From the Moon to Mars and back again, or: “20 years of social change: my personal experience of technology, art and innovation.”
This story begins with a reflection on fear and hope, seats you on the Mars Opportunity Rover for a drive to a simulated moon base in Poland, and then straps you onto a rocket back to Mars again. It is about how the world has changed for the worse in the last 15 years, and how our only hope… is hope
A global shadow-play of chaos and disorder
In 2005 the world stood up to terrorists and drew the sting from deadly attacks in London by saying ‘We’re Not Afraid’.
It was the right thing to say then. But things have changed. 14 years later it is clear that we are all afraid, and today ‘I’m Afraid’ is the right thing to say.
In 2005, saying you were not afraid was a response that made sense; terrorists’ aim was to create fear, and that was the conversation we were having all over the world. It was a conversation happening on every screen, in every country, and we were all part of it. Attacks like 7/7 could happen anywhere and at any time. Uniting in saying we were not afraid denied terrorists their aim of creating fear. That was sensible and who knows, maybe it even worked a little bit.
In many ways the world today is close to how it was in 2005. People who want us to be afraid are still everywhere, but they have gained more power, and have access to more sophisticated and insidious tools of control and influence.
The main change since 2005 is that instead of us all having a shared conversation, our screens have shattered into millions of mirror fragments, tiny filter bubbles which reflect and confirm our fears.
After 9/11 and 7/7 the western world could unite against fear because fear had a face. After the global economic crash of 2007 a new fear gripped us, one without a clear villain. Instead it was a terror with many faces: Investment Banks, Mortgage Lenders, Governments, Hedge Fund managers. The aggressor looked a lot like us. This new terror destroyed families and eroded faith in our economic systems, creating the perfect vacuum for disaster capitalism.
Promising simple solutions to complex problems, Populists dove into the vacuum the crash of 2007 created, promising that we wouldn’t have to be afraid if we put them in charge. And we did.
Today, after more than a decade of global economic austerity impacting 80% of the world’s population, Donald Trump is running the world’s largest economy, Britain is shrugging off its historically central role in European Democracy and Vladimir Putin is directing a global shadow-play of chaos and disorder.
In large part it was our inability to unite against the corrupt and broken institutions which created the crash of ‘07 that allowed this to happen. We were unable to unite because of the insidious ways in which Facebook, Google and Twitter segment us into ever smaller echo chambers whilst amplifying the angry voices of a minority who profit from our fear. Instead of clear and meaningful conversations, these platforms help splinter narratives into ever more divisive and nuanced fragments, increasingly denying us a unified voice online.
When we’re afraid, we look to people who promise they can fix the world. This is just our nature and we shouldn’t be ashamed of it; fear is a powerful motivator — but we should admit that ultimately we and our conversational platforms are to blame for the state we’re in.
Francois de la Rochefoucauld, a French writer of maxims and memoirs, once wrote:
“Hope is the last thing that dies in man; and though it be exceedingly deceitful, yet it is of this good use to us, that while we are travelling through life it conducts us in an easier and more pleasant way to our journey’s end.”
Hope doesn’t need to be ‘true’, it just needs to be strong enough to banish fear for a moment so we can look at things more clearly. I’m not being sentimental — our nature tends towards fear, and this is a Good Thing; risks are risky. What I am proposing is simply that Hope might be the best answer we have when it is right to say ‘I’m Afraid’.
Visionary work is seldom motivated by profit
In April of 2004 I sent my broken Motorola TH-55 to an engineer working on the Mars Opportunity Rover. I was sent this in return:
When the final images captured by the Opportunity were released by NASA on March 12th, 2019, almost exactly 15 years had passed since I had been sent this memento.
In some small way this exchange made me feel connected to something great, something huge and wild and amazing, something Visionary. It filled me with hope. Hope for the future, optimism for mankind — amazed at what we are capable of.
Visionary: /ˈvɪʒ(ə)n(ə)ri/ — adjective — thinking about or planning the future with imagination or wisdom.
The thing about visionary work is that it’s seldom motivated by profit. The motivation is to create against a blank canvas, to discover and through discovering know more, and add to the future.
Visionary projects and ambitions inspire us because they remind us of what we’re capable of. They make us feel as though we’re able to achieve great things and that bonds us to one another. They unite us because you can’t achieve these things alone. They inspire hope.
A simulated Moon Base somewhere in Poland
Last year I made a board-game with my friends Allix and Michal. It’s called Evil Corp and is a dark yet tongue in cheek reflection on the hubris that seems to accompany visionaries as they try to mould the world to fit their view of it.
This short film we made for it nails that feeling of behind-the-scenes manipulation we all suspect them of:
Whilst we were in the middle of launching the game my friend Louis Savy happened to be at CERN and met Dr Sarah Jane Pell, the commander of the Lunares III Moon Base Mission. She was intrigued by the premise of Evil Corp and invited us to be a Cultural Partner on the project, specifically:
“…The challenge to undertake in-mission manufacturing, the shared experience of establishing gaming pieces and the ‘gravity’ of contemplating the game scenario from within a lunar mission… the process and provocation of the game itself highlighted the many aspects of operational complexity, and cultural importance vital for crew well-being.”
Like my laser etching of the Mars Rover, I was gifted a physical reminder of my small contribution to the Lunares III mission:
I joke that our board-game is the first to be played on the moon, but like the Mars Opportunity Rover, the Lunares III mission was a visionary one.
It wasn’t setting out to make money, or to create commercial opportunity; it was setting out to understand what people would experience if we’re ever to create a manned base on the Moon.
So, in July 2018, while Britain was in the spasmodic fit that is Brexit and Trump was under Mueller’s scrutiny to determine whether he was an actor in Putin’s shadow-play, brave and visionary people like Dr Sarah Jane Pell were hoping to figure out the future by creating a simulated Moon Base somewhere in Poland.
Hope: I absolutely have hope while people like that are around.
A plausible future in which we kill ourselves off
For a bit of fun I tweeted Elon Musk about Evil Corp (The Visionary character in the game is loosely based on him). Amazingly he actually tweeted back:
Say what you like about him, but Elon Musk is basically the only person on the planet serious about going to Mars. Why?
Because he wants to hedge our bets against serious cataclysm here on Earth. He wants to give us an escape route should Climate Change or (a different) stupidity render Human life on earth untenable. Not for profit, not for commercial gain, but because his vision encompasses a plausible future in which our species kills itself.
That gives me hope. It makes me optimistic in the face of things which rightfully make me embrace the statement ‘I’m Afraid.’
We need both points of view
I was listening to a podcast about the partisan divide in the US — looking at it through the lens of biology.
Through the findings of a variety of peer reviewed studies it outlines the biological and neurological differences between conservatives and liberals. (long-form article I wrote on this here if you fancy a deep dive.)
It boils down to this: some of us like to take things slowly and avoid risk (fear), while others want to find new things and don’t mind making mistakes to get there (hope). We need both points of view.
“In a study of thousands of twin studies researchers determined that 30% to 40% of our political views are genetically heritable.” (source)
People are just built differently. No-one is *wrong*. We are, quite simply, predisposed to being more fearful or more hopeful.
We need to remember this because when we do occasionally manage to pop our filter bubbles we hear people saying things that seem bonkers or just plain wrong. Our first impulse is increasingly to become angry and see an enemy before we see what we have in common.
It’s very sad, but what we have in common at the moment is fear, not hope.
We’re not on the Web, we’re in a Net
I once wrote that ‘We’re not on the Web, We are the Web’. But I realise now that it’s not a web at all, it’s a mesh:
meshed; meshing; meshes
b: to catch in the openings of a net
2: to cause to resemble network
3a: to cause (parts, such as gears) to engage
b: to coordinate closely : INTERLOCK
The interesting thing about a mesh is that it is one of the properties of a net; It is a space in the network with the capacity to become entangled, interlocked.
Since 2007, Facebook, Google and Twitter have mostly been in charge of defining the shape of the net we’re all caught in. Rather than all being part of a neat whole, the net is now so tangled that we’re all meshed into small weaves, cut off from the whole in our own little sections that we can’t get out of.
Considering the vastness of infrastructure that Google and Facebook have, and the corresponding power they have over the very nature of how we talk with one another online (and how crazy things are likely to get in the future) it’s hard to hope we’ll find a way to untangle this net before the forces that seek to control us decide to pull it tight…
The tools we choose to use divide us
I’m sitting at my desk looking at the City of London:
The City of London has been at the centre of business and finance since the 19th Century. Soon it might not be, because in whatever form it will take Brexit is almost certainly going to happen.
It’ll happen because people are afraid, and in large part they’re afraid because the platforms that promised to unite us and give us a shared voice have betrayed us and given us broken mirror fragments instead. These fragments allow those who profit from fear to lie to and mislead us.
Today, a friend of mine said to me: “The tools we choose to use divide us”. He is right, and we are at a cross-roads right now because of those choices; the digital infrastructure we have built has hit a tipping point where control and influence is so embedded politicians are campaigning on a mandate for decoupling that power. I don’t know if that’s the right way to go, but it shows an awareness that we can’t go on as we are today.
Still, over the last couple of years things have started to feel different. The reins of power seem less surely held — perhaps because they are being held by people who are themselves full of fear (to the point of throwing tantrums).
So! If we decide, trite though it may sound, that hope is the answer, then what should we hope for?
People don’t have ideas. Ideas have people
Despite my statement above — maybe Brexit isn’t a done deal after all.
An estimated 400,000 people marched for a second referendum, and over 6 million petitioned to repeal Article 50. Jeremy Corbyn today holds the upper hand in talks with Theresa May and the Labour party have, at their last conference in Liverpool, mandated that any pact should be put before the British people for a confirmatory vote.
Students took to podiums after devastating mass shootings at American schools and are being heard on gun control.
In 2018, Trump’s presidency spurred more women than ever to run for office, with a record 127 women serving in congress.
Under mounting pressure Facebook is calling for greater regulation and oversight (OK, the Jury’s still out on that one).
The world has real visionaries at work in it, people like Dr Sarah Jane Pell, people like Greta Thunberg — just an ordinary teenager who inspired a generation to stand up against Climate Change. They are not much different to you and me, but they have less fear, and I think they have more hope.
This isn’t a rallying cry to a cause. I can’t tell you that now you’ve read this there is something you can go and do, something you can get behind.
You might notice in the examples of change for the better above that I betray my own biases. I think gun control is a good thing, but millions of Americans are terrified that the Government will take their guns away — which is why sales of automatic weapons tend to increase after mass shootings.
I am not saying that I am right, but being able to state my point of view without fear I will be shouted at online is important. In fact it’s everything.
Carl Jung said: “People don’t have ideas, ideas have people.”
So I’ve decided that I’ll get behind the idea of Hope.
I hope that things will change for the better. That we can agree we all generally want the same things: a safe world for ourselves and our children. Politics that work transparently for and not against us. Laws which safeguard against those who only care about the accumulation of wealth, and an end to the gross manipulation of our discourse by Demagogues with nothing left to lose.
If we manage to untangle the net we’re in even just a little bit we can start to have real conversations again, and stop shouting ourselves raw in tiny bubbles. I’m Hopeful, and it’s OK that I’m also Afraid.