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MarsNow 1.15: Space Pirates
John Carter McKnight
November 14, 2001
Reprinted by permission of the author.

Historical analogies are a staple of space advocacy. They are an odd sort of equation, taking terms from different disciplines - history on the one side and the contemporary social sciences on the other - then joining them with an "is approximately equal to." Demagogues feel free to omit the "approximately." Analogies are a dubious enough business in the best of circumstances. In the space community, they're usually put forward by people utterly without social science training, or at best (and here I include myself) a superficial grasp of the relevant historical materials. It's dubious whether historical analogies have much power as the basis of an outreach message: the only sort of person more ahistorical than the average American is the average American space buff. I haven't met anyone too young to have owned a coonskin cap for whom Western pioneering themes have much resonance, though they do manage to repel those generations raised on American historical revisionism. "Wagon Train to the Stars" was the pitch used to sell Star Trek in 1965; forty years on it doesn't sell much at all.

Yet the historical analogy remains a useful tool for attempting to describe something as undefined as the settlement of space. Naturally, as the science of using polar analogs of space exploration grows, we examine the historical analogy of the ages of European exploration in greater detail. Imagining the first era of transatlantic exploration quickly brings to mind one of the oldest tropes of popular sci-fi: the space pirate.

For all its tinfoil-suited cheesiness, the concept of "space pirate" actually contributes to our understanding of space development. Over the weekend I crossed cutlasses with the science and technology editor of the British newsweekly The Economist. A recent editorial called for America to "stop putting humans into orbit," declaring the whole enterprise "dangerous, costly and scientifically useless." In taking exception, I noted that the Elizabethans financed transatlantic exploration at a time when technology was similarly immature and returns every bit as speculative. The editor riposted with the observation that "there are not too many Spanish galleons to plunder in outer space."

But there are, and there will be. If we succeed in opening the space frontier, before long at all buccaneers-by-analogy will be leading the way, drawn by avaricious dreams of easy fortune. The age of the pirate is a critical phase in the development of any frontier.

The current business bestseller, Deborah L. Spar's Ruling the Waves, analyzes the course of development of technological frontiers. Her schema parallels (without citing) the widely-used paradigm of technology dispersal developed by Ryan and Gross in the 1930s and applied by Geoffrey Moore to the spread of computer technology in Crossing the Chasm. Ryan and Gross have a very small number of Innovators jumping immediately on new technology, largely for its own sake, followed by Early Adopters - opinion leaders and financial speculators - then an Early and Late Majority, with Laggards eventually surrendering to the inevitable. Spar, taking a broader-scale view of political and economic transformations wrought by technological change, sees four phases: Innovation, Commercialization, Creative Anarchy and Rules. Innovation is driven (p.11) by 'fellow enthusiasts - people who treasure innovation simply for what it does, rather than for any commercial potential. Others tend to ignore technological breakthroughs or even disdain them." Space has been stuck in this phase, as anyone attending a space-advocacy conference or reading The Economist can attest.

The next step, Commercialization, is of critical interest (pp. 12-14): "[o]nce technology is out of the labs and in the public eye, a whole new cast of characters moves onto the frontier: the pioneers, the pirates, the marshals and the outlaws. In this second phase, the commercial benefits of innovation become clear &. Once technology slips into the commercial realm, however, and begins to generate the extraordinary profits that can occur during this second phase of expansion, the pirates flock " Her chapter on "The First Wave" (p/23) begins with the quote, "Piracy is the first stage of commerce."

Central to the concept of piracy is its vagueness of definition. While the forcible seizure of other people's property certainly was central on the Spanish Main, the legal and moral status of pirates' actions was unclear. The Spanish taking of gold from the Incas was legitimate state action, while its seizure from Spanish hands by British nationals was piracy - in both cases, in Spanish eyes. The British saw the matter differently: piracy was in some cases condoned outright, in others the "black ops" of the day, with the fig leaf of plausible deniability maintained. Similarly, it is fundamentally unclear whether Microsoft's bundling of Explorer and Windows to take the browser market from Netscape was sharp business or piratical, or whether downloading from Napster was "sharing" or "piracy." As Spar notes (p.14), "[b]ecause rules during this period are inherently ill defined, pirates can operate almost without restriction. If there are no rules, after all, no one can break them."

This phase ends when the pirates, having made their fortunes, seek to secure them against later arrivals. Demands for the predictability of "business as usual" begin to come from the former rebels against the status quo. Agreeing upon rules of procedure, codifying custom and penalizing violators, comes to top the policy agenda. This phase marks the establishment of property rights and the introjection of the state, as marshal and judge, into the frontier. For us, space property rights is a wonderfully involved subject which will be explored in a series of subsequent columns.

The Jolly Roger flutters already in the hearts of many in the space movement. Ten years ago a "space entrepreneur" was an engineer begging for the money to build his rocket. Now those ranks are swelling with dot-com veterans looking for the next wild frontier. With Bill Gates's coronation as legitimate Pirate King of cyberspace, that former frontier is now in the hands of the AOL shopkeepers and Carnivore marshals, almost as closed as Frederick Turner's 20th Century West. The openness - physical as well as regulatory - of the space frontier beckons to those dispossessed buccaneers.

The new pirates are uncomfortable bedfellows for the old-line space movement. Our community is still the product of the late Industrial Age technocracy, that temporary alliance between bureaucrats and inventors that marked the last century. They would keep the frontier closed: it's much tidier with no one there, and the old guard would rather not have piratical bootprints on their turf. The clash between courtier Dan Goldin and buccaneer Dennis Tito perfectly inaugurated the opening of the space frontier.

Space pirates will be drawn first to LEO, as the Innovators have already done their job in preparing the way for commerce. The true explosion of piratical wealth will likely come with asteroid mining and space construction, though it is worth remembering that the really great fortunes of the California Gold Rush were made not by the miners but by those who fed, supplied, transported - and entertained - them.

Mars is a somewhat different case. While some see land speculation as essential to making Martian settlement practicable, it's become a cliché among space entrepreneurs that "there's no business case for Mars." Here is where historical analogy comes back in: even as the age of Atlantic piracy was just beginning to wind down, transatlantic settlement took off, financed in part by the proceeds of piracy and quasi-piratical ventures such as the slave and rum trades. Sons of pirates became gentleman farmers, senior military officers, legislators - and built a nation. A robust age of the space pirate will precede and enable Martian settlement and civilization-building.

To get to Spar's third phase, Creative Anarchy, in which new cultures, new systems of law, economics, politics and domestic affairs are developed, tested in practice, refined or discarded, the pirates must open the frontier to commerce. Their vast fortunes must be made and reinvested, giving the bankers, shopkeepers, poets and entertainers new places to work, live and play. Free Mars - Red Tarzana - the multi-planet species - will be financed inevitably by pirate booty. Yo ho ho.

Mars Now is a weekly column © 2001 by John Carter McKnight, Mars Program Director for the Space Frontier Foundation.

Views expressed here are strictly the author's and do not necessarily represent Foundation policy [or that of HobbySpace].

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