Saturnine storms and the second space race

Paul Raven @ 07-07-2011

T’ain’t just us Earthlings experiencing erratic weather, y’know; check out this rather vast storm on Saturn, courtesy the Cassini probe. Audio is also available.

Storm on Saturn - image courtesy NASATomorrow, if all goes to plan, the Space Shuttle will launch for its very last mission before retirement (to fates as yet undecided – museum piece or rich man’s megabauble?) Cue inevitable soul-searching all over the place; here’s The Economist sounding the death knell for outer space.

It is quite conceivable that 36,000km will prove the limit of human ambition. It is equally conceivable that the fantasy-made-reality of human space flight will return to fantasy. It is likely that the Space Age is over.

Today’s space cadets will, no doubt, oppose that claim vigorously. They will, in particular, point to the private ventures of people like Elon Musk in America and Sir Richard Branson in Britain, who hope to make human space flight commercially viable. Indeed, the enterprise of such people might do just that. But the market seems small and vulnerable. One part, space tourism, is a luxury service that is, in any case, unlikely to go beyond low-Earth orbit at best (the cost of getting even as far as the moon would reduce the number of potential clients to a handful). The other source of revenue is ferrying astronauts to the benighted International Space Station (ISS), surely the biggest waste of money, at $100 billion and counting, that has ever been built in the name of science.

Well, space cadet is as space cadet does, right? Here’s a response from Paul Gilster at Centauri Dreams:

As commercial space efforts move forward, a broader defense of a human future in space has to take the long-term view. Given the dangers that beset our planet, from ecological issues to economic turmoil and the potential for war, can we frame a solution that offers a rational backup plan for humanity? Planetary self-defense also involves the need for the tools to alter the trajectory of any object with the potential to strike the Earth with deadly force, and that means expanding, not contracting, our space-borne assets. Such work is not purely technical. It also teaches the invaluable lesson of multi-generational responsibility and holds out the promise of frontiers. Such challenges have enriched our early history and provide us a clear path off our planet.

We’re also a curious species, and it’s hard to see us pulling back from the challenge of answering the crucial question of whether we are alone in the galaxy. There is a huge gap, asThe Economist points out, between where we stand with space technology today and where we fantasized being as we looked forward from the Apollo days. But a case can be made for steady and incremental research that gives us new propulsion options and broadens our knowledge of how life emerges even as it protects our future. A future that includes gradual expansion into space-based habitats and the exploitation of our system’s abundant resources is an alternative to The Economist’s vision, and it’s one the public needs to hear. The infrastructure that it would build will demand the tools and the skills to move ever deeper into our system and beyond.

An editorial piece at New Scientist is similarly – if cautiously – optimistic about a NASA renaissance rather than a recession; there’s certainly lots of can-do rhetoric from them, not to mention hungry competition from up-and-coming nations with cash to spend and ambitions to fulfil. But given that the new proposed NASA budget will axe projects like the James Webb orbital telescope – Hubble’s successor, basically – I’m not sure how much mileage there is in brave words and stoic chest-thumping. Hell, some folk are even wondering whether the Space Shuttle program itself wasn’t a massive and very costly mistake [beware irritating interstitial ad; via Chairman Bruce]:

The selection in 1972 of an ambitious and technologically challenging shuttle design resulted in the most complex machine ever built. Rather than lowering the costs of access to space and making it routine, the space shuttle turned out to be an experimental vehicle with multiple inherent risks, requiring extreme care and high costs to operate safely. Other, simpler designs were considered in 1971 in the run-up to President Nixon’s final decision; in retrospect, taking a more evolutionary approach by developing one of them instead would probably have been a better choice.

[…]

Today we are in danger of repeating that mistake, given Congressional and industry pressure to move rapidly to the development of a heavy lift launch vehicle without a clear sense of how that vehicle will be used.  Important factors in the decision to move forward with the shuttle were the desire to preserve Apollo-era NASA and contractor jobs, and the political impact of program approval on the 1972 presidential election. Similar pressures are influential today. If we learn anything from the space shuttle experience, it should be that making choices with multidecade consequences on such short-term considerations is poor public policy.

