The Visioneers Wins Emme

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Forgive the self-promotion but…I’m happy to say that the American Astronautical Society announced a few days ago that The Visioneers was chosen as the recipient of the 2012 Eugene E. Emme Award for Astronautical Literature. According to the AAS, the award, named for NASA’s first historian, recognizes “outstanding books which advance public understanding of astronautics through originality, scholarship and readability.” So – pretty cool.

And, in case you want to see the actual letter —

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It’s the end of the teaching quarter here at UCSB so my blogging time is curtailed…I hope to get Leaping Robot up and jumping soon enough though. Thanks for reading.

Taking It To The People


A future spurned?

My favorite chapter in Gerard O’Neill’s 1977 book The High Frontier is actually the book’s appendix. Titled “Taking It To The People,” O’Neill described the difficulties (and eventual successes) he experienced when he tried to get attention from the public and his colleagues about his visioneering for space colonies.

I commented on this chapter of O’Neill’s book obliquely in an earlier post which was about the challenges of defending one’s radical ideas once they’ve entered general circulation. I was reminded again of O’Neill’s “public engagement” efforts after a couple of professional experiences I had recently. I’ll come back to these shortly…

After first striking out with Scientific American and then with The Atlantic Monthly, O’Neill tried to get his ideas before a wider audience via the journal Science, the flagship publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. This too was a bust. One of the anonymous comments acknowledged that “frequently” it is the reviewer’s job to help sort out the “pros and cons for such” radical schemes.

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One of the referee letters O’Neill received in 1972

Whether space colonies were a practical idea was one issue; the peer-reviewer also questioned the “economic practicality” of O’Neill’s ideas. A second anonymous reader asked whether O’Neill has succeeded in reaching “beyond purely technical questions” so as to address “special and delicate human aspects” (emphasis in original). This is somewhat ironic because O’Neill imagined that settlements and manufacturing based in space might provide the energy and resources needed for an expanding human civilization while moving environmental degradation that industrial activities caused off-planet.

It’s interesting to juxtapose O’Neill’s focus with themes found in Matt Wisnioski’s new book Engineers for Change. Wisnioski sets much of his story at almost exactly the same time – c. 1970 – as O’Neill is starting to advocate his ideas for the “humanization of space.” Although O’Neill was trained as a high-energy physicist, he was very much at home among large scale engineering projects. Before getting hooked on space, he worked throughout the 1950s and 1960s on improving the design of particle accelerators. His personal concerns around 1970 reflect those of the engineers described in Wisnioski’s book.

At Princeton University, O’Neill was well-aware of prevailing skepticism toward science and technology among his students. Despite the successes of the space program, advances in computer technology, and the Green Revolution, campus attitudes, O’Neill recalled, reflected widespread “disenchantment with the sciences” and a “revulsion against authority and against technology.”1 Even the best students studying for science or engineering careers, O’Neill observed, seemed defensive, worried about being “accused by their colleagues of being irrelevant” or becoming cogs in the military-industrial complex.

But what is interesting is that both Science referees found themselves pulled, like others who would debate the concept throughout the 1970s, between technical feasibility and broader questions of politics, economics, and societal needs. Just because a space colony could be built didn’t mean that it should be built. In other words, O’Neill was critiqued less for his speculative engineering and more for failing to more adequately consider its social dimensions. The concerns of Science’s referees aligned with the general “social turn” that many scientists and engineers took as the war in Vietnam continued, debates about the military-industrial complex intensified, et al..

Reject letter from Science

No dice – a reject letter from Phil Abelson to O’Neill

Ultimately, Science rejected O’Neill’s manuscript. Two years later, Physics Today published a revised version of it but the experience taught O’Neill that “taking it to the people” wasn’t easy.

…which loops us back to my own experience. I’m in the midst of giving a series of public talks based on my Visioneers book. I’ve also been fortunate to have been asked to do some radio interviews and other media appearances. It’s been fun so far. For example, I recently gave a public talk at Caltech as part of the Skeptics Society’s ‘Distinguished Lecture Series.’ About 100 people took time from a beautiful sunny SoCal afternoon (and the NFL playoffs) to hear me talk in dark auditorium; several hundred more tuned in over the web.)

I was a little nervous because the Society is, well, skeptical. I thought they might take issue with the ideas actors in my book championed. This turned out not to be the case – they grokked that my book isn’t about adjudicating whether visioneers’ plans for the future were correct or wrong-headed. What concerns me more is how people like O’Neill conceived of and presented their ideas in response to the dire warnings in reports like Limits to Growth. What were their motives, hopes, and results? How did other technological communities react to their plans? How were these ideas brought to the public by journalists, science fiction writers, and popular culture?

