The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
14.4 (Fall 2014)
Four Wild Cards: Volatile Elements in Our High-Tech Future, as Magnified by Space Travel
John R. Harris
Space Exploration: A Magnifying Glass Upon Our Own Time
In this journal’s previous issue, I suggested that the formal science of Erchomenology (the “study of things to come”) might succeed as an academic discipline under certain conditions—none of which seems likely to meet with fulfillment, by the way. First, the erchomenologist would have to be exposed to a vast array of component disciplines, ranging from History and Economics to Psychology and Sociology. Second, his or her exposure to these disciplines would have to be purged of ideological presumption as much as possible (in itself perhaps the greatest stumbling block; for all of the four fields just mentioned by way of example suffer from heavy ideological colonization). The student would also need to be keenly aware of human nature—of its very existence (at which proposition the contemporary academy scoffs) and of its labyrinthine architecture. How might we ever accurately forecast the behavior of human beings if we lack a firm grasp of what it means to be human?
For reasons practical (e.g., the cost of so many years of study) as well as pathological (e.g., the egotistical joy of radical chic), this academic craft is unlikely to leave its hangar any time soon. Yet nothing restrains us amateur erchomenologists from honing our skills. Even if no one formally pays us for looking into a crystal ball, we may arrange our personal lives advantageously (through investments, stockpiling of necessities, choice of location to live in, etc.) after we have cultivated an informed sense of where the epochal ship is sailing. I believe a term—slightly inaccurate, maybe too optimistic—has already been invented for such endeavor: common sense.
All this metaphorical talk of aircraft and ships under sail has perhaps been suggested to me by the popular images surrounding space travel; for to most people, any discussion of the distant future invites visions of strange new planets and miraculous conveyances that easily take us to them. I confess openly that I am not an avid consumer of the science-fiction genre. This is by no means because I object to colorful fantasies as escapist and irresponsible; on the contrary, it’s more a matter of my distaste for an extreme lack of creativity in the sci-fi realm where crucial elements of human nature are concerned. Of what few space epics have meteorically collided with my free time (and I have always managed to extricate myself from George Lucas in five minutes), none seems to have calculated to a remote proximity the likely effects of twenty-second century technology upon the human psyche. None, indeed, seems aware that any such calculation is needed. We human beings simply remain as we are now—or as we were in the Seventies or Eighties of some filmmaker. We don’t even remain as we have always been; for the producers also appear to be blissfully ignorant of manners and morals a mere generation of two before their time. The imagination deficit balances perfectly with a deficit of historical and cultural knowledge.
I’m being a little unfair to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and the creators of the original Alien in making these remarks; and I freely admit that my confession about avoiding the genre disqualifies me from passing an objective judgment upon its contents. I realize that there are darker visions of the future whose default value for human nature is not a nursery-rhyme naiveté. “Future” does not always equal “progress” in Hollywood arithmetic, and “progress” does not always equal “return to childhood”: only almost always. The signature-line of the old Star Trek, “to boldly go where no man has gone before,” mocks itself unwittingly by violating the grammatical code both of the immediate past and of the immediate future: first it splits an infinitive, and then it hoists a “sexist” formulation! No matter: we’re still bound for Never-Never Land, where (it is implied) we shall find new selves as well as new playthings. Nothing will hamper us—nothing will drive us to self-restraint! We will boldly go wherever we feel like boldly going!
Perhaps no period in our culture was more contemptuous of its cultural heritage or more gullible about the technology congesting its future than those decades—from the late sixties to the mid-eighties—in which I fully matured. Yet one can scarcely maintain that Avatar or Hollywood’s butchery of Asimov in I, Robot has shaken off the romantic dualism—the child’s “good guy/bad guy” naïveté—of the latter twentieth century’s intellectual stultification.
Allow me, then, to use a stereotype of the space adventure retrieved from my superficial sampling of popular culture as my “foil” in suggesting that our imminent adventure in space is likely to straitjacket us rather than to free us. We foresee heavenly new vistas with three moons low on a purple horizon; we foresee a Shangri-La with toadstools the size of redwoods; we foresee singing flowers whose petals are an edible chocolate and whose stamina smell of ambrosia. We do not foresee flipping over a card where the Jester tweaks us by the nose, or where Old Mortality beckons us with a boney finger. Our tendency to disregard our own nature in gauging the future is magnified when we daydream about space travel, because advanced technology lures us hubristically to suppose that a patch, a bypass, or an upgrade will become available for every problem we have ever known within an unspecified lapse of time. We will begin all over again in space. We will get everything right.
Of course, we will not. In fact, a realistic look at space travel reveals that it may well seduce us into preferring several disastrous solutions to current controversies. Being a “rugged individualist”, and maybe even a “good person”, could easily prove more liability than asset in a spaceship, and the strains that assail our common humanity can only multiply in an artificial environment surrounded by death. All things considered, space is a very strange choice of venues to go running away from oneself and looking for heaven’s gate.
Here, then, are four volatile “wild cards” that are likely to change the make-believe game we play with the stars, once the hands are actually dealt and the bidding and betting start:
1) Sexual Habits
Space travel could transform human sexuality, or assist in transforming it, into something we would not now recognize as human. It could even annihilate our sexual identity utterly.