And if we’ve learned anything from life in general, it’s that expecting politicians to think further ahead than the next election is a doomed enterprise. For my money, I think space exploration still has a future, but – in the West at least, and particularly the US – that future will be increasingly dominated by private enterprise.

This is a nicely resonant topic for me, as it happens. I spent last weekend in London for the Science Fiction Foundation‘s Masterclass, and one of the topics we tackled was the representation of space exploration in contemporary science fiction texts. The inescapable conclusion (for me, at least) is that space sf is dominated by a sense of nostalgia, but also – especially in what you might refer to as “heartland” sf venues like Analog and Asimov’s, whose readership were around to be inspired by the hollow rhetoric of the Apollo program – there’s a void at its heart.

Old-school space advocates have a tendency to talk about space in terms of glory, accomplishment and a sort of noble and patriotic heroism, a taming of the wild rolling plains… indeed, that whole “final frontier” riff probably sounds even sweeter, after ten misguided years of failed attempts to plant the stars’n’bars on other more mundane frontiers – as far as we know, space has no uppity natives to object to your delivery of democracy and neoliberal corporatist economics, which gives it a blank-slate patina that you can’t get anywhere else.

But therein lies the problem, and – or so I suspect – the reason why the American Dream (Extraterrestrial Edition) has faltered: beyond that noble rhetoric, the Apollo program was an ambitious (and successful) pissing contest with Russia. All the other motivations and ideals were grafted on after the fact, and they’ve all fallen away like burned-out heat-shielding. America still wants to be doing stuff in space, but it doesn’t really know why; the narrative has collapsed, and that’s why there’s no money for it.

Meanwhile, out in the BRIC, growing economies are looking for trophies, boasting rights and… well, new frontiers. The torch wasn’t passed; it’s been snatched by the trailing pack, and it’ll be interesting to see what they do with it. I suspect it’ll turn out that pioneer bravery and Competent Persons will have their own renaissance, and turn out not to be something exclusively American in character after all… but ambition always comes at a price.

There’ll be more stories to tell about space, I feel sure. But I’ll bet my boots that an increasing proportion of ’em won’t be written in English. 🙂

 


If code is law, then platform is politics, or: the map temporarily becomes the territory

Paul Raven @ 20-06-2011

Pretty simple story, really, and one that says as much about the stupidity of military thinking and the arbitrariness of the concept of national borders in a networked and mediated world than it does about the flaws of technology, but anyway: Nicaraguan military brass invades Costa Rican town and demands lowering of Costa Rican flag because Google Maps inaccurately showed said town as being part of Nicaraguan territory.

It’s a chuckle-worthy little tale on the surface, though there are undercurrents of subterfuge if you’re keen to look for such things – the official maps of both countries display the border correctly, for instance, so why was this guy basing border dispute actions on Google’s offering? A convenient excuse for a political feint, perhaps, or an opportunity to score some sort of bragging points at the officer’s bar? Or just good old fashioned SNAFU?

But the real issue here is that borders are consensual concepts; and when there’s a proliferation of places those concepts can be documented (and a widening of the number of people who might contribute to such), the consensus becomes fuzzier, until it dissolves to a point where it stops mattering to anyone who doesn’t have a serious vested interest in its precision. The people of that town probably identify as Nicaraguan because that’s what they’ve always been told they are, but ultimately the phrase “this town is Nicaraguan” doesn’t have much bearing on the people who live there beyond who they pay their taxes to and which soldiers walk down the high street; the amount of eggs laid by that town’s chickens this morning won’t change if that line on the map moves 3 klicks either way.

The Nicaraguan-ness of the town is of much greater concern to those whose business it is to define and protect (or possibly expand) the concept of Nicaragua. And there, in a microcosmic nutshell, is the main reason that those heavily invested in the concept of the nation-state – be it ideologically, economically or otherwise – are those who are most vocal about the perceived threat of open platforms where contribution to the consensus is not controlled by a strict hierarchy. They lament the loss of a canonical reality, because it is in that canonical reality that their power and privilege is enshrined.

