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  • Claire L. Evans’ project
    Polytopia
    The human species is rapidly and indisputably moving towards the technological singularity. The cadence of the flow of information and innovation in...
    Now playing SpaceCollective
    Where forward thinking terrestrials share ideas and information about the state of the species, their planet and the universe, living the lives of science fiction. Introduction
    Featuring Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames, based on an idea by Kees Boeke.


    Yesterday we lost Neil Armstrong, an accidental hero, thrust by fate onto a rock in the sky. Many dreamt of walking on the moon before he did, and a few men did after him. He happened to be the first. Hopefully many more men, and women too, will echo his iconic footsteps in the future. Perhaps even future space tourists will huddle around Tranquility base, laying nostalgic 60s filters over their high-resolution snapshots of an upended American flag from a long-ago mission.

    We can only hope. A lot of my favorite humans have died this year: Armstrong, Sally Ride, Ray Bradbury, all people who variously embodied an earlier era’s seemingly limitless capacity for wonder. Every time, I’ve asked myself: who will replace them all? Who will raise their hands and grasp forcefully at the stars? Who, like a figure in a William Blake etching, will prop their ladder across the moon and climb it, rung by rung?



    The real triumph of the Apollo program was its unforeseen shift in tone; driven by a desire to objectively beat the Soviets down to the wire–most Americans don’t know the unmanned Russian craft Luna 15 was beginning its descent just as Armstrong and Aldrin were tromping about the moon’s surface–and catalyzed by feverish nationalism, it instead precipitated dreamy wonder in its participants and the millions who watched the ghostly images from below.

    Did you know NASA accidentally erased the original moon landing footage during routine magnetic tape re-use in the 1980s? The footage the world saw on television that July day in 1969 was actually taken of a slow-scan television monitor and re-broadcast, picture quality reduced. The space between the primacy of that moment–in Armstrong’s life and in the narrative of the 20th century–is obscured a layer of irretrievable analog decay, time, and distance. Now death, too.

    The Appollo 11 mission would have been impossible today. It was too quick and dirty, too risky. Today, wiser, we send robots ahead of us. I am not necessarily sentimental about manned missions to space; I know it’s a messy business, limiting, and often more trouble than it’s worth. The human explorer defecates, sweats, needs sleep, is afraid. But exploring the moon wasn’t just a matter of rock samples and spectrographs, either: the real laboratory was the human mind. It’s not without reason that the things we remember most about the Apollo program are its words and gestures, the famous “first step” and the steps which followed, the proclamations, then, later, the reflections.

    Neil Armstrong said a great many beautiful things about his experiences. Most astronauts did. Going to the moon has a tendency to turn test pilots into poets. That matter of cortex-shifting is called the Overview Effect. Neil Armstrong articulated it with his characteristic clipped decorum:

    “It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”

    We lose heroes from the space age and the temptation is to eulogize an era, not a person. Neil Armstrong’s death does not signify the dwindling hopes of a different America. Today we have a completely new approach to space, from which we’ll learn a great deal. Maybe not from humans coming home and struggling their whole lives to convey the gravitas of their experiences in words, from astronauts whose dreams at night are forever colored by dusty panoramas and pea-sized Earths. Rather, from smart machines serving as our eyes and ears.



    Instead of famous footprints, we now leave tread marks.

    NASA’s Curiosity Rover is wonderful, and has already proven a robot’s capacity to ignite the global imagination, but it cannot perform the simple acts of grace that can be the lasting effects of a mission to space. Perhaps we should invent poetry engines, rovers equipped with algorithms that can turn vaporized soil samples into poignant insights.

    For now, unmanned space exploration can tell us everything, but not how the dust feels under its boots, nor that giant loping strides and kangaroo jumps are the quickest way across the surface. It can’t, like Buzz Aldrin, privately take communion before stepping out onto lunar surface, or quote Psalms in its final broadcast before splashdown (“What is man that Thou art mindful of him?”). It has no thumb to blot out planet Earth, no heart to feel very small, and it can’t retire from the space program to live the rest of its life on a farm in Ohio, like Neil Armstrong, who was forever mindful of his position as only an incidental figurehead for an effort of thousands of people.
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    The NASA Mars rover Curiosity landed on Mars last week. Those of us who tuned in vicariously via NASA’s live coverage watched as a roomful of tense engineers exploded, and heard their disembodied voices whispering and booming through the control room. Holy shit. We did it. Their headsets fell askew, they glad-handed one another, criss-crossing the room, and then, immobilized by a sudden hush as the news spread: We’ve got thumbnails.



