Dickens 7 Peter teaches at the Universities of Brighton and Cambridge, UK. His most recent book, co-written with James Ormrod, is Cosmic Society: Towards a Sociology of the Universe (2009). soc.sagepub.com/content/41/4/609.full.pdf
While pro-space activists and others are daydreaming about fantastical and yet seemingly benign things to do in outer space, socially and militarily dominant institutions are actively rationalizing, humanizing and commodifying outer space for real, material, ends. The cosmos is being used as a way of extending economic empires on Earth and monitoring those individuals who are excluded from this mission. On a day-to-day level, communications satellites are being used to promote predominantly ‘ Western’ cultures and ways of life. They also enable the vast capital flows so crucial to the global capitalist economy. Since the 1950s, outer space has been envisaged as ‘ the new high ground’ for the worldwide exercise of military power. The ‘ weaponization of space’ has been proceeding rapidly as part of the so-called ‘ War on Terror’ (Langley, 2004). The American military, heavily lobbied by corporations such as Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Boeing, is now making new ‘ Star Wars’ sys- tems. These have been under development for over 30 years but are now being adapted to root out and destroy ‘ terrorists’ , if necessary with the aid of ‘ smart’ nuclear weapons. American government spending on the Missile Defence Program jumped by 22 percent in 2004, reaching the huge sum of $8.3 billion (Langley, 2004). The unreal and almost certainly unobtainable objective is to create a new kind of ‘ pure war’ in which terrorists are surgically pinpointed and killed while local civilians remain uninjured (Virilio, 1998; Virilio and Lotringer, 1998). Meanwhile, and paralleling the weaponization of space, surveillance satellites have also been much enhanced. Although originally devel- oped for military purposes, they are now increasingly deployed to monitor non- military populations, creating a global, orbital panopticon. Workers in British warehouses are even being tagged and monitored by satellite to ensure maxi- mum productivity (Hencke, 2005). For those elites in positions of power over the universe, as for pro-space activists, the universe is experienced as an object to be placed in the service of human wants and desires. However, for those with less privileged access to the heavens, the universe is far from being such an object – their relationship with it is more fearful and alienated than ever before. There are two mechanisms through which the majority of the world’ s popula- tion are kept in a state of reverence towards the cosmos. Both go towards con- structing it as a subject, a powerful agent in its own right, and one dominating Earthly affairs. This is a scenario with a long history stretching back to early Greece and into Parsons’ ‘ cosmological societies’ (Parsons, 1966; see also Assmann, 2002), and witnessed in E.B. Tylor’ s animistic tribal religions. The first is a sense of fear related to the kinds of military and surveillance applica- tions mentioned above. The second is a feeling of inadequacy in the face of con- temporary cosmological theory. There is a direct parallel between Bentham’ s panopticon and this new orbital or ‘ planetary’ panopticon (Whitaker, 2000). Both involve a watchstation up on high that watches deviant populations, and in neither case do the monitored have any knowledge of whether or not they are being watched. Foucault (1977) argued that this results in the watched regulating their own behaviour and conforming to the required social order. There are signs that the orbital panopticon is having a similar effect on people’ s subjectivity and relationship with the universe. The ‘ eye in the sky’ reinforces the idea that the heavens are distinct from Earthly affairs as far as monitored populations are concerned; a remystification of, and alienation from, the universe, which reduces people to passive conformists. Those able to utilize satellite technology have symbolically replaced God in the Heavens: the American military, for example, gaining a ‘ God’ s eye view’ over the planet (Weiner, 2004). Public knowledge that wars from space can be conducted instan- taneously, without the possibility of forewarning or resistance, furthers this fear that parallels pre-modern anxiety in the face of angry and punishing gods in the sky. US plans to construct ‘ rods from God’ , tungsten rods suspended from a satel- lite that can be dropped on targets on Earth with the impact of a nuclear explo- sion, play on this kind of sentiment. We introduce here some data from the Mass Observation (MO) project at Sussex University by way of illustration.