Tag Archives: Capitalism

AIAA Panel Discussion on Mars Settlement

Back in May, Carl and I sat on a panel at the AIAA Annual Technical Symposium in Houston. The panel was given a future scenario in advance, describing a number of technological and economic elements fifty years from now, just as Mars settlement is about to begin. During the luncheon, we were asked to consider a half-dozen questions relating to how Mars settlement might play out under the given scenario. In addition, there were 3-4 questions from the audience – regrettably, the camcorder battery ran out in the middle of my response to what I thought was the best question of the bunch.

It’s five clips, about an hour and a half in total.

Those Suicidal Pilgrims

Fox News recently ran a piece on plans by Mars One to launch one-way missions to Mars, with the first arrival in 2023:  Mars One Plans Suicide Mission to Red Planet for 2023.

The idea is that the astronauts are emigres, and not just visitors.  This removes the need for return spacecraft and the associated fuel, tremendously reducing the cost and complexity of the missions.  It also eases the concern that the early Mars missions, like Apollo, might eventually lose support and result in another dead end. 

Hyperbolic headlines aside, I agree with Brian Enke that “extended stay mission” is a more appropriate name.  The early settlers in North America arguably faced tougher physical and psychological hurdles, yet I doubt many would refer to their journey as a suicide mission.

A major theme of In the Shadow of Ares is the role of private enterprise in Martian development and settlement, though we initially expected government-led missions to open the frontier before “getting out of the way”.  Mars One proposes to conduct their missions completely independently, though it remains to be seen if they can obtain the required funding, estimated at $6 billion for the first mission.  I, for one, would love to see them pull it off.

I look forward to learning more, though an initial perusal led me to a few concerns, not least of which is Mars One’s stated intent to rely entirely on solar power on the Martian surface.  I believe their concerns regarding nuclear power are severely overstated, and smack of politics trumping science.  Readers of In the Shadow of Ares may recall politically-motivated power choices having deadly consequences for a group of settlers at Tharsis Station.

And the Award Goes to…

This year’s winners of the Prometheus Award are Ready Player One, by Edward Cline, and The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman.  Given annually by the Libertarian Futurist Society, the award recognizes the best in libertarian fiction.

We are honored that In the Shadow of Ares was a finalist, and wish the winners a hearty congratulations.

A New Era?

Friday’s ISS docking of the SpaceX Dragon capsule received a good bit of media attention, but likely not anything near what it deserved.  Much of the public was at least peripherally aware that a private spacecraft (albeit heavily subsidized by NASA) had successfully launched and docked with the orbiting outpost, but aside from the delivery of needed supplies, most could probably not articulate the true significance of the mission. 

Besides reducing our reliance on Russia for access to space, this mission hopefully represents the genesis of a vibrant space-based economy dominated by private enterprise. 

And in my lifetime no less.

 If that vision comes to pass, May 25, 2012 could become nearly as significant as  July 20, 1969.  Or not.  Will the fledgling industry be crippled by excessive regulation?  Will shortsighted policy decisions gut the exploration programs that are arguably a proper role for public-sector programs?

Combined with last month’s announcement by Planetary Resources, I’m hopeful.  This despite the recent, foolish decision by the Obama Administration to abandon future robotic Mars missions.

Paypal’s Peter Thiel on the Collapse of Science Fiction

I’d agree with his assessment, except I think the problem is actually much worse:

One way you can describe the collapse of the idea of the future is the collapse of science fiction. Now it’s either about technology that doesn’t work or about technology that’s used in bad ways. The anthology of the top twenty-five sci-fi stories in 1970 was, like, ‘Me and my friend the robot went for a walk on the moon,’ and in 2008 it was, like, ‘The galaxy is run by a fundamentalist Islamic confederacy, and there are people who are hunting planets and killing them for fun.’

The original article is behind the firewall at the New Yorker, so I only have this quote to build on, but if hackneyed War on Terror allegories are all that has him upset about the current state of science fiction he might be in for a surprise if he picks up a copy of, say, Analog.

