From: Keith Henson (email@example.com)
Date: Wed 29 Oct 2003 - 01:23:18 GMT
Memes, L5 and the Religion of the Space Colonies
L5 News September 1985
Finally returning to the first part of this article, does L5 membership, an
indication that an individual is infected by the space colony meme, have an
effect on religious membership?
Sandy Adamson ran a small, but statistically significant, survey of thirty
L5 members in the Tucson area. The survey indicates that about 30% consider
themselves members of a religion. National surveys indicate some 60% of the
population consider themselves members of a religion. From this rough
evidence, we can say that the space colony meme moderately competes for the
religious meme receptor site. Nor is L5 unique in this characteristic.
I find it interesting that numerous L5 chapters spontaneously chose one of
the most common activities of religious organizations for meetings. Whether
it is called communion, potlucks, or banquets, eating together is a
powerful way to reinforce commonly held memes.
Can we get more out of the analogy? Perhaps.
A system of a molecule and its receptor site must be in a lower energy
state when the molecule is attached to the site or the molecule wouldn't
stick when it bumps into the site. Logically we should postulate an
analogous condition of a "lowered psyche energy state" when a meme is
occupying a meme receptor site or the meme wouldn't stick either.
Dawkins proposed that religious memes, in particular the God meme, reduce
anxiety about fears such as eventual and unavoidable death to which a
person has no otherwise effective response. Of course, anxiety from a
situation in which an organism knows how to make an effective response-and
is able to do so-is usually followed by taking effective action.
Dawkins also discusses anxiety-provoking memes such as the hellfire meme
which has become linked to the God meme by natural selection among memes.
The linking comes about simply because the combination is more successful
in gaining and keeping active meme spreaders for both memes. In a similar
relation, we find the Limits to Growth (LTG) meme linked to the space
colony meme. The relation was explicit in Dr. O'Neill's writings and early
issues of the L5 News. LTG and the closely related population bomb meme
were very influential in the 70s. The waning of these memes may be having
an adverse effect on the space colony meme.
Personally, I found that the distasteful worldview implied by the Limits to
Growth meme raised my anxiety level much as Dante's Inferno or a good
hellfire sermon must have affected people in the Middle Ages. It was much
worse for the people in whom the LTG meme first arose. Rumor has it that
one of them boarded himself up in a cabin in the remote woods and waited
for the food riots to start. (For all I know, he may be there yet.)
Most people who ran into the LTG meme were not so profoundly affected.
Disaster memes capture the imagination and spread well, though we don't
know why. But only a small fraction of the population actively responds to
threats as remote and indirect as those of the LTG meme. At that time,
joining the Zero Population Growth organization was one of the few possible
A small subset of those who were concerned, however, took the step of
searching for a meme or of creating a meme that would counter the LTG meme.
Eric Drexler, for example, hunted down Dr. O'Neill in 1973 by asking
questions of his professors at MIT about who was working on the
exploitation of space resources. A copy of the first widespread space
colony publication (the 1974 Physics Today article) was in my hands within
hours after reaching friends in Tucson who knew of my interest in this topic.
These stories are typical of the early, active core of the L5 Society. In
terms of the analogy, they had a mental receptor site preconfigured to
accept the space colony meme. From Sandy's small survey, some 20% of L5
members knew about LTG before joining L5. I would venture to say the early
percentage was much larger.
The space colony meme may have reduced anxiety about the long-term future
by providing an alternative, but it raised anxiety too. It was apparent
from the start that we would have to work hard to bring about a world that
included space colonies. Our beginning point was to infect all the people
we could with the space colony meme. Inducing people to spend effort in
spreading a meme, as well as successfully spreading itself in competition
with innumerable other memes, is the definition of a successful meme. In
this sense, the space colony meme has been moderately successful.
It has, sadly, been much less successful in accomplishing goals implicit in
the meme, or even--if we are honest--in making noticeable progress in that
direction. In 1975, the founders were expecting a program (such as SPS) to
start by the early 80s. Space colonies would follow naturally from large
scale economic activities, and we hoped to disband in space by the
Society's 20th anniversary. Here, in the tenth anniversary year, some
issues of this magazine go by without a mention of space colonies or
projects that might lead to them, and we are about to merge with NSI. It is
hard to say how long it will take for people to start to live in space, nor
is it obvious which technical/ economic/ political approach might work
though the opinions of the author about the military shielding route are
Memes as replicating structures can die out or become completely inactive.
Most memes lose their intense hold on people with the passage of time,
especially when the promise of the meme is at great variance with reality.
So it is with the space colony meme. The gradual displacement of human
habitation with a general pro-space theme in the Society and the pending
merger with NSI and loss of a clear goal are by products of this divergence.
Yet perhaps insight into the space colony meme and its quasi-religious
nature may help to bring about space colonies in less than the hundred
years NASA would take. For one thing, it is helpful to remind ourselves
that we are not our memes, and we have at least some control over which
ones influence us. The attraction or revulsion one feels for a meme has
little relation to the meme being rooted in external reality. Attraction,
revulsion, or indifference depends on how a meme fits or fails to fit-into
pre-existing mental structures made of other memes. Unrelated anti-military
memes dating from the Vietnam war, for example, have strongly limited
options on which to base space colony hopes within the existing Society.
Memes that are in line with reality can help survival, and those too far
out can be fatal. The trouble is that our view of reality shifts as our
technology advances. Sometimes our view of reality can keep up with the
change-more often it falls far behind. Advancing technology should be
expected to cause profound changes in space colony concepts. The space
colony meme was based on a background of "old" technology. As Dr. O'Neill
noted and Don Davis painted, 1920's material science would allow for
habitats with a diameter of several miles.
In the November/ December 1984 L5 News, Eric Drexler pointed out that "the
timing of large-scale space development may be determined less by advances
in modern space hardware than by advances in the seemingly unrelated areas
of artificial intelligence and biochemistry." This meme may take some time
to settle down among your other memes. I have been aware of it for well
over a year, and it still doesn't fit in comfortably.
Recent development of the scanning tunneling microscope by IBM opens
another path to the coming nanotechnology revolution. Nanotechnology, the
ability to build things one atom at a time, is likely to change reality, as
well as our view of reality, more than the sum of all the changes since the
start of recorded history.
Consider, for example, the effects of an obvious application of
nanotechnology, cell repair machines, on space colony design. Without them,
low levels of cosmic radiation make two meters of shielding necessary.
Shielding requires large amounts of extraterrestrial material. With cell
repair machines, you don't need shielding and could likely get along
We have some time to get used to nanotechnology, but not too long. Current
estimates by the most knowledgeable people put it ten to thirty years in
the future. That may be enough time for us to get started in space without
Knowing that the space colony concept is a meme with religious
characteristics need not cool our ardor for getting off the planet. Indeed,
if we figure out how to use this knowledge, it may help us achieve this
goal. Good memes, as opposed to those that are just successful, are the
ones that help the survival of that strange negative entropy phenomenon
known as life. Given the long-term difficulty of life continuing on this
planet, few memes could rate higher on this scale.
Keith Henson was the first L5 President. He is currently involved with a
method to promote survival enhancing memes while weeding out dangerous
ones. He thanks Sandy for the survey.
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