Saturday Edition on BBC Radio 5 Live: A complete waste of space

The programme took a good three hours to tell us why commercial space travel has been nothing but a disappointment.

Saturday Edition
BBC Radio 5 Live

A humans-in-space special (22 June, 7pm) devoted three hours to previewing what it will be like for travellers on the first commercial flights into the void between celestial bodies next year. Thus far, it was roundly agreed, things have been a bit duff. “We were promised space stations,” grumbled someone from the Jodrell Bank Observatory. “We were promised jet-packed lunar whatsits.”

The star of the show was an Italian astronaut, Paolo Nespoli, speaking down the line from Planet Earth, although the connection was very bad. Nobody thought to explain why – it was as if all phone calls from astronauts, whatever their location, necessarily sound this crackly. Paolo trained for ten years for a spacewalk that “never happened”, because there was “never any emergency to deal with”, and spent much of his 12 months up at the International Space Station taking 26,000 photographs of the Great Wall of China.

“Speak English good . . . Health status Superman,” communicated Paolo, mysteriously. “Hmm, hmm,” keened Chris Warburton in the studio. Did Paolo ever get a migraine? “Pretty good . . . Pharmacy on-board,” crackled Paolo. Now you’re talking. But immediately it switches to Richard Branson yelling, “To be perfectly honest, I think it would be sad for someone to not want to go to space!” in an advert for Virgin Galactic. Six hundred people have already bought tickets at $250,000 each. For this, they will train for three days and then take “the slow walk over the tarmac” towards the craft.

This branch of tourism is entirely dependent on this one image: the slo-mo stride in white suits. However, those still hoping for space stations are doomed to further disappointment. With engines so powerful that the jets can eject from pretty much anywhere, travellers will presumably be leaving from Heathrow. The flight lasts two hours – four minutes to reach space, five minutes experiencing weightlessness and oodles of time to take photos of the Great Wall. Never has the banality of the project been so baldly put. Nobody pointed out that surely space travel will become less successful the more people do it. Once you are the third oligarch around the dinner table parading your photos of the pyramids, the price will come crashing down. Eventually, the whole thing will die away out of sheer tedium.

"The star of the show was Paolo Nespoli, speaking down the line from Planet Earth, although the connection was very bad." Photograph: Getty Images.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496