May 30, 2012

Cyborgology and Me

Just a note to say that the wonderful technology blog Cyborgology has posted my two recent essays on technological autonomy, the first on the dilemma of nuclear power in Japan, the second on global sales of snack foods and SUVs.

Many thanks to PJ Rey for opening the door.

Image credit: Grandfather Smiles

May 28, 2012

Annals of Childish Behavior™

A new analysis of floor debates in the U.S. Congress found that the level of discourse in both houses has deteriorated significantly in recent years, thanks in part to the influx of Tea Party Republicans and in part to the influence of media. 

"Congress is changing as an institution, and what you see is more and more members gearing their speeches as sound bites or YouTube clips," said Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation, the nonpartisan group that compiled the study. 

"You can [hark] back to a golden age of Congress when members quoted Shakespeare on the floor and really engaged in debate and talked to each other and tried to reason back and forth," Drutman said.

The study found that today members of the House and Senate speak on average with a degree of sophistication equivalent to that of a high school sophomore.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the level of rhetoric practiced by political moderates of both parties was generally at a higher grade level than that of more partisan liberals or conservatives. Tea Party Republicans spoke at the lowest grade level. 

Is modern culture being overwhelmed by an epidemic of childishness? José Ortega y Gasset, writing in 1930, thought so. Annals of Childish Behavior™ chronicles contemporary examples of that epidemic. The childish citizen, Ortega said, puts "no limit on caprice" and behaves as if "everything is permitted to him and that he has no obligations."

May 23, 2012

Protest Dreams

Apparently Brad Pitt's latest movie, which premiered yesterday at the Cannes Film Festival, is an attack on capitalism, at least as it's currently practiced in America. An article in the Los Angeles Times describes "Killing Them Softly" as a "post-Occupy" film and "what the documentary 'Inside Job' might look like if it was a fictional feature."

"Inside Job," you may recall, is director Charles Ferguson's Oscar-winning examination of how Wall Street speculation and duplicity led to our current economic crisis. The action in "Killing Them Softly" (due in theaters next fall) takes place during the stock and housing market crashes that got the current crisis rolling; visible in the background are clips of presidential candidates Obama and McCain making promises (still unfulfilled) of economic reform. Director Andrew Dominik's underlying theme, the Times says, "is that U.S. capitalism is deeply flawed, and that government, whether Democrat or Republican, has let down its people."

I mention this here because "Killing Them Softly" demonstrates a theme I wrote about recently the symbiotic relationship between capitalism and technology. It also demonstrates the contradictions inherent in trying to use the tools of that symbiotic relationship to attack it.  

According to the Times, "Killing Them Softly" was financed by Megan Ellison, the daughter of Larry Ellison, the co-founder and chief executive officer of the software company, Oracle. The third richest man in America, Ellison is reportedly worth more than $35 billion, a fortune produced by that magically powerful combination of technology and capitalism. Brad Pitt, of course, is one of the biggest movie stars in the world, an icon whose stature is a product of that same magical combination (in addition to good looks and acting talent).

As I noted in my earlier commentary, you can argue that corporate capitalism drives technology or you can argue the opposite. That's what I mean when I say that the relationship between capitalism and technology is symbiotic. Sometimes technology stimulates capitalism, other times capitalism stimulates technology. In advanced technological/capitalist societies neither could exist without the other. 

I'm an admirer of Brad Pitt, who, like George Clooney, has gone out of his way to use his Hollywood clout to make meaningful movies, both as works of cinematic art and as commentaries on important issues of the day. Not every film Pitt and Clooney make fits that category, but they're obviously trying. The problem, as I'm sure they know, is that those films owe their existence to the system they sometimes attack. If they're successful they also feed that system. This was an issue addressed by the philosopher of technology, Jacques Ellul, who pointed out how easily the technological system can absorb the supposedly rebellious products of popular culture. “I am somehow unable to believe," he wrote, "in the revolutionary value of an act which makes the cash register jingle so merrily.”

There's also a contradiction implicit in addressing real-life issues through a technological medium that sells dreams. "Killing Them Softly," says the Times, "is a hit-man movie, albeit an arthouse one, and contains many of the schemes and stylized violence you might expect from a film with that label." This is reminiscent of "The Godfather," surely one of the most profitable anti-capitalist films in Hollywood history. I'm not saying that art can't have an impact. I am saying that we don't strike a meaningful blow against the empire by spending ten dollars or more to watch a make-believe assassin pretend to kill people.