One of the reasons Carl and I decided to write In the Shadow of Ares was the dearth of positive visions of the future in modern science fiction. Over the past twenty years (if not longer), there has been a shift in tone towards an anti-technology, anti-capitalist, anti-human perspective:

  • By “anti-technology”, I mean a perspective in which science and its applications are regarded as intrinsically suspect if not dangerous. Plots involving a new discovery, innovation, or application frequently put significant if not sole emphasis on its negative consequences. One of the great things about science fiction traditionally has been the useful or interesting speculative exploration of the potential for misuse of such things, but this perspective instead reflects a deeper pessimism which devalues or dismisses the positive benefits instead of making a balanced assessment of tradeoffs.
  • By “anti-capitalist”, I mean a perspective in which business, the profit model, free markets, etc. are the enemies of all good and decent things. If a corporation of some sort figures into a story, it’s almost certain to be portrayed as greedy, oppressive, irresponsible, reactionary, rapacious, short-sighted, callous, etc., an intangible sentient entity possessing a collective and inexplicably (or unexplainedly) malevolent will of its own.  “Portrayed” is probably a generous way to put it, given that these things are not crafted as the corporation’s attributes so much as mix-and-matched from a pouch of stock-villain tropes with little thought or creativity involved. There seems to be little acknowledgement that there are business entities other than Big Evil Galactic Mega-Conglomerates™, or that as seen in the real world business, profits, markets, etc. are far more likely to be positive agents and influences. There are certainly interesting science fiction stories to be told involving bad businessmen, but I’d hazard a guess that each of them has by now been told many hundreds of times.
  • By “anti-human”, I mean a perspective in which it is taken for granted that humans are by default corrupt, greedy, bigoted, abusive, violent, intolerant, militaristic, or otherwise by their inescapable nature a threat to non-humans or to the natural world. Non-human entities — whether alien, artificial, or non-sentient — are held to be morally superior to humans due to nothing more than their non-human nature, and are portrayed as endangered by humans due to our aforementioned moral defects. When non-humans are absent, humans are still portrayed as intrinsically morally negative, being (for example) willing to use a new technology to harm or oppress others for no other reason than that that’s what humans are apparently wired to do. Again, this is not to say that there aren’t bad humans to be found, or that humans behaving badly can’t be fodder for an interesting story; the problem is with the self-loathing default assumption that humans are inherently bad, augmented by the corollary assumption that non-humans are inherently good.

This is not to say that these problems are universal, merely pervasive. I gave up on Analog in 2008 after 25 years as a subscriber because of this pervasiveness – there were still occasional human-positive, business-positive, technology-positive stories in the magazine, but there was a clear drift in the opposite direction (and increasing numbers of borderline-fantasy woo-woo stories) over several years.

I think the broader point underlying both Thiel’s criticism and my own is that where science fiction used to be predominantly optimistic, it has for years (decades?) descended into an ugly dominant pessimism. And when the people whose job is imagining possible futures see only doom and gloom ahead, is it any wonder that the people actually responsible for building the future may be less enthusiastic about doing so?

The End of the Future?

Abandon in Place (detail)
Pay Pal co-founder and hedge fund manager Peter Thiel, whom I previously discussed in this post, asks some important questions in the cover piece “Swift Blind Horsemen” in the October 3 edition of National Review.  Specifically, is the rate of progress slowing, what are the consequences, and what can be done about it?

[T]here is no law that the exceptional rise of the West must continue.  So we could do worse than to inquire into the widely held opinion that America is on the wrong track…to wonder whether Progress is not doing as well as advertised, and perhaps to take exceptional measures to arrest and reverse any decline.

He goes on to make a strong case that progress has slowed, but why does that matter?

The technology slowdown threatens not just our financial markets, but the entire modern political order, which is predicated on easy and relentless growth.  The give-and-take of Western democracies depends on the idea that we can craft political solutions that enable most people to win most of the time.  But in a world without growth, we can expect a loser for every winner.

