excluding advanced communication possibilities such as quantum entanglement communications, as noted above) — since we cannot string wires or fiber optic cables in space; our intersolar network of internet mirrors must be a wifi network — such an interplanetary network would be highly “visible” to any electromagnetic spectrum observation of our solar system. This apparently innocuous fact has interesting ramifications.

One response to the “Eerie silence” of SETI research has been the suggestion that, after a certain stage of technological development, an industrial-technological civilization “goes quiet” by resorting to fiber optic communications or related terrestrial technologies that no longer involve our radiating significant radio signals into space.

We can now see that this way of accounting for the Fermi paradox — if the universe is rich in alien technological civilizations, where are they? — involves an additional assumption: that an alien industrial-technological civilization will remain planet-bound. While we cannot exclude this possibility, we ought rightly to explicitly recognize it, and as soon as we do explicitly recognize it we can immediately see that this is highly unlikely.

Any industrial-technological civilization, located anywhere in the universe, that was capable of and interested in establishing radio communications with other peer civilizations, is extremely likely to be at least an intersolar civilization, if not an interstellar civilization, and they are equally likely to have created a communications and data storage network like the internet, and for their intersolar civilization to be fully viable this network would need to be available over the distances of a solar system, which means that another peer civilization would be radiating radio signals as aggressively as a human intersolar civilization would be radiating radio signals.

An Encyclopedia Solaria for a Growing Civilization

Carl Sagan (in his Cosmos), Timothy Ferris (in his Coming of Age in the Milky Way), and others have speculated on the possibility of an Encyclopedia Galactica that would be the repository of one or several industrial-technological civilizations, and which might survive that brief life of particular civilizations to transmit its content to later civilizations or successor civilizations within the universe. This was touched upon several times at the 100YSS 2011 symposium.

What I have described here constitutes something like an abridged version of an Encyclopedia Galactica, Which might be called an Encyclopedia Solaria, for our coming intersolar civilization. A growing intersolar civilization would entail a growing Encyclopedia Solaria that would encompass and connect our native solar system in one vast interconnected network.

This Encyclopedia Solaria would be an intermediate step between our contemporary terrestrial internet and an Encyclopedia Galactica of interstellar scope and reach. It is to be expected that solving — or, at least, dealing with — the problems of an Encyclopedia Solaria would teach us valuable lessons for a future Encyclopedia Galactica. One could think of the Encyclopedia Solaria as a trial run of an Encyclopedia Galactica, allowing us time to experiment and to work out some of the inevitable bugs that would likely plague earlier iterations.

While an Encyclopedia Solaria would ideally be an open and growing entity, receiving continuous updates to its content from all corners of the solar system, if our coming intersolar civilization should stumble, that same Encyclopedia Solaria could serve another function. An Encyclopedia Solaria would be a first step in mitigating human existential risk, at least in so far as this risk touches upon the preservation and expansion of the cultural legacy of human civilization.

This observation suggests the next step, which would be a conscious and systematic effort to safeguard the cultural legacy of human civilization from existential risk.

Existential Risk Mitigation for a Declining Civilization

I have been influenced in this present suggestion by the presentation of Heath Rezabek at the 100YSS 2012 conference about the possibility of archives to mitigate existential risk to human civilization.

A server farm or internet mirror set up on the moon, for instance, and designed according to principles that guide projects like the clock of the long now, i.e., designed for the long term, powered by solar power and perhaps with a nuclear backup power supply, and with plenty of shielding against the harsh environment of space, might well outlast terrestrial human civilization if that civilization succumbs to the existential risks of extinction, permanent stagnation, or flawed realization.

From the perspective of an active backup and repeater for the internet for a human presence in intersolar space, an orbiting artificial environment would probably be preferable to a moon-based installation, but if we are thinking in terms of existential risk, the moon’s bulk itself could provide a certain security, as well as providing plenty of material for shielding and plenty of space for the facility — space on firm ground, as it were. A facility in space, as opposed to an installation on a naturally-occurring celestial body, would need to be heavily shielded and even with shielding would be vulnerable to collisions. Even if such a facility experienced no major catastrophic collisions, it would be steadily bombarded by small particles and dust, which would take their toll over time.