I’m finding that issues of control and hierarchy have become a strong strange attractor for me over the last year, and there’s been an almost vertiginous sense of accretion in the last month or so, thanks in no small point to recent discussions of The Google Threat and similar matters. It interests we that me now talk about the companies we choose to use – and the degree of choice and influence we have over them – in the same language that we talk about politics… to the extent that I’m starting to think that these choices are the politics of a networked world. That explains both the growing disaffection with the “old” politics, and the gravitation toward networks as the place where sociological and geographical identity is enshrined and enacted.

These thoughts are as yet unrefined, but the pattern is becoming clearer, and so I’m staking out my pitch now; who knows, this could be the title of the non-fiction opus that makes me a weblebrity pundit, right? (OK, probably not, but hey, hedging my bets here.)

So: we know Lawrence Lessig’s assertion that “Code is Law”.

Well, here’s Raven’s Corollary: if Code is Law, then Platform is Politics.

You heard it here first. 😉


#whalerape and the undeath of the author: separating the art from the artist

Paul Raven @ 06-06-2011

It’s a perennial problem: artists and writers, just like everyone else, can be appalling buttheads with deeply unpleasant ideas and attitudes. But do those attitudes poison their creations by association?

It’s all down to personal responses, of course. Here’s a post at ThisRecording that takes a look at the misogyny, racism and antiSemitism of beloved children’s author Roald Dahl; I was raised on Dahl’s books and loved them dearly, and I’m pretty sure my mother and my aunt – the main vectors by which Dahl’s output arrived in my world – would be just as appalled by Dahl-the-man as I am after reading that piece. But because I knew the work before I knew the man (and possibly because the work was edited to remove some of the more unpleasant subtexts), I find myself still able to draw a line between the two… though I suspect were I to re-read Dahl now, in light of the above, I’d be looking out for clues and signs of his sublimated nastiness. It’s hard to read with clean-slate innocence with that sort of knowledge hanging at the back of your brain.

Interestingly, though, this doesn’t seem to work the other way. Regular readers will know of my antipathy to archbigot and homophobe Orson Scott Card. I discovered Card’s reputation before ever reading any of his books, and as a result have read none of them (though I have read a few short stories since, which seemed only to confirm my opinions). And speaking of Mormons, habitués of the genre fandom Twittersphere may have noticed the #whalerape hashtag over the weekend, as a bunch of people (re)read this year’s Nebula winning novelette, “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made” by Eric James Stone. As the body and comments of the Locus Roundtable blog post about it demonstrate, opinions differ wildly as to its merits (or lack thereof), and the point of fracture seems to be along lines of attitude to religious missionary work in general, and Mormon proselytising in particular. Having seen the running commentary – not to mention discovering that Stone’s attitudes to homosexuality are in the same retrograde camp as Card’s – I’m finding myself deeply prejudiced against the guy’s work.

To be clear, I don’t think this sort of prejudice is dependent on the nature of the offence caused: I imagine that a conservative reader might be just as shocked and put off an artist by finding out they were a closet Troskyite, for instance. But I do wonder if the problem isn’t exacerbated by the new-found publicness (?) of the artist lifestyle. With writers in particular, the old model – communicating with your public primarily through one’s work, and the occasional public appearance or bit of journalism if one were of sufficient stature to get the gigs – has given way to a much more performative presence: the author as celebrity, as pundit. It’s never been easier to find out what the most minor of authors thinks about sports, politics or other ethical quandaries… though, to be fair, the same applies to people in all walks of life. We’re all celebrities now; it’s merely a matter of audience magnitude.

This all ties in with my ongoing fascination with what literature critics call the intentional fallacy, which suggests you can only judge a text on its own merits; critiquing a text on the basis of knowledge about the author’s philosophies and actions beyond those admitted of in the text itself is an act of biography rather than criticism. Part of me finds the poststructuralist undertones of the intentional fallacy appealing – the author is dead, and we can find whatever meanings we like in every text! – but I’m increasingly convinced that, as noble and high-minded a critical ideal as it may be, it simply isn’t compatible with the world we now live in. Call it “the undeath of the author”, maybe; they may not be alive within the text itself, but something of them shambles around outside its perimeter fences. Perhaps in the post-war years it was easy to assume a text could be hermetically sealed off from the world in which it was created and in which it will be read; in the hyperlinked and searchable world we now live in, the outer membrane of every text has become permeable to a lesser or greater degree – no firewall is completely hack-proof, right? – and one of the first and easiest conflations to make is that of the author’s publicly-held opinions and the meaning of their text.