    Thumbnails. We watched as a tiny image formed, transmuted across the void of space and into this room. It was black and white, an indistinguishable gesture of light in a blur of dark pixels. The engineers cheered and held one another as they gazed upon this small, inauspicious sight. One man sobbed at his desk. Then another image came down the line, this time more resolved. We began to see the grain of the dust, the pebbles, the outline of the rover itself, 352 million miles and 14 minutes of delay away, struck against the Martian soil.

    And so, as with so many missions before it, the narrative of our rover’s discovery began with an acknowledgement of its own shadow.



    NASA’s older Martian rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, were both avid amateur photographers of their own shadows as well. In fact, such images have been part and parcel of the visual language of space history since the Soviet Union developed and launched the Venera probes in the early 1960s; which, beginning with Venera 9, were the first landers to send back images of another planet. Those pictures too, taken before the cameras were undone by the very atmosphere they hoped to document, were of light and shadows cast on rocks.

    Rocks that looked for all the world like our rocks, light like our light, and shadows like our shadows, only cast on an alien world.



    William Gibson writes that the moment we began sensing and recording with technology, our extended communal nervous system, the “absolute limits of the experiential world” were “in a very real and literal way…profoundly and amazingly altered, extended, changed.” We no longer relied on the limited capacities of our individual memories, nor did we quite fully trust the bounded senses of our apparatus; free to back ourselves up and reach ourselves further outward, we extended our reach. We also loosened the definition of “we,” allowing our tools to become part of us in subtle ways. Now, closer and closer to the machine, we share a “largely invisible, all-ecompassing embrace.”



    This means: we can’t go to Mars and see what it looks like for ourselves. Not yet, anyway. So instead we have sent this robot, this laboratory, this sentry of extended sense organs for the human race, ahead of us. I find it profoundly moving, not only because something inconceivable has been accomplished, but because we–that room full high-fiving tinkerers, and us plebeians too–can look at Curiosity’s shadow and understand, without hesitation, that it’s our own.
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    In 1977, NASA sent a pair of unmanned probes named Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 into space. Among the infrared spectrometers and radio receivers included on each probe were identical copies of the same non-scientific object: the Voyager Golden Record.

    Sheathed in a protective aluminum jacket, the Record is a 12-inch gold-plated copper disk containing sounds and images chosen to portray the diversity of life on Earth: bird calls, whale songs, the sounds of surf, wind, and thunder, music from human cultures, and some 55 greetings in a range of languages, alive and dead. Like lonely time capsules, the records, aboard their still-functioning hosts, have long since left our solar system. The official Voyager 2 Twitter reports that the probe is currently at 13 hrs 38 mins 08 secs of light-travel time from Earth, which makes it the farthest man-made object from Earth.

    According to the unofficial mythology, the Voyager Golden Record was compiled by two people in love: the astronomer Carl Sagan, and Ann Druyan, the creative director of the project, who he would later marry. Druyan confided on WNYC's Radio Lab program in 2007 that she recorded the sounds of her own body-the electrical impulses of her brain and nervous system, her heartbeats-for the album, which were the sounds of a woman swept away: by a man, by ideas, by the power of sending their love out into eternity, her human pulse synched to the hollow ebbing of a pulsar. Love, golden, close to eternal, flying at impossible speeds through the heavens.



    The Golden Record's panoply of information, including those 55 greetings, was intended for an unknowable audience of spacefaring extraterrestrials. They are chatty, almost unserious: preposterously, one, in Amoy, even asks if the aliens are hungry. These recordings ostensibly represent a united voice of mankind addressing the cosmos. Of course, however, each greeting is a world of its own, embodying its own set of cultural and historical attitudes about life in space, time, infinity, and consciousness. The phrasing shifts from one recording to the next, revealing dramatic shifts in perspective. While the Arabic speaker calls extraterrestrials "friends in the stars," the Zulu and Sotho recordings address "great ones." What space is, what it represents, is not a consistent variable.



