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

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Voice of Libertopian Space Takes Me To Task

Clint Johnson writes:
Dale Carrico believes he is a smarter businessman than Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Paul Allen, Larry Page, Eric Schmidt, Eric Anderson, Charles Simonyi, K. Ram Shriram, Ross Perot, Jr, Robert Bigelow, John Carmack, Burt Rutan and Richard Branson… combined. I do not agree.
I agree with Clint's disagreement, at least I think I do, since I am not a businessman at all, even though as a general matter I don't see much reason to connect the word "smart" with the word "businessman" anyway. I haven't actually declared any of the individuals in Clint's list to be less smart than me, nor can I honestly say I am particularly wedded to the assumption that I am as smart as all that personally -- knowing my limitations as I do -- and I don't doubt that many of Clint's heroes are very nice people, kind to dogs and so on, even if they are as foolishly misguided about private space industry, such as it is, as Clint definitely is.
A few days back, Dale Carrico posted an attempt to sum up why he believes there is no possible way for private industry to have anything but a supporting role in space.
That is true. Note that I did and do approve the idea that private industry may have a useful role in the exploration of space. But this is not enough for Clint Johnson.
He is spectacularly wrong.
You see?
I have already commented on Mars One and I am willing to go on record as saying I don’t think the reality show has much chance of getting on the air, let alone sending anyone to Mars.
A brave stance from our man Clint, "on the record" and all that, in the service of the flabbergastingly obvious.
Dale starts off by ridiculing Mars One in an attempt to implicitly tie it to all proposals for private enterprise in space. It is like insisting on starting a discussion on the viability of mining by attacking Discovery Channel’s "Gold Rush".
Well, I have indeed chronicled libertopian space cheerleaders saying all sorts of nutty things of which the Mars One reality tee vee show is the latest, but my specific criticism of this specific proposal would be analogous to Clint's "Gold Rush" thought-experiment only if a mining proposal expected an airing of "Gold Rush" on the Discovery Channel to fund the whole enterprise and also render the proposal credible (whatever the actual merits). Yes, that would be absurd. Yes, that would be my point.
I don’t believe this is simply an ignorant oversight on his part, but a deliberate rhetorical subterfuge to damn by association something that he has an ideological antipathy toward. You would not be remiss in assuming Dale Carrico’s area of expertise is talking rather than doing.
Strictly speaking, talking is doing something (as is writing, teaching, activism, all of which I also do), but I daresay saying all this will only confirm Clint in his suspicion that I am one of them elite effete aesthete academic types who aren't into serious kick ass Action of the kind celebrity CEOs devote their lives to in Ayn Rand novels and such. I would appear to be cast in an Ellsworth Toohey sort of role in this particular libertopian fantasia, hence exposing the palpable absurdity of the Mars One premise must be a matter not of judging a proposal on the merits, but a deliberate subterfuge falsely associating a proposal with its publicly asserted terms. Pretty sinister stuff.
In that post, Dale shows a fundamental lack of understanding of markets, libertarianism, NASA, the goals of private space enterprises, and the dynamics of government spending versus private investment… I struggle to see where he has a grasp on any portion of this debate?
Shorter Clint on markets, libertarianism, private space enterprises, I'm guessing: Awesome!
His insistence on using what he seems to believe are cutesy insults every time he references anything related to the free market indicates his argument is driven by his emotional aversion to individualism and capitalism.
Of course, I am a champion of actual individual rights and responsibilities and equity-in-diversity while at once fully aware of the interdependence of individuals and their dependence on a shared inheritance of cultures, common and public goods, laws, norms, vocabularies, and infrastructural affordances; and I am also a champion of actually free commerce to the extent that its terms are made genuinely consensual, which requires among other things that they are not misinformed or duressed by violence, threat, fraud, miseducation, unequal access to law, or the precarity of illness, hunger, poverty. The fantasy of "rugged individualism" is not indispensable to the defense of real individuality, the fantasy of "natural" markets as "spontaneous orders" rather than ritual and artifactual accomplishments of laws, customs, and material affordances, impeded rather than enabled by good governance, is not indispensable to the defense of real free enterprise. Quite the contrary. Now, I ridicule the ridiculous because it is ridiculous, and I do hope in the aftermath of Clint's unsolicited effort to therapize, sight-unseen, my presumably "emotional" denial of his awesome totally commonsensical manly fantasy of individualism and capitalism there isn't a bill on the way. Because as a therapist, Clint, you suck. Oh, there I go with the cutesy insults again.