Naturally, duties and taboos in these matters have always differed from era to era and from culture to culture. Yet the differences generally orbited a nucleus of consensus throughout human history, and changes within a society’s sexual habits used to take several generations. All that was before advanced technology became a major force in shaping attitudes. In my own lifetime, I have witnessed a very straight-laced North American social order dissolve with alarming rapidity (alarming simply for its runaway pace, whatever one might think of the change’s vector) into a loose aggregate where the greatest sin appears to be regarding any behavior at all as impermissible. Many have indeed argued that the transformation was driven by the entertainment industry. I find this argument to be somewhat overplayed: movies were in fact quite rigorously censored until the mid-sixties, and television was self-censoring while the Big Three dominated it. Technology appeared in other, more influential forms. The Pill, the exponentially increasing physical mobility of families, the easy access of teenagers to cars, and other such tech-related factors allowed the stigma of “misbehavior” to be evaded. Sexual pleasure had its way, and the rest of society—including, at last, TV and the movies—yielded to its advance like an edifice of ice submitted to a blazing sun.
The Hollywood spaceship rather quickly flew in formation with the “new morality” (as it was then called), to be sure. Every televised or filmed space adventure from those early years of opened floodgates seems to have had its shapely young cadets in tight-fitting futuristic leotards. To be fair, television remained comparatively tame. Any TV producer who had dared to unleash something like the futuristic soft-porn gamma-sludge of Jane Fonda’s Barbarella upon prime time would have been sacked on the spot and blackballed from the industry. Yet if such “pimping” was generally more modest and gradual, even among movie-makers, it was also universal—as is quite understandable, from a marketing point of view. The genre attracted (and still attracts) a large proportion of adolescent male viewers, who naturally shared certain preoccupations.
Now let us consider the probable reality of sexual practices in the lives of intergalactic travelers. Will sexual adventures be free and on-demand wherever starships cruise (the obvious preference of the Seventies generation)? Will they be strictly forbidden except within narrowly observed parameters (reflecting the inclinations of a politically correct, sexual-harassment conscious Gen X audience)? Will sexual appetites be satisfied by a few minutes of virtual love-making on a computer (such as Ray Kurzweil seems to have in mind for us all)?
The Star Trek version of heavenly bodies. Although the blonde bombshell in the latest edition was most provocatively marketed (as in this photo), she was also scripted with a semi-robotic past and represented as having emotional impairment. In her, one glimpses the paradox of the sexual drive’s self-annihilation.
In any work environment—but especially in one where inattention can be as massively fatal as deep space—we must suppose that these Hollywood romances would be severely curtailed. A small group of people critically dependent upon each other in tight quarters for years at a time cannot afford to become involved in love triangles or secret jealousies. A focus upon any interest, in fact, capable of competing with official duties would be actively discouraged. Sex—including the mere contemplation of the sex act, as through pornography—can become obsessive to the point that it acquires certain attributes of an addiction. Functional starships would not likely tolerate the presence of many such people in the engine room or on the bridge. One would be enough to create catastrophe.
Our hyper-efficient, tech-intensive, star-hopping descendants would therefore have to handle the “problem” of sex in one of a very few ways. These occur to me at the moment:
a) Each crew member would be issued a robotic bedmate; the Japanese, I am told, are blazing a trail in this line of production.
b) Pills or injections would be available to govern hormone levels so that the “urge” would never become a nuisance.
c) People of the future would simply be neutered; their extended lives would render regeneration all but unnecessary, and such “replacements” as were required could be engineered to precise specifications in a laboratory setting.
None of these options, of course, is in the least romantic. Yet, ironically, our own age’s celebration of sex as among life’s purest sensual pleasures and comforts, like lemon meringue pie or a favorite wine, seems to lead inexorably to one or another of such termini. Once the pleasure is reified as an “it” (la chose, as the French say), it becomes susceptible to being discreetly bottled or packaged—in this case, via computer or robot. It is dehumanized. It must be so, because the human element—the involvement, the entanglement, the “love”—must threaten that efficiency upon which our futuristic society constantly relies. That this “greatest of life’s pleasures” might thus become the most persistent and annoying of life’s burdens is more than plausible. At least in the “starship” scenario, the transformation of sex into a major nuisance appears to me all but inevitable; for why endure the negligence of a chief engineer who lingers abed with his robo-geisha when a neutered dynamo of ability, himself more robot than person, might scarcely even need sleep itself, let alone recreation?
That depressing contemplative, Epicurus, observed long ago that all pleasures are succeeded by pains, and that the greatest pleasure is thus the absence of pain—the static serenity of a neutral ataraxia. This is ultimately the creed of a robotic world, humming right along and checking off its daily tasks. Sex runs the risk of inducing passion, and passion can inspire love, and love can generate no end of longing and worry. Great pains, one and all: the ship runs more smoothly without them.