He wraps it up with musings on what can be done, including the ability of government to jump start innovation, as has been done in the past.  Of course, that’s what we hope to inspire through In the Shadow of Ares, and the forthcoming sequels, and it seems it is needed now more than ever:

Science fiction has collapsed as a literary genre.  Men reached the moon in July 1969, and Woodstock began three weeks later.  With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that this was when the hippies took over the country, and when the true cultural war over Progress was lost.

Mr. Thiel proposes that the Progressive Left is incapable of recognizing that things are getting worse.  Personally, I think it’s more serious than that, in that many in that grouping would openly celebrate a tech slowdown as a good thing.

Islands in the sky?

Billionaire Pay Pal co-founder Peter Thiel has apparently donated $1.25 million to the Seasteading Institute, an organization seeking to build floating nation-states that would be able to experiment with innovative political and social systems.  Specifically libertarian political systems.

Floating City

Of course, that’s part of the rationale for going to Mars.  Not specifically to set up a libertarian society, although there’s certainly an element of that in the independent settlements depicted in In the Shadow of Ares.  The basic idea is to start from scratch, choosing from what you know works best and leaving behind what doesn’t.

A Look Back at Themes

I was dusting off some files from the early development of In the Shadow of Ares, and in a way it was like flipping through baby pictures.  Included was a summary of themes we were aiming to include in the book, classified as “General” and “Exploration”, and I think we achieved our goals:

General:

  • Positive future
  • Technology is good
  • Capitalism is good
  • Realism
  • Reason wins
  • We need a frontier

Exploration:

  • Exploration is not without risk
  • Simpler is better
  • Live off the land
  • Exploration and settlement go together
  • Settlement and the role of property rights

We’ve been asked if the sequels will share the “pioneer” theme of the first book, which I suppose is included in the above.  The sequel picks up two years later, and will include more cosmopolitan settings than the first book, but it’ll still be a new, untamed world.  Several of the other familiar themes will be present (though perhaps de-emphasized because they are less critical to the story), plus a few yet-to-be-revealed.

McDonald’s on Mars

One theme running through In the Shadow of Ares is the economics of early human settlements on Mars, and one way in which we explore this theme is through the contrast between the entrepreneurial independent settlements and those subject to the meddling of the Mars Development Authority.

Readers of MarsBlog may find familiar the following passage, which sets up the first major illustration of this theme and is based on a blog post from almost exactly five years ago:

Aaron halted the rover near the base of the huge sculpture.

“Why are we stopping?” Lindsay asked.

He leaned forward, looking at the nearly complete monument rising before them.  “Look.  Can you see it?”  From this angle the third arch was hidden behind the central axis, so that the Gate appeared to be only a pair of arches.

“See what?”  Amber asked.  She and her mother both craned their necks, trying to see what it was that Aaron was seeing, besides the obvious.

Aaron traced an “M” across the rover’s window with his index finger.  “McGate,” he grinned.

Lindsay chuckled.  “Ha…you’re right!”

“Mick what?” Amber asked.  She had heard the project referred to as “Gate-gate”, by critics of the MDA’s waste of funds and materials.  The controversy had been surprisingly short-lived in the Martian media, with Quipu and the smaller news aggregators alike quickly losing interest in it and not following up on the occasional revelations of mismanagement and overspending.  The rumor among the independents was that MDA pressure squelched the reporting of any controversy.  It was easy to believe such a rumor — the Gate was, after all, Administrator Poissant’s pet project.

“McGate,” he repeated.  “You know, like McDonalds.”

“The Earth restaurant?  Are we getting one?”

“No, no, no,” he shook his head.  “But isn’t it ironic that the new ‘signature’ of Port Lowell should look so much like an ‘evil corporate logo’?”

“Evil?” Lindsay frowned.  “McDonalds isn’t evil.”

“No, of course not,” Aaron laughed.  “It’s just that the MDA resents successful private enterprise.  Look at the independent settlements — the better they do, the less power the MDA has over them.  A Martian McDonalds would be MDA’s worst nightmare:  it would mean Mars had reached a high level of economic development.  Private development, exactly the kind they don’t like.”

“What do you mean?” Amber asked, confused.

“Well, shipping all the ingredients in from Earth would be prohibitively expensive, so they would have to be produced right here.”

