Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypoth­e­sis. There are moments in his­to­ry when the sta­tus quo fails. Political sys­tems prove insuf­fi­cient, reli­gious ideas unsat­is­fac­to­ry, social struc­tures intol­er­a­ble. These are moments of crisis. 

Aengus Anderson: During some of these moments, great minds have entered into con­ver­sa­tion and torn apart inher­it­ed ideas, dethron­ing truths, com­bin­ing old thoughts, and cre­at­ing new ideas. They’ve shaped the norms of future generations.

Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours war­rant The Conversation? If they do, is it happening?

Anderson: We’ll be explor­ing these sorts of ques­tions through con­ver­sa­tions with a cross-section of American thinkers, peo­ple who are cri­tiquing some aspect of nor­mal­i­ty and offer­ing an alter­na­tive vision of the future. People who might be hav­ing The Conversation.

Saul: Like a real con­ver­sa­tion, this project is going to be sub­jec­tive. It will fre­quent­ly change direc­tions, con­nect unex­pect­ed ideas, and wan­der between the tan­gi­ble and the abstract. It will leave us with far more ques­tions than answers because after all, nobody has a monop­oly on dream­ing about the future.

Anderson: I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul. And you’re lis­ten­ing to The Conversation.

Aengus Anderson: So num­ber thir­teen, here we are.

Micah Saul: Indeed.

Anderson: Ariel Waldman.

Saul: Yes. Spacehack.

Anderson: Spacehack.

Saul: Basically, it’s about the democ­ra­ti­za­tion of space explo­ration. Why should indus­try, why should gov­ern­ments, have all the fun? Let’s get the tools of space explo­ration and study of space into the hands of as many peo­ple as possible.

Anderson: It seems like she’s pitch­ing sort of a use of sci­ence that hear­kens back to ear­li­er eras when sci­en­tists were often amateurs

Saul: It’s a return to the cit­i­zen scientist.

Anderson: Right, but that’s nev­er exist­ed in the space era.

Saul: No, not at all.

Anderson: I’m kind of curi­ous how it’s going to exist in the space era.

Saul: yes.

Anderson: And I’m going to be real­ly inter­est­ed to see how does this change things? Like, who’s in con­trol of mak­ing the choic­es if we get there.

Saul: Exact.

Anderson: So yeah let’s jump into this and see what Ariel says, and then we will, um—

Saul: Reconnect.

Anderson: —try to make some con­nec­tions here.

Saul: Sounds good.

Anderson: Hey, this is Aengus. I just have to break in real quick and apol­o­gize in advance for the dis­tor­tion on Ariel’s track. It’s an iPhone push­ing data, and I did­n’t catch it when we were record­ing, dis­cov­ered it in post and now I’m embar­rassed. So with that dis­claimer, here we go.

Ariel Waldman: I very serendip­i­tous­ly got a job at NASA in 2008, and pri­or to that I had no involve­ment at all in space explo­ration or sci­ence, and I just kind of on a whim reached out to some­one at NASA and they had cre­at­ed a job descrip­tion that day, and I end­ed up get­ting the job work­ing for a pro­gram called CoLab. And CoLab real­ly sought to con­nect com­mu­ni­ties inside and out­side of NASA to col­lab­o­rate. So any­thing from get­ting ama­teur astronomers to col­lab­o­rate with astronomers at NASA, or get­ting dif­fer­ent mis­sions to open up their data and do more active engage­ment with peo­ple. Also bring­ing a space explo­ration lec­ture series to the start­up com­mu­ni­ty in San Francisco. It was real­ly a wide array of things just around the con­cept of get­ting NASA and non-NASA peo­ple to col­lab­o­rate. And it com­plete­ly changed my life and was real­ly influ­en­tial and inspirational.

Then I left NASA and I cre­at­ed space​hack​.org, which is a direc­to­ry of ways to par­tic­i­pate in space explo­ration. So that’s any­thing from dis­cov­er­ing galax­ies to build­ing robots that go to the moon or Mars. There’s all dif­fer­ent types of things that peo­ple with or with­out sci­ence back­grounds can do to active­ly con­tribute to space explo­ration and sci­en­tif­ic discovery.