My favorite example of this contradiction is the DreamWorks logo, which features an idllyic image of a boy with a fishing pole, sitting, one imagines, by a peaceful lake on a summer's afternoon, lost in a reverie. This, of course, is exactly the sort of old-fashioned pastime that DreamWorks, with all the technological and marketing power at its disposal, is doing its best to make obsolete. Boys won't be spending their summer afternoons lolling peacefully by lakes if DreamWorks has anything to say about it. Rather, they'll be sitting inside multiplexes in shopping malls, hypnotized by reveries conjured for them by the latest extravaganzas of computer animation.

©Doug Hill, 2012

May 20, 2012

Welcome to Life

Last month I posted Jonathan McIntosh's brilliant take on what augmented reality as brought to us by Google would really look like. The link above will take you to Tom Scott's equally brilliant take on what the Singularity will look like.

(For those who haven't read Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity is the historical turning point when human beings will supposedly complete their ongoing merger with machines, enabling them to overcome all the annoying limitations of human existence, including death.)

May 19, 2012

The Unabomber's Favorite Philosopher (and Mine)

Jacques Ellul
Earlier this month the Heartland Institute, a climate-denying "think tank," plastered Ted "The Unabomber" Kaczynski's scowling face on a series of billboards in Chicago.

"I still believe in global warming," the copy read. "Do you?"

Kaczynski has long been the figurative poster boy for technophobic insanity, of course, but the Heartland Institute made it literal. The billboard campaign was quickly recognized as a miscalculation and withdrawn, but it served as a reminder of what a gift Kaczynski turned out to be for some of the very enemies he sought to destroy. It also served as a reminder of how egregiously he misused the ideas of a philosopher who is revered as a genius by many people, myself included.

I refer to Jacques Ellul, author of The Technological Society. Today is the eighteenth anniversary of Ellul's death; this year marks the hundredth anniversary of his birth.

David Kaczynski, Ted's brother, has said that Ted considered The Technological Society (published in French in 1954 and in English ten years later) his "bible." That's easy to believe when you compare how closely the Unabomber Manifesto follows – once you weed out its many hate-filled digressions – Ellul's ideas.

Kaczynski claimed in all humility that half of what he read in The Technological Society he knew already; he discovered in Ellul a soul mate rather than a teacher. "When I read the book for the first time, I was delighted," he told a psychiatrist who interviewed him in jail, "because I thought, 'Here is someone who is saying what I've already been thinking.'"

So, what are Ellul's ideas on technology? His most central point was that technology has to be seen systemically, as a unified entity, rather than as a disconnected series of individual machines. He also argued that technology is as much a state of mind as a material phenomenon, in part because human beings have been absorbed into the technological complex he called "technique."

Ellul defined technique as "the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity." While technique isn't limited to machines, machines are “deeply symptomatic” of technique. They represent "the ideal toward which technique strives."

These quotes hint at Ellul's conviction that technique has become almost a living entity, a form of being that drives inexorably to overtake everything that isn't technique, humans included. The belief that humans can no longer control the technologies they've unleashed – that technique has become autonomous – is also central to his thought. "Wherever a technical factor exists," he said, "it results, almost inevitably, in mechanization: technique transforms everything it touches into a machine.”

Along the way technique's drive toward completion does provide certain comforts, Ellul acknowledged, but overall its devastation of what really matters the human spirit is complete. “Technique demands for its development malleable human ensembles," he said. "…The machine tends not only to create a new human environment, but also to modify man’s very essence. The milieu in which he lives is no longer his. He must adapt himself, as though the world were new, to a universe for which he was not created."

Ellul's reputation among scholars is mixed. He has his admirers, but many philosophers of technology consider him a nut. The principle objection is that he reifies technology, imputing to it a life and will of its own. It's true that Ellul's language often gives that impression, but again, his definition of technique includes human beings. Without their assent and participation its vitality would collapse. 

Ellul's unrestrained literary style also won him no friends in the academy. He had no interest in scholarly convention. His books include few citations of other works and even fewer qualifications – Ellul never doubted his own argument. His writing is filled with colorful description, irony and righteous anger. He's more direct than the stereotypical French intellectual, and thus more fun to read. Nonetheless, his erudition is extraordinary, his insight incomparable.

He did occasionally go over the top. Perhaps the most embarrassing moment in The Technological Society comes when, in the process of making the quite reasonable point that technique finds a way to co-opt any political movement or art form that resists it, he dismisses jazz as "slave music."

