Go Web, Young Man!
by Dale M. Gray
A Christmas Present:
I have seen a light in the east and come bearing a gift. While as a historian I abhor writing in the first person, I have had an epiphany and wish to give it to you as a Christmas present. I will begin by relating a short story from mining camps of old to set the stage.
Saint Peter was giving a tour of heaven to an elderly prospector who had somehow managed passage through the Pearly Gates. St. Peter explained to the miner that despite their best effort to expand the heavenly realm, the place had gotten too crowded to maintain its reputation as paradise.
"No problem at all" replied the seasoned pick and shovel man, "I can get this place thinned down inside a week". St. Peter was skeptical since some of the greatest minds in history had been working on the problem unsuccessfully for some time. The solution, according to the prospector, was to start a rumor that there was a gold strike in Hell. St. Peter laughed heartily and soon thereafter the men parted company.
A few days later St. Peter noticed that there weren't as many people on the street. Five days later, the heavenly choir practice had to be canceled due to poor attendance. Six days later, St. Peter found his e-mail box empty for the first time since the infernal system had gone on-line. He tried to contact the system administrator, but was routed to voice-mail where he was informed that the staff had resigned and had headed to the new gold strike in Hell. Deciding that things had gone too far, so he decided to look up the prospector to see what could be done. To his amazement, he found the old man busy packing his gear and heading for the great staircase down to the Netherworld.
"Now wait a minute!" shouted heaven's gatekeeper. "Why in Heaven's name are you heading down to Hell. Weren't you the one that started the rumor?"
As the experienced old miner disappeared down the stairs he shouted back, "Ya, sure, but you can never tell!"
I have started with the story as a way to illustrate the charismatic power of frontiers. I have long known through my work as a frontier historian that all frontiers are connected. Indeed, new frontiers are often continuations and recombinations of previous frontiers with direct linkages. Four years ago I set out to record a frontier in progress to test and refine my theories which were derived from various historic mining, agricultural and transportation based frontiers. I cast around for a frontier to record from its infancy. I chose the orbital space frontier because it was beginning to show hallmarks of an active frontier. As it turns out, there was a more dynamic frontier closer at hand. It should come as no surprise to anyone that I speak of the Internet and the commercialization of the world-wide web.
At the recent Space Enterprise Symposium held in Seattle, speaker after speaker spoke of how private investment capital for space-related start-up companies has dried up because everyone is investing in the Internet. The Iridium failure only accelerated the process. In a recent report on the problems with Boeing's Delta 3 rocket development, it was stated that Boeing has suffered an intellectual drain as experienced and talented personnel have gone off to seek their fortunes on Internet ventures. This is a hallmark common to frontiers. When a society is exposed to a full-blown frontier, all available, and even a large percentage of "attached" personnel, will drop what they are doing to speed to the action. This is has been happening with the Web for the last two years at an ever accelerating pace.
Okay, I realize that is not much of a gift for those seeking a space based frontier, but there is more.
Another hallmark of frontier is that the speed of frontier development is directly linked to the launch bar -- the minimum amount needed for entry to the frontier. In 1849, this could be described as the cost of crossing a continent along with a "grub-stake" and the purchase of the equipment necessary to prospect for gold. Today, the Internet has a much lower launch bar. There is a perception that onyone with a $400 used computer and a $20/month ISP can get into the game. I know ranchers who have found new markets by selling livestock on-lane. A friend who runs a publishing house figured a way to get rid of all of her damaged and returned books by placing them on e-Bay. From these part-time additions to existing businesses, to Internet start-ups, to the $100 million www.iwon.com web portal-- it seems that there is a way to enhance income on all levels.
Unlike previous frontiers, the new virtual frontiersman does not face a multitude of deadly hazards and fiscal ruin. Failure rates in frontiers tend to run in the 90 percent range. In the worst case, when low-level ".com" enterprises fail, owner's families get the the computer they have always wanted. Admittedly, on higher levels, investors can and will be left holding the bag when unrealistic expectations aren't met. However, few Internet ventures exceed $1 million to start-up. Compare this to the realm of the physical space frontier where minimal entry runs about $100 million for a satellite with somewhat lesser sums to rent transponders on established satellites. While beach-heads on several orbital frontiers have been established, direct-to-home television, GPS services, and remote sensing, the average investor can only participate indirectly by buying stock in likely aerospace firms. The high launch bar has made the space frontier ponderous and slow moving. When failures such as Teledesic involve the loss of billions of dollars, savy investors are slow to commit. This, as it turns out, may be about to change.