All of which may seem like academic noodling (guilty as charged), but I think there’s a real issue here, too. In light of recent discussions about the comparative invisibility of women or people of colour in anthology TOCs, best-of-the-genre lists and prize nominations, this difficulty in separating art from artist becomes a more problematic thing, and damages the credibility of editors or anthologists who claim to be colour-, creed- or gender-blind when reading submissions. To flip the issue around (and demostrate the prejudices do point both ways): say I was editing an anthology, and an Eric James Stone story came over the submissions transom; I like to think I’d read it and give it as fair a chance to succeed on its own merits as anyone else’s, but I can’t in all honesty say I’d truly manage to do so. And that’s an example of a conscious prejudice, one of which I am aware and can – to a lesser or greater extent – work to minimise; what about the subconscious culturally-encoded prejudices against women, LGBTQ people and people of colour, the ones that we almost all believe we don’t have, but which we almost all do have?

(I fully count myself among that “almost all”, by the way; I’m not entirely sure I believe any of us can entirely free ourselves from culturally-encoded prejudices, but we can at least work to mitigate them once we’ve become aware of them, a process which becomes – albeit very gradually – easier over time. Much as in AA’s twelve-step program, the first step is to admit that you have a problem; that’s also the hardest step of all.)

As is probably plain (and certainly in keeping with local tradition) I don’t have any answers to this dilemma; I’m just throwing out a collection of ideas to see what other folk think about them. So, whatcha got, huh?


Anonymous: an anarchist analysis

Paul Raven @ 12-05-2011

Over at The Guardian, Jana Herwig gets all theoretical on Anonymous. It’s probably the most lucid attempt to tease out what Anonymous means in the context of the wider world that I’ve seen in any major publication. There’s also a glorious degree of cognitive dissonance to be had from reading about such an irreverent and vernacular entity in the high diction of academe:

This collective identity belongs to no one in particular, but is at the disposal of anyone who knows its rules and knows how to apply them. Anonymous, the collective identity, is older than Anonymous, the hacktvist group – more to the point, I propose that the hacktivist group can be understood as an application of Anonymous, the collective identity.

This identity originated on imageboard 4chan.org, as a byproduct of a user interface policy called forced anonymity, also known for short as “forced anon”.

Forced anon made it impossible for users to type in their name when they published a forum post. Instead, “Anonymous” would invariably appear as the default author name for any post. As a result, and in particular for the uninitiated, discussions on 4chan would seem like an absurd soliloquy, with “Anonymous” posting a message and “Anonymous” and “Anonymous” responding.

What this interface policy prevented was the creation of a hierarchy among users, which is known to quickly establish itself in online forums, with older forum members dominating and “newbies” having little weight in the discussion. Anonymous’s (the group’s) present dismissal of hierarchies and leadership has its roots in this practice. The uncertainty about who is talking (or probably just talking to him or herself, feigning conversation) is characteristic of the “forced anon” experience.

Herwig’s piece is in part a response to the recent schism within Anonymous; within any “normal” hierarchical group, such a schism would probably spell its imminent demise, but I suspect the very nature of Anonymous will ensure its survival, even if it mutates and undergoes a sort of metastasis. The choice of the V For Vendetta masks as part of their iconography is quite telling; the point Moore was making in the book about emergent resistance to hierarchy and fascistic control is echoed in the unpredictability of their target choices. Dissent cannot be bridled or steered; that is its power, and its self-limiting principle.

To unpack that last statement: self-identifying as a member of Anonymous is a lot like self-identifying as an anarchist, in that anyone can slip on the mask at any time, and the non-hierarchical nature of the collective means that there is no authority with the power to deny your validity. This has its downsides, in that it makes for easy pillorying and demonisation of the collective identity (such as the way that a few self-identifying anarchists bricking windows on protest marches are conveniently assumed to be representative of all anarchists), allowing a convenient way to obscure the genuine problems of hierarchy by focussing on the more foolhardy and socially unacceptable attacks made upon it.

