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The Spacefaring Web 2.4: Community and the Technology of Trust
John Carter McKnight
March 6, 2002
Reprinted by permission of the author.

In this column I occasionally use the term "space community." Does it actually exist, and does it matter whether it does? What are the implications of having, or wanting, such a thing? To the extent our goal is the permanent human settlement of space, some conclusions follow. Communities require work to create and sustain, the nature of that work depending on time, place and people. Appropriate technologies need to be envisioned, prototyped, tested - every bit as much as our life support and power technologies do. But while specific research and experimentation is needed, there is much to learn from the ways we organize to reach our goals. There are some very positive elements in the record, but much hard work to do. The goal of being able to build healthy, sustainable communities - in our spacefaring future as well as here and now - can and must shape our actions towards that goal.

Sifting through an immense and diverse literature on community, I've come to think that its two core elements are trust and boundedness. Most of the current writers would be horrified to realize that their analysis, if not the conclusions they draw from it, follows that of Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan. Outside community is "the war of all against all." This is the perception of my dealings with strangers in the absence of trust: I'll watch my back and count my change. Within the community, although we will have systems for ensuring trust and policing breaches, the assumption of trust as the norm prevails. In Hobbes's analysis, anyone who breaches a community's trust (by committing a crime or other offense), puts himself beyond the protections of the community and back into the state of nature. The community is then free to deal with him as an enemy or wild animal. Thus community is as much what it is not - the state of nature - as what it is, a bounded circle of trust. Note that there are degrees of trust, depending on the type of community and the strength of the particular relationships. I trust you won't shoot me dead on the street (at least in my neighborhood), but that doesn't mean I'll lend you my TV.

Gifford Pinchot states in his essay "Building Community in the Workplace" ( in The Community of the Future, Hesselbein et al., eds., pp. 125-126):

"Human social systems are built on three types of relationships:

1. Relationships based on the power of command (dominance and submission)

2. Relationships built on voluntary exchange (trading and buying)

3. Relationships of giving without expecting anything in return (community)"

Much of the debate about globalization comes from the dramatic spread of the second sort, into areas traditionally claimed by the first or the third. All three have their place, but their scope is subject to variance and a matter of profound disagreement.

This essay is not a claim that community is the superior form. Community is by necessity constraining: the structures that ensure trust are confining, and enforce intimacies that may or may not be wanted in the name of that essential trust. Cash-and-carry is a liberation from intimacy, while trade allows a fairness equivalent to, if different from, that of gift. Personally, I would choose the freedom of a system where the second form predominates over the sense of knowing one's place the third form fosters, provided that there are strong and healthy communities to participate in by choice, or opt out of if needs must.

A community then is the grouping of people among whom relations are built upon the gift economy (a critical resource is Lewis Hyde's The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property). The core principle of the gift economy echoes the movie title: pay it forward. Obligation within the community is not reciprocal, but serial. Science and education are classic examples. One "gives" a paper: the benefit comes not from selling copies but from respect among ones peers for having created - and given - value. Spiritual communities traditionally follow similar principles: the recipient of charity or teachings is asked not to recompense the giver, but to pass the boon on. The open source software movement, as distinct from the software industry, is similar, having its roots in the scientific, rather than the business, world.

So, is there a space community? Obviously not. I coined the term "Spacefaring Web" to more accurately describe our situation. Some nodes in the web deal internally in the gift economy and so are communities: the scientific community at its broadest level, several professional communities, some chapters and projects within space advocacy organizations. These communities may be virtual or physical, close or loose, and the individuals within them may or may not have their strongest experiences of community shaped, or satisfied, elsewhere. Some nodes in the web interact by trade: businesses, of course, and organizations willing to deal peacefully with each other but without deep trust - perhaps trading favors or speaking at each others' conferences. Some nodes are in Hobbes's state of nature with respect to each other - armed, dangerous and ready to assume the worst. These aren't just the U.S. Air Force and the Chinese space program: we can all name those advocacy groups, research institutes, academics and pundits we wouldn't walk into a dark alley with.