What we of the space-activist community have been seeking is a broad-based, popular (as in lots of people) frontier based on space activity. Preferably with humans in space. What we have currently is a slowly evolving economic frontier involving very large corporations, few successful start-ups and NOT ONE PERSON living in space. If I wasn't a historian, I would be pretty discouraged.
However, my understanding of history has lead me to realize that there are two factors that are coming up in the near future that have great implications for the coming space-based populist frontier.
1) Frontiers evolve. There is no such thing as a steady-state frontier. The Internet may look like the gold camps of California, but it must be remembered that nearly EVERYONE who went to California failed. Lots of money was made by the few, but as each resource came under control, prospectors had to look further and further afield for fresh ground to prospect. Prospectors fanned out into Nevada, Arizona, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Colorado and, ultimately, Australia and the Yukon in Canada. The failure to succeed drove those investing their life's energy to look onward to new ground.
2) When everyone gets in the game, the game goes bust. Nearly every "boom" frontier has suffered from a "bust". In the 1880s, Texas cattle spread throughout the American West. This was made possible by large scale investments from around the world. As a direct result, the range was overgrazed and when the blizzard of 1883-84 came along, the cattle industry was decimated. Most of the loss was real, for example, of the 10,000 steers turned out in the Black Hills of South Dakota, only a handful could be rounded up the next spring.
The number of fraudulent frontier enterprises, whether by intent or by misfortune, tend to escallate and overwhelm easy-money frontiers. In the early 1880s, many well-intentioned, but overcapitalized cattle and sheep operations had been operating in the red for years, hiding their losses in inflated herd numbers that could not be verified by investors. Other so-called ranches were outright attempts to fleece investors, their sheep and cattle existed only in account books. When the winter of 1883-84 hit, the paper cattle were the first to be lost. Mining frontiers, too, were infamous for over-investment booms followed rapidly by busts. Many a mine existed only as a colorful brochure touting the credentials of the participants, describing ore bodies in glowing terms and containing photographs of impressive milling equipment that may or may not have been installed on company property. The American West is littered with 1,000 foot long mining tunnels financed by investors who bought into a dream that didn't pan out. Mining booms tend to be followed by decade-long busts, allowing the jaded investor to move on to other pursuits and a new innocent generation of investors to rise to affluence. While I am not an Internet historian, I would be very surprised if the Internet doesn't also suffer a bust generated by poor business practice/ poor ethics in the next few years.
The Internet is by most accounts becoming heavily overcapitalized and profitable venues are rapidly coming under control as fiscal planners for existing corporations learn how to make money using the Web and small web-based enterprises merge for greater efficiency.
Whether by a rapid "bust" or a more orderly progression to new ground, the "dot com" frontier will be moving on and it will be doing so rapidly due to the aforementioned launch bar / development speed ratio. The new breed of entrepreneurs produced by the Internet have amassed new wealth and a desire to invest in high-tech companies.
Space start-up companies at the Space Enterprise Symposium complained that the Internet was keeping them from succeeding. As a historian, I have to say that without the current Internet boom, there can be no frontier in space. The Internet is creating and concentrating the new wealth necessary for expensive space-based frontiers. The Internet is creating new ways of distributing the fruits of frontier enterprises. The Internet is training frontiersmen for the new space-based frontier.
No frontier exists in a vacuum. Each is a product of the society in contact with wilderness resources. Each frontiers contains a rAecombination of elements of previous frontiers. Experience, capital, technology and social systems evolved in prior frontiers are utilized or adapted for use in new frontiers. Without telegraph, there would have been no radio. Without radio there would have been no television. Without television, there would have been no telecommunication satellites, no Direct-to-home satellite broadcasting, no satellite radio. Similar strings can be made to connect transistor radios, calculators, digital watches, video games, personal computers, interactive Internet.
With this as background, it is time to prepare for the coming space frontier and frankly, there is very little time to spare. Links must be rapidly forged that connect the Internet to space. This is so important, I will say it again. Links must be rapidly forged to connect the Internet to space.
