Monday, November 28, 2011

The Overview Effect and Language

The more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that our language may be the biggest barrier to our understanding of who we are and where we are in the universe. In my most recent blog, I posited the idea that we see "space" as distant and unfamiliar when it is actually closer to us than places we routinely visit on Earth. In that blog, I suggested we use the term "Earthspace" for the region controlled by the Earth's gravity, "moonspace" for the region controlled by lunar gravity, and so on throughout the solar system. Using this nomenclature would be more descriptive than to call all of it "space."

Looking back, I think we could say that coining the term "The Overview Effect" was, in fact, an effort to create new language to describe the spaceflight experience. I think we could also say that it has been an effective way to give that experience a different context.

In reality, we are on a natural spaceship that is in motion around the sun, which is in motion around the galactic center. We know this intellectually, but our senses, and our language, tell us otherwise. Thus, we continue to speak of "sunrise" and "sunset." We know that the sun is not rising or setting, but rather that the Earth is rotating on its axis and revolving around the sun and this changes how we see the sun on a daily basis. But we still use the older terminology because it is familiar and is also consistent with what our senses tell us.

"Days" and "years" are not necessarily inaccurate terms, but they also are not descriptive of reality. What if we called a "day" a "rota" and a year a "rev?" So there would be 365 rotas in one rev. Instead of saying that an astronaut had spent 14 days in space, we would say he/she had spent 14 rotas in Earthspace.

Similarly, we talk about "going into space" when we are already in space, always have been in space, and always will be in space. It would be more accurate to talk about "evolving into the universe."

Some of these new words may not work. They may be too awkward to use effectively or to gain wide acceptance. However, I think the effort to invent a new spacefarers' language makes sense and I will continue to work on it in future blogs.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Overview Effect and the "Facebook Revolutions"

As we have watched the uprisings that began in the Middle East and have now spread around the world, much has been made of the role that Facebook, Twitter, and other online technologies have played in assisting the revolutionaries in coordinating their actions.

What hasn't been mentioned is that these capabilities depend largely on a space-based technology, i.e., satellites, for their impact. When I interviewed astronaut Jeff Hoffman for The Overview Effect, he pointed out that the "technological overview" might have greater near-term influence on society than the philosophical shifts resulting from viewing of the Earth from space. Speaking of the impact of global communications, he noted that very little could happen anywhere in the world without other people knowing about it.  He said, "That is probably the biggest thing the space program has done in terms of changing human consciousness, although very few people recognize it as the space program."

The same might be said of the environmental movement, which has had an enormous influence on our society. The link between the movement and the early views of the whole Earth from the moon was noted  at the time, but seems to have been ignored in recent years. Some environmentalists are even hostile to the idea of space exploration.

I detect, on the part of humanity, an unwillingness to absorb one of the key messages of the Overview Effect, which is that we are in space, we always have been in space, and we always will be in space. And as we move out into the universe, our life on Earth will forever be changed. I've begun to think that the problem might lie with the word "space." Even though the domain we call "space" is closer to the surface of the Earth than Boston is to New York, our minds tend to think of it as far away and alien in some way. I wonder if we need a new word, like Earthspace, to describe that region outside our biosphere that is still quite close to our planet's surface. Perhaps that would diminish our sense of being far away from home when we are in "space."

We could even embroider on this concept and say that as long as we are within the gravitational pull of the Earth, we are in Earthspace. If we created another Apollo vehicle like the Saturn V, and entered the moon's gravitational pull, we would be in "Moonspace." We could divide the entire solar system up this way, so that our minds would not feel so overwhelmed by the term "space," which would still be, of course, the "final frontier."

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Overview Effect and Cognitive Dissonance

At the most recent ISDC conference, I made a "virtual presentation" on the Overview Effect and Cognitive Dissonance." (My colleagues at Kepler Space University, Bob Krone and Sherry Bell, actually made the presentation for me as part of KSU's "Living in Space" track.)

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological term used to describe the state that a person enters when they are holding two conflicting thoughts in their minds at the same time. This is especially painful when the conflicting thoughts are around self-perception. The argument of the paper is that there is a conflict between how the Earth is seen from orbit or the moon as one experiences the Overview Effect (serene and beautiful) and how it is so often seen from the surface as one experiences what some have half-jokingly called "the Underview Effect" (chaotic and not very attractive). I am beginning to think that this dichotomy has been an underlying force of human history for the past half-century, as some 500-plus individuals have gone into space and a network of satellites has created the underpinnings of technological overview.

With six billion people living on the planet, only .00000008 percent have directly experienced the Overview Effect. As one of the astronauts put it to me when I was writing The Overview Effect, it's like a "drop in the ocean" when they come back to describe their experiences. However, with the advent of large-scale commercial spaceflight, this will inevitably begin to change, and the percentages will eventually hit one percent, two percent, and then increasingly much higher numbers. Over time, it is my expectation that a quantitative shift produces a qualitative shift and the cognitive dissonance will be reduced as we gain a new sense of human identity as "Citizens of the Universe."