Opinion

Developments in space travel and technology need to benefit everyone

Gareth Worthington says we need to think about how space travel and technology will benefit humanity as a whole

Space Shuttle Challenger

The Space Shuttle Challenger’s fateful 1986 flight has not prevented the commercialisation of space travel. Image: Universal History Archive/UIG/Shutterstock

When I was five years old, I watched the Challenger shuttle explode. I remember running from the TV in the living room to the kitchen to tell my mum. It was astonishing. The first civilian supported by NASA, the world’s largest and most well-funded space agency, had just died. I listened to Jean-Michel Jarre’s Last Rendez-vous (Ron’s Piece) – a dedication to the crew – on repeat. I was not deterred, and wanted to go to space too. Alas, spaceflight was beyond the reach of a council estate kid from Plymouth.

Fast forward to 2021, and a man who started on online bookstore – Jeff Bezos – went into orbit aboard his Blue Origin spacecraft. Not long after, and not to be outdone, Elon Musk sent a group of four civilians into orbit aboard a SpaceX rocket. Musk also has his own satellite network, Starlink.

As we run out of places to plant, farm, industrialise and build upon in the western world, the commercialisation of space is becoming a growing trend. My own south-west England now has a spaceport, funded with support from Cornwall Council, for sending up satellites, and presumably pasties.

With great power should come great responsibility

So it is that the commercialisation of technology means that the cost of goods and the need for technical knowhow are both reduced. The average person now has access to more computing power in their mobile phone than was used to send Apollo 11 to the Moon. None of us knows how our phone works. With great power should come great responsibility. 

Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. In 2020, a man named Mike Hughes died when he crash-landed his steam-powered rocket shortly after take-off. The event was reportedly filmed as part of the TV series Homemade Astronauts. This is an extremely sad event, and perhaps the only silver lining is that no one else lost their life.

But what happens when easily accessible technology is purposefully used to harm?

The KK ratio is falling

The political scientist Daniel Deudney expounds on the fact that the ratio of killer to killed, the “K/K ratio”, is falling. In simple terms, that means a single person can send 100 drones with a small amount of explosive attached to each into a populated area and target “men with brown hair” or “women with red shoes”. One average person can kill many from their laptop while wearing slippers. Although we might think such activity is confined to criminals, that might not be the case.

In 2021, Caitlin Elsaesser, assistant professor of social work at the University of Connecticut, published an article which outlined her research on how online arguments can turn into real-world violence, particularly among teenagers. She cites ‘internet banging’, which involves taunts, disses and arguments on social media between people in rival crews, cliques or gangs. Individuals have been seen to “call out” an online combatant to physically fight, broadcast in real time on a social media platform. These exchanges can – and have – led to shootings and, in the worst cases, death.

There are a plethora of data and many theories as to why humans act in this way. Some of it can be found in evolutionary biology. Richard Dawkins talks about the selfish gene. How we as humans are programmed to ensure our DNA is preserved at all costs. Social scientists have run numerous experiments showing how anonymity – as granted by social media and other technology – results in individuals engaging in much more violent behaviour compared with those who are potentially subject to social justice.

The individual vs society

We are rapidly moving toward a place where an individual reigns supreme, not society. The problem escalates when we consider things in terms of “the tragedy of the commons”. The concept originated in an essay written in 1833 by British economist William Forster Lloyd. Essentially, individuals who have easy access to a resource and act independently according to their own self-interest, conflicting with the common good of all, deplete that resource and negatively impact society.

While this is primarily an economic and ecological concept, it can be applied to humans in general. If we all act in our own self-interest, either as an individual or even our own little tribe, things will not end well. 

Gareth Worthington
Gareth Worthington

I explore these issues in my latest book, Dark Dweller. While on its surface the book is a science-fiction thriller, the underlying story is about humanity’s obsession with self-importance. The question posed is this. In the vastness of the cosmos is an individual such as Einstein significant. Or is it significant that humanity can generate such genius? After all, if it wasn’t Einstein, it would have been someone else.

I started this piece talking about five-year-old me dreaming, and that’s how I’d like to end it. The democratisation of technology can allow wonderful things and gives chances to people who may previously not had an opportunity, myself included. But, if we are to realise the true benefits, we must act as a whole. Humanity is important. Let’s dream of a better way.

Dark Dweller by Gareth Worthington i

Dark Dweller by Gareth Worthington is out on February 28 (Dropship, £22.99)
@DrGWorthington 

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