The ‘sociability paradox’ of Mars One

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Earlier this week, science writer Barbara King discussed Mars One in the NPR.org blog 13.7 (“Cosmos and Culture”). Her article, which I encourage you to read in full, bluntly asks:

Why Do 202,586 People Want To Leave Our Planet For Mars?

In the piece, King raises an issue to which I have given some thought: the apparent contradiction between candidates’ expressed willingness to leave everything behind, and the notion that these individuals could be sociable (and trusting, and supportive, and loving) enough to work with a small group of other people (probably chosen primarily for their technical competence, and only secondarily for their interpersonal skills) for the rest of their lives.

UnknownMars One CEO Bas Landorp told The Huffington Post earlier this year that “the most important skill” considered in the selection process is an applicant’s “ability to function in a team.” (The full selection criteria is [sic] available online.)

Still, my question is this: Are people eager to leave behind everyone they love — for the rest of their lives — good candidates to succeed at forging a tight-knit colony on Mars? A colony that surely will require great sociability, shared good feelings and cooperation to succeed?

I have asked myself a similar question in slightly different terms (and this is as good a point as any to say that the below should not to be construed as my interpretation of King’s intended meaning. I’m simply using her piece as a jumping-off point for my own musings, which constitute the remainder of the post):

What sort of person is willing to sacrifice every significant human relationship, but—once separated from Earth— still capable of sufficient community-mindedness that they could be entrusted with building a new world?

It is a rather fine edge on which to dance, all the more so because it’s so important to get this right. As I wrote in one of my application essays:

UnknownThe first astronauts need to care intensely about our species, but be willing to leave most of humanity behind for the rest of their lives. They need to be highly socially adept but willing to limit their social interactions to a few people for many, many years. I believe that identifying the personality types that are best suited to these apparently contradictory requirements is one of the principal challenges facing Mars One.

Let’s call this the ‘sociability paradox’. How should it be resolved? I don’t have any firm answers right now, but it’s a critical question and one to which I expect we’ll return again and again. For now, a few related thoughts:

• Separation ≠ isolation: Traveling a great physical distance from loved ones is not the same as permanently abandoning them. Written and other  forms of communication at a distance have become enormously important parts of webs of social meaning that keep us happy and sane here on Earth, and the same media will be used to communicate between Earth and Mars. The round-trip time lag of 8–48 minutes would make conventional telephony impossible, but the settlers could still use delayed voice and video chat.

In any case, I don’t think I’m the only person in the world who talks on the phone far less than we used to back when phones and printed letters were the only options, and I nonetheless manage to maintain a large network of meaningful, satisfying relationships, including some with people I may never see in person again. A large part of social communication involves sharing news and reassuring people who care about us that we’re OK; there would be no obstacle to this happening on Mars. In other words, a major premise of the sociability paradox—the idea that physical separation is equivalent to social isolation—may not hold true.

• Mars will be a very small village: Just because someone is willing to leave behind the sprawling, complex societies of modern Earth doesn’t mean that they eschew social life or fail to appreciate the value of intimate relationships. Instead, their brains might simply be more suited to much smaller social networks.

Indeed, the interpersonal skills that might help someone thrive on Earth might not be useful or even adaptive on Mars. People who happen to be very good at monitoring zillions of social details might not necessarily find it easy to achieve the single-minded devotion required for the work of starting a colony.

The most sociable people on Earth might not be sociable in the right sense for Mars; “social adeptness” is not a one-dimensional trait but a suite of interrelated skills that depend heavily on context. So it’s not that we need to balance social adeptness with tolerance for isolation in a small group; rather, we need to identify the social skills required for this mission and determine who has them in abundance.

I’m not sure whether I’m addressing the central issue here, or simply talking around it. It is clear that there will be much more to say on this subject, and I’m very interested in learning more about how others (the selection committee, the other candidates, and readers in general) will be thinking about it. For now, I have a nebulous sense that the sociability paradox involves only an apparent, rather than an actual, contradiction; I’ll try to articulate that more clearly as I think more about the topic.

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8 thoughts on “The ‘sociability paradox’ of Mars One

  1. Quite thought provoking! I am so happy to be able to follow your journey to Mars. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I look forward to continuing to follow your path once you’re on the Red Planet!

  2. I am fascinated by this concept. I get your paradox and understand what you are saying. Just because a person is a capable of being happy alone doesn’t mean they can’t create a social presence. The idea of leaving this planet for Mars is easily reward enough without needing to return. Adventurers have behaved this way since we left the trees. Carry on, enjoy the journey. I think I will introduce you to my science club tomorrow if that is ok with you. They are 12-14 year old elementary school kids.

    • Hi Susan,

      Thank you for the kind words, and for reading. I love the idea of sharing the blog (and the Project) with young people who are excited about science; potentially, Mars One could help inspire a whole generation of people to enter science/tech/engineering fields.

      Please let me know if I can be of any help. Also: I’m very interesting in speaking to students (in person and via Skype/Google hangout), so we might think about something like that for the future.

      In the meantime: I would love to hear your club members’ questions and answer them in a future post!

      • We are almost done for the year ( next Friday) but we had a lively discussion about what it would be like and why anyone would wish to go to a place never to return. I run this program second semester each year in prep for a science contest at the local university so we will be back next year. In the meantime I will follow your blog.
        Most of these kids have access to the internet so they can find you if they want.

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