Since the moon is phase-locked with the Earth, always presenting one side to our planet and a back side — the “dark” side of the moon — to extraterrestrial space beyond the Earth, a moon-based installation would have a certain security from immediate threats issuing form the Earth’s surface.

Other possibilities would present themselves in connection with an installation on the far side of the moon. Radio and optical telescopes based on the far side of the moon could peer much deeper and much farther into the universe that Earth-based telescopes (due to the lack of an atmosphere and the bulk of the moon shielding both light and EM radiation from the Earth), and, being built on the moon, such astronomical assets could be much larger than our current orbital telescopes. A significant scientific installation along with the internet mirror and universal information backup would continuously add new knowledge to our Encyclopedia Solaria, and much of this would be knowledge inaccessible to terrestrial observers, which would add an element of novelty to the science and might therefore mitigate some of the risk of stagnation.

The risk that such an installation would entail would be its visibility to nefarious and hostile alien powers. However, this would not be nearly as visible, and therefore not nearly as risky, as an internet and an Encyclopedia Solaria for a growing intersolar civilization as described above, which would be radiating more powerfully than a mere lunar installation.

Stephen Hawking as recently warned of the existential risk entailed by contacting, or being visible to, hostile aliens. Others have suggested that the risks are minimal or non-existent because the economics of interstellar invasion are insuperable. I do not agree with this latter analysis, but I will not attempt to argue the point here; I will only note that the point has been made.

What I have said here of the moon applies, mutatis mutandis, to Mars. At an even greater distance from the Earth than the moon, Mars would be that much more secure from Earth-based threats (such threats presumably being a consequence of succumbing to the existential risk of flawed realization). Mars, like the moon, is geologically inert, or nearly so. Any installation here could count on geological stability. Since Mars has an atmosphere, it has another layer of protection for its surface. For any residents, Mars would feel more like home, and less artificial, than an installation on the moon. However, the fact of an atmosphere means that the view of the cosmos from Mars would be compromised for any ground-based telescopes, unlike the moon’s clear view into space.

Ideally, existential risk mitigation for the cultural legacy of human civilization would be redundant, involving facilities on the moon, on Mars, and on orbiting platforms.

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Note added later the same day: Heath Rezabek, whom I have cited above, and who has commented below, has drawn my attention to two items that are closely related to what I wrote above, Why We Need a Supercomputer on the Moon by Robert McMillan writing in Wired and NASA Mulls Deep-Space Station on Moon’s Far Side by Leonard David, space.com Space Insider Columnist.

I also happened to find that there is an entry on an “Interplanetary Internet” in Space Sciences: Macmillan Science Library. This volume is aimed at a young adult audience, but there is still much of interest here.

Obviously, many people are thinking about the issues I have outlined above. If enough people converge on a similar solution, something might get done. One can at least hope.

None of the other treatments I have found mention the potential science payoff of a big telescope on the far side of the moon linked into a supercomputer and internet node. If we think of how dramatically the Hubble Space Telescope has transformed our understanding of cosmology, this is no small matter. While the technocrats will always focus on particular problems, we who take the larger view know that industrial-technological civilization continues its relentless technological transformation of life only because it is systematically driven by science. New basic science of the kind that would be enabled by a major telescope (preferably both visible spectrum and radio telescopes) — imaging exoplanets and their atmospheres would be just the start — would offer an order-of-magnitude increase in observational cosmology.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Sunday


A human future in space that didn’t happen — or hasn’t happened yet.

Last year when I was writing out my reactions to the 100YSS symposium for 2011 I discussed how a couple of presentations made me realize a distinction must be sedulously observed between what I have called the political conception of history, which makes human agency central to history, and other conceptions of history in which human agency plays less of a role. This was particularly the case in regard to the 2011 presentation by Katherine Denning, in which professor Denning emphasized the accuracy of predictions and in so saying suggested that futurism can be a more-or-less exact science.

Apparently, this kind of thinking is well represented among 100YSS organizers and participants since the epigraph employed at 100YSS for the 2012 symposium was a quote from Will Durant, “The future never just happened, it was created.”

This is something with which I cannot agree when stated in this way, i.e., unconditionally. This claim embodies as perfectly as any one line could the political conception of history, and it is true, as far as it goes — but it doesn’t go far enough. Some of our history is under our control and can be consciously shaped by human agency; some other parts of our history, however, are not at all under our control and, try as we might, human agency cannot shape them to human ends.

When Hamlet says, “There’s a Diuinity that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will,” or when a religious person says that the Lord works in mysterious ways, these are explicit admissions that there are clear limits to human agency in shaping history, although these expressions of a destiny beyond human agency are strong enough to embody a distinct conception of history, what I have called the eschatological conception of history, which recognizes the agency of non-human powers in the world. It is also possible to recognize the lack of human agency in shaping history (which I call the cataclysmic conception of history).

The reason that I mention these conceptions of history in relation to predicting the human future in space, or the attempt to employ human agency in making a human future in space happen, is that space programs have been the bread-and-butter of both futurism and science fiction throughout the twentieth century and up to the present. We need to be able to place this science fiction futurism in relation to our overall conception of history if we are to understand whether it is a driving vision of a future we are going to create, or a mere distraction from an entirely different future that is already upon us but remains unrecognized for what it is.

One cannot overemphasize the fact that past futurism has been and continues to be a source of camp humor; the very sincerity of the predictions that have been made lend the extra irony that transforms merely humorous mis-prediction into camp humor that is really a form of ridicule, thinly disguised — or not disguised at all.

The account of preternaturally accurate futurist predictions usually focuses on minutae and neglects the big picture. Prediction often gets technological details right even while the human element is laughably wrong. Getting the human element of the future wrong can be as simple as not realizing that people won’t want to give up their convivial dinners for a single pill supplying all necessary nutrition, or it can be as subtle and sophisticated as trying to understanding the relationship between intelligence and consciousness, and what this means for the relationship between artificial intelligence and machine consciousness.

I have written several posts critical of Ray Kurzweil’s conception of a technological singularity (for example, The Singularity Has No Clothes). Recently I watched a Kurzweil lecture to staff of the SETI institute that is available on Youtube. I realized when I watched this that a great many of Kurzweil’s narrowly technological predictions are likely to be true, even while he gets the human context of his predictions all wrong. The human element that Kurzweil gets wrong is human consciousness.

Kurzweil (one of today’s must successful futurists) shows the extent to which he embodies the contemporary scientific attitude by simply pretending that philosophical problems don’t exist (something I described in Fashionable Anti-Philosophy and Further Fashionable Anti-Philosophy). He announces poetic metaphors — plainly asserting the identity of mind and software — without even bothering to offer a suggestion about how his position avoids the problem of Searle’s Chinese room thought experiment. No one calls him on his metaphors, and certainly none of his followers ask him to give an account of his philosophical ellipses.

We are, more often than not, blindsided by history. Historian Pauline Maier says this at the beginning of the PBS television series Liberty: The American Revolution (Episode 1):

“The future would bring freedom, it would bring prosperity, because it would be British. The tyrannical French and Spanish had been removed from the continent. How surprising this is to us; we don’t think of this as the great division. Their view of the future seems naive, so different than what we knew their future would have been. Which tells us something: what came was not expected, and it was certainly not desired. They were British, they wanted to be British, they were proud of being British; that they would thirteen years later be declaring their independence is enormously paradoxical. It did not have to be, it should not have been, from their perspective; that it happened is a great mystery that needs to be explained.”

Here is an historical perspective that I can fully endorse, although of course such things vary according to circumstances. In some cases the future is no mystery at all, and requires no explanation, but in other cases the future that did in fact come about is a mystery for which historians can offer no answer. The answer to the mysteries of history transcends history.

A few days ago in From Moon Shot to Milk Run I talked about the different conceptions of civilization involved in conceptualizing a space program as a heroic one-off endeavor like the Apollo moon shot (which exemplifies the heroic conception of civilization) or in conceptualizing a space program as a routine, work-a-day affair (which exemplifies the iterative conception of civilization).

