Questioning technological determinism



In the first issue of a new open-access journal, Engaging Science, Technology, and Society, Taylor Dotson – an assistant professor in the Department of Communication, Liberal Arts, and Social Sciences at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology – writes about the assumptions, beliefs, and patterns of thought undergirding “technological determinism and permissionless innovation as technocratic governing mentalities.”* That is, they contribute to the biasing of political discourses, practices, and organizations toward non-decision making and adaptation with regard to technological change.

It’s a most interesting paper, and I think Dotson’s right on the mark. This paper is highly relevant to the current discourse on the future of human space flight.

Dotson provides concise definitions of his two key concepts: “technological determinism [is] the idea that technology autonomously drives history, and permissionless innovation [is] the belief that technology best benefits humanity if innovation remains nearly unregulated.”

According to a well-sourced Wikipedia entry on the topic (thanks to those who assembled it!), “Most interpretations of technological determinism share two general ideas: that the development of technology itself follows a predictable, traceable path largely beyond cultural or political influence, and that technology in turn has “effects” on societies that are inherent, rather than socially conditioned or produced because that society organizes itself to support and further develop a technology once it has been introduced.”

Dotson rightfully characterizes technological determinism and permissionless innovation as “normative phenomena.” That is, “their foundational beliefs, ideas, and assumptions constitute governing mentalities that shape discourse, thinking and action regarding technological innovation to the advantage of a narrow range of elite actors.” (I’ve added the emphasis.) “Because they help mobilize bias (within the political organization of technological societies so as to encourage adaptation to technological change) and non-decision-making (regarding the potential consequences of emerging technologies rather than conscious democratic steering) they can be termed technocratic governing mentalities.”

My own observations support Dotson’s – “permissionless innovation is quickly becoming the motto of those aiming to legitimate a ‘hands-off’ approach to the sociotechnical ‘disruptions’ sought by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.” (See my post of June 25, 2014, on Jill Lepore’s critique of the idea of “disruptive innovation.”)

He observes that “permissionless innovation” is a manifestation of what he calls “Silicon Valley techno-libertarianism.” From my perch inside the aerospace community, I interpret talk (thank goodness, that’s all it is so far) for the human colonization of other planets, the mining of asteroids, and large-scale space tourism (hotels on the Moon and such) as advocacy for permissionless innovation.

This administration’s seemingly uncritical embrace of “innovation” disturbs me. Enactment of legislation legalizing asteroid mining appalls me – for all the important issues that Congress is not acting on, it had time for this one? The media industry’s enthusiasm for technological innovation, with little critical analysis and plenty of cheerleading for the next wacky, impractical, and cost-prohibitive toy (read: space elevators, planetary terraforming, warp drive and the like) is bothersome as well.

I’ve studied the history of the idea of progress, which is deeply rooted in Christian theology. It’s a very Western idea. The idea that technological progress (innovation, disruptive innovation, whatever you want to call it) is inherently necessary and good is questionable. I myself would go so far as to say that it’s dangerous. As Dotson points out, this belief leads societies to embrace new technologies with little thought to the social change they may bring out – good, bad, or ugly.

Dotson says “meeting the challenges presented by technological determinism and permissionless innovation will entail,” among other things, “challenging system-justifying ideologies.” My ongoing project involves just that. (See, for example, my post of March 27.) Right on, Professor Dotson, I’m with you.


* “Technological Determinism and Permissionless Innovation as Technocratic Governing Mentalities: Psychocultural Barriers to the

Democratization of Technology,” ESTS 1, 2015, 98-120,

2015 in review

No, this is not an end-of-year news roundup. You’ve seen enough of those already…. The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog, and I’m sharing it with you.

The stats monkeys tell me:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 9,200 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 3 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

The post that drew the most views – more than a thousand! – was “More on manifest destiny” (March 27). Extra traffic was no doubt generated by Emily Lakdawalla’s tweet about an earlier, related post (July 24, 2013 – also see my post of February 24, 2015)  – thanks again, Emily!