He is like the western apologists for the Soviet Union and Maoist China from the middle of last century insisting that there is no way for the capitalist pigs of the West to equal the efficiency of a properly commanded economy.
Who, reading my testimony to the values I champion above, does not feel against their neck the steely jackboot of Stalin and Mao, after all?
The polite name for these people was "useful innocents".
Very polite. Some (but not me) might be tempted to cry, "cutesy insult"!
I am sore tempted to use the less polite version even though I don’t believe Dale to be an idiot… but I have even less faith that he is an innocent.
Just because a government purchases goods or services from a private company, does not make them an arm of the government. With hundreds of millions of dollars in industry launches on its manifest, SpaceX has a private space "program" just like Ford Motor Company has a private automobile "program".
Yeah, except, you know, without a coherent business plan and without much in the way of tangible goods on offer. Otherwise, totes true that, man.
For decades, the communication satellite industry has been a multi-billion dollar per year "for-profit space program"- and while it has been piggybacking on the national space program, SpaceX is showing that to have been a detriment rather than an asset.
Yeah, as they beg for more government handouts and contracts.
By its very nature, government is at least an order of magnitude less efficient and cost effective than private industry.
Can you say healthcare?
I suppose it shouldn't be surprising that a statist can’t comprehend this fundamental efficacy gap and so would be unable understand the economics of utilizing resources in, and from, space. He is told by the government that mining an asteroid or setting up a moon base as a $50-100 billion project and so sees a $30 billion return on investment as a losing proposition.
If my position renders me a "statist," I can only assume Clint fancies himself an "anarchist" of the anarcho-capitalist variety. I invite Clint and his libertopian friends to launch their private space industry from Somalia where they won't have pesky statism interfering with their innovative entrepreneurial kick-assery.
Like a blind man trying to imagine the colour red, he simply can’t wrap his mind around private industry getting it done for $5-10 billion.
What is this free? dom? of which you speak...? Blind and brain-deprived as I am, the way I'd put this is, more simply, I'm right and you're wrong, Clint. Macroeconomic illiteracy (yeah, I'm talking about Polanyi, Keynes-Hicks, Galbraith, Clint, your worst fears realized) is a knowledge-denialism as injurious to serious champions of space science and exploration as would be flat-earthism. You are an ignoramus who fancies himself an illuminati. It's embarrassing, Clint.
The men behind the private space programs have built up personal fortunes in the tens of billions of dollars while establishing track records of creating and running companies worth hundreds of billions of dollars.
Can I have some of whatever you're smoking, Clint?
Rational people are influenced by the fact that, after thoroughly investigating the science, technology and market- these extremely capable and very intelligent men are investing their own money in private enterprises in space.
Clint seems very impressed with pop-tech scam and skim operators of the celebrity-CEO variety who don't have much to show for themselves apart from a penchant for PR self-congratulation and a whole lot of government handouts, I must say. Not exactly Randroidal/ Heinleinian archetypes, these guys, if you ask me.
One of the more pointless statement of his is "no extraterrestrial site more hospitable than the least hospitable place on earth". Building comfortable and safe habitats in space is an engineering exercise, neither intractable nor overly complicated.
Get back to me when you or any of your heroes actually manage the trick, Clint. For now, file this under "[we] would not be remiss in assuming [Clint Johnson]'s area of expertise is talking rather than doing," shall we?
The statement that betrays Dale’s biggest lack of understanding of the social motive for colonizing space is "there will be no extraterrestrial colonies to re-enact brutal "Age of Discovery" exploitation fantasies". I am not sure what delusions Dale is suffering from but: 1) If there were anyone out there, libertarians would not have fantasies about subverting the most basic foundation of their philosophy. 2) There is nobody out there to exploit!
This is a fair point. I do think libertopian wet-dreams of wildly profitable space industry derive their plausibility not from the actual merits of their case but from the activation of a cultural archive of conquest and exploitation, from the Age of Discovery to Manifest Destiny to Colonialism to corporate-military globalization, and it is true that a disavowed undercurrent of genocide has enabled the fortunes of the conquerors in ways that wouldn't literally play out in a profitable space industry since there are no "natives" to violate. Clint is right that my analogy here is inexact. But I do not think the analogy uselessly inapt, since past looks not to be prologue empirically when it comes to the shift from historical frontiers to "the final frontier" however intuitively plausible the application of the rhetoric of the former to the latter may feel to us, its inheritors (which is, after all, my point) but also since no doubt an exploitation of labor would be indispensable to the process even without an indigenous population available for that purpose -- exploitation in the inevitable eventual diversion of public moneys to enable private profits, the foisting of the perilous building and maintenance of its vulnerable infrastructure onto the precarious, the incredible disproportionate dangers to the explorers themselves, and so on. Interestingly, we are offered a premonition of the latter exploitation in the absurd Mars One's proposal to fund their self-declared idealism with a gaudy game show documenting a suicide mission, the proposal that inspired the critique to which Clint is presumably responding.
