The Stars in Our Screens

Art is not about communication. It's about communion.
Interactive artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, IdeaFestival 2013

So much of what we learn arrives as that unexpected connection, that realization that something previously known can be re-known in an exciting new way. So it was this morning when I read an Aeon essay on the stars.

The heavens are a preoccupation of mine. I'm forever straining to bring into the view of my binoculars and less often, of an eight-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope, the grain and dust of ancient explosions or of that cooling star. As a resource, the dark night sky, which is so important for our rest and for the reproduction of many species - sea turtles come to mind - has in many places faded almost completely from view, replaced by noxious and upward spilling fires of our own making.

I'm saddened by it.

The following words on "alienation," on "remote observation," might take you by surprise, as it did me, because the lens in question is one we modern navigators will immediately recognize. Sky Readers:

Part of the alienation of the astronomer from the objects of study is due to the remarkable technology that allows remote, automated observation. This technology stands between them and the stars as surely as a window separates us from nature while opening it to view. Unlike those who can take a walk in the woods to be close to the things they love, the astronomer can only go hug a telescope. The beauty of far Antares, the red star at the heart of Scorpius, provokes a love forever unrequited. This kind of alienation, formed by peering through newly opened windows at things forever out of reach, is particularly acute for the working astronomer, but it affects all of us who attempt to navigate the virtual world that our interactive screens have brought into view.

It is not just the stars that we have learned to ignore. How many of us remember phone numbers anymore, or email and street addresses? Our memory is becoming ever more externalised, stored on the cloud somewhere – we don’t know where – nor do we care so long as we can access it when we need it. While the information seems mentally nearby, just a few keystrokes will call it up, the stored memory might physically reside on a server 1,000 miles away. We are ever more augmented humans beings, ever more virtualised, enjoying what the philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers call the ‘extended mind’.

How is the extending mind changing us, our sense of our selves, and our sense of our place in the world?

I loved the unexpected comparison of astronomy to the information gathering many of us do everyday through our little windows. In both cases we are brought nearer to a distant story. In both cases we are augmented, "virtualised" as the author says, so that more information may be had. In both cases the dark can be our guide and friend.

Useful mysteries lie there.

Stay curious™