Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The slow road to the stars

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In the 1980 edition of The Whole Earth Catalog, which is one of the two or three books that I’d bring with me to a desert island, or to the moon, the editor Stewart Brand devotes three pages toward the beginning to the subject of space colonies. Most of the section is taken up by an essay, “The Sky Starts at Your Feet,” in which Brand relates why he took such an interest in an idea that seemed far removed from the hippie concerns with which his book—fairly or not—had always been associated. And his explanation is a fascinating one:

What got me interested in space colonies a few years ago was a chance remark by a grade school teacher. She said that most of her kids expected to live in space. All their lives they’d been seeing Star Trek and American and Russian space activities and drew the obvious conclusions. Suddenly I felt out of it. A generation that grew up with space, I realized, was going to lead to another generation growing up in space. Where did that leave me?

On the next page, Brand draws an even more explicit connection between space colonization and the rise of science fiction in the mainstream: “Most science fiction readers—there are estimated to be two million avid ones in the U.S.—are between the ages of 12 and 26. The first printing for a set of Star Trek blueprints and space cadet manual was 450,000. A Star Trek convention in Chicago drew 15,000 people, and a second one a few weeks later drew 30,000. They invited NASA officials and jammed their lectures.”

This sense of a growing movement left a huge impression on Brand, whose career as an activist had started with a successful campaign to get NASA to release the first picture of the whole earth taken from space. He concludes: “For these kids there’s been a change in scope. They can hold the oceans of the world comfortably in their minds, like large lakes. Space is the ocean now.” And he clearly understands that his real challenge will be to persuade a slightly older cohort of “liberals and environmentalists”—his own generation—to sign on. In typical fashion, Brand doesn’t stress just the practical side, but the new modes of life and thought that space colonization would require. Here’s my favorite passage:

In deemphasizing the exotic qualities of life in space [Gerard] O’Neill is making a mistake I think. People want to go not because it may be nicer than what they have on earth but because it will be harder. The harshness of space will oblige a life-and-death reliance on each other which is the sort of thing that people romanticize and think about endlessly but seldom get to do. This is where I look for new cultural ideas to emerge. There’s nothing like an impossible task to pare things down to essentials—from which comes originality. You can only start over from basics, and, once there, never quite in the same direction as before.

Brand also argues that the colonization project is “so big and so slow and so engrossing” that it will force the rest of civilization to take everything more deliberately: “If you want to inhabit a moon of Jupiter—that’s a reasonable dream now—one of the skills you must cultivate is patience. It’s not like a TV set or a better job—apparently cajolable from a quick politician. Your access to Jupiter has to be won—at its pace—from a difficult solar system.”

And the seemingly paradoxical notion of slowing down the pace of society is a big part of why Brand was so drawn to O’Neill’s vision of space colonies. Brand had lived through a particularly traumatic period in what the business writer Peter Drucker called “the age of discontinuity,” and he expressed strong reservations about the headlong rush of societal change:

The shocks of this age are the shocks of pace. Change accelerates around us so rapidly that we are strangers to our own pasts and even more to our futures. Gregory Bateson comments, “I think we could have handled the industrial revolution, given five hundred years.” In one hundred years we have assuredly not handled it…I feel serene when I can comfortably encompass two weeks ahead. That’s a pathological condition.

Brand’s misgivings are remarkably similar to what John W. Campbell was writing in Astounding in the late thirties: “The conditions [man] tries to adjust to are going to change, and change so darned fast that he never will actually adjust to a given set of conditions. He’ll have to adjust in a different way: he’ll adjust to an environment of change.” Both Brand and Campbell also believed, in the words of the former, that dealing with this challenge would somehow involve “the move of some of humanity into space.” It would force society as a whole to slow down, in a temporal equivalent of the spatial shift in perspective that environmentalists hoped would emerge from the first photos of the whole earth. Brand speaks of it as a project on the religious scale, and he closes: “Space exploration is grounded firmly on the abyss. Space is so impossible an environment for us soft, moist creatures that even with our vaulting abstractions we will have to move carefully, ponderously into that dazzling vacuum. The stars can’t be rushed. Whew, that’s a relief.”

Four decades later, it seems clear that the movement that Brand envisioned never quite materialized, although it also never really went away. Part of this has to do with the fact that many members of the core audience of The Whole Earth Catalog turned out to be surprisingly hostile to the idea. (Tomorrow, I’ll be taking a look at Space Colonies, a special issue of the magazine CoEvolution Quarterly that captures some of the controversy.) But the argument for space colonization as a means of applying the brakes to the relentless movement of civilization seems worth reviving, simply because it feels so counterintuitive. It certainly doesn’t seem like part of the conversation now. We’ve never gotten rid of the term “space race,” which is more likely to be applied these days to the perceived competition between private companies, as in a recent article in The New Yorker, in which Nicholas Schmidle speaks of Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic as three startups “racing to build and test manned rockets.” When you privatize space, the language that you use to describe it inevitably changes, along with the philosophical challenges that it evokes. A recent book on the subject is titled The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos, which returns to the colonial terminology that early opponents of O’Neill’s ideas found so repellent. The new space race seems unlikely to generate the broader cultural shift that Brand envisioned, largely because we’ve outsourced it to charismatic billionaires who seem unlikely to take anything slowly. But perhaps even the space barons themselves can sense the problem. In the years since he wrote “The Sky Starts at Your Feet,” Brand has moved on to other causes to express the need for mankind to take a longer view. The most elegant and evocative is the Clock of the Long Now, which is designed to keep time for the next ten thousand years. After years of development, it finally seems to be coming together, with millions of dollars of funding from a billionaire who will house it on land that he owns in Texas. His name is Jeff Bezos.

Quote of the Day

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In general one should understand more from a rapid reading of the manuscript than can ever be expressed by explanations.

László Moholy-Nagy, “Remarks for Those Who Refuse to Understand the Film Immediately”

Written by nevalalee

October 17, 2018 at 7:30 am

The planetary chauvinists

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In a profile in the latest issue of Wired, the journalist Steven Levy speaks at length with Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, about his dream of sending humans permanently into space. Levy was offered a rare glimpse into the operations of the Amazon founder’s spaceflight company, Blue Origin, but it came with one condition: “I had to promise that, before I interviewed [Bezos] about his long-term plans, I would watch a newly unearthed 1975 PBS program.” He continues:

So one afternoon, I opened my laptop and clicked on the link Bezos had sent me. Suddenly I was thrust back into the predigital world, where viewers had more fingers than channels and remote shopping hadn’t advanced past the Sears catalog. In lo-res monochrome, a host in suit and tie interviews the writer Isaac Asimov and physicist Gerard O’Neill, wearing a cool, wide-lapeled blazer and white turtleneck. To the amusement of the host, O’Neill describes a future where some ninety percent of humans live in space stations in distant orbits of the blue planet. For most of us, Earth would be our homeland but not our home. We’d use it for R&R, visiting it as we would a national park. Then we’d return to the cosmos, where humanity would be thriving like never before. Asimov, agreeing entirely, called resistance to the concept “planetary chauvinism.”

The discussion, which was conducted by Harold Hayes, was evidently lost for years before being dug up in a storage locker by the Space Studies Institute, the organization that O’Neill founded in the late seventies. You can view the entire program here, and it’s well worth watching. At one point, Asimov, whom Hayes describes as “our favorite jack of all sciences,” alludes briefly to my favorite science fiction concept, the gravity gauge: “Well once you land on the moon, you know the moon is a lot easier to get away from than the earth is. The earth has a gravity six times as strong as that of the moon at the surface.” (Asimov must have known all of this without having to think twice, but I’d like to believe that he was also reminded of it by The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.) And in response to the question of whether he had ever written about space colonies in his own fiction, Asimov gives his “legendary” response:

Nobody did, really, because we’ve all been planet chauvinists. We’ve all believed people should live on the surface of a planet, of a world. I’ve had colonies on the moon—so have a hundred other science fiction writers. The closest I came to a manufactured world in free space was to suggest that we go out to the asteroid belt and hollow out the asteroids, and make ships out of them [in the novelette “The Martian Way”]. It never occurred to me to bring the material from the asteroids in towards the earth, where conditions are pleasanter, and build the worlds there.

Of course, it isn’t entirely accurate that science fiction writers had “all” been planet chauvinists—Heinlein had explored similar concepts in such stories as “Waldo” and “Delilah and the Space Rigger,” and I’m sure there are other examples. (Asimov had even discussed the idea ten years earlier in the essay “There’s No Place Like Spome,” which he later described as “an anticipation, in a fumbling sort of way, of Gerard O’Neill’s concept of space settlements.”) And while there’s no doubt that O’Neill’s notion of a permanent settlement in space was genuinely revolutionary, there’s also a sense in which Asimov was the last writer you’d expect to come up with it. Asimov was a notorious acrophobe and claustrophile who hated flying and suffered a panic attack on the roller coaster at Coney Island. When he was younger, he loved enclosed spaces, like the kitchen at the back of his father’s candy store, and he daydreamed about running a newsstand on the subway, where he could put up the shutters and just read magazines. Years later, he refused to go out onto the balcony of his apartment, which overlooked Central Park, because of his fear of heights, and he was always happiest while typing away in his office. And his personal preferences were visible in the stories that he wrote. The theme of an enclosed or underground city appears in such stories as The Caves of Steel, while The Naked Sun is basically a novel about agoraphobia. In his interview with Hayes, Asimov speculates that space colonies will attract people looking for an escape from earth: “Once you do realize that you have a kind of life there which represents a security and a pleasantness that you no longer have on earth, the difficulty will be not in getting people to go but in making them line up in orderly fashion.” But he never would have gone there voluntarily.

Yet this is a revealing point in itself. Unlike Heinlein, who dreamed of buying a commercial ticket to the moon, Asimov never wanted to go into space. He just wanted to write about it, and he was better—or at least more successful—at this than just about anybody else. (In his memoirs, Asimov recalls taping the show with O’Neill on January 7, 1975, adding that he was “a little restless” because he was worried about being late for dinner with Lester and Judy-Lynn del Rey. After he was done, he hailed a cab. On the road, as they were making the usual small talk, the driver revealed that he had once wanted to be a writer. Asimov, who hadn’t mentioned his name, told him consolingly that no one could make a living as writer anyway. The driver responded: “Isaac Asimov does.”) And the comparison with Bezos is an enlightening one. Bezos obviously built his career on books, and he was a voracious reader of science fiction in his youth, as Levy notes: “[Bezos’s] grandfather—a former top Defense Department official—introduced him to the extensive collection of science fiction at the town library. He devoured the books, gravitating especially to Robert Heinlein and other classic writers who explored the cosmos in their tales.” With his unimaginable wealth, Bezos is in a position remarkably close to that of the protagonist in such stories, with the ability to “painlessly siphon off a billion dollars every year to fund his boyhood dream.” But the ideas that he has the money to put into practice were originated by writers and other thinkers whose minds went in unusual directions precisely because they didn’t have the resources, financial or otherwise, to do it personally. Vast wealth can generate a chauvinism of its own, and the really innovative ideas tend to come from unexpected places. This was true of Asimov, as well as O’Neill, whose work was affiliated in fascinating ways with the world of Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog. I’ll have more to say about O’Neill—and Bezos—tomorrow.

Quote of the Day

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“Practical life,” like a homeless vagabond, forces its way into every artistic form and believes itself to be the genesis and reason for existence of this form. But the vagabond doesn’t tarry long in one place and once he is gone—when to make an art work serve “practical purposes” no longer seems practical—the work recovers its full value.

Kasimir Malevich, “Suprematism”

Written by nevalalee

October 16, 2018 at 7:30 am

The difference engine

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Earlier this month, within the space of less than a day, two significant events occurred in the life of Donna Strickland, an assistant professor at the University of Waterloo. She won the Nobel Prize in Physics, and she finally got her own Wikipedia page. As the biologist and Wikipedia activist Dawn Bazely writes in an excellent opinion piece for the Washington Post:

The long delay was not for lack of trying. Last May, an editor had rejected a submitted entry on Strickland, saying the subject did not meet Wikipedia’s notability requirement. Strickland’s biography went up shortly after her award was announced. If you click on the “history” tab to view the page’s edits, you can replay the process of a woman scientist finally gaining widespread recognition, in real time.

And it isn’t an isolated problem, as Bazely points out: “According to the Wikimedia Foundation, as of 2016, only 17 percent of the reference project’s biographies were about women.” When Bazely asked some of her students to create articles on women in ecology or the sciences, she found that their efforts frequently ran headlong into Wikipedia’s editing culture: “Many of their contributions got reversed almost immediately, in what is known as a ‘drive-by deletion’…I made an entry for Kathy Martin, current president of the American Ornithological Society and a global authority on arctic and alpine grouse. Almost immediately after her page went live, a flag appeared over the top page: ‘Is this person notable enough?’”

Strickland’s case is an unusually glaring example, but it reflects a widespread issue that extends far beyond Wikipedia itself. In a blog post about the incident, Ed Erhart, a senior editorial associate at the Wikimedia foundation, notes that the original article on Strickland was rejected by an editor who stated that it lacked “published, reliable, secondary sources that are independent of the subject.” But he also raises a good point about the guidelines used to establish academic notability: “Academics may be writing many of the sources volunteer Wikipedia editors use to verify the information on Wikipedia, but they are only infrequently the subject of those same sources. And when it does occur, they usually feature men from developed nations—not women or other under-represented groups.” Bazely makes a similar observation:

We live in a world where women’s accomplishments are routinely discounted and dismissed. This occurs at every point in the academic pipeline…Across disciplines, men cite their own research more often than women do. Men give twice as many academic talks as women—engagements which give scholars a chance to publicize their work, find collaborators and build their resumes for potential promotions and job offers. Female academics tend to get less credit than males for their work on a team. Outside of academia, news outlets quote more male voices than female ones—another key venue for proving “notability” among Wikipedia editors. These structural biases have a ripple effect on our crowdsourced encyclopedia.

And this leads to an undeniable feedback effect, in which the existing sources used to establish notability are used to create Wikipedia articles, when serve as evidence of notability in the future.

Bazely argues that articles on male subjects don’t seem to be held to the same high standards as those for women, which reflects the implicit biases of its editors, the vast majority of whom are men. She’s right, but I also think that there’s a subtle historical element at play. Back during the wild west days of Wikipedia, when the community was still defining itself, the demographics of its most prolific editors were probably even less diverse than they are now. During those formative years, thousands of pages were generated under a looser set of standards, and much of that material has been grandfathered into the version that exists today. I should know, because I was a part of it. While I may not have been a member of the very first generation of Wikipedia editors—one of my friends still takes pride in the fact that he created the page for “knife”—I was there early enough to originate a number of articles that I thought were necessary. I created pages for such people as Darin Morgan and Julee Cruise, and when I realized that there wasn’t an entry for “mix tape,” I spent the better part of two days at work putting one together. By the standards of the time, I was diligent and conscientious, but very little of what I did would pass muster today. My citations were erratic, I included my own subjective commentary and evaluations along with verifiable facts, and I indulged in original research, which the site rightly discourages. Multiply this by a thousand, and you get a sense of the extent to which the foundations of Wikipedia were laid by exactly the kind of editor in his early twenties for whom writing a cultural history of the mix tape took priority over countless other deserving subjects. (It isn’t an accident that I had started thinking about mix tapes again because of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, which provides a scathing portrait of a certain personality type, not unlike my own, that I took for years at face value.)

And I don’t even think that I was wrong. Wikipedia is naturally skewed in favor of the enthusiasms of its users, and articles that are fun to research, write, and discuss will inevitably get more attention. But the appeal of a subject to a minority of active editors isn’t synonymous with notability, and it takes a conscious effort to correct the result, especially when it comes to the older strata of contributions. While much of what I wrote fifteen years ago has been removed or revised by other hands, a lot of it still persists, because it’s easier to monitor new edits than to systematically check pages that have been around for years. And it leaves behind a residue of the same kinds of unconscious assumptions that I’ve identified elsewhere in other forms of canonization. Wikipedia is part of our cultural background now, invisible and omnipresent, and we tend to take it for granted. (Like Google, it can be hard to research it online because its name has become a synonym for information itself. Googling “Google,” or keywords associated with it, is a real headache, and looking for information about Wikipedia—as opposed to information presented in a Wikipedia article—presents many of the same challenges.) And nudging such a huge enterprise back on course, even by a few degrees, doesn’t happen by accident. One way is through the “edit-a-thons” that often occur on Ada Lovelace Day, which is named after the mathematician whose posthumous career incidentally illustrates how historical reputations can be shaped by whoever happens to be telling the story.  We think of Lovelace, who worked with Charles Babbage on the difference engine, as a feminist hero, but as recently as the early sixties, one writer could cite her as an example of genetic mediocrity: “Lord Byron’s surviving daughter, Ada, what did she produce in maturity? A system for betting on horse races that was a failure, and she died at thirty-six, shattered and deranged.” The writer was the popular novelist Irving Wallace, who is now deservedly forgotten. And the book was a bestseller about the Nobel Prize.

Written by nevalalee

October 15, 2018 at 9:04 am

Quote of the Day

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In this book it is spoken of the Sephiroth and the Paths; of Spirits and Conjurations; of Gods, Spheres, Planes, and many other things which may or may not exist. It is immaterial whether these exist or not. By doing certain things certain results will follow; students are most earnestly warned against attributing objective reality or philosophic validity to any of them.

Aleister Crowley, Liber O

Written by nevalalee

October 15, 2018 at 7:30 am

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The electric library

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1. The words on the printed page are seen, not heard.
2. Through conventional words you get concepts across. The concepts are embodied in letters.
3. The economy of expression: optics instead of phonetics.
4. The organization of the space of the book through the material of the sentence according to the laws of typographical technique must correspond to the tensions and the pressures of the content.
5. The organization of the space of the book by the illustrations that realize the new optics. The supernaturalist reality of the perfect eye.
6. The continual sequence of pages—the bioscopic book.
7. The new book requires a new writer. Inkwells and goose quills are dead.
8. The printed page goes past space and time. Printed notebooks, this immensity of print, must give way. The electric library.

El Lissitzky, “Topography of Typography”

Written by nevalalee

October 14, 2018 at 7:30 am

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