Sunday, January 25, 2015

Prisoners of the Atom

We wanted Pluto, We Got Plutocracy

Watching that 2001 promotional video was extremely poignant because it was yet another reminder of all the expectations we no longer have. 
In the 1960s, hundreds of thousands of people were employed- mostly in the state of California- in and around the space program. These were very good paying jobs that raised families in middle class comfort, creating a new gold rush to a new California dream.
Today, California leads America into a new feudal nightmare, a bifurcated garrison state in which a small cognitive elite sit atop a vast ocean of poverty. It's become so segregated by class that most upper class Californians have no idea their state is the poorest in the nation.
It all began to fall apart in the early 1970s, as the Apollo program ended and NASA's sights were set ever lower.  Thousands of jobs were lost, beginning a middle class exodus from California that continues to this day.
Apollo skeptics have gleefully pointed out the fact that every mission since the moon landings were low earth orbit shuttle missions, the proverbial walk around the block in outer space terms. 
But the incredible cost (and danger) of space in relation to benefit- and the bludgeoning recession and oil shocks of the 1970s- made the numbing yet practical (someone has to maintain all those spy satellites) shuttle program a gimme for Congress.
Now Internet billionaire Elon Musk is trying to rekindle the old rocket flames. His SpaceX startup has been making a fool of NASA and has become the hottest name in rocket technology. Others are following his lead, most notably Amazon honcho Jeff Bezos. 
Musk realizes that you have to do something with all that hardware so he proposes a Mars mission with all the Red Bull-fueled gumption of a Silicon Valley startup.
"I'm hopeful that the first people could be taken to Mars in 10 to 12 years, I think it's certainly possible for that to occur," he said. "But the thing that matters long term is to have a self-sustaining city on Mars, to make life multiplanetary." 
He acknowledged that the company's plans were too long-term to attract many hedge fund managers, which makes it hard for SpaceX to go public anytime soon.

But there's a force not even a Valley whizkid can resist and that's the power of entropy. We are so used to rapid-fire technological and scientific progress, we're not going to know what to do now that the rate of progress is beginning to slow. 
Some believe we've picked all the low-hanging fruit, that all the big, flashy breakthroughs have been made and now humanity is like late-period REM or U2, continuing to record and tour long after the blockbusters have come and gone, watching the audience age, watching the returns diminish.
Kirby predicts Google, 1958
I recently read Jacques Vallee's memoirs of his time during the heady days of Silicon Valley and it was shocking to me how much of the great gizmos we see as novelties were all in prototype long before most of you were born. 
What is touted as the apple of the American economy these days? Well, there's Facebook, which is nothing more than a souped-up America Online, which itself was just a fancier version of the dial-up BBS systems in use since the 60s. 
We've all seen the videos from the 60s, showing off the prototypes of the Internet as we know it today. 40 years ago Silicon Valley was putting the basic architecture into place. What are they doing out there today? Besides creating hedge fund pirateware and Facebook games, I mean?
2015 looks nothing like I imagined it would when I was a kid. But we didn't realize that gravity, entropy--and rapacity-- would all get such a megaphone in the debate. 
Another Internet whiz kid, Peter Thiel, has diagnosed the problem- we have had great success in the world of electrons, not so much in the world of atoms.
"We live in a financial and capitalist age, not a scientific or technological age," investor Peter Thiel said at the Gartner Symposium in Orlando yesterday, echoing themes he has been talking about for several years now. 
In the 50s and 60s, science and technology meant not only computers, but also space, underwater cities, energy, nuclear power, etc. Now, he said, when we talk about technology, we pretty much just mean computer technology. 
He doesn't question that we're doing great things in the Internet and in mobile, and that's enough to dramatically improve business efficiency.  But he reiterated the subtitle manifesto of his Founder's Fund: "We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters." That's not meant as a critique of Twitter as a company, but "it's not clear it's enough to bring our civilization to the next level," he said.
This speaks to a theme I've been banging on all along. Just because something exists on paper, doesn't mean it exists off of it. Science fiction films conditioned us to expect a lot of great things that required expenditures of resources that simply made them untenable. Star Trek can't exist without energy and lightspeed travel that goes way beyond most physicist's wildest speculations.

And then there is the inconvenient fact that after a long period of technological stasis (the 17th Century AD isn't all that technology dissimilar to the 17th Century BC), we had a burst of creativity, but now the default setting of 'painfully slow, incremental progress' seems to be reasserting itself.
Air travel is nearly identical today as it was in the 1960s- in fact many 1960s airframes are still in use. Some cars drive themselves, some use electricity, but they don't fly. Hovercraft are not consumer products. Pops doesn't take the minicopter to work every day. There are some very interesting bullet and maglev trains out there, but that's old technology and most commuter trains still use diesel or electric engines.
Some of the futuristic technology that does make it to market fails simply because it offers an awkward consumer experience- Google Glass has been discontinued, for instance. Others- such as virtual reality- require such labor-intensive market prep that they become financially untenable.
You may have noticed you don't hear much about Transhumanism lately. Again, another case of concept failing when it came to the application stage. The Singularity may well come, but unless major breakthroughs are made, breakthroughs that require sums of money there's no evidence are being spent, it will come and go without us. 
Who really wants to go first when you think about, being carved up like a turkey in hopes of some promised digital immortality?
For the foreseeable future, we'll still be fragile bags of meat, subject to the same limitations- and not a few new ones- that our ancestors were. This probably helps to account for the continuing popularity of the superhero mythos, as well as the popularity of genres like urban fantasy, while science fiction itself recedes to a small and increasingly fractious priesthood. 
Hell, even the growing popularity of Gnosticism is a byproduct of the Atom's dictatorial rule. I mean, they called it first, didn't they?
How to deal with the tyranny of the Atom is going to be a major conundrum. It's going to take the best minds of the future to overcome, and it probably won't be an elective debate. I think circumstances will force us to confront these issues once and for all. We haven't changed our basic, workaday technology- not really- because it's been easier not to. 
That most likely will not be an option in the near future.

UPDATE: Well, we're getting Pluto. After a fashion.


  1. Post reminded me of what RA Wilson pointed out about WHY California became so tech/space industry-heavy--civilization had its stirrings in China and spread in a westerly direction, across Asia, across the Middle East, across. Europe, across the Atlantic, across America. When it reached California, there was nowhere else to go but UP. --Johnny Walsh

    1. Which direction is it going in now? I think space will become a going concern when the economics work out; when rare earths start running out here and are found on asteroids, when helium deposits are found on the moon, etc...

  2. As always a keen insight and analysis of the failure of modern science and the broken promises of technology. Also, a bitter reminder of our own short attention spans as it pertains to the expectations of science and technology. I am reminded of stone age shamans who tracked the movements of the celestial bodies, enabling accurate predictions of solstice, equinox, eclipses, planetary alignments etc. They had the time, patioence and wherewithal to undertake such assignments, over generations. Modern life is punctuated with a marked detachment from nature and in fact reality, replaced with a fleeting and illusory infatuation with a shiny bauble of consumer electronics.

    1. There's also another interesting dimension and that's the forgotten science of knowledge keeping that was developed in antiquity and served us quite well. Libraries and library systems that all got washed away with the rise of hypertext. But there's a human dimension that's being lost, the ability of the human mind to store and process huge amounts of information. Our machines get smarter, we get dumber.

  3. I don’t know any survivalists and I doubt anyone I know does either- The two world wars in my opinion finally severed the common man’s relationship with the land- Mega deaths and displacement has made us all dependent on electricity and the gadgets that harness it- We live or die by it- That said, living here in Frisco, I wonder if the trans-humanist agenda’s waning you’ve claimed will affect the rampant androgenization of youth I see everyday; a marketing scheme which is promoted heavily in the consumer culture- If haute couture goes retro and actually exploits the differences between genders then maybe I’ll throw a singularity party rather than put fresh water in my old Y2K bunker-

    1. Androgyny and youth culture have gone hand in hand for a long time. You notice it when you are outside of it. Remember songs from the 60s like "Are You a Boy or Are you a Girl" or the 70s like "Rebel Rebel." San Francisco is an outlier in everything nowadays, atypical in everything since it's almost finished evolving into a playground/bedsit for the extreme hyperprivileged, who have their own folkways.

