What keeps me up at night, and on the edge of my seat, is thinking about humans moving to the next frontier—outer space—and worrying that the species will repeat most of the same mistakes we've made on Earth. As commercial activity in near-space becomes a near-future possibility, even in the next decade, the question of responsible development takes on a new urgency.
My favorite tweet of recent memory was one I saw in 2016. I've never been able to find it since, but it went like something like this:
Imagine you are an alien looking down on Earth from space. Beautiful blue planet, multicolored green to brown to white landforms. You find out that hairless apes have drawn imaginary lines across the surface of the Earth...and in order to cross those lines you must present papers...and if you’re on the other side of the line without papers, other hairless apes will kidnap you.
Since the dawn of history, and likely much earlier, humans have formed social groups, oftentimes held together by elements of coercion and force exerted by other stronger/older/more powerful humans against the weaker. Elements of good can, and sometimes do, come from this typical norm of hierarchy in human society. Parents guide children; often lovingly, but using force of various forms. An organized group of strong and armed persons may deter aggression by outside entities that might intend to take something by force, an all too common occurrence in our long history.
But harm can and has also come from the social norm of allowing the exercise of legitimate force by a government over its citizens. The democides of the twentieth century, where governments caused the deaths of 100+ million of their own citizens, are but one example. This is all born of the epoch of nation-states, where, at least since the Treaty of Westphalia in Europe (1648), states have been forcing “their” people to pay for “services.” These “services” are often merely a fee collected to allow people to carry their own stuff from one country to another, across one of these lines. Or consider the global problem of rent seeking: powerful elites who use position and state power to obtain economic gains for themselves without offering any productive benefit back to the rest of society, often by forming factions between state entities and corporate or other private groups.
When I look at the next frontier of humans expanding our society to the stars, it seems likely to me that we'll repeat the same old patterns. We will naturally and unthinkingly tend to extend our traditional practice of drawing lines, separating peoples, and creating legal but highly inefficient “businesses” which allow a too-small number of people to earn a payday by enforcing petty “rules” that restrict free trade and free movement of free peoples.
I have a deep voluntarist nature. I find that that outcomes emerging from voluntary human action, constrained in minimalist ways but with widely-accepted social norms against force and fraud, typically bring forth a remarkable flowering of human betterment.
Ideally, space could become a genuinely new frontier, where the borders, pettiness, and inefficient modes of governance of Earth societies do not carry over. The tools of blockchain and web 3.0 present a uniquely powerful opportunity to open up new possibilities for humans to do more direct and decentralized exchange. I'd certainly like to see those benefits accrue to all people, to think that maybe we will have gotten it right when at last we are out there, beyond Earth, where my imagined aliens were looking down in the first place.