The science fiction writer Ken Macleod uses the term "space movement." It's a good shorthand for the activist elements of the Spacefaring Web. Similar to the "environmental movement," it describes those working towards social and political transformation in order to realize a loose bundle of values, beliefs and policies. The ends are shared, at a certain level of generality; the work need not be. We're all driving along the same highway, but only some of us are carpooling. Some may be making a local trip, or going inter-city, while a few are living on the open road. It's a good and accurate term, whose political overtones remind us that we will need to effect transformation in order to reach our goals: the status quo will keep us circling the beltway, not merging onto the interstate.

With two perfectly good alternatives - movement and web - why refer to community at all? There are minor reasons: my experience in this endeavor has heavily involved the creation of, participation in, and attempts to reform or rebuild, communities within the Spacefaring Web. Having been trained as a lawyer and political scientist, community is my hammer, and all the world looks like nails. But there are two reasons that are genuinely important.

Fundamental to the permanent human settlement of space is the construction and maintenance of community. When community fails, we call the result mutiny, "lost colonies," Sarajevo or Somalia. When it succeeds over time, we call it civilization. Inquiry into the causes of such success or failure would seem to be warranted. Not all communities are alike: they differ based on the physical environment and the laws, customs and values of the people. Some wonderful work has been done in the past ten years on the physical and cultural influences on economic and political development: no one has yet applied the lessons learned to offplanet settlement. Presumably we want to build New Amsterdams and McMurdos, not Roanokes or Vinlands (or Tranquillity Bases). It would behoove us to learn how.

The final point is a less objective, but I believe even more critical, matter. In matters of power generation and food production, obviously, we will build from what we bring. The raw materials may be those we find at hand, in the Martian atmosphere or catapulted to L5 from Luna, but the engines of manipulation for some time will be brought from Earth, thoroughly familiar to the users, largely tried and true. The same will hold for our technologies of community. What we build will be determined by what we bring with us, those tools we are most accustomed to using. Which of the three sorts of interactions will predominate among the settlers? Will they be a community, a trading post or company town, a fort? In time, all will exist in human space, each to their own appropriate realm. But which one we begin with, which one will predominate - these are open questions.

The only outcome I don't want to see, the only one that deeply concerns me, is not a healthy manifestation of any of those types. Rather it is a breakdown of type, a dysfunctional aggregation of people bound only by a legacy of mistrust. A failed community, like wartime Sarajevo or Mogadishu, is an assemblage of forts of one, armed for that struggle of all against all. If the space movement - or space advocates - were to try to build a community, would they envision Athens and end up with Lebanon? Given our record with small-scale community building, I'd lay good money on Lebanon.

Astrologers believe that our lives mirror actions in the heavens, as the planets move and influence each other: as above, so below. I believe the converse to be true: our actions here and now, as we move and influence each other, will determine for good or ill what we build in space. As below, so above. Or, biblically, as we sow so shall we reap. What is it that we are sowing, and is it the best we can do?

Few among us would say that we are in fact doing our best. As a movement, we have not advanced our agenda even to the point the general public expected: hence last year's "whither 2001?" themes. I expect that many would concur that within our web of communities we could stand more of the gift economy and less change-counting and back-watching - more earned trust.

If we of this generation build the beginnings of a spacefaring civilization, we will do it using familiar tools: either the cooperation of the Linux community or the backbiting of failed activists whom time has passed by. If we do not, we will have to live and work here, on a shrinking planet, cheek by jowl alongside each other. Either way, our survival and well being will depend upon our ability to build and sustain community, to become adept with the technology of trust.

This understanding provides a standard for judging our actions: are we choosing to move down a path of trust-building, or are we fighting the war of all against all? And if so, do we really intend the creation of space Sarajevos, or their Earthly equivalents, that our actions are calling into being?

Let's be damn careful what we sow.

The Spacefaring Web is a bi-weekly column © 2002 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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