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The Spacefaring Web 2.11: Writing in the Infrared
John Carter McKnight
July 17, 2002
Reprinted by permission of the author.

Ideas and technologies that were recently only the wildest speculation now are hotly, even violently, debated worldwide. But not the prospect of a spacefaring future. While many address opportunities in space, their work seems to fall into a cultural blind spot, present but unseen. It's as if they were writing in the infrared: something is there, discernable by anyone sufficiently attuned. The world at large, though, literally cannot see the writing on the wall.

There is a chasm between innovation and adoption. On the one side there may be a good idea whose time hasn't come (or a harebrained notion that'll never amount to anything - they look the same from a distance). On the other side lies ubiquitous application of the brilliant-but-seemingly-inevitable fruits of the inventor's genius. How does an idea go from invisible to inevitable?

Some say that the innovation has to be honed to elegance before adoption. While the fallacy here should be obvious to anyone who has ever used a personal computer or a VCR, this argument has persisted. We haven't gone to Mars, the argument goes, because rockets are kludgy; the day we have nuclear-thermal propulsion the colony ships will leave.

At one of the early Case For Mars conferences, there was a marvelously thought-provoking presentation entitled "Romans To Mars." The author demonstrated that it would have been marginally possible for the Romans to have discovered and settled the New World with staggered convoys of galleys, but at immense cost. The argument was that, since using an adequate but suboptimal technology was prohibitively expensive, rationally, the settlement of the New World would have to wait upon the advent of the deep-draught sailing ship. By analogy, Mars must await advanced propulsion.

That argument fails on several grounds. First, optimal sailing technology was not necessary. A rational cost-benefit analysis might have sent Roman galleys to Mexico. Romans had been great commercial explorers as late as Caligula's time; a later emperor might rationally have chosen to revive the enterprise in hopes of bringing new wealth into an over-extended, cash-strapped empire. Likewise, the Elizabethan decision to explore and settle North America was less technologically favorable and a greater gamble. Rome had the resources and discipline to send a fleet into the unknown; Elizabeth's backing of exploration by her quasi-pirates was a high-stakes gamble by a third-rate power with, even by the standards of the time, second-rate naval technology. A crewman on one of Henry Hudson's or Martin Frobisher's ships likely would have traded a limb for a berth on a Nova Roman galley, let alone a bare-bones Mars Direct hab.

Elegance is not likely to develop before an innovation suddenly appears blindingly obvious. In the technological realm, an invention typically goes from kludge to cool later in its lifetime, only after becoming widespread. The early market entrants make a killing selling the Mark One; the laggards can only turn a profit by cutting production costs, streamlining design, offering advanced features to a market accustomed to the basic model and ready for more. I won't shell out $200,000 for a Lamborghini if I still like my horse and buggy just fine. A couple hundred for a Model T, maybe. Once I'm sold on driving, then I'm ready for something sleeker, faster, redder, and with cupholders. Sellers of computer networks may recall this mindset among corporate customers in the 1980s.

With ideas, elegance won't get you across the chasm either. Copernicus didn't enter the history books because he was the first person to look at the tangled mess of Ptolemaic cosmology and see the beautiful simplicity of a heliocentric alternative. Darwin was not the first to look at the breadth of physical traits and conceive an active mechanism for their evolution: we'd been selectively breeding plants and animals for millennia. Da Vinci's notebooks epitomize writing in the infrared: if elegance were sufficient, the Borgia Popes would have flown to church in helicopters.

No, "invention is the easy bit," as the Economist Technology Quarterly (June 23, 2001, p.3) observed. "It matters little whether some exciting new technology has suddenly become available. If the market timing is wrong, the innovation will most assuredly flounder." The Economist's editor draws a distinction between need - would it be useful? and demand - will anybody pay for it? Only demand gets you across the chasm. This explains the VCR: the demand for home movies and timeshifted TV programs was so great that the kludgy VCR sold like hotcakes. Twenty-five years later TiVO and the DVD player finally provide an elegant means of filling that demand. Ptolemy's teachings were tied to the authority of the medieval Church: when that authority was unquestionable, there was no prospect of a heretical heliocentrism catching on. Come the Renaissance, when "market conditions" were ripe for free-thinking, an elegant idea could gobble market- (or mind-) share.

