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How can we be alone in the universe?
The answer is here on earth
How can we be alone in the universe?
If we dream of other planets and other solar systems, should not others elsewhere be doing the same? Yet no one has contacted us. There has been time enough and space for intelligent life to evolve before us. What happened to it? Why is there only silence?
There are a couple of plausible explanations. Perhaps prior forms of intelligent life got the balance of technology wrong. They yielded to artificial intelligence, or some kindred demon, before they grew wings. Or perhaps the exploitative technology intelligent species use to master a single planet generates power structures incompatible with reaching others.
These are at most hypotheses, but invited and justified by a great mystery. And both are now backed by a some data from a species we can observe: humans.
Let’s take this step by step. To get to space we would need programming and propulsion. This means digital and fusion technology, for the coordination and for the rockets. We are not short on computing power. We lag horribly with fusion. We spend about 1% as much on fusion as we do on subsidizing oil and natural gas. That is a strange fact about us as a species.
Fusion is hard. It can be achieved, with some concentration and some work. The digital is now too easy, in a sense all too easy. Digital technology has metastasized, using our minds as a way to suppress technologies (such as fusion) that might preserve human life and get it beyond earth.
Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter is a sharp example of this. Musk, advocate of space travel, behaves digitally in a way that makes its achievement less likely. Because he is a pioneer in low-earth orbit satellites and seen as a major thinker on space, this mental crash is telling and poignant.
As Musk’s mind has be-twitted itself, X has become the homeland of anti-scientific humbug. Science does not win on its own; it requires ethical dedication and institutional backing, as well as some form of a belief in truth. As X becomes a plaything of the highest bidder, science loses to entrenched interests.
Under Musk’s ownership, denial of the science of global warming is widespread. This specific lie is the fulcrum of the new superstition. If hydrocarbon propaganda prevails, we will never leave earth. We will humiliate ourselves on the home planet until we reach some ragged end.
At the moment, we fund fusion (all too sparingly) as source of clean, renewable energy. As X spreads doubt about global warming, it dampens support for fusion. This not only worsens our prospects on this planet, it makes it less likely we will reach another. Without increased funding for fusion reactors now, we will never get to fusion-powered rockets later.
The programming is eating the propulsion — and the humans are part of the problem.
Musk himself exemplifies the anti-scientific method. On X, he limits himself to a few inputs, those that confirm the impulses of his worst self. His outputs are cliched conspiracy theories. These are not just erroneous opinions; they constitute an anti-scientific worldview, replete with insistent monocausal implausibility, hostile to data, experiment, and theory.
Were we to think as Musk now tweets, we would never get to space. Indeed, we would never have invented the wheel. The man has achieved some remarkable things. But now the mind exhibits magical thinking.
There is a fatal charisma in this. Magical thinking works within a pre-modern politics, in which facts and law do not matter, only a cycle of real and symbolic gifts from the chieftain to his followers — which in the current era means likes and grifts. Summoned by the chieftain’s digital drumbeat to belief in unseen forces, we are capable of disorganized faith and mutual exploitation, but not of self-mastery or self-government.
And on such things, of course, depend not only space travel but climate policy and indeed any sane response to the challenges at our doorstep. Musk’s response to war in Ukraine and Israel has been utterly disastrous, not only spreading lies but confidence in those lies, training minds to mold emotional impressions to prejudice rather than to consider and reflect.
Tech is part of the problem, but only we can bear responsibility. As science fiction writers and scholars have argued, the digital can magnify prior human injustice. Were hydrocarbon oligarchs not so powerful, Musk’s platform would not be full of their propaganda. Were X not controlled a single wealthy person, it would be less of a bespoke endorphin whirlpool.
From the people from whom we might expect the best, we get the worst. But all of us are drifting to a world of shamanism. A future in which we survive and explore depends on getting a technological balance right, and on getting social justice right. But that depends on some human recognition of the deeper problems and some human ethical judgements. There is still a bit of time to make these adjustments; not much, though.
If we fail, perhaps other intelligent beings will one day ask: How can we be alone in the universe? And a share of the silence is all that will remain of us.
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