Aengus Anderson: It’s very alien for me, the idea of democ­ra­tiz­ing space sci­ence, but I think for a lot of oth­er peo­ple it will be as well. So what’s some­thing where a nor­mal per­son could engage with NASA, which always seems like it’s kind of out in ivory tow­er land.

Waldman: There a vari­ety of things. One way that I real­ly like, decent­ly new project, is called Planet Hunters. And Planet Hunters is all about search­ing for exo­plan­ets, which are extra­so­lar plan­ets or plan­ets around stars oth­er than our own. And through Planet Hunters, you can actu­al­ly go through and try and actu­al­ly find new exo­plan­ets that haven’t been dis­cov­ered before. We do have algo­rithms to search for these exo­plan­ets already, but Planet Hunters bets that some humans can find some exo­plan­ets that get left out from the algo­rithms because humans are still bet­ter at pat­tern recog­ni­tion than robots or machines right now. So, Planet Hunters is kind of pit­ting human against machine and bet­ting that they can find some exo­plan­et can­di­dates. And they already have. 

I’m try­ing to kind of wake peo­ple up that when NASA says they’re explor­ing things and we can say, Oh, we’ve been to the moon. We’ve been to all these dif­fer­ent places,” you your­self haven’t actu­al­ly been there. You’re actu­al­ly observ­ing peo­ple explor­ing space on behalf of your­self. And so I think I try and awak­en peo­ple to both that con­cept and the con­cept that space and sci­ence data is a real­ly inter­est­ing fab­ric to work with.

A lot of it’s about dein­sti­tu­tion­al­iz­ing sci­ence and kind of break­ing down the bar­ri­ers that there’s this per­ceived wall between you and sci­ence, and that that’s some­thing that only going back to school and get­ting a PhD means you can work with that. And that’s just not true. So I think it’s real­ly about tar­get­ing some­thing that’s real­ly amaz­ing like the whole entire­ty of the uni­verse, and telling peo­ple you know, this is an area you can play in. Also your indus­try and the types of things you do day to day can active­ly con­tribute to sci­ence. And sci­ence isn’t always real­ly good about ask­ing for help. So a fash­ion design­er could be design­ing a space suit.

Anderson: How do the pri­or­i­ties of the sci­en­tif­ic insti­tu­tions change as they become more democratized?

Waldman: That’s an inter­est­ing ques­tion, and I don’t know if I have an exact answer for that. I think a lot of inter­est­ing things are going to be hap­pen­ing as sci­ence becomes more democ­ra­tized, one of which is the explo­ration of either unpop­u­lar sci­ence or sci­ence that has been left behind by bureau­cra­cies. And I think that’s real­ly where the con­cept of cit­i­zen sci­ence” as a phrase is more mean­ing­ful. It’s not about doing the same thing and just open­ing it up to any­one, or doing the same thing and just doing it for cheap­er. It’s actu­al­ly about real­ly hav­ing dif­fer­ent types of peo­ple around the world be able to explore sci­ence that often gets over­looked. How that’ll actu­al­ly change sci­ence insti­tu­tions and their road maps, I’m not quite sure yet. I think that’s some­thing that’s still wait­ing to be found out.

Anderson: It seems like there’s an assump­tion there though, that by democ­ra­tiz­ing it, their insti­tu­tion­al pressures…maybe we can break it out of that mold a lit­tle bit?

Waldman: Yeah, hope­ful­ly. And espe­cial­ly I would hope that that would kind of fil­ter over into sci­en­tists, because a thing I often hear is I you don’t ever pro­pose the risky, crazy sci­ence thing, even if you strong­ly believe in it, because you know you’re not going to get fund­ing for it. And your entire career depends on con­stant­ly find­ing fund­ing. There’s not a lot of sup­port for explor­ing risk­i­ness. Most of the foun­da­tions real­ly sup­port safe and con­trolled, con­ser­v­a­tive sci­ence. And that real­ly affects the indus­try as a whole. 

Anderson: With every­thing, there’s always sort of a pow­er ques­tion. Is sci­ence demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly con­trolled, or should it be? Is it con­trolled by dif­fer­ent insti­tu­tions, gov­ern­ments, fun­ders… Who is sci­ence work­ing for?

