Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Why There Won't be Facebook in Space

 The harsh realities of actually trying to be self-sufficient in space will negate a lot of personal freedoms.  We can't be a "spacefaring" civilization if we are spreading rumors and fake news and wasting time on social media.  People who believe in a flat earth cannot live in space.

A reader writes asking my opinion about "Alternative Technologies" such as that of Nikolai Tesla, Buckminster Fuller, and like.  While I admire these people as innovators and iconoclasts, I also realize that a lot of what they proposed was impractical.

This is not to say what they accomplished was nothing, only that sometimes leaders and visionaries have ideas which don't necessarily translate into practical applications, although they do influence society in one way or another.  For example, we are members of the Frank Lloyd Wright society, which entitles us to a discounted admission to Frank Lloyd Wright buildings as well as a subscription to their most excellent magazine.  Frank Lloyd Wright, as I noted before, was mostly a failure in his life as many his projects never got off the ground, and many of those did ended up being poorly constructed with leaky roofs and shaky foundations.

But the term "failure" in this instance is relative.  While many of his projects ended up being torn down or never built, and many the projects that were built ended up being remodeled or had severe structural or other issues, his role as a visionary was the most important aspect of his career.  More important than his actual buildings was the influence he had on modern architecture and design as well as his philosophy of architecture design and even life itself.

A whole host of modern architects all owe their careers to Frank Lloyd Wright whether they realize it or not.   I think most of them realize it.

Similarly, Nicolai Tesla's crazy ideas about charging the atmosphere for free energy never amounted to anything, and probably represented his mind going off the rails later in life.  However his contributions to electromagnetics are incomparable.  So much our modern society so much of our modern technology would not exist if not for Nikolai Tesla - or perhaps someone like him.

While some of these visionaries have failed in their own lifetime, their contributions to society is incomparable.  We have always relied on those with a vision of the future to guide us toward that future.  All of the technology we have today was indeed envisioned by others decades ago.   That vision guided us to the reality we have today.   And today, there are two almost diametrically opposed visions as to what our future will be - outward or inward looking.

If you read a lot of science fiction, particular older science fiction, the idea of leaving Earth and colonizing the planets or even distant stars is a common theme.  In most of these stories, it is posited that people want to leave Earth because Earth has become so unattractive.  Moreover, there is a tension between those wishing to explore the planets and those wishing to remain on Earth.  The latter are more interested in dividing up the pie that exists and looking inwardly as part of a dying society.  Those wanting to explore and move on are viewed as visionary had outward-looking, with an optimistic view of the future.

It is no accident that Elon Musk named his company Tesla after the visionary inventor.   Musk is no mere software or social engineering developer, but a man building serious hardware for both Space and Earth.  Electrical Engineering with a capital "E".   But today we see a dichotomy in the vision of the future between Elon Musk with his optimistic outward view of the future and Mark Zuckerberg and his inward, less optimistic view of the world.

Zuckerberg at Facebook envisions a future where we will all be captive to 3-D goggles and view our world through virtual reality.  We will interact with others and machines through a simulated reality.   In this view, there's no need to ever leave home or even look out the window, as whatever you want to see can be seen through virtual reality, preferably through a Facebook interface.

This view of life reminds me of the science fiction story "The Machine Stops" (written in 1909!) in which society has devolved into an insular civilization where people live in windowless rooms far below the Earth and interact with each other through video screens and cameras and virtual interfaces.  No one bothers to travel anymore, and if they do it's through robotic vehicles and even robotic airplanes which have no windows as people are afraid to even look outside.  It is a world where society has stopped evolving and expanding and instead has turned inward on itself.  This is the Zuckerberg future.

On the other side of the coin are stories of mankind reaching out to colonize the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, and even Jovian satellites.  Or perhaps even other star systems.  As Elon Musk said, we must become a space-faring species in order to survive. This viewpoint also has a bleak outlook for mankind, and that it writes off the entire civilization of Earth as a dead end, fated to devolve into squabbling over increasingly finite resources and trivial political and theological differences.

