Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
It is important to look up.
Not just from whatever it is that is occupying our attention at any given moment, but to look up as in “way up” – up to the sky. We spend a great deal of time looking down – at the ground, at what is directly in our path, at all manner of screens, at books, at the trash on the sidewalk. Too often when we do look up we do this because of the rumbling of thunder overhead, and often when we gaze skyward we are treated with a vision of a pollution soaked sky, or a darkness unnaturally illuminated by the constant glow of electricity.
But sometimes, if we are lucky, when we look up we see the stars.
In the last week many were given a fresh reason to look up: the news that the European Space Agency had successfully landed a robotic spacecraft on the surface of a comet. The story was a momentary throwback to a, seemingly bygone, era when people could look to the heavens and feel a sense of pride at the things human ingenuity could achieve.
For a moment – exploring space became something other than the plot of a film.
Granted, the elation did not last particularly long. For when we took our eyes off of the stars, and brought our attention back to the Earth beneath our feet, we were reminded how far from stellar things are at current. Disease, war, ecological degradation, racism, misogyny, the list goes tragically on; what Philae briefly provided was a respite from the stories of humans being terrible to one another (and the planet) and gave a momentary reminder of what humans can achieve by working together (the mission was an international [albeit European] effort). It was a moment in which, to put it simply, humanity was reminded of what is scientifically and technologically possible. Landing on the comet was a wonderful moment for the heroic narrative surrounding technology – a narrative that has taken some battering of late amidst reports of rampant surveillance and growing awareness of the environmental tradeoffs of many technological systems. Yet for a moment we were able to rise above these terrestrial concerns, for a moment we could look to the skies and feel hopeful.
Of course, one can have enjoyed the momentary excitement of the news of the landing and still felt some skepticism. As many of the contributions to the Twitter hashtag “#WeCanLandonaCometbutwecant” attested – the comet landing sparked a bemused confrontation between a recognition of the extraordinary things that our species can accomplish, versus the seemingly mundane things that remain all too unaccomplished. While the aforementioned hashtag provoked many amusing responses, at base it risked a comic obfuscation. For the matter is not one of: “we can…but we can’t;” but one of: “we choose this…but we do not choose that.” Humanity can land on a comet and also address pressing social needs and issues; however, when all is said and done it may actually prove much easier to land on a comet than to address those issues. Ultimately it may be that there really are technological solutions to some problems – but the issue then becomes the degree to which these things really were problems, and what scale of problem these things represented.
Though space exploration has provided us with some impressive entries in human history, it is worth looking at the footnotes and remembering that the technologies that put people (or robotic landing crafts) into space are rooted in military funding and research. Keen awareness of this link has, in the past as well as the present, caused some to chafe against the bright-eyed optimism of space exploration. On July 21, 1969 – the day that Neil Armstrong would put the first human footprint on the surface of the moon, the New York Times published a comment by Lewis Mumford in which he defied the techno-utopianism of the moment with his signature blend of frustrated wariness. Mumford opened his comment by clearly stating:
“The most conspicuous scientific and technical achievements of our age—nuclear bombs, rockets, computers—are all direct products of war, and are still being promoted, under the guise of ‘Research and Development’ for military and political ends that would shrivel under rational examination and candid moral appraisal.”
Though Mumford’s article is shot-through with nuclear wariness, which speaks of the piece being a relic of the Cold War, the underlying ethical core of his argument retains its weight, namely: the scientific and technological choices we make as a species matter. Writing at the end of the 1960s Mumford seemed concerned with the spectacular aspect that space exploration had taken on, whereby it provided an area in which people could put their hopes in a larger technological apparatus that was born more from the will to destruction than the will to explore. Mumford was attempting to foreground the matter of priorities in order to call into question the overall value of this particular set of priorities. What he was doing, in other words, was acknowledging that “we can” accomplish all manner of impressive feats, but that this does not mean that we should; furthermore the feats held up for public display are too often simply the pleasant side effects of developments driven by militaristic motives.
Thus, in line with his weary and wary opening, Mumford concluded his comment with a similarly dour sentiment:
“Only a return to full waking consciousness, with an overwhelming transfer of interest from our dehumanized technology to the human person will suffice to bring our moonstruck nation back to earth. Meanwhile, thanks to the very triumphs of technology, the human race hovers on the edge of catastrophe.”
Philae’s comet landing comes many years after the above quoted words – though a glance at the news still makes it unnervingly clear the degree to which our species is wobbling at catastrophe’s edge. The full impact that the comet landing will have for the future of scientific inquiry remains to be seen, and while the landing provided an enjoyable respite from the torrent of tragedy that passes for news these days, it is a story that seems to have already passed from most people’s attention. In all likelihood this is not a result of our having returned “to full waking consciousness,” for humanity has proven quite capable at keeping itself distracted and tantalized by things other than the movement of the stars overhead.
Yet, if one is to find a blinking light of promise in the Philae story it may be that the comet landing itself is the wrong place to search (impressive though that landing may be). While the military roots of technologies should not be forgotten, it is worth noting the international effort that went into the mission. For, if one wishes to boil this story down to its most basic point, the proverbial “moral of the story” if you will, is that when people work together they can accomplish truly amazing feats. Philae is a reminder of what humanity can technologically accomplish – and it thus challenges us to seriously contemplate the possibility of turning this ingenuity towards meeting pressing demands.
It is important to look down and see the pressing matters facing us and the planet today.
But sometimes, it is important to look up as well.
[Image Note – the image of “Philae over a comet” is by DLR, CC-By 3.0]
Mumford, Lewis. “No: A Symbolic Act of War…” New York Times. July 21, 1969. pg. 6