Graeber, Thiel, Stephenson: Utopia, Risk, and Space

This too is possible: painting by Robert McCall
This too is possible: painting by Robert McCall

To imagine a better future, you have to entertain some sort of utopian vision. This notion comes to mind reading about the debate between David Graeber and Peter Thiel. If there is one lesson from the past it’s that utopias are doomed to failure. But another lesson emerging today (if Thiel, Graeber, and Stephenson – and a bunch of others are right) seems to be that utopian visions are needed to point the way to great things.

One of my favorite lines from the New York Times’ take on the debate is on what entrepreneur Peter Thiel saw as the roots of the innovation stagnation:

[He saw] a loss of nerve and sclerotic bureaucracies. He cited the anarchist slogan “Act as if you are already free,” and praised initiatives like SpaceX, the private space technology company started by his fellow PayPal founder, Elon Musk.

The innovation stagnation has occurred in a time that has lacked utopian idealism, a time when the market capitalism triumphed, and quite clearly triumphed over the imagination of non-market dreamers. To get a sense of this change in mindset in past decades, read this description of Cold War utopias from an exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum on Cold War design.

The late 1960s saw the last surge of utopian thinking in the 20th century. Visionaries on both sides of the Cold War envisaged new ways of living.

Radical design groups in the West, with names and images like rock bands, used architecture to challenge social conformity. In the Eastern Bloc, a new generation brought a cosmic sensibility to design.

Many of the most startling schemes reworked Cold War technologies. Inflatable buildings, geodesic domes and electronic media, once conscripted for military use, were now re-imagined as tools for nomadic life or instruments to liberate mind and body.

Do we still think like that? A good amount of the Graeber-Thiel debate has focused on what has gone wrong in recent years, allowing this malaise to take hold in the developed world. Whatever the cause, these days the West, under geo-economic threat from China and geopolitical threat from Russia and the jihadists,

NASA artist rendering of a Bernal Sphere
NASA artist rendering of a Bernal Sphere

is exiting a kind of strategic vacuum it has been in since the end of the Cold War. If the imaginations and livelihoods of people in countries like the US, France, Italy and the UK are to be vital in shaping the future, risk must be embraced again to accomplish Big Things.

We might be seeing it occur – just now. And the catalyst won’t just be the ideas of Graeber, et al but geopolitical pressure, which had a huge role in Cold War thinking. As an example, look at NASA’s recent decision to outsource its low earth orbit delivery systems: NASA has been unable to articulate a Big Goal for years. The agency has been beset by bureaucratic inaction and the whims of congress for decades. The cancellation of the Space Shuttle program forced the US to rely entirely on the Russians – yes, those Russians – for rocket engines to get US satellites to space, while US astronauts had rely on Russian vehicles to get to the International Space Station.

But Russia, in retaliation for sanctions placed on it over its annexation of Crimea and actions in Ukraine, have said it is pulling out of the ISS in the future and likely won’t sell rockets engines to the US, either.

Utopian visions in space
Utopian visions in space

In turn, NASA has selected Boeing and SpaceX to deliver astronauts and supplies to the International Space Station. The dual contracts are “a throwback to an earlier era when the US used large space and defense contracts as a way to seed entire industries.” If all goes well and this business of rocket has been effectively put in private hands NASA can “focus on an even more ambitious mission – sending humans to Mars.”

From NASA’s announcement:

The contracts include at least one crewed flight test per company with at least one NASA astronaut aboard to verify the fully integrated rocket and spacecraft system can launch, maneuver in orbit, and dock to the space station, as well as validate all its systems perform as expected.

In other words, NASA, in awarding the contracts, is accepting risk because of the urgency imposed on it by Russia. This is significant, because arguably, what has been missing since the market-triumphed over the US, following the end of the Cold War, has been an acceptance of risk in exchange in pursuing a payoff for undertaking Big Things.

Here is how Stephenson describes the tendency to avoid risk in his famous essay:

In the legal environment that has developed around publicly traded corporations, managers are strongly discouraged from shouldering any risks that they know about—or, in the opinion of some future jury, should have known about—even if they have a hunch that the gamble might pay off in the long run. There is no such thing as “long run” in industries driven by the next quarterly report.

Stephenson’s argument about risk would be familiar to any investor. Greater risk is linked to greater future reward. But something about the triumph of corporations has driven that logic from executive decision-making for non-market ventures. (Yes, Wall Street showed a zeal for risk before the financial crisis) From Stephenson’s same essay:

Innovation can’t happen without accepting the risk that it might fail. The vast and radical innovations of the mid-20th century took place in a world that, in retrospect, looks insanely dangerous and unstable…Competition between the Western democracies and the communist powers obliged the former to push their scientists and engineers to the limits of what they could imagine and supplied a sort of safety net in the event that their initial efforts did not pay off. A grizzled NASA veteran once told me that the Apollo moon landings were communism’s greatest achievement.

And so today, we have NASA under pressure. And it’s responding. Scott Hubbard, ex-director of the NASA Ames Research Center says that with this decision, along with NASA decision to outsource other commercial transportation, the US has ‘”bet the farm’ on companies filling the gap left by the Space Shuttle’s retirement.

The decision to hand over the low earth orbit launches and transportation to Boeing and SpaceX marks an important step, he says.

“I believe this new approach is America’s “secret weapon” in what some have described as a space race with China. And, as far as I can tell, while the rest of the world is still stuck in a nearly government-only mode, NASA, with the support of the Obama administration, is letting loose the creativity of American know-how.”

“As with the early 20th century airmail routes that helped stimulate aviation, NASA’s commercial programs are now the anchor tenants in the government transfer of space services to the private sector. This in turn will enable a robust new business enterprise and allow NASA to focus on Mars — the ultimate target for exploration.”

The US government is once again opening frontiers, in other words. And as any historian would tell you, opening frontiers is fraught with risk. But the risk it entails also brings rewards. It was the geopolitical nudge from Russia that set off this change within NASA. But NASA’s acceptance of risk would not have been out of place during the historical Cold War. Embracing that risk will allow the organization to achieve escape velocity from its own bureaucratic gravity-field. And what incentive do Boeing and SpaceX have to get the job done, aside from continued funding? The invisible force called: ‘Your country is counting on you.’

But in order to see a time when commercial space services are robust and NASA is focused on its proper role, (‘Explore Deep Space’, as Hubbard says) one needs the utopian vision of the future,  a time in which people book trips to low earth orbit somewhat like they booked trips on the Concorde. Hard to imagine? Depends of where you sit. If you’re a business analyst trying to work out the costs and profits, it may seem daunting. If you’re thinking like you’re already free, bringing “wild fantasies to reality” is not so hard to imagine.

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Star Wars as shorthand for the great slowdown in innovation

It may just be one of those things but the rise and rise of the Star Wars franchise has coincided neatly with the slowdown in productivity-lifting innovation that has been commented on by people like author Neal Stephenson and economist Tyler Cowen. When I talk about “innovation”, I mean inventions that significantly change and improve the life we’re living today. To provide a benchmark, let’s say “significant innovation” would be the breakthrough technologies needed for interplanetary space travel.

When Stars Wars premiered in 1977, there were plans for human travel to Mars in encyclopedias.
When Stars Wars premiered in 1977, there were plans for human travel to Mars in encyclopedias.

The overlap between the triumph of Star Wars and the flattening out of the breakthrough horizon in reality hit home with me while watching my son’s interest in Star Wars grow. I was seven when the first Star Wars movie was released. The excitement for me then was real. And like my brother and friends, I couldn’t get enough of the experience. We drew imagined space ships and colonies, blending what was possible around Earth with what Star Wars spurred us to imagine in galaxies, ahem, far, far away. Decades later, I listen as my six-year-old son reads from his Star Wars Legobook and he asks me what the words “limited edition” or “exclusive” mean. The hardbound book is essentially a catalog of Star Wars merchandise. But the catalog itself is for sale. One more thing to buy.

Although my son is creative, nothing about the hardbound catalog of figures requires creativity. Consuming and collecting doesn’t require creativity. For all the celebration of Star Wars, what the Story has become in my lifetime is an Empire of Marketing, full of reissues, limited editions, and ever-newer ways to consume the brands.

I’ve watched good minds in my generation move from imagining spacecraft and technology in a time when real technological progress was presumed, to collecting figures and compiling trivia. Over the years, the franchise, in order to grow, achieved new life simply by being injected into other formats: Angry Birds and Legos, for example. Meanwhile, the technological progress we believed was imminent, largely because our parents believed it was imminent – in fact, because they witnessed it in their lives – well, aside from the internet, it never came.

An example of the expectation gap: the 1977 World Book Encyclopedia entry on space travel shows a detailed plan for a trip to Mars. Reading the fine print, it turns out Wernher von Braun, the Father of Rocket Science, actually contributed to the entry. Back in 1977 the presumption around human space travel was simple: after the Moon, then comes Mars.

The Mars trip never came. It never even came close.

When kids looked up space travel in 1977, this is what they saw.
When kids looked up space travel in 1977, this is what they saw.

In the 1970s we had the final Apollo missions, Skylab, the Space Shuttle. But by 2014, with Star Wars stronger than ever, the US had lost its ability to put people in space.

This isn’t to say Star Wars is responsible for the innovation starvation, or the lack of game-changing technological breakthroughs. It’s a coincidence. It’s not a cause.

Yet, even as economists and industrialists look for the Next Big Breakthrough, the New Industry, and a new source of wealth and purpose – and see nothing to come – over there in the toy aisle the Death Star of marketing just grows and morphs and grows again.

Societies only have so many hours to spend. What have we been spending ours on? If science fiction is the hieroglyph for the real world, what is the contribution from Star Wars? The franchise expands for the young, the old, everyone in between. It made itself a lifestyle, a collectors item, a cultural touchstone. Heck, it’s a no-brainer from a marketing perspective.

When you think of young imaginations over the past 35 years, looking upward and outward, a lot of time, energy and money has been sucked up by the marketing of Star Wars. Is there something about the excessive moralism and cast of heroes inspired by knights and monks of the medieval times, that has fired young imaginations?  Star Wars has helped to capture the imagination of the multitudes but whatever story

Wernher von Braun's encyclopedia entry in a 1977 World Book Encyclopedia.
Wernher von Braun’s encyclopedia entry in a 1977 World Book Encyclopedia.

it taught, didn’t seem to spark a lot of talk of breaking barriers and achieving the impossible. All of this comes to mind with the release of the book: How Star Wars Conquered the Universe by Chris Taylor. No doubt it’s a good account of how Star Wars rose to its place in our pop-culture. By now Star Wars is practically a genre, a flavor, a way of life. But I can’t help but think that one of the fallouts of the conquest of a generation’s imagination is the kind of consumerist helplessness with us today. Compare it to the shared expectation during Cold War that humanity – if it didn’t exterminate itself – would step higher, grow stronger and achieve things that inspired awe in ourselves. Now that’s an idea from long time ago, in a mindset far, far away.

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Where did the future go? David Graeber and Peter Thiel debate

“If you took away everyone’s iPhone but told them we were going to Mars, some people would be happy” – David Graeber

If you care about the shape of the future: watch this debate put on by The Baffler. I think David Graeber’s essay on the future and Neal Stephenson’s Innovation Starvation essay will mark an inflection point when Western minds began looking upward and outward again after a 35-year pause.

Peter Thiel on left and David Graeber on right
Peter Thiel on left and David Graeber on right

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Is the space race back on?

NASA mentions Russia by name in the press release, which announces the selection of Boeing and SpaceX to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station. The plan includes a test run for each of the companies.

Says NASA administrator Charlie Bolden… “We are one step closer to launching our astronauts from US soil on American spacecraft and ending the nation’s sole reliance on Russia by 2017. Turning over low-Earth orbit transportation to private industry will also allow NASA to focus on an even more ambitious mission – sending humans to Mars.”

A couple things. First, there is some urgency about the plan to certify the companies as contractors, driven by the geopolitical situation with Russia, which has cutting off sales to the US in response to US sanctions over Moscow’s actions in Crimea and Ukraine.


The second point is key.

“The companies will own and operate the crew transportation systems and be able to sell human space transportation services to other customers in addition to NASA, thereby reducing the costs for all customers,” the press release states.

The goal of “opening up” the market of space travel to the private sector has been around since the original space race. If these companies can meet the requirements – and in time – then a wider dividend may be gained. The question is the quality of the rockets and space capsules. Also, SpaceX’s inclusion adds some competitive juice to US government contracting for space – which can’t be bad.