Life on Mars?

By Guy Brandon 02 Apr 2018
 'Live Views of Starman', SpaceX Video

2018 has been billed as the ‘year of digital disruption’, but is there something more fundamental at stake?

With the second decade of the 21st century well into its autumn, we might legitimately start to consider what its legacy is going to be. More than what we’re doing or where we’re going, the question raised by the rapidly-unfolding human story is: Who do we want to be?

The years since the financial crisis have been marked by a kind of fin de siècle mood that combines apathy and disdain towards every form of authority with a brittle optimism. A series of scandals and protest movements has hit every area of life – the financial crisis, political expenses, the Arab Spring, Brexit and Trump, Weinstein and #MeToo, to name a few – in tandem with the feeling that perhaps finally, these will be a catalyst for things to change.

Technology has played a leading role in this process, and emerging new technologies are promising even more still. Social media has given victims a new voice and brought transparency to long-murky situations, with bigger and better on the way. A recent article billed 2018 as the Year of Digital Disruption, as a series of groundbreaking technologies come of age: Artificial Intelligence, blockchain and Virtual/Augmented Reality are finally seeing real-world use cases. Ideas that just a few years ago were the preserve of science fiction, or even that some experts believed impossible, are being deployed to consumers and will soon be as normal a part of life as the personal computer itself. Transparency, accessibility, fairness, authenticity, efficiency: these are all properties of the heralded age to come.

If there’s one thing that captures the optimism of the technological Zeitgeist, it has to be the videos of Elon Musk’s cherry-red Tesla Roadster, launched into orbit on the most powerful rocket ever built and piloted by a SpaceX-suited mannequin past Mars on a billion-year journey around the sun. It’s a hallmark of the times that this technically incredible spectacle, undertaken with the ultimate aim of putting humans on the Red Planet and dramatically reducing our extinction risk, was also used as a branding exercise and cross-selling opportunity. (Commercial space flight is, whatever else, commercial.) In short, technology continues to deliver while everything else disappoints.

It’s both fitting and ironic that the anthem for this endeavour was David Bowie’s 1971 single ‘Life on Mars?’ The song hints at the way a series of once-promising cultural and ideological movements – anti-capitalism, anti-authoritarianism, anti-patriotism – have been packaged for consumers and sold for profit, neutering their revolutionary power. Popular protest, the American Dream and even Disney have thereby been robbed of their impact. The song’s mousy-haired protagonist is aware there is something greater out there in life and frustrated she is unable to reach it. Six weeks into 2018 and nearly half a century later, Musk has set himself the task of answering her rhetorical question with something that makes a common-or-garden moonshot look tame.

And so it seems that 2018 is not just the year of digital disruption, but a crossroads for humanity. We have a toolkit of unprecedented sophistication and versatility at our disposal. What we do with it, just like what we do with our money and our time, will indicate what kind of individuals and civilisation we are and that we want to be.

The stakes are high. But, at the same time, it won’t answer the ultimate questions for meaning. (Musk had ‘Don’t Panic’ written on the dash of his Tesla Roadster – if you got the reference to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy you’ll appreciate the sideways nod to exactly those questions.) We’re entering a world that will be very different to our current one in ways good, bad, and that we can’t yet imagine. In which the majority of customer interactions will be handled by bots. Where technological unemployment could see hundreds of millions of people out of work. In which the fundamental nature of money changes, ‘trust’ is guaranteed by networks and not institutions, and a significant proportion of administration is automated rather than carried out by government bureaucrats. Artificial intelligence will progress to a point where it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between software and a person in many exchanges. The concept of human identity, and human specialness, will be interrogated as never before – and with it, our purpose as a species. We may be capable of instant global communication, replicating organic intelligence and interplanetary travel, but this does not answer the question of what we’re here for.

That is a question technology cannot answer. Meaning – the ‘why?’– is not the same as the ‘how?’ provided by technology. There is an interface between them, but they occupy largely exclusive spheres. Technology offers the ability to do something, and thereby how a desired end might be achieved; it does not state what the end is, or whether it is desirable.

‘Life on Mars?’ was released just two years after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. At a time of singular technological achievement, Bowie laments a lack of meaning and authenticity. Kennedy’s decision to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade was a political one, borne out of the pressures of the Cold War. The failure of the space programme to deliver lasting returns – no one has set foot on the moon since 1972 – is one of the factors that prompted the new generation of interest in space travel and the desire to put a colony on Mars, which itself takes place against the backdrop of political, economic and cultural disillusionment.

Bowie wasn’t asking whether there is life on Mars. He was asking whether there is more here. The question hasn’t disappeared with the advances of the past 50 years.

‘I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens… Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments,  for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.’

- Ecclesiastes 1:13; 12:13-14

This article was first published in the April 2018 edition of our Engage News Magazine.

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