Karl Schroeder: July 2011 Archives

I sense a theme.

I've been reading a lot of blog posts, and comments to same, that highlight the seemingly intractable quality of current world problems. This recent post by Steelweaver is a great example. So are a lot of the comments to my previous "Beyond Prediction" post. Steelweaver in particular hits the nail on the head with the idea that "people no longer inhabit a single reality. ... Collectively, there is no longer a single cultural arena of dialogue." This is definitely the case when you examine the cultural and political dialogues arising around the Greek and U.S. debt crises, or global warming.

--And this is a brilliantly insightful idea, but it's a little bit sad, too, because it seems as though a lot of people are just discovering this problem, and yet it's been well known for decades.

Last week my wife and I read the chronologically-first Dragonriders of Pern book to my daughter. (She loved it.) DragonsDawn is one of more than a dozen novels by Anne McCaffrey set on the alien world of Pern, which in this story has just been colonized by humans.

I was struck by McCaffrey's detailed thinking about what colonization of another planet would be like--both because of the sophistication of some of her ideas, and the utter naivete of others. The colonists use genetic engineering to defend Pern's biosphere against incursions by an alien life form known as Thread, but nobody (least of all McCaffrey herself) seems to realize that the humans and their goats, pigs, food plants and associated fungi and microorganisms are themselves a catastrophic alien threat to the planet's biosphere.

I've just spent two years working toward a Master's degree in Strategic Foresight and Innovation.

Because most people look at me blankly when I tell them this, I've developed two ways to describe what what I'm doing, and foresight is. The first is to say that foresight used to be called futurism, but that futurism has increasingly become associated with the idea of predicting the future. Foresight is not about predicting the future, it's about minimizing surprise. The second way I usually put it is that foresight is not about predicting the future; it's about designing the future.

Actually, I'll say it's just about anything, as long as it's understood that foresight is not about predicting the future.

This is a game I like to play. It's a kind of sanity check on our priorities, and also provides good roadmaps to the future. What's interesting, of course, is the different choices you come up with on different occasions, and also what's different between your lists and other peoples'. You can play the game strictly on the philanthropic level, or in medicine, or political influence, etc.--and the choice of which areas you choose is also telling.

Today, in late July 2011, this is how I might spend $1 billion, specifically into areas that I think are currently underfunded:

  • $100 million to build a working prototype vertical farm.
  • Another $100 million on self-replicating 3d printers and a business ecosystem for distributed manufacturing and design.
  • $200 million into several nuclear fusion efforts, including General Fusion's pneumatic-ram driven steampunk reactor, the Polywell, Focus fusion and fusion-catalyzed subcritical thorium fission.
  • $100 million into a demonstration laser launch system capable of launching at least a soft drink can's worth of mass into orbit. Actually, a lot of that would probably go into magbeams and tether-driven 'second stage' technologies.
  • $100 million into studying terra preta, iron fertilization, and carbon air capture. 'Cause even if you don't believe that all that CO2 in the air is causing climate change, ocean acidification is still a huge problem.
  • $100 million on magnetic shielding technology (and magsails) for space travel.
  • $200 million to buy and launch one of Bigelow's BA330 orbital stations to use as a variable-gravity research module and Mars cycler.
  • $100 million for an underground volcanic island lair (and lots of yellow jumpsuits). Just because I can.

...Well, that's what happens with this exercise--your choices veer all over the map. The rationale for these particular ones can be summed up in one of my credos, "Live on Earth as though you were colonizing Mars." The same technologies that will allow us to live on other worlds will allow us to live sustainably on this one; I don't distinguish the idea of space development from the idea of sustainability, the one necessitates the other.

What's really interesting is that though the above is the sort of list I might have seriously compiled a few years ago, after having gone through the Masters in Strategic Foresight programme at OCADU, my priorities have shifted. If I were to really get serious, I'd be investing in things like stakeholder management systems and in building structured dialogic design protocols into social media--essentially, making the internet into a global decision-making system. But to explain that line of thinking... would take a novel. Hmmm... What a good idea...

(Hey, Charlie, thanks for giving us the chance to join the discussion, and have a great trip. Now, what've I been thinking about lately? The events of the past week reminded me of a little incident...)
A couple of years ago I sat down to lunch with a prominent astronaut, a Shuttle commander and space station veteran. We talked about space development and alternative paths to what NASA has actually done since 1970. I told him that what I'd been waiting for ever since Skylab was a variable-gravity research station, because it hadn't taken us long to accumulate lots of evidence that lack of gravity is bad for the human body, and because lower gravity was the only physiological variable for the Moon, Mars and other possible destinations that we couldn't currently test for. It's also one of the most important; a variable-gravity station could tell us whether unaltered humans could live long-term on Mars, for instance. The astronaut asked me how I would be build this station, and I said, "Rotate two booster modules, one habitable, linked by tethers." Much like Skylab, and very simple to construct.
He shook his head. "Tethers in space," he said, "break."
I blinked at him. "Well, if they break, you build 'em stronger, make 'em out of something else, or you use a number of them." I didn't quite say, "This isn't rocket science," but really, it's basic engineering.
He shook his head even more vehemently. "Tethers in space," he snapped past gritted teeth, "break."
I had no reply. I had been watching him; he became visibly tense every time the conversation moved away from strict NASA doctrine. This made me realize something:

Not only had the combination of Space Shuttle (most expensive yet most useless spacecraft ever constructed, a monstrous money-pit that cost $200 billion to develop, $1.5 billion for every launch, demanded a ground crew of over 3000 and had nowhere to go--and International Space Station (also fantastically expensive and in the wrong orbit to do any meaningful research) sucked all the oxygen out of space exploration for the average Joe; not only have most of my readers never witnessed a human being go beyond Earth orbit; but NASA's Darwinian selection process for its astronaut corps has, for thirty years now, guaranteed that only men and women who agree to toe the party line will get into space. In order to become an astronaut, you have to accept, in a Winston Smith sort of way, that real space travel is barred to us. --That somehow, Apollo never happened or was some sort of fluke, and that the best that humanity can do now is clamber to the edge of that vastness we once soared through, and blink at it nervously. Because the Shuttle and ISS are both emperors without clothes, and if anybody involved in the projects actually admitted it, we all might collectively wake up, and demand something better.
All of which is why I'm heaving a vast sigh of relief that thirty years of mediocrity is finally ending this week. Farewell, Space Shuttle. I'm not going to miss you.
As to the astronaut, fortune continues to smile on him. He's got a future mission to the ISS. I suppose that's better than nothing. But I feel sad for him because, believing what he believes, will he ever really see where it is he's gotten to? If even he has abandoned the dreams Apollo made possible, then what, now, can we dream about?



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