Waldman: There is a lot of con­trol at the gov­ern­ment and insti­tu­tion lev­el, and again that’s just some­thing that’s emerged over the last sev­er­al decades. Science just became more insti­tu­tion­al­ized, and there’s a mul­ti­tude of rea­sons for that. So I think that part is sad, because I don’t think it needs to work that way and I don’t think any­one wants to work that way, and I would say even the heads of the insti­tu­tions and the heads of the gov­ern­ment agen­cies would say they’re not try­ing to con­trol science.

But the fact that it all comes back to fund­ing, and that fund­ing and insti­tu­tions and gov­ern­ment agen­cies is incred­i­bly bureau­crat­ic, espe­cial­ly in NASA, you do see a lot of real­ly good mis­sions get killed off in the name of bureau­cra­cy rather than in the name of prop­er sci­ence. I do think some­thing that’s good though, at least when it comes to rock­et launch­es, is that with com­mer­cial space and with some oth­er gov­ern­ments and oth­er coun­tries, they care more about mon­ey than they do about the bureau­cra­cy of it all. So that’s actu­al­ly real­ly pos­i­tive. While not every­one has mon­ey, the idea that some­one will fly your stuff no mat­ter what as long as you have enough mon­ey is actu­al­ly a step in the right direc­tion towards democ­ra­tiz­ing. Because then if you want to study black holes, you don’t have to go through the logis­ti­cal night­mare of going through NASA. You can just go to Russia or some oth­er coun­try, and put your exper­i­ment up into space. Then it’s just about get­ting fund­ing rather than con­vinc­ing hearts and minds that you should be in the roadmap and you should com­pete with all these oth­er missions.

Anderson: Does space then just go from being a government-regulated thing to some­thing that’s more of a play­ground for the rich?

Waldman: It already is a play­ground for the rich. It seems to be the very pop­u­lar thing for rich white men who have been in charge of a com­pa­ny or two to do. You’ve got Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. This is good and bad. The bad part is that yeah, it’s some­thing where it’s still extreme­ly expen­sive. Costs on small satel­lites are slow­ly but sure­ly com­ing down, and I do expect that small satel­lites will become more acces­si­ble with­in the next ten years. But the good part is that you’ve also got all these white guys with a lot of mon­ey and a lot of pow­er, who are try­ing to make space explo­ration work for them, in a land­scape where it was pri­mar­i­ly dom­i­nat­ed by a gov­ern­ment agency. This is no small feat.

While space explo­ration might be inac­ces­si­ble right now, the fact that we do have very pow­er­ful peo­ple with a lot of mon­ey play­ing in it right now means that they’re putting a lot of pres­sure on the United States gov­ern­ment to real­ly make it more open, and hope­ful­ly it’ll be paving the way for more peo­ple to actu­al­ly par­tic­i­pate in space explo­ration by send­ing peo­ple to Washington and fight­ing these laws and every­thing. So as I say it is good and bad, but I think long term it’s good.

Anderson: So let’s say we have more pri­va­tized space explo­ration. You’ve got a lot more activ­i­ty going on in space. What is good about using space for dif­fer­ent things, right? So, I spo­ken to a lot of envi­ron­men­tal­ists, peo­ple who feel that nat­ur­al sys­tems just have intrin­sic mer­it. By sort of open­ing up this burst of explo­ration, what are the eth­i­cal ram­i­fi­ca­tions of that?

Waldman: Yeah, I find that ques­tion real­ly inter­est­ing because I can sym­pa­thize with both sides of it. Because I think ter­raform­ing is real­ly cool. On the oth­er hand there is that sense of… Unless we are active­ly going to put a civ­i­liza­tion there, in which case ter­raform­ing would make sense, do we real­ly need to you know, mine it or dig through it? 

That’s hard to say, because space is where the tra­jec­to­ry of where all of our resources are going to be com­ing from. The moon and aster­oids have all these met­als and gas­es that are oth­er­wise extreme­ly rare here. And there is a sense of we do need to con­tin­ue sup­port­ing our­selves. But there there are eth­i­cal ques­tions. That said, we already have a ton of junk that’s on the moon. We’ve already sent a bunch of probes slam­ming into the moon, and things like that. So it’s not like all these places are pris­tine. And I’m not say­ing that’s an excuse to go ahead and junk them up more. But it is some­thing we’ve already been kind of putting our toe into. 