  4. But it seems like you're discounting big business' role in this. For example, 100 years ago, you could choose from an array of cars powered by different sources (steam, electric, gas, some version of kinetic), but thanks to lobbying, the cost to play for newcomers and ones already extant became way too great. Similarly, my state of Colorado is 70% powered by coal. The ability to erect wind and solar farms exist, and if they didn't replace the current energy bill, it'd greatly reduce both it and it's noxious output. And while faster internet isn't exactly ground breaking, America's is among the slowest in the world (among countries that have the internet), and that's thanks in large part to the strangle hold Comcast and Verizon have on our communications market.

    You also talk about the creative stalemate that ended in the 1700s. By "creative stalemate" do you mean "the authoritative power structure that murdered anyone who suggested it hadn't already achieved earthly perfection"?

    I guess I'm saying that your post pins all these limitations on the physical when it I feel it's obvious all these limitations have been imposed on us by these power structures. I don't think we'd have warp drive right now, but if it weren't for lobbyists and special interests and entrenched bureaucrats, I have no doubt our world wouldn't feel at least 2 or 3 times more science fiction.

    1. Where did I write about a "creative stalemate that ended in the 1700s?" Why are you using quotes around a term I never used in the post?

  5. Transhumanism a failure? Hahahaha if you only knew.

  6. Hello Chris,

    Great Knowledge Share as Always. I'm a long time reader but first time making a comment to any of your Secret Sun posts. This article is definitely a Fin de si├Ęcle of a western Zeitgeist if I ever read one. There's two or three images this article brought to mind the first being the “Ventue Brothers” the dark comedy on Cartoon Network that's a long exegesis about the failings of the promises of the space age and other promises of modernity (I need to start watching that show more carefully now).

    Your article also invokes another “Jacque” in mind particularly “Jacque Fresco” of the alternative designed living Venus Project. I liked the idea of a holistic society using computer-aided design in which all people will be provided for on Earth, and followed them for awhile on Facebook. However, some disturbing resonance began to surface within the members or followers of that project and I stopped following the Venus Project. Now, to be fair obviously my interactions with some of the members of the Venus Project has biased me but after reading your article it finally crystallized what seemed so off. I'm not accusing Fresco of being “Illuninati agent” or “controlled opposition those terms get throw around to easily nowadays, but that doesn't negate the existence of such persons acting in that capacity. I realized The Venus Project is potentially a dystopian nightmare waiting to happen much akin to “Logan's Run” or more modern inspired adaptions like the teen film “Divergent”.

    I would like to end this comment on a hopeful note but it look like Kali Yuga is still in full effect and has to run her course one way or another.

  7. Our masters are educated barbarians whose wet dream is a global dark age. Where those of us that unfortunately are still alive will be used as beast of burden, spare parts to keep these degenerates alive. So they can torture their victims to their evil delight. By the way the twenty first century was murdered on November 22,1963 in Dealley Plaza Dallas.

  8. Our economy is increasingly dominated by people who don't care what they invest in as long as it has a high return. Innovation is risky and often has low returns for a long time, if ever. A company that feels its main job is to give as much as possible to investors isn't going to try anything new. That, combined with the current contempt for big government (another source of basic research and technology development) guarantees that the pace of material progress will slow to a crawl.

  9. I am convinced catastrophe is the mother of all Great Change and invention. Consider the radical changes not only in technology, but politically, socially and culturally that followed quickly after WW2. It's by avoiding Great Depressions and chaos that relative stability is maintained and real change is avoided. Keep in mind Otto Von Bismarck invented the social safety net and it was not because he was a futurist. Only after another disaster will there be the possibility of a positive change that might lead to a higher human society. I suspect history may spiral with its rises and falls, gradually rising over great amounts of time. Of course, in the interim, millions die. It helps to be a stoic.