A third reason Ellul is considered something of an oddball in academic circles is his faith. Throughout his prolific career he divided his time between books on technology and books on religion. (That he could follow Jesus and still appreciate Marx will perhaps be more surprising in America than it would be in France.) He was a theologian of subtlety and depth, but one suspects that for many his religious beliefs undermine rather than enhance his credibility. 

Ted Kaczynski managed to ignore Ellul's religious views altogether. Where Kaczynski sought with his manifesto to overthrow technology by force, Ellul in The Technological Society explicitly declines to offer any solution at all. Ellul insisted his intention was only to diagnose the problem, not prescribe a treatment. He also insisted, however, that as despairing as his analyses often seemed, he was no pessimist. There's always room for hope, Ellul said, even if it has to rely on the possibility of miracle.

Kevin Kelly
Another person who's found Ellul's thought amenable, though he doesn't seem to realize it, is the technophilic writer Kevin Kelly. In his recent book, What Technology Wants, Kelly devotes several pages to the Unabomber Manifesto, calling it, with apologies, one of the most astute analyses of technology he's ever read. This is largely because Kelly agrees with Kaczynski that technology is a dynamic, holistic system – the "technium," he calls it that behaves autonomously. "It is not mere hardware," Kelly writes; "rather it is more akin to an organism. It is not inert, nor passive; rather the technium seeks and grabs resources for its own expansion. It is not merely the sum of human action, but in fact it transcends human actions and desires."

That's as Ellulian as it gets.

The major difference between Kelly's view of technological autonomy and Ellul's is that Kelly sees the technium/technique as a force that ultimately increases human freedom while Ellul believed the opposite.

For Kelly, humans + technology = an evolutionary extension of the species.

For Ellul, humans + technology = mutation.

Kelly makes no mention in his book of Ellul, although he frequently cites Langdon Winner, a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute who happens to be one of Ellul's staunchest defenders. Winner's 1977 book, Autonomous Technology, which Kelly credits as a key influence on his thinking, is a seminal contribution in its own right, but it also wears its debt to Ellul on its sleeve.

On one of the dozens of pages that mention Ellul, Winner offers what I suspect is an intentionally measured assessment of The Technological Society, calling it "less an attempt at a systematic theory than a wholesale catalog of assertions and illustrations buzzing around a particular point." Still, he adds, "It is possible to learn from the man's remarkable vision without adopting the idiosyncrasies of his work."

[Langdon Winner is one of the scholars scheduled to speak at a centenary celebration of Ellul's life and work at Wheaton College in July.]

©Doug Hill, 2012

May 17, 2012

Talking Technology!

There's a saying about it making a difference whose ox is being gored.

Television network executives are in a tizzy today, the New York Times reports, over a new digital video recorder that can automatically delete commercials from the programs it records.

The device is being offered by Dish Network, a satellite program distributer that the networks had heretofore considered an ally. The technology to skip commercials has long been available, but DVR manufacturers and distributors, wary of potential lawsuits, haven't made it available. The introduction of Dish's "Auto Hop" changes that, and the networks are outraged.

Ted Harbert, the chairman of NBC Broadcasting, calls the new device an insult to the television industry. “Just because technology gives you the ability to do something, does that mean you should?" he says. "Not always."

Obviously, Harbert fails to appreciate one of the basic laws of technological nature: once a technique becomes available, it will be used, inevitably. There's no small irony in this, given that the television networks and their advertisers have long been the beneficiaries of one of the most disruptive technologies in history, one they've never hesitated to exploit to the fullest extent possible.

The lesson: In technology, the Disrupter today will be the Disrupted tomorrow.

May 12, 2012

Talking Technology!


 It's Alfred E. Neuman's world, we just live in it.

A reminder of this fact emerged from some recent readings on nanotechnology.

Every so often a report comes out from one august group or another that we really do need to think more about nanotech's potential hazards, which range from the carcinogenic to the apocalyptic. These suggestions tend to disappear amidst the blizzard of announcements issued daily from nanotech laboratories around the world regarding the latest world-changing applications they've developed. Less often a report appears documenting that nanomaterials have been found to effect human health or the environment in some unexpected fashion.

In other words, the gold rush continues while the various bodies responsible for seeing that the enterprise doesn't go disastrously awry fret that maybe we haven't yet gotten a handle on it. The mainstream press barely notices.

