The Pathfinders Column from the March 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard
A dummy dressed as an astronaut rides a red Tesla Roadster into space (with Bowie’s Space Oddity playing on a loop on the in-car stereo), courtesy of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, and leaves a smoke-trail of divided opinion behind it. It was a publicity stunt worthy of the Marvel character Tony Stark, and indeed SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has been credited as the inspiration behind Robert Downey Jr’s portrayal in the films (Musk even had a cameo part in Iron Man 2). Fans of SpaceX enthuse on the ability of private capital to do what NASA and its Russian equivalent Rocosmos never did and build a cheap reusable rocket, although this isn’t strictly fair as SpaceX is NASA-funded. Still, it is undoubtedly impressive to see two of the booster rockets make perfect synchronised landings. Ideally it should have been three but the other one crashed. As Musk only gave the initial launch a 50:50 chance of not blowing up on the launch pad, this nevertheless has to be counted a resounding success.
In the interests of balance someone had to gainsay this billionaire-boy-and-his-toys story though, and Van Badham no doubt spoke for many with the observation that ‘space exploration should be an initiative of nations, not just some rich guy’ (Guardian, 9 February). Socialists would quarrel with the word ‘nations’ of course, since nations don’t represent the people as liberal journalists carelessly assume, but are run in the interest of rich guys. But this is the whole problem with the capitalist entrepreneur / visionary / philanthropist thing – it’s always the agenda set by the rich guy, never as a result of collective or democratic debate. Even when they’re trying to do good things, like Bill Gates and his malaria programmes, it’s still essentially a vanity project by a rich guy, not a consensual project by a world community. You wouldn’t run a local club like that, but for some reason it’s ok to run the world that way.
Opinions remain divided between those who think Musk is a modern-day Edison, and those who think he’s a workaholic wacko with an amazing ability to solicit huge amounts of investment and then lose it. His Tesla Roadster may have ridden triumphantly into the heavens, but his Tesla company has been riding in the opposite direction after posting a $2bn loss for 2017. Whether ultimately he hits paydirt or the skids, the very fact that he has the power to launch junk into space without public involvement, debate or oversight is an indictment of capitalism’s glorification of the rich and its perverse tendency to let the super-elite tail wag the social dog.
The next big thing? You must have blinked...
Science is only separated from science fiction by time, luck and lab work, but the predicted Singularity – that epoch-making culmination of exponential tech growth first mentioned in this column in January, 2006 – has so far failed to appear. While futurologists continue to throw darts at calendars to produce arrive-by dates for this supposed big-tech-bang, detractors have instead dared to suggest that the pace of tech growth, far from being exponential, is stalling and even slowing down (Link). They point to a tech-driven economic revolution between 1870 and 1970 that changed workers’ lives so fundamentally that any subsequent change has been comparatively cosmetic. Though the internet and social media have been a huge cultural change, their economic effect has been ‘disruptive’ within existing markets rather than productive in new ones, while real wages have gone down in some places since 1972. Still it would be a curmudgeonly capitalist who reduced the benefits of technology to a dry profit and loss balance sheet. Artificial Intelligence – the usual suspect in singularity theories – is today all around us, and while its ability to beat the world’s top chess and Go players may have only limited real-world application, it works pretty well for Amazon and Google searches.
Wired Magazinet hinks that 2018’s next big thing might go unnoticed because people won’t recognise it for what it is (Link). But maybe we’ve already missed it. What if we’re already inside the Singularity, and just don’t realize it? After all and contrary to prediction, it doesn’t have to be an AI-led event, nor does it have to be just one thing, or happen all at once. The printing press took around seven decades to spread across Western Europe. Few people in the 1450s would have realised that a technological revolution was taking place. Perhaps we are equally oblivious, or perhaps we’re simply good at taking things in our stride. Three quarters of the UK population now possess a low-cost pocket tool into which hundreds of other tools have been folded in a way that just a generation ago would have been inconceivable. Like a Swiss Army knife with an infinite number of extensions, today’s smart phone is a recorder, video camera, GPS navigator, alarm clock, egg timer, diary, juke box, book library, games hub, TV, mini-cinema and radio player, payment card, banking service, translator and world encyclopaedia. You can tune your guitar with it, check how late your train is and whether it’s raining at your destination, you can use it as a spirit level or a torch, and point it at speakers so it’ll tell you what song is playing. And of course you can phone or text people or join conferences via Skype. Older readers who remember slide rules might be amused to learn that if today’s 256gb iPhone X had been built in 1957 it would have been the size of a 3-kilometer-wide hundred-storey building, cost one and a half times the world’s GDP, and required 30 times the world’s total energy capacity (Link).
The singularity, however it is defined, represents an event beyond which human civilisation will change in unfathomable ways. In this sense, socialism is a political singularity. Currently all the intellectual and creative power of the world’s population is stunted by being forced through the bottleneck of property relations and the market, yet the pressure against this bottleneck is growing along with the individual’s access to communications. Once this bottleneck breaks and the gigantic potential of human capability is released, we may then consider that the singularity began much earlier than we ever realised, when we got that first phone contract.