“So?  How hard can it be to make a hamburger?  I mean, aside from the fact we don’t have cattle on Mars.”

“Yet…” Lindsay amended.

“Yet.  Well, it’s not just about burgers.  The meat, cheese, pickles, onions, buns, and other things have to come from somewhere.  That means a whole range of other complex economic activities.  Things like meat synthesis facilities that go way beyond what we have on Mars today, bakeries for the buns, and plants making soft-drink concentrate and condiments.  Not to mention all the necessary transportation and construction elements, or a manufacturing industry able to produce the specialized machinery needed to turn all the raw materials into the final product and deliver them to customers — freezers, refrigerators, fry vats, grills, microwave ovens, cooker ‘bots, soft-drink dispensers, and more.”

“And don’t forget customers,” Lindsay added.  “You need enough customers to keep the restaurant profitable.”

“Certainly.  They’d also need unskilled and surly teenagers to staff the counter.”  He winked at Amber.  “And all these industrial capabilities — machine fabrication, transportation, specialty materials — would support many other industries, besides food production.  All of that together implies economic self-sufficiency.”

“Which means the MDA is no longer needed,” Amber said.  “We could petition for full sovereignty.”

“Exactly.”

McDonald’s on Mars

Commenter Wally expresses concern over the development of space:

Besides, who wants to go to McDonald’s Restaurant on Mars?

I do.

Not because I find the food appealing, but because of what the fact of a McDonald’s on Mars would say about the planet’s level of development. Shipping in from a distribution center on Earth all the mystery meat, synthetic cheese, pickles, onions, buns, soft-drink syrup, shoestring potatoes, condiments, service items, and other consumable products a franchised fast-food restaurant would require would be prohibitively expensive, at least by the modes of transportation available in the near term, so the existence of a simple McDonald’s on Mars would imply a whole range of other complex economic activities:

  • the ranching (or decanting) of various types of meat;
  • agriculture capable of supplying oil seeds, wheat, cucumbers, onions, sugarcane/corn, potatoes, tomatoes, and assorted spices;
  • silviculture providing pulp stock for paper goods;
  • processing facilities for the meat and other raw agricultural goods;
  • secondary processing facilities, such as bakeries for the buns, plants for conversion of sugar or corn syrup into soft-drink concentrate, other plants producing ketchup, mustard, pickles, etc.;
  • transportation for moving the raw materials and processed items (not to mention the consumers);
  • a local construction industry capable of building a structure to house the restaurant, and a supply of building materials;
  • a local manufacturing industry with the ability to produce the various pieces of specialized machinery and fittings required to turn the aforementioned consumables into final product and deliver them to customers — freezers, refrigerators, fry vats, grills, microwave ovens, soft-drink dispensers, cash registers, communications systems, preparation tables, sinks, water heaters, icemakers, customer furnishings, etc.;
  • the constituent items (gears, motors, electromechanical elements, control devices, refrigerants, sheet metal, advanced plastics) that go into the production of such equipment;
  • the miscellaneous secondary items involved in the running of the primary business, such as cleaning equipment and supplies;
  • items taken for granted in a terrestrial McDonald’s: a supply of breathable air, potable water, and reliable electricity;
  • a reliable supply chain making all of the above available on short notice;
  • enough unskilled and surly teenagers to staff the restaurant;
  • all of the above available at a cost which still allows the restaurant to make a profit;
  • a trustworthy means of exchange (i.e.: money), and the financial infrastructure that goes with it;
  • applicable legal structures (contract law, property law, etc.) and appropriate enforcement institutions; and
  • enough customers to keep the restaurant profitable.

Not to mention the fact that a McDonald’s would be a pleasant alternative to a communal cafeteria that would be a more practical and efficient if drab means of providing meals. That is, the restaurant would indicate a level of development at which options for enjoyment are available, and people can concern themselves with quality of life (in this case the enjoyment of a simple pleasure) versus mere subsistence.

Who would go to a McDonald’s on Mars? I would — to celebrate the accomplishment that the existence of such a thing would symbolize.

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