Monday, April 13, 2009

"Space Cadet" Politics

By Nader Elhefnawy
Originally published in the SPACE REVIEW on March 16, 2009

Reading and writing about space development, particularly for the Space Review, I could not help being struck by the predominance of a libertarian-conservative outlook among those who follow these matters online. (I specify it as libertarian-conservative because our use of the word "libertarian" tends to overlook the long history of left-libertarianism.)

Why this should be the case is far from obvious. After all, as Jeffrey Bell put it in his Space Daily article, "The Totalitarian Temptation in Space," "space travel is mostly the creation of Hitler, Stalin, and Khrushchev," and in his view, the fact has led more than a few "Space Cadets" (my term, not his, and I apologize to any offended by it, though I have had a hard time finding an adequate alternative) to develop "a subtle anti-democracy, pro-totalitarian bias." The most celebrated period in the history of the U.S. space program, the 1960s, is also the era when confident New Deal-Great Society liberalism was at its apogee, and apparently here to stay.

Of course, one should not rule out the role of specific personalities, organizations and projects, like Robert Zubrin and his Mars Society; Paul Allen and SpaceShip One; Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic; or Elon Musk and his SpaceX venture. The prestige, charisma and sheer financial resources they collectively bring to the table have certainly galvanized libertarian space activism, despite the daunting odds-and to date, the absence of the results long dreamed about, like a sharp drop in the cost of space access. (One need only consider the haste with which this group cites the case of the Falcon 9 rocket in any debate about the costs of space flight-as has happened to me personally on several occasions. I wish SpaceX success in its efforts, but I think that these observers are definitely jumping the gun when they talk about a rocket that has yet to fly as having already delivered the goods.)

Nonetheless, one has to ask the question why people subscribing to these views were more responsive than others to such influence in the first place, and a recent study of public attitudes toward nanotechnology by the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School offers a clue as to why. The Project's sample of 1500 Americans found that responders who were "pro-business" tended to be more optimistic about the technology's implications. Those who were more concerned about "economic inequality" were more likely to see it as dangerous.

Liberals, Conservatives and Technology
While the study's findings may surprise some, the truth is that they echo an old historical pattern, one that a look back at the history of thinking about technology clarifies. One can of course find the earliest modern stirrings of this at the very start of the Scientific Revolution, in the writings of Francis Bacon and Renee Descartes, but the subject surprisingly came up only very rarely during the next two hundred years. (It is surprising, for instance, how little the issue of technological innovation comes up in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century classics of social science like Adam Smith's 1776 The Wealth of Nations, Thomas Malthus's 1798 Essay on the Principle of Human Population, or Carl von Clausewitz's 1832 On War.)

What changed that was the Industrial Revolution. Originally it was a cause of considerable ambivalence for the right, but that changed as conservatism became less aristocratic and agrarian, and more bourgeois and commercial, a process largely completed by the middle third of the nineteenth century. Victorianism was as technologically progressive as it was prudish about personal conduct. The nineteenth century was the age of the Crystal Palace; of Thomas Edison, who in popular memory epitomizes the ideal of the inventor-entrepreneur; of exultation over the idea of a globalized world tied together by new transport and communications technologies, celebrated in works like Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass and Jules Verne's 1876 classic Around the World in Eighty Days.

Meanwhile the left, while not anti-technological, became rather more qualified in its enthusiasm about technology. While thinkers at that end of the political spectrum recognized that technology held out considerable potential to uplift humanity, it also seemed to them that technology could not do so all by itself; that its potentials would be largely lost unless political and social questions (particularly those regarding class, labor, equality and property) were addressed. The Comte Henri de Saint-Simon saw the need for a new social organization, to replace the Old Regime brought down by the French Revolution, and in the process of searching for one envisaged an early form of modern socialism. Central to the thinking of Karl Marx was the idea that the "relations of production" determined the structure of society, and that an industrial society necessarily becomes socialized as it evolves.