But there are upsides, too, in that the more nihilistic wearers-of-the-badge tend to perform acts that are self-limiting in the long term; because the collective is headless, it cannot be destroyed, so the hierarchical world has to content itself with the sort of decapitations that symbolically represent the defeat of a system or group in their own narrative, while all they’re doing is trimming the wilder edge-growths of the rhizome and preventing it from becoming a hierarchy itself.

All of which is to say that I think Anonymous – and anarchism-as-philosophy – aren’t going anywhere soon; in fact, I’m beginning to think they’re an inevitable product of a global networked culture, a counterweight to the structure of society that increases in mass in proportion to the rigidity of the systems it opposes. Neither are an end-point or a goal; those that join in the hope that they are will soon leave, disappointed, because the individual reward they subconsciously seek for their actions are incompatible with the anonymity under which they are obliged to operate.

Of course, you may think I’m blowing pretentious smoke out of my own arse here; it wouldn’t be completely out of character, after all. So why not tell me why I’m wrong in the comments, eh? 🙂


Douglas Adams on representative democracy

Paul Raven @ 11-05-2011

I doubt I need to explain who Douglas Adams was to many readers here, nor that he died a decade ago today. I’m not big on having heroes, but I do hold a special place in my heart for people who made me think in new ways; Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide books will never win prizes on their purely literary merits, but even moreso than some of the most performatively profound science fiction writers, he managed to smuggle a whole lot of philosophy into his work, and a tacit acknowledgement of (and coming to terms with) the absurdity of the universe, and the human condition as a function thereof.

Shorter version: Adams helped shape the way I look at the world, for better or for worse. What follows* is a passage I paraphrase all the time… indeed, with increasing frequency and urgency in recent years. Enjoy.

[An extraterrestrial robot and spaceship has just landed on earth. The robot steps out of the spaceship…]

“I come in peace,” it said, adding after a long moment of further grinding, “take me to your Lizard.”

Ford Prefect, of course, had an explanation for this, as he sat with Arthur and watched the nonstop frenetic news reports on television, none of which had anything to say other than to record that the thing had done this amount of damage which was valued at that amount of billions of pounds and had killed this totally other number of people, and then say it again, because the robot was doing nothing more than standing there, swaying very slightly, and emitting short incomprehensible error messages.

“It comes from a very ancient democracy, you see…”

“You mean, it comes from a world of lizards?”

“No,” said Ford, who by this time was a little more rational and coherent than he had been, having finally had the coffee forced down him, “nothing so simple. Nothing anything like to straightforward. On its world, the people are people. The leaders are lizards. The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people.”

“Odd,” said Arthur, “I thought you said it was a democracy.”

“I did,” said ford. “It is.”

“So,” said Arthur, hoping he wasn’t sounding ridiculously obtuse, “why don’t the people get rid of the lizards?”

“It honestly doesn’t occur to them,” said Ford. “They’ve all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they’ve voted in more or less approximates to the government they want.”

“You mean they actually vote for the lizards?”

“Oh yes,” said Ford with a shrug, “of course.”

“But,” said Arthur, going for the big one again, “why?”

“Because if they didn’t vote for a lizard,” said Ford, “the wrong lizard might get in. Got any gin?”

“What?”

“I said,” said Ford, with an increasing air of urgency creeping into his voice, “have you got any gin?”

“I’ll look. Tell me about the lizards.”

Ford shrugged again.

“Some people say that the lizards are the best thing that ever happened to them,” he said. “They’re completely wrong of course, completely and utterly wrong, but someone’s got to say it.”

[ * I’m reprinting this here under Fair Use terms in the understanding that copyright remains very much with the late Mister Adams himself, and that I offer it as a tribute to and reminder of a much-loved cultural icon. If a take-down is required, please drop me a line using the contact form for immediate results… though I’d point out that I’ve blatantly ganked it from the copy found here, because I’m too damned lazy to type it out, and my copy of the book is still in a box in my mother’s house in Yorkshire at the moment. ]


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