Friday, October 11, 2013

Departing from History

     What could keep us from repeating history? Are Americans on a historically determined arc from liberty through chaos to tyranny? In profound ways, we really are different from any prior culture. Through science, modern people have unraveled truths of nature and ourselves that settle the primordial questions of mankind. Superstition and religion are inbred in us—science has told us even that—but rational, scientific explanations for phenomena are ineluctably supplanting those of faith and fantasy. Fundamentalists dispute Darwin’s theory of evolution, but they do so increasingly with arguments about data and gaps in the fossil record. Essentially, they have conceded the main point, which is the efficacy of the scientific method. This is an enormous difference. Further, the discoveries of science are accessible as never before. If the Library of Alexandria preserved ancient wisdom for many centuries, it was nonetheless limited in effect because limited in access. Moreover, it could be burned in a day—and was. By contrast, the Internet cannot be destroyed by anything short of an extinction event, and its information is in principle available to all people everywhere at trivial cost. This is another enormous difference between our world and the world of our ancestors.


   Along with unprecedented and accessible knowledge, we enjoy unprecedented power and wealth because of the technology derived from that knowledge. Economics is the science of scarcity, but what if technology makes an American or European or Australian lifestyle realistically available for everyone on Earth? There is an expanding list of engineers and futurists and entrepreneurs who see such a future. Consider Planetary Resources, a company founded by Peter Diamandis, who is seriously intent on mining metals from asteroids crossing the Earth’s orbit. The company is apparently well financed by a list of billionaires who will insist on a strong return on investment. The business plan is fascinating—each stage of development will be self-funding, starting with the launch of a cloud of small, satellite telescopes that will provide Earth-imaging services the company can sell to other corporations and to governments. If Diamandis succeeds, the price of metals will necessarily drop. Drops in material costs for metals like platinum and gold will make innovative but costly applications for such metals suddenly economical. Cheap platinum will encourage inventors to find new uses for the metal, allowing the full exploitation of its unique properties. No prior human civilization has ever had access to resources on this scale.

     In a world of blossoming knowledge and potentially unlimited resources, do historical models matter? Granted, it appears the United States Congress is descending into a historically familiar partisan spiral of intransigence. Similar spirals in other times and places have yielded civil war, chaos, and then peace through tyranny. Are we really doomed to repeat that pattern? Well, at the same time government is proving itself dysfunctional, other entities are moving forward with the business of humanity. Consider the manned space program. Since Apollo, NASA has achieved comparatively little apart from safeguarding its own existence and budget share. But while governmental manned space programs are frozen in low Earth orbit, literally going around in circles (to quote Robert Zubrin), private firms like SpaceX and Scaled Composites are actually moving forward. The SpaceX founder is Elon Musk, of PayPal fame. He noticed that the high cost of space launch was an immense impediment to development of the final frontier. He further noticed that the cost of space launch was high primarily because the launch vehicles are typically expended every time. Imagine the cost of plane tickets if, after every flight, the airline threw away the airplane. By contrast, the cost of fuel itself is trivial. So, if you want to cut space launch costs, why not build a fully reusable rocket? And that is what SpaceX is doing.

     This is a small example of how other entities can step in where governments (and larger, older corporations) are moribund. Does this mean that we as a people can tolerate a dysfunctional government? Perhaps. Perhaps innovation and the rising tide of technology and our unprecedented material wealth will allow us to survive a dysfunctional government. Perhaps these factors will change the equation so much that we no longer need worry about our declining commitment to civic virtue, which historically has been the bedrock of the comparatively few free societies. On the other hand, perhaps our high technology will simply empower a new Augustus, to whom we will happily trade away our freedom in exchange for guaranteed incomes and universal health care.

     Time will tell.

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