Having mentioned incidentally both lemon meringue pie and Epicurus (who is wrongly but inextricably associated with fine dining), I should add that everything in this section might be extended from sex to eating. The pause from purposeful labor for the sake of time-wasteful eating at least twice every work-day introduces gross inefficiency into our spaceship world. People can also become fixated on their favorite food, and perhaps addicted to it. We should anticipate, therefore, that meals will be consumed in a matter of seconds from plastic wrappers, or else that something like a literal battery within the robo-human will be recharged during rest. This is not even to figure into our calculation to huge amount of onboard capacity redeemed from bulky storage and the volume of terrestrial resources freed up from conventional farming.
The attitude that future societies will adopt toward sexual behavior will send ripples throughout other areas of personal bonding and commitment. One is challenged to imagine, for instance, what kind of world might evolve should “expressions of sexuality” be wholly “liberated” from child-bearing and -rearing. Indeed, what future adults would be produced where the very notion of childhood had become, perhaps, a merely clinical concern over growing the “best” child in a lab (as we grow the best tomatoes in a highly engineered hothouse)? What would life be like without the parent-child connection? What would people live for, or die for? We are only beginning to face such questions at this historical moment. By the time the Space Age brings their terms fully into focus, they will already have been answered.
I might share, in a final aside about hybrid beings, an observation that dissolves the most telling criticism of “alien visitor” advocacy: i.e., that no alien competent enough to fly to earth would permit his UFO to be seen against his will—and, if he willed exposure, he would have found a more direct and expressive way to declare himself. An alien UFO (if such things exist) would very probably be piloted by a robot or a bio-robotic hybrid: a creature-creation ageless and sexless, undisturbed by sexual appetite, unencumbered by children. As a deliberate manufacture, this intelligence would likely not have been programmed to handle the dizzying diversity of situations that evolve around planet Earth. A certain amount of ineptitude in his/its response, generated by a brain whose excessive “efficiency” cannot accommodate a chaotic degree of contingency, would be entirely understandable. It would even be something we should expect.
The manner in which the human being views him- or herself as an individual partaking of a social existence critically affects the formation of broader social units. Is this individual an individualist, or a cog in a machine? Some will surely be offended if I suggest that the right to self-defense—and the insistence on having means to avail oneself of that right effectively—are a measure of this psychic state. Unlike issues involving sexual behavior, questions of self-defense have elicited very strong responses from either polarity of opinion in our time, leaving little evidence of a middle ground or a gradual slide from one direction to the other. American citizens are “caving in” on sexual issues: on self-defense issues, they are “digging in”. That is, they either believe with conviction in their right to use the deadly force of a handgun (say) in protecting their person from a brutal aggressor, or else they believe with equal conviction that this “right” is a barbarity. Of course, defenders of the latter option would not suppose themselves to be willfully surrendering their lives to The Collective as a fanatic would fling his body under a juggernaut. They argue, for instance, that a 911 call will bring expert help within the minute or so between the bedroom window’s shattering and a dark figure’s shaking out glass shards on the carpet; or else they so trust in the basic rationality of all humans that they imagine something like Ben Okri’s “scientific robbers”, who politely take everything at gunpoint and leave.
To say the least, this is a highly paradoxical attitude in people whose political ideology otherwise teaches them to view police as arrogant, mindless Nazis serving corrupt bourgeois paymasters. No doubt, the desire to be confident of one’s safety is so strong that one will subconsciously embrace opinions contradictory to one’s philosophy, all for the sake of a good night’s sleep.
My intent is not to paint advocates of gun-ownership, in contrast, as rugged individualists. Yet it must surely be true that people who will actively resist physical assault tend to have a stronger sense of self (even when that sense is unwholesome) than do people whose reflexive response is the fetal position. Therefore, the eventual resolution of these self-defense issues in the coming years is bound to affect what sort of human we at last export to the rest of the galaxy. Reciprocally, as we contemplate sending humans off to colonize planets, the degree of freedom we allow them to protect their individual person against violent aggression will modify our views about such situations here on Earth.
The most popular space epics of our electronic age (going back to the radio days of Buck Rogers) have displayed a truly laughable predilection for a model of the cowboy’s Colt .45 adapted to shoot death rays. The weapon is usually slung at the hip, and its owners apparently have to exhibit a certain amount of marksmanship if they are to neutralize their target. When I was an undergraduate, I recall a standing joke among my small circle of upstarts about the original Star Trek’s being a direct spin-off of Bonanza. Captain Kirk, clearly, was the patriarchal Ben Cartwright, and his elite entourage was the band of “sons” with widely differing characters and levels of maturity. The transporter beam provided hooves and horsepower to penetrate each new planet’s Indian reservation or den of thieves. To say that Mr. Sulu was the Chinese cook Hop-Sing would probably be a bridge too far; but the Enterprise gang did, in fact, join Wyatt Earp at the OK Corral in one episode.
The Enterprise’s crew limbers up for a gunfight at the OK Corral.
