Interview on “Making New Worlds”, Ep 02: Who Gets to Go?
In September, Erika Nesvold interviewed me for the Making New Worlds podcast, the full episode is here, including a transcript.

I like to share the full text of my interviews because it’s standard that only selected parts are used. This is not meant as a critique of interviewers, journalists, or others who create the work using the interviews. The full context can simply be interesting or helpful for understanding the parts that are used. Here you'll find a rough transcript of the full interview from September 16, 2017 with Erika Nesvold from Making New Worlds. Also pasted below:

Erika: How would you like me to introduce you on the podcast? [. . .] What are your preferred pronouns, and how do you pronounce your name?

Michael: My name is Michael Oman-Reagan and I’m a doctoral candidate in anthropology. I study the exploration of space outside of our solar system, interstellar space and beyond. My PhD research is supported by the Department of Anthropology at Memorial University and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

I use he/him, and I like singular ‘they’ also, which I think we ought to use more so that’s always available.

Your first questions are about communication, which is an interesting thing to start talking about. Podcasts, telephone calls, radio and television interviews, along with social media, messaging, and chat applications all provide a sense of presence for people who could be across the room from each other, or across the same city, or on other sides of the planet. None of these are truly instant in quite the same sense as face to face communication, but we think of them as such, they meet our threshold for instant communication, for establishing presence of the person we’re talking to.

But if we think about humans living in space, and on other worlds, once we get to a certain distance, we go past that threshold of presence in communication and there is a delay. We feel that kind of delay as a disconnect. This is a simple example of the kinds of cultural and social issues that arise once humans are living in communities so far away — if we can’t send signals faster than light, there will always be a delay in communication between Earth and Mars for example.

What happens when you can’t have the kind of face to face, instant conversation that we have come to rely on? The way we’re doing this discussion is an example of that. You’ve sent me questions, and I’m replying to them. You can’t make affirmative sounds right now, or ask for clarification, and so on… because I’m writing and speaking in a world apart from where you’re listening, a world apart from where you asked the question.

What will it mean for people to live in communities on two planets which are in such fundamentally different, and disconnected worlds? It strikes me that it won’t take long for the societies on these worlds, the cultures, practices, stories, habits, language, and more — to become quite different — in ways that we’re very unlikely to be able to predict, and in ways that may or may not be similar to the kinds of differences that emerged as humans have moved around the Earth.

Space agencies and space corporations often discuss the physiological or technological challenges of human survival in settlements on the moon or mars, what NASA calls “human factors”, but rarely discuss the social and cultural factors and questions — but I would argue these will have a fundamental impact on human survival in space, and on how movement into space will in turn continue to impact life on Earth.

Erika: Elon Musk has suggested that he will sell tickets to people who want to live on Mars for ~$100,000, the idea being that “you can sell your house and use the money to move to Mars!” Can you comment on any problems with this approach for populating Mars?

Michael: I immediately think of Blade Runner, the film adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.” In the film, a large sort of blimp floats through the dark skies of a dystopian future Los Angeles, the side of the ship carries a huge sign advertising the “off-world colonies” as a voice booms “”A new life awaits you in the off-world colonies. The chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure…”

In the book the film is based on, humans are encouraged to leave Earth because the atmosphere has become toxic with radiation following a world war…they’re encouraged to take a personal android with their family and settle on other planets like Mars. So, Mars appears in the book as an escape from an increasingly toxic Earth, but also as a source of danger because it’s where these few androids held a revolt and thereby escaped seeking freedom from their slavery. The “off-world colonies” meant to save humanity and the androids created to make life there tolerable then become a threat to human life on Earth precisely because they’re reproduced the kinds of power relations we have on Earth. But of course the androids were dreaming of a better life themselves, which is why they killed their owners and fled, back to toxic Earth — so they were able to imagine freedom, which is an important thing — as Ursula K. Le Guin wrote: “We cannot demand that anyone try to attain justice and freedom who has not had a chance to imagine them as attainable.”

When we’re talking about Musk and his ideas about space settlement, there are two particular things at the moment that come to mind: First, he has said that his motivation is to make humanity a multiplanetary species — and that he wants to do this regardless of concerns about the profitability of SpaceX, he’s also expressed concern that if he weren’t around that SpaceX might place profit ahead of that goal. So we might think about him in the context of a broader movement that is trying to protect humanity from a collection of possible existential risks they see as likely — one of the groups focusing on this is called the “Lifeboat Foundation” — another group thinking around these things is the “Long Now Foundation” — it all often overlaps with transhumanist figures and concerns about life extension as well. Preservation of the species is the goal there, from what they say.

