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Limits and Brilliance
Alex Steffen, 19 Jun 07
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We find ourselves, as I wrote a bit ago in an essay called The Empire of Crime, without a contemporary sense of our immediate surroundings or much of a model for a working future.

This lends an air of surreality to our thinking. Like the hero of William Gibson's story The Gernsback Continuum, we are shadowed by visions of a future not our own:

Mercifully, the whole thing is starting to fade, to become an episode. When I do still catch the odd glimpse, it’s peripheral; mere fragments of mad-doctor chrome, confining themselves to the corner of the eye. There was that flying-wing liner over San Francisco last week, but it was almost translucent. And the shark-fin roadsters have gotten scarcer, and freeways discreetly avoid unfolding themselves into the gleaming eighty-lane monsters I was forced to drive last month in my rented Toyota. And I know that none of it will follow me to New York; my vision is narrowing to a single wavelength of probability. I’ve worked hard for that. Television helped a lot.

Indeed, we're irrationally hung up on the past's visions of the future. Check out Gareth Branwyn's photo tour of steampunk hobbyist artifacts:

Retro-futurism is all the rage these days: antique computers, 8-bit game art, classic cases for modern gear, anything to make the onslaught of new technology less disposable. The yearning for timelessness in a constantly renewing tech culture has led to a spike in interest in the steam-powered, brass-encrusted world of steampunk.

Henry Jenkins, echoing William Gibson, calls this sphere of anachronistic futurism "The Tomorrow That Never Was":

Amateur archivists have assembled digital reproductions of the covers of pulp science fiction or popular science magazines, cataloging the various technological wonders or predictions by which an earlier generation sought to understand the directions their society was taking. Others have gathered together home movies, post cards, and every other available media artifact to construct detailed tours of the 1939 fair, showing every building inside and out. Such activities blur the line between private collections and shared archives as hobbyists become curators to show off their own holdings and to educate others into the lore of retro culture. Some of these experts will go on to construct beautifully illustrated coffee table books (of the kind that Gibson described in his short story) which in turn can be sold to niche publics of consumers via sites like Amazon. And small companies will use the web to sell lower-cost reproductions of historical toys and souvenirs for those who lack the resources to purchase the original: the digital tour of the 1939 World's Fair, for example, has its own gift shop where one can buy a whole range of retro goods.
It is well known that the baby boom generation uses sites like eBay to reassemble stuff their mothers threw away when they left for college (old toys, comics, baseball cards, and other junk). But these same web 2.0 platforms allow us to collect together information or accumulate artifacts from our parent's and grandparent's generation. Relatively few of the people who are trading in memorabilia for the 1939 World's Fair are old enough to have actually attended the event. Rather, they are fascinated with images of a future that had already started to fade from consciousness before they were even born, suggesting a variation on Stephen Greenbelt's claim that history writing involves a fascination with speaking with the dead.

Of course, the dead with whom we are speaking when we engage in this nostalgic futurism are the dead visions of an earlier age, and they compel us so strongly precisely because our own visions elude us, offering as yet only terrifying glimpses of a ruined planet. When we look ahead, the skies darken, and we see not aluminum cities of flying cars, but a "global Somalia."

No wonder, then, that we cling like a monkey with a wire-brush mama to the idea of a future in which engineering conquers the human condition, where we can leave off serious worrying about the planet until the godlike AIs get here, and in which, in any case, we can always jump ship and scuttle off to another planet if things get too hot.

Unfortunately, wishing doesn't make it so. Indeed, more and more of our best futurists, science fiction writers and big thinkers are trying to get us to dump our threadbare inherited tomorrows into the recycler, if only so we can start to think seriously about the real challenges we face today. A great example is Charlie Stross' brilliant post The High Frontier, Redux, in which he eviscerates the whole idea of space colonization:

Historically, crossing oceans and setting up farmsteads on new lands conveniently stripped of indigenous inhabitants by disease has been a cost-effective proposition. But the scale factor involved in space travel is strongly counter-intuitive.
Here's a handy metaphor: let's approximate one astronomical unit — the distance between the Earth and the sun, roughly 150 million kilometres, or 600 times the distance from the Earth to the Moon — to one centimetre. Got that? 1AU = 1cm. (You may want to get hold of a ruler to follow through with this one.)
The solar system is conveniently small. Neptune, the outermost planet in our solar system, orbits the sun at a distance of almost exactly 30AU, or 30 centimetres — one foot (in imperial units). Giant Jupiter is 5.46 AU out from the sun, almost exactly two inches (in old money).
We've sent space probes to Jupiter; they take two and a half years to get there if we send them on a straight Hohmann transfer orbit, but we can get there a bit faster using some fancy orbital mechanics...
The Kuiper belt, domain of icy wandering dwarf planets like Pluto and Eris, extends perhaps another 30AU, before merging into the much more tenuous Hills cloud and Oort cloud, domain of loosely coupled long-period comets.
Now for the first scale shock: using our handy metaphor the Kuiper belt is perhaps a metre in diameter. The Oort cloud, in contrast, is as much as 50,000 AU in radius — its outer edge lies half a kilometre away.
Got that? Our planetary solar system is 30 centimetres, roughly a foot, in radius. But to get to the edge of the Oort cloud, you have to go half a kilometre, roughly a third of a mile.
Next on our tour is Proxima Centauri, our nearest star. ...But Proxima Centauri is a poor choice, if we're looking for habitable real estate. While exoplanets are apparently common as muck, terrestrial planets are harder to find; Gliese 581c, the first such to be detected (and it looks like a pretty weird one, at that), is roughly 20.4 light years away, or using our metaphor, about ten miles.
Try to get a handle on this: it takes us 2-5 years to travel two inches. But the proponents of interstellar travel are talking about journeys of ten miles.

Charlie goes on to quote Ally #1 Bruce Sterling's comments on space colonization:

I'll believe in people settling Mars at about the same time I see people settling the Gobi Desert. The Gobi Desert is about a thousand times as hospitable as Mars and five hundred times cheaper and easier to reach. Nobody ever writes "Gobi Desert Opera" because, well, it's just kind of plonkingly obvious that there's no good reason to go there and live. It's ugly, it's inhospitable and there's no way to make it pay. Mars is just the same, really. We just romanticize it because it's so hard to reach.

To which Charlie responds, "Colonize the Gobi desert, colonise the North Atlantic in winter — then get back to me about the rest of the solar system!"

Space ain't the final frontier. The physical frontier is closed -- as Norman Mailer puts it "shut, damn shut, shut like a boulder on a rabbit burrow" -- and we live now, and probably forever (at least in culturally meaningful terms) in a world of physical limits. And despite promises of medical immortality, it looks like we may not live forever after all, while the smart robots don't seem to be coming to save us.

Some see, in the loss of this Machine Age dream of the conquest of nature and all natural limits, the loss of possibility. That seems silly to me: the possible still lies stretched out all before us. I believe, in the core of my being, that H.G. Wells was right when he said ""All the past is but the beginning of the beginning: all that the human mind has accomplished is but the dream before the awakening" If we survive this crisis, humanity has ahead of it vast seas of time to create and grow and deepen. We may even one day find the technological equivalent of the alchemist's stone, and bend the physical stuff of the universe to our purposes (hopefully without destroying ourselves in the process) -- but in the meantime, we're at home on Earth and staying here, and all good work needs to respect the limitations a single planet places upon our endeavors.

There is still plenty of room for heroic ingenuity. Just because we disdain the possibility of magical, consequence-free technofixes doesn't mean we don't admire and seek good tools (in fact, quite the opposite, if we're sensible -- realizing that the task is much harder than thought by the technofixers, we realize we'll need every tool we can get our hands on). Similarly, recognizing that space colonization is no answer to our planetary problems doesn't mean that we don't want to explore space, and learn as much about our planet and its surroundings as possible (the whole Greens in Space argument). Indeed, with the explosion of private space tourism efforts, we need to begin thinking seriously about space law. A sustainable civilization will be even more technologically advanced than our own, and remarkably more sophisticated in its thinking about science, technology and progress.

