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The Spacefaring Web 1.16:
The Power of Play

John Carter McKnight
November 28, 2001
Reprinted by permission of the author.

The inability of the space movement to transcend its hardcore support base by spreading into popular culture represents the single greatest obstacle to our becoming a spacefaring civilization. Our shortcomings stem from an inability to shape our message into memes capable of easy propagation through formal and informal media and a lack of understanding of how people engage with technology and ideas.

We learn through play, but more importantly, play seems to be a fundamental human need. In Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga provided a comprehensive definition: (p.13):

“Summing up the formal characteristics of play we might call it a free activity standing quite consciously outside “ordinary” life as being “not serious,” but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other means.”

In his prologue to Pekka Himmanen’s The Hacker Ethic, Linus Torvalds describes “entertainment” as a fundamental urge in terms similar to Huizinga’s conception (p.xv):

“Entertainment may sound like a strange choice [as a fundamental need], but I mean by entertainment more than just playing games on your Nintendo. It’s chess. It’s painting. It’s the mental gymnastics involved in trying to explain the universe. Einstein wasn’t motivated by survival when he was thinking about physics. Nor was it probably very social. It was entertainment to him. Entertainment is something intrinsically interesting and challenging.”

These definitions cover the activities of many in the space movement: we play at space, delighting in our interests in astronomy, or engineering, or social innovation, and in communing with our tribe in the rituals of the space conference.

Yet when we speak outside our group, that sense of play is often lost. Our explanations for “why space” tend to be didactic, scolding, doomsaying – or aridly technical. We retain our popular image of pocket-protector geeks or mad scientists. We translate our play into the language of the intellect, and we are unconvincing. Even the passionate space buff looks askance at NASA rationales for its budget slice. The spinoff argument – better toasters through moon rocketry! – seems a put-on, a grasped-at straw. Mundane justifications for transcendent activities fundamentally miss – or misrepresent – the point. Fundamentally, we go because it’s cool as hell. That’s true, and convincing. It’s when we try to gussy that up in its Sunday best that we start looking phony.

Bottom line? We do space – as scientist, engineer, advocate, fan – because it’s the most fun we can have. We play with ideas and technology. The human relationship to contemporary technology is built upon play. If rational, intellectual criteria were decisive, we’d all drive Hondas and Saabs, and there wouldn’t be a Jaguar or SUV in the world. We live in an era of thirty-something billionaires because computers are fun. Any bright, curious kid with a sense of play had a shot at developing an invaluable new product or service.

Those kids sure weren’t going into aerospace engineering. What awaited them was a lockstep career path in a pyramidal structure designing and building to milspec: the perfect polar opposite of creative fun. Since the go-go days, there’s been precious little opportunity to have fun with space technology. A handful of people in Mojave consistently do, but it hasn’t spread. Meanwhile, computers took off because people could develop a personal, hobbyist, fun relationship with the technology. The personal computer is indelibly associated not with the blue suit and white shirt of IBM, but with that high temple of hobbyism, the suburban garage.

There will never be Heinleinian backyard barnstorming rocket boys (though I confess a longing for that alternate universe where, as in Fallen Angels, a Gary Hudson can single-handedly save civilization). So how can we bring space to the garage? To turn a space-conference slogan on its head, we can’t go till we can make it play.

Play in its first instance is hands-on. Just how do we in the contemporary West learn through play? Nicholas Negroponte in Being Digital (p.194) states that

“While a significant part of learning certainly comes from teaching – but good teaching and by good teachers – a major measure comes from exploration, from reinventing the wheel and finding out for oneself. Until the computer, the technology for teaching was limited to audiovisual devices and distance learning by television, which simply amplified the activity of teachers and the passivity of children.

“The computer changed this balance radically. All of a sudden, learning by doing became the rule rather than the exception…. By playing with information, especially abstract subjects, the material assumes more meaning.”

Torvalds has a similar description of the playful approach to work (p. xvii):

“The reason that Linux hackers do something is that they find it to be very interesting, and they like to share this interesting thing with others. Suddenly, you get both entertainment from the fact that you are doing something interesting, and you also get the social part. This is how you have this fundamental Linux networking effect where you have a lot of hackers working together because they enjoy what they do.”