So what is the connection that will turn the trickle of societal participation in the space frontier into a torrent? Or more specifically, how can the current Internet flood be redirected into space-based activities?
The answer, oddly enough, is that it is already happening. The evidence is all around us. We all remember Pathfinder's amazing web-presence with its record millions of hits. The Mars Polar Lander web-pages recorded 57 million hits in three days despite the failure of the mission! One can only imagine the advertizing value of the enterprise -- JPL sold no web-advertising that I am aware of -- only the rights to a Hot Wheel lander set. Lou Dobbs gave up his position with CNN to start up a new web-based news service specifically targeted to space. Indeed, the number of space-related news groups on the Web is rapidly growing. People are getting their daily "fix" of space news through the web. When traditional aerospace magazines publish with their two to three month lag time, most space enthusiasts find them at best mildly anachronistic and at worst hopelessly out-of-date. Space enthusiasts want their news served up in near-real-time. If a rocket explodes in a distant land, the space community is discussing it in forums before the first search team reaches the crash site. The web has ingrained itself into the space-enthusiast's concepts of space and is training us for the coming space frontier.
While news is near the forefront of a frontier, it is never (legitimately) the prime mover. Interactive links must be created between the virtual world of the Internet and the physical world of space. We are not content to merely watch. We wish to interact and control our actions in the frontier as surely as we control our movement throught the web, make web-based purchases and create new virtual realms.
At the recent Space Enterprise Symposium I saw an example of how this can be done. LunaCorp and the Robotics Institue of Carnegie Mellon University have combined forces to create plans for an interactive lunar rover. Yes, such rovers have been planned in plenty in the past. However, LunaCorp's approach is directly tied to the power of the Internet frontier. In 1993 and 1994, the company issued CD-ROM "Return to the Moon" and "Mission to Planet Earth". In 1996, they created a virtual rover game that could be controlled via the Internet. In 1997, a motion platform and web-control was linked to a Carnegie Melon robotic rover independently traversing 220 km of the Atacama Desert in Peru. What the rover saw, the driver saw. Each hill, turn, and bump experienced by the rover could be felt by the "driver". In 1998, the company introduced a motion-based arcade game called Lunar Defense. This past year the company utilized a Voxel Renderer for visualization of the lunar landscape that utilized the technology used to control and experience the Atacama rover to control and experience a virtual moon-based game. The company is currently working to place advanced Moon Rover simulators in science centers and at corporate events. They will continue to upgrade and enhance their Web-based lunar experience with individuals driving virtual mini-rovers across simulated moonscapes in both cooperative and competitive modes. The company hopes to send a REAL rover to the moon in 2003. Their on-going web-based competitions will then have added import as the grand prize winners of competitions obtain rights to control and experience the rover as it explores the moon. Scientists will be able to buy time on the system for lunar investigations. Individuals with more money than arcade skills will be able to buy time to "joy-ride" on the Moon. But the broad-based economic and popular support for the company will come primarily through the broad-band web-casts of the lunar rover in interaction with a champion rover-rider from the web. What is appealing about the concept is that it has a very low launch threshold and will make money at every upgrade in service. In terms of old west mining lingo "money will be made from the first shovel-full".
It is a pay-as-you-go approach and it feeds from the power of the Internet directly -- indeed, it can be categorized as an Internet-based venture. It little needs or cares for traditional space-based business plans and legislative support. It will succeed or fail as a Web-based business. While LunaCorp is currently funded by private investors, recent trends in Internet investing have shown that huge sums of money can be generated by Initial Public Offerings (IPOs), far in excess of what is needed to place a rover on the moon. While it is beyond the powers of a historian to prognosticate the success of an individual business enterprise, LunaCorp has already earned a place in the history of the space frontier. It has shown how the flames of the virtual frontier can become manifested in reality and spread upward into the space frontier. It may well serve as the first conduit of the power of the Internet frontier moving onward to higher ground.
An odd sort of Christmas present this, a gift that has to be earned through hard work. Horace Greeley once gave the advice,"go West young man!" While I am hardly the stuff of Greeley, the sturdy space frontiersmen could do far worse than to start on their road to the stars by first putting foot on the Internet trail. "Go Web, young man, Go Web!"