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.
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.
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.
Anderson: So yeah let’s jump into this and see what Ariel says, and then we will, um—
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 spacehack.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.
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: 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Anderson: So thanks for listening. I’m Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.
This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.