As I mentioned in my last blog post (December 28), I’m working on a paper about the way that neoliberal ideology is playing out in the execution of U.S. civil space policy. I will be blogging about this project in 2016.

You can see the stats monkeys’  complete report here:

Capitalists, and federal dollars, in space



On December 23, I came across this headline in Investor’s Business Daily: “SpaceX Rocket Is A Capitalist Triumph.” Like a rubber-necker driving by a car crash, I had to look at the story.

Here’s how it starts: “Free Markets: This week’s return of a rocket to its launch pad was a big deal, not only because it signals a new era in competitive space exploration but also because it shows a new generation how capitalism solves problems. Americans keep hoping for something spectacular from NASA but are disappointed. In recent years, in addition to ending the costly shuttle program and forcing our astronauts to hitch rides with the Russians to go into space, NASA has made “Muslim outreach” a top priority. That’s not much return for NASA’s $18 billion annual budget.”

I gagged on this load of…um, let’s just call it hyperbole. I couldn’t bring myself to blog about it on the day before Xmas Eve, so I’m doing it today. (Thanks to Dave Huntsman for his comment on the IBD story online, check it out.)

First, “capitalism solves problems.” Let me remind my readers that both SpaceX and Blue Origin – both owned by billionaires – have received substantial subsidies, followed by even more substantial contracts, from NASA – you know, the evil government.

I have no need to defend NASA. I do have a need to challenge the libertarian rhetoric that government is the problem and capitalism is the solution. Please. Both Musk and Bezos are outspoken libertarians.*

Second, “NASA has made ‘Muslim outreach’ a top priority”? I don’t think so. NASA has always played a role in achieving the administration’s foreign policy objectives (that’s why NASA was formed in the first place), and, yes, NASA has played some small role in the current administration’s outreach to the Muslim world.

IBD goes on: “the current battle between SpaceX founder Elon Musk and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, whose Blue Origin rocket safely landed in November, will bring big benefits to the American people — and, down the road, potentially huge profits to the entrepreneurs who create the rockets.”

What benefits will these rockets bring to “the American people?” Really, I want to know. And which “American people”? OK, jobs, for some. But the underlying assumption here seems to be that the goals, objectives, and values of Elon Musk/SpaceX and Jeff Bezos/Blue Origin are representative of the goals, objectives, and values of “the American people” – a wildly diverse population…. I am not convinced that a majority – or even a significant minority – of “American people” share Musk’s and Bezos’s dreams of colonizing outer space.

SpaceX and Blue Origin are in competition with established behemoths Lockheed Martin and Boeing and their joint venture United Launch Alliance, and the well established Orbital Sciences Corp.

According to Aeroweb, NASA’s top 100 contractors for fiscal year 2014 included:

  • Lockheed Martin at #2 ($1.7 billion);
  • Boeing at #3 ($1.4 billion);
  • Orbital Sciences Corp. (now Orbital ATK) at #4 ($666 million);
  • SpaceX at #6 ($483 million) – up from #7 in 2013; and
  • United Launch Alliance (Lockheed Martin-Boeing) at #9 ($365 million).

SpaceX is #98 ($497 million) on the U.S. government’s top 100 contractors list for FY 2014, according to Aeroweb (Lockheed Martin and Boeing are #1 and #2).

(An aside: Lockheed Martin president, chairman, and CEO Marilyn Hewson’s 2013 compensation was $25 million, according to the Washington Post. See for information on Lockheed Martin’s employee compensation scales – for example, $74,000 to $131,000, plus bonus, for a senior systems engineer. In an imaginary glorious capitalist future, when SpaceX has displaced Lockheed Martin as NASA’s #1 contractor, can we expect Elon Musk’s compensation to reach such heady heights? Then again, why should he care about his compensation? His personal net worth is now $12.7 billion, according to Forbes. He’s #38 on Forbes’s list of the world’s richest people.)

