Wednesday


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . . . .

signature

. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

My Spaceflight Utopia

4 October 2011

Tuesday


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . . . .

signature

. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

Headed Back to Portland

3 October 2011

Monday


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

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

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

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

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

Note added later

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

. . . . .

signature

. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

Sunday


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . . . .

signature

. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

Saturday


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . . . .

The political conception of history.

. . . . .

signature

. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

Friday


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

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

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

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

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

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

. . . . .

signature

. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

%d bloggers like this: