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 years…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 ‘rising tide’ 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?

That’s why we need to get people in space…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 isn’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 ‘ways of being’ 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.


Hi Tech Democracy

With the upcoming election I thought it’d be timely to repost this article from Meme Therapy’s earlier incarnation. Rreading these comments what struck me is that these are just as true now as they were two years ago. If anything much of what was said has become even more obvious than ever before. With that said let’s take talk a little jump to the left and do the time warp:

Originaly posted Sunday, 23rd of July , 2006

We’re getting political again. We’re kicking off a week of technology and politics oriented Brain Parades and interviews with this question:

Information technology seems to have dramatic potential to revolutionize democracy. Putting aside these visions for a moment what do you see as the current bleeding edge of progress, or potential progress, in this area?

MT: As usual you’ll have to wade through my two cents first: The first step that I see happening are networked grassroot movements gaining an increasing say in the internal politics of political parties. This isn’t going to happen quickly. But it has in fact already begun with political candidates co-opting (ie paying them) bloggers for self promotion purposes. Over time internet enabled grass roots movements will become increasingly more important, but unlike network television there’s only so much influence that money can buy in this arena. In fact the reverse may be true, the wired grassroots will become important sources of funding for politicians (that’s hardly a controversial idea anymore). And that means that eventually political parties may actually have to begin courting the support of these networks by giving them a say in and access to their internal machinations, candidate selection and policy formation. Political hacks and policy wonks won’t walk down this path eagerly but they may be forced into this by evolutionary pressure in the same way that politicians in the 60s had to adapt (albiet in a less fundamental way) to network television.

Now onto our commentators:

Mark Frauenfelder:

Networked information technology has extended our eyes and ears so we can see all over the planet. Sophisticated search technology makes it possible to easily discover what’s important. Weblogs make it easy to shares ideas with potentially huge groups of people, and call them to action. That’s why China and other countries with repressive regimes don’t allow their citizens to freely use these technologies.

Mark Frauenfelder is a blogger, illustrator, and journalist. He is editor-in-chief of MAKE and co-editor of the collaborative weblog Boing Boing.

Bruce Sterling:
Gotta be Al Qaeda. As a networked and extremely violent global NGO, they’ve had a stronger effect on democracy than anybody else in the world.

Bruce Sterling is an author, journalist, editor, critic, blogger and a helluva good science ficion writer.

James Pinkerton:
For reasons having to do with my basic conservatism, I am suspicious of political innovations. Not totally against, but suspicious. So in the Brandeisian spirit of “laboratories of democracy,” let’s try Instant Runoff Voting (as advocated by my colleages at the New America Foundation, Michael Lind and Steve Hill, and the Deliberative Democracy (as advocated by James Fishkin at Stanford). Each of these thinkers say that their ideas have been tested–I say, test ‘em some more, in limited venues–these ideas should sit in the tea saucer for a long time.

And in the meantime, even as we contemplate future reforms, I think we should be reflecting further on what has been lost in our country as a result of past reforms. For example, the two-century drift away from small “r” republicanism–replaced by more direct democracy and populism–has been regrettable. The Founders warned that too much democracy, at the expense of the oligarchic and aristocratic features that they explicitly wrote into the Constitution, would lead to military demagogues. It’s hard to say that they were wrong to be worried about that martial-demotic possibility.

But at the same time, technology marches on, including biotech. If we see humans speciate, for example, in the next century or so, we won’t have to worry about the reinstallation of aristocratic and oligarchic features of society–they will come along with the New Men and New Women.

And similarly fresh developments await us with AI and robots. What sort of politics will they adhere to? Here, and in other countries, such as Japan? Those who count themselves as optimists about technology should consider such possibly prophetic short stories as Jack Williamson’s “With Folded Hands” and Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream.” Not to mention Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the grand-daddy of all dystopic tech-tales.
James Pinkerton is a columnistauthor, and political analyst. He served on the White House staff under both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and on each of their presidential campaigns.

Dr. James Hughes:
All communications and information technologies have the capacity to increase human self-determination, and our connections to one another, in that they make it easier to find information and collectively organize to participate in deliberative democracy. On the other hand, the corporate, cultural and political forces that want to maintain existing inequalities of power actively try to restrain those subversive capacities, and fill the channels with Paris Hilton, bombing runs and Fox News. Technology does not democratize by itself, it just changes the playing field on which democratic struggles are fought, creating openings that activist citizens can exploit. So I don’t see one hopeful tech, but just the constant effort to identify and make use of the emancipatory possibilities of new tech.

