Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Robot Cultist George Dvorsky Is Building a Dyson Sphere in His Basement

George Dvorsky is one of the White Guys of the Future who roost among the Very Serious Futurologists at IEET, the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (where "ethics" mostly seems to mean pretending magic is real and where the "technologies" in question are mostly "emerging" out of futurological mouths but nowhere else).

Dvorsky has published an article there about how we can and should seriously get started on building a Dyson Sphere, which he defines as a "hypothetical megastructure, as envisaged by [Freeman] Dyson… the size of a planetary orbit and consist[ing] of a shell of solar collectors (or habitats) around the star." Dvorsky proposes that "such structures would be the logical consequence of the long-term survival and escalating energy needs of a technological civilization."

Of course, actual technoscientific development arises out of the vicissitudes of historical struggles among actually-existing stakeholders and almost never in ways that can be described in exclusively logical terms, especially not in advance or from any other kind of abstract distance. This is one of the reasons that futurological pronouncements arising out of logical extrapolations from parochial stipulations of initial conditions and hosts of assumptions about probable intermediary outcomes indifferent to unintended consequence, unknowable eventualities, actually involved stakeholders with the diversity of their actual stakes should always seem absolutely implausible to anybody with the least sense. What amounts to a flabbergastingly facile disregard for many of the factors most relevant to technodevelopmental struggle as it actually plays out in the actual world becomes, among the futurological faithful, the very sign of their superior "realism" and "scientificity."

Robotically predictably true to form, as literally only a faith-based futurologist ever could, Dvorsky declares of the actual building, by us, of a Dyson Sphere right here, right now in our solar system:
Implausible you say? Something for our distant descendants to consider? Think again: We are closer to being able to build a Dyson Sphere than we think. In fact, we could conceivably get going on the project in about 25 to 50 years, with completion of the first phase requiring only a few decades. Yes, really.
No, George. Not, really. Really NOT. Not at all. Not even conceivably, where "conceivable" refers to something other than the sorts of fancies that arise unbidden in the mind while one is masturbating.

In the real world where the United States no longer has a space program with its own shuttles and where we cannot even get solar panels onto residential rooftops even though we actually really do have the means to do so and we might actually help save the conspicuously dying world on which we depend for our survival and flourishing by doing so, we simply are not, not remotely, not at all, NOT going to create a "shell consist[ing] of independently orbiting structures, around a million kilometres thick and containing more than 1x105 objects… solar captors in any number of possible configurations… a myriad of solar panels situated in various orbits… [or a] bubble in which solar sails, as well as solar panels, would be put into place and balanced by gravity and the solar wind pushing against it." This is not happening and not going to happen, and not only because, as even Dvorsky lamely admits himself "we will need advanced materials (which we still do not possess, but will likely develop in the coming decades thanks to nanotechnology), and autonomous robots to mine for materials and build the panels in space."

Yes, boys and girls, futurologists are still promising magic materials from "nanotechnology" (usually conceived not as a matter of real-world nanoscale biochemistry, but a matter of reliable robust dry room-temperature self-replicating flexibly programmable cheap-as-dust molecular assembler fabricator genies-in-a-bottle) are right on the horizon. They are still pretending asteroid mining facilities and autonomous robots are going to build magic mega-scale infrastructure in "25-50 years." Yes, really. Yes, they are really still saying these sorts of things. No, none of these are being said by actually serious people who know much of anything at all about the actual science, actual techniques, actual logistics, actual stakeholder politics even remotely connected to anything remotely relevant to any of these nonsensical non-existing non-topics about non-objects.

Hell, I for one will be pleased if we earthlings manage in 25-50 years to seem in any way more technologically advanced than we did 25-50 years ago. So far, I have little reason to think we will, all the breathless empty talk from futurologists about the "acceleration of accelerating change" and all the pastel-toned pseudo-scientific futuristic imagery from pharmaceutical and car companies on my tee vee notwithstanding.