Dale goes on insist that it won’t relieve overpopulation pressure… even when rational people understand that the "population bomb" is yet another failed Malthusian prophecy. We won’t see even 10 billion people on the planet earth- of course there will be billions more off the planet but they will mostly be born there, not emigrate there.
So, I suppose we can add to Clint's macroeconomic illiteracy his dismissal of the threat of overpopulation to the carrying capacity of our planetary ecosystem. Nice. Of course, billions of humans will not be born in the airless, icy, barren, irradiated hells of extraterrestrial planets, indeed few would long survive exposure to these places, let alone carry babies to term or raise families in them. Not to put too fine a point on it, not only is Clint's declaration to the contrary not obvious -- "of course there will be billions more off the planet" Clint insists -- not only is Clint's declaration not that of all "rational people" as he assures us, but this article of faith of his is frankly, completely, utterly, batshit crazy.
The crux of Dale’s apoplexy over private space enterprises is encapsulated in his statement: "Indeed there will be no escape hatches via space from any of our urgent and intractable political or environmental problems." To those with this mindset, the only thing worse than these "urgent and intractable" problems is to have them solved by individuals and businesses.
It is curious, the rather calm bemusement with which I experience the state of apparent apoplexy out of which my critiques of libertopian and futurological falsehoods are issued... Since democratic governments are of, by, and for the people, it would seem that my insistence that urgent and intractable social and environmental problems require collective address through the agency of accountable governance would actually still involve their solution by "individuals" -- and since I have conceded there may be a useful supportive role in these solution for private enterprise as well, it seems that neither are "businesses" excluded from my vision either -- but "my" Stalinist/ Maoist mindset as unearthed by Clint Johnson's clever corporate libertopian mindset can think of nothing worse than the actually realer real individuals and businesses of libertopia solving anything. I would object that libertopia doesn't exist and neither, I fear, do the really realer real individuals and businesses of libertopia to whom Clint is devoted, and so my concern is simply that one wants actual real agencies to be equal to actually real problems like climate change, overpopulation, poverty, and precarity. It isn't clear to me that Clint think these are even real problems anyway, rather than rhetorical subterfuges designed to shackle the creative genius of the sooper-men of business Clint cherishes and I apoplectically revile given my extreme emotionalism and such.
Dale continues with more ridiculing of "libertopian SpaceX Cadets" and "Heinleinian flim-flammery" while insisting that the "collective accomplishment" is the only justification possible for going to Mars. Setting aside that calls to the "collective" directly led to the slaughter of almost a hundred million people last century, what he sees as justification is actually a horrendous waste of other people’s money on his intellectual masturbation.
Since the collective accomplishments I specifically associate with space science and exploration are advances in discovery, knowledge, technical ability, and the spectacle of heroic feats against tremendous odds, one wonders if Clint thinks the Apollo program "directly led to the slaughter of almost a hundred million people last century" somehow, or something. I suspect he just assumes the very appearance of the word "collective" inevitably constitutes an endorsement of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, blah blah blah. Since we are close to the end of this number I think it is high time to lug out the ultimate weapon at this point: Hey, Clint, you sure seem smart.
If there is no private case for space, there is no case for space.
Needless to say (except to our Clint, poor mite), there are plenty of things plenty worth doing that are not and cannot be profitable, and plenty of things that could not be profitable if they were not supported by public investment and service that is not driven by considerations of parochial profitability but public good. I don't expect Clint to agree with this, but I do think it is wholesome to ridicule him into a comparatively harmless marginality together with the other dangerous fools who agree with him, while at once reminding those available to sense of a few home truths.


