The Echus Chasma, one of the largest water source regions on Mars. Photograph: Getty Images
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Laurie Penny on Mars: Modern life is science fiction – but would you dare go on a one-way mission to Mars?

Would you sign up for a perilous journey, knowing that you’ve got just one shot at making the human race a bit better, a bit braver?

If you were offered a one-way ticket to Mars, would you take it? It’s a serious question. The first manned Mars landing, organised by a Dutch company called Mars One, has put out a call for applicants. In 2018, the planets will literally align, making a journey to the Red Planet more than feasible. You don’t have to be a trained astronaut but you must be willing to spend 521 days in a very small space with three other people, with limited supplies and drinking water reclaimed from your own effluvia. You will also be under constant video surveillance, because this mission to Mars is relying on global TV networks to cover its considerable budget. It’s the ultimate Big Brother, with no way out: after a year and a half the colonists will either shag or kill each other, or both. The ratings will be fantastic.

Most of all, you must be willing to say goodbye for ever to your family, your friends, the barista at your favourite coffee shop. This is a one-way trip: even if they make it through the gruelling physical ordeal of the journey, it is possible none of the astronauts will ever come home. Sounds like a raw deal, right?

Yet in its first few days of operation, Mars One received more than 10,000 applications for four places. This was despite a considerable entry cost designed, ostensibly, to screen out spam applicants. The company has already made a small fortune in application fees, making me wonder if it’s a scam. If so, it’s an extremely elegant one, conning millions of desperate people to hope there might be a future for the human race outside this cramped and poisoned planet, and that we might get to be a part of that future. It’s not as if Earth has a great deal going for it right now. No wonder people are falling over themselves to sign up.

It's a little ironic that I'm writing this column on Earth Day, the international celebration of the natural wonders of the third planet on behalf of a population whose leaders are doing their best to burn those wonders for money and choke the rest of us in the process. In the forty years since the first Earth Day in April 1970, with successive world governments having failed almost entirely to tackle climate change, the event has taken on the sort of grim party atmosphere of a nonagenarian's birthday party. Give grandma some cake, everybody! She might not be around to enjoy it next year! I only found out that it was Earth Day on typing the word 'Mars Mission' into the Google Search bar. This further illuminates the logic of exploring other options if you can raise the cash, which most of us can't.

So, would you go? Since I heard about the Mars project, I’ve been putting that question to everyone I meet, because I think the answer says a lot about who you are and what you value. I still can’t decide. I’d have to balance the certainty of playing a heroic role in the early history of human space exploration against the possibility of being locked in a tin can for the rest of my life with a closet Tory, or someone who finds Al Murray amusing.

Furthermore, as one of two women aboard the Mars One, I would eventually be expected to reproduce with my shipmates. Doing the deed wouldn’t pose too many problems – after 521 days adrift in the unfathomable vastness of space, I’d probably find a cheese sandwich attractive if it looked at me in a saucy way. But if I’m going to represent humanity, I’d rather it be because of my natural talents or my winning personality – anything, quite frankly, other than my uterus. Seven generations of women’s liberation activists didn’t fight for education, health access and political representation only to see the first women on Mars reduced to spare wombs. Besides, although sex in zero gravity sounds fun, childbirth is probably less so, especially after more than a year of sitting around drinking your own urine and not washing. Hmm.

Like it or not, most of us are stuck on this planet. Earth, as the physicist Carl Sagan observed, is where we make our stand. The moment you comprehend this fully is the moment recreational drug use becomes either substantially more exciting or less so, depending on what sort of person you are.

When they’re selecting the pioneers to leave the smoking remains of the earth, I will probably lack the requisite skillset for a place on one of the colony ships, because most of what I’m good for is writing articles, drinking coffee and complaining when I have to climb a lot of stairs. The closest I’ll get to outer space is watching interstellar cruisers blow each other into glittering bits on Battlestar Galactica and feeling, as always, that painful longing that digs in right under the ribcage: the understanding that my distant descendants might be lucky enough to see such wonders in real life but I never will.

I imagine that’s how my great-greatgrandparents felt when they read about marvellous inventions such as the internet and the contraceptive pill, both of which were science fiction a scant century ago, and without both of which my life would be unimaginably less free. There is something in us that is hungry, even in the most desperate times, for a future we can only half-envision, and the reason the Mars mission has captured the public imagination is that it promises something that these days is rare and precious: a real journey into the unknown.

A handful of generations ago, it was common for men and women who set off on dangerous journeys to places off the edge of the map to have almost no hope of return. In Ireland, “American wakes” were held whenever a friend or family member sailed for the US. Even if they survived the journey, nobody was expected to come home and it could take months for letters to arrive.

Modern life is science fiction. Love letters cross continents at the speed of thought and dead men sing on the radio. Before the telegram and the steam engine and antibiotics and Google Maps, this planet was simply a lot bigger and scarier. And yet people have never been content to stay at home.