Futurist and science fiction writer H.G. Wells, certainly no Luddite, contended in books like The War in the Air (1907), The World Set Free (1914) and The Shape of Things to Come (1933) (dramatized in 1936 as the cinematic classic Things to Come) that the failure to make such accommodations-to replace religion with science, nationalism with world government, capitalism with socialist planning-would make continuing technological development a danger rather than a boon, with the kinds of consequences we are accustomed to seeing in post-apocalyptic stories set after a nuclear war. (Indeed, The World Set Free is perhaps the first such story ever written.)

That pattern continues today. There are admittedly some noteworthy exceptions. Liberals, for instance, are more likely than conservatives to advocate investment in renewable energy technologies, or support stem-cell research. Meanwhile, instances of mindless technophobia and technophilia can be found all across the political spectrum. However, pro-business conservatives are on the whole likely to be more optimistic about new technology, "business-skeptic" liberals to scrutinize the larger cultural and political context surrounding those technologies, and concern themselves with the social and ecological costs. The conservative ascendancy of the last several decades, with its trends toward privatization and deregulation, weaker labor unions, wider gaps between rich and poor and very slow progress on environmental concerns, has those on the right more sanguine about the social order in which technology will develop, the left less so, reinforcing these tendencies.

Of course, a lack of enthusiasm for technological advance does not necessarily translate to a lack of interest in the issue, or an absence from the debate. Indeed, it would seem to simply put those who didn't support the technology in the opposition. However, as the nanotechnology study notes, those who are less enthusiastic about a new technology are also less likely to learn about it, keeping them from entering the dialogue in a serious way (a point touched on by the nanotechnology study).

Right, Left-And Up
Space is an area where these tendencies seem to be especially apparent, since the drop-off in public interest in space in general has reduced the interested audience to the fairly "hardcore," a category in which liberals seem to be especially rare. The stunt mentality of the Cold War era space program (which may still be with us today) leaves many liberal critics seeing space as a waste of money that would be better used on Earth. Such pronouncements were common enough from figures like Kurt Vonnegut in the 1960s, and the attitude has likely been sharpened by the slowing of economic growth and tightening of public finances since that time (an issue I have discussed in my previous articles, "The Limits to Growth and the Turn to the Heavens" and "Long Waves and Space Development"). The tendency to see space spending as a form of corporate welfare, and to associate space activity with the military space ambitions of governments (a point of view Noam Chomsky, for instance, has taken), only alienate it further. (Indeed, it is worth noting that the area of space policy which attracts the most overtly liberal attention is arms control and defense.)

The business-skeptic left is also little affected by the "market romanticism" (see my article, "Market Romanticism and the Outlook for Private Space Development," The Space Review, September 2, 2008) which I have argued has much to do with the current climate of the debate about space development. The same goes for the idea of space as a "final frontier," liberals taking a more ambivalent view of romantic images of the winning of the West. (Those who are economically minded may be prone to see it as the work of government-subsidized railroads and other corporations, rather than hardy, self-reliant pioneers.) Indeed, a certain amount of writing has already been devoted to the ecology and ethics of space expansion. This is not only the case with regard to the effects of human impacts on celestial bodies, but also a question of what such thinking implies for behavior back home on Earth. Given a doubtfulness about the prospects for finding real solutions to our problems in this way, a vision of space development can (and to some, does) appear as an irresponsible fantasy (or worse). And while I suspect this attitude could change, at this point the burden of proof would really seem to be on space development's advocates to show that space can generate really workable solutions to the problems with which they are concerned.

Enter the Postmoderns
Reinforcing this divide, arguably, is the influence of postmodernism. Postmodernists are suspicious of the claims made for reason, rationality, and the idea of progress, and by extension, anything founded on them. Though they may claim to eschew the idea of a basic "human nature," many of their pet ideas (their theorizing about the subject-object separation, or Michel Foucault’s writing about power, for instance) are effectively a secular version of original sin theology, with much the same implications: a view of humanity as Fallen, and its every action, thought and motive tainted by that Fall.

Given such premises, postmodernists can hardly be optimistic about science and technology. This certainly extends to the field of space development. Indeed, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, perhaps the greatest classic of postmodern literature (as these things are commonly reckoned), is often read as a demonization of rocketry and the thinking underlying spaceflight. While perhaps weaker in its influence than the more material factors described above, it is arguable the postmodern outlook, too, has had an impact on the view of space development-a surprising and counterintuitive one in that these ideas, which are actually an extension of the conservative tradition, have been influential primarily among those who regard themselves as being of the left.