These absurdities spoke to the times, to be sure. Americans still viewed themselves as self-asserting individuals; and if they thought of space travel at all, they cast it in images of The Way West (“space: the final frontier” was a phrase also poured over each Trek episode’s signature christening). The Enterprise, granted, had standing orders not to interfere in whatever planetary cultures it might encounter—as if the mere appearance of a starship would not permanently alter a primitive belief system. We Americans seem to have carried well into the twenty-first century the same naive notion that we can beam our soldiers into alien settings, do a good deed, and beam away again without altering the cultural landscape. The pioneers didn’t really think that their farms, which claimed only “unused” land, did the native peoples any harm, either.
So just how accurate is the Bonanza version of self-defense as we contemplate the future? Merely from a technical standpoint, it is of course ridiculous (and Luke Skywalker’s comet-sword is so, a fortiori). The very essence of technology is to reduce reliance upon the individual user’s skill. Weapons of the future must be no less effective in the klutz’s hands than in the black-belt shootist’s. (Indeed, the Colt .45 was popularly dubbed the “equalizer” because, with one in hand, a man no longer had to be big and strong to stand his ground.) If star-travelers of the future have personal weapons at all, then, these must be virtually self-operating. Perhaps the user will flip down an eyepiece, which will read the point where he rivets his gaze for three seconds and then discharge a laser as he flicks his eyeball up to the red “fire” button. A child could do it. A child, for that matter, could pick off the galactic high command one by one if he were hiding under a tablecloth.
And herein lies the problem. One might formulate that the potential dangers of any defensive technology used abusively are directly proportional to its foreseen advantages. What happens if a child—or a psychopath—does indeed gain possession of the monocle-laser? How many stalwart peace-officers must be lost before the rampage ends? No doubt, human beings will always perceive a need for force; but a specific instrument of force, capable of being physically removed from its proper setting, becomes ever more troublesome as the technology of force becomes more sophisticated. The imaginative solution floated in The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise version) is that the biggest of ray-guns, manned by robots whose programming is tamper-proof, will cleanly, instantly annihilate any planet’s inhabitants whose misbehavior rises to unacceptable levels. In other words, disarm every soft-tissued being permanently, and let a robot be judge, jury, and executioner.
This solution is naive from several perspectives (e.g., anything that can be programmed can be reprogrammed); yet it credibly follows the vector of modern thinking on the subject. The probable twenty-second century answer to the question of force is apt to deal out irrevocable destruction upon its target once activated and to do so in an antiseptic, almost low-key manner (resulting in “ethnectomy”, one might say: surgical removal of an entire people). Major political powers have been covertly playing with Extremely Low Frequency Waves (yielding the exquisite acronym, ELF Waves) for about two decades now. The idea is to bounce the waves off the stratosphere from immense transmitter-stations in such as way as to affect the global circulation of weather systems. Potentially, an adversary population could be flooded or starved into submission. China, Russia, and the US all have such stations. One must wonder just how much of our peculiar weather in recent years is owed to the “sighting in” of these wave-blasters—as our leaders, all the while, lecture us about the impact of our lifestyle upon climate.
Our leaders—the wise ones, the Mandarins, the central nervous ganglion, the brain: here we find the counterpoise to the rogue lunatic with a ray-gun. Quis custodes custodiet? If only Starfleet Command can be trusted to dispense force at the right time and in the right measure, then who will watch over Starfleet Command? And if the perceived solution is to deliver such decisions into the circuitry of a master-computer, how confident are we that an inhuman, inorganic data-processing machine—though it be the most elaborate thing of its kind ever created—can handle all possible contingencies as we would like? Or are we, precisely, trying to disarm and neutralize our “likes”—do we now (or will we soon) view our own humanity as inferior and dangerous?
The way that we address the issue of personal self-defense today, I repeat, must determine the answer to such broader questions tomorrow. If the individual is not worth defending, as a mere tiny appendage upon the vast body of a starship fleet—or if he will have been programmed to believe that the High Command is his safest, surest defense, even though the threat looms imminent—then the implied value of individual contributions to other aspects of life will diminish incalculably. A man alone who defends his life with his own resources regards himself as worth keeping around: the same man who waits for an impersonal data bank to deliver help has accepted that The Collective can and should deploy him as it chooses. The former writes poetry that only he could write, paints watercolors that only he could paint, conceives of a bridge that no one else would conceive of. The latter can be replicated in any lab where they assemble sophisticated robots.
3) Incidental Biochemical Changes
If the two previous wild cards lurking in our destiny’s deck come quickly to the top after any shuffle—and are even the source of loud controversy these days—the next factor is indeed a mystery card. In particular cases, it has brought human begins to their graves without its presence ever having been suspected. No one really understood the durability and toxicity of nuclear fallout when the bombs that ended World War II were dropped: the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project were themselves taken by surprise. No one divined the risks of working around asbestos before a sequence of untimely, painful deaths illustrated them years later. No one fully grasped the liabilities of pesticides until after many seasons of liberal use. No one thought that a connection between automobile exhaust and emphysema might evolve years after we had overhauled our cities to cater to car traffic. To this day, we cannot seem to obtain impartial, non-politicized assessments about the possible effects of such pollutants upon climate—but we readily believe, in the wake of so many other unpleasant surprises, that significant effects might exist. And so we race to embrace solar power, blissfully unaware (once again) that the “rare earth elements” used in coating solar panels create “cancer villages” (as they are locally known) in the Third World nations that permit such toxic substances to be mined; or at the very least, we lurch more insistently toward electronic sources of power, as if the less visible forms of energy must be less malign.