Case in point: The most recent assessment of U.S. progress on nanotechnology development, released on April 27 by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

The Council's job is to review, biannually, the work of the National Nanotechnology Initiative. The NNI is responsible for coordinating the activities of 15 federal agencies that distribute government money for nanotech research and development. So far some $18 billion has been handed out in order to promote, as the Council of Advisors put it, "rapid advancement of nanoscience and technology toward commercialization."

Four years ago, the National Academies of Science unleashed a blistering attack on the NNI, accusing it of failing to adequately investigate whether the nano technologies it was backing posed significant threats to public health and safety. The Academies repeated those criticisms, less harshly, last January, in the process issuing their own proposal for a "research and a scientific infrastructure" that would provide the necessary oversight.

It's clear that the NNI hasn't ignored the tongue-lashing it received from the National Academies. According to the Council of Advisors report, NNI funding for health and safety research has increased from $35 million in 2005 to the $105 million requested for fiscal year 2013. This increase was "appropriate, even necessary,"  the Council says, to correct a "significant imbalance" between research directed toward new applications versus research directed toward assessing and preventing risk.

Nonetheless, the Council's assessment also says it is "concerned" that the NNI's 2013 request for research on health and safety represents only a "modest" increase over the $103 million budgeted for 2012. The Council adds that, in any case, whatever information has been collected on the safety of nanotechnology materials isn't getting to the policy makers responsible for managing potential risks.

What the Council's report doesn't mention is that the $103 million allocated by the NNI for health and safety research in 2012 represents slightly less than 6 per cent of its total budget.

Oh, and the press? Google and individual site searches turn up no mention whatsoever of the Council of Advisors report in any national news organ, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, or the Los Angeles Times. Not surprisingly, survey results suggest the public hasn't registered any particular concern about nano tech, either. 

Perhaps in an effort to underscore that it's on the case, the report of the President's Council of Advisors carries an appendix dedicated to "Nanotechnology-Related Environment, Health, and Safety Research." Again, though, what it says, in essence, is that we really should be getting a handle on this thing before it blows up in our faces.

"As new modes of manufacturing are developed and explored," the appendix begins,

the need to address occupational health and safety issues will take on even greater urgency. Efforts to address workplace safety issues are limited by the lack of research, lack of rigorous information about the identity and demographics of the workforce, and by current practices and attitudes of employers towards workplace risk issues.

A recent survey on these issues found, the appendix says, that 59 percent of American nanotechnology companies have ignored government recommendations to monitor their workplaces for nanoparticles. By that I assume it means stray nanoparticles escaping whatever controlled environment they're meant to be contained in. The same survey "revealed a number of other attitudes and practices that demonstrate little progress since the publication of an earlier industry survey performed in 2007."

Given the lack of precautions being exercised by those actively engaged in developing nano technologies, the President's Council suggests it's "critical" that appropriate federal agencies "engage" with companies to "increase their awareness of and ability to use the latest knowledge and guidance being generated on this topic." And how should this engagement proceed? In a "non-regulatory capacity," of course!

That the President's advisors would go out of their way to specify that whatever official oversight is exercised in pursuit of nano tech safety should be conducted in a "non-regulatory capacity" tells you that industry has a free hand, pretty much, to explore and exploit nano tech as it sees fit. Willingly or not, we'll all be going along for the ride. 

©Doug Hill, 2012

May 7, 2012

Talking Technology!™

A good news/bad news dispatch from Japan:

The bad news: According to the Wall Street Journal, some 75,000 citizens who were forced to evacuate their communities in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear meltdowns won't be going home any time soon. The government's minister of the environment, Goshi Hosono, said recently that high levels of radiation will likely make their towns uninhabitable for another twenty years, at least.

The good news: Since the evacuated towns aren't being used by human beings at the moment, Hosono thinks they'll make ideal storage facilities for radioactive fuel rods.

Autonomy continued: Technology or Capitalism?

A little over a week ago I posted an entry on technological autonomy. It made the point that a nation's commitment to advanced technologies can result in a situation where its economic well-being is directly counter to the physical or psychological well-being of its people. The point I'd like to make today is that the commitments of corporations to advanced technologies can become similarly antithetical.

The example in that previous post was Japan's commitment to nuclear power. Here I'll consider two examples involving specific consumer products: the international sale of sports utility vehicles and the international sale of snack foods.

Both examples raise an important definitional question: Which is the driving force, technology or capitalism? It's a hard question to answer because at a certain stage of development the two are so closely intertwined that it's often impossible to separate them. On the one hand, the spread of global capitalism would clearly be impossible without mass production technologies. On the other hand, capitalism is clearly the economic model most responsible for the development and exploitation of mass production technologies.