And I do think there are a lot of good endeav­ors, and I think the pos­i­tive side of space explo­ration is that it’s sup­posed to be on the cut­ting edge of tech­nol­o­gy and our under­stand­ing of how to do dif­fer­ent things. So my hope is that along with more explo­ration and more tin­ker­ing with all these dif­fer­ent bod­ies in the solar sys­tem, there will also be bet­ter tech­nolo­gies to min­i­mize our envi­ron­men­tal impact. If it’s pos­si­ble to have my cake and eat it too, that’s what I would want. I want us to explore and probe and ter­raform. But I would like for us also to at the same time min­i­mize the envi­ron­men­tal impact, under­stand tech­nolo­gies that we can use that help clean up after we’ve done some­thing to some­place. Things like that.

Anderson: The guy I’ll be talk­ing to next, and this is going to be an inter­est­ing jux­ta­po­si­tion, is a primitivist.

Waldman: Okay.

Anderson: So, basi­cal­ly, for him val­ue in life comes through inter­per­son­al rela­tion­ships and unmedi­at­ed expe­ri­ences with the world. So for him there’s noth­ing good about hav­ing more resources with which to build more things. Because for him, those are dis­trac­tions from the unmedi­at­ed expe­ri­ence of being with oth­er peo­ple. If we were to say there’s a zeit­geist in our soci­ety, I would say most of us assume that tech­no­log­i­cal progress is good. That’s not some­thing we ques­tion. And he is a guy who actu­al­ly does ques­tion that.

Waldman: I would be curi­ous what his thoughts are on anthro­pol­o­gists or ethno­g­ra­phers or peo­ple who study humans. Because by ques­tion­ing that he’s inher­ent­ly being an anthro­pol­o­gist of sorts, you know, kind of look­ing at the world around him, find­ing it some­what strange, and kind of ques­tion­ing it and say­ing, Should we con­sid­er oth­er things?” Whether he likes it or not, that’s a sci­en­tif­ic mind­set and endeav­or, and I think that’s what some­times peo­ple for­get, is that you there real­ly are all dif­fer­ent types of sci­ences. The way you think about humans and humans’ inter­ac­tion with things, and study­ing that, and study­ing those sys­tems, is the same as study­ing the sys­tems of sub­atom­ic par­ti­cles. To me, it’s all the same. Again, I would argue that even he engages in sci­ence in some way. 

Anderson: I think there’s also this sense with these guys that there’s a cer­tain dan­ger to it, in a way that is sep­a­rat­ing us either from some sense of what it means to be human, or in a more tan­gi­ble sense is push­ing us clos­er and clos­er and clos­er to an extinction-like event where we’ve cre­at­ed such pow­er for our­selves sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly that we don’t have the eth­i­cal hard­ware to real­ly sort of deal with the pow­er we’ve created.

Waldman: So, I find that inter­est­ing in a num­ber of regards, but I think it gets at this nos­tal­gic feel­ing that some peo­ple expe­ri­ence, and the assump­tion that things were bet­ter or more authen­tic before tech­no­log­i­cal advances that we have today. A lot my friends actu­al­ly are tack­ling that con­cept, and the thing I found that I love that they talk about is the con­cept that things need to be less seam­less today and more seamful.

Anderson: What does this mean?

Waldman: By that it means peo­ple feel things that are authen­tic or real, or they have a nos­tal­gia for things because you had the sense of you could see the seams, you could get a sense of the work that went behind it, you saw the work, the inter­ac­tion. It felt like it was real because you can see where things began and end, and it was­n’t seam­less and it was­n’t some­times per­fect. So the con­cept of mak­ing things more seam­ful in tech­nol­o­gy is actu­al­ly spend­ing more time to show or dis­play or get the con­cept across of the work that goes into things like com­put­ers, or things like web sites. 

Getting at the heart of that and see­ing those seams and actu­al­ly under­stand­ing the work behind it, is some­thing that needs to be done more, I would say, to com­bat this nos­tal­gia which I don’t agree with. And you know, I under­stand why peo­ple feel that way, but just because you can’t see some­thing does­n’t mean it does­n’t exist. And yeah, that gets into science.