The network structure of the Spacefaring Web that I have described and advocated in this column necessitates the adoption of a hacker ethic, the value system of the network as play. When we can be hands-on with space, both its memes and its atoms, we play. By playing, we attract others wanting to join the fun, and the network grows.

The complement to the innovator’s hands-on play is the mass audience’s entertainment. For those without the skills or inclination to build on the Linux kernel or soup up hot rods, getting their hands dirty as a hobbyist, play takes the form of sensory engagement with non-written information. Neal Stephenson describes the process in his essay “In The Beginning…Was the Command Line,”(p.52): “…we are rejecting explicit word based interfaces and embracing graphic or sensorial ones – a trend that accounts for the success of both Microsoft and Disney.” Stephenson describes the transmission of a green ideology from its word-based philosophical purveyors (i.e., Rachel Carson or Al Gore) to the upper classes (Disney execs), who take those textual messages and translate them into sensory-based experience entertainment (specifically, a Disney rainforest ride), where they are consumed – literally taken in and adopted – by the mass of us. Andrés Martinez, in 24/7, imagines the process at work in Las Vegas’s Egypt-themed Luxor Hotel (p.10):

“I enjoyed King Tut’s Tomb & Museum next door, a replica of Howard Carter’s astounding 1922 archaeological discovery… For how many of its more than 27,000 monthly visitors is this museum-within-a-casino the improbable spark of an avid interest in antiquity? Picture an eminent Egyptologist decades from now telling his grandchildren, ‘I was just another aimless high school student interested in nothing but football and chasing girls when one summer my family – Dad had this thing for video poker – took a road trip to Las Vegas and…”

The mechanism by which the logical, text-based ideas comprising the science and philosophy of the Spacefaring Web can be translated into Vegas/Disney experience is suggested in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. The message must be altered for popular consumption (p. 203): “he or she has to find some person or some means to translate the message of the Innovators into something the rest of us can understand.” The space movement has raised up a very small handful of such people: Wehrner Von Braun, Carl Sagan, and Robert Zubrin. But one in a generation from within our own ranks is grossly insufficient. They were also hampered in their effectiveness by their foundations in science and engineering, rather than marketing or entertainment: in word rather than image. Von Braun was the most successful by pairing with artists, filmmakers, and the unparalleled Walt Disney in purveying his message.

The recent Arthur C. Clarke Gala was the perfect means for bridging the first gap, between the space movement intelligentsia and the media-savvy elite. The choice of venue was weirdly inspired: not at a university or hotel conference center but at that unique “sacred circle of play,” the Playboy Mansion. For once we got it right, showcasing ourselves playing at space. In working with the media elite, we must be conscious of their expertise and methods for reaching mass audiences. We’re not best served by more sci-fi movie blockbusters, but rather by an ongoing mainstreaming of space issues. Computer technology didn’t come to mass acceptance through the mid-90s rash of net-themed movies and short-lived TV series (anybody remember VR5?), but (along with its fun and utility) by the spread of references to email and web surfing in sitcoms, soaps and cop shows. Andrew Sorkin may be doing more to popularize and legitimize space through constant references on “West Wing” than the producers of all the sci-fi movies of the past year.

Yet that same subtlety can be combined with spectacle, as Disney’s rainforest and Luxury’s tombs attest. The raw material is certainly there, in the shattering awe of Hubble deep-space images and the majesty of a Shuttle launch. Those experiences, in the hands of a Disney or a Steve Wynn, can be conveyed to a mass audience, “tipping” the space meme and creating an epidemic of interest and support.

So how do we get there? The Clarke Gala was a huge step forward, and will serve as a node for networking in the media community. A conference or trade show – and there are several in the planning works – drawing in the resort and tourism industries could be another milestone, if handled with imagination. Done right, such events will convey the fun of space, the delight, the sense of wonder and possibility. They’ll show their audience the infectious power of play in the context of space. Then the Hollywood and Vegas image masters will translate the messages of space into images and experiences through popular entertainment – more play – and space will become normal, acceptable and interesting. Then, and only then, will there be investment capital for the rocket boys, budgets for the explorers, and a toehold in the universe for us all.

Author’s notes: As of this issue, “MarsNow” will become “The Spacefaring Web,” a name which represents its content more accurately. It will go bi-weekly, as my research load has overwhelmed the demands of a weekly column.

The Spacefaring Web is a bi-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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