Why is it more important to get people into space than probes?
By Charles Robinson
Human history has, to a large extent, been the story of our expansion into new environments, and our adaptation of and to those environments. Human expansion, technological change and social change all go hand in hand, driving and drawing momentum from each other. These three interconnected, interdependent factors are, in various ways, responsible for the rise of both human intelligence and human civilisation. So, the evolutionary impetus given by the tension between expanding geographical, technological and social frontiers is what has set the human species apart from other life on this planet and is what drove the increase in intelligence and subsequent arousal of culture that has brought us to our current situation.
That position is one from which we risk losing everything that we have gained in the past hundred thousand yearsâ€¦but also one from which we could, as a species, change so much as to make human history up to now no more than a prelude.
Space is the critical factor in deciding which way these events will play out. Not just physical space, not even primarily physical space, but mental, cultural, idea space. The noosphere, the sphere of human thought, culture, of mind, is the space which must expand, and be expanded into.
How to expand the noosphere? Expand the possibilities available to the human species, by changing the geographical, technological or social boundaries which define the noosphere. Of course, change of the technological or social kind is happening all the time, probably faster now than at any other point in human history. However, these changes do not seem to be being reflected in changes in the underlying structure of human societies. This partially explains the continued failure of technological democratisation, the â€˜rising tideâ€™ effect touted as a justification for the growing divisions of wealth and opportunity in the world.
So, despite apparently the apparently fertile soils of technological and social change, cultural change seems to be slowing or stopped. This is because human culture exerts a kind of homeostatic force on itself; like a living creature, a successful culture evolves out of a balance between conflicting forces, to an equilibrium whose effect is, somewhat paradoxically, to stifle change. So the changes which advance a culture have to come from places where the cultural homeostatic forces are weakest. And that means the fringes of a culture, the places where the institutions which evolve to inhibit change are weakest, and also the places where a culture is coming into contact with other thoughts, ways and means of being. Contact with, or the creation of, new cultural memes result from the chaos, the changes, of the fringe, and these memes can then propagate inwards to the heart of a culture and introduce new tensions, which will, in turn, cause change and move the whole process on.
The problem that arises from this scenario, is, of course, that eventually the space, whether physical or mental, in which these changes can arise, ceases to be outside the normal mechanisms which police cultural change. Eventually a successful set of memes (a culture successful under biological terms, at least), will reach a point at which it can either stop expanding, or compete directly with another culture with the same ability to resist change. The grey areas, the gaps and cracks in which new memes could prosper or die out, have gone. The noosphere is almost full, and the energy which could take us in new directions is siphoned off into a conflict between the existing memetic organisms which populate human cultural space.
This is the state that the world is rapidly approaching, one in which every culture is pressed hard against another, a state in which cultural homeostatic mechanisms, reactionary forces, normally weaker at the fringes, instead must be as strong there as anywhere else, one in which the cultural immune systems of the world are inflamed and enraged, and in conflict with each other. A state from which change, and thus progress, becomes increasingly difficult to initiate, and a state in which all change has got to be to the disadvantage of someone.
Sound familiar at all?
Thatâ€™s why we need to get people in spaceâ€¦the human species needs fringes, it needs places where the noosphere is thin and new, and where exotic ways of being, of living, can succeed or fail without competing with the existing monolithic, hundred thousand year old aggregates of memes that are the cultures of earth. If the fringes of a living organisms range are where speciation and diversification take place, then it is to the fringes of human experience that we must turn if we hope to change things on this planet. So, unless you believe that this planet isnâ€™t going to the dogs, the best possible hope for a few new ideas which might change the way people see the world around them and each other, is to put people into novel situations, equip them with technologies to manipulate those situations, and give enough cultural distance and freedom to those people that new â€˜ways of beingâ€™ can prosper or perish by their own merits.
We need space, not to escape from this planet, or to save it, but to save ourselves from stagnation, war, and eventual cultural, spiritual and physical starvation.