Sunday, October 19, 2008

Space and the End of the Future

By Nader Elhefnawy
Originally published in the SPACE REVIEW, March 12, 2007

Amid the renewed interest in manned space missions to the Moon and beyond, there has been a great deal of talk about the American public’s interest in space—or more accurately, its lack of interest. In some quarters, the feeling even verges on hostility.

Of course, it’s all too easy to exaggerate the change, given the somewhat romanticized view of the enthusiasm for space exploration in the 1950s and ’60s. There is, of course, nostalgia for the heady early days of the Space Age, when everything seemed new and major "firsts" followed one another in quick succession. There’s also a fondness for big communal moments when the nation as a whole was united in a common feeling, and moments like the shock of Sputnik and the exultation in the Apollo Moon landings satisfy the craving.

However, as William E. Burrows notes in This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age, the interest in space was always much more intense for scientific, political, and military elites, and "the zealots, the dreamers" who wanted to go along for the ride, than the general population. This is not to say that space has not produced tangible benefits in the form of myriad space services (like digital communication) and spin-off technologies (as in computing), but space programs generally took a distant back seat to much more mundane concerns for the vast majority of the public.

Still, it’s clear that in the days of the Apollo program, support for such initiatives was more widespread than it is today, and many plausible reasons why are now familiar talking points to those who follow the issue. One is disillusionment with a program that had for too long been organized around expensive stunts, especially after the ending of the Cold War that had once seemed to justify those stunts. (The International Space Station, underperforming and far more expensive than initially planned, started as an American response to Soviet space stations such as Mir.) Another is the dashing of over-optimism about both the technical problems that had to be mastered, and the likelihood of quick, dramatic results. (Forty or fifty years ago, Venus seemed much more hospitable, and rocket design likely to progress much more quickly, for instance.) Still another is the sense that other fields represent the real cutting edge of technology. The space age gave way to the information age, and many believe us to be on the threshold of a molecular age.

What has received much less attention is the way that space exploration and expansion fit into a larger conception of the future, and how dependent these initiatives were on that conception. True, it has been widely acknowledged that the downbeat mood in the United States during the 1970s worked against the space program, but the diminished interest in space wasn’t just a matter of heightened anxiety and distrust. There have always been dark, frightening futures, and the glory days of "The Right Stuff" were no exception in that regard. There were grave concerns about nuclear war and Malthusian crisis sufficiently severe to cause worldwide food shortages, even among enthusiasts of space exploration. (Arthur C. Clarke’s classic novel 2001 captured that thinking perfectly: there were thirty-eight nuclear powers in the world, and even the United States had "Meatless Mondays" and "Wheatless Wednesdays" in his story.)

The real change was in the disappearance of the positive images that had made the future a source of inspiration as well as fear, the "capital F future" as William Gibson once put it. The allure of space travel was strongly tied to that capital F future, humanity’s flight into space widely expected to cap off (or perhaps spur) the building of a better world, the start of a new human adventure out among the stars promptly crowning our achievements here on Earth.

That Future, however, simply failed to arrive, and people have stopped expecting it. To take one example, albeit a crucially important one, consider what "the post-industrial society" once meant: the start of a "post-scarcity" age in which economic growth ceased to be a value in itself, the market became less important, and other priorities like leisure, culture and the environment took precedence.

This wasn’t just the view of flower children proclaiming the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius, but of serious futurists, many of them conservative in their politics. Writers like Herman Kahn and Daniel Bell predicted that circa 2000 health care and education would be public goods; that a minimum national income scheme (an idea even Milton Friedman supported) would insure a decent life for even the least fortunate; that the average work year would be down to perhaps eleven or twelve hundred hours, and you would be able to comfortably support a middle-class standard of living waiting tables. Geneticist Gunther Stent in his book The Coming of the Golden Age wrote of a "new Polynesia" in which we would all lead carefree lives of plenty and ease.