These sort of science fiction stories posit that space exploration will be a new frontier or a new wild West, where hardy individuals will set out to explore the planets and other heavenly bodies to eke a living from the vacuum of space.

I'm not sure that either vision of the future is necessarily a rosy one.  As I noted in earlier posting, the exploration and colonization of space will be a horrendously difficult task.  Sure, we can boost people up into low earth orbit for months or even years at a time.  But that is only with the aid of regular supply rockets, bringing literally tons of supplies to the space station, including food, air, and water.  We are hardly even close to self-sufficiency in space.   And nowhere near the level of sophistication needed to not only survive in space without a constant stream of supplies from Earth, but be able to sustain technology as well.

But the technical issues pale in comparison to the social ones.  Not only will almost everything have to be lifted from the gravity well of Earth in order to establish civilization beyond the bounds of our atmosphere, but civilization itself will be fundamentally different from that on Earth.

Simply stated, in an environment where every breath is a precious commodity, there will be very little room for bullshit. Whether it is colonizing the Moon, Mars, or outer asteroids, people will have to work constantly just to survive. They'll be no room for slackers, welfare recipients, or even the disabled or handicapped.  It would be a civilization of eugenics and harsh realities. You would have to apply for a permit even to have a child. Any idea of free speech and your personal rights will be severely curtailed.

There would be no place in such a spacefaring civilization for people texting while driving or spending their hours on Facebook instead of working.  It'll be no place for fake news, urban legends, rumors and innuendo - perhaps not even for religion.  There would be no time, money, or resources available for people to indulge in virtual reality fantasies, much as Mark Zuckerberg proposes for those remaining on Earth.

And these are the harsh realities and harsh choices we face as a civilization.  Do we remain here on Earth and look inwardly and isolate ourselves with various electronic entertainment such as virtual reality?  Do we evolve our civilization into little more than dividing up of the pie into smaller and smaller slices as the Earth becomes more and more populated?

Or do we expand to other planets and planetoids to to expand our civilization beyond our home planet -  but in the process give up much of what comprises that civilization?

It is interesting.  We have visionaries for the future with two dramatically different visions.

Of course, it is exciting, as things I read about as a youth as science fiction are now becoming reality.  I can talk into a little box hardly larger than a pack of cigarettes and it converts my speech into the text you are reading right now.  This was the stuff of fantasy in my childhood.

Regardless of which envisioned future - or both - takes place, it is a good thing that we still have dreams.  Mr. Musk, in addition to space exploration is also developing the vision of high speed "hyperloop" trains traversing the countryside.  Again this was a fantasy - a science fiction fantasy - of my youth.  It is fills me with fascination and wonder to see these things at least being tried.

Similarly, it wasn't long ago that things like wind and solar power were dismissed out of hand as foolish pursuits that could never supplant traditional coal, oil, natural gas, or nuclear power.  And perhaps they never will entirely, but now they're considered serious players in the energy marketplace.

And wild fantasies of solar powered homes with energy storage modules in the basement, which were the stuff of science fiction even back in the 1930's, appear to be coming true today if Mr. Musk has his way.

Of course, this all could go horribly wrong and be unwound in short order.  None of these technologies are making serious amounts of money yet, and many are only soldiering on because of government subsidies and tax breaks.  Simple changes to policies could bury these new technologies for another century or so.  We are poised to enter either a new age of wonderment - or a new Dark Ages.

I can only hope that mankind proceeds with its visions, rather than being caught up in primitive belief systems of the past.  It defies logic that today more than ever we are still arguing over religious dogma in an era of high technology.  That the bulk of the population of the world is caught up in a life-or-death struggle over whose God is the right one, or whose political beliefs should prevail.   It is hard to believe we are on the cusp of such wonderful achievements, and yet also on the cusp of slipping back into the stone age.

And yet, it seems like we have been in this situation for decades now, perhaps longer.

What a beautiful it [could] be . . . .