The historian David F. Noble has argued that technology is "the racing heart of corporate capitalism," implying that capitalism directs the enterprise while technology supplies the motive force. I think you could just as successfully argue that the opposite is true. The best solution is probably to say that the relationship between technology and capitalism is dialectical, or symbiotic. Sometimes technology stimulates capitalism, other times capitalism stimulates technology; in advanced technological/capitalist societies neither could exist without the other. From either perspective an expansion of influence becomes a priority that overwhelms every other consideration, which is another way of defining a condition of de facto autonomy. 
Here are the two examples that came to my attention recently: 

Example 1: Ford to Quadruple SUV Offerings in China Over Next Year

That's the headline on a recent report from Reuters regarding Ford's eagerness to supply millions of Chinese consumers with vehicles that will push global warming past the point of reversibility as quickly as possible.

According to Reuters, 2.1 million SUVs were sold in China last year, an increase of 25 percent over the previous year. That's about half the annual sales of SUVs in the United States, but it's just the beginning for China. Ford is aiming to increase its SUV sales in China by increasing production there and also by importing one of its largest models, the Explorer, from the United States. As it is, Chinese auto dealers can't get enough SUVs to sell.

SUVs are hugely profitable for the auto companies, and huge profits invariably translate into glowing reports in the financial press. Environmentally, the impact isn't so positive. In his book High and Mighty: SUVs: The World's Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way, Keith Bradsher reported that a midsize SUV puts out roughly 50 per cent more carbon dioxide per mile than the typical car. A full-sized SUV may emit twice as much.

No doubt those figures have changed somewhat in the ten years since Bradsher's book came out, but it's safe to say that SUVs aren't the most fuel efficient vehicles on the road. That's why their popularity – in the US, China, or any other country – isn't something to celebrate. In fact, the Chinese government has made it a policy to encourage sales of electric vehicles. Not many consumers are buying them, though, in part because they're absurdly expensive compared to conventional vehicles. 

 Example 2: Snacking for the Sake of Sales

The New York Times recently reported that Kellogg, the cereal company, has launched a major initiative to expand its sales of snack foods. The company is betting on snacks because sales of cereal are declining. More and more these days people are eating breakfast on the run, and a bowl of Frosted Flakes isn't very mobile. On the other hand, Americans seldom fail to take advantage of what food marketers call a "snacking occasion."      

It doesn't take a genius to see that this is an instance where the health of the economy is at odds with the health of the consumers upon whom the economy is built. Obesity is a health crisis of epidemic proportions, not only in the United States but around the world, and an over-abundance of snacking occasions is one good reason why. The fact that providing more opportunities for snacking occasions has become, as the Times put it, a "core mission" for Kellogg essentially means the company hopes to profit by undermining the health of its customers.

Kellogg is especially culpable on this score because, as the Times pointed out, it has long based its marketing campaigns on the lie that foods drenched in sugar are good for you. For example, it sells a breakfast cereal called Smoze (named after the old campfire treat, s'mores) that it advertises as a "good source of Vitamin D." Another cereal, Krave, sports a label reading "Good source of fiber and whole grain.” It's available in chocolate and double-chocolate flavors.

At the moment, Kellogg realizes only about five per cent of its international revenue from snacks, and international sales as well as snack sales are where the company sees its future. Margaret Bath, Kellogg's senior vice president for research, quality and technology, cites projections that the world's population will grow to between seven and nine billion people by 2050. “That’ll be a lot of mouths to feed," she says. "We have people that are undernourished and we have people that are overnourished. It’s the job of a food scientist to serve that whole spectrum.”

Might I suggest that Ms. Bath has an unfortunately narrow conception of what it means "to serve"?

©Doug Hill, 2012

May 1, 2012

Utopia on a Budget

When you're selling dreams, the trick is to strike a balance between utopian promises and common sense.

A week ago today, a privately funded startup called Planetary Resources announced that it had embarked on a program to mine trillions of dollars' worth of precious metals and other resources from asteroids in space. The project is undeniably ambitious, yet in their press conference the company's executives took pains to emphasize the pragmatism of their approach. 

Exponential advances in technology now make it possible, said co-founder and co-chairman Peter Diamandis, for small companies to accomplish what once required the backing of governments or large corporations. Planetary Resources plans to deploy "swarms" of low-cost telescope satellites to find asteroids that are rich in water, platinum, and other assets, but relatively close to Earth. They will then be mined not by people but by robots.