A few short years ago, an urban legend circulated that homeowners through whose back yards ran large power lines were falling prey to cancer at unnatural rates. Similar claims were made about frequent cell-phone users and brain cancer. Studies have since dismissed these fears for the most part; yet persistent anecdotal evidence continues to unnerve many, and the role often played by “scientific studies” in covering up threats posed by hazardous by-products while this or that industry keeps on marketing its toxins has left us all rather cynical. Forewarned is not always forearmed, however. Whistle-blowing can itself become an industry: there is money to be made by convincing people that one commodity will shorten their lives if a “harmless” alternative can be hawked in its place.
And so the manipulation proceeds apace. I have made no secret in other publications of my own suspicion that our environment is being saturated around the clock with electromagnetic radiation—and I mean our home environment, even our kitchens and bedrooms. Of any relatively new technology, we should remember two commonplaces before perching it on our rib cage or sticking it in our mouths: 1) dangerous side-effects are almost always unforeseeable—we not only lack sufficient keenness of vision to look far down the road, but we also don’t know which road to look down; and 2) the specialists on whose judgment we are increasingly forced to rely as technology grows ever more arcane can be bought or browbeaten by entities with conflicting interests. Our march into high-tech progress is inevitably a walk through a mine field.
With such anxiety astir even when we consider developments of the past few decades, how could we possibly predict what state our descendants will be in as they disembark upon an alien planet? All the many Star Trek generations manage to happen only upon planets with breathable, healthy oxygen, of course (and with inhabitants who speak English); but when our own air here on Earth has grown so undependable, what chance does our species have of breathing more freely on Zarkon? Since our real-life space traveler will almost certainly have to wear something like an aqua-lung and/or consume pills that neutralize atmospheric toxins, will his “success” in hostile surroundings not move bright minds to argue that it should be replicated here on Earth? Will we or our descendants, that is, not be popping more pills in the future as an alternative to demanding cleaner air?
Quite apart from any given planet’s unique bacteria and poisons, what alterations would these space-pioneers have endured while in transit? We already know that astronauts must be elaborately protected from radiation once the earth’s atmosphere no longer shields them, and also that something approaching terrestrial gravity must be generated in a space station if their bones are not to grow brittle. What other Band-aids must be applied to opening wounds? If these intrepid travelers are being dosed to reduce their sexual libido, what are the effects of being so dosed? If they absorb virtually all of their nourishment from pills and drinks, what are the long-term effects upon the human gut of relative inactivity? If they are negotiating the interstellar transit with the help of induced hibernation, what consequences does that state have later upon the waking organism? If they are given a drug just to get their night’s sleep, how many such drugs can they take, night after night?
For in space there is no day and no night, in terrestrial terms. Circadian rhythms will go topsy-turvy. Even with adequate sleep, how will the crew react to having no real sunlight, perhaps year after year? What about the effects of existing in the same honeycomb of corridors for months on end, knowing all the while that instant death awaits just beyond the humming walls? Will the walls hum? One imagines that the craft’s vast engines will create some background or other of steady noise. What psychological impact will this steady background have? What cost must be paid for never hearing a bird, never hearing complete silence, never hearing the same sounds within a variety of changing distances?
A certain amount of selective breeding—of genetic engineering—might precede the first long space ventures, and its reasoning could be primarily logistical. Size would clearly be a concern: smaller is better, on several counts. Hollywood will never recognize this, of course. Audiences like to “look up” to their epic heroes, so every generation of star-travelers that inherits the Enterprise seems taller and more strapping than the last. Sigourney Weaver, for that matter, is probably one of the tallest leading ladies in film history. Big bodies, however, consume more oxygen, more food, and more chair- and bunk-space. They are a distinct liability when vital resources are very precious. The so-called “grays” who, rumor has it, stalk from the UFO’s visiting our deserts and pastures regularly are never reckoned at much over three feet. This much, at least, has the ring of truth.
To be sure, deliberately engineered biological change would not qualify as incidental—but it could certainly produce incidents, and a chemical like adrenaline might be implicated in these. In other words, it could ruffle feathers. (I am assuming that the smaller body’s greater susceptibility to environmental stresses like extreme temperatures would pose few problems for technology, though in some sort of critical hardware failure the issue might arise.) The disparagement of short stature, especially in competitive situations requiring old-fashioned virtues like strength, appears to be instinctive in our species. If our future astronauts were dwarves, how might their marginal status among earthbound humans affect the attitude that they carried with them into space? Would they be generally viewed as an inferior race of lackeys—as trained dogs and dolphins are today by the military, perhaps, enjoying a “pet” status but not regarded as fully human? Would they therefore develop a compensatory kind of belligerence—a hair-trigger meant to reverse a dismissive first impression? Might not this acquired attribute jeopardize missions that demand tact? Or might our space dwarves, on the other hand, prove less than loyal servants to Mother Earth after she had bred them to be puny? Would they feel victimized, put upon? If asked to incubate the embryos of “normal” humans for transplantation onto new planets as colonists, would they balk at the task? Would they throw the babies out with the bathwater?