And that's just the point: change has accelerated, just not in the direction our grandparents and great-grandparents expected. We still need to think ahead. Learning to see the shortcomings in these antique tomorrows we're still dragging around with us may make us more intelligent creators of new visions. If we can let go of the way the past saw the future, we may be able to think anew about what is to come.


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Congratulations on a brilliant essay, Alex. You may overturn some idols among your readers, but you've shown a maturity and wisdom that we desperately need now.

Years ago, systems thinker Russell Ackoff pointed out that we take four approaches to the future: inactive, reactive, proactive or interactive.

Inactive people avoid the future by appointing committees, commissioning studies, issuing white papers, etc. Fear keeps them stuck in Dullsville, where they slowly turn to dust.

Reactive people resist a future they don't want by obstructionism, denial, even violence. For a while they can hold sway, but ultimately they're the bankrupt owners of buggy-whip factories.

Proactive people see the future as separate from us, inevitable, something to prepare for, cash in on, be on the cutting edge of. Here comes the future, and the Smart will thrive - the Stupid will be swept away in the tide. Get with The Program - Resistance is Futile.

Interactive people ask, "What kind of future do we want?" Then they work hard to create it. They're guided by vision, governed by hands, head and heart.

Wise Interactive people recognize that the future we want is constrained by physical laws - the sky is not the limit. The Earth is the limit.

This needn't be a letdown or disaster: cathedral builders didn't mourn that all they had was stone; they built Chartres and Westminster. Rumi didn't care that he didn't speak Chinese; he wrote great poems with the Persian words he had.

While we keep searching for a vision of a future that works, we also need to understand and create the conditions that allow a future we want to unfold, an emergent property of billions of creative acts. Perhaps the future is a garden.

Posted by: David Foley on 19 Jun 07

Great essay. I've spread it around some.

Stross's essay has been discussed on a wide variety of venues I visit. It's interesting how, ah, stereotyped some of the reactions are.

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 19 Jun 07


Posted by: Chris on 20 Jun 07

I've been thinking a lot about this essay and the one before it, The Empire of Crime and what the lack of our vision for the future means. The short answer is that I'm not sure, but I think the lack has something to do with how opaque the future seems to us right now. I'm also pretty sure that the interpretation of steampunk Alex puts forward is too simplistic - yes it is retro and has some escapist elements, but there is also a strong undercurrent of do-it-yourself, object reuse, and a desire for durability. It's a many-layered movement, but I find it notable as one of the few "visions" today that takes a uniformly even-handed view of technology. (I've noticed more and more conversations in other branches of speculative fiction increasingly taking a neo-luddite attitude that steampunk pretty explicitly disavows.)

Anyways, as far as a coherent vision of the future goes that manages to be neither utopian nor nightmarish, has anyone here seen the TV series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex? It's very different than the movies that proceeded it, and while its focus is more on questions of consciousness and the meaning of society and individuality, it's interesting in this context for how it treats the background environment. The world of GITS:SAC is not one that has decayed beyond hope, but is instead a fusion of greenery and high technology - a sort of "green cyberpunk" that implies (though it doesn't go into) a sustainable future.

Granted, this is Japanese science fiction, not Western. Which makes me curious... Perhaps this sense of despair is a Western, rather than universal, phenomenon?


Posted by: Nathan on 20 Jun 07

If you people really do believe that the high frontier cannot be opened and that we really are all confined here on Earth for the forseeable future ((I think this is horse pucky), then the first step towards sustainability is to limit population growth. Implementation of China's "one-child" policy should become the standard for the rest of the world, particularly the U.S. (which still has positive population growth). A good suggestion would be to tie foreign aid to effective population control. Countries that refuse to reduce birthrates should be cut off to all foreign aid and should be economically quarranted.

Any discussion of ecological sustainablity that does not address population growth is meaningless. It is worse than useless.

Posted by: Kurt9 on 20 Jun 07

Kurt, there is no way, even given miracle propulsion technologies and space elevators cranking away 24/7, for space travel to act as a means of relieving population pressure.

