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I Live In Outer Space

The New Inquiry's publication of an essay by Sam Kriss called the “Manifesto the Committee to Abolish Outer Space” really caused something click into place. I'd been thinking about the way that science uses concepts from romantic poetry to create enthusiasm and “buy-in” for its mission. When scientists use words like “beauty” and “awe” to describe natural phenomena they borrow from the romantic poets. The “love” of science is not at all scientific. There is no scientific theory of beauty; even scientists would acknowledge, it's not a proper subject for scientific inquiry.

Here's Kriss on what it means to abolish outer space.

We said earlier that for us to abolish something does not mean to destroy it. Once the cosmos was thought to be painted on the veil of the firmament, or to be some kind of divine metaphor, a flatness inscribed with thousands of meaningful stories. Since then it’s become outer space, a grotesque emptiness. Space is a site of desecration, an emptiness in which one moves, and moving into space means closing down any chances for Earth. C.A.O.S. is not interested in setting up limits. We want to create a future, not one of tin cans dodging rocks in a void, but a future for human life. To do this we must abolish outer space with all its death and idiocy, and return the cosmos to its proper domain, which is mythology, so that when we look up it will be in fear and wonder, and the knowledge that we live in a world that is not possible.

Sam Kriss makes clear that we've traded one mythology for another, but this new mythology is stamped with the imprimatur of science. Our new mythology equates outer space with adventure, bravery, ultimate knowledge, beautiful images of nebula and galaxies, and a vast new frontier for human exploration (and exploitation). In the back of our minds, we hold the possibility we may need a new planet if things go too off the rails on this one. Outer space is the source of a “reset button” for human-habitable planets.

The reality of direct human contact with outer space is instant death. Despite what you may have been told, outer space doesn't want us. Human bodies evolved on this planet with its atmosphere, rhythms of day and night, its particular gravity, and the many plants, animals and our other co-habitants. To survive in outer space we must replicate a minimum set of earth's qualities that have a necessary relationship to human life. Outside of normal earth gravity, we eventually turn into gelatin. Up and down, heads and feet, opposable thumbs, and the consumption of food, these are concepts that have no purchase in the vast expanses of space.

The beauty of outer space is created in post-production. It's like an using an Instagram filter to make your life look more interesting. For instance, the Hubble Space Telescope doesn't use color film–or any film at all. The distant light is recorded in shades of black and white. The color is a educational and promotional tool, not a direct perception of an object. Here's what hubblesite.org has to say about their use of color and seeing things that can't actually be seen by humans.

The colors in Hubble images which are assigned for various reasons, aren't always what we'd see if we were able to visit the imagined objects in a spacecraft. We often use color as a tool, whether it is to enhance an object's detail or to visualize what ordinarily could never be seen by the human eye.

Our idea of outer space is that it's over there–far away. We imagine ourselves to be Joseph Banks, Mungo Park, Charles Darwin or Dr. Livingstone in search of the undiscovered territory. For the most part, outer space is empty. There's nothing to discover. It's even emptier than “flyover country.” As Kriss notes in his manifesto, we lose nothing when we abolish outer space because “there's nothing there already.” Astronomers recently issued a report saying that based on data from the Kepler spacecraft their could be as many as 8.8 billion earth-sized planets capable of supporting life. What they neglected to say was that no human from planet earth will ever set foot on any of the those planets. While our imagination is infinite, our physical manifestation in space-time is nothing but finitude. Just like producing images of astral objects that can't actually be seen by humans, we create a catalog of planets, obscure unattainable objects of desire.

And while scientism ridicules the cosmology of others, it is still geocentric at the bottom of its thinking. We are already in outer space. Earth itself isn't outside of the universe. We are spinning, orbiting and hurtling through outer space. I already live in outer space.

 

Purple Crayon Virtual Reality

Is the world really a blank slate that we can overwrite with our purple crayons? What does that blank stare that we give the world miss seeing? Is the world really that empty and lonely?

 

Travel Economics: Peak Carry On

hand-luggage

There was a time in pre-history. Long before the Internet. When you could book a flight from San Francisco to New York and it would mostly be empty. It was common to find an unoccupied row and stretch out — making use of all three seats. That form of travel no longer exists. Based on a recent flight, I’ve concluded we’ve reached another inflection point in air travel; I’m calling it: Peak Carry on.

suit-carrier

In the early days of the carry on luggage era, it was only a small number of savvy travelers who packed everything into a small case, carried it along into the cabin and checked nothing. The suit carrier era was eclipsed by the rolling carry on bag. The rationale was simple. It takes too long to retrieve your checked luggage. A business traveler could deplane and go. No waiting around for a luggage carousel.

Over the years, all business travelers adopted this approach. To be the person in your group who checked luggage was to show you were hopelessly old fashioned. Clearly not management material. This approach spread from the business sector to almost all travelers. The carry on bag is everywhere.

The moment of peak carry on has occurred due to a confluence of events. Everyone believes they need to use carry on luggage to save time. In addition the airlines now work to fill every seat in an effort to make a profit. As part of that they generally charge $25 per checked bag. This means there’s an economic incentive to switch to carry on luggage which has no extra charges.

Steamer-Trunk

The terrorists have succeeded in degrading the experience of air travel. We’ve grown used to the security perimeter, to being searched and having our luggage scanned. We’ve completed the process of ruining air travel with carry on luggage. Boarding a plane is now a fight for space in the overhead compartment. If you’re last to board, it’s likely that all the overhead space has already been stuffed with carryon bags and you’ll need to check your carry on. Incidentally, there’s no fee to check your bag in this instance. When it comes time to deplane, it’s a scramble to pull carry ons from the overhead bin without cracking someone on the skull.

