The 17th century philosopher Blaise Pascal asserted that mankind is suspended between two infinites: The infinitely large, and the infinitely small.
Four centuries later, we see that Pascal’s philosophical vision is becoming a practical choice for humanity. That is, where should we go from here: to outer space, or inner space? Or perhaps we should stay right where we were in Pascal’s time: rooted on good ol’ Earth.
As for outer space, soon, some of us — okay, a very few of us at first, but more later — will have the option of living in space, most obviously on the Moon or Mars. That prospect became more clear to this author after attending the 24th annual FAA Commercial Space Transportation conference in Washington, D.C., last week.
The “news” from that conference mostly concerned the expansion plans of one prominent space company, Blue Origin; the company CEO, Bob Smith, described the market for space tourism as “robust,” adding, “It’s incumbent on us to go build new vehicles, get them ready and safely go fly, and also safely get our launch cadence up.” Smith added that 14 customers flew on a suborbital flight in 2021, and that he expects that number to “easily double” this year.
To be sure, 14 passenger-trips is not much, and yet anyone familiar with Moore’s Law knows that small numbers can quickly become big numbers. And so, for example, 14 trips, doubled for 30 years, compounds to more than 75 million trips. So by this reckoning, the path to space has already been laid out — it’s now just a question of repeating the equation.
Space travel is still problematic: Most obviously, it’s not good for you. The National Institutes of Health identifies the ill effects of zero gravity, including vestibular dysfunction, anemia, cardiovascular deconditioning, muscle atrophy, bone loss and cognitive deterioration. To that ominous list we can add radiation dangers; according to NASA, a brief space flight can be the equivalent of 6,000 chest X-rays.
These dangers are lessened, of course, if one is on the Moon or Mars, benefiting from at least some gravity and perhaps also greater radiation shielding. And yet even on solid ground, extraterrestrial opportunities for cancer treatment — or any kind of treatment — will be subpar. So for early space travelers, trips will be dangerous, one way, and quite likely, brief.
The most ambitious of us have ambitious plans. Blue Origin’s owner, Amazon mogul Jeff Bezos, says that he looks forward to “trillions” of people in space in the coming centuries, engaged in everything from asteroid-mining to off-world manufacturing to symphony-composing.
Given Bezos’ track record — and the even stronger track record of Elon Musk — as well as the record of human technological achievement in the past century or two, who would dare say that such cosmic promise is not at least a possibility? So along the way, we’ll likely figure out counter measures to space hazards, maybe even including genetically engineering space-fit humans.
Okay, so that’s heading for the infinitely large — the expanse of outer space.
At the same time, there’s the beckoning of the infinitely small. Already, billions of us are likely to have the option of living, at least in a fashion, in inner space, or cyberspace. Back in 1984, in his pathbreaking “cyberpunk” novel Neuromancer, William Gibson made cyberspace seem lyrical, even beautiful: “A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts.”
Waxing even more nerd-poetic, Gibson added, “A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…” Less than four decades later, the enticements of cyberspace have transformed the world.
Today, the most casual observation of young people, often dubbed “digital natives,” shows that many of them have more than responded to this siren call. They are fully immersed in it, up to their avatars. As of 2020, more than 200 million copies of a single video game, Minecraft, have been sold, and other games, including Apex Legend, Fortnite and Roblox, are also cultishly popular.
Two years of living with the restrictions imposed by COVID-19 have made many non-game-playing adults dependent on virtual technology, creating a whole new “Zoom Zeitgeist” of working and living.
Some believe that this massive online migration is creating an even newer kind of civilization — the Metaverse. To that end, last October, Mark Zuckerberg renamed Facebook as Meta, all to underscore his multi-billion-dollar commitment to connecting everyone’s virtual experience into a new and profitable Meta-whole.
Indeed, some go even further, prophesying that digital intelligence will create immortality of a kind. For many, that’s alluring.
Beyond all the hype, it’s hard to escape the feeling that inner space is a trap. In the pre-digital age, Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote of people lost in the addictive narcotic of lotus-eating: “How sweet it were, hearing the downward stream/ With half-shut eyes ever to seem/ Falling asleep in a half-dream!” Nearly two centuries later, how well do those words describe the trance-like state of many digital addicts?
Back in 2011, hacker-leaker Julian Assange warned that the Internet is the “greatest spying machine the world has ever seen.” And in these days of imperious Silicon Valley censorship and cancellation, it’s hard to argue.
And then, of course, there’s the basic question of what to do if somebody, or something, simply switches off the Net. Once again, pre-digital bards were prescient: Back in 1909, E.M. Forster published an evocatively entitled novella, The Machine Stops.
In the meantime, many billions of us will continue dwelling on this third rock from the Sun, poking along as fleshly beings — what geeks call irl (“in real life”), or, more impudently, “meatspace.”
So to update Pascal, humanity will face a three-way choice: off to outer space, in to inner space, or staying right where we are.
In this tri-ply existence, opportunities for exchange and arbitrage among the three places will be, well, infinite. We’ll see new kinds of economic, cultural and political activity, everything from new business models to new lifestyles to new countries. Yes, when it comes to multiculturalism, we ain’t seen nothing yet.
We’ll also see new kinds of hiding and smuggling: How many criminals will seek to escape the surly bonds of Earth — and thus the clutches of law? How many tax evaders will seek to hide their fortunes, and their whatevers, deep in the Metaverse?
And let’s be frank in giving ourselves a fair warning: the threats we can foresee will likely be overwhelmed by Metaversal monsters from the Id. So yes, actual movement to space can be seen as a lifeboat, a shrewd compartmentalization of Homo Sapiens.
For the time being, it isn’t just Luddites who think that in general, corporeal life on Earth isn’t so bad: Living standards are up, life expectancies are up, and wars are scarce — although, of course, all that could change. So the wise and wily will always be eyeing better options. As free-market economists like to say, the only power we have in this world (or any other world) is the power of an alternative.
Yet still, there’s the ever-flowing fountain of human passion, the passion for new challenges and new adventures — and these impulses go way beyond the experiences some Metaverse stage-master might have thought up.
For true questers — the spiritual descendants of all the great explorers of old, most of whom died trying, although some of course, succeeded spectacularly — life on the same-old same-old earth simply isn’t good enough. That’s why, already, more than 600 humans have been to space. For such pioneers, life in inner space is weak tea, a shadowy place for timid souls.
Truly, as long as humans are humans, the physically outward-bound message of Star Trek— “To boldly go where no man has gone before!” — will reverberate in many heads and hearts.
As Tennyson put it in another of his poems, for heroic souls, the goal will always be to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.
James P. Pinkerton, a former White House domestic policy aide to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, has been a Fox News contributor since 1996.
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