Reasons not to commercialise space

Paul Raven @ 18-11-2010

1) Marx wouldn’t approve! And anyway, we can learn about our relationship to the wider cosmos just as effectively from the surface of the Earth:

So outer space technology can be used for tackling a number of immediate social and political issues. But these strategies do not add up to a philosophy toward outer space and the form humanization should take. Here again, the focus should be on the development of humanity as a whole, rather than sectional interests. First, outer space, its exploration and colonization, should be in the service of some general public good. Toward this end, the original intentions of the 1967 UN Outer Space Treaty should be restored. Outer space should not be owned or controlled by any economic, social, and political vested interest. The cosmos should not, in other words, be treated as an extension of the global environment, one to be owned and exploited. We have seen enough of this attitude and its outcomes to know what the result would be. Spreading private ownership to outer space would only reproduce social and environmental crises on a cosmic scale.

I’d agree that space shouldn’t be owned or controlled by vested interests, but I rather suspect that it won’t be very amenable to such any control, by dint of its, well, space; territorial disputes are a function of limited room for expansion, and it’ll take us a long while to run out of lebensraum at the top of the gravity well. Why fight for territory when it’s less effort to strike out for an unclaimed patch? Indeed, I suspect conflicts in space are more likely to retain the ideological character of those currently popular on Earth’s surface… viz. Ken MacLeod’s Fall Revolution series, Sterling’s Schismatrix. Is that a reason to avoid going there? I’m not so sure; I don’t think we’re any more likely to solve those problems by simply staying put.

Frankly, I’m right behind George Dvorsky on this one, who says “… I couldn’t help but think that Marxist analyses are growing increasingly irrelevant and anachronistic […] Economic determinism ain’t what it used to be.” Marxism is a useful critical framework when used alongside others (especially in literature), but on its own it seems hopelessly idealistic, ignorant of (or uncaring for) post-modern networked global culture, and soundly lodged in the craw of Victorian industrialisation. Cue brickbats from my more radical left-wing readers… but the world has changed a lot since Marx, while Marxism hasn’t changed at all. YMMV. 🙂

2) We can’t survive out there! We’re designed to be planet-dwellers!

What is of greatest concern here is that, unlike muscle loss which levels off with time, bone loss seems to continue at a steady rate of 1 to 2 per cent for every month of weightlessness. During a three-year mission to Mars, space travellers could lose around 50 per cent of their bone material, which would make it extremely difficult to return to Earth and its gravitational forces. Bone loss during space travel certainly brings home the maxim “use it or lose it”.

[…]

The impossibility of an escape to space is just one of many examples of how our bodies, and those of our fellow organisms, are inseparable from the environments in which we live. In our futuristic ambitions we should not forget that our minds and bodies are connected to Earth as by an umbilical cord.

Well, yes, but umbilical cords can be cut and tied off; indeed, to extend the metaphor, cutting the cord is an essential step toward independence from one’s mother. And if our bodies are inseparable from our environments, we can hack one or both of them; if Human1.0 with default settings can’t live in space, we can upgrade her and her environmental surroundings. The biological status quo is not a cage, it’s a room with a door whose lock requires dexterous but doable picking.

There are concepts in development for spacecraft with artificial gravity, but nobody even knows what gravitational force is needed to avoid the problems.

Oh, I’d have guessed something approaching 10m/s² would do it… call it intuition. Anyway, Karl Schroeder’s done a better job than I can of deflating the long-standing “it’s too dangerous!” hand-wringing about space travel; of course there are challenges, but they’re far from insurmountable. Where there’s a will, and all that.

And as a wee bonus, here’s a new twist on an old fandom favourite:

So far, boneless creatures such as jellyfish are much more likely than people to be able to return safely to Earth after multi-year space trips.

Intelligent jellyfish in spaaaaaaaace… why should squid get all the glory, eh? 🙂


Hawking still hawking the Great Diaspora

Paul Raven @ 10-08-2010

Stephen Hawking made a fair media splash back in 2006 when he announced that humanity needs to clamber out of the gravity well if it wants to ensure its survival. But the internet’s memory is short, despite its theoretical depth, and hence Hawking’s reiteration of the call for a Great Diaspora in a video interview at BigThink is rippling around the world again.

The logic of the argument is pretty inescapable – when all your eggs are in one basket, the odds of losing the game to the statistical inevitability of a global extinction event tend towards unity – but it will be interesting to see how the response differs this time round, given how much the world has changed since 2006. We seem a lot more focussed on the immediate future than we were… and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, though I think we’d be wise to keep one eye on the horizon. Is it just me, or did everything seem a whole lot more optimistic back then, before the economic implosion was anything more than a grim warning on the lips of a few outsider economists?

Or was it just me that was more optimistic, perhaps? Strange how five years of blogging about the future has made me a lot less confident that everything will work out just fine.


Diaspora: open-source distributed Facebook equivalent

Paul Raven @ 13-05-2010

I’m surprised it hasn’t happened before (as it’s an idea I predicted in rudimentary form for an article in Focus back in 2007, and I’m hardly at the cutting edge of web software thinking), but the Facebook privacy backlash has prompted a small gang of geeks to build an open-source distributed social network platform that gives you back full control over your personal data [via MetaFilter].

Diaspora is intended to be installed on a webserver, with every installation serving as a node in a peer-to-peer network – a complete reversal of the centralised model that Facebook and similar systems currently work on. Most of the current objections I’m seeing hinge on the fact that the majority of SocNet users don’t yet have their own server and domain name, and aren’t technologically able to maintain one themselves: the former is a matter of cost, and the price of webhosting is falling constantly; the latter is a matter of demand, and the turnkey installation scripts for software like WordPress which are available from many bargain basement hosting outfits suggests that, if the demand increases, the barriers to entry will lower rapidly.

That said, not everyone cares about their privacy online. Whether that matters or not is a debate for another time, but while the situation persists, the free-to-use no-technological-hassle SocNets will always have the upper hand in the casual user sphere. If Diaspora is to succeed, it’ll have to demonstrate tangible advantages over the competition in addition to the more abstract USP plus-points of enhanced privacy.

Fingers crossed… although, as science fiction fans, I think we should all get behind a piece of software that shares a name with a Greg Egan novel. 😉