In any case, you don't need a draconian "one child" policy to stabilize the population. Two children per family is below the replacement rate.

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 20 Jun 07

Well, Kurt has a point, though perhaps it wants more compassion. We built two engines driving us into overshoot and collapse. Each involves exponential growth: of population and of the materials and energy flowing through our political economy.

They are linked. Generally, modest prosperity, the necessities and decencies of life, helps slow population growth. But it's not a direct link - it's more that desperation and deprivation fuel birthrates, and perpetuate subjugation of women, also fueling birthrates.

There are exceptions: some countries with relatively high incomes still have high birthrates, often because the cultural/political climate still oppresses women. And prosperity sometimes raises birthrates. Recently, it 's come to light that richer Chinese are flouting the One-Child policy, because the fines and taxes mean nothing to them. (Kurt, the U.S. doesn't give much foreign aid to China - but China holds a staggering amount of U.S. Treasury debt. Who can hold whose growth hostage?)

Population is on track to stabilize, slowly over the next several score decades, at somewhere between 9 and 14 billion people. When you consider that there were about 3 billion people when I was born (I'm 51), the range of uncertainty of the future, stabilized population is more people than had ever lived until recently.

Our impact is the multiplication of population, affluence (consumption), and technological efficiency. It's a well-known formula:


So when we try to reduce sustainability to a single factor, we're not thinking straight.

Our history is about a struggle to grow within local and regional limits. We're just realizing that now we face planetary limits. That's uncharted territory, where the old maps don't work. There's no "it's their fault," or "we'll head elsewhere" anymore. We're all in this together, and we can't just trash a place and then go "pioneering" again.

The term "High Frontier" is so revealing - John Wayne in a spacesuit. Such a sad clinging to outmoded thought, dressed up with rocket ships and LaGrange Points.

There's no Fairy Godmother off-planet. The constraints are more than technical - they're biological. We're symbiotes, co-evolved with this planet's microbes. Star-Trek was a joke: how did their guts function? We can't leave Earth unless we take Earth with us, and we can't take it in a jar.

The real frontier is in inner space now. We have to be new kinds of people, with different goals, politics, economics, technology, culture. We need to transform everything, and the strain is sometimes more than we can bear. No wonder we look to the stars - we yearn for rescue from our immense responsibility. Peter Pan would like space colonies.

But here we are, at the start of our Next History, however long or brief. As Alex notes, it's time to put away the antique tomorrows we cling to, including the absurd fantasy of escape by spaceship. Time to grow up.

Posted by: David Foley on 21 Jun 07

You guys reinforce my point. By disgarding the high frontier as an impossibility, you make the case for draconian population control. There is only a finite amount of land (and resources) on the Earth, and population is still increasing way too fast in order for us to be accomodated in anything that I would consider a desireable life-style.

You say that two is enough. True, but going down to one or less is even better. If the future Earth has 9 billion people, would not each individual be able to have twice as much of everything if this could be reduced to 4.5 billion? Any concept of environmentalism and sustainability that does not have population control as its foundation principle is completely and utterly useless.

This is something the greens from the 60's understood instinctively that you people seem to have forgotten.

I am familiar with gut bacteria. I am also familiar with the issues of creating biospheres in space. This is not a show-stopper. I'm sure that biotechnology can work around this problem such that we can migrate off-world at some point in the future.

However, there is another problem with denigrating the high frontier concept. By insisting that we must all be tied to the Earth for ever and ever is to say that the future is zero-sum. No new place for people to go. So, the future is limited and finite. In such a zero-sum game, there is only one winner.

In contrast, the high frontier offers a positive-sum game solution for us. Since we can all go our separate ways and do our own things, we can all become winners. This was explained eloquently by Gerard O'neill in the "High Frontier", which was published 30 years ago.

Different people have different dreams and goals. Positive-sum solutions are always preferable to zero-sum solutions, because they allow everyone to have what they want. Everyone wins and everyone is happy.

