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The Spacefaring Web 1.17: The Spacefaring Ethic
John Carter McKnight
December 12, 2001
Reprinted by permission of the author.

We live in a new era, one with different rules from those of the past Industrial Age. In previous columns, I’ve sketched the outlines of what Manuel Castells calls the Network Society. “Informationalism,” to use his term, has replaced industrialism as the primary mode of production. Following from that, the network has replaced the centralized authority atop a pyramid as the primary means of organization. It should not be too much of a stretch to recognize that the new era brings with it a change in values. Values, in a sense, act as a personal operating system, a set of fundamental algorithms. Good sets allow an individual to thrive and reproduce; bad ones don’t. The space movement was, until very recently, a product of the Industrial Age, and actors in it tended to act in accordance with an Industrial Age value set. If we are to build a spacefaring civilization in the Information Age, we will need network institutions. We will also need for our behavior to be guided by network values. Pekka Himmanen, writing with Castells and Linux founder Linus Torvalds, calls those values “the Hacker Ethic.” Translated from computers to space, I’ve long named them “kaseido.” In either case, they serve as a guide for our actions, a means of predicting the behavior of Spacefaring Web participants, and a powerful tool for reshaping our institutions into ones more likely to succeed than those which we have inherited.

Robert Heinlein, perhaps quite consciously echoing Karl Marx, once wrote that “[i]t may plausibly be argued that the shape of a culture – its mores, evaluations, family organization, eating habits, living patters, pedagogical methods, forms of government and so forth – arise from the economic necessities of its technology.” Science fiction writer Michael Flynn, in a mindblowing essay entitled “An Introduction to Cliology,” reprinted in his novel In The Country of the Blind, glosses Heinlein’s observation by claiming that the origins of culture lie in the evolution of practices designed to overcome the material restraints imposed upon us at any given time by physics and biology, with successful memes reproducing and spreading, and failed ones dying out. Thus eras with differing technological and climatic circumstances come to be marked by value systems that can seem quite alien in some ways.

The complex of values suited to the Industrial Age is commonly referred to as the “Protestant work ethic,” a term coined by Max Weber in 1904 to describe the new value set marking the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Work as duty lies at the foundation of that system: Himmanen sums it up (p.9) as “work must be seen as an end in itself, at work one must do one’s part as well as possible, and work must be regarded as a duty, which must be done because it must be done.” The Protestant ethic marked a profound break from the medieval spirit, as Himmanen documents (see also his essay, “The Academy and the Monastery,” abstracted from his book and available online at These values suited both capitalist and laborer in the Industrial Age, giving personal meaning and satisfaction to tasks that could be otherwise dreary and meaningless, such as Taylorized factory labor or clerical work. Less charitably, they maintained the social order of the factory and bureaucracy in a manner similar to that of the doctrine of reincarnation in a fixed-caste society.

Castells says that the network is value-neutral, a position I find unsustainable. Rather than a better alternative to the Protestant ethic in the network society, the modest claim put forward by Himmanen for the hacker ethic, the latter seems essential to the system. Open-source isn’t just a nice idea that sometimes pays off; rather, it’s essential to the functioning of the network. The strictures of property rights developed from the scarcity of “atoms” are fundamentally at odds with the ubiquity of “bits,” the new critical source of wealth. Far from being a socialist argument against property rights, open source is an essential component of modern development, as is implicit in the New Growth Theory of Stanford economist Paul Romer and others. Even at the height of the cold war, planetary scientists were engaged in a relatively free exchange of information across the Iron Curtain. Why? Because the value of free exchange of scientific information was – and remains – fundamental to the effective conduct of science. Now, ever-expanding areas of the global economy and culture are structured in a manner derived from the scientific community, from the academy rather than the monastery, in Himmanen’s terms. Any node of a network which refuses to engage in the free and accurate exchange of information is disadvantaged, as the network is quite capable of routing around what it will perceive as damage. Act as a bottleneck and get cut out. At best, if the node is strong enough, it can impair the workings of the network to its short-term advantage – but the network will route around the damage in time. That damage may take the form of ICANN’s stranglehold on the internet domain name registration process, or corporate suppression of fan or “.sucks” sites. Or the NASA monopoly on American human spaceflight, or the folly of our export restrictions on the satellite launch industry. Winners collaborate, losers isolate in the networked world.

And in the Spacefaring Web? The damage done by the reassignment of licensing authority to the U.S. State Department is universally recognized and almost certain to be addressed by an administration faced with an economic downturn and an interest in the military applications of space technologies. NASA’s budget woes may render it something of a paper tiger in maintaining its monopoly. Hopefully, the new Administrator will have more practical concerns. Given the agency’s funding limitations, the meme of central control at all costs should die back in favor of the meme of leveraging private initiatives to keep the work going. Where the old Administrator saw Dennis Tito as a threat to the sharply-delineated pyramid of NASA’s control of space, perhaps the new one will see the initiatives of Elon Musk, a growing cadre of would-be space tourists and others as a means of expanding the agency’s reach and getting more bang for an increasingly strained buck.

The space advocacy community, as I write, is undergoing the birth pangs of a network successor to the old Industrial Age institutions. Memes are replicating wildly, spreading, as described in The Tipping Point, very like an epidemic. Those memes include:

Open collaboration across institutional structures. Project teams are drawing NASA employees, entrepreneurs, old space policy hands together on tightly-focused interests, be they new political initiatives, outreach events big and small, or garage technology projects. Old organizations, formerly driven by a need to defend ideological turf against all comers, are embracing wildly divergent projects in the interest of just getting some momentum going. Alliances are shifting, forming, ending, with each day’s barrage of calls and email.

Unbundling ideological packages. Industrial Age institutions grew like the Borg, by “assimilating” as much as possible within their direct, hierarchical control. Political parties either claimed a monopoly on all political thought or on half of it: being a Republican entailed subscribing to a package of views on social policy bearing no logical relation to the party’s economic policy package. Identifying as a peace advocate or environmentalist entailed an expected commitment to views on gun control, sexual relations, technology and fashion. Small enterprises were acquired by conglomerates without any knowledge of or concern for the particular market or product line in the belief that power was measured in sheer volume. In the space community, organizational membership implied a constellation of views on issues both related and unrelated to space, based on the political quirks of their founders or the industrial or political behemoths behind which they trailed. New organizations are focusing on inclusion, on being a “big tent,” like Yuri’s Night or Women of Space, or on being small, tight policy teams allied with whomever might share their views on the one issue of central interest to them, as the SETI Institute and the Cato Institute work with the Space Frontier Foundation on matters of mutual interest without subscribing to its whole agenda or being subsumed within its corporate apparatus.

Nodes, not fiefdoms. The Lenins and Hubbards of the old era are being replaced by a collaboration amongst peers. Demagoguery and the cult of personality, despite their deep roots in human nature, are surprisingly ineffective in the network society. Despite the surfeit of charisma and strength of will and opinion in the space movement – or, on consideration, perhaps because of it – new organizations and alliances are rejecting feudal, pyramidal structures in favor of those that match the network overall, where the value of a node is determined not by the obedience it can demand but by its connectedness and utility.

These are some of the memes that are breeding these days in the Spacefaring Web. What will the people infected with those memes build? The eventual shape of the network is utterly unclear. How many policy organizations? How many Mars conferences? How many outreach events in the spring of 2003? The only guide to the details lies in the values of the participants.

I coined the term “kaseido” some years back to describe the spirit of volunteers in the heady early days of the Mars Society. “Kasei,” literally “fire star,” is the Japanese name for Mars. The suffix “-d?” means the Tao, or the Way, and is commonly encountered in the martial arts. “Ju-do” is the Way of Suppleness, “ken-do” the Way of the Sword, and so on. Which would make “kaseido” the Martian Way (from the Asimov story) or “Martian Art,” a moderately hideous bilingual pun. Way back then, we lived the hacker ethic, working all night on new projects for the sheer fun of it, playing degrees of separation to network all our contacts into the grand enterprise.

Himmanen summarizes the values we embodied then (pp.139-141): “the hacker work ethic (emphasis in original) consists of melding passion with freedom…. These hackers want to realize their passion together with others, and they want to create something valuable to the community and be recognized for that by their peers. And they allow the results of their creativity to be used, developed, and tested by anyone so that everyone can learn from one another.” He adds the values of activity and caring: “Activity in this context involves complete freedom of expression in action, privacy to protect the creation of an individual lifestyle, and a rejection of passiveness in favor of an active pursuit of one’s passion.” Caring “includes the goal of getting everybody to participate in the network and to benefit from it, to feel responsible for longer-term consequences of the network society, and to directly help those who have been left on the margins of survival.” The final and highest value is “creativity – that is, the imaginative use of one’s own abilities, the surprising continuous surpassing of oneself, and the giving to the world of a genuinely valuable new contribution.”

Kaseido, after a few years at the Siberian margins of the space community, is coming back strong, driven by the logic of the network and the simple fact that most volunteers have enough of the Protestant ethic in their day jobs – they don’t need their free time driven by it too. The previous column stressed the power of play to drive new technologies and new endeavors. The same principle clearly applies to those of us who would be the suppliers of a spacefaring civilization, at least as much as to its would-be consumers.

Values are prescriptive as much as descriptive. An observer of the groups building the Spacefaring Web would observe a lot of behavior matching the values Himmanen describes, along with a vigorous rearguard action by the powers that were, seeking to maintain the memes and structures of the bygone age. It’s easy and natural to fall into acceptance of their definition of the stakes, limiting the fight to questions of control, or policy at the margins. I would prescribe otherwise for us. What is at stake is not which sets of rice bowls are filled or broken at NASA Headquarters, or who holds power in increasingly irrelevant organizations. The real stakes are the transformation or replacement of Industrial Age institutions and values with those of the network, reshaping fiefdoms into nodes, shattering the ideological packaging of the party, toppling the monuments to the Maximum Leaders. Doing these things is more than a prerequisite to building a spacefaring civilization. Rather, it is the laying of its foundations, the creation of its key institutions, and the enacting of its fundamental values.

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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