Critical Enthusiasm: A few thoughts on Planetary Resources and the Environment

Visions like this might be exciting, but we shouldn’t get too excited about them, lest we forget more terrestrial solutions to our problems. (Image from pcmag.com)

It’s an exciting time for space buffs. Private space flight appears set to significantly decrease the cost of space travel and inaugurate the age of space tourism; developing nations are sending probes to the moon and to Mars; people are skydiving from space; and, in a development that I find the most exciting, a startup company is actually planning to mine asteroids. That company is called Planetary Resources, and while it might seem easy to dismiss such a business venture as ludicrously far-fetched, the whole thing seems surprisingly plausible. The company has an impressive list of managers and investors, such as Google’s Eric Schmidt and Larry Page; Peter Diamandis, founder of the X-Prize, and Eric C. Anderson, who has already been involved in commercial space-flight. These people are clearly not idle dreamers, and true to form, they’ve developed a plan that seems fairly realistic. Currently, they’re kickstarting funding to develop a kind of space prospecting telescope which will observe near-earth asteroids as well as being hired out for private use. Once the telescope is established, they intend to send survey probes to map asteroids that are strong candidates for mining. With that accomplished, I wouldn’t be surprised if they find their door knocked down by eager investors wanting to help them develop a way of actually mining the asteroids.

What’s good about this plan is that it operates by a very well-thought out process of niche accumulation. Planetary Resources will gradually gain both funding and credibility as it moves from the relatively simple task of providing space telescopes for hire, to conducting early tests, to actually mining asteroids. According to Planetary Resources, there are over 15,000 asteroids that are easier to reach than the moon. While there are some very interesting technical challenges and some far more interesting non-technical ones (Some very clever lawyers will have to figure out who owns mining rights to asteroids, for example), my official opinion on Planetary Resources is that their mission is entirely plausible. We just might be mining asteroids within my lifetime.

This has some very exciting implications. If minerals from space can compete in the market with minerals mined on Earth, then we could completely eliminate the need for environmentally destructive terrestrial mining. Even more exciting is the implications for the minerals we leave in space. If we sent up some fabrication technology, such as a few specially designed 3D printers, then it suddenly becomes possible to undertake construction projects in space without having to launch the materials up there first. This would make space stations and larger space ships much, much cheaper than they currently are. If planetary resources are successful, then it is possible that the only things that we would really need to send into space would be instructions for our orbital robotic workforce, and in return we could get minerals, space hotels, interplanetary ships, and even food. This is all very far in the future, of course. And it depends on Planetary Resources’ plan being economical, which is a pretty big if. But it is in the realm of plausibility at this point.

While I hope that Planetary Resources are successful, however, I think we need to recognize that there is a danger in placing too much stock in the potential of extremely futuristic projects such as space mining. The history of technology shows that excitement about radical new technologies often serves a somewhat destructive social function: It reassures the public that they can continue to enjoy their present lifestyle without having to worry about the problems it causes. The renewal of interest in electric cars emerged during the fuel crises of the 1970s, for example, and why they are popular among some environmentalists today.  Electric cars still contribute to urban sprawl, however. They will still kill people, and will still have to get their energy from somewhere. An adoption of the electric car, or even an expressed preference for electric cars as the solution to the environmental problems of the current transportation system, would represent at best a compromise on sustainability: We would be placing our faith in a technology which promises only a partial solution to the problems that confront us. And by placing our faith there, we undermine support for more radical proposals, such as car-free cities. And that’s even if electric cars are actually viable in the long-term! The other possibility is that excitement about electric cars will simply be a kind of fig leaf makes people feel better about driving their gasoline cars.

Technophilic environmentalists haven’t yet started pointing to space as a solution for our environmental woes, but if Planetary Resources’ telescopes work, then we can expect them to start to do so. When this happens, we should be wary. I propose that we maintain a stance that I call “critical enthusiasm” in respect to things like Planetary Resources, geoengineering projects, or fusion power. We can be excited about these projects, and we can support them. But we can’t let that excitement or support get in the way of a practical and realistic plan for a sustainable economy. If these projects are ultimately successful, then that will be great. But if we put our faith in those things and they don’t come through for us, then we will be in big trouble. We don’t have to be cynical about new technologies, but we also have to keep our options open, and resist the temptation to think that investing our hopes in futuristic sustainability technologies like Planetary Resources will absolve us of the responsibility to fight for a more sustainable world in the here and now.

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Some thoughts on cable companies, or why capitalism doesn’t always embrace innovation

One evening last week, I was trying to set up the latest episode of The Walking Dead to watch while I made dinner. The Walking Dead, unfortunately, is not available to watch legally in the UK, so I have had to get a bit creative in order to watch it. And so, after some failed googling of “Watch The Walking Dead Online Free”, I decided I would try the AMC website, hoping that Hola would allow me to circumvent any geographical restrictions and watch the episode. I was happy to find a “watch episodes online” link, but on clicking it, I was presented with the following message:

The Walking Dead - AMC - Full Episodes – AMC

This was a problem. I don’t have a TV provider, and even if I did, it would not be an American one.  So clearly I wasn’t going to watch my favourite zombie show legally. I was frustrated, of course, but I was more taken aback by the whole thing. Why on earth is this necessary? The internet has turned cable providers into useless middlemen, but instead of taking advantage of this, TV stations are actually asking for proof that their viewers are still plugged into an old-fashioned television network before they’ll allow anybody to access their content online. It’s about as absurd as asking travellers driving between two cities for proof that they had bought a railway ticket for the same trip before allowing them to depart

That analogy might sound silly, but it is not actually too far off the mark. In my research on the competition between road and rail transport in the UK, I’ve discovered that before the First World War, railway companies were actually quite excited about the development of cars, trucks, and buses. Railway lines would employ buses to make connections or to take tourists on sightseeing tours, and railway magazines would enthusiastically print articles about these practices while also adding their voices to the demands for good roads. In 1912, the editor of The Railway Gazette praised a “Good Roads Instruction Train” that was touring the United States, and deplored the fact that “The rulers in countries awaiting full development are apt to be satisfied with laying down a single line of railway through a virgin country, and to consider that all has been done for the encouragement of settlers and agriculturalists generally”(1).

This support for motor transport waned after the First World War, when railway owners realized that buses and trucks were eating into their profits. This belated recognition of the threat posed by motor vehicles is emblematic of a very common pattern in the history of technology: New innovations are primarily understood in terms of their role in old systems. It is only later that they are able to transcend these systems and create systems of their own. Transitions scholars have divided this process into two stages: The ‘fit’ stage, in which a new technology is used only as a secondary adjunct to the old technology, and the ‘stretch’ stage, in which the new technology supplants the old technology, creating new social, economic, and political relations as it does so (2).

Currently, AMC and other stations appear to be stuck within the ‘fit’ stage, in which the delivery of entertainment via the internet is just an extra perk for people who have paid to get it from their cable company anyway. But the success companies like Netflix and Hulu seem to be pretty clearly demonstrating that we are rapidly moving into the ‘stretch’ phase, in which online distribution will become the dominant system, likely remaking the entertainment industry as it does so. The problem is that the cable networks are resisting this change with everything at their disposal, potentially going as far as threatening to throttle netflix through preferential internet coverage.

It’s not surprising that entrenched interests are fighting against technological change. This has always happened when a new innovation threatens to change an old system. Railway companies fought against cars, and as I pointed out in an earlier post, record companies fought against internet distribution. But what is alarming about this is that the cable companies appear to have a great deal of power, and appear to be winning a few battles in this fight. The potential of the internet in the entertainment industry is being deliberately opposed. And with new developments, such as the proposed merger of Comcast and Time Warner, which will further facilitate the kind of monopolistic behaviour described in a recent South Park episode.

We have an amazing global communications network that can send virtually any kind of information from any part of the planet to any other part of the planet instantaneously and nearly for free, and yet the entertainment industry still seems hell-bent on forcing us to continue to use a fifty year-old distribution system based on expensive and restrictive cable services. What this tells us is that the profit motive does not always encourage innovation. While established business interests are happy to incorporate new innovations that offer to increase their profits, they will fight tooth and nail against any innovation that disrupts the status quo too much. This effectively shuts out all the most exciting technological innovations. And that, dear reader, is why, after being rebuffed by AMC, I simply pirated the episode.

References

(1) The Railway Gazette., 1912. “Good Roads Instruction on Trains”. Vol. 61. No. 16. p. 365.

(2) Geels, F.W., 2004b. “Processes and Patterns in transitions and system innovations: refining the co-evolutionary multi-level perspective.” Technological Forecasting and Social Change 72. pp. 681-696.