Anderson: Does their grum­bling have any mer­it at all? The whole idea of progress is actu­al­ly false. 

Waldman: I don’t know. I mean, I would say per­son­al­ly I always am try­ing to under­stand and sym­pa­thize. But I think progress is inher­ent­ly progress. It’s called progress. And also that might be hard to under­stand, that phrase. We’re get­ting into some weird con­ver­sa­tion now.

Anderson: I promised it would be…not nor­mal, right?

Waldman: Yes, right. It’s not nor­mal. Progress is inher­ent­ly about mak­ing things bet­ter and yeah, there’s going to be real­ly dark sides to things that we don’t see. But at the same time, there’s dark sides to things that have exist­ed for a long time that we’re actu­al­ly able to help fix. So, dis­eases and longevi­ty and things like that that do affect us on a very human level. 

For bet­ter or worse, humans love con­trol. They love con­trol, and it’s a really…most of the time a bad thing. But to not progress, to not have tech­no­log­i­cal advances, is again to kind of give up what it means to be human, to me, because I think we do like con­trol. And even though we are at this inter­est­ing jux­ta­po­si­tion where we’re cre­at­ing things that now kind of emo­tion­al­ly freak us out even though sta­tis­ti­cal­ly they’re actu­al­ly bet­ter for us.

Anderson: Just cir­cling back very quick­ly to the notion of progress, and we were talk­ing about progress being some­thing you can mea­sure in kind of a mate­r­i­al way. How do we get the val­ue that more tech­nol­o­gy is bet­ter? Is it just based on the notion that human cre­ativ­i­ty is a good? Like, an innate good? Or that liv­ing longer is an innate good? You know, it seems like with any­thing that we rea­son­ably pur­sue, there are ara­tional assumptions.

Waldman: Yeah, I think I maybe have like two respons­es that. One is that tech­no­log­i­cal advances aren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly about forc­ing you to choose them. So you don’t have to get the lat­est MacBook Pro. You don’t have to choose to have your life extend­ed. But you have a choice, and I think that’s a lot of what tech­no­log­i­cal advances are about.

Anderson: Generating more choices.

Waldman: Generating more choice, and essen­tial­ly hav­ing less cor­ners that you get pushed into, either nat­u­ral­ly or not nat­u­ral­ly. It’s per­fect­ly fine to ques­tion like, should we live longer, and what are the impli­ca­tions of that? But I think it’s also some­one’s right to choose to go down that path. Not every­one needs to, but some peo­ple will want to.

Anderson: That’s some­thing very sim­i­lar to…I talked to Alexander Rose at the Long Now Foundation. When I asked him about the good he said sce­nar­ios that in aggre­gate give peo­ple more choice rather than less choice. I was like, that is so clean and philo­soph­i­cal­ly ele­gant, and so I did­n’t the ques­tion but I real­ized lat­er, which was, Why aren’t few­er bet­ter choic­es prefer­able to more choices?”

Waldman: This is going to sound so American. But it is part of what free­dom is.

Anderson: That’s okay. We’re Americans.

Waldman: Yeah. Yeah. I know. But I’m always very con­scious of…just com­ing off super American sometimes. 

No, it’s the free­dom thing. It’s the abil­i­ty to have bet­ter options and pro­vide bet­ter options for those that go past you. It’s the same thing where par­ents their chil­dren to have bet­ter lives. That inher­ent­ly means they’ve got to have more options than their par­ents did.

Anderson: Does it, though?

Waldman: I think so, because I think any­time you try and con­strain peo­ple or put peo­ple into a nice lit­tle tem­plate, you end up with some pret­ty messed up ram­i­fi­ca­tions. You see this in more total­i­tar­i­an states and com­mu­nism. Just that bare-bones con­cept of mak­ing every­one equal and and shar­ing with one anoth­er because it’s a bet­ter option unless you have less options in your life. Yeah, that does sound like a great idea of actu­al­ly you know, every­one being on sim­i­lar lev­els and help­ing each oth­er more. However in real­i­ty it does­n’t work out that way. Things should­n’t be lim­it­ed when it comes choice. I think it only makes sense when you’ve got rough con­cepts of what’s good and that they’re very flex­i­ble. So you know, things like the Constitution and then obvi­ous­ly they’re not always ide­al, but they’re sup­posed to be more flexible.

