In his first article for Centauri Dreams, Heath Rezabek described an installation design called Vessel that we might develop to mitigate near and long term risk. The essay explained why we should pursue practical strategies to avoid the permanent stagnation of society in case of catastrophe, and described the need for enduring educational facilities to forestall a flawed realization of our potential over time. The Vessel proposal involves the deliberate engineering of resilient and flexible facilities dedicated to the retention of humanity’s legacy as an ongoing hedge against what he calls Xrisk. In this second article, Heath makes a case for the importance of visualization in the early stages of any long term project — whether terrestrial or beyond — as a strategy and tool for focusing enthusiasm on the long work of system design.
by Heath Rezabek
Cory Doctorow, author and open source advocate, has said that if we want to change the future, we need to change the stories people tell themselves about it. As discussed in my first article on the Vessel proposal, culture is well accustomed to visualizing dire possibilities, particularly those of Xrisk subtype Permanent Stagnation. Yet if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If the predominant vision of the future is one in which we fail to achieve our full potential, then at the least this fact won’t help our efforts to build the wherewithal to achieve something more enduring.
Figure 1 – Stephan Martiniere (http://www.martiniere.com) – Selected to accompany a not-yet-published space.com interview – Used by permission
Because they can set trajectories and influence the tone of ongoing efforts, visualizations — even early on in a project — can be very potent, and important to conveying an understanding of the project’s potential. This realization was also behind the first FarMaker Speed Sketch contest, successfully carried out for Starship Congress 2013. Children, enthusiasts, and professional concept artists competed for prize money and recognition, painting and drawing and rendering speed sketches of starships, based on the Daedalus theme. (Speed sketches are a genre of concept art common throughout the entertainment and visualization fields, where rapid techniques are used to express the energy and essence of an idea in a visual form.)
At the moment, from our vantage point of stalled or listless efforts, cultivating new visions of an interstellar future may not make much sense to the broader public. But years from now, as our capabilities and motivations for action grow, (and presuming we endure) these efforts may prove key in sparking forward momentum. If this is true of interstellar aspirations, perhaps it could be true of Earthbound aspirations as well. The most pressing aspiration at hand is the drive to build — or even to see for ourselves and our world — a future in which Earth-originating life achieves its full potential. Of course, ideas and techniques applied in one area (such as the Vessel project) can be applied in other areas (such as eventual starship design), and vice versa.
The phenomenon whereby vividly articulated visions of alternate futures helps pave the way for their realization is not a new one. From Leonardo da Vinci to Jules Verne and on to our present day, we’ve long been aware that the inventions of the mind can unfold in the world when expressed for others to perceive. But currently, there is particular and renewed interest in describing and modeling future possibilities as thought experiments to test their viability. One term for this approach is Design Fiction; another is Science-Fiction Prototyping. Doctorow made the observation cited above in discussion with Brian David Johnson, as part of his work with sci-fi prototyping. Bruce Sterling has an extensive archive of writings on Design Fiction in its present form. At Arizona State University’s Project Hieroglyph, science fiction authors such as Neal Stephenson, Geoffrey Landis, Bruce Sterling, Cory Doctorow, and others explore the potential for speculative ideas to shape reality.
We’ll return to these related strategies in future installments. For the moment, however, we’ll stay focused on the basic power of concept art and visualizations for both informing and inspiring others, when working with a speculative proposal or technology. In the case of the Vessel project, my experience of the power of visualizations to clarify and galvanize understanding came early. At 100YSS 2012, for the first presented version of the Vessel proposal, I discovered that the single most effective element of my presentation turned out to be the visualization of the Lilypad seasteading habitat, designed by Vincent Callebaut. This visual anchor, once linked with the dedicated task of housing archives and labs, immediately sparked in session attendees a sense of form and function for the Vessel proposal.
Figure 2 – Vessel as an instance of Vincent Callebaut’s Lilypad seasteading habitat, 100YSS 2012 and Starship Congress 2013.
Figure 3 – Vessel as an instance of Vincent Callebaut’s Lilypad seasteading habitat (Cutaway and Details)
Upon seeing these slides, viewers later said, they had an instant sense of the proposal, and immediately understood more clearly what I meant (and didn’t mean) by a Vessel archive. This understanding was not merely important for building comprehension, or even for support. It also helped to set tangible limits to the problem space we were exploring, and the design solution I was proposing. A self-contained habitat may or may not be closed-loop; but in any case it is not in itself a sprawling city. If anything, it might be a facility within that city, or even a campus or complex within that city; but it had limits and an overall, centrally-focused, form. A Vessel habitat could easily be envisioned as a module on a starship, or an orbital station, or an Arcology (as per Paolo Soleri), or other similar forms.
Figure 4 – Arcology, architectural ecology: The city as space station, envisioned by architect Paolo Soleri, 1969.
These design limits help shape the debate: How do you provide energy to such a habitat? Are there technologies not viable on a very large scale which could be used for smaller, mission-critical facilities? What is its likely maximum scale or size? Importantly, what would it look like if different versions were built in a variety of settings?