The problem is that we cannot know the problem—not before it appears starkly in our face, full-blown and perhaps lethal. This is true today, right now, in all of our relationships with sophisticated technology. Covering up symptoms with medication so that body and mind seem to continue plugging along for a while is one kind of risk: we almost always find, of course, that the day of reckoning has only been postponed. But what about problems that crop up too suddenly to be medicated—psychological problems, especially? In the tight quarters of a spaceship, an emotional eruption might ignite a catastrophic chain-reaction throughout the crew. One person says one word too many, or just the word that another person doesn’t want to hear; a fight breaks out, other crewmen take sides… not a recipe for success.
We know stress all too well from our terrestrial routine of navigating rush hours, answering electronic prompts instantly, multi-tasking without ever having a free ten minutes all day to get up and stroll… in some ways, we have already created a spacecraft environment around ourselves. Many such perils involve not the positive activity—the presence—of a toxin or pollutant, but the negative activity—the absence—of a formerly routine circumstance taken too much for granted. The space traveler can prepare himself somewhat for the shock of entering a new and hostile environment… but how does he prepare himself for the realization that he will never again see his old home in recognizable form, even if he returns to Earth? How do we prepare ourselves for the same shock, as our cities devour the scenes where we grew up and the sites where our culture’s history roots?
The very real threat of psychological stress, especially, is yet another indicator that big-time space travelers will be more robot than human. The depression and irrational resentment that are almost certain to assail any thoughtful human being in such a setting will obtain no hold upon the artificial intelligence. Yet such freedom from “a bad day” must come at a cost. Precisely because so many of advanced technology’s drawbacks are unpredictable—precisely because the very nature of all this “miracle gear” is to thrust us into situations never known to anyone before—creativity will be essential for survival. Just how creative is a robot capable of being? The well-groomed, level-headed cyber-denizens of this warp-drive wonderland may find that they can live neither with us nor without us.
By that time, however, we may have come to resemble them so much that we, too, will no longer “suffer the anguish” of an active imagination. For as we make our own planet more alien to common humanity, disorientation and alienation will grow more frequent and intense; and as they do so, we will seek relief more keenly in whatever kind of “deprogramming” or “disengagement” liberates us from the torture.
Marvin the Paranoid Android (of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame) demonstrates the inconvenience of personality in space travel, his makers having imprudently endowed him with human-like bouts of depression. “Life… hate it!”
4) Existential Panic
Several of the hypothetical situations above involving stress might be thought to represent panic. This would be a mistake, or at least a misunderstanding of how I intend the word. A space traveler nagged by insomnia, irritated that his attractive co-pilot is cold-shouldering him, and frustrated that he can’t get away for a long walk might erupt into an irrational outburst. Behavior of such a sort could indeed be traced largely to various chemical imbalances, though we may like to think of it as the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling. What I have in mind presently is much more on the order of an attitude, and almost a philosophy. It abides in suppressed form, this emotional transport, asserting itself with particular force at particular moments. Call it fear of the void, or perhaps chasmophobia. Certainly the view out any window of the spacecraft would be filled with vast black nothingness, the pinpricks of starlight only emphasizing the abyss in which they float. Like any phobia, this one could be controlled through will power much of the time; yet its spring would always be coiled, and a careless or overwrought emotional state indulged for an instant could suffice to unleash a kind of swoon—a vertigo of values in utter chaos.
Does the scenario seem melodramatic? Should we smile at the suggestion that seasoned pilots highly trained in the applied sciences would have constantly to fight down a creeping terror on the margin of their consciousness? I think not, considering how visible such a state is here on Planet Earth. Throughout my lifetime, I have often been struck by how many respected scientific minds lurch shamelessly into a degrading mysticism without apparent motivation, belying their proclaimed values and grasping at windblown dtraws. Carl Sagan was perhaps the most spectacular of these. His groundbreaking television documentary Cosmos was a kind of De Rerum Natura for the Seventies generation, meticulously detailing how matter has labored to create everything we see, and everything we can and will ever see. Yet the final segments of the serial inexplicably opted to revere in Hindu cosmology a source of truth as valid and profound, it seemed, as science. I do not mean to imply that belief in the Hindu system degrades an intelligent mind, but rather to observe that an exponent of the scientific worldview betrays his calling when—as a scientist—he retreats to such a system. For that matter, the Roman Epicurean Lucretius’s lyrical hymn to Venus in the otherwise atheistic opus cited above belongs to the same category of betrayal. A materialist who presumes to advise us that all reality may be materially explained has no business jumping ship when the Mayan calendar or the stellar orientation of Stonehenge passes close by. If science can explain everything, then let it explain these curiosities, as well.
