It is said, Lewis Lapham tells us, that Abbot John Trithemius of Sponheim, a fifteenth-century scholar and mage, devised a set of incantations to carry “messages instantaneously… through the agency of the stars and planets who rule time.” In 1962, Lapham adds, Bell Labs “converted the thought into Telstar, the communications satellite relaying data, from earth to heaven and back to earth, in less than six-tenths of a second.” Magic had become science. Today, the Pentagon is picking up the centuries old gauntlet, asking the brightest minds in academe — through its far-out research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA — to come up with a means for a 20-something-kid-cum-lieutenant or perhaps the military’s much-lauded “strategic corporal” to be wired into unprecedented amounts of information beamed down from the heavens above.
At some level, even the language of DARPA’s solicitation for its SeeMe program seems to conjure up the visions that danced in Trithemius’s head. Its goal, we are told, “is to provide useful on-demand imagery information directly to the lowest echelon warfighter in the field from a very low cost satellite constellation launched on a schedule that conforms to DoD [Department of Defense] operational tempos.” Those heavenly-sounding constellations are, however, tempered by the reality of what the Pentagon is really after.
Yesterday’s future of high-tech satellites that would allow our thoughts to slip “the surly bonds of Earth,” while connecting the far reaches of the planet and linking minds globally in ways even Trithemius couldn’t imagine, is now being exchanged for a low-bid, low-rent system of military satellites. These will be capable of allowing a kid just out of high school to more efficiently target a kid who probably never went to high school — all courtesy of a well-educated university scientist who never bothered to think of the implications of his tenure-producing, tax-payer-funded research. This can’t be what Trithemius had in mind. And yet, that’s where we’re at.
If the Pentagon has its way, SeeMe will eventually fill the skies with cheap, disposable “satellites at very low altitudes, networked to existing fielded communications systems and handheld platforms.” So much for the “the high untrespassed sanctity of space.” But let Lewis Lapham explore further the borderlands of science and magic that have somehow been fused into the very center of our lives. The famed former editor of Harper’s Magazine now edits Lapham’s Quarterly, which, four times a year, brilliantly unites some of the most provocative and original voices in history around a single topic. (You can subscribe to it by clicking here.) TomDispatch thanks the editors of that journal for allowing us to offer an exclusive online first look at Lapham’s elegant history of unreason in this techno-age of ours. To read it, click the link below