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The Geography of Space Exploration: Space 5.0 — The Ethics Era

The following is a discussion piece for #Space2090, an undergraduate course on Space Exploration in the Department of Geography and the Environment at Western University. It is open to others in order to collect comments below for the students and I to discuss. We will discuss the piece and any well thought-out responses in class, as well as the week’s readings, and students’ own conceptions of the evolution of human-space activities.

Danny Bednar, PhD, is Canada’s second-best geographer of outer space and Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography at Western University in Ontario, Canada. He is also an analyst with the CSA and an author with Mango Publishers. All views are his own.

In November of 1980, an obscure New York magazine called FUTURE had a headline across its cover “Space Activism: A Growing National Movement?”. The article was a general piece on the emergence of what many now call ‘space advocacy’. Back then, at least according to the magazine and most since these homogenous ‘space advocates’ were largely Apollo-era Cold Warriors who advanced arguments around the trickle-down logic of spin-off technologies and the colonial-nationalist prestige of “us beating them”. The world has changed a lot, so has the space community.

Not many people know Carl Sagan had Force Lightning.

I’ve always hated the term ‘space advocate’, it is inaccurate, (few people interested in space formally advocate for it) and it is overly-homogenous, even monolithic, in its application. Space is a big place with lots going on. It means many different things to many different people.

So lets do away with the term “space advocate” it carries too much confusing potential with more formalized positions like ‘lobbyist’ and has become muddled to the point of uselessness. In the context of this discussion piece, I will use the term ‘actor’ instead. In governance studies, we are all actors; entities moving about our daily lives who’s interactions with other actors shape the social landscape, or ‘network’ (also note that it’s a two way street of influence). There are even some approaches in the social sciences that ascribe actor ‘status’ to inanimate objects (Actor-Network Theory). I wont go there. But, broadly the notion of actors and networks is important in understanding the modern space age.

You don’t have to be a registered lobbyist or political campaign member to be influencing the social and political network in which you exist, we all do it with every social interaction we undertake. As recent movements against structural inequality and racism and in advancement of diversity, equity, and inclusion have tried to bring to the forefront: everything we do matters. Simply existing as actors in a society has an impact on our networks (to varying degrees), subsequently that “network” (society) acts back on us and others.

What does it mean to say “everything we do matters” It is to say that everything you do, every action, has ethical and political ramifications. This is because of the networks of which we are a part of and the reality that we live in an interconnected society with other humans. No one is an ethical or political island. Each action can support or resist processes that either cause harm or advance justice. Those lamenting this social reality and the “politicization of everything” via refer-madness-like woke panic are simply people’s whose ideals are so aligned with dominant political perspectives that they truly believe they are being apolitical in their daily actions. For a social scientist nothing is apolitical.

The result of this is a governance lens of critical engagement, the need to carefully explore both our actions as actors and the networks with which we willingly engage for their ethical entanglements. To carry on your daily life, to exist socially, is to act upon the network and have the network act on you. We must also recognize that structural oppression and inequality means many of us have very little influence on large parts of our networks and that our societal networks are heterogenous conglomerates of both oppressors and liberators. We exists as actors nonetheless, with, at least some, influence via legitimization or complacency regarding our connections (among other means).

Now lets think about how this matters to space exploration (or broader human-space engagements). Historically, we can think of space activities as emerging alongside various conceptions of human processes over the past century. One of these conceptions over the last decade has been a branded characterization of space activities as falling within eras labeled ‘Space 1.0’ through ‘Space 4.0’ (you will recall that we have seen other conceptions in our readings on space law and policy). Vaguely, this has been described as the following:

“The first era of space, ‘Space 1.0’, can be considered to be the early study of astronomy (and even astrology). The next era, ‘Space 2.0’, came about with spacefaring nations engaging in a space race that led to the Apollo Moon landings. The third era, ‘Space 3.0’, with the conception of the International Space Station, showed that we understood and valued space as the next frontier for cooperation and exploitation…Space 4.0 era, a time when space is evolving from being the preserve of the governments of a few spacefaring nations to a situation in which there is the increased number of diverse space actors around the world, including the emergence of private companies, participation with academia, industry and citizens, digitalisation and global interaction.”

But what has been less discussed in the conception of these eras, if they are indeed meaningful labels we wish to accept, is the ramification of such expansion of space activities and inclusion of actors with broader values. The expansion inherent to Space 4.0 fostered what I will argue is the central point of space 5.0. Space 5.0 is surely an equally subjective brand for a societal arrangement, but one I would argue is usefully reflective of the emergence of new space actors focused on ethical entanglements as guide to their engagement in the space network.

Space 5.0 The Ethics Era

As commentators pointing to Space 4.0 have argued, space activities have diversified (though I wouldn’t necessarily use that word…). For this discussion, lets then focus on what comes with said ‘diversification’. With the expansion of space activities comes plurality and diversity of experiences at levels never seen before in the community of previously nationalist-focused, generationally selfish, space-interested actors that dominated the 20th Century.

Though, to be fair, it’s also not the case that the network of space activities was entirely homogenous in the past. More so, eras 1.0 through to, and including, 4.0, were so dominantly overrun, and defined, by particular life experiences and aspiring apolitical perspectives that recent influxes of new values are indeed striking. Yes, the contributors of the Whole Earth Catalogue and the Apollo resistance movement, among others, were there, but they have been largely space-washed from history.

This is why Space 5.0 is distinguishable as a new era of explicit diversity of experience and ethical considerations in relation to processes taking place in, or related to, outer space. It has meant the discursive maturation of “space” from a monolithic concept of most space activities being equal, to the more explicit categorization of kinds of space activities reflective of a more advanced network of political, social, historical, and cultural relations between actors (i.e. its not all the same, we’re not all the same).

Is this entirely new? Again, no, of course not. But neither was Space 4.0. Governance scholars like myself snickered when people claimed that New Public Management was somehow new…in the year 2010, just because it was happening in the space sector. The political economy arrangements of space 4.0 have been the dominant governance mode in North America and Europe since the end of World War 2, they are not new. These arrangements were simply packaged as a brand in the space community to reflect changing power dynamics and interests. So, like Space 4.0, Space 5.0 too isn’t actually new, its just become more accurate as a brand because it is undeniable that new actors entering the space network are shaped by critical self-reflection and cultural moments unique from past “eras”.

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The question of Space 5.0 is then: what kind of entangled actors do we want to be in this old/new environment? What ethical considerations should drive our interests and relations? Why do we care about things that happen in space? What do we want to happen? What are the daily, local, social, cultural, and moral ramifications of our space interests? Not all space activities are created equally, so what kind of space actors do we want to be?

There is a growing group of people thinking this way; many of whom I have had the immense privilege to work with over the past few years as this whole thing has bubbled under. These people are why Space 5.0 is the Ethics Era. A new era of space activity driven by an emerging generation of diverse, self-critical, selective space actors fostering networks of ethically minded global citizens committed to a sustainable and equitable future on Earth for all humans.

Do you agree or disagree? Does labelling “space eras” make any sense? What kind of space actor are you? What do you support? What networks of space activity do you want, or not want, to be a part of? Please reply respectfully in the comments section below.

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Danny Bednar

Danny Bednar

Your Friendly Neighborhood Space Agency Worker, Geography PhD, Part-Time Professor, and Author. Writing about Movies, Music, Comics, & Hockey.

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