Why do such people do such things? Another, much more recent documentary on the Discovery Channel titled The Pyramid Code rightly calls into question how Egyptologists date and attribute function to the ancient pyramids. Indeed, the basic matter of how so many huge stones could have been moved for miles and then hefted high up has never been answered. Here as in the case of Stonehenge, the distinct possibility exists that electromagnetic radiation was tapped in a mysterious but highly effective manner. Anyone who attends the evidence is forced to conclude that ancient Egyptians were far more advanced than we moderns, with our arrogant assumption of history’s having steadily scaled to our present lofty plateau of enlightenment, are willing to grant.
So be it: point taken, and very well made. Why, though, the need to conclude this series, too, by implying that ancient Egyptians and Mayan priests and various other shamanic cultures successfully read the book of history by studying the stars—that they were true “erchomenologists”, in fact, and that the entire path of our species is mapped out deterministically in the Milky Way? What in the world are these people smoking?
According to Andrew Collins in The Cygnus Mystery, Sagan was smoking marihuana, as was Francis Crick when a vision of the yet undiscovered DNA double helix appeared to him. Collins’s book chimes in, arguing that our distant alien progenitors must have embedded knowledge of themselves and the broader universe in our “junk DNA” which is released when we “get high”. The insights Collins provides into the alignment of the most ancient human structures ever unearthed with significant stellar objects are welcome. Yet why, I repeat, the unmotivated odyssey to Lotos Land?
The frequency with which good scientific minds “defect” to fantastical, cultic beliefs is so pronounced that one cannot dismiss it as an aberration. One may even dare to propose that the defection happens not in spite of scientific training, but because of it. The empirical mind, having once boxed itself into a manner of viewing reality which allows no god to descend into the machine on any metaphysical contraption, appears to grow claustrophobic at some point (for the flip-side of void-phobia may well be its opposite: the abyss threatens because the box that preceded it squeezed). Perhaps, too, a kind of vanity is involved: perhaps the scientist, having found that his analysis never manages to solve the ultimate questions, would rather crown his work with irrationality than admit that he had never really taken the problem’s full measurements. At any rate, this climactic thrill of the whirling dervish should not surprise us if it happens to break forth in a cosmic investigation’s critical moments. And if we are trying to predict the probable course of our species’ expansion into the stars, it should probably scare us.
The delirium I have described may seem more like ecstasy than panic (though panic, classically speaking, is a variety of ecstasy). In a Starfleet officer more pedestrian than Carl Sagan, however, it might indeed manifest as “the shakes”. Popular representations of space travel, it appears to me, have fared miserably at visualizing the psychological impact of being very far—interminably far—from home in a cramped artificial environment surrounded by a vacuum at absolute zero and embarked on a mission to do… to do what? What could possibly justify such sacrifice, once one is actually paying it out with the prime of one’s life? Yet I do not want to lead this imaginary drama back in the direction of chronic depression, for we have considered that. A pill and rest might do the trick on a bad day. No; once again, the psychic state I am struggling to represent would be steady. It would forever seek an answer, consciously or unconsciously, to the question, “Why?”
If human beings do not believe in a metaphysical system which ranks moral duty as the supreme motive of any mission (which explains, “Why this trip to Alpha Centauri?” for instance, with the answer, “To do good for other beings”), then drifting through the void may inspire them with some very weird ideas. The double helix or a code hidden in junk DNA will be the least of these. If I were myself writing a science-fiction story, it would seek a precedent at this point, not in the cave of an Inca shaman, but in the madness of Pizarro’s lieutenant, Aguirre (powerfully portrayed in Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God). Leading his men deeper and deeper into the alien terrain of Amazonia until they all perish, Aguirre is driven by more than fantasies of gold. He imagines himself perched on a throne from which he will rule half the globe and siring an eternal dynasty upon his daughter (who has incredibly been dragged along with the expedition). Once we fancy ourselves visited by little gray aliens acting as angels—once our fevered brains suppose that a force beyond good and evil has whispered a message empowering any elite ear that can hear it—then all the atrocities of hell may break loose. Why should a mind drunk on stars hesitate to vaporize one small planet’s idiot population that refuses to get with the program?
Should such sick delirium be awaiting our descendants in deep space, then we really would be better off—morally better—sending robots. Our nightmarish twentieth century has graphically illustrated what a despotic leader is capable of who has staggering technical abilities to destroy and, in a panic over the godless universe’s emptiness, elects himself fill the vacant role. Whether this type is more Aguirre or more Klatu’s robotic annihilator Gort, he isn’t functionally human. So… so perhaps star-crazed ecstasy and robotic nullity are the same thing, and it will make no difference in the future whether the finger on the trigger is flesh or kryptonite.
Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) loses patience with one of an alien world’s disrespectful inhabitants in his mad quest of gold and empire.
Conclusion: Our Future May Not Be Our Own
Perhaps my comments strike some as the alarmist pessimism of a typical enemy of progress. Sexual morals (these critics may protest) have always been somewhat fluent in modern societies, susceptible to sudden shifts as an economy or a mass-residential arrangement or a religious/ethnic factor changes. The parameters of self-defense are being hotly contested right now, and opposed advocates are clearly not awaiting any new direction from the Space Age to stake their claims. An equilibrium will emerge when certain disruptive elements settle down. We know, too, all about the lurking hazards of a highly artificial environment, even if we do not know the particular threat inherent in the latest artifice. A low-grade rasp of existential terror—or of “the jitters”, at any rate—is fully audible in high-tech societies already, as well. Space travel should reduce rather than feed such anxiety. Give it time: we’ll get everything right.