Why isn't asteroid mining on the agenda at the World Economic Forum? Why aren't protesters in the street denouncing Martian terraforming plans? Only with demand does opposition come forth. Nobody fights either the impossible or the inevitable, only the likely. Borderless commerce and genetic engineering have vigorous champions and enemies: we see those innovations as likely. A spacefaring civilization is needed but not demanded. It is not seen as likely; it is not seen at all.

But what creates demand? One theory, historical determinism, seems more descriptive than analytical. Science fiction writers have long spoken of "railroading time" - when cultural forces align for railroads to be ubiquitous, there will be railroads. When it's time for evolution, Darwin and Wallace will submit simultaneous papers. Determinism is a nice refutation of the "elegant technology" argument: if there's a readily-perceived demand, any number of people will cobble together something to fill it, as witnessed by the variety of early bicycle and airplane designs, before those technologies matured to elegance. Yet determinism can only explain after the fact: it doesn't account for why railroads took off when they did, rather than a decade earlier or later. Nor is it a guide to whether the next decade will be "human genetic engineering time" or "nanotech time" - or, at last, spacefaring time.

The other approach to causation is the "great man" theory. Beloved of space advocates who point to Henry the Navigator and John F. Kennedy, this claims that an idea crosses the chasm into ubiquity when somebody big enough grabs it and hurls it. It's true that new industries arise when one or a few people see a newly-arisen demand and strike first to fill it. Marconi with radio, Rockefeller with petroleum products, Gates with operating systems - the early bird does get the worm. With ideas, a bold promoter matters: Huxley did as much for evolution as Darwin; planetary astronomy was advanced more by Percival Lowell's popularizing as by his critics' meticulous accuracy. The key phrase above, though, was "see a newly arisen demand." The "great man" only rises to dominate an existing, visible market. A revolutionary leader can only come to power when there's a market for revolution - otherwise, his head ends up on a pike outside the palace. Likewise, Kennedy didn't create an American demand for a space-race spectacular - that's the logic error committed by the "next Apollo" advocates who invoke his name.

As Kim Stanley Robinson has observed ("A Sensitive Dependence," in Remaking History and Other Stories, p.446), "the great man theory considers particles; historical materialism considers waves. The wave/particle duality, confirmed many times by experiment, assures us that neither can be the complete truth. Neither theory will serve as the covering law." People do shape events, individually as well as in the aggregate, creating those "tipping points" that move innovation into exploitation.

Innovation, promotion and demand are intertwined, feeding back upon each other in complex ways. No one alone is sufficient, nor can any one be slighted. Von Braun went from dreaming to advocacy to building moon rockets. Born promoters have found inspiration in the innovations of others and spread the word: Saul of Tarsus got Christianity across the chasm, as Lenin did Marxism and Zubrin in-situ resource utilization.

Had Tsiolkovskii and Goddard not pressed on despite being ignored, Korolev and von Braun could never have gotten us into space. Ray Bradbury considers a lifetime of space advocacy unwasted (Mars and the Mind of Man, p.133): "If I seem to be beating a dead horse again and again, I must protest: No! I am beating, again and again, living man to keep him awake and move his limbs and jump his mind." Fanciful scheming, crackpot theorizing and howling in the wilderness may not alone change today's reality. Today, it's not spacefaring time. But tomorrow it might be. When that tomorrow comes, it will be because, thanks to the subtle actions of innovators and advocates, we awaken and open our eyes to discover that we can see, there on the wall, The Case for Mars, The High Frontier and so many other works once written in the infrared.

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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