Another interesting thing about Musk is that he’s clearly read the Ian M. Banks “Culture” series, or at least some of them — a science fiction series set in a universe where one of the main forces is an interstellar society called simply “The Culture” — they’re anarchists, they’ve eliminated artificial scarcity, they’re not humans in the future but made up of many species living together, including humanoids, other species, and machine minds which have the same rights as biological beings. They have what we would consider to be extremely magical kinds of technology, the ability to replace entire bodies, augment the body and mind, extend life indefinitely, build enormous ships carrying billions of people, and build huge space habitats. People living in The Culture have a form of liberty they regards as total freedom, there is no law, no money, no need to work or buy anything and so they spend their time exploring, learning, playing, contacting new civilizations, bettering themselves, seeking pleasure, and so on. They do have an almost colonial side as well, engaging through their sort of intelligence agency with other worlds, interfering in conflict and development of other worlds and cultures, and so on — all toward their grand plans of helping all life in the universe get to where they are. So there’s definitely a contradiction there between the anarchism, which is really a kind of full communism they live under, and their notions of progress, advancements, and civilization which are very colonial European, or like 18th and 19th century anthropology — something they likely inherited because the author of the series was a white European male human and many white European male humans tend to hold that sort of view of the world.

So Musk seems to have liked something about these books enough that he named both of his autonomous drone ships, where the SpaceX rockets land, after spaceships from the books. Ships which, in the series, are A.I. lifeforms in The Culture.

I think it’s rather easy, and accurate, to say that Musk is a capitalist who is mostly interested in the well-being of the Euro-American 1% — but there’s something else going on there at the same time and I think discounting that might be a mistake when it comes to understanding how he has already changed the world as we know it and will likely continue to do so, through SpaceX, Tesla, batteries, A.I., everything he works on.

He does seem to sometimes behave a bit like an agent from that intelligence agency of The Culture — like a special circumstances agent, and perhaps that’s one way to think about what he’s up to, through the lens of science-fiction narratives anyway. I believe he genuinely thinks he’s doing what’s best for humanity — so it’s up to us to ask whether that’s true, and to maybe more frequently ask him to engage with other people thinking about these problems as well.

Do you have any suggestions on how we, as a species, should decide who goes to settle space?

I think the fact that we would even have to decide who gets to go into space and settle is a great indication that as a society we aren’t ready to go into space and settle on other worlds — we still live in a world of artificial scarcity and inequality that makes such a decision even possible or necessary. Instead, imagine if it were the case that everyone on Earth had the technology, means, ability, and right to move anywhere they wanted on Earth. Once we’re there, then we’re probably ready to move out into space because we’ve then achieved something more egalitarian here on Earth, and whoever wants to go into space could just decide to do so, and whoever doesn’t want to won’t.

This is a different question however, from whether I think we should do it anyway, even though we aren’t ready.

Erika: Human reproduction in a resource-limited environment will likely be a major issue in space settlements. I worry that this will lead to discrimination against people who can’t procreate naturally (because they are gay, infertile, elderly, or simply don’t want to) when selecting candidates for space settlement. What are your thoughts?

Michael: Procreation is an interesting question — some anthropologists have written really interesting work about the idea of what “queer futures” might mean, something I think about as well — and just riffing on that idea, I think we might argue that procreation, or reproduction doesn’t have to mean producing biological offspring — it can mean a lot of things — creating artwork, synthesizing information, scholarship, crafts, invention, storytelling, passing on traditional knowledge, literature, and so on. So I wonder what queer reproduction could look like in these futures.

Once we’re living in space, especially trying to cross interstellar space I don’t think biological reproduction will be an issue — generation ships will include crew who do reproduce and crew who don’t, and that will be up to individuals, an option available to all, and available in many forms from biological to otherwise, and each subsequent generation will also include all sorts of people who make all sorts of decisions because that’s what it is to be human — we are that diversity — and even if we tried to exclude it by design it would simply re-appear.

If we’re discriminating, in any form, again I’d propose that says we’re not ready to be leaving the Earth — that isn’t to say we should be working on HOW to move into space though, a process through which we can also work on the issue of ending inequality, though that’s often left out of that work it doesn’t have to be.

Erika: What can space settlement enthusiasts do now to ensure that the future of space settlement is inclusive and equitable?

Michael: I’ve argued that we already have the tools we need to survive in space, but we’re not using them — at Starship Congress this year in Monterey, I talked about these tools as “cultural infrastructure” — this includes treating our environment as precious, because habitability has to be a priority — cultural infrastructure includes different languages, traditions, religions, philosophies — all the diverse perspectives and approaches that have allowed us to survive on Earth — it includes ancestral and traditional knowledge, science, arts, humanities education — it includes healthcare as a fundamental right — and it includes mutual aid, we need to be a society that will always help anyone who needs out help. If that isn’t a fundamental cultural value and principle of our planetary society, we won’t survive in space, on the moon, or on Mars.

So, to ensure a good future in space, we start here — we have to build that here on a global scale. Then we will have the preconditions necessary for inclusive and equitable futures in space.

Erika: Do you think that we should settle space?

Michael: Yes. What I mean by this is that “they” are going to settle space whether we like it or not, so “we,” especially people who are opposed or skeptical or have critiques or are excited about it but have visions that include justice, “we” need to engage with the idea of moving into space so we can transform it into the fact that “we” are included, and ensure that we also get to participate equally in shaping when, how, and why we move into space as a species.


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