The rest of the world may have been slower to join the United States in this paradise, but it was expected to come along soon enough. C.P. Snow in The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution made the case that the industrialized nations had "discovered the secret of getting rich," which would lift up the whole world by century’s end. Nor was there only "one path" to prosperity. What Snow said applied equally well to socialist as well as capitalist economies in his analysis. Indeed, Kahn and Bell both predicted that the Soviet Union would be part of the post-industrial world by the end of the millennium.

The reality, needless to say, is quite different. Our current obsession with "growth" and "competitiveness" above all other social, ecological, and even economic goals, our neo-liberalism and Reaganomics and Thatcherism, could not be further away from "the new Polynesia." Moreover, for all the belt-tightening and frenzied activity, the actual record of "growth" has been disappointing. We have seen nothing like the glorious post-war boom of the 1950s and 1960s: US GDP has been expanding at just half that rate ever since—and such growth as has occurred did not "lift all boats."

Instead of overflowing material prosperity, the experience for most was one of endless austerity. When I was growing up the word "budget" was almost always immediately followed by the word "cut." The conventional wisdom is that there are no public goods, not even police and defense—let alone public utilities, health services and schools. The social safety nets, far from being expanded, seem to be constantly scaled back. Forget national minimum income. The average young American man or woman doesn’t even believe that Social Security will still be around when they come of age.

At the same time Americans work longer hours, not fewer—twenty percent more, according to Fareed Zakaria, who celebrates the fact. Wages have stagnated and even decayed under inexorable downward pressure. To cite just the most egregious example, had the minimum wage only kept up with inflation from the 1960s and 1970s on, it would be in the $10 an hour range today. Had it kept up with economic growth, too, it would be near $15 an hour. No one imagines that such an increase is politically possible today.

All of this suggests a wide-ranging drop in living standards, but many argue that such is not the case. Cheerleading business journalists are always telling us that we’ve never had it so good. They point to our DVD players and cell phones as evidence of our unprecedented prosperity. What they fail to notice, or refuse to admit, is that the price of these consumer items is trivial compared with the rising prices of housing, education, and health care. They also prefer to avoid mentioning that our ability to afford these things is conditional on our working all those extra hours and borrowing a lot more money, both of which have real costs. People lead more harried lives—and all too often they’re falling behind anyway, though they don’t dare admit it, just like the "middle-class" people we hear of every once in a while who can’t pay their bills, who frequent second-hand clothing shops and food banks to save a few pennies they don’t have. And, of course, the lot of the average inhabitant of the former Third World is much more painful and disappointing.

At the same time there is little sense that things could be any other way. Never mind the ideological ecumenism of writers like Snow. There is just one path now, and as Thomas Frank put it, it's adherence to "The God That Sucked." And so the mentality seems to be: Don’t think of tomorrow; worry about how you’re going to make it today. Planning? Forget it. It's hubristic. And you can’t count on the public sector to get a job done, even if the private sector can’t or won’t do it.

All of this could not but have a profound impact on the popular interest in space exploration and expansion. The deep psychological connection with a badly battered grand narrative of progress aside, the current mood presents practical problems as well. To flourish such a program requires long-term thinking, long-range planning, and public investment, exactly the things the current mood militates against. Additionally, amid all that belt-tightening and austerity, when accomplishing the mundane is difficult enough, playing around with rockets seems like a luxury, a thing we can do without. (After all, wasn't one of the main criticisms leveled against big space budgets even then by figures like Arnold Toynbee that all that money would be better spent on the Earth’s poor?) A future among the stars appears to be one more thing out of reach, just like the rehabilitation of the natural environment, the curing of social ills, democratic world government.

That difficulty we now have picturing a positive future is evident in the way space expansion is depicted in popular science-fiction, particularly television, as M. Keith Booker points out in his book Science Fiction Television. The original Star Trek, very much a product of its era, epitomized "the Future," the realization of which began in earnest with Zefram Cochrane’s first warp-speed flight. Despite all that had changed in the twenty years that followed, The Next Generation offered a stirring defense of that vision, the pilot episode "Encounter at Farpoint" airing in the very same year that Gordon Gekko declared greed to be good.