At one point Dvorsky describes as a "simple plan for doing so [building our very own Dyson Sphere]… almost within humanity's collective skill-set" (you really do have to adore that "almost," that modest little futurological concession to at least a pretense at something like sanity), the following list: "1. Get energy 2. Mine Mercury 3. Get materials into orbit 4. Make solar collectors 5. Extract energy." (Step One: Steal underpants. Step Two: ??? Step Three: Profit!) While I quite agree with Dvorsky that this "plan" he is endorsing -– and which he attributes to "Oxford University physicist Stuart Armstrong" (who I very much doubt does or could actually earn his salary by saying or teaching only such things unless he decided he wanted to be a science fiction author instead of an Oxford University physicist) deserves to be called "simple" I am unsure that it really deserves to be called "a plan." Quite apart from the fact that we are told that Step Two –- "mine Mercury" -– is actually calling for the dismantlement of a planet –- about which Dvorsky seems to have fewer ethical, aesthetical, let alone engineering-related qualms than one might expect from someone pretending to be sane, one might entertain worries about what happens when we get to some of the nitty-gritty involved in verbs like "get" and "make" and "extract" in this plan, when we are talking about doing whole lots of stuff we show absolutely no sign of, you know, actually knowing anything about actually doing them.

For a futurologist this is what it means to do science or to propose public policy. This is because these words do not mean what futurologists think they mean. What it is absolutely crucial to insist upon is that the actual practice of science and the actual work of policy never come to be shaped by the norms and forms of futurological discourse pretending to be them, all the while appealing as they do to so many ignorant, impressionable, irrational people (or to people who do know better but who would cynically, opportunistically exploit such people to the parochial benefit of corporate-military incumbent elites) who really do have enormous influence on actually existing technoscience politics and technodevelopmental policy.

In the conclusion of Dvorsky's piece he writes:
[T]he idea of constructing a Dyson sphere should no longer be relegated to science fiction or our dreams of the deep future. Like other speculative projects, like the space elevator or terraforming Mars, we should seriously consider putting this alongside our other near-term plans for space exploration and work. And given the progressively worsening condition of Earth and our ever-growing demand for living space and resources, we may have no other choice.
Of course, it is reality itself which relegates the construction of a Dyson sphere or terraforming Mars in the near term to science fiction entertainments. It is reality itself which relegates such speculation to utter irrelevance to serious policy consideration. It is not just silly, not just wrongheaded, but actually profoundly dishonest and irresponsible to pretend otherwise, and especially so for anybody who is aware, as Dvorsky claims to be, of the crises of resource descent and pollution and catastrophic anthropogenic climate change. To pretend the indulgence in this sort of futurological circle-jerk constitutes a serious effort to address these imminent planetary crises from which this indulgence actually absolutely distracts our attention and deranges our concern is of course quite as hilarious as it is pathetic, but I really do think it is important as well to call out this sort of nonsense -- which really is a more commonplace preoccupation of many of our so-called technological elites than anybody should feel comfortable about -- as potentially dangerous and frankly indecent.


erickingsley said...

"And given the progressively worsening condition of Earth and our ever-growing demand for living space and resources, we may have no other choice."

In other words, given that the corporate-military-industrial machine is eating the Earth, the only choice then is to further empower this machine to go out and eat the entire solar system.

That is as disgusting as it is flat-out stupid.

jollyspaniard said...

We're probably going to see less technological progress than most people think. Part of the R&D sucesses of the past 30 years have happened due to massive increases in R&D funding. We can't afford to inflate those R&D budgets further and in fact may have to pare them down.

In the biotech industry for instance a lot of firms have taken on a lot of debt and have slashed R&D budgets to the absolute bone. Only projects that are already in advanced stages of development (it close to market) are getting funded. The upshot of this is that people who work in that sector anticipate that R&D output is going to drop off a cliff.

jimf said...

> Step One: Steal underpants. Step Two: ??? Step Three: Profit!

Step One: Steal underpants. Step Two: **Wash** underpants. Step Three: Profit!

Dale Carrico said...

Unless the underpants are being sold on certain celebrity fetish websites one hears tell of....

Also, to make sure this thread remains appropriately futurological I think we must stipulate that the underpants are being stolen from guest at the orbiting space motel and are being cleaned, when they are being cleaned, by nanobots of course.