See my blog post of September 24 for other thoughts on the so-called “commercial space” boom.

* In November, I presented a paper at the annual meeting of the Society for Social Studies of Science, “Neoliberalism: the heart of U.S. civil space policy,” in which I argued that, if not articulated in actual policy documents, libertarian ideology is a driver of the current execution of civil space policy. The paper isn’t finished yet (when it is, I‘ll post it on this site). But here’s the abstract:

“In the journal Social Studies of Science, Rebecca Lave, Philip Murowski, and Samuel Randall urged fellow scholars of science, technology, and society “to undertake a detailed exploration of exactly how the external political-economic forces of neoliberalism are transforming technoscience.” This paper addresses the role of neoliberalism in the transformation of technoscience, specifically in U.S. civil space policy. Neoliberalism’s kissing cousin, American exceptionalism, has been at the heart of the ideology of human space flight since the United States created a space program in 1958. Until the end of the Cold War, keeping ahead of the Soviets was sufficient rationale for the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA’s) costly human space flight program. Once the Cold War ended, neoliberalism came to the fore in advocacy, and policy, for human space flight.

While official national space policy documents are light on neoliberal rhetoric, other official statements – speeches by presidents and their appointees, advisory reports, and especially pronouncements by various human space flight advocacy groups – are more explicit in advocating for “free enterprise” and “unlimited growth” in space. Advocacy groups courted by NASA are most explicit, claiming in their mission statements that U.S. space policy should enable private property rights in space, unfettered private-sector exploitation of solar system resources, and colonization of other planetary bodies (Billings 2006, 2007). That these belief systems have been driving U.S. space exploration and development for so long, and continue to do so today, is disturbing.

Though certain efforts to “privatize” space flight began in the Carter administration, the Reagan administration was first to promote the so-called “commercialization” of space, touting the promise of space-based manufacturing and the commercial exploitation of extraterrestrial resources. The Obama administration, in rare concord with Congress, has embraced and turbocharged the neoliberal heart of national space policy, advancing billions of dollars in direct and indirect subsidies and billions more in contracts to so-called “commercial” space businesses, both established and new, and all well-heeled.

Pro-space neoliberals, libertarians, and Tea-Partiers continue to promote a space-colonization agenda on Capitol Hill and at the White House. A declaration produced at a “pioneering space national summit” in 2015 claims that “the long term goal of the human spaceflight and exploration program of the United States is to expand permanent human presence beyond low-Earth orbit and to do so in a way that will enable human settlement and a thriving space economy.” A new Alliance for Space Development has formed to execute this goal, including the Space Frontier Foundation and the Tea Party in Space.

Within the aerospace community, the ideology of space exploration is very seldom discussed. The same is true for the STS community. With this paper I hope to encourage further analysis. I will explore the ideology of space exploration by analyzing the rhetoric of policy makers and advocates.”

P.S. For further reading about capitalism and democracy, see E.J. Dionne’s opinion piece in today’s Washington Post, “Capitalists should listen to Bernie Sanders.” He argues that U.S. presidential candidates should be tackling these questions in their debates: “Are all the wealthy societies destined to become far more unequal, as they were in the late 19th century, because of globalization and technological change? Or can governments find new ways of ensuring a degree of justice and fairness?” (I agree.)

I believe that the answer to the first question is no – wealthy societies aren’t destined to be the way they are; they choose the way they want to be. We can be better, fairer. My answer to the second question is yes. We can. We should. But will we?

Holiday space shows: an asteroid and a comet


Caption: Comet Hale-Bopp, 1997.


On December 24 – Christmas Eve for many parts of the world – near-Earth asteroid 2003 SD220 will make a so-called “close approach” to Earth.

