Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Pop Culture and the Space Age

Today's New York Times has a very interesting piece about the effect of the Space Age on popular culture.
An effect was much more than simply a spillover from the silvery streamlining of the space program. It was an increasing preoccupation with the future and technology that helped change not only the country’s look in the 1950s and ’60s, but also, in some ways, its very conception of itself, as if seen anew from space.

The architect Buckminster Fuller, one of the space age’s most ardent proselytizers, put it much more coherently in his book “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth”: “We are all astronauts.”

See also:
Outer Space Furniture (1964)
Sincerity and the Paleo-Future
Is Futurism Dead? (New York Times, 1982)


Mark Plus said...

The space program in that era sent a false signal about progress that led a whole generation astray, in other words. Today enthusiastic talk about the "space age" reminds people of Austin Powers, somebody from our parents' or grandparents' generation who sounds out of touch with the real 21st Century.

Cory said...

Aesthetically, the Space Age was more interesting before we actually got into space... By the late 60's, it all becomes these antiseptic, white NASA motifs (eg: New Tomorrowland).

Now that both the pre- and post-moon landing Space Age are "retro", I find the pre-moon, Googie, Buck Rogers look more exciting and fanciful. The NASA look is too sterile, functional and unromantic.

Of course, I don't care much for clean-lined modernity anyways... The best Paleo-Futurism comes from the Victorian and Edwardian eras, when something of Earth and home was being taken out there (or down there, or under there): persian rugs, oriental lamps, tweed jackets, etc. That felt more like we were taking the warmth of our homes into space, whereas what seemed to happen was taking the cold of space into our homes.

melanie a. said...

And why *not* a Persian rug in space? I'm another who prefers those cozy parlor spaces to the later visions of the future. Why did they think we'd all want to live in built environments which looked like hospitals?

Anonymous said...

It all has something to do with "gravity" and a concepts called "weight" and "utility". If a science fiction writer was running the space program we'd still be trying to get into orbit and billions would have been spent on shiny spandex bras and nickel plated ray guns with fins on them... Not that there's anything wrong with that, I love it in fact, it's just not gonna get you from fiction to non-fiction.

Cory said...

Which then raises the point of the space program anyways. By preferring form over function, we're simply acknowledging that the exploration of space is a romantic notion with little practical purpose.

There isn't a single dollar spent putting people into space and planning to abandon the planet that couldn't be put to better use making and keeping the planet livable for the people on it. I don't think it's any coincidence that people in general stopped caring about space when landing on the moon didn't suddenly solve all our problems here on earth.

So since we're engaged in a completely frivilous activity anyways, why not make it comfortable?

Anonymous said...

That's like saying "wouldn't it be neat to walk? I could go anywhere!" And then when you fall down the first time you say "well that wasn't so much fun after all. I think I'll just dream about walking instead."

Exploration of space is vital for our survival as a species. At least the more active and inquisitive of the species.

Having said that, one day in a few hundred years, man will be travelling to the "stars" and wearing silver suits with hula hoops sewn into them while robots refill their drinks from golden decanters.

Prairie schooners (sp?) weren't all that attractive. And how many pianos were dumped in the deserts?

Cory said...

This is getting off-track, but I can't see any meaningful way in which our species' survival is dependent on our venturing into space. But then, I fall into that camp of speculators who suggest that our species' survival in space would be impossible without figuring out how to survive on spaceship earth.

Humanity's fundamental problem is itself, not its location: until we learn to treat eachother and our environment justly, charitably and peacibly, all we'd do is spread our relentless drive towards extinction into the cosmos... If we even made it that far.

Until we begin to take seriously these necessary social underpinnings, our forays into space are just the frivilous romances of idly rich nations. Now there's nothing wrong with a good dose of romanticism, but lets not kid ourselves. It's still Jules Verne stuff, and there's still millons of real people dying of AIDS in Africa, so there's no need to criticize people who at least want their romantic explorations of space to be comfortable and attractive.

Anonymous said...

Well, I agree with you on that 100%

jnutley said...

No use for space activities? All our problems are of our own making?

So tell me, exactly how did the dinosaurs bring that rock down on the Yucatan? Helluva terrorist act that.

If we have industry on the moon and situational awareness out to the asteroids, diverting mile and 10 mile wide rocks is trivial, even an epic hundred mile wide rock could be nudged away from impact if we rendezvous in time. If I'm sitting here on earth gazing at my navel saying "all my problems are of my own making" what happens to me when the rock falls?

This blog desperately needs some commenters who still believe in a human future.

Googie architecture and design rules! Tiki too.

Cory said...

I like Googie, and I love Tiki, but I also think that a big rock falling from space is a relatively minor problem compared to the mass disease, starvation, oppression and untimely death of billions across the globe, often by our own hand.

Part of your problem is how you categorize "the future"... I believe in the future of humanity, but I don't think the sum total of "the future" is climbing into metal shells that take us into outer space. I also think "the future" is curing disease, abolishing tyranny, sustaining the environment, eliminating hunger and working towards that REAL dusty old paleo-futurist idea, the Common Brotherhood of Man.

Thinking that "the future" is all about the next bright shiny toy gadget is just commodity fetishism. It has nothing to do with the real future that we have to work towards.

Proletarian Ping said...

There's not much chance of eliminating tyranny unless people have the freedom to escape their governing powers and heading for the frontier, which will demand a sufficiently cheap cost-to-orbit.

Tachyphosist said...