It strikes me now that an heroic conception of a space program is likely to be a manifestation of a political conception of history, since such great endeavors are generally top-down, exhaustively planned missions, while an iterative conception of a space program is likely to be a manifestation of a naturalistic conception of history, that sees the human expansion into space as part of the ordinary business of life rather than a great heroic undertaking.

One of the questions that came up repeatedly at 100YSS both in 2011 and 2012 was public outreach and the relative lack or interest or lack of participation (however you care to interpret it) by the public in the space program. I think that at least part of this attitude — whether originally coming from the space program itself or coming from the public — is the heroic character of the undertaking and its lack of contact with the lives of ordinary people. Most people could understand an iterative space program, since it would have a structure much like their own lives, and would likely involve people that they know. An heroic space program, consisting of a series of “moon shots” is unquestionably an inspiration from a distance, but how long can an inspiration from a distance play a role in the iterated details of ordinary life?

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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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From Moon Shot to Milk Run

20 September 2012

Thursday


A Boeing 1969 Study for an ‘Integrated Manned Interplanetary Spacecraft’ needing only Saturn V and Saturn IB to lift the sections into orbit. Such an interplanetary craft would require no industrial infrastructure in space. Theoretically, the same approach could be taken with an interstellar spacecraft. In practice, an interstellar spacecraft would be so enormous that lifting it off the surface of the Earth in pieces would probably be prohibitively expensive and inconvenient.

In previous posts on the 100YSS 2012 symposium I discussed some of the unspoken but underlying themes of the conference, namely, the Fermi Paradox and its associated question — “Are we alone?” — and the vaguely paternalistic character of many of the presentations which seemed to assume that the builders of a generational starship could reach out from the earth to retain control over an enterprise unreachably distant both in space and time. It is striking to note that the presentation of Stephen Andrew Taylor about the opera he wrote based on a story of Ursula Le Guin, Paradises Lost, avoided this latter pitfall and therefore revealed itself as one of the more profound contributions of the whole symposium.

This proposed Mars mission spacecraft could be assembled on earth and lifted into orbit section by section, but it would be a lot more efficient to manufacture the biggest pieces in space and just bring up the technically difficult pieces from Earth.

I am not yet finished with the lessons I learned from this year’s 100YSS symposium, but instead of offering an exposition of implicit themes, I would now like to offer an exposition of a of an implicit tension that ran through both the 2011 and 2012 100YSS presentations, and this is the dichotomy in approach between those who assume that further human exploration of space is likely to be Earth-based, so that future spacecraft will continue to be manufactured on the Earth and then launched into space, with additional assembly in orbit required for larger missions, and those who assume that steady and gradual human spacesteading will eventually result in an industrial infrastructure in space so that large spacecraft for ambitious future missions of exploration will inevitably be manufactured in space, off the surface of the earth, by those who already live in space.

The tension between these two points of view is important because it points to very different conceptions of the nature of civilization, and indeed what civilization will become in the course of the coming century. I think that for many people, even people who dream of starships, that the idea of a human civilization of any significant size off the surface of the earth is just too close to science fiction to take seriously. People who take this view can imagine ambitious plans of human exploration of the solar system and beyond, but they imagine it all as the result of earth-based industry.

Last year in 100 Year Starship Study Symposium 2011 Day 1 I wrote this:

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.

This distinction between heroic and iterative civilization is useful in this context. (I recently revisited the idea of heroic civilization in Apollo and Everest.) The heroic conception of civilization understands space exploration as an heroic undertaking based on civilization pretty much as we know it today; the iterative conception of civilization sees civilization is incrementally but relentlessly expanding its scope, and if space exploration is part of this conception of civilization, then that exploration will grow organically out of a civilization that is in space anyway. It is entirely possible to understand either conception of civilization as including or excluding human space exploration.

