Always crashing in the same car.

The UK Institute of Directors has recently recommended that the UK invest in infrastructure for space travel, supporting a growing private space sector. NASA has recently celebrated the first private-financed delivery of materials to the International Space Station. And a consortium of billionaires (do any three words sound more like the plot for a bad superhero movie?) have announced their intention to mine asteroids for precious minerals.


Meanwhile, mainstream film and science fiction, from Doctor Who to Iron Sky, draws on the retro-futuristic ideas of “steampunk”, a conceptualisation of the future as it may have been dreamt in the past. Whilst brass cogs and filigree woodwork art is undeniably beautiful, it would seem to have little in common with the privatisation of space travel.


I’d argue that we now have the first generation of business leaders who were brought up on pulp science fiction, from Star Wars right the way back to Atlas Shrugged. But the individualistic pioneering world of the hero, the future that they dreamed about as children, is not the world they find themselves living in. Our future (and this is, lest we forget, two-thousand-and-twelve) is one where the primary problems to be addressed are not marauding alien armies or governments restricting the glory of private enterprise, but the trivial issues of how to feed, clothe and comfort seven billion people. The fervent mental preparations for space adventures clearly have been of limited use.


But, as Douglas Adams put it in Mostly Harmless:


“[…]This didn’t, of course, deter their crews from wanting to fight the battles anyway. They were trained, they were ready, they’d had a couple of thousand years’ sleep, they’d come a long way to do a tough job and by Zarquon they were going to do it.”


Despite the pressing nature of the social and environmental problems  the world does face, and despite the clear need for collective action, we still see the old Randian battles for objective individualism re-erupting. And in steampunk-influenced science fiction, we see an explicit wish to return to the simple problems that can be solved by the unfettered heroism of one man (and it is always a man…), without the stifling need to think to deeply about the real needs of others.


Compare the “nerd triumph” – problems fixed by technology, with little reference to the needs of the end user… indeed, with the expectation that the end user will adapt themselves and their lives to the solution.


As I am contractually obliged to mention higher education at least once in these blog posts, let it be here: who *really* wants an online degree that can be squeezed in between shifts in order to reach the post of supervisor? What I believe people actually want is the ability to be immersed in learning in their own time and at their own pace – but rather than sort out the much harder social and economic problems that would make this possible it is far far easier to invoke “reality” as if it was something we couldn’t change and produce some streaming videos and a chatroom.


In our cultural response to the current crisis of capital, it is the ideas of earlier battles – the 30s positions of Keynes and Hayek – that economists have reached back to. But within the new saviour mythology of the entrepreneurial start-up the sacred texts are by the nameless writers of Astounding Stories, the expanded-universe industry built around George Lucas and – inevitably – Rand.


Hence, I imagine, the drive for private space programmes. A chance to live those early dreams, to become the people that a generation of -fifteen year-old boys so badly wanted to be. To spend the working day mining asteroids, to take the evening Virgin Galactic flight to the Playboy Space Hotel. And you just know those rockets will be gleaming silver with 50s-style fins. And very, very tall indeed…


Using the billions of pounds our work and lives have earned them, they will return humanity to the correct path of the unified “future histories” postulated by writers in the early-to-middle twentieth centuries. Fighting the easy to win battles, ignoring the work of societal and cultural change.  Both in terms of their battle against the state, and their battle for the stars.


Once I had my heroes
Once I had my dreams
But all of that is changed now
They’ve turned things inside out
The truth is not that comfortable…”


3 thoughts on “Always crashing in the same car.”

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