Getting on and off of airplanes has become horrible. And because carry on luggage is taking up so much space, often you’re sitting on your coat and you’ve been crammed into the ever smaller seating with whatever you’ve brought along to amuse yourself during the trip. Observe the upset that occurs when the person in the window seat needs to get up and use the restroom.

It’s within our power to fix air travel, or at least part of it. We just need to set some limits and change the incentives. First, assign overhead bin space to each seat. This is part of what you pay for when you book passage. If you don’t want your overhead space you can trade it for a discounted ticket. The airline can rent unwanted overhead space to other passengers. Second, limit the number of carry on bags to 30% of the passenger total — and charge $50 (double the checked rate) for a carry on. In addition, when deplaning, passengers with carry on luggage must wait until all other passengers have left the plane before removing their bags from the overhead bin.

These simple changes would make air travel better for everyone. I’m certain that business travelers would complain bitterly about these new rules and restrictions. However, by attempting to optimize speed and efficiency in every aspect of air travel, we’ve made it almost intolerable. The speedy part of air travel is the part where you fly through the air. Carry on luggage is only faster when a few people do it. When everyone does it you experience peak carry on. Airlines don’t need to introduce these new policies all at once. They could be introduced one flight at time — the key here is asking travelers about the difference it made in their experience of air travel.

To me the worst part of travel is the traveling part. Can you imagine an airline using actual footage of what it’s like for most of us in their television commercials? Imagine if we could make it better.

Discovering a Company of Thieves

portable-imperial-party-time

In the age of the connected digital Network, they call it “discovery”. It’s not what you like right now, or what you’ve liked in the past — it might be described as what you’ll like in the future. Mostly it doesn’t work, but on occasion something delightful it discovered. The algorithm usually goes like this: if you like tea, you’d probably also like this weak tea. When a discovery occurs, it usually has nothing to do with tea.

The problem is “discovery” actually works through leaps, gaps and other forms of discontinuities. Algorithms can provide options along a path of logical extension. The further the extension moves from the source, the weaker the connection. The strange thing is that when the connection becomes so weak it’s non-existent, that’s when discovery might happen. Machines that attempt to replicate serendipity have trouble with this last piece. That zone of strangeness feels a bit like chaos to them — there’s no reason at all to take the next step in any particular direction. If you’ve been down this road, you know this point in a process of discovery is different from randomness. The accumulated context makes a difference.

When you’re young and for the first time discovering a lot of new music, there’s always some older figure who turns you on to the music from your future. There are new worlds in front of you — outside your realm of experience. A stack of records can give you a preview into the soundtrack of these alien worlds. This is how young minds are blown. It’s also the kind of peak experience that can stay with you for a lifetime. To some extent, all music going forward will be compared to those transformational sounds.

Once you’ve grown up, figured out what you like and filled up your library with your favorites; discovery becomes a much more difficult process. That transformational process isn’t likely to happen again. You “are” that older figure, and now you’re annoyed that young people today don’t appreciate the music that first turned you on.

If you’re storing your music in the cloud, your music provider probably knows your library better than you do. Every “play” is logged and plotted to determine what you currently like and what you’ll like and purchase next. This is where you’ll find complex genomes of music underlying auto-generated playlists mixing with the quantified self.

I recently discovered a band called “Company of Thieves“. I wasn’t looking for them, or anything like them. I was actually more interested in learning about what Daryl Hall was doing these days. I’d had an interest in him since his first solo album produced by King Crimson’s Robert Fripp — the long delayed “Sacred Songs“. (Check out his vocals on the song “North Star“). I’d seen a few moments of “Live from Daryl’s House” on television and traced it back to the web. YouTube provided a nice selection of the greatest hits from the show. The clips of “Company of Thieves” kept drawing me back. There was something about them. There isn’t an obvious link between Daryl Hall’s music and what Company of Thieves does. There’s no recommendation engine that spit would out “if you like Daryl Hall, you’ll probably like Company of Thieves”.

queen-of-hearts-cot

Chicago-based Company of Thieves (Genevieve Schatz and Marc Walloch) has released two albums on Wind-Up Records, but despite their best efforts hadn’t broken through on any of the media that I follow. The band’s appearance on “Live from Daryl’s House” was in January of 2009. It’s with these four-year old videos that I started following their story. There’s not much in the mainstream music press. It was really through YouTube that I was able to piece together an idea of the range of the band’s sound.

While I loved The Beatles when I was younger, these days I find it hard to listen to them. I’ve heard the songs too many times. It’s the Beatles Anthology recordings that still have some interest for me. I like hearing the songs in their rough form, it’s there that I can see through to the bones of the song to see if it still works. Company of Thieves has done something similar. Their finished recordings have very complex and compelling arrangements; the band gets a very big sound. But they’ve also released videos of acoustic performances of their songs — and not in an ideal studio environment. Instead, they perform out in the world, without a net. Not only can they actually perform the songs from their recordings, they can put them across in the ordinary world — on a beach, riding in a car, on a moving train, at an amusement park and walking down the street in the rain. To me, that makes a connection that a lot of computer-based music has lost.

When I think about the criteria used in my process of discovery, it doesn’t seem like something that could be wrapped up into an algorithm, scaled up and served out to the masses. I want something that I’ve never heard before. It might even be something that I don’t initially like; something that takes a while to grow on me. It might even take a couple of weeks before I decide that I need to buy this music and support the artists. This kind of discovery is pretty rare, and that’s part of what’s good about it. If I could push button and receive a new discovery every day that was custom-built based on the artifacts of my listening behavior, it would soon grow boring. And what could be worse than a cloud-based networked computer program that effectively caused me to become bored with my own taste.

I understand that Company of Thieves is working on some new music. That makes me smile.

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