To be sure, there's nothing modest about the profits Planetary Resources hopes to realize. There were also frequent mentions during the press conference of how the project's success would benefit all of humankind, not only by developing new supplies of diminishing resources but also by keeping alive the dream of space exploration itself. Still, the gee whiz factor was kept to a minimum. Diamandis even claimed at one point that he'd dreamed since he was a teenager of being an asteroid miner, which seemed to be taking pragmatism a bit too far. Surely a teenager can imagine more glamorous things to do in space than that. 

Planetary Resources' Co-founders and Co-chairmen Peter Diamandis and Eric Anderson and (center) President and Chief Engineer Chris Lewicki

The press conference's one truly utopian moment came in a comment from Planetary Resource's other co-founder and co-chairman, Eric Anderson. My guess is that he momentarily let his enthusiasm get the best of him when he let slip his vision of where, in the long run, this could be heading. "We see the future of Earth as a garden of Eden," he said, "as a place where we take care of the Earth and protect the environment and we do our heavy industries and our mining and all that sort of stuff in space!"

Ah, the Garden of Eden. In truth that's what we've always been after, although we're less inclined to admit it today than we used to be. In 1833 a German immigrant named John Adolphus Etzler published The Paradise Within Reach of All Men, the first extended work of technological utopianism to appear in the United States. Follow my proposals for harnessing the elements with machines, Etzler declared, and within ten years "everything desirable for human life may be had by every man in superabundance, without labor, and without pay; where the whole face of nature shall be changed into the most beautiful forms, and man may live in the most magnificent palaces, in all imaginable refinements of luxury…" He went on.

Etzler predicted that some would greet his proposals with ridicule, and he was right. Among them was Henry David Thoreau, who published, anonymously, a review of Etzler's book that was slyly humorous in parts, openly sarcastic in others. "Let us not succumb to nature," he wrote. "We will marshal the clouds and restrain the tempests; we will bottle up pestilent exhalations, we will probe for earthquakes, grub them up; and give vent to the dangerous gases; we will disembowel the volcano, and extract its poison, take its seed out. We will wash water, and warm fire, and cool ice, and underprop the earth. We will teach birds to fly, and fishes to swim, and ruminants to chew the cud. It is time we had looked into these things."

Gerard O'Neill in 1977
A similar exchange occurred in the mid 1970s when a Princeton physics professor named Gerard O'Neill came forward with his own proposal for mining asteroids. O'Neill envisioned a series of permanently inhabited, self-sustaining human colonies orbiting in deep space. Huge inter-connected cylinders, each encompassing a land area as large as 100 square miles, would accommodate, in addition to extensive mining operations, capacious living quarters, gardens, and recreation areas. Settlers would be attracted not only by the promise of employment, O'Neill said, but also by internal climate conditions equivalent to "quite attractive modern communities in the U.S. and in southern France." He added that, because levels of gravity could be varied within the cylinders, a short walk up a hillside could bring a resident to an area where "human-powered flight would be easy" and "sports and ballet could take on a new dimensions."

Government funding was still the way to go at that point, and O'Neill appeared before subcommittees of the House of Representatives and the Senate to present his ideas. Here, too, it seems clear the intention was to portray the project as entirely reasonable. Mentions of southern France and flying ballet dancers were exceptions; charts and graphs were the rule. What we're talking about, O'Neill testified, is "civil engineering on a large scale in a well-understood, highly-predictable environment."

Again, naysayers emerged. Stewart Brand solicited comments on the project for the Spring 1976 edition of CoEvolution Quarterly, a spinoff of the Whole Earth Catalog. Brand was an enthusiastic supporter, but many of his readers weren't. The writer, farmer and environmentalist Wendell Berry called O'Neill's proposals "an ideal solution to the moral dilemma of all those in this society who cannot face the necessities of meaningful change." E F. Schumacher, author of Small Is Beautiful, wrote that he'd be happy to nominate several hundred people to ship into outer space immediately, so that the real work of saving the planet could proceed unimpeded.

Planetary Resources investors Eric Schmidt and James Cameron. Other investors include Larry Page, former Microsoft executive Charles Simonyi, and Ross Perot, Jr.

Failing to find support in Congress, O'Neill's project faded away. Soon after that the personal computer industry began its remarkable rise in Silicon Valley, reinvigorating the idea that technology can change the world overnight, making a lot of people extremely rich in the process. No accident that many of Planetary Resources' investors acquired their fortunes digitally. When you have billions to spend, your dreams don't have to make sense. 


©Doug Hill, 2012