In space, no one can hear you scream, as the poster for Alien helpfully reminded us. That’s bad enough in a movie, but worse if you’re a colonist on Mars, the thing you’re screaming is “Help, I think my leg is broken”, and the nearest hospital is some 34m miles away back on Earth. Without a phone network, you can’t even be put on hold to NHS Direct.
So with Elon Musk wanting to put human colonists on Mars as soon as 2024, we need to think about public services on the red planet; and this wqs the topic of a talk last week at FutureFest by Nesta’s Eddie Copeland. “It may be ridiculously premature, but unless you think these things through at the start you might end up with something we really don’t want,” he explained to me later. “Just copying and pasting Earth services feels a bit of a missed opportunity.”
Copeland explains that he'd spotted that, “There's a group of people who had been writing draft constitutions for Mars and they were saying 'what you want is the German electoral system, the US senate, British FPTP for some things' – all of them were dropping existing systems from Earth.” But, he argues, “The more interesting question is: if you're not constrained by all that historical precedent, could you do things fundamentally differently?”
Hold onto your hats, folks: he doesn’t just mean adopting the single transferable vote. “Government could shift from being the service deliverer to playing more of the role of a dating agency: it connects you with a certain set of needs with someone who could fulfil them,” he explains.
What he’s describing sounds suspiciously like the much-maligned gig economy. Is that better suited to small space communities than for the big cities into which its shoehorned here on Earth? We have, as Copeland notes, “The most efficient mechanisms in human history of revealing and then matching supply and demand.” Of course, on Earth the gig economy is exclusively for paid services: it’s hard to envisage us going back to Crassus’ ancient Roman fire service in which fees were negotiated as the building burned.
Having such a small number of early settlers both makes things easier and poses a problem. On the one hand, the planet is so sparsely populated that nimbyism won’t be a problem (build houses on the expansive red belt, go nuts). But on the other, finding someone qualified to help with your specific problem may be tricky, even with Martian Public Service Tinder at your fingertips.
In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a planet was doomed because it had too many telephone sanitisers and hairdressers, and not enough doctors and engineers. But depending on the level of public services you want, people from all backgrounds are necessary. “Maybe this will be done by robotics, but people will presumably need cleaners, cooks, childminders,” Copeland says.
“You start with a handful of people,” he goes on, “and there's talk of 200 people at a time potentially. For a while you can pretend that you're a giant cruise ship and everything you need is met by the company. How big do you have to get before that breaks?” Some sort of taxation, to Copeland, feels inevitable eventually, even if it takes decades. After all, eventually a second and third generation of colonists will be born – true Martians – and they won’t have signed a contract back on Earth.
At that point it’s just a question of what services are covered. “Do you say the baseline should also be basic education, or is that categorically different because you're only bothered about life threats?” Copeland asks. “Okay, so maybe it's just fire and health, in which case it's just emergency services, but that's a choice. If you're trying to build the most sophisticated human colony that's ever existed, would it not feel like a bit of a wasted effort unless you're designing your services to go up Maslow's hierarchy of needs to something a bit more ambitious?”
This all sounds suspiciously socialist for an endeavour whose most likely proponents are the supercapitalist giants of SpaceX or Amazon with its Blue Origin rocket. But then of course, there’s the chance that the Chinese government could get there first, and dictate its own brand of quasi-communist services as the default for life on Mars. If both take the challenge in a Space Race 2.0, we could end up with all the geopolitics of Earth mapped onto different sides of Mars in a spin off that precisely nobody asked for.
You’d hope for a more collegiate solution – but, as Copeland points out, you can trace European borders back to the original shared public services. “The only reason they became coherent countries with a coherent national identity is that the road networks connected them all together,” he explains. “Most of the symbols that we associate ourselves with as citizens of the UK are post boxes, telephone boxes, hospitals, police stations: they become icons that create our identity.” So why would we expect Martian life to be different? “I think you'd probably see similar traits if building a Martian community.”
So having given it plenty of thought, would Copeland be on the first ship to Mars? “Oh, not the first ship,” he replies. “Give it a decade for all the existential things to get sorted and then I'd be there.” It’s a fair response, but he shouldn’t wait too long: if you missed out on the London property boom, you don’t want to make the same mistake with Martian pods.