Of Bloggers and Bureaucrats
Important as the right-left (or modern-postmodern) split is, the divide may be exacerbated by another dimension of the debate, the gap between "experts and non-experts," the broad audience of space cadets blogging and haunting the message boards online, and more "elite" (again, for lack of a better term) participants in space policy (whether in government, the space industry, or academia), of all ideological backgrounds. Of course, such divides exist in every subject area. Nonetheless (and not surprisingly, given the complexity and speculative nature of this issue), it seems to have special significance for the wide variance in expectations with regard to the prospects for space development in the relatively near-term.

Simply put, the experts tend to be more guarded in their assessment of the likelihood of really radical change, like the idea that we can bank on Earth-to-low orbit costs being slashed to $100 a pound by 2012 by this or that project, or that we can have a viable Martian colony up and running in ten years. To offer a crucial instance, mentioning the widely accepted assessment that Earth-to-LEO launch costs have in practice run in the $10,000 a pound range gets an indignant, and often plainly nasty, reaction from many a "flamer" insistent that we can do it for a tenth as much, yesterday (which is not in itself an answer to the costs actually observed thus far).

Such responses contribute to a view existing among many experts that the "space cadets" (or at least, a very large portion of them) are ignorant, emotional and irrational, incapable of grasping nuance and complexity, blinded by their political sympathies, prone to espousing conspiracy theories, and given to rhetorical excess (a notable example of which was the seizure of many of them on Jonah Goldberg's dubious writing to brand NASA a "fascist" organization). Rightly or wrongly, some would probably go as far as to class them as a particularly eccentric form of "pseudo-conservatism" as described by Richard Hofstadter in The Paranoid Style in American Politics (and such an interpretation likely appeals to those viewing space activism as tainted by the anti-democratic bias described by Bell).

It may also be that this body of opinion has, unfairly, been identified with the audience for pseudo-science and the paranormal (UFO sightings, "faces on Mars," Roswell, etc.), much of which seems scarcely able to distinguish between that sort of content and coverage of space science and space policy as such. Before one rushes to dismiss this idea, one should consider the vast air time this sort of material gets on television networks like the Discovery Channel and the History Channel, certainly in comparison with other kinds of discussions of space activity. The problem is also reflected in the submission guidelines of the Space Review
It's also important to describe what we're not looking for . . . we're not interested in articles about astrology, UFOs, Area 51, and the like; this should go without saying, but you'd be surprised sometimes what some people come up with . . .
In case the point needs further clarification: that statement can not be reasonably interpreted as derogatory toward the audience which follows the Space Review, and so no one out there should take offense at what I am saying here, or at the Review and its editor, Dr. Jeff Foust. However, it does acknowledge the very real confusion about the subject in a surprising number of minds.

In short, many of the experts may assume the broader audience to be uninterested in the kinds of arguments they can make (and it has to be admitted in all fairness that many a space cadet can cause a serious researcher given to meticulousness and precision to throw up their hands in frustration). Populism and anti-intellectualism have often gone hand in hand in the past, and contempt for college professors and civil servants as such does not seem at all rare in this atmosphere. Others, not put off by the prospect of a hostile reception, or expectations of utter futility, may simply think of themselves as poorly equipped to engage with it even if they want to. (Writing a feature for a publication like Space Policy or Astropolitics is quite a different thing from writing an op-ed for a newspaper.) Still other academics may be scarcely aware that such an audience exists (as I must admit was my position when I first began to write academically about the issue).

Once again: these concerns do not seem to be limited to experts in any one part of the political spectrum. Still, it stands to reason that those not sharing these opinions are more likely than the rest to be put off by this kind of talk, and that goes for conservatives not sharing the faith of space libertarians, as well as liberals. As a result of all this, not only are liberal voices a rarity in such discussions, but the range of conservative voices is also narrower than it otherwise might be. Whether one sees that as grounds for relief, or a lamentable lack of diversity that can only mean an impoverished and less balanced debate, given the causes discussed above, I do not expect to see the fact change anytime soon.

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