    And neither, of course, are we.

    As a species, the messages we've sent into space are piecemeal. For every concerted effort towards reasoned transmission, millions upon millions of radio-hours of information have leaked out into space from our planet haphazardly, beginning with that famous Nazi Olympic broadcast in 1936. Which, as it turns out, may be a better way for an extraterrestrial species to know us.

    We're warring, inconsistent. We love, and embarrass ourselves. We create technologies seemingly at random, often beyond our ability to understand, let alone legislate. We live in bodies eminently susceptible to the slightest intrusion. Only a few of us are even fleetingly concerned with the impression we might make on our alien brethren. And yet, flawed, we are, our whole tumultuous history an opaque question mark in the darkness.

    Reaching out by virtue of our idle transmissions, waiting.

    The Record is a present we gave to ourselves, or rather that Sagan and Druyan gave to the rest of us, an object that delivers the entire emotive impact of the human race in a polished package. According to the Golden Record, we're groovy. We don't murder each other over inconsequential abstractions, or defile our planet for material gain. We're friendly, sending warm "hellos" out into the Universe, playing Bach, playing Chuck Berry to our new friends. It's freshman year of college, a cocktail party exaggeration: an invention designed to impress. But impress who?



    It's likely an extraterrestrial intelligence would take the Voyager Golden Record for a piece of space garbage; the obsolescence of records aside, we can hardly assume its alien discoverers would have ears, let alone understand sound waves as information, or carved etchings as meaning. I'm not the first to posit that the Voyager Golden Record, with all its naive bombast, was more an exercise in summing ourselves up to ourselves than it was a pragmatic solution for first contact. Carl Sagan himself called it a "symbolic statement rather than a serious attempt to communicate with extraterrestrial life." In compiling the Record, its creators ran a comb over the tangle of ideas, languages, and cultures that make up the human race and parsed it into something cohesive, simple-even neat.

    Is it beautiful? Beyond expression. Does it represent the human race and its position in the cosmos? No, of course not. No single such compendium could. Our reality is utterly subjective, our languages merely sandcastles held together by history and mutual consent. When NASA welded plaques depicting a man and a woman onto the Pioneer probes in 1972, conservatives in the United States objected to the nudity in the now-iconic image. We deny and contest our own bodies, the intrinsic animal nature of our personhood. Can we know what we are?

    Personally, I'm an animal, but also a space zealot; I believe that a proper understanding of our place in regards to the universe is an elusive, but ultimately transcendent, tool. A clearer sense of our position (simultaneously precious and irrelevant) may be the most powerful aftereffect of the space programs of the late 20th century. Simply the image of the planet in perspective, a marble in the void-or, to quote Sagan again, a "mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam"-has altered global culture in ways we've yet to accurately measure.

    The writer Frank White, whose essays on the subject of cosmic scale should be canonical, refers to a shift in perspective called the "Overview Effect." White's estimation, supported by accounts from those in the unique position of having seen the Earth from space, is that such an overview has a penetrating, complex effect. It triggers a singular insight: sudden awareness of life's interconnectedness and the frailty of our planet.

    For those of us on the ground, gazing up into space can be a mutable experience. To some, it's a horror of the Lovecraftian variety: a deep abyss, out of which some undefinable and eldritch ancientness threateningly emanates. To others, the blackness of space represents a kind of anattā, direct evidence of the non-self. While the former escape to light-polluted urban centers and live their lives in denial of the vast beyond, the latter meditate under the stars. And yet all of us, no matter our impulses, are at least dimly aware of the significance of our planetary position: we hang suspended in an incomprehensible void.

    In my interview with Frank White, he pointed out:

    "I find it somewhat puzzling that when we talk about problems on Earth, such as the so-called 'population problem,' we never include the dimension of our larger environment, i.e., the solar system and beyond. And when we talk about the 'energy problem,' only a few people are willing to even consider the promise of satellites that could beam solar energy to the Earth. We discuss almost every major human problem as if we were confined to one planet, rather than being on 'Spaceship Earth,' which is a part of the solar system, galaxy, and universe."