Anderson: Seems like beneath a lot of our con­ver­sa­tion thus far there’s an idea that curios­i­ty is good.

Waldman: Yeah.

Anderson: Why?

Waldman: I think the sad­dest thing is if you ever stop want­i­ng to learn new things. And it can be about any­thing. That’s just real­ly heart­break­ing. I don’t know. It’s just so much part of like who you are as a human to learn new things con­stant­ly. And so to not be curi­ous, not want to learn new things and not cre­ate new pat­terns and connections…you’re pret­ty much giv­ing up your human self. I don’t know.

Anderson: Our con­ver­sa­tions been sort of phys­i­cal­ist. We’re talk­ing in the world of stuff sci­ence and explo­ration and mate­r­i­al. But things like that, like human life is a good thing, curios­i­ty is a good thing, those are com­ing from some­where else. Or it seems like it. Where do we get those con­cepts from?

Waldman: Because [the] alter­na­tives usu­al­ly end in a lot of destruc­tion. I think it’s all about stand­ing on the shoul­ders of peo­ple before you and being able to learn good or bad from that. And so the con­cept of be nice and appre­ci­ate human life, is it nat­ur­al to us? I don’t know I’m not a big studi­er of evo­lu­tion and human behav­ior at the core. But I think we’ve done a pret­ty good job of say­ing when you don’t val­ue human life and that when you’re not nice to peo­ple, that you’re prob­a­bly not going to be very hap­py with the outcome.

Humans might inher­ent­ly be a bit self­ish. I don’t think every­one’s very good at long-term futures. But I think part of human nature is being able to play things out in your head and see how those are going to wind up back to you.

Anderson: There’s kind of like a…asocial aspect of this, right, where the ideas of the good can come through prag­mat­ic expe­ri­ence of what leads to more social harmony.

Waldman: Yeah. So that’s just at the very basic lev­el. Now a more I guess high­er, intel­lec­tu­al oper­at­ing level…yeah, I think there’s a lot to be said for want­i­ng to help oth­er peo­ple, want­i­ng to con­nect with oth­er peo­ple, want­i­ng to be a lot more sen­si­tive and more aware of what’s around you. Which I’m sure that all the peo­ple who are very nos­tal­gic like that very much, because it’s about being present and con­nect­ing with what’s in front of you. It might not be at the super prim­i­tive lev­el of being human, but I think it is at the mod­ern day of being a human.

Anderson: I should prob­a­bly just ask. I already know how you’re going to answer this, but are you opti­mistic about the future?

Waldman: Yes, I’m very opti­mistic about the future. It’s real­ly excit­ing and a lot of sci­en­tists just think it’s the most excit­ing time to be play­ing in. And I think real­ly being able to see the birth of a new era in space explo­ration is so impor­tant to me. It’s inter­est­ing see­ing most peo­ple think­ing it’s the end of an era in space explo­ration, and I think it’s just the begin­ning. We’ve been alpha test­ing for like fifty years now, now we’re start­ing like the beta tests. And hope­ful­ly if I live long enough I’ll see it emerge out of beta and real­ly become sort of a cit­i­zen sci­ence renais­sance, or a democ­ra­tized sci­ence world.

Aengus Anderson: So you’re back from out­er space— 

Micah Saul: I’m sorry.

Anderson: —with or with­out that sad look upon your face.

Saul: Could we start with like a, I don’t know David Bowie ref­er­ence instead, or…

Anderson: Space Oddity. You’d rather have that than disco?

Saul: Yes. I’d rather have Rocket Man by Elton John than disco.

Anderson: Oh, god. I don’t even know you. So we just spoke to, or I just spke to, Ariel Waldman.

Saul: Yes, you did.

Anderson: If we had to pin down her con­tri­bu­tion, her fun­da­men­tal­ly new idea, democ­ra­tiz­ing space sci­ence specif­i­cal­ly seems like that’s it.

Saul: That’s it. I have my own per­son­al bias­es about space and get­ting the tools of space explo­ration and space dis­cov­ery into the hands of more people.