A zero-sum solution, in contrast, allows for only one winner. Since not everyone can win, zero-sum games invariably lead to conflict. By insisting that our problems can be solved only by a zero-sum approach, you are unwittingly creating the conditions for a conflict. What makes you guys think that you would win in such a conflict? I think its quite likely (like 100%) that you guys will not win in any such conflict.

Do you guys really want to create and play this kind of game/

Posted by: Kurt9 on 21 Jun 07

Kurt, I know all about O'Neil, and much admire Freeman Dyson's even more eloquent and insightful thoughts on the Why of space settlement. I was a starry-eyed teen while the L-5 movement was in full swing, and read all the strident essays by SF authors and the ideological SF of the time. I remember the non-zero-sum-game rhetoric from way back when.

I am nowhere near the absolutist that Dave Foley is. What I am is realistic. Space habitats and settlements on other worlds will mean a teeny tiny fraction of humanity won't be living on Earth. Everyone back home will still have to Deal With It. Even the introduction of resources and energy from space won't change that.

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 21 Jun 07

Kurt, time scales matter.

I've thought about and hoped for expanded space activity for fifty years. I believe that eventually many of the big dreams associated with it will come to pass. But none of them -- not space solar power, not extraterrestrial resources or industry, not mega-engineering in space to manipulate insolation -- can possibly pay off fast enough to solve (or even buy us more time to solve) most of the challenges over the next couple of generations that WorldChanging is concerned with.

Space enthusiasts have an abiding fault, born of SF, of that dazzling 15 years from Sputnik through Apollo, and of decades of frustration and impatience since. It is to hustle the future: to convince themselves that there's some magic (political, technological, economic) that will turn the marathon back into a sprint. There isn't.

As Stross says, if you're serious about space tyu'd better "dig in for the long slog": understand why it's hard and slow and expensive today, and why it will take a long time to make it less so. On a scale of centuries, I'd love to see us move our messiest activities (primary energy production and mineral extraction/processing) out of the living room -- but that won't keep the living room from becoming awfully threadbare, hot, and tense between now and 2100.

Note well what I'm not saying. I'm not saying "do nothing in space until all terrestrial problems are solved." (To the extent I think in those terms at all, there are many other, more costly activities I'd cut back first.) What I am saying is that space offers neither a credible solution to the most pressing problems here nor a credible escape from them.

Posted by: Monte Davis on 21 Jun 07

Inner space as our next frontier? Sounds singulatarian to me (at least Dave Foley is). Maybe uploading will become an option in this century, then our progression will be to smaller and smaller physical dimensions as Moore's Law continues unabated.

I guess I should not be suprised, since I found this site from CRNano, a nanotech site. Also, Charles Stross, who is quoted extensively in this commentary, is clearly a singulatarian as well(judging by his novel "Accelerando").

I guess then I should describe you guys as green singulatarians.

I disagree with you guys with regards to space resources, especially space solar power. The long term energy future is either nuclear (fission, followed by fusion) or space solar power, preferably both. It is silly to believe than any other source is going to give us the terawatts of electricity that is essential to modern society.

Check out for more info about space solar power. Much of this stuff can be build by automation and telerobotics, technologies that progressed enourmously since L-5 days.

I agree with you guys about large-scale space migration in the next 100 years. This simply will not happen. But utilization of extraterrestrial resources such as space solar power and platinum group metals is certainly doable in a 20-30 year time period.

Motor fuel for cars and airplanes will come initially from algae. Later it will come directly from synthetic biological processes. Unlike hokey schemes like biodiesil, these can be price competitive with petroleum.

You guys are into the Earth-bound sustainability trip. John McCarthy has the best summary about this that I have been able to find:

So, even if we do all stay here, we can have incredible wealth and style and have billion year sustainability.

I stand by my point about the desirability of positive-sum solutions over zero-sum solutions. Zero-sum solutions (which, by definition are always unnecessary) create conflict. I do not believe you guys have the heart (nor the ruthlessness) neceesary to prevail in the entriely unnecessary conflict that would result.

I suggest you promote positive-sum solutions.

Maybe uploading into "inner space" is the positive-sum solution you guys have in mind.

Posted by: Kurt9 on 21 Jun 07



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