Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Conquest of the Future

The Conquest of the Future:

The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space
Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future
, by
W. Patrick McCray, Princeton University Press, 351 pages,

Remember the late 20th century? When machines on the moon were
spitting 10-pound spoonfuls of soil into orbit every few seconds,
as raw material for space colonies and zero-gravity factories? When
solar panels in orbit were beaming down the planet’s power supply?
When we were manufacturing everything we wanted, molecule by
molecule, via machines smaller than the smallest objects we
previously knew?
In The Visioneers, the UC–Santa Barbara historian W.
Patrick McCray revisits the birth and growth of those futures—or
rather, those concepts of the future, which haven’t (yet)
come true. Enthusiasts were enchanted by visions of living and
thriving in high orbit free from cultural and governmental
restraints, of turning the universe into building blocks for any
toy kingdoms we imagined.
McCray convincingly posits the movements to plan and promote
space colonies (which peaked in the late 1970s) and nanotechnology
(biggest in the 1990s) as reactions to a cultural pall emanating
from the elite Club of Rome and its notorious 1972 report
The Limits to Growth
. In that document, a
gang of solons from MIT and the United Nations, funded by big
corporate foundation bucks, got severe with us: Time to settle for
less, folks. Less people, less resources, less growth, less
excitement, a wrenching shift to a steady-state grey world of
knowing our place and keeping to it, tidying the Earth in the
process. Frontiers were out; limits were in.
Screw that, said the stars of McCray’s tale. We can
live and work and manufacture and obtain power from space, and we
can reshape the world from atoms up without fouling our nests.
McCray defines visioneers as people who not only
imagine an exciting future but use “their training in science and
engineering to undertake detailed designs and engineering studies”
of that future. To boot, they “built communities and networks that
connected their ideas to interested citizens, writers, politicians,
and business leaders.” The two visioneers whose stories he tells
are Gerard O’Neill and Eric Drexler, associated respectively with
space colonies and with nanotech.

Gerard O’Neill, a physicist who had done innovative work with
particle accelerators in the early 1960s, was a science fiction
fan. By the end of the decade, he had become enamored with space
and tried, but failed, to get a job at NASA. Unenmeshed in our
official space bureaucracy, he became instead a freelance
astro-visionary (while still teaching physics at Princeton). He
began drawing up rigorous designs of orbiting space cities, and he
began hyping them in university lectures.
By 1974 he convinced the journal Physics Today to run a
cover story on “colonies in space” and got Princeton to host a
small conference on the topic (partially subsidized by the Point
Foundation, which arose from Stewart
’s Whole Earth Catalog empire). That meeting got
front-page New York Times coverage. Soon, O’Neill was
everywhere from 60 Minutes to Penthouse to
The Merv Griffin Show to National
. In 1976 he had a best-selling book called
The High Frontier
—back then that meant living and
making things in space, not using it as a military high
ground—promoting the idea that space was not, as McCray writes, “a
government-run program, but...a place.”
O’Neill’s followers started the L5 Society, named after Lagrange
Point 5
, an orbital position especially suitable for a colony
floating over the same spot on Earth. Its founders, Keith and
Carolyn Henson, resembled
Burning Man
devotees, all into Tesla coils, homemade pyro,
science fiction, and survivalism. L5 had 4,000 members by 1981,
largely educated white men concentrated in the Sun Belt. They wrote
filk songs
about Lagrange living and canvassed science-fiction conventions for
converts. Stewart Brand and his magazine CoEvolution
started heavily promoting space living, to the
dismay of many of the small-is-beautiful back-to-the-landers of his
crafty-hippie audience.
McCray notes that the L5 types “presaged the odd political
alliances that emerged two decades later when left- and right-wing
writers and political leaders united in their enthusiasm for the
Internet and…the new ‘electronic frontier.’” Former LSD advocate
, fresh out of jail, temporarily turned his career toward
advocating space travel while openly celebrating himself as a
“snake oil salesman,” inspiring people with dreams that might go
beyond what we know to be strictly possible. Meanwhile, Barry
Goldwater endorsed the idea from the right. O’Neill himself told
60 Minutes that he wanted space travel to be more
entrepreneurial than governmental—something “forced on the
government...by the people and not the other way around.” (O’Neill
did not appreciate Leary’s involvement in what O’Neill saw as
his bailiwick.)
By the end of the 1970s, seeking ways to get big money of some
sort behind his ideas, O’Neill was talking less about people living
in space in groovy liberty and more about manufacturing in
space—and, more important in the OPEC-fearing age of malaise,
creating American energy independence via solar panels beaming
energy from orbit to earth. NASA funded some studies related to
O’Neill’s ideas; Sen. William Proxmire (R-Wisc.), famous for
publicizing government waste, got mad; Ronald Reagan became
president; and by the end of the 1980s, most of the money and ideas
going into space were about space-based lasers, not colonies,
factories, or solar collection facilities.
McCray’s story then shifts to Eric Drexler, after an
entertaining chapter linking space and nano via the wonderful
, the popular face of visionary science in the 1980s.
(Its very popular face—the publication’s monthly
circulation was over a million in its early-‘80s apogee.) Drexler
started as an O’Neillite, a member of the L5 Society’s board, and a
pioneer in “solar
” planning. He then shifted his vision from vast to small,
imagining how supertiny machines could build whatever we needed
molecule by molecule, including more of themselves—self-replicating
nanobots, as they came to be known.
Like O’Neill, Drexler’s first big visionary splash was in a
specialist journal, in his case the Proceedings of the National
Institutes of Science
in 1981. (He used the phrase “molecular
engineering” rather than “nanotechnology” back then.) Also like
O’Neill, he moved quickly into popularizing his arguments,
discussing them in Smithsonian in 1982. By 1986 an
Omni cover story was hyping his ideas, and he had his own
high-selling book that same year,
Engines of Creation
. Also that year, Drexler and his
then-wife Christine Peterson started the Foresight Institute to promote nano
ideas, deliberately placing the institution near the new energy and
money of Silicon Valley. (Mitch Kapor of Lotus 1-2-3 and John
Walker of Autodesk were early supporters.) Stewart Brand, always on
the cutting edge of visionary science, jumped on the bandwagon;
science fiction became awash in nano visions, both wondrous and
horrifying; conferences were held; popular science articles
bloomed; and in 1992, Al Gore invited Drexler to speak at a
congressional hearing on technologies for a sustainable world.
McCray tells how “official” nanotech, as valorized in the 2003
Century Nanotechnology and Development Act
,” buried its
Drexlerian roots, with research and developments oriented not
toward his wilder visions but toward small incremental advances in
chemistry and physics, with results such as sunscreens and tennis
balls made with “nano” substances. By 2006 one physicist in the
field called Drexler “the name that can’t be spoken in polite
society.” Still, McCray makes it clear that much of the government
and corporate, not to mention popular, enthusiasm for nano research
can be traced back to Drexler’s visioneering, even if nanobots
don’t exist yet.
Both men, and both of the movements that arose around them, had
a libertarian edge. Each one wanted to imbue as many people as
possible with the idea that the future is a free zone to be won
with intellectual and physical labor. And each arose to fight the
Club of Rome mentality’s authoritarian implications. In the words
of Club of Rome member Garrett Hardin, the organization’s ideas
implied that we had to “reexamine our individual freedoms to see
which ones are defensible.” O’Neill credits his “desire to be free
of boundaries and regimentation” as inspiring his space escape
dreams, and he hated the totalitarianism he believed was inherent
in limits-to-growth talk. (On the left, O’Neill’s critics framed
his vision as the ultimate in irresponsible suburban flight.)
Drexler, meanwhile, had been a fan of F.A. Hayek and Robert Nozick
since his undergrad days at MIT, and he believed that nanotech’s
material abundance would, as McCray writes, “defuse tensions
between libertarians and socialists.” The anarchist philosopher
David Friedman spoke at a 1987 Nanotechnology Study Group
conference at MIT.
Still, while not making a big deal out of it, McCray makes it
clear that even if a visioneer wanted to be fully
entrepreneurial-libertarian, reality seemed to demonstrate that
they needed big government and big business involved if they wanted
to turn science fiction into reality. And the best way to do
that—as with the original development of rockets—turned out to be
to show a direct connection to a specific military need. By the
Reagan ‘80s, many of the L5 crew were born-again militarists. In
McCray’s words, “a growing number of L5’s members began to imagine
that government funding and military activities in space could help
open the space frontier,” just as government forts and
government-funded railroad ventures helped open the Western
McCray’s well-detailed book contains enough social history to
demonstrate that these ideas had real cultural heft in their
heydays; it feels right to a reviewer who read Omni as a
kid and was turned on to L5 and life extension ideas by reading
Timothy Leary’s books around the same time. McCray dips into the
prehistory of these ideas as well, including a revelatory
discussion of the Irish biologist John Desmond Bernal’s 1929 book

