Monday, February 4, 2008

Bright stars and dark monsters

The NASA Rocket Garden at the Kennedy Space Center is a monument to early space exploration, showing the first small, tentative feelers we sent out of our planet to the bright lights we see above. A moving document, that I was trying to capture in a picture with the dramatic backdrop of a Florida sunset. While waiting for the sun and the light to be just as I wanted them, an extraneous thought occurred to me. If NASA were to add specimens to trace the history of rockets just a little further back in time, they would need to place an infamous V-2 in the garden, an unseemly but nonetheless accurate addition. A V-2 (Vergeltungswaffe 2) was a military rocket developed by the Nazi army scientists at Peenemuende during WW2, and the direct precursor to modern ICBMs, under whose threat (or protection) we still live.

The motivation for the development, and much of the early work behind the instruments of one of the greatest human endeavors was one of the basest and most coward human aspirations, namely that of killing and destroying other human beings and their cities without risking loss to our own life and goods. The point, however, is not so much the trite (but not for that less true) idea that good things sometimes spring out of bad ones. Rather, the unsettling conclusion is that many good things owe their very existence to questionable ones, without which they may never have come into existence, or would have only far more slowly. The distinction between 'never' and 'more slowly' is an important one, but it's rarely obvious before something takes place, so it's inconsequential when looking ahead.

Another example comes from the relationship between the internet and pornography, feeding and building on each other. Now, I'm in no way suggesting that pornography is as damaging an undertaking as warfare, in fact I personally doubt it has any damaging effect at all. But numerous people do see it that way - an issue I will not discuss now - and yet, without the powerful motivations unleashed by pornography, the interest for some exotic network of computers used for scientific research would have been slim, at best. It would have languished as one of those geeky creations that the cool crowd, and the general public after them, snobs and yawns at. No massive infrastructure investment, no juicy public traffic to sell anything to, and no interest in creating and disseminating content for it, whether sublime or crass. Military applications may still have saved the World Wide Web, but certainly it would have been a very different beast from what we know today.

The lesson to me here is that we have to be careful condemning some supposedly "darker" sides of human nature lest we discover that along with them we may lose the emotions, aspirations and achivements we cherish most. This conclusion actually fits with a previous post ("Of sickness and Durkheim"), but I still have a hard time accepting many of the dark monsters of human nature: anger, hatred, cruelty and the rest of the repertoire we wishfullly and hastily label "inhuman". Oh well, some day, when I'm actually wise...

No comments: