We're a big world with big challenges. If our future world is going to be anything much worth looking forward to, we need confidence to be bold enough to do big things and solve big problems. That effort requires inspiration to believe that the future can be better than today.
And all that is even before the budget cycle.
In his excellent book, "Space and the American Imagination", Howard McCurdy points out that any sort of project that's never been done before first requires a leap of imagination that the goal itself is possible. That's especially true for great challenges — solving our energy/climate conundrum, sending a man to the moon before 1970, instantaneous global communication, the Trans-Continental Railroad, feeding 10 billion people...pick your example. Doing things that have never been done before takes resources. Getting resources requires political support, and if people don't believe in the possibility of success, they won't support it or provide those resources no matter how desirable it might be in principle.
I was surfing around Kickstarter and ran across a 1950s sci-fi inspired film project called "Space Command". It's described as being "a series of new and original feature films written, produced, directed by and starring some of the top science-fiction visionaries working today." Usually this sort of thing doesn't impress me so much, but the endorsements from Neil Gaiman, Damon Lindelof, Guillermo del Toro, and others piqued my interest. The filmmakers have resumes with street cred: they've worked as writers/directors/production for Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek–TNG, Deep Space Nine, Babylon 5 and Sliders.
So I watched their promo video:
Despite the 50s Chesley Bonestell-inspired, Buck Rogers sort of whiz-bang approach, the filmmakers say they are keen to NOT approach the project as ironic or cynical, but rather to try to entertain, genuinely inspire peoples' imaginations and depict "humanity at its best". How refreshing. It immediately reminded me of Neal Stephenson's Hieroglyph Project, which is aimed at
rally[ing] writers to infuse science fiction with the kind of optimism that could inspire a new generation to, as he puts it, “get big stuff done.”
There's a reason that 1950s science fiction was important beyond its simple escapism (and regardless how unrealistic from a physics or economics point of view). The sci-fi genre films, books, and TV shows of that era — Space Patrol, Star Trek, Heinlein/Asimov/Clarke/Bradbury et al. — inspired a generation to enter science and engineering, and thus underpinned American technological competence, innovation, and economic growth for the next couple of decades. We're currently so cynical and dystopia-minded that we're at serious risk of losing that dynamism and sense of efficacy — and with it, a future worth living in.
I can ironize, cynicize, and pessimize with the best of them: my professional work is focused on climate change and biodiversity, so I'm well aware of how scary the future often looks. But — and I'm pretty sure I'm not merely projecting — too much realism and cynicism would spell our doom. The inspiration provided by art (which nowadays is transmitted mostly through TV and movies) is critical if we're to be bold enough to do big things and solve big problems. If we don't believe we can shape our future in positive ways... We. Are. Screwed.
It's not that I think we're going to colonize space next week or twenty years from now. (It depends on what you mean by "colonization"!) But we need optimistic visions that inspire people to become better versions of themselves, solve daunting problems, and create a future that's better than today.
Space Command and projects like it are important. Grand civilizational challenges are not merely technical. Or political, or economic. They're also cultural. People have to be inspired to believe they can do them.
But hey, no pressure or anything. I don't know if these films will be great, good, or barely above sucking, but I kicked in some bucks just because this seems like a healthy step in the right direction. They won't save the world. But I imagine they might be good.
So I encourage readers to support it too. They filmmakers have already raised far more than their original goal but are still taking support until July 14.
P.S. A note to the filmmakers. It's not about the hardware. It's about the humans, who despite their flaws strive for excellence and pull together to do something good. Not sure who your Klingons will be but I'm sure you'll find a suitable dramatic device. I'm sure you already get all this but... jus' sayin'.
This 1974 Australian TV interview with science fiction visionary Arthur C. Clarke is fascinating in what it tells us about our perceptions of the history of technology development (specifically information technology): we forget how far we have come because we were busy doing it.
As Gizmodo notes, "Clarke not only predicts that by 2001 every home will have a compact computer console, but that they'll all be connected letting users do everything from remote banking, to buying theater tickets. He even predicts how computers will eventually let us telecommute, and as Clarke always was, is optimistic that these new technologies will enrich humanity instead of isolating us."
From the perspective of 1974, we are living in a science fictional world.
In the April 2012 issue of Smithsonian magazine, writer Neal Stephensonargues that today's science fiction is too fixated on nihilistic and apocalyptic scenarios, and that this has created a kind of cultural despair that effectively hinders the kind of social and technological innovation that we need in order to "get big stuff done". Stephenson's idea is that no genre other than SF can better reignite the popular imagination to “develop new technologies and implement them on a heroic scale.” He's made a more fully realized version of this perspective in an excellent essay last year, calling for a "Hieroglyph Project" in which SF writers would
suppl[y] a plausible, fully thought-out picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place. A good SF universe has a coherence and internal logic that makes sense to scientists and engineers. Examples include Isaac Asimov’s robots, Robert Heinlein’s rocket ships, and William Gibson’s cyberspace. As Jim Karkanias of Microsoft Research puts it, such icons serve as hieroglyphs—simple, recognizable symbols on whose significance everyone agrees.
As someone who works on climate change and biodiversity conservation issues, I understand where much of the pessimistic impetus in most of today's SF writing/movies comes from. Such bleak sentiments are not baseless. Believe me, I get it.
But I agree with Stephenson. If we're to avoid planetary (and therefore human) disaster, we need big solutions. The inspiration required to do those big things can only be sparked by hopeful visions of the future. Techno-optimism used to be prevalent in the mid-20th century sci-fi like Arthur C. Clarke, Issac Asimov - or going further back, Jules Verne - who inspired engineers and scientists to be crazy enough to think that we could travel to the Moon or nuclear power or the countless other technological advancements that we rely on.
Stephenson "fears that no one will be inspired to build the next great space vessel or find a way to completely end dependence on fossil fuels" without the kinds of visions that inspire us to reach outside the realm of what's currently impossible. Humans can't live on bread - or reality - alone. We need vision and inspiration. While a utopia is almost certainly an impossibility, that doesn't mean we should stop aspiring to and striving for one.
We also need our Blade Runners to keep us honest and to remind ourselves about possible dystopias. Indeed, it doesn't take someone with an eye for the paradoxical to recognize that the blind or fanatical pursuit of utopias can easily lead to inadvertent dystopias.
Thanks to Ogilvy Notes for use of their very cool diagrams. I just ran across their website, and they've got some really great stuff - lots of other very similar sketched diagrams. The diagram I used is for Peter Diamandis & Steven Kotler's new book Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think - which I just started reading.
A couple of thoughts on the last post (which re-posted Doug Messier's notes - HT to Doug) on Robert Bigelow's speech at the ISPCS 2011.
China is still a long way away from being able to land humans on the moon. They've still yet to master orbital rendezvous (which is the whole point behind their Tiangong program). This isn't to question China's capacity to do either, it's just that it's not quite so easy or going to be so quick that the rest of the world is going to wake up with a Sputnik surprise one day. China is moving slowly, methodically, and strategically. They've got definite momentum, but they are also very concerned about not moving too quickly and having a disaster that would be a major loss of face. (In Asian cultures, "losing face" is one of the worst things that can happen.)
To those who point out the role of China's army (the PLA) in their country's space program, that's a legitimate point. PLA involvement bears scrutiny. But America's military certainly benefitted from NASA programs. Although NASA is civilian, the U.S. Department of Defense has worked with NASA since its inception as well. All space technologies are dual-use. Once a human spaceflight program becomes a more distinct endeavor than just mastering rocket/LEO technologies, the dual-use factor becomes progressively less important (though never goes away completely). Despite what people may think from previews of the upcoming sci-fi movie Iron Sky, you can't launch an army from the Moon to invade Earth.
I've actually only read three of these (Wells, Robinson, and Stephenson), but I agree those are good ones! Robinson in particular clearly deeply influenced many the space geek community with the most credible vision of Mars colonization yet written. But Stephenson is my own favorite.
Verne, Clark, and Vinge (though his "Fire Upon the Deep", not Rainbows) all happen to already be in my to-read list of books on my iPad.
Arthur C. Clarke apparently believed America's smartest people were wasting their time on banking, law, and insurance instead of the space program:
...I came across a searing indictment by Clarke on the American capitalist system. After observing that the structure of American society may be unfitted for the effort that the conquest of space demands he continued, "No nation can afford to divert its ablest men into essentially non-creative and occasionally parasitic occupations such as law, insurance and banking". He also referred to a photograph in Life Magazine showing 7,000 engineers massed behind a new model car they had produced as ‘a horrifying social document’. He was appalled by the squandering of technical manpower it represented.
Especially in light of the post-mortems of the 2008 global financial meltdown, when it became apparent that the best and the brightest mathmaticians out of Harvard et al. were being hired by Wall Street to engineer extremely complicated algorithms for derivatives trading, it's kind of hard to argue with his point. In the early 1980s there was a strategic shift in America away from manufacturing and towards the so-called FIRE (financial, insurance, and real estate) sector. More complicated than we need to go in here, but this obviously had profound consequences (both good and bad). There is certainly a very compelling case to be made that this strategic shift needs to be corrected for the general health of the American economy, and not just because it would benefit U.S. human spaceflight.
There was a very interesting article in Harper's Magazine a couple of years ago on this (FIRE) subject, but the gist is that we have misallocated our human capital towards relatively non-productive (but get-rich-quick) sectors like finance, in order to achieve what was putatively thought to be a more efficient allocation of resources in a global economy. In other words, this was the first stage of Globalization: we do the white collar stuff and let the Less Developed Countries manufacture stuff. If we want to change strategic direction, we should do it for other reasons and not just because we want to build cool spaceships that go to Jupiter.