Dr. James Hughes teaches Health Policy at Trinity College, is the Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies and its affiliated World Transhumanist Association. Dr. Hughes produces the weekly syndicated public affairs talk show Changesurfer Radio andis also the author of Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future.

Douglas Rushkoff:
“Seems” is the operative word. The current bleeding edge of progress is metaphorical, not actual. It’s not that some piece of technology allows for better representation (so far, most of them are actually just better tools for voting fraud by the corporations who control them). But using interactive technologies and communications tools changes people’s felt relationship to public discourse. It reinventsthe commons as a participatory experience, and provokes people to think about participating in collective decision-making. This is its real value.

Douglas Rushkoff is a New York-based writer, columnist and lecturer on technology, media and popular culture. He’s also the author of Demos‘ Open Source Democracy which in large part inspired this Brain Parade.

Timothy Sandefur:
The most obvious recent advance is that blogs have been able to provide a check on the mainstream media’s most egregious abuses. What we’re seeing in the blog phenomenon is what I call a media fracturing. We’ve seen this once before recently, with the advent of cable and satellite television. In the olden days, when there were only three or four networks, TV dramas were bland, uninteresting affairs with simple plots, and almost no character development, and no major changes between episodes. Each episode ended pretty much where it left off. The reason was that networks were more interested in width than in depth—they needed to get the biggest audience for an hour. So you couldn’t risk alienating your audience by killing off a major character or making overly intellectual plots, or whathaveyou. But today, we have so many more choices that TV shows are vastly more intricate they want audience loyalty, now. And the result is a much greater quality of television. Well, blogs have the same potential. They are so highly specialized that if you want to know what’s going on in a particular area, you can often find a blog that specializes in just that one thing. The importance of this phenomenon can be pretty exaggerated, but it does have obviously healthy implications for democracy, since the spread of knowledge is good for democracy.

That being said, liberty is vastly more important than democracy. And I’m very delighted at the proliferation of libertarian weblogs.

Timothy Sandefur is a Staff Attorney at the Pacific Legal Foundation, where he is currently working to prevent the abuse of eminent domain, and to protect the right to earn a living under the Fourteenth Amendment. Timothy contributes to Positve Liberty and Panda’s Thumb.

Michel Bauwens:
I do not think there is one bleeding edge. Rather any technology which creates more distribution in resources, physical, informational, financial, is needed to strengthen peer production. Web 2.0 itself, as the creation of an architecture of participation, is pretty crucial and far from finished. I think we need systems that do not just rely on the wisdom of crowds, but allow for excellence and participation to flourish together, so that we do not get just lowest common denominator results. We need to insure that the new forms of social or algorhythmic selection (respectively a la Wikipedia and a la Google) do not create new entrenched elites, but remain flexible and changeable according to need. Finally, we need a lot of tools, technological and human (facilitation tools), to enhance transparent collaborative processes, and we need better institutional and legal tools. Conclusion: there is no magic wand, but continuous construction of the new participative world.

Michel Bauwens is a Belgian integral philosopher, Peer-to-Peer theorist and the driving force behind the P2P Foundation.

Steve Gilliard:
Clearly MySpace/Facebook social networking and YouTube.
Why? Because teens in LA used MySpace to organize protests to the immigration law througout the LA school system and no one had a clue it was happening.

Giving people the ability to mobilize social networks and throw up their own video which is watchable online give people a tremendous advantage in social communication. The more personalized a service can be, the easier it is to use, the more likely it is to allow people to become politically active. The desire for social change is always there, but the easier the level of commitment, the easier the organization becomes. Exchanging ideas has been the most difficult part of social activism. This personalizing technology makes it much more likely to engage people.

Steve Gilliard blogs at The News Blog and guest blogs at Daily Kos

If you like me are frustrated by people moaning about the Large Hadron Collider destroying the world it might be useful to point out to the doomsayers that this whole controversy isn’t anything new. We went through this all before ten years ago just before the RHIC (Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider) was switched on. Well the RHIC was switched on and reliable sources tell me that the world still exists. The BBC still has an article on the RHIC hoopla which you can read here. The controversy goes back even further than that, in 1995 Fermilab was picketed over similar nonsense. This is one dumb but resilent meme.

Unfortunately for many I don’t think a rational counter argument is going to work. The reason being is that the fear of the LHC isn’t based on an objection to it’s safety in the first place. I see their fear as a Lovecraftian “things man was not meant to know” phobia. A common theme in Lovecraft’s fiction was exploration (ie read change) leads to disaster. The intrepid explorers realize far too late for their own good that they were better off in the dusty old familiar world.

