Sunday, December 16, 2012

W. Patrick McCray's "The Visioneers"

W. Patrick McCray is professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of Keep Watching the Skies!: The Story of Operation Moonwatch and the Dawn of the Space Age and Giant Telescopes: Astronomical Ambition and the Promise of Technology.

McCray applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future, and reported the following:
If we look at the broader history of technology, we see rare individuals who have had a clear and strong vision of an expansive future created by technologies they studied, designed, and promoted. People who would fit this category are Nikola Tesla in the 1890s (wireless transmission of electricity) or Wernher von Braun in the 1930s (rocketry and human spaceflight) or Doug Engelbart in the 1960s (human-computer interactions).

A neologism of “visionary” and “engineer,” visioneer captures the hybrid nature of these technologists’ activities. The visionary aspect is central – these are people who aren’t simply imagining a faster airplane or a new electronic gadget. They present a vision of society as a whole that could be altered, shaped, and improved by technologies they see as necessary and even inevitable. The engineering element is just as, if not more, critical. Visioneers base their imaginings on detailed engineering studies and technical designs. They also engage in another form of engineering as they build communities of supporters and patrons. At its core, visioneering entails developing a broad and comprehensive vision for how the future might be radically changed by technology, doing research to advance this vision, and promoting one’s ideas to the public and policy makers in the hopes of generating attention and perhaps even realization.

The Visioneers focuses on two such individuals. One is Princeton University physicist Gerard O'Neill who, in the 1970s, became a minor celebrity for promoting what he called the “humanization of space.” Central to O'Neill’s visioneering were space settlements. The other main character in my book is K. Eric Drexler. Originally drawn to O'Neill’s ideas while a student at MIT, Drexler went on to promote a different technological frontier – nanotechnology. Whereas space promised the infinitely vast, nanotechnology – engineering to design and build new materials and things with near-atomic precision – shifted things toward the molecular scale. Both of these men imagined futures which were catalyzed by advocates’ belief that new technologies offered radical solutions that countered the sense of impending planetary limits and ecocatastrophe that permeated thinking in the early 1970s.

Page 99 of my book reveals an interesting problem that visioneers like O'Neill faced. Here, we find that Timothy Leary – yes, that Leary – was also drawn to space colonization. While in jail on drug charges, Leary began to think about a new trip – humanity’s exodus into space. After California governor Jerry Brown paroled him in April 1976, Leary, now even more on the fringes of respectability, added these new ingredients to his evolving recipe for mutation. Ever adept at coining a catchy phrase, Leary cheerily christened his new plan SMI²LE: “Space Migration, Intelligence Increase, and Life Extension.” In books, lectures, radio shows, and even comic books, Leary and a few close associates promoted SMI²LE to a small community of devotees. The well-publicized placement of Leary’s ashes into orbit symbolized Leary’s longstanding interest in space, immortality, and (to be fair) publicity.

From his own home, tucked away in one of Los Angeles County’s steep shaded canyons, “where the migrants and the mutants, and the future people come from, the end point of terrestrial migration,” Leary spread his SMI²LE. No visioneer, Leary did no design or technical work to bolster his ideas and O'Neill avoided direct associations with him. Nonetheless, Leary dropped the Princeton physicist’s name into almost every exposition of SMI²LE and claimed “sexy Gerard O'Neill” was proof that the days of the “retiring, square, fuddy-duddy scientist” were over.

Leary’s enthusiasm for “high orbital living” highlighted difficulties that visioneers have in controlling their message and ideas. It also showed how far O'Neill’s humanization of space had migrated from its origins in Ivy League classrooms and NASA workshops. And, as the idea of space migration circulated between university campuses and sci-fi conventions and the coffee shops and hot tubs of coastal California it continued to mutate in ways O'Neill would never have imagined.
Learn more about the book and author at W. Patrick McCray's website.

The Page 99 Test: W. Patrick McCray's Keep Watching the Skies!.

--Marshal Zeringue