For Starship Congress, I decided to visualize a Vessel installation in a few more forms. The goal was to express that a Vessel could be “massive as habitats, with others more like sculptures, compact and dense as a room.” One goal for 2014 is to develop the Vessel Open Famework, a Creative Commons (CC BY-SA) document which would sketch out the fundamental aspects and design patterns for a Vessel installation, in such a way that others could evolve and adapt them to fit their unique requirements. So, for the first time, I began to sketch out first guesses at functional schematics: What functions were key and core, and what types of spaces did they imply? The idea that outer layers would be (in the near term) public-facing and fairly welcoming, while inner spaces would be highly specialized and include mission-critical archives, had been there since 2012. Yet the idea of an Open Framework — as a practical, realizable working document available for anyone to adapt — evolved from this task of identifying a minimal set of functional spaces, each forming and informed by its neighbors.
Figure 5 – Vessel Open Framework: Draft functional schematic, Starship Congress 2013
Open Source is an often-misunderstood form of intellectual property. Creative Commons does not prevent the creator from selling or making a profit from their work. The extent of shared content is flexible and depends on the license chosen. The preferred license for the Vessel framework, the CC BY-SA License specifies that you can do whatever you like with the design, including commercialize any results or adaptations, so long as you also pass on the right to do the same to those who next encounter your own derivative work. This flavor of open licensing does not negate the ability to commercialize, but rather removes any artificial scarcity from its core value so that the original design can be applied as widely as possible, and its true value determined.
From the perspective of Xrisk mitigation, aiming for open source distribution of the core framework has been a simple, nearly inevitable, decision. Earth-originating life faces a variety of complex challenges having complex causes; it stands to reason that partial solutions may be found across many different domains. Because we cannot know where risk-mitigating solutions will be pieced together from, and because the stakes are so high, it is essential to remove barriers to sharing and access wherever possible. The stakes at work when dealing with Xrisk define a large playing field. On that field, eventually, open source of some kind or another is an inevitable development if we are to truly test our most viable strategies as widely as possible.
With a document sketching out the Vessel Open Framework firmly in mind as a goal for 2014, I wanted to offer up a simple but compelling baseline design to speed future work. I wanted a simple shape and form which said to others, ‘This is a very simple starting point, which is probably not ideal for a final architecture, but which is intriguing enough to spark new interpretations.” The shape and form which resulted is that of a simple cube, tilted and sunk halfway into the groundplane, so that three overhanging entries are visible, a peak (perhaps housing communications or power arrays) is clear, and the iceberg-like sunken mass of half the structure underground is implied, just waiting to be explored. While it bears a passing resemblance to the pyramid, these other implications (understories for deep archives; three enties into three collections based on nature, science and culture) are also there to be inferred.
Figure 6 – Cubic Vessel
While I had developed this concept before Starship Congress, I did not have the wherewithall to realize images of this shape before the presentation. Upon returning home, I set to work with two artists I had come to know in the months leading up to the event. Together, Mark Rademaker and Joshua Davis have yielded some intriguing first glimpses of this strawman shape for further development. Pictured below, these rough first versions need one key preface: By the time we set to work, I had become excited by the possibilities of beamed solar power as a dedicated source due to several sessions at Starship Congress, but I had no clear idea what working beamed solar would look like. Additionally, I had become curious (during Day 1’s discussions of beam riders) about the question of whether communications and power / propulsion could be carried on a unified beam, and all of this collided in some very romanticized beaming in the first Cubic Vessels below.
Figure 7 – Cubic Vessel with Naive Beamed Solar Power and Communications Signal – Mark Rademaker
Figure 8 – Cubic Vessel with Naive Beamed Solar Power and Communications Signal – Joshua Davis
In discussions with Lt. Col. Peter Garretson, who delivered an inspired talk at the end of SC Day 3 in which beamed solar figured prominently, I was led to some more realistic interpretations of beamed solar power in the near term. (See below.) While not central to the Vessel Open Framework, the idea of dedicated energy is compelling enough as a backup or failsafe to be well worth visualizing realistically. A discussion of dedicated power for a Vessel facility is planned for future installments.
Figure 9 – Solucar – Concentrated solar receiver (Wikimedia Commons)
Figure 10 – Gemasolar – Concentrated solar receiver (Wikimedia Commons)
Figure 11 – Cubic Vessel with Concentrated Solar Receiving Beacon – Joshua Davis
From a growing understanding that these visualizations will be continually refined, we have begun to move towards more flexible frameworks. No visualization is final, and we continue to try new ideas as we gather resources on proposals for long term archives, and the sustainable societies which would be gathered there to miantain them.
Below is pictured Joshua Davis’ recent rendering of a lunar vessel, its receptor at the peak and its habitats built beneath the lunar surface, below a massive reflective array which nourishes the mission-cricitcal collections of the Vessel itself.
Figure 12 – Cubic Lunar Vessel with Concentrated Solar Receiving Beacon – Joshua Davis
Onwards we move, slowly building a unified design pattern language for the Vessel project, visualizing as we go. An inspiring image, even of something impossible here and now, can move the mind to spot new connections and bring them to bear on the problem at hand. In future articles, we’ll continue to explore other aspects of this work, such as discussions with Lt. Col. Garretson on potential locations for Vessel infrastructures, correspondence with USD’s Danieh Sheehan on the viability of hardening a Vessel’s power infrastructure against massive solar events, and the practical question of how we might build one using existing technologies if we had (say) 24 months til critical need.
For now, I welcome comments and reflections on the hypothesis that where vision and visualization leads, the mind and will can often follow.