It is possible to elaborate on this distinction between conceptions of civilizations and their undertakings, and in fact while I was listening to some of the presentations during the 100YSS 2012 symposium I started a list dividing the properties of these respective conceptions of civilization. I begin with the paradigm of heroic spaceflight as the “moon shot,” which embodies so many of our ideas of a heroic, one-off undertaking, and I contrast this to the “milk run,” which is a mundane, routine undertaking. Here is my (admittedly imperfect) list so far:

Moon Shot Milk Run
heroic ordinary
sprint long haul
top-down bottom-up
central planning unplanned
sudden incremental
exceptional routine
narrowly-based broadly-based
hierarchical organic

The paradigmatic case of a “moon shot” style space mission is, of course, the moon shot. The entire spacecraft for the moon mission was built and assembled on earth. The Saturn V rocket was enormous, and lofted an enormous payload into orbit. As the mission made its way to the moon, parts of the spacecraft were jettisoned along the route, and by the time the three astronauts returned, they returned in the tiny Apollo capsule that was only large enough to contain the three of them. Many (if not most) of the proposed Mars missions on the drawing boards adopt this paradigm, for obvious reasons. Except for the International Space Station (ISS), there is no industrial infrastructure in space. This is the Achilles heel of the entire contemporary space program. Any large undertaking in space is limited by this absence of industrial infrastructure.

The ISS itself was built on Earth, although its parts were assembled in orbit after having been one at a time lifted off from the Earth. Any large spacecraft would minimally require assembly in orbit, and of course it would make much more sense to employ an industrial infrastructure in space to extract and process the necessary materials rather than lift then from the earth, where the materials themselves are relatively expensive and the cost to take them into orbit even more so. In theory, even an interstellar ship could be manufactured on the Earth and assembled in orbit, although this technology currently envisioned any starship would need to be far larger than anything else previously assembled by human hands.

My point here is that this is more than just a choice of technique in assembling a spacecraft, whether headed to Mars or headed to the stars. The temperamental distinction between thinking of civilization in these two fundamentally distinct ways points to the connection between temperament and civilization. Persons of the one temperament will work toward the creation of a civilization consistent with their temperament, while persons of the other temperament will work toward another kind of civilization. In a large and diverse world, there is room for both temperaments, and in What adventures are actually left? I observed that…

When our early hominid ancestors began to make their way around the earth, I imagine that they traveled from mixed motives, and that it was a little bit of exploration, a little bit of adventure, and a little bit of diaspora.

To exploration, adventure, and diaspora I should add those iterative activities that go to make up the ordinary business of life. As long as there is room for disagreement in the world, we are not forced to choose between differing conceptions of civilization.

From a standpoint of existential risk, which I briefly discussed in 100YSS Symposium 2012: Day 3, Part II, it ought to be obvious to us that we would not want to keep all our eggs in one basket, since at present the Earth is a single point of failure for our species — and every other species on the planet.

With or without travel to the stars, a robust and sustainable off-planet civilization could be constructed within our solar system. Off the surface of the Earth, there is so much energy and so many resources that they are for practical purposes endless because we could not exhaust them. At least, we could not exhaust them until we had reached the point where travel to other stars was practicable and we could tap into new sources of energy and raw materials. This is a work-a-day vision of the future of civilization.

But it may be the case that human beings may have a tendency to settle into and settle for stagnation once industrial-technological civilization covers the entire planet and life reaches a reasonable level of comfort for almost everyone. To tear people away from amusement and entertainment and what Fukuyama called “the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands” it may be necessary to pursue the inspirational, the heroic, and the spectacular, even if pursued from the surface of an increasingly comfortable earth.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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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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Saturday


My second full day of participation in the 2012 100YSS symposium, and the third day of the event, left me with much to think about. (I didn’t attend any events on the first day, and I had to leave upon close of business today, so I will miss the remaining events of Day 4.)

Presentation by Jill Tarter of the SETI institute.

The great eschatological question of the 100YSS symposium was “Are we alone?” Just as Joshua Lederberg said that origins of life research is the great creation myth of science, in similar fashion the question of whether we are alone in the cosmos is becoming the great eschatological myth of science. That science has matured to the point of bookending the human condition with a creation myth and an eschatological myth demonstrates the ongoing force of science in industrial-technological civilization. As a kind of xenomorphic thorough-bass that provided the underlying counter-point of everything else that happened at 100YSS, the Fermi paradox came up repeatedly in several different formulations. This question was present in different forms in both plenary sessions of the day.

A great quote from Philip Morrison that Jill Tarter used in her presentation.

Continuing the Star Trek theme initiated by the interview with Nichelle Nichols yesterday, the day began with an interview with Le Var Burton, who was a cast member of the second Star Trek television series. Mr. Burton was very well spoken and thoughtful. In the course of his interview he also delivered himself of the view that he strongly believed not only that we are not alone in the universe, but that we are being watched, perhaps monitored, by alien intelligences who consider us too dangerous at present to join the comity of the cosmos. This is sometimes known as the “zoo hypothesis” (which also has a variant known as the “planetarium hypothesis”), and is a familiar response to the Fermi paradox, although Mr. Burton never explicitly mentioned either the zoo hypothesis or the Fermi paradox.

The second plenary session of the day was a wonderful address by Dr. Jill Tarter of the SETI institute, who has made the search for extraterrestrial intelligence her career, and is passionate about the idea and about the search. While Mr. Burton presented his version of the zoo hypothesis very explicitly as a belief, Dr. Tartar, made a point of positioning her work in classic scientific terms, explicitly saying that belief does not play a role in her work. Dr. Tarter’s implicit response to the Fermi paradox was that the cosmos is very large, and that if one considers our SETI efforts so far, these compare to the scope of the cosmos as a glass of water compares to the oceans of the earth. Dr. Tarter considered a number of other responses to the Fermi paradox — e.g., the problem of the longevity of civilizations and the possibility that we are not listening correctly — but true to her scientific training did not express a belief about these hypothesis independent of the (lack of) evidence for them.

To hammer home the theme of scientific knowledge being distinct from belief, Dr. Tarter. said, “We have outgrown asking poets, priests, and philosophers what we should believe.” (This is a quote taken from memory so I might have gotten it a little off; I don’t have a transcript of the talk as I write this.) As a philosopher and a poet I didn’t care much for this remark, but I certainly understood the scientific spirit in which it was intended. I see poetry and philosophy as parallel to science rather than mutually exclusive, but, as I wrote above, Dr. Tarter chose to couch her remarks in classic scientific terms. It is also worthwhile to point out that, given what I wrote above about science now providing both creation and eschatological myths, poets, priests, and philosophers are now rivals to this preeminent role that scientists have in our society, and while rivalry can be kept civilized, it is rarely friendly and often takes the form of disguised hostility (and sometimes undisguised hostility — cf. Fashionable Anti-Philosophy).

Another implicit theme in Dr. Tarter’s talk was a contrast between technological infancy and technological maturity. Dr. Tarter explicitly acknowledged that, due to the limitations of our current state of technological development, we may be at present simply all wrong in how we are going about SETI, but as technology advances and matures we may eventually be able to join the cosmic conversation now going on over our heads, which suggests the image of human science and technology slowly rising to meet the threshold of an alien technological metric.

The interesting contrast between the perspectives on the Fermi paradox implicitly offered by Le Var Burton and Dr. Jill Tarter during the day’s two plenary sessions demonstrated how one and the same idea can serve as as belief or as an object of intellectual inquiry and scientific knowledge. As I wrote above, Mr. Burton explicitly identified his position as a belief, and I imagine that the idea of SETI can serve as a belief for many people — and in differing capacities, as they imagine alien intelligences to be friendly or hostile, very similar to or very different from us — even while for others the idea of SETI is a matter of theoretical analysis or “part of a suite of technological explorations” as Dr. Tarter said in her talk today (this is another quote from memory).

It is perhaps this very fact of the diverse perspectives on SETI that demonstrate its true (if often tacit) centrality in contemporary life. Any one idea that can inspire both art and science has a privileged position within a civilization. SETI has this role in industrial-technological civilization. Whereas we once filled the void of existential and cosmic loneliness with religion, we are approaching a point at which a significant number of persons fill the void of cosmic loneliness with the question, “Are we alone?” The question admits of scientific inquiry, and may someday be answered with scientific precision, but the same question can also be answered with a belief. This must be identified as one of the most important intellectual developments of our time.

