Status Report

MarsNow 1.12 The Middle Distance

By SpaceRef Editor
October 10, 2001
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Last week a group of friends met over lattes here in Scottsdale for a little space strategizing. Bill Boland of Forever Bound LLC shared an interesting observation: short-term needs and opportunities in space commerce and advocacy are fairly clear. Some of us, too, propound the importance of a cogent long-term view. What’s gone missing, he said, is a view into the middle distance, the winding of the path between the next right step and the existence of a spacefaring civilization. He’s right. That lack of vision marks the blind spot between philosopher and engineer, between vision statement and quarterly financials. It points up the bureaucratic devolution of NASA from the Apollo go-go days and the lack of understanding of the changing roles of planning and management in a networked environment.

The effects of these transformations are being felt throughout the space community. New information technology and new organizational methods are combining to focus our attention on the middle distance, on building the network to take us from today’s research and investments out towards a settled solar system. As Manuel Castells declares in The Rise of The Network Society, Volume I of his magisterial The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture, “[n]etworks are the fundamental stuff of which new organizations are and will be made.” (p.180) Critically, he defines “organization” as “a system of means structured around the purpose of achieving specific goals.” (p.187) The “network enterprise,” then, is “that specific form of enterprise whose system of means is constituted by the intersection of segments of autonomous systems of goals.” (p.187)

The Spacefaring Web is a network enterprise, albeit a loose and somewhat disjointed one. A radical transformation has taken place, largely unnoticed, within the space community over the last two years, though network elements can be traced back to the 1930s. To take an extreme example, next week’s column will focus on the Mars crew simulation research of Bill Clancey. Bill is a scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center who designs simulations used by human spaceflight groups at Johnson Spaceflight Center, which run on software developed by a private company of which he is a principal. The raw data for the simulations was generated during a week he spent in the hab on Devon Island, owned by the Mars Society and operated in conjunction with the Haughton Mars Project, under the organizational aegis of both NASA and the private nonprofit SETI Institute. The multinational hab crew used equipment from an array of private contractors and third-party participants, some of whom will make use of Bill’s data in refining their products. My column describing his work is supported by the Space Frontier Foundation, whose primary sponsor, FINDS, contributed seed financing for the hab, and will be reprinted by, a co-owner of which is the webmaster for HMP. The most ardent conspiracy theorist would be hard-pressed to follow the network of linkages.

Yet not only does the network work, it allows the generation, analysis and dissemination of data at an unimagined rate. No command project, no single NASA code, industrial behemoth or autarkic nonprofit, could have designed, built and operated an enterprise to support Bill’s work. Yet the creative and relentless application of network logic by HMP Principal Investigator Pascal Lee and many others in the Spacefaring Web have created a robust global system of interconnections with the common goal of preparing us for life and work on Mars.

The beauty of network logic is that, like classical economics’ “invisible hand,” it works even through its opponents, at least to a degree. Accomplishing anything substantial in the realms of science and technology means accepting the logic of the network, much as producing any world-class product means accepting the logic of the global economy, as many firms and governments have learned the hard way. While few network with the verve of a Pascal Lee, who gets Inuit boys unpacking Kawasaki ATVs airdropped by Marines into a NASA-funded multinational science camp for use by Russo-Canadian MIT students, everyone is forced to build strategic alliances in order to survive an uncertain funding climate. Those alliances generate such operational efficiencies that, willy-nilly, they expand until the project is firmly embedded in the network.

While there are no shortages of organizations in the Spacefaring Web who regard themselves as coherent, autonomous actors, that perception is diverging from reality on a daily basis. Pickup teams from different institutions – and different sorts of institutions, including universities, think tanks, government research institutes, defense conglomerates, entrepreneurial startups, space advocacy organizations – come together or share information on an ad-hoc basis, and dissolve when their specific goals have been met, leaving behind a network of friendships and alliances which can be reactivated as needed. I’m confident that all of my readers can draw on personal examples.

That said, there are good nodes and bad nodes, successful enterprises and failures. Castells again:

“In a dynamic, evolutionary perspective there is a fundamental difference between two types of organizations: organizations for which the reproduction of their system of means becomes their main organizational goal; and organizations in which goals, and the change of goals, shape and endlessly reshape the structure of means. I call the first type of organizations bureaucracies; the second type, enterprises.” (p.187)

This explains NASA’s lack of vision in the middle distance. It has not had clear, overarching goals since Apollo, though its current stress on life detection for robotic missions is an attempt, albeit a somewhat half-hearted and ill-aimed one. NASA, being subservient to Congress, lacks the ability to set its own strategic goals. With nothing to connect up to, it cannot act effectively at the middle, “operational,” level and is left by default only with bureaucratic survival tactics. Fortunately, NASA is particularly porous, as it draws on the networking traditions of science. Within the bureaucracy are numerous little enterprises.

Right now, many of the Spacefaring Web’s institutions are undergoing self-analysis, either voluntarily or by demand from above or below. Participants in that process should judge their institution’s performance in light of these criteria from Castells:

“The performance of a given network will depend on two fundamental attributes of the network: its connectedness, that is, its structural ability to facilitate noise-free communication between its components; and its consistency, that is, the extent to which there is a sharing of interests between the network’s goals and the goals of its components.” (p. 187)

Particularly in volunteer organizations, that requires remaining firmly aware that we don’t pay our people in coin, but rather in respect, recognition and the opportunity to develop skills and act as a meaningful participant in the enterprise. An effective network manager always ensures alignment between the goals of the enterprise and the individual goals of its members. Similarly, projects aren’t undertaken simply because they’re available, but because of networking synergies with existing projects and the enterprise’s overall goals. Entrepreneurial startups are particularly prone to confusing networking with shotgunning revenue opportunities. Further,

“The successful organizations are those able to generate knowledge and process information efficiently; to adapt to the variable geometry of the global economy; to be flexible enough to change their means as rapidly as goals change; under the impact of fast cultural, technological and institutional change; and to innovate, as innovation becomes the key competitive weapon.” (p.188)

Is this your institution? If not, decentralize. End hierarchical flows of information. American special forces troops now can call down satellite imagery in the field and react adaptively, in some cases eliminating a dozen layers of bureaucratic filtration. Do you get information directly from the sensors to the shooters? Have your managers had a new, original thought in the past decade? Do they respond to emergencies with stock phrases and ingrained habits, or do they improvise on the fly as New York mayor Rudy Guiliani so notably has? Are opportunities seized, or ignored when they don’t fit in the plan? Do your tacticians have the ability to build connections out into the network, or is that ability reserved to senior managers far from the action, receiving only filtered information?

If so, your possibilities are limited. Your organization can collapse, be overthrown, or find its best assets networked out from under it. Network-capitalist logic is ruthless and inescapable. To survive, you must cast your gaze into the middle distance, into the realm in which an ever-shifting mesh of alliances, friendships and project teams endlessly forms and re-forms around newer, more audacious tasks. The monuments of Ozymandias are dust; the network, never static, can be eternal. Look, into the middle distance – it’s the Spacefaring Web.

Mars Now is a weekly column © 2001 by John Carter McKnight,
Mars Program Director for the Space Frontier Foundation.
Views expressed here are strictly the authorÕs and do not
necessarily represent Foundation policy.

To subscribe or unsubscribe, contact the author at [email protected]

SpaceRef staff editor.