Anderson: You think it’s good.

Saul: I think it’s good.

Anderson: She even said that ter­raform­ing is cool.

Saul: I mean…it is in some way. It’s not some­thing I think we should do with­out seri­ous­ly con­sid­er­ing the eth­i­cal and moral impli­ca­tions. But it is…cool.

Anderson: It’s hard to talk about space with­out talk­ing about under­ly­ing notions of what is good and what is eth­i­cal. There are def­i­nite­ly some big ones that came in. The idea that curios­i­ty is good.

Saul: Yes.

Anderson: Which I thought was real­ly inter­est­ing because I don’t think any­one else has actu­al­ly talked about curios­i­ty. Max More talked about self-expression in a way that is very sim­i­lar to curios­i­ty. Kind of a way of being self-fulfilled.

Saul: She also said that it was not just a good, it was one of the fun­da­men­tal things that make us human.

Anderson: Yes.

Saul: Which I appreciated.

Anderson: I feel bad for cats, because that was often their branding.

Saul: But I was hap­py that she was will­ing to just say yes, this is a fun­da­men­tal part of being human in a that Andrew Keen was­n’t will­ing to define what makes us human.

Anderson: And whether or not that puts her on firm ground or not, I sup­pose is one’s own sub­jec­tive opin­ion. But I was real­ly glad to have that out there.

Saul: I’m hap­py to have peo­ple just make those claims.

Anderson: Because then we’ve got some­thing to grab onto.

Saul: Yes. Going off of curios­i­ty is good, I’m not quite sure that the con­nec­tion was made, but I think she would argue that curios­i­ty is good because it’s what dri­ves progress.

Anderson: And what is progress any­way? This was some­thing that we came back to sev­er­al times. And I’m still not quite sure what I know. Progress seems to be expand­ing one’s knowl­edge of the world.

Saul: Yeah.

Anderson: It also seems to be technological.

Saul: Yeah. There was a nice tau­tol­ogy there. Progress is just…pro­gress­es is progress. You know, it it comes down to that tele­o­log­i­cal debate again.

Anderson: Right.

Saul: Science and tech­nol­o­gy are work­ing toward some­thing, and that some­thing is defined as progress.

Anderson: And that progress usu­al­ly man­i­fests as more stuff and more knowledge.

Saul: Yes.

Anderson: And I think that is one of the fun­da­men­tal assump­tions of our era. And it’s real­ly hard to get under­neath that, to sort of blow up that tele­ol­o­gy. Tim Morton will blow up that teleology.

Saul: Oh, absolutely.

Anderson: It’s inter­est­ing. I mean, the idea of how do we define this progress? I think we have had oth­er peo­ple we’ve spo­ken to, Jan Lundberg, maybe even John Fife…almost cer­tain­ly John Fife, who would mea­sure progress as some­thing that you make sort of interpersonally.

Saul: Right.

Anderson: Social things, which aren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly teth­ered to mate­r­i­al goods. They can be. And I think actu­al­ly Colin Camerer, we talked about that as well, the idea that for him, yeah you need a cer­tain lev­el of mate­r­i­al progress because oth­er­wise you are starv­ing and unhap­py. But after that, progress can be mea­sured in oth­er ways. Ways that are maybe less eco­nom­ic or material.

Saul: I’m going to project into the future a bit, but I have a feel­ing our next con­ver­sa­tion is going to be some­one else who will blow up this tele­ol­o­gy. We should prob­a­bly men­tion who that is real quick. Next you’ll be talk­ing to John Zerzan, who is—

Anderson: A primitivist.

Saul: —a neo­prim­i­tivist anar­chist in Eugene, and philosopher.

Anderson: He’s not afraid to speak his mind.

Saul: Yes.

Anderson: And he will, maybe more than any­one else in this project, tear apart pret­ty much every sin­gle notion of what we think is good. And I’m real­ly excit­ed to have some­one who makes the case for the prim­i­tive. And it’s going to be a cool jux­ta­po­si­tion to go from Ariel, who’s real­ly look­ing into the future with tech­nol­o­gy, with expand­ing… I mean for her, expand­ing off-world is kind of, that’s where it’s at.

