A space “revolution”: buy now!


Yet another business-media ode to “private initiatives” in space flight has pushed my buttons.

This time it’s Forbes magazine. Specifically, it’s the headline on the July 1 report that’s set me off: “The Revolution in Space Exploration Will Be Televised.”

I guess Baskin’s never heard the late great Gil Scott-Heron’s 1970 rap, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” I’m offended by Baskin’s warping of this famous line.

Where do I start to pick apart Forbes contributor Jonathan Salem Baskin’s fawning take on current affairs in the space biz? Let’s start with his assessment of NASA: “It’s embracing social conversation, having recently hosted a Google+ Hangout to talk about mining asteroids, rolling out projects that seem like sci-fi scripts…and breaking the chains of bureaucracy to talk boldly and publicly about a manned mission to Mars (accessible via smartphone and table apps)…. I’m guardedly hopeful that the space agency is doing exactly what it should be doing: Promoting smart, compelling basic science that literally paves the way for others to follow.”

Wow. NASA is, indeed, “promoting smart, compelling science.” However, asteroid mining and human missions to Mars are first about making money for the aerospace industry – that is, justifying the circa $10 billion a year NASA spends on human space flight programs. And NASA has been talking about human missions to Mars for decades. Publicly. Jeeze.

Baskin praises the aerospace industry for “stepping up” – “NASA contractors and suppliers have upped the ante on communications.” They certainly have. I call it “advertising” or “promotion” (and sometimes it smacks of propaganda as well).

“Private initiatives” such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic “are also contributing marvelous content to the emergent narrative” of a new era in space exploration, he writes. I must note that these “private initiatives” are corporations, which exist to make money. Period.

“The story belongs to The People,” Baskin continues.Individual enthusiasts are telling the same stories on the Internet, producing rich, smart video, audio, and textual content.”

True, it’s cheap and easy to do so these days. In my world, however, “the people” means everybody, all colors and classes and net worths. “The People” to whom Baskin seems to refer appear to be largely male and white, and at the top of this heap are a bunch of very wealthy white males.

(For example…. Richard Branson: net worth: $4.6 billion. Elon Musk: net worth, $2.7 billion. Peter Diamandis: salary $350,000, equity $9 million. PayPal CEO David Marcus: total compensation in 2012, $8.3 million. And let’s throw in a few heads of the industry that’s financing so much of the current marketing of space, directly or indirectly via the Aerospace Industries Association, the Space Foundation, the National Space Society, and other industry-based advocacy groups. Bob Stevens, CEO of Lockheed Martin until January 1, 2013: total compensation for 2011, $25 million (I wonder if his successor Marillyn Hewson will get equal pay?).  Boeing CEO Jim McNerney: total compensation for 2012, $21.1 million. Northrop Grumman CEO Wes Bush, total compensation in 2012, $24.4 million. )

Maybe it’s just me,” Baskin says, “but doesn’t it seem like there are lot of sci-fi movies about outer space coming out of Hollywood these days? If I’m right, it’s because there’s a fertile if not growing audience for the stuff.” It is just you, Mr. Baskin. Science fiction literature about goings-on in outer space goes back at least a couple of centuries, and philosophical speculation about travel and life in outer space dates back to ancient times. The film industry, worldwide, has been chucking out sci-fi/outer-space movies since its beginnings, at a pretty steady pace.

“The very premise that space exploration could be entertaining is itself an indication of how times are changing,” Baskin declares. Indeed. We live in a global, 24/7 infotainment culture. I don’t think that’s necessarily a good thing. (For a prescient and cogent take on this theme, see critic Guy Debord’s 1967 essay, “Society of the spectacle.”)

“The sociology behind this revolution is fascinating to me,” Baskin comments; “the phenomenon is really distributed and grassroots.” From where I stand, I see a lot of “grassroots” that are actually Astroturf, backed in large part by aerospace-industry dollars. This “phenomenon” is not “really distributed.” It is not, I would argue, meaningful to a broad swath of the global population.

“The revolution will be televised,” Baskin concludes.

Back to “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” Heaven help us if we buy the hype and let the mass media construct an infotainment “revolution” for us.

“You will not be able to stay home, brother,” Scott-Heron wrote. “You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out,” Scott-Heron wrote. “The revolution will be no re-run brothers; the revolution will be live.”

Upon Scott-Heron’s death in 2011, the Wall Street Journal – that bastion of wealth –commented on these famous lyrics: “ ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ was a blast at consumer culture and its ability to lead social change.”

Whoever wrote that item got the message.

From “Penguin Pete” of the website Lyric Interpretations comes this take on “The Revolution…”:

“ ‘The Revolution’ was…a general reference to the counter-culture movement and its hopes of overcoming consumer capitalism…

Gil Scott-Heron pointed out that the message is that people who want change need to make it happen themselves. They cannot sit at home on the couch and wait for the revolution to come out of their TV sets. Now…think about the Internet activism of today, where online rallies result in web poll jamming, website hacking…online petitions, angry blog posts, ranting YouTube videos, and the occasional in-person protest… attended by about ten kids in Guy Fawkes masks who don’t even know who Guy Fawkes was, but only bought the masks because they came from a comic-book movie. Can you smell the modern cultural relevance? Today, we can just as easily say ‘the revolution will not be blogged.’

[Scott-Heron wrote] ‘The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox
In 4 parts without commercial interruptions.’

Network ‘movie specials’ [in 1970] typically boasted of limited commercial interruptions – if you watch a flick on video sites like Hulu.com today, they spiel almost the exact same line! If this were in a modern context, we’d be saying something like ‘Your favorite political candidate will not become president of the Internet if you upvote his post on Digg.com’.”

I don’t know who you are, Penguin Pete, but I’m pretty sure you get it.

Baskin’s excitement over the prospect of mass-marketing space flight makes me queasy. “It just might be possible that brands will step in and help nudge the phenomenon along. Could brands want to be associated with outer space again, from sponsorship of specific activities to simply using the meme as a creative element in marketing content?”

No doubt. How depressing.


One Response to “A space “revolution”: buy now!”

  1. Jonathan Salem Baskin Says:

    Linda, I’m sorry you’re so offended by my enthusiasm and support of the exploration of space in general, and the various efforts underway in the US to realize it. And I’m encouraged that you are happy with the efficacy of communications on those points over the past decade or two. From my perspective, they’ve been woefully meager and ineffective, and part of it is probably the result of the lack of public participation in the communicating process (both individuals and for-profit ventures).

    I’m thrilled that you got my Gil Scott-Heron reference. When he wrote about social change, he was referencing the reality of experience on the streets of America (and in our hearts) as contrasted with the stifled, controlled propaganda appearing on commercial media. That control is no longer true, thanks to the social web and the changes in our culture over the intervening half-century, and it’s so encouraging that 1) the space revolution I see happening WILL be televised, whether on little screens in our hands or on our desktops, and 2) the visual/compelling content will come from a variety of sources, not the experts or those who’ve self-selected themselves as arbiters of that communicating.

    I don’t know if you’re familiar with the way any other exploration initiatives have happened on our planet over the past thousand years or so, but they pretty much fall into a similar pattern: an organized state funds the initial steps and then private initiative jumps in (much of it for-profit, as well as engaged in science, adventuring, etc.). The second step never happened post-Apollo…we’ve been stuck in low earth orbit space without much public participation, let alone a national mandate…but now I see it happening, perhaps even furtively. The government and a small cadre of experts won’t likely own the conversation going forward.

    I choose to see it as a net positive for our country. I’m sorry you think otherwise.

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