There was much more in the day on which I took detailed notes, but as it has been a very long day on very little sleep, I am tired and so I will continue this account in a Part II.

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100YSS Symposium 2012: Day 2

14 September 2012

Friday


What happened to Day 1?

Yesterday I arrived too late to Houston to be present at the Thursday night opening reception for the 2012 100YSS symposium, though I already met one of the symposium participants in the van I took from the airport. So I went through my presentation of couple of times and went to bed with my alarm set for 7:00 am local time, which is 5:00 am Pacific time, which is about the time I usually go to bed. So the symposium is not being operated on my schedule (and, of course, I didn’t expect it to be).

Day 2 begins

The day began with a plenary session with everyone present in one room and several short talks, primarily by Mae Jemison, whose foundation entered the running for last year’s RFP (that’s a government term for “request for proposal”) from DARPA to start a 100YSS foundation, and they won. If memory serves, DARPA set aside a million dollars, using half of it for the 2011 100YSS symposium, and then granted the other half of it as “seed money” for the successful RFP entrant who would initiate an ongoing foundation to pursue the idea of human extrasolar travel within a hundred years.

Jemison’s talked emphasized inclusiveness, and, as a corollary to this, Dr. Jemison and others at the event said, “people didn’t lose interest, they were left out.” This is a noble sentiment, but I think that the opposite of what is implied by this is the case: people know all too well what space travel is about, but the spectacular success of Apollo was a tough act to follow, and people wanted further spectacles. Lacking this, and knowing what was possible, people became bored with the modesty of the space program and the somewhat work-a-day business of launching satellites, however profoundly these satellites have changed our life here on earth.

Becoming an interstellar civilization

Last year the symposium was divided into “tracks” and I spoke in the “religious and philosophical” track. This year there is no religious and philosophical track, but I submitted my proposal for a presentation to the “becoming an interstellar civilization” track, so I headed directly to this track room after the plenary session as I was scheduled for the first batch of talks there.

Before me there were three presentations, two of which were given by individuals who were involved with DARPA 100YSS RFPs that did not win, these by Marc Cohen of Astrotecture and Keith Taggart of Spec Innovations. Marc Cohen made the interesting observation that cosmology is the basis of all belief systems, and if he is right, that bodes well for some future naturalistic civilization in which scientific cosmology has pride of place and we no longer labor under the sacred canopy of ecclesiastical civilization. After Keith Taggart’s presentation there was an interesting exchange about whether associating space flight with the idea of a “lifeboat” for humanity was perceived negatively or not. There was also an interesting presentation by Kent Nebergall of Day Five LLC on “Becoming an Interdisciplinary and Interstellar Culture” that emphasized the importance of “enterprise architecture” in planning a project like 100YSS.

The talks that preceded me were very practical, as befit those who would submitting RFPs to DARPA, so I began by warning my audience that my talk would be rather less practical and more theoretical. When I finished, the room was quite quiet, and I feared that the dead space in the room would be filled by a question asked out of pity merely to break the silence, but eventually I was asked a few interesting questions — interesting enough that I returned to think about them over dinner. More on this later.

After I spoke, Thomas W. Hair of Florida Gulf Coast University spoke on “Spatial distribution of interstellar civilization,” which, like my talk, was more theoretical, and which touched on the Fermi paradox, which I also briefly addressed. Professor Hair drew strong conclusions from his mathematical model of the distribution of civilization throughout the galaxy propagated at a very slow rate. I asked if this still didn’t leave lots of room for peer civilizations on the opposite side of the galaxy, several thousand years ahead of us or behind us (which I consider to be not only a peer but a “contemporary” on cosmological time scales — cf. The Law of Trichotomy for Exocivilizations), and he acknowledged that this remained a possibility.

Marsal Gifra’s presentation included this entertaining although imaginary Wall Street Journal headline.