jimf said...

> > You would not be remiss in assuming Dale Carrico’s
> > area of expertise is talking rather than doing.
> Strictly speaking, talking is doing something (as is
> writing, teaching, activism, all of which I also do). . .

Dale! How can you consider yourself a public intellectual
if you can't do comic-book art, like Mr. Johnson?
The project I am most interested in tackling is set
in the sword, sorcery & singularity world I am building
called Red Hellas. Since it is a full world building
project where practically everything will have to be
designed fresh, the art design will probably take
longer than the actual drawing.

It would probably make more sense for me to start with
a project like taking Space Inc. out to a comic book
series aimed straight at the heart of the space advocates.
The stats show that NASA’s websites passed the 18 billion
hits a year a while back… and yes, that is billion with
a ‘b’. If I can’t get to Tom Hanks or Morgan Freeman then
I just may have to steer it away from the television
to the realm of ink.

Sword, sorcery, and singularity. Lovely alliteration.
Could this be anything like Terrence McKenna's
"machine elves"? ;->

Speaking of whom -- I was just re-reading John Horgan's
_Rational Mysticism_

There's a chapter in there ("The Man in the Purple Sparkly
Suit") about McKenna, and it turns out that McKenna predicted
that the Singularity would take place on December 22, 2012.
He predicted this **independently** of the Mayan calendar stuff --
he used a mathematical model derived from his "timewave" theory
that forecasted a, ahem, a Spike in "novelty" on that date that would
forever alter life as we know it.

So -- it's already happened, folks! We've already been uploaded.
But, like the Matrix-dwellers, or the "Luddites" in Damien Broderick's
_Transcension_, we've been deemed not yet ready for the knowledge.

Black guy from the future past said...

Absolutely excellent rebuttal against libertarian verbal and "intellectual" diarrhea! You touched on on one issue I would like you to elaborate on.

For example when you rebutted this statement:

>"The men behind the private space programs have built up personal fortunes in the tens of billions of dollars while establishing track records of creating and running companies worth hundreds of billions of dollars."

>"Can I have some of whatever you're smoking, Clint?"

Care to elaborate why you find his claim preposterous?

That's my only gripe. Otherwise a fantastic piece that I will add to my intellectual arsenal against the sheer, utter, unapologetic and unabashed lunacy of libertarian-anarchists-conservatives.

Dale Carrico said...

America crows about being a free rather than a planned economy -- but of course we do plan the economy, ineptly, under the name of "Defense." The dependency of especially tech companies on tax-payer subsidized research via public universities via government grants via public infrastructure via defense department programs is ubiquitous at every level of development, and is especially indispensable at the outset of the r & d path (setting aside the larger issue of the necessity of a stable context of education, sufficiently disseminated prosperity, actually functioning law, meritocratic norms, trust, infrastructure -- all of which are under threat because of plutocratic libertopian ideology but remain sufficently in force to keep the heap on the road in spite of the suicidal insanity of the greatest beneficiaries of this stability forever struggling to disable it for the shortest-term gains imaginable). The self-congratulatory fantasy of so many of the biggest beneficiaries of our system that their success is a function of their kick-ass superhuman superiority rather than of their luck to live in a society that values their efforts and abilities (and the successful usually are lucky in more ways than that) is of course a commonplace irrationality of the privileged throughout history and across cultures, but I must say it also constitutes a kind of total amnesia and systematic disavowal of the ongoing reality of public investment and support that is little short of psychotic. In the so-called technological sector the schizophrenic anti-governmentality coupled to abject government dependence, the eagerness of "elite" minorities to monetize collective geek creativity for personal gain, the superficial advertorial pop-tech journalism, the endless susceptibility to irrational exuberance mobilized by press release hyperbole and celebrity-CEO PR, to vaporware scams and everyday fraud as cultural norm are worse than in any other area of the economy I can think of. As a more general matter, perhaps the only thing more comical than the cocksure declarations of our mediocre government-dependent and labor-dependent elites that they are supersovereign superheroic supermen is the related but more disseminated cocksure declarations of our conformist crap-consumerist anti-intellectual masses that they are rebels and independents. That, at any rate, is the beginning of my answer to your question. Skip lunch if you mean to dig into the specifics of the computer, software, aeronautics, arms, or pharmaceutical industries -- because, believe me, you won't look long without needing to ralph.

jollyspaniard said...

Back in the day I made good money working in a boiler room. I'd cold call CEOs and sell them a crock of shyte. I loved guys like this one, flatter them and appeal to their greed and self importance and they'd wire me a hundred grand by the end of the day. The hardest part was to get to them before someone else just like me conned them out of their Venture Capital first.

If on the other hand somebody expressed skepticism, wanted time to review evidence, check the contract with a lawyer, etc I would raise the pressure and blow them off all the while implying that they were foolish. But despite that pressure I'd respect them a lot more.