    I made the video, Greetings from the People of Earth, to be screened at a panel discussion about the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) at the World Science Festival in New York. Aside from serving to remind the audience that American space bureaucracy had once produced an act of remarkably poetic thinking, it was intended to show that the frail human voices strapped to a spaceship aboard the Voyager Golden Record had originated on a spaceship, too: the Earth.

    Dr. Jill Tarter of the SETI Institute, who spoke on the World Science Festival panel, often compares the scope of her organization's research to date as being merely one tablespoon of water from the sea. No one would pronounce the ocean devoid of life after inspecting such a small portion; if anything, the ratio inspires hope. My collection of voices from the Voyager Golden Record, juxtaposed with the night skies above their respective nations, is similar: a spoonful of life in the infinite vastness of space. There's still so much left to explore, and one day-perhaps tomorrow, perhaps hundreds of years from now-we might discover a flicker of life, as silvery and pure as a darting fish, in a nearby puddle of the cosmos.
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    "I read this book. It's pretty good even if they made it in a week. Worth the fifty bucks, easy."

    — Bruce Sterling


    In February of this year, I had the distinct pleasure of being invited to the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry, a zygote of an institution nestled between departments at Carnegie Mellon University, to work on a strange collaborative project called a "booksprint." A booksprint, I discovered, is a fairly new practice, derived from the world of open-source software "codesprints." In this version, a group of writers work exhaustively for a week on a shared project, which is then made into a book at the conclusion of their session. In seven days, our group of sprinters turned an idea—"let's write a book about the intersection between art, science, and technology!" —into a 190-page, full-color, nattily-designed compendium of the current moment in art/science affinities.


    The book in its developmental stages.

    We wrote collaboratively in shared, networked documents, ensuring that the finished book would have no single author. Of course, we all have our specialities: Régine Debatty the international new media blogger was our encyclopedia of projects, Andrea Grover the project leader our thesis synthesizer, Pablo Garcia the image-hounding art history scholar, and, well, you can see my pawprints all over the sections on science fiction, utopian architecture, and visionary philosophy.

    We worked passionately, discussed endlessly, enlisted the research assistance of dozens of interns, and the finished project emerged (relatively) without incident. I still can't believe that a group of erstwhile strangers could so swiftly and seamlessly brainstorm, structure, research, and design something of such substance from nothing.



    That said, it's been many months since we left Pittsburgh to return to the hectic pace of our normal lives. What was created in a week has taken nearly a year to fine-tune, but I'm immensely proud to announce that we're finally finished. Behold, NA/SA: New Art/Science Affinities, a book about the intersection between art, science, and technology.

    The book includes meditations, interviews, diagrams, letters and manifestos on maker culture, hacking, artist research, distributed creativity, and technological and speculative design. Sixty international artists and art collaboratives are featured, including Agnes Meyer-Brandis, Atelier Van Lieshout, Brandon Ballengée, Free Art and Technology (F.A.T.), Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, The Institute for Figuring, Aaron Koblin, Machine Project, Openframeworks, C.E.B. Reas, Philip Ross, Tomás Saraceno, SymbioticA, Jer Thorp, and Marius Watz. It also has the gall to posit some categories for thinking about art in a scientific context, or vice-versa, breaking up a massive (and by definition undefinable) movement in the arts into functional blocks with poetic names like "Artists in White Coats and Latex Gloves" and "The Overview Effect."

    NA/SA was designed as it was written by Jessica Young and Luke Bulman of Thumb Projects. Immeasurable credit is due to them for organizing the endless flow of text into readable, beautiful documents at the end of each workday. To anyone thinking about organizing a booksprint—really, I can't speak enough for the uncanny efficacy of the process, given the right people—consider bringing designers on board from the beginning. Doubtless we would've had an arduous time marshaling our ideas had Thumb not been involved; their approach to layout had us feeling like we were creating a book (as opposed to a giant text file) from day one.

    More about the book and its process at Carnegie Mellon University's Miller Gallery website. New Art/Science Affinities can be bought printed on demand at Lulu.com, or you can download a free, full-text PDF of the book right here. I encourage you to browse, study, and print the free PDF, but the tactile book is a joy to hold.
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