I doubt it. The very confidence inspired in us by our advanced lifestyle that every little problem can be solved, it seems to me, renders us impatient with small setbacks and traumatized by major disasters. In the back of many minds (and I speak for myself without apology) flits the constant suspicion that the gizmos and gadgetry ever less familiar to most of us—and yet ever more responsible for our basic survival—will malfunction without a trained technician within reach. No words are less welcome to the neurotic twenty-first citizen than, “Nothing could possibly go wrong”; for what these words imply is that the technicians themselves won’t know where to begin when the whole system collapses.
If I have focused my lens upon distant planets, then, it was not to raise the specter of problems that do not now exist, but precisely to dramatize how several current problems whose existence we scarcely bother to notice may come clear as the clock runs forward. By that time, in fact, they will no longer be problems; for clarity is beholden to fixity, and a fixed condition is unlikely to be unstitched for examination by the dull authorities who “fixed” it. (“Where there is no solution, there is no problem,” Russell Kirk once observed pithily.) I don’t suppose the sanguine defenders of unbridled progress will disagree with me that Hollywood and popular culture have absurdly misrepresented our future in space. The onus thereupon shifts to them to demonstrate in what way my warnings have sounded a false alarm. Or is it not alarming to reflect that our great-great-grandchildren may be wholly unrecognizable to us; or though they may remain similar physically, that their habits may seem to us those of well-organized insects?
The same popular culture’s recent saturation with “zombies” and “walking dead” suggests to me that, at a subliminal level, we already dread what may be coming. If we ought not to dread it, then why ought we not? Is it because, as Ray Kurzweil answered Bill Joy, the life of a robot isn’t really so bad? Or is it because (and this is really another version of the same answer) we could not resist our own technological evolution if we wanted to—that we are hard-wired, as a species, to keep moving in one direction?
But this amounts to saying, contradictorily, that the nature of human nature is to change its foundations—whereas the truth, I believe, is paradoxical: i.e., the nature of human nature is to crave fundamental change. Our species will always want to be something superior to what it is, but it will only ever manage—thanks to this embedded and destructive discontent—to make itself less than its finest moment. In striving to become a race of constantly pleasured immortals who know no strife, we may at last make of ourselves a hive of neutered bees whose bloated queen lives forever on the collective’s innumerable, endlessly replaced corpses.
For the exploration of space, like any other high-tech enterprise, will call for increasing centralization of control and diminishing tolerance of the eccentric: zombies, with their lock-step movements, would prove very efficient operatives on a space station. Parts must mesh: participants must be on the same page. Who would design a project to colonize Mars where two teams pursued radically different strategies without any effort at coordination? With so much expense invested in adventures so far away and having so many scarcely known variables, the only sane approach would be to achieve consensus among our most brilliant designers and prepare together for the most likely scenarios.
Personally, I am most worried by the possibility that this common-sense mechanization of effort will be taken as prescriptive of the path which earthbound humans should be following. I have striven to show that we are in fact following it already; but further success in a narrowly technical endeavor such as colonizing planets, far from warning us of undesirable cultural change, will be accepted by most as proof of the change’s worthiness. In other words, we may end up allowing—or not allowing—individuals here among us to defend themselves with ray-guns based upon what we would allow a space explorer to do on Planet M-89. If we design a Martian outpost where colonists have robotic sexual partners because it seems to make sense “out there”, then we will likely adopt the same lifestyle “down here” because it’s obviously the “progressive” way to go. Technology dictates our culture nowadays: it does not ward off threats to that culture or create havens where culture may be infused. When the pioneers settled the West, they slowly but surely imported Eastern ways. Now our technological pioneers determine how we live by transmitting back to us their practices on the frontier.
I have grave misgivings about our ability to distinguish between what’s needed on the galactic frontier, where robotic behavior is probably the securest means to the desired end, and what’s fitting for civilized human beings. We very well may come to imitate our robots as zealously as youths once imitated their parents.
I do not want to live in that brave new world—and it’s pretty clear that Captain Kirk, as little use as I had for his cowboy-in-tights act, didn’t want to, either. Most of us, among the low-tech masses, are still attracted to space travel by its prospect of “elbow room”: of opportunities, that is, to be creative individuals in a setting where our behavior will not be micromanaged. If I have demonstrated nothing else in this discussion, I hope that I have convinced the reader of the “galactic playground” paradigm’s utter folly. Hollywood couldn’t be more wrong. Space will become a scene of the most rigid regimentation should we succeed in probing it further. If our notion, therefore, is to recover somewhere in the night’s billions of stars those freedoms and that human dignity which we have squandered here on earth, we are cruising at warp-speed toward a very bitter disappointment.
John R, Harris is the founder and current president of The Center for Literate Values. He is also a Senior Lecturer at the University of Texas at Tyler.