The questions and comments people had for me after the talk (and subsequent dinner chat at Burger Continental, thanks to Michael Shermer) took a few new turns. One group wanted to know “who else was a visioneer?” This is a pretty standard question and it’s a fun one to kick around. I suggested that, according to my definition, Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace might qualify, Nikola Tesla was a definite “yes” and so were Doug Engelbart and Elon Musk. (What we didn’t to was adequately discuss why there are so few women on the list. I bring this up in my book…but, I wish I had a more satisfying explanation other than to propose that this reflects the larger historical experiences of women in science and engineering careers. I’d be interested to hear from folks who might have more insights.)


Nikola Tesla – visioneer

One person insisted that Steve Jobs should make the list – I demurred with the proviso that perhaps the hybrid combo of Jobs+Woz had the right mix. (This person’s insistence reminded me of how visioneers, as I’ve presented them, worked hard to maintain a certain purity of their ideas…I had to work pretty hard to make the case that I wasn’t anti-Jobs but that I just didn’t see him having the necessary technical chops to fit the category as I’ve defined it).

But I what surprised me more than anything was the reaction from one person that I was being too hard on the visioneers by underestimating what they achieved. This was surprising because if anything, reaction from some of my history colleagues (those who don’t study science or technology) tends to trend in the opposite direction2

However, the best part of the Skeptics talk was talking with someone about what my story would look like outside the non-U.S. context. “Were there,” he asked, “similar pro=space visioneer types in, say, the Soviet Union?” This was a great question. I’ve always wished that I had the materials and evidence that might give me a sense of what similar sort of things were happening in other countries. Maybe this stuff is out there. My own experience working just in the U.S. context tells me getting access would be tough – I had to track down lots of my research materials not just in archives but in people’s basements and airport storage lockers. Doing this in the former Soviet Union or France just wasn’t possible. But it was a great question.

I’m giving several more talks in the next 6 weeks – Seattle, DC, Phoenix, and San Jose, so far. (This, combined with a full teaching schedule, means fewer Leaping Robot postings for awhile…) Somewhere along the way, I’ll come back to this topic of “taking it to the people” and see I can identify any larger patterns in terms of – apologies to Raymond Carver – what people talk about when they talk about the future.

  1. From p. 233 of Gerard K. O’Neill, The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1977 []
  2. This usually occurs while visiting the faculty mail room i.e. “Space colonies? We don’t have them…so, how is that important? And nanotechnology? What’s it done for us lately?” I don’t usually point out that their on-going yet surely definitive study of 19th century dust collecting is pretty esoteric too. []

Horizons of Expectation

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Not all futures are created equal.

One of the meta-points of The Visioneers is that the future is not a neutral space that we as individuals or as a society move into. Rather, the future is politically contested terrain, an arena of speculation where diverse interests meet, debate, argue, and compromise. In the “predictive space” of technological tomorrows, the future exists as an unstable entity which different individuals and groups vie to construct and claim through their writings, their designs, and their activities while marginalizing alternative futures.

The “Forum” section in the new American Historical Review  takes up the absorbing topic of “histories of the future” in some innovative and provocative ways.1 The editor of the Forum is David C. Engerman, a historian at Brandeis University; his super 2009 book Know Your Enemy examined the network of scholars who engaged in “Soviet Studies” during the Cold War. In his introduction to the AHR Forum, Engerman draws on the work of German historian Reinhart Koselleck. His book Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time argued that scholars must consider “horizons of expectation” in addition to “spaces of experience.” It’s impossible to fully analyze and understand historical experience without taking these expectations of the future into account. As Engerman puts it, “how historical subjects imagined their futures is crucial to understanding their pasts.” I couldn’t agree more.

In The Visioneers, I show how technological visionaries engaged in politics – primarily at local levels – to build support for their ideas and quash rival views of the technological future. The essays in the AHR Forum likewise address politics but at the higher levels of the state and geopolitics. For example, Jenny Andersson’s essay “The Great Future Debate and the Struggle for the World” examines how futurology on both sides of the Iron Curtain “was a veritable battleground for different future visions.” Andersson shows how even definitions of “futurology” varied depending on whether one was a West German or East German futurist. Here, we see futurology as well as the future freighted with all sorts of political baggage. Andersson’s realization that writing histories of the future is methodologically challenging is something I learned when writing my own book. For example, archival materials left by futurists are often not readily available and instead have to be “retrieved from garages and storage rooms.” I have a good story about this which I share in public talks.