Saul: And it seemed like a given.

Anderson: Right.

Saul: There was no way in hell that was­n’t going to happen.

Anderson: Pairing her inter­view with Zerzan, where on one hand we have the inevitabil­i­ty and the good­ness of progress, and I think we’ll see what the con­ver­sa­tion with John is like this com­ing Friday. But I think he’s going to say that stuff is mad­ness, you’re miss­ing the whole point.

Saul: So while we’re on the sub­ject of sort of tying Ariel into the broad­er pic­ture, what oth­er par­al­lels did we see? You know, it’s pos­si­ble that we defined, in this con­ver­sa­tion, more of the good than in any oth­er. Because I think of three things that were defined as the good. There’s curios­i­ty, there was progress, and then there was choice. More choice, is good.

Anderson: Yes.

Saul: And that brings us to Alexander Rose. Another idea that’s fair­ly preva­lent in our soci­ety is that more choice equals good. When there are stud­ies that sug­gest once you get past a cer­tain num­ber of choic­es, it’s crip­pling. You can’t actu­al­ly make a deci­sion when faced with more than…I don’t remem­ber the num­ber but it’s not a large number.

Anderson: No there’s actu­al­ly are a real­ly fun Radiolab episode that explores that con­cept. It cuts to our self-estimations of our worth. So while I felt like we did­n’t get into as much of the phi­los­o­phy and the def­i­n­i­tions of terms that I would have liked, I real­ly liked her exam­ple when we were talk­ing about choice in the case of a total­i­tar­i­an state. It’s kind of like look, when you’re going to say we have few­er choic­es or no choic­es and that some­how maybe that can make the sys­tem bet­ter, maybe that’s pos­si­ble. There’s also a real­ly good chance that that just does­n’t work.

Because when you only have one or a small num­ber of peo­ple mak­ing the choice for every­one, you’re still trust­ing that to a cou­ple of peo­ple. It’s not like you’re farm­ing this out to some omni­scient god who’s going to say, You know what, I real­ly got this fig­ured out for all of you. I’ll take care of the choic­es.” You’re trust­ing the Commissar.

Saul: Giving up choice is fun­da­men­tal­ly ced­ing some part of your agency.

Anderson: And isn’t that an inter­est­ing con­nec­tion? Because just briefly else­where, we got into the idea that ced­ing your agency can actu­al­ly be good.

Saul: Uh huh.

How does this line up? I had­n’t thought about this until you men­tioned it right now.

Saul: Neither did I.

Anderson: But we talk about it being good to have more choic­es but also that in the case of say, tech­nol­o­gy, our inabil­i­ty to let go of con­trol is a bad thing and that some­times it’s good to sort of farm that out to say, a self-driving auto­mo­bile. But if you just change the word con­trol out for choice… 

Saul: Which is a fair­ly easy thing to do here.

Anderson: In this cir­cum­stance it cer­tain­ly is. And I think you end up with, well…I don’t know how you bal­ance those. And that’s some­thing that I hope our lis­ten­ers weigh in on.

Saul: Yes. And on the same token, what else are we miss­ing? What are the big themes that we just don’t have yet? We cer­tain­ly have more peo­ple we want to talk to com­ing up. And cer­tain­ly some of them are going to sat­is­fy some of those themes. But we’re sure we missed some.

Anderson: We know it. We just don’t know what they are.

Saul: We don’t know what they are. And we don’t know who to talk to about them. So if you have any sug­ges­tions, let us know.

Anderson: Think about a new theme and how this idea could be fun­da­men­tal­ly new or chal­lenge our most cher­ished norms. 

Saul: Ugh.

Anderson: Does that sound like polit­i­cal speak or what?

Saul: That was awful. I pro­pose you leave that in and we end­ed here.

Anderson: That was Ariel Waldman. Recorded June 18, 2012 in San Francisco, California.

Saul: This is The Conversation. You can find us on Twitter at @aengusanderson and on the web at find​the​con​ver​sa​tion​.com

Anderson: So thanks for lis­ten­ing. I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.

Further Reference

This inter­view at the Conversation web site, with project notes, com­ments, and tax­o­nom­ic orga­ni­za­tion spe­cif­ic to The Conversation.