One of the things that distinguish Homo sapiens from many of our competitor species is our capacity to dream up and set about stupidly dangerous endeavours just to find out what might happen. I don’t believe in God but I do believe that humanity is one long, terrible adventure that most of us, if we’re lucky, will never get to see the end of.

So, what did you decide? Would you sign up for a perilous journey, knowing that you’ve got just one shot at making the human race a bit better, a bit braver?

The good news, or the bad news, depending on your viewpoint, is that you don’t have to. You were signed up when you were born. We’re all on a journey like that and it’s called living. That’s no reason not to go to space but it might be reason to get up in the morning.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?

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Don’t shoot the messenger: are social media giants really “consciously failing” to tackle extremism?

MPs today accused social media companies of failing to combat terrorism, but just how accurate is this claim? 

Today’s home affairs committee report, which said that internet giants such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat extremism, was criticised by terrorism experts almost immediately.

“Blaming Facebook, Google or Twitter for this phenomenon is quite simplistic, and I'd even say misleading,” Professor Peter Neumann, an expert on radicalisation from Kings College London, told the BBC.

“Social media companies are doing a lot more now than they used to - no doubt because of public pressure,” he went on. The report, however, labels the 14 million videos Google have removed in the last two years, and the 125,000 accounts Twitter has suspended in the last one, a “drop in the ocean”.

It didn’t take long for the sites involved to refute the claims, which follow a 12-month inquiry on radicalisation. A Facebook spokesperson said they deal “swiftly and robustly with reports of terrorism-related content”, whilst YouTube said they take their role in combating the spread of extremism “very seriously”. This time last week, Twitter announced that they’d suspended 235,000 accounts for promoting terrorism in the last six months, which is incidentally after the committee stopped counting in February.

When it comes to numbers, it’s difficult to determine what is and isn’t enough. There is no magical number of Terrorists On The Internet that experts can compare the number of deletions to. But it’s also important to judge the companies’ efforts within the realm of what is actually possible.

“The argument is that because Facebook and Twitter are very good at taking down copyright claims they should be better at tackling extremism,” says Jamie Bartlett, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

“But in those cases you are given a hashed file by the copyright holder and they say: ‘Find this file on your database and remove it please’. This is very different from extremism. You’re talking about complicated nuanced linguistic patterns each of which are usually unique, and are very hard for an algorithm to determine.”

Bartlett explains that a large team of people would have to work on building this algorithm by trawling through cases of extremist language, which, as Thangam Debonnaire learned this month, even humans can struggle to identify.  

“The problem is when you’re dealing with linguistic patterns even the best algorithms work at 70 per cent accuracy. You’d have so many false positives, and you’d end up needing to have another huge team of people that would be checking all of it. It’s such a much harder task than people think.”

Finding and deleting terrorist content is also only half of the battle. When it comes to videos and images, thousands of people could have downloaded them before they were deleted. During his research, Bartlett has also discovered that when one extremist account is deleted, another inevitably pops up in its place.

“Censorship is close to impossible,” he wrote in a Medium post in February. “I’ve been taking a look at how ISIL are using Twitter. I found one user name, @xcxcx162, who had no less than twenty-one versions of his name, all lined up and ready to use (@xcxcx1627; @xcxcx1628, @xcxcx1629, and so on).”

Beneath all this, there might be another, fundamental flaw in the report’s assumptions. Demos argue that there is no firm evidence that online material actually radicalises people, and that much of the material extremists view and share is often from mainstream news outlets.

But even if total censorship was possible, that doesn’t necessarily make it desirable. Bartlett argues that deleting extreme content would diminish our critical faculties, and that exposing people to it allows them to see for themselves that terrorists are “narcissistic, murderous, thuggish, irreligious brutes.” Complete censorship would also ruin social media for innocent people.

“All the big social media platforms operate on a very important principal, which is that they are not responsible for the content that is placed on their platforms,” he says. “It rests with the user because if they were legally responsible for everything that’s on their platform – and this is a legal ruling in the US – they would have to check every single thing before it was posted. Given that Facebook deals with billions of posts a day that would be the end of the entire social media infrastructure.

“That’s the kind of trade off we’d be talking about here. The benefits of those platforms are considerable and you’d be punishing a lot of innocent people.”

No one is denying that social media companies should do as much as they can to tackle terrorism. Bartlett thinks that platforms can do more to remove information under warrant or hand over data when the police require it, and making online policing 24/7 is an important development “because terrorists do not work 9 to 5”. At the end of the day, however, it’s important for the government to accept technological limitations.

“Censorship of the internet is only going to get harder and harder,” he says. “Our best hope is that people are critical and discerning and that is where I would like the effort to be.” 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.