Politics naturally conjures questions of power. Engerman describes how the Forum’s authors built on insights from anthropologist Johannes Fabian. Fabian’s book Time and Power observed that “geopolitics has its ideological foundations in chronopolitics.” As a result, visions of the future are not “natural resources” but “ideologically constructed instruments of power” which makes them far from neutral. This theme comes out quite strongly in an essay by historian Matthew Connelly (which he co-authored with nine other people, perhaps an AHR record). “Team Connelly” focus on interactions of forecasters and planners with military leaders and politicians during the Cold War as they attempted to predict Soviet strategic intentions in order to prepare America’s nuclear war plans. From the pre-Joe 1 days through Ike’s 50s and the High Cold War and well into détente and “Cold War redux” of the Carter-Reagan years, these wildly inaccurate estimates were shaped by fights over power and resources within the Pentagon. Just as the Soviet Union and the U.S. offered contrasting images of the communist/capitalist future as an ideological tool, the future was also something wielded in Beltway bureaucratic battles.

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Were Sid and Johnny right?

At the same time, it’s through the lens of nuclear war that we see how our understanding of Cold War culture is complicated by the fact that, for many people, there was no future (cue Sex Pistols). Connelly et al. draw nicely on French psychiatrist Eugène Minkowski’s work on World War One survivors. People “live the future” based on a balance between activity and expectation…and if expectations of the future are nil, then one should expect to see this reflected in their activity (and films, art, books, etc.).

Team Connelly also refer to Marc Bloch’s “problem of prevision” – predictions about the future can be “self-falsifying” and predictions that today seem implausible “may therefore have been the most important of all.” This is an elegant phrasing of two ideas I tried to bring out in The Visioneers. First, one shouldn’t judge past predictions of the future on the basis of how “crazy” they seem today. While my characters certainly proposed some radical schemes, they might appear less so (or at least more understandable) when seen in context. Second, it’s hard to judge the effects of the futures that didn’t happen. Often, the activities of visioneers were like “dark matter” tugging on the more visible galaxy of mainstream science and engineering as well as public imagination and state policy.

The essays by Engerman, Andersson, and Team Connelly all grapple with the surge in “future studies” – RAND figures prominently – that marks the Cold War and especially the late 1960s and early 1970s.2. People have always looked to the future. But, in the late 1960s, begins to unfold, a growing number of scientists, writers, and other experts were also looking at the future. Professional “futurologists” became well-paid celebrities sought out for their advice. Like many other areas of Cold War-era technology, this fascination with the future originated within the military-industrial complex. In the late 1960s, tools developed for military planning made their way to the corporate world, aided by the growing availability of computers and a belief that complex economic and societal situations could be modeled. American businesses started retaining more and more specialists, including science fiction writers, “to plot the future much as medieval monarchs used to have court-astrologers around.”3

While RAND researchers began to apply skills honed for modeling war and business to address ‘60s-era social issues, others founded their own enterprises such as the Institute for the Future based in Palo Alto, California. In 1966, as part of the “civilianizing” of futures research, a few hundred forward-looking people joined the World Future Society. Within a decade, its membership had shot to 25,000. Futurology entered a golden age and, with it, came the mass-marketed futurist. Hugely popular books about the technological future, such as Alvin Toffler’s book Future Shock (1970) and Daniel Bell’s The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1973), flew off bookshelves. This “pop futurism” carried a common message: The 1970s, poised between two technological eras, one of industry and the other of information, would be an era of abrupt change. The future became an object of serious scholarly inquiry as an entire academic edifice of journals, conferences, and experts devoted to looking over the horizon emerged. Trying to find an alternate to “the whole Cartesian trip,” American and European universities offered hundreds of courses that addressed some aspect of the future.

The future and technology have always been interwoven. The sheer act of building something, be it a stone axe or spaceship, implies an imagined future need and use. Although the AHR Forum’s essays do not explicitly treat technology (or science) as a central variable, technological change was the major variable in these classes as economists, computer scientists, and sociologists attempted to understand the future more “scientifically” and propose ways in which society might navigate toward alternate, more desirable futures. In response to the “bourgeoisie-capitalist” scenarios proffered by groups with corporate or military connections, a growing swell of anti-technocratic, publicly oriented intellectuals spun dissenting futurology. Senator Edward Kennedy, taking a jab at the excesses of Apollo, said in 1975, “We must be pioneers in time, rather than space.”4

As Team Connelly notes, a good deal of historians’ attention to the future has been on intellectual and cultural history including utopian/dystopian visions as well as “visual and literary representations of things to come.” Valuable as these approaches are, they leave lots of territory open for future exploration. More histories of Koselleck’s “horizons of expectation” – not only at the state and geopolitical levels but in ways that also incorporate social, economic, and scientific/technological history – can help reveal how past predictions of the future have helped shape where we are today.

  1. Unfortunately, these article are behind a pay wall…hopefully, you’ve access to these excellent essays via a personal or institutional subscription []
  2. A third essay in the Forum, by Manu Goswami, deals with the early 20th century []
  3. William H. Honan. “The Futurists Take over the Jules Verne Business.” New York Times, April 9, 1967. []
  4. John D. Douglas, “The Future of Futurism: An Analysis,” Science News, 1975, 107, 26: 416-17. []