The World, the Flesh, and the Devil
. (Bernal’s text
sounds like it invented transhumanism, with its prescient
discussion of “new molecular materials” and off-planet colonies of
“free communication and voluntary associations of interested
people” who would “interfere in a highly unnatural manner” with
human bodies itself.) McCray also explains how big names in popular
science who retained their cachet for longer than O’Neill and Dyson
did—Freeman Dyson and Richard Feynman—presaged the book’s
protagonists by decades with articles that had largely faded from
memory when McCray’s visioneers independently revived their
McCray doesn’t come across as a true believer, but he isn’t much
for complicating his characters’ beliefs. He doesn’t note, for
example, that for all of O’Neill aversions to “limits to growth”
thinking, life on an actual early-generation O’Neill colony would
mean shoving yourself into a world of limits far, far narrower than
any mandarins wanted to impose on Earth. McCray does acknowledge
that Drexler speculated far beyond the currently possible—though
Drexler did, after his first popular exploration of his ideas in
Engines of Creation, produce a more technically grounded
book in 1992’s
. But for the most part, the lab chemists
and technicians never quite cottoned to Drexler.
O’Neill and Drexler imagined progress in their respective fields
faster than reality warranted. But it is too early to declare them
prophets of what McCray calls “failed futures.” I don’t think
either of their stories is over, despite being entombed here in a
book from an academic press. As McCray mentions in the end, modern
concepts of transhumanism and the “Singularity” arose from the nexus
of O’Neill and Drexler’s belief that no limits in space or matter
could hold back human progress. Nanotech was widely imagined as the
technical key to life extension and the revival of cryonically
frozen bodies—possibly to its detriment in being taken seriously by
big science and big industry. Most of the mavens of private space
travel can trace their inspiration back to O’Neill, either first or
second hand. Less obviously, the
movement is essentially a replay of the early days
of O’Neillism, before its focus shifted to beaming solar energy
from space. Both are animated by the same promise of new
possibilities of dwelling in newly-built living spaces in a
surprising new place.
O’Neill died in 1992, of leukemia. He didn’t make it to L5. But
entrepreneurs shot his ashes into space in 1997, along with those
of Timothy Leary and Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.
Engineer, snake oil salesman, storyteller: They were all equal in
the end. When mankind does get to L5 and beyond, all three men and
all three roles they played will deserve credit, just as the more
sober industrialists of modern nanotech owe Drexler a debt.