By Joi Ito
I would like to suggest a new word.
Anthropocosmos, n. and adj. Chiefly with "the." The epoch during which human activity is considered to be a significant influence on the balance, beauty, and ecology of the entire universe.
Based on ...
Anthropocene, n. and adj. Chiefly with "the." The era of geological time during which human activity is considered to be the dominant influence on the environment, climate, and ecology of the earth. —The Oxford English Dictionary
As we become painfully aware of the extent to which human activity is influencing the planet and its environment, we are also accelerating into the epoch of space exploration. Not only will our influence substantially affect the future of this blue dot we call Earth, but also our never-ending desire to explore and expand our frontiers is extending humanity’s influence on the cosmos. I think of it as the Anthropocosmos, a term that captures the idea of how we must responsibly consider our role in the universe in the same way that Anthropocene expresses our responsibility for this world.
The struggle to protect the commons—the public spaces and resources we all depend on, like the oceans or Central Park—is not a new problem. Shepherds grazing sheep on shared land without consideration for other flocks will soon find grass growing thin. We already know that farming and the timber industry deplete the forests, and the destruction of that commons in turn affects the commons that is the air we breathe. These are versions of the same problem—the tragedy of the commons. It suggests that, left unchecked, self-interest can deplete resources that support the common good.
The early days of the internet were an amazing example of people and organizations from a variety of sectors coming together to create a global commons that was self-governed and well-managed by those who built it. Similarly, we’re now in an internet-like moment in which we can imagine an explosion of innovation in space, our ultimate commons, as nongovernment groups, companies, and individuals begin to drive progress there. We can learn from the internet—its successes and failures—to create a generative and well-managed ecosystem in space as we grow into our responsibility as stewards of the Anthropocosmos.
Like the internet, space exploration has been mostly a government-vs.-government race and a government-with-government collaboration. The internet started out as Arpanet, which was funded by the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency and operated by the military until 1990. A great deal of anxiety and deliberation went into the decision to allow commercial and nonresearch uses of the network, much as NASA extensively deliberated over opening the doors to “public-private partnership” leading up to the Commercial Crew Program launch in 2010. This year is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission that put men on the moon, a multibillion-dollar effort funded by US taxpayers. Today, the private space industry is robust, and private firms compete to deliver payloads, and soon, put people into orbit and on the moon.
The state of the development of the space industry reminds me of where the internet was in the early ’90s. The cost of putting a satellite into orbit has gone from supercomputer-level costs and design cycles to just a few thousand dollars, similar to the cost of a fully loaded personal computer. In many ways, SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Rocket Lab are like UUNET and PSINet1 —the first commercial internet service providers—doing more efficiently what government-funded research networks did in the past.
When these private, for-profit ISPs took over the process of building out the internet into a global network, we saw an explosion of innovation—and a dot-com bubble, followed by a crash, and then another surge following the crash. When we were connecting everyone to the internet, we couldn’t imagine all the possible things—good and bad—that it would bring. In the same way, space development will most likely expand far beyond the obvious—mining, human settlements, basic research—to many other ideas. The question now is, how can we direct the self-interested businesses that will undoubtedly power entrepreneurial expansion, growth, and innovation in space toward the shared, long term health of the space commons?
In the early days of the internet, everyone pitched in like people tending a community garden. We were a band of jolly pirates on a newly discovered island paradise far away from the messiness of the real world. In “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” John Perry Barlow even declared cyberspace a new place, saying “We are forming our own social contract. This governance will arise according to the conditions of our world, not yours.” His utopian idea, which I shared at the time, is now echoed by some of today’s spacebound entrepreneurs who dream of settling Mars or deploying terraforming pods on planets across the galaxy.
While it wasn’t obvious how life on the internet would play out when we were building the early infrastructure, back then academics, businesses, and virtually anyone else who was interested worked on its standards and resource allocation. We created governance mechanisms in communities like ICANN for coordination and dispute resolution, run by people dedicated to the protection and flourishing of the internet commons. In short, we built the foundations on which everyone could develop businesses and communities. At least in the beginning, the internet effectively harnessed the self-interest of commercial players and money from the markets to develop open protocols, free for everyone to use, that the communities designed. In the early 1990s, the internet was one of the best examples of a well-managed commons, with no one controlling it and everyone benefiting from it.
A quarter-century on, cyberspace hasn’t evolved into the independent, self-organized utopia that Barlow envisioned. As the internet “democratized,” new users and entrepreneurs who weren’t involved in the genesis of the internet joined. It was overrun by people who didn’t think of themselves as pirate gardeners tending the sacred network that supported this idealistic cyberspace—our newly created commons. They were more interested in products and services created by companies, and these companies often didn’t care as much about ideals as in making returns for their investors. On the early internet, for example, people ran their own web servers, and fees for connectivity were always flat—sometimes simply free—and almost all content was shared. Today, we have near-monopolies, walled garden services; the mobile internet is metered and expensive; and copyright is vigorously enforced. From the perspective of this internet pioneer and others, cyberspace has become a much less hospitable place for users as well as developers, a tragedy of the commons.
Such disregard for the commons, if allowed to continue into planetary orbit and beyond, could have tangibly negative consequences. The decisions we make in the sociopolitical, economic, and architectural foundations of Earth’s near-space cocoon will directly impact daily life on the surface—from debris falling in populated areas to advertisements that could block our view of the skies. A piece of space junk has already hit a woman in Oklahoma and an out-of-control Chinese space station caused a lot of anxiety and luckily fell harmlessly into the Pacific Ocean.
So I think the rules and governance models for space are extremely important to understand to mitigate known problems such as space debris, set precedents for the unknown, and managing the race to lunar settlements. We already have the Outer Space Treaty, which governs our efforts and protects our resources in space as a shared commons. The International Space Station is a great example of a coordinated effort by many competing interests to develop standards and work together on a common project that benefits all participants.
However, recent announcements by Vice President Mike Pence of an “America First” agenda for the moon and space fail to acknowledge the fact that the US pursues space exploration and science with deep coordination and interdependence with other countries. As new opportunities are emerging for humans to develop economic activities and communities in orbit around the Earth, on asteroids, and beyond, nationalistic actions by the Trump administration could undermine the opportunity to pursue a multiple stakeholder, internationally coordinated approach to designing future human space activities and ensure that space benefits all humankind.
As space becomes more commercial and pedestrian like the internet, we must not allow the cosmos to become a commercial and government free-for-all with disregard for the commons and shared values. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Media Lab PhD student and director of the Media Lab Space Exploration Initiative Ariel Ekblaw suggested we need a new generation of “space planners” and “space architects” to coordinate such expansive growth while enabling open innovation. Through such communities, we can build the space equivalents of ICANN and the Internet Engineering Task Force, in coordination with international policy and governance guidance from the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs.
I am hopeful that Ariel and a new generation of space architects can learn from our successes and failures in protecting the internet commons and build a better paradigm for space, one that will robustly self-regulate and allow growth and generative creativity while developing strong norms that help us with our environmental and societal issues here on Earth. Already there are positive signs: SpaceX recently decided to fly low to limit space debris.
Fifty years ago, America “won” the moonshot. Today, we must “win” the Earthshot. The internet connected our world like never before, and as the iconic 1968 Earthrise photo shows, space helps us see our world like never before. Serving as responsible stewards of these crucial commons profoundly expands our circles of awareness. My dear friend Margarita Mora often asks, “What kind of ancestors do we want to be?” I want to be an ancestor who helped make the Anthropocene and the Anthropocosmos periods of history when humans helped the universe flourish with life and prosperity.