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

Sunday, June 03, 2012

SpaceX Space Cadets Predictably Crowing Mars, Bitches!

Also posted at The World Future Society.

io9 asks: Could SpaceX Land the First Humans On Mars? I would like the short answer to be: "Don't Bet On It." But chances are that all of us taxpayers will indeed be strong-armed into precisely that bet by the same neoliberal incumbent elites who have ruinously looted via private contracting so many of our armed services to generally terrible results in every way (except counting the profits raked in by a small number of already filthy rich evil gazillionaires).

Because SpaceX is described as a "commercial venture" all the usual Libertopian and Ayn Raelian types who throng futurological precincts have decided to pretend that becoming a government contractor engaging in a taxpayer funded exploitation of already existing mostly decades-old technology which itself already existed only because of the splendid efforts once upon a time of a For Real government space program which still made possible the launch to a state-consortium funded and maintained International Space Station represents "Going Galt" in space. After all, look how libertechian Elon Musk hates gu'ment handouts -- except, of course, the ones he lards himself with, natch.

Because they have decided to pretend SpaceX is market-fantastic many are now also pretending that this means that libertechian capitalism will sprinkle "market pixie dust" on the stalled space program, introducing forever vaunted "efficiencies" and big-brained hitherto quiescent "innovators" and "risk-takers" into the dynamic to revive all the Old Dreams, orbital hotels, L5 toruses, moon bases, space elevators, Mars colonies, asteroid mining, the whole OMNI Magazine sweet patootie (to which pre-pubescent me was a wide-eyed subscriber, both to the magazine and to the dream, believe you me). The thing is, of course, the "efficiencies" they are talking about are really mostly just the usual plutocrats externalizing all the real costs and risks onto the vulnerable, the "innovators" are really mostly just the usual self-promoting sociopathic flim-flam artists, and the risk-takers are really mostly just going to fail upward while everybody else is expected to clean up their messes for them as usual.

When the Soviet Union fell, think-tank capitalists swarmed the landscape breathlessly awaiting the arrival of Libertopia from the blood and ashes of Communism but they scrammed real quick when the "spontaneous order" perfectly predictably (and as predicted) looked instead like human trafficking on a bleak corrupt kleptocratic scorched earth. By then, the market ideologues had moved to Cyberspace, "the new home of Mind," where they expected first cryptography and then later the "social web" to smash the nation-state and crystallize into Libertopia again, with e-cash and reputation servers and netizen-bloggers of loving grace presiding over rugged individualist avatars kicking into high gear an acceleration of accelerating acceleration unto holodeck heaven but they mostly scrammed when the net of nets became instead a strip mall surveilled by paranoid states targeting Terror suspects and greedhead corporations targeting niche markets in which the only liberty left was the liberty to lie about yourself on an online dating profile or swapping funny cat videos with your Mom. (Lawrence Lessig told this story better than anybody way back in Code.) By then, the kick-ass capitalists all took a ticket to watch Bombs Over Baghdad clear the way for a privatized flat-tax Libertopia with Paul Bremer on Iraq Year Zero but soon enough scrammed again taking whatever wasn't nailed down with them when, well, we all know how that turned out. By then, our eager market fundamentalists were being called upon by the Killer Clown Administration to remake post-Katrina New Orleans into an amusement park Libertopia, dress rehearsing the new Disaster Capitalism as the planet convulsed under the strain of extractive-industrial-petrochemical criminality and the criminals themselves prepared the next stage of the scam in which they would declare that they alone can clean up the lethal mess they made through highly profitable unaccountable "geo-engineering" mega-engineering wet-dreams. That terrible story is still in the works, but it is no longer hard to figure how the story ends. (Naomi Klein told the first part of it awfully well in The Shock Doctrine and I strongly suspect her next book will tell still more of it.) Still, now it appears that some of the usual subjects have scrammed again, and have moved on to better things, SpaceX Space Cadets ready to paint the next scam Libertopia over Kennedy's New Frontier.

I seriously doubt that Space will be the Final Libertopian Frontier, although it might be if we wake up to the scam and send the libertopians and libertechians scramming, screaming, permanently. I for one still hold on to my dreams of space science and exploration, but I know it will only be accomplished for the common good through the planetary commonwealth of democratic agency and civic order. Space is the Place for Civilization, but the neo-feudal anti-democratic pre-civilization of Libertopia is a path to nowhere, and certainly not into Space.

Fellow Space Dreamers, You Wanna Go Galt? Then the Dream Dies, and It's All Your Fault.


ian paul said...

Have you come across this?:

Who needs space when you have international waters? San Francisco has been falling down the libertarian rabbit hole for a while now (with the twitter gentrification/tax break deal, or the lack of meaningful rent control), but the idea of floating libertarian satellite states surrounding the city is a horribly frightening escalation of these fantasies.

I'm afraid some of Mike Davis' predictions of cities increasingly becoming the walled-off plastic playgrounds of the rich where working class people are bussed in and out daily to actually make the city function is increasingly becoming real, especially in the bay area tech circles.

Dale Carrico said...

That sexist singularitarian Ayn Raelian nutjob Peter Thiel has been squealing about his plans for a Seeecret Pirate Island San Francisco pseudopod for a while now. I have rolled my eyes at him on the blog here and there, for that and many other ugly idiocies. There are many versions -- cruise ships, abandoned oil platforms, artificial landfill islands -- Milton Friedman's libertopian spawn Patri and others are all over that shit, natch. It's classic gated community think, of course -- our anarcho-bubble dome will ruggedly individualistically thrive without taxes while we take our daily shuttle jaunts to wacky socialistic San Francisco to get groceries, health care, trips to the theater, emergency relief in case of fire or flooding, and no doubt cops if fellow-anarchs decide to boot them from the isle for their booty following their own logic to its reductio ad absurdum. Capitalism as predation, quelle surprise!

Anonymous said...

Your criticism is right, but I'd disagree with your recommendation. A successfully executed, large-scale and leading edge project requires a small number of people with a large amount of money and power (small number because nothing works with many people pulling in many different directions – look at Copenhagen or Doha, for instance; money and power for the scale). This incredible centralisation of money and power means that the small number of people will, at the core, pursue their own interests, not some good of humankind. Because of this, I see Big Business and Big Government as effectively interchangeable (though government manifests to abuse less, produce less per $, and be much more difficult to turn around... and business is the reverse... I think their respective cost-benefit is pretty much a wash). Look at the "Killer Clown Administration" – the buffoon at its head was just less good at presenting a slick front to conceal its nature, rather than it being fundamentally less good than its predecessors or successors (and the career civil administrators and the lobbyists simply do not change at all). All of which is to say that, for going to Mars, a "planetary commonwealth of democratic agency and civic order" seems to me to be about as practically workable and as realistically equitable as "going (space)Galt". The incumbent elites will be strong-arming, looting, and pissing money up the wall either way.

Thus, I see only three options:

1. Give up on big projects, especially leading-edge ones.
2. Be prepared to be strong-armed and looted, unless you are a member of an incumbent elite.
3. Come up with a way of marshaling large amounts of resources and determining the most equitable way to distribute the eventual benefits thereof that is fundamentally different from everything we have come up with so far.

I'm unhappy with 1 and 2. Not smart enough for 3.

jimf said...

> It's classic gated community think, of course -- our
> anarcho-bubble dome will ruggedly individualistically
> thrive without taxes while we take our daily shuttle jaunts
> to wacky socialistic San Francisco. . .

See, e.g., Jerry Pournelle's _Oath of Fealty_.

Dale Carrico said...

I see Big Business and Big Government as effectively interchangeable.

There is of course far too much truth in this, but I believe that taking this as your point of departure -- as many folks do -- leads to profound errors.

The predation on the weak by the strong is a permanent danger, the political question is whether the State is of a form that facilitates or frustrates that predation. This is why one wants not so much to smash the state in my view as to democratize it -- the end result of many who mistakenly think themselves anarchists is actually a radical democracy to which a democratic state is indispensable in fact.

Democracy is simply the idea that people should have a say in the public decisions that affect and its ongoing experimental implementation is an interminable process.

In our epoch of planetary networks and planetary crises, it seems to me democracy demands [one] the usual maintenance of an equitable legal space for the nonviolent adjudication of disputes, [two] the maintenance of a scene of actually informed non-duressed consent to the terms of complex interdependencies and commercial transactions through the provision of universal education, healthcare, and welfare entitlements, and [three] the overcoming of the structural violences involved in the misuse of common goods and public goods.

The demands and values of a real space program -- whether involving the discovery of new knowledge or stewardship over new resources -- falls clearly under the heading of public goods and common goods, in my view.

There are of course, as you say, very real dangers and vulnerabilities inhering in the public administration of such investments. History is mostly a chronicle of those dangers and vulnerabilities. But one is little likely to overcome them if one throws the baby out with the bathwater out of muddled political thinking about the basics.

The way to overcome state-facilitated looting and corruption of a public space program, the only space program that will be a real space program, is not to resign oneself to small potatoes, give oneself over to incumbents, or smash the state -- but to push within notional democracy for more democratic oversight and accountability and reform here on earth and in space for an ever more equitable distribution of the costs, risks, and the benefits of that collective enterprise for the good of us all.

You are indeed plenty smart enough to work with other good people of good will, peer to peer, in that effort.

Barkeron said...

Thank you for that link, Ian!

Here's more Liberetardian madness:

Maybe a bit too much Marxist vocabulary, but illuminating nonetheless. Just shows that even pipe dreams and vaporware can cause very real harm to very real people, in the third world for instance.

What makes me think: are Musk's interplanetary ambitions not just fraudulent tactics to attract investors (like techno-immortalists prey on the elderly 0.1%), but serious plans to have his very own space colony demesne spawned by delusion?

Dale Carrico said...

A post called The Ayn Raelians is a clearinghouse for all sorts of connections between Ayn Randians and anarcho-capitalists and the transhumanist/ singularitarian/ mainstream futurological crowds. Many of the usual (and some likely unexpected) suspects, Thiel, Musk, Minsky, Brand are discussed. The post is like a rough draft to a devastating expose still waiting to happen, but pieces of which have been getting more of a mainstream progressive hearing lately. Read it and weep -- or laugh -- or raise hell.