That'd be nice, Cory, if there's half a chance it would ever happen. There's no problem on Earth that will be completely solved while humans are still human, and more to the point, the longer we try to solve all those currently intractable problems like war, disease, hunger, and environmental degradation purely on Earth, the necessary scope of the solution increases while the resources available to solve those problems decrease. Ignoring the possibilities of space while solving the problems of Earth is like not going to the hospital to get a kidney stone removed when you've got a half-empty bottle of Tylenol.

Cory said...


The only problem with that scheme is that there are only really two providers of space travel: government and corporations. You're not going to have DIY psuedo-anarcho punk types building their own space ships from scrapheaps.

Space travel in itself won't release us from the bonds of any kind of tyranny. If we fix government here on earth to be the servant and will of the actual people, then we'll be onto something.


The problem with the idea that we need the resources of space to solve the problems of earth is that, first of all, space doesn't have any of the resources that people actually need. There is no soil for growing food nor water for drinking. This makes sense since we evolved on earth, not in space.

All space can provide us is industrial materials like ore. This leads to the second problem, which is that there is no correlation whatever to obtaining those resources from space and using them to the benefit of all people here on earth. As noted above, space travel is in the limited hands of two providers, and thus, so are the resources they would extract from space.

For those resources to be of any benefit, we have to change the systems at work here on earth. It is just like the problem now: it's not a problem of production of the earth's resources, but a problem of distribution.

Otherwise, the resources of space will be irrelevant if not actually detrimental. Imagine a hostile power with the available industrial resources of space?

jnutley said...

As I read Cory's posts, I'm getting a lot of "Bad, Doomed World" and "Zero Sum Economics" vibes. If anyone is still reading this thread I'd like to suggest they watch the following short video:


What I take away from that talk, and the referenced one the same professor gave last year is that the world is improving greatly; that climate change is a big issue, but that the problems of the world, in terms of early death and poverty are not just soluble but are BEING solved.

On the same site but several years earlier, a professor of astronomy discusses his ten worst threats to human existence:


I would understand if Cory and others called "bias" on his ranking. Still I think the discussion does a good job of showing that the threat of an asteroid collision is real and that the expense of actually defending against such is not extreme, especially in comparison to the existing U.S. budget.

I agree with Cory that imports from space are unlikely to be influential to earth society. And what of it? Is the value of North and South America the degree to which they enrich(ed) Europe? Energy from outside the Earth's atmosphere could be essential depending on how many humans become the new global equilibrium, but advances in efficiency will make the biggest difference in the near term on carbon emitted per capita and watts consumed per hour.

Since 1972 no human has journeyed beyond Earth orbit. Also since 1972 vast amounts have been expended on better cars, telecommunications, time share vacation homes, big box stores, cigarettes and beer. Perhaps with that perspective my frustration on the lack of Space advances is more understandable. Don't lecture me about Voyager or Spirit/Opportunity. Unmanned and Manned should have BOTH been funded, and it wouldn't have impoverished the world, or any particular nation to do it.

Cory said...

Anyone paying attention to what I wrote rather than trying to fit it into the stereotype of a doom'n'gloom naysayer is that I think the exploration of space is a romantic notion but not where the real human future lies. I think space exploration simply for its own sake would be great, but implausible until we actually establish socially, economically and environmentally just systems here on earth. Even in Star Trek they had to cure hunger and schism before launching the Enterprise.

Extravagant rationalizations for space travel (eg: protecting ourselves from a falling sky, escape the tyranny of planetside governments) are just that: extravagancies. They reach so deeply into idle speculation and a genuine pessimism about the human condition that they are either hard to take seriously or something that we really ought not to take seriously.

Honestly now: I'm the one saying that the future of humanity lies in real, achievable goals of ending poverty, hunger and war and I'm being decried as the pessimist. Meanwhile, the "optimists" are saying that our future lies in abandoning the problems of earth to rocket through space in shiny new tins, protecting a humanity evidently not worth protecting from events that occur once in a geological age.

Not only that, but this whole thing got started because I said that, given how space exploration is a romantic notion anyways, it should at least be aesthetically pleasing. Now who are actually the pessimists here? I'm the one who desperately wants people who still believe in a human future!

jnutley said...

Cory I'm going to draw attention now to your second post, which you entered two full days before I posted anything. You stated:

"There isn't a single dollar spent putting people into space and planning to abandon the planet that couldn't be put to better use making and keeping the planet livable for the people on it."

Implicit in your argument is that there isn't enough money to explore space and improve Earth. Also present is the dichotomy that we must either stay on Earth or abandon it. When the Americas were colonized many people stayed in Europe, likewise only a few clans sailed from somewhere in Southeast Asia to become the forebears of the Polynesians.

You also refer to Space Exploration as a "completely frivolous activity".

In your third post, to which I initially responded, you endorsed the idea that all valid human activity should be confined to improving human behavior and that no humans should be released to try any other enterprise until that quest was completed:

"Humanity's fundamental problem is itself, not its location: until we learn to treat each other and our environment justly, charitably and peaceably, all we'd do is spread our relentless drive towards extinction into the cosmos... If we even made it that far:

Until we begin to take seriously these necessary social underpinnings, our forays into space are just the frivolous romances of idly rich nations."

If you want to say "My position is miscommunicated" that's one thing, but I can't agree that the content of your posts on this thread are mis-characterized.

Cory said...

I wouldn't necessarily expect you to agree to it, but there it is nevertheless. I explained my position with increasing clarity as the discussion continued, but you persist in interpreting it according to the orthodoxy of so-called "futurists", accusing people who don't believe that the sum total of the human future is locking ourselves in hermetic tins of not believing in a human future at all. I reject that antiquated stereotype held over from the 60's and 70's, and by having my views interpreted in light of them, they have most certainly been mischaracterized.