On that day, this asteroid will pass by Earth at a distance of 6.8 million miles (10.9 million kilometers – or, using observers’ preferred unit of measurement, 28.4 lunar distances – the distance from Earth to the Moon, or 238,900 miles/384,000 kilometers).

A near-Earth asteroid is an asteroid whose orbit periodically brings it within approximately 121 million miles (195 million kilometers) of the Sun – that’s within about 30 million miles, or 50 million kilometers, of Earth’s orbit.

So why is the predicted Christmas Eve pass of 2003 SD220 called “close”?

For asteroid watchers, a “close approach” is a predicted event in which an asteroid passes within the orbit of Earth’s Moon. Some passes of larger NEOs – such as 2003 SD220 – close to the Earth-Moon system but not between the two bodies are also called close approaches.

The December 24 flyby (my preferred term, though “pass” is probably more accurate) of 2003 SD220 on its orbit around the Sun has been drawing a lot of media attention for the past few weeks. However, this asteroid is only one of six known near-Earth asteroids that are predicted to make “close approaches” to Earth on December 24. See the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s (JPL’s) Close Approach Tables for details. (FYI: JPL measures close approach distances as the distance between the Earth center and asteroid center.)

So why is 2003 SD220 drawing all the attention?

It’s likely due to its size. It’s in the one-kilometer range. Asteroids that are one kilometer or larger in size are the ones that scientists and politicians have decided to worry about – or, rather, they’re not worrying about the asteroids but about possible impacts of such objects with Earth. (FYI: According to JPL’s Sentry impact risk table, no known asteroids are predicted to impact Earth for the next 100 years.)

NASA started its near-Earth object (NEO) observations program in 1998 in response to congressional direction: a 1994 request from the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology to develop a plan to discover, characterize and catalog within 10 years comets and asteroids larger than one kilometer in diameter; and a 1998 congressional directive to conduct a program to discover at least 90 percent of one-kilometer or larger NEOs within 10 years. (This goal was met in 2010.)

JPL’s Close Approach Tables report 2003 SD2003’s size as 1.1-2.5 kilometers. However, this size estimate has been refined due to further observations. It may well be that 2003 SD220 could be smaller than one kilometer.

According to a web site maintained by JPL’s Lance Benner – an expert at radar observations of near-Earth asteroids – “nothing is known about [2003 SD220] other than its absolute magnitude [brightness] of 16.9, which suggests a diameter of about 1.3 km.” Benner has also posted an update on the estimate of 2003 SD220’s size. NASA’s NEOWISE mission detected the asteroid on November 16, and preliminary results of that observation, he reports, “suggest the diameter is roughly 0.7 km.”

Astronomers, professional and amateur around the world, are keeping an eye on this asteroid. By December 24, we may have a more accurate assessment of its size.

According to Benner, “The 2015 apparition [of 2003 SD220] is the first of five encounters by this object in the next 12 years when it will be close enough for a radar detection. By obtaining radar ranging measurements at each observing opportunity, it may be possible to…obtain an estimate of the object’s mass, information that is invaluable for understanding the object’s bulk density and internal structure…. In 2018…the asteroid will make a much closer approach within 0.019 au….”

FYI: As of November 1st, 2015, 13,280 NEOs (including 13,176 near-Earth asteroids) have been discovered – about 98 percent of them by NASA-funded surveys. About 875 of these NEOs are one kilometer or larger in size – a quantity that accounts for more than 90 percent of the estimated population of NEOs in this size range.

Now on to comets….

In the early hours of January 1, 2016, Comet Catalina (a.k.a. Comet C/2013 UQ4) is predicted to reach peak brightness, making it visible with binoculars or even to the naked eye, depending on where you are and what the weather’s like. This report on includes links to a number of sources of information about the comet.

My last two comet sightings were Hyakutake in January 1996 (I still remember how cold it was outside, but it was worth it) and Hale-Bopp – for days and days – in spring 1997. Wow.

Happy holidays, and enjoy the space show!