However, even Star Trek couldn’t keep this up forever. Deep Space Nine went in a darker direction, though it succeeded in balancing this darker tone with the show’s utopianism, something the later shows didn’t quite pull off. Voyager and Enterprise felt comparatively formulaic and anemic, and in the latter case this drove the show’s producers to take it in new directions—less than successfully.

The other space-themed shows of the last two decades didn't even try and take up the challenge of imagining a bright future among the stars. Firefly was an almost literal attempt to set a Western in space, but it can easily be read as an attack on grand narratives of progress. Andromeda is set after the collapse of a multi-galactic civilization of which Earth was but a minor member, and which post-collapse had become just an obscure victim of the universe’s "barbarian hordes." The underrated Lexx took the idea further than any of the rest: Earth as such simply has no future. It is recognizable at a glance as just another "Type 13" planet which will inevitably self-destruct, and does so in the series finale.

In the remake of Battlestar Galactica Earth has yet to make an appearance, but the show isn't dissimilar in its darker orientation. It is, after all, about the handful of refugees who survived the shattering end to their civilization's technological progress. (The world basically came to an end because, as Commander Adama puts it in the miniseries, "someone wanted a faster computer to make life easier.")

Not every series has been quite so gloomy, but even the more optimistic portraits were highly conditional—or saw the promised land as a lot farther away. In Farscape, Earth stumbles onto interstellar travel, but isn’t ready to deal with the menacing wider universe—and so astronaut John Crichton closes off the wormhole leading home. In Stargate SG-1 humans do an amazing job of copying alien technology and holding their own against extraterrestrial menaces, but that’s all top secret, and the situation is on the whole one of unending emergency as the heroes battle off an unending succession of threats.

Babylon 5, which came the closest to having a Star Trek-like fan base and also the best of the lot, presented a future in which little progress had taken place, even amid vast technological change and a hundred years of contact with extraterrestrial civilizations. One character, talking about exactly this, quipped that the future should have come with the label "some assembly required." (The show did, however, carry a note of cosmic, long-term optimism consistent with the Hegelianism that show creator J. Michael Straczynski acknowledged as an influence.)

Space therefore appears as a wonderful backdrop for high adventure, compelling drama, and biting satire, as it has always been, but its former place as the crown to the realization of the Enlightenment is ever more dubious—just as the Enlightenment has seemed ever more dubious. Of course, it is conceivable that the "vision thing" could return. One may take the view that our current attitudes don’t so much show up our earlier vision as represent a temporary diversion from our proper track. Jeremy Rifkin argues in his book The European Dream that the '60s-era expectations brushed off in the United States succeeded in planting roots in Europe, which may actually be moving in the direction described above (though that movement does seem to be besieged by globalization), with the rest of the world likely to follow.

In the meantime the closest thing we have to such a vision is trans-humanism/post-humanism, and the seemingly limitless promise of the technological "Singularity." Of course, this line of thought seems to have replaced outer space with cyberspace. Still, after nano-scale robots have enabled us to dispense with economics, and a hyper-abundance of computerized brainpower made cracking any problem just a matter of time, what is to stop us from heading out to the stars? It even seems like the logical next step.

Still, the Singularity is a Pandora’s Box which can as easily bring forth new hells as new heavens. For every person who sees it as "the Rapture for nerds," there’s at least one other who fears that those same engines of creation will turn the planet into gray goo, and that all that computerized brainpower will turn on us—or simply accelerate our descent into techno-dystopia.

And there’s still another who expects it all to prove rather banal, as suggested by some of the earliest commercial uses of nanotechnology, like sturdier tennis racquets and stain-resistant designer pants. Self-replicating molecular assemblers, which can build cities out of seawater? Hyper-intelligent computers that usher in an age of "spiritual machines"? That's as plausible as, well, space colonies by 1999, they say, and after all the disappointments, it's not easy to dismiss them. Still, only time will tell where our technological development will lead, and in particular, whether this line of thinking brings back that capital F future.

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