Dr. David Valentine (University of Minnesota, Twin Cities) will conduct research on the narrative practices of proponents of U.S. commercial outer space enterprises ("NewSpace") to investigate the implications of imagining humanness beyond Earth, and doing so in a particular way; and the possibilities for studying imaginations of the future as a social and collective process.

In order to carry out this research, Valentine will develop a social scientific approach to the analysis of imagination and the future. Research sites will include include space conferences, spaceports, launch events, teleconferences, and online blogs and webcasts. He will record presentations, interview key participants and observers, and carry out both spot and participant observation. These data will be transcribed and become the basis for interrelated data bases, which will be coded for themes using a non-hierarchical coding scheme; for discourse strategies (incluidng analogies, hypotheticals, conditionals, evidentials, and professional registers) and for networks.

Social scientists have ignored "space," "imagination," and "the future" as sites of investigation, seeing them as empty of real sociality or material significance. Valentine's research will develop new methodologies for studying these topics; and findings will help social scientists determine what might learned by taking these topics seriously, as consequential both materially, for the day-to-day work of New Spacers themselves, and also the society at large, today and possibly in the future.

Project Report

This goal of this project was to develop anthropological methodologies to understand how Americans cope with the gaps between past, present, and future. While objectively we live in linear time, humans must subjectively incorporate knowledge of and beliefs about time that has passed and time that will come on a moment-to-moment basis—and we do so in culturally specific ways. Evidence of this fundamental cognitive dynamic is present in everyday talk and narrative (the methodological focus of this project), but knowledge about the negotiation of time —or temporality—and how it unfolds in talk is key to our understanding of social and political relations, and also to understanding the common human experience of living in time. While moving between temporal frames is a common linguistic practice, this project specifically sought out research subjects concerned about the future, which has been under-studied by anthropologists and other social scientists. This research was thus conducted in a community that explicitly engages ideas about the future: American entrepreneurs, scientists, engineers, and advocates who seek to create human settlements in outer space—on the moon, Mars, in free-space colonies, and even beyond the solar system—via commercial, rather than government-led enterprise. Despite many differences within this community on questions of strategy and theories of economy, politics, and society, almost all participants are united by the belief that this project is essential for the survival of human and terrestrial life into the deep future. Space settlement requires enormous financial investment, political will, and technological innovation, and as such supporters of this industry—usually referred to as "Newspace"—must speculate on, strategize over, and talk about the future almost constantly. At the same time, because of the large gaps between the present and the hoped-for future, a key means of negotiating those gaps is by drawing on historical analogies, giving access to understanding how time is conceived historically by Newspacers. The project was designed longitudinally, to give access to changing attitudes to the possibilities for spanning the gap to a future of space settlement as political and technological developments occurred over a six year period (three years of which were supported by NSF). Ethnographic research took place primarily at professional space conferences nationally, but also at the Mojave Air and Spaceport, Spaceport America, at rocket launches, and in online contexts and space industry teleconferences. The PI also conducted 52 formal interviews with Newspace advocates, and engaged in archival research at the Space Studies Institute. Initial analysis of data indicates important insights about how people cope with distant futures. First, different kinds of temporal frameworks are frequently invoked in engaging the future, but the two most evident are (1) those that invoke scales of duration in the future or historically and (2) those that invoke particular moments in the future or history. The former is far more evident in the data than the latter, indicating that conceiving of a deep future that has a specific form nonetheless tends to avoid predictions of when something will happen. This was also evident in formal interviews where study participants were asked to predict how commercial Newspace enterprises would change the world in the future. While participants were given free range to speculate on the future, almost all restricted their predictions to the coming 20-50 years. In other words, despite explicitly working toward a distant future goal where millions (even billions) of humans would be born, live, and die off-Earth, most participants were unwilling or unable to speculate on when—or how—this would happen. This dynamic makes evident not the failure of Newspace participants to accurately predict the future (which is not their goal) but rather how it is possible to hold onto a radical, even utopian, vision of the future that is promised by more proximal temporal time frames. The data gathered also pointed to other insights that the Newspace imagination of the future offers. Since Newspace plans for space settlement require that all conditions for human and the nonhuman ecologies on which they depend must be transported to space or produced from space resources, Newspace participants must make an account of what a world is: everything from gravity and air to proprioception and embodiment to ritual and spirituality. By doing so, they must open up the question of what "nature" and "culture" is, exposing how the fraught distinction between these two categories is embedded in terrestrial experience. The great opportunity offered by Newspace narratives and plans to social scientists is to reveal the terrestrial presumptions of social theories of society, politics, economics, and so on, and prompts us to examine how these categories of human experience might be differently configured in non-Earth environments. Most generatively, if something as basic for human life as Earth-equivalent gravity must be generated by human activity and technology, Newspace plans ask us to open up the question of what "nature" itself is.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Jeffrey Mantz
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University of Minnesota Twin Cities
United States
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