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The Spacefaring Web 2.15: Spaceships and Olive Trees
John Carter McKnight
September 10, 2002
Reprinted by permission of the author.

In the year since September 11, 2001, we have begun to acknowledge, finally, that the world has changed. Back in the Cold War, both sides believed that reason and technology were prime values and the key to victory. Space science and engineering alike held assured pride of place. Now, rather than the promised New World Order, we find ourselves in a New World Flux, where the players, the rules and the stakes are vastly different. One thing is sure: the role of space is not what it was.

If we look clearly and creatively at the centers of power in this Network Age, we may find surprising opportunities and unexpected allies. If not, space will be pushed to the margins of funding and attention for generations to come.

Back in the late Industrial Age, the world was divided between two great camps with some philosophical positions in common. The dominant ideologies of East and West both held that applied reason was the key to progress, and that progress was good. Nature should be tamed by
industry, poverty and illiteracy by government programs, economic fluctuations by central influence or edict. These similarities allowed for meaningful competition short of war between the systems: in number and size of engineering projects, quality and ubiquity of technical education, and, of course, in space exploration.

Rationalism held sway throughout the world: fascism, eschewing reason and progress in the name of a mystical nationalism, had been soundly defeated. Throughout the Third World nations adopted the rationalist values of the First and Second Worlds, often moving in a generation from animism and tribalism to technocratic management. With the fall of Communism, the way seemed clear for Western democratic rationalism's utter triumph. One scholar, Francis Fukuyama, saw the "end of history."

History, running in the background as the world changed through the 1990s, caught up with us on September 11. The conflicting powers of this new world do not share values of rationalism and progress. Indeed, to much of the world, progress is feared and rationalism suspect as the source of so many 20th Century horrors.

This new era, this Network Age, has its two great sides as well. Yet unlike in the old Cold War world, the lines are unclear, the walls down. American citizens suspected of aiding terrorism can be held as enemy aliens. Luddites and technophiles, hardcore greens and real estate developers, can be found in the same towns, same schools, in America and around the world. Even within each of us, the walls have come down: we may work in high-tech industries, hold fundamentalist religious views, and support Greenpeace all at the same time. As Pogo said long ago, we
have met the enemy and he is us.

Writing from Silicon Valley, Dinesh D'Souza, in The Virtue of Prosperity, named these sides the Party of Yeah and the Party of Nah. While his sociological analysis is spot-on, his glibness does a disservice. Looking at Starbucks-smashers and terrorists, it is easy to see what this one great faction opposes, and less what it is for. The 'Nah' seems an appropriate label for the authors of violence and jeremiads at the extreme margin. But beyond a simple 'Nah' to social and
technological dynamism, these dissenters do have a coherent world view and agenda, one with a long philosophical tradition and many articulate advocates. They speak for primacy of place over concept, of biology over information flows, of atoms over bits, and cannot be casually dismissed.

After decades of observation in the Middle East, a more nuanced analysis comes from New York Times columnist and author Thomas L. Friedman. He finds icons for the factions in "the Lexus" and "the olive tree." One side, the Lexus, embraces and adapts to cultural and technological
change. The old rationalist philosophy, that one person or bureau could devise and implement the ideal economic or technical solution to any problem, is stone dead for them: the invisible hand, not the hand of the planner, reigns. Mobile, fluid, synthetic, "creative destruction" is their byword.

The other, the world of the olive tree, values locality, continuity, predictability. The dead hand of tradition rules. Values are black and white, games are zero-sum: my land or yours, my church or your secular humanism. The Lexus threatens most in its ecumenical claims: partisans of the olive tree, believing in "mine and thine," see no space left apart, beyond the reach of McDonalds and MTV. Peaceful coexistence is not an option: the old ways cannot maintain their integrity with pop
culture and Western values mixed in.

What the sides share is not values, but the technological underpinnings of the Network Age: the flows of money and information of an already-globalized world. Anti-globalization protest is itself a global network, linked by email and cheap airfares. Fundamentalist terrorism is financed by global financial transactions, maintained and directed by cell phone and satellite television.

Beyond the two conflicting value systems, Friedman identifies three centers of power: the individual, the market and the state. In the Cold War era, only states were power players. After 9/11, the balance between individual, market and state is in dynamic flux. Markets were ascendant
for the half-decade before the date when an individual declared war on the most powerful state and market alike. In the aftermath, markets have declined in global recession, and the newly emboldened anti-terrorist state is seeking dramatic power shifts in its own favor.

In the Cold War, as we saw, the space community had a core contribution to make to the centers of power on both sides: space served the state. Now, in the New World Flux, we have to ask ourselves what we have to offer, and to whom.

For the most part, we have yet to do so. Precious few space advocates, even space entrepreneurs, understand and embrace the revolution of the Network Age. Our continued dominance by Industrial Age policy mavens still using Cold War era viewgraphs, along with the sclerotic central planning ministry of NASA, contributes to declining budgets and increasing apathy alike.

After 9/11 the old Cold Warriors tried to reheat their rhetoric, hawking the same old goods in the same old way, with calls to use our rockets and factories to triumph over the adversary (no coincidence that we heard this ballyhoo from advocates of Apollo II Mars programs).

There were no takers. It's not that kind of a world, and the war on terrorism is not that kind of war. The American Secretary of Defense knows it, and is desperately trying to drag the Cold War military kicking and screaming into the Network Age. Hes buying Lexuses while we're still selling tanks.

To the state, aside from black projects and long-established remote sensing and communications technologies, we have little to offer. To the markets, even less right now, as the fate of generations of hopeful space entrepreneurs has shown. To the individual, the apparent failure of Lance Bass's flight efforts has closed the space tourism door to all but billionaires with cash in hand. These things may change, but today prospects for a new Space Age in this decade seem slim indeed.

But might we have something to offer the Party of Nah? Not the al-Quaedas and Talibans of the world, whom we must eliminate for the sake of our own survival. Many, though, would live by rules different from those of the global dynamism of the Lexus. Might space fulfill a need of theirs?

Low Earth Orbit, for reasons previously explored in these columns, can only be the property of the Party of Yeah. LEO is for building new Lexuses. Mars, on the other hand, might just serve the olive tree.

A scenario was suggested by the Mars Society's Gary Fisher: Mars might become a backup to Earth's cultural hard drive. Not an alternative, not a place of exile, a last redoubt for the hopeless, but an opportunity for hope.

Space as voluntary or involuntary exile for a technological elite is an old trope in both science fiction and space advocacy. Inasmuch as the analogy one often hears from space advocates is of a lifeboat leaving a sinking ship, those identified as being left behind tend to find this argument offensive. Backup or preservation is a much less provocative image. Currently, as the Party of Yeah seems to be firmly dominant, the "cultural backup" argument would likely not resonate so strongly with them. Detailed examination of how this idea's appeal might grow is a matter for another time.

Surprisingly, "cultural backup" might have an appeal to the other side, to the disciples of the olive tree. Mars as cultural backup would not be an abandoning of the olive tree of one's birth, but a seeding of it in new soil, safely six months away from its endangered native land. Like
Dharmsala, an outpost of threatened Tibetan culture at a safe remove from its Chinese adversaries, or a Nature Conservancy preserve of rare Amazon wildlife, Mars might serve as a haven for cultures, even species, literally "olive trees", whose members feel threatened by the spread
of the Lexus.

Mars and the olive tree are deeply interconnected: the "Red" ethic of Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy is intentionally deeply rooted in the olive tree's philosophical lineage. Mars could well offer a counter to the destructive, only Nah-saying extremes of this side's adherents, channeling energies towards construction rather than empty opposition, and, ironically, bootstrapping Lexus industry and commerce into space. Certainly preservation of a way of life would be a better cause than murder and destruction to funnel Saudi fortunes into.

Shifting political forces might render such developments impossible. While many young space advocates harbor strong olive tree sympathies, the old Cold War technocrats still dominate in space policy and public communication. Certainly they will oppose common cause with an ideology so alien to them. The anti-terrorist state may come to utterly dominate the balance of power. If so, the revolutionary potential of space will likely be stifled, as it has been for a generation, to preserve the status quo. The Party of Nah may embrace violence more broadly, building walls where none yet exist, rendering cooperation or the search for common ground impossible.

Yet the hope remains that space can become the answer to questions someone is asking, be they old allies or longtime opponents. Space can sell Lexuses. It can also preserve olive trees. Only by offering solutions to the current needs of some group holding or seeking power can a new Space Age begin.

The Spacefaring Web is a bi-weekly column © 2002 by John Carter McKnight, An advocate 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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