That fear might seem irrational but there is an internal consistency to it. Science has undoubtedly brought about change. If you’re someone who is enthusiastic about, and comfortable with progress then you’re probably enthusiastic about the LHC. If you’re someone who waxes nostalgic for the Victorian era then being suspicious and downright hostile to the LHC is perfectly consistent with your worldview (although ironicaly the Victorians would have loved the LHC). Such people aren’t going to be reassured by arguments testifying to the LHCs safety because their objections aren’t really about the safety of particle physics experiments in the first place.

The best antidote to fear is not to attack the “false objection” but to address the real underlying objection. Since the real objection is a fear of change you’ll have your work cut out for you.  But it can’t hurt to be a good cheerleader for science and the benefits of technological progress in general. Not only is it more effective (by addressing the real objection)  than the Richard Dawkins scowleyfaced “I’m going to tell you why you’re wrong” approach it’s alot more fun. In that vein here’s a man, Brian Cox, with a serious case of infectious enthusiasm talking about the Large Hadron Collider at TED.

A Space 1999 castmember discusses LHC safety

Like a lot of people I was alarmed to hear reports that methane was bubbling up in the Arctic Ocean. The initial reports were quite alarming. Boing Boing’s headline used the word “foaming” conjured up images of the arctic ocean turning into a freshly poured point of lager venting civilization ending methane. That emphasis is probably overdramatic but it’s nonetheless worrying especialy when you consider that none of this was supposed to start happening until the middle of the 21st century by many predictions just five years ago.

So when I heard news that researchers at the University of Calgary have announced a new technology for effeciently (energy wise, not financialy) extracting CO2 directly from the atmosphere I was interested. And when I heard that David Keith (who gave an excellent Ted Talk on the subject of Geogineering last year) was involved I grew more interested.  And with a cameo in a big budget upcoming Discovery Channel programme Geoengineering’s profile seems set to climb even higher.

Alot of people have debated that we shouldn’t even think or talk about Geoengineering, not an unreasonable point of view considering the moral hazard involved. And just to emphasize this point The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (think Tar Sands) just loves it when the subject of Geoenigeering gets press. It’s clearly being used as a stalking horse by skeptics who are in the process of shifting from outright denial to promoting inaction.  So I can understand why a lot of people are hostile to the idea of Geonengineering going so far as calling for tabling discussion and banning research on the subject.

I have a hard time taking this viewpoint seriously (how do you prevent people from talking about or conducting scientific research on subjects you don’t like anyway?).  Environmentalists are shooting themselves in the foot by making Geoengineering a taboo subject. They’re simply creating the impression ( often accurate in my view) that they’re overly partisan and irrational.

However the funny thing about Geonengineering is that isn’t simply used as a stalking horse for deniers. It’s also popular with the We’re All Doomed crowd.  These folks include people range from commentors on blogs mentioning that they’re stocking up on water and ammunition to respected scientists. But herein lies the second barrel of the moral hazard. According to this viewpoint there’s no point mitigating climate change ( unless you count moving to New Zealand and stocking up on guns and ammo a mitigating strategy). This too is self defeating and should be avoided.

Myself I’ve seesawed on this issue in the past but I’ve come to the conclusion that while I think it’s great that people are doing research on the subject of Geoengineering (and I’m sure that it will continue) there really isn’t any point in anyone except for a few researchers taking it into consideration at present. For starters we don’t have a viable Geoengineering technology ready to deploy and while Carbon capture sounds interesting it’s not likely to ever be less expensive than simply not emitting carbon in the first place.

The nightmare runaway feedback scenario can’t be discounted, but it’s a mistake to assume that the worst case scenario is true. You plan on the most probable case, focusing on do or die extreme measures doesn’t make for a rational response. The good thing about Climate Change is that it’s a slow motion disaster. Even in the worst case scenario we’ll have one or two decades before we go Mad Max, plenty of time for a World War Two style mobilization of resources and all kinds of desperate science fictionesque save the world gambits.

In the meantime with Solar getting foxier than ever and industry seems to be getting serious about investing in alternative energy now’s not the time to give up on rational optimism. As anyone whose run a marathon can attest it’s the last few miles that are the hardest but what gets you across the finish line is knowing that it’s there.


University of Calgary’s Research Papers relating to Direct Carbon Capture from Air

David Keith’s Ted Talk