After lunch, the session resumed and I returned to the same room to listen to several more presentations. There was an especially good presentation by Marsal Gifra, “Creating an Interstellar Space Program, A Legacy for Mankind,” which seamlessly passed over into another presentation by others with whom Mr. Gifra was apparently associated. Mr. Gifra seems to have a background in business development, and he gave a compelling presentation of the economics of commercializing a starship initiative.

In the evening there was another plenary session where Nichelle Nichols of the original Star Trek television series discussed her work for NASA recruiting women and minorities as astronauts, as well as several other guests from the space program past and present.

What is an engineering problem?

After the last plenary session of the day, when others went on to the ballroom event, I went walking in Houston, searching for some authentic Texas barbecue. I didn’t find barbecue, but I did have some good Tex-Mex, and over dinner I thought about some of the questions that were asked of me.

One fellow in particular, whose name I do not recall, took exception to my far future scenarios involving travel closely approximating the speed of light and therefore experiencing significant time dilation. He said that I was suggesting something that went beyond contemporary science. I thought that I had been rather careful to stay within the limits of known science, even if I posited technology far in advance of what we have today. I said that I was suggesting the use of very high energy levels, but nothing breaking the known laws of physics. He was not persuaded. So I thought about this.

When I hear objections like this, I assume that problems like the energy and radiation levels that would be generated by relativistic velocities and acceleration that would liquify a human body, are “merely” engineering problems. If science says that travel at the speed of light is not possible, but one can approximate the speed of light (although this involves time dilation, contraction, and an increase in mass which in turn requires even more energy for further acceleration), what this says to me is that technology and engineering ware likely to eventually find a solution, or, if not a solution, an alternative. The question that I received today has made me question this assumption.

In the escalating feedback loop that is of the essence of industrial-technological civilization, we can run into limitations at any point in the cycle of science and technology and engineering that usually feeds back into itself and overcomes the limitations of earlier cycles of escalating technological progress. Is any one limit — scientific limitations, technological limitations, or engineering limitations — inherently more limiting than any other? I tend to think of the scientific limits as incorrigible while while the technological and engineering limits are more flexible. This is probably a mistake, or, at least, my presumptive emphasis upon the incorrigibility of science is probably mistaken.

As I noted above, even if the present cycle of industrial-technological progress cannot solve some particular technological problem, it can sometimes find away around them, and some of our most surprising innovations have been unexpected ways of gaining information from limited data. This is the case, for example, with exoplanets. At one time it would have been thought impossible to know anything about other planetary systems before we have visited them, but now we are routinely finding exoplanets, and we will probably in the coming decades, with even more powerful instrumentation, be able to detect the atmospheres of small, rocky exoplanets (in contradistinction to “hot Jupiters”).

In saying this, I am thinking of some of the clever ways that technology might find a way of getting around the limitations of the human body in terms of interstellar flight. The human body is vulnerable to high acceleration, to radiation, to age, and to the thousand natural ills that flesh is heir to. With the limits of the human body we run into the limits of biological engineering. But if human beings were “reconstituted” at the far end of an interstellar flight, bodies would not need to be subject to acceleration, radiation, or long flight times. But there are limits, given our present state of knowledge, of how much radiation even a starship and its essential systems could bear. Is this an engineering limit, or a technological limit, or a scientific limit? It would probably be artificial to try to classify it as any single limitation. We could say that a problem is “beyond physics” or “beyond our knowledge” and these would be right — such formulations in terms of physics or knowledge also bring out the ambiguity or conventionality of distinctions among science, technology, and engineering.

That being said — and I will continue to think about this, and try to determine if I need to revise my formulations of industrial-technological civilization in terms of constraints — I think that the ability of the same resources of industrial-technological civilization to approach problems indirectly, in contradistinction to a direct frontal attack, will eventually find ways around what now seem like insuperable limitations of physics or knowledge.

The same artificiality of an incorrigible distinction science, technology, and engineering means that an innovative solution to any one limitation can address the other limitations indirectly.

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The downtown business district where the 2012 100YSS symposium is being held at the Hyatt.

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