by Julius WiedemannSep 14, 2021
Now that we have launched the preambles of a new tourism industry into space, first with Virgin Galactic and then Blue Origin, it might be time to think about how it would be if we soon have these options as a second home, but also if they fail, as many predict, on a larger scale, what it means for a larger audience. What might make our planet inhabitable is not that it is getting full everywhere, but the damages we cause here on earth on a relatively short term. Especially because of our lack of ability to think long term and to work collectively. It boils down to our inability to reach consensus about how we share the Pale Blue Dot, as Carl Sagan would say. Going into space doesn’t solve that problem. There is little doubt that the excitement of being outer space and looking at the earth as an object, as one single piece, captivates the mind and the imagination of us all. I think most of us wanted to be there with Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos in their new ventures. The danger, however, is that we might also think that there is no solution for all the things happening down here, so that space becomes the easy escape. And it will not be easy. In that sense, Bill Gates still looks like the only adult in the room. Richard Branson seems to speak a bit more pragmatically and might look at that as a business opportunity for tourism. And that seems to be spot on. So far, it is a great venture for the humankind.
One thing is for sure. The kind of technologies that used to be monopolised by governments and needed government funding to make things viable have now been democratised to a certain extent. Not that everyone can fly into space. The first space tourist to pay to go on the Blue Origin vessel, an entirely private mission, has put $28 million on the table. Affordability is relative. But the sign that not only governments can take people to space is a good one. Technologically and financially. Maybe tourism has become mundane for rich people on earth, because a relatively large part of the population can save money to go to the Fiji Islands, Santorini, see museums in Europe, and eat sushi in Japan. Exclusivity is not what it used to be. That is a good sign too. Places have become reachable through better infrastructure and affordable flight tickets, a lot due to the technologies that create more efficiency, and of course, a lot due to economic improvement. From travel websites to Airbnb, from car rentals to information about exotic and hard to reach places, the Internet has changed completely the travel industry in the last 30 years. The figure of the travel agent had to be redesigned to stay alive.
The desire to explore and live in outer space has been there for a long time. Independent astronomers, who have now almost gained a scientist-like status, have observed the sky for a long time, and reached on conclusions that scientists in universities haven’t for a long time. This was only possible through a lot of hard work of ordinary citizens studying the universe and also the availability of high-tech equipment. From the telescopes dramatically improved by Isaac Newton, to today’s computational analysis, we have also created an unprecedented network of people that can collaborate in a much more dynamic fashion. The space race was already on in 1962 when the TV series The Jetsons was released. It would take another seven years for men to land on the moon in 1969. Since then, the space might have become our second home, I guess.
Without counting the pandemic times, international tourism has exploded. In 2019, the number of international tourist’s arrivals in the world was almost 1.5 billion. An increase of about 50 per cent if compared to 2012. The economics of disposable income cannot be underestimated, but also not the availability of so much information that make us eager to go experiment something new. Equality, as I see it, is not about everyone having the same access. It has a lot more to do with people being able to dream the same dreams. The amount of feeds on Instagram showing incredible places to visit is also unprecedented. Most of these places we will never go, we will only be able to dream about, and that’s not a bad thing. If you like Socrates as I do, you would be content to understand that the more we know the more we realise that we know less. The world is so big and there are so many possibilities, and life is so short, that we have to choose all the time. And we always seem to go back to choose fatigue. Our inability to go everywhere creates a certain anxiety. So maybe, going to space, for it being so overwhelming, and so unattainable, releases us from the obligation of having to work for it. We only need to admire and we do not need to commit to anything.
I believe that technology can set us free. And I think that the technologies that we have to look most at, are the ones that can improve life on earth. Considering that climate change and poverty are the biggest challenges we have, it is in our hands to find the next futures. But we have another challenge to tackle. According to Daniel Kahneman, who wrote the bestseller Thinking Fast and Slow, and has more recently launched Noise, the problem we have today is that there is no “we”. Collaborative work, which I cannot conceive these days without the use of digital technologies, might be the only way into our existence in a massive scale. And we struggle to work together.
The digital world until today has served more to collect data and make analysis about our future than it has actually been displayed as a solution for the future. We will need solar panels, electric cars, biodegradable materials, more food diversity to eat seasonally, and we will need organic nurturing without pesticides, and so many other things. But we will need to communicate better and distribute better everything we do. Maybe, on our way to space, we will develop technologies that will make a difference down here. Those dynamics already happen in medicine, for example. On our way to try to sort out diseases like Alzheimer’s, we are discovering how the brain works on many levels. I am happy if our dreams become the bridge to the New World we need to conquer here. Welcome space traveling.
Read more from the series Digital Legacies where our columnist Julius Wiedemann investigates the many aspects of digital life.