Tag Archives: Douglas Adams

Challenger’s legacy

challenger

“The shuttle blew up.”

When my friend Robbie told me that in the afternoon of January 28, 1986, I thought he was kidding.  I may have even said “You’re kidding,” in response.  For a ten-year-old who’d been fascinated with space exploration and NASA ever since he first asked his father what those little twinkling lights in the night sky were, and indeed for a country accustomed to unqualified success in the exploration of space, it was a kick to the gut.  The Space Shuttle Challenger, lost only a few moments after launch on a beautiful Florida morning.  How could this have happened?  Over the months and years that followed we’d learn about SRB’s, Morton Thiokol and O-rings and shake our heads at the realization that a faulty piece of rubber could have cost the lives of seven courageous astronauts (including the first schoolteacher in space) and dragged the triumphant American space program into a downward spiral of limited ambition.

It’s perhaps a lingering tragedy of the human experience that we quickly become inured to being awed, that the miraculous can become routine in the course of time.  The Apollo program ended when the voices questioning its cost finally became the majority, when it seemed that after achieving the ideological goal of beating the Soviets, the moon was “been there, done that.”  And the shuttle looked more like the beginnings of the starships we’d watched whipping across the galaxy in our favourite science fiction adventures, but its missions had become predictable, stale – Challenger and her sister ships were workhorses instead of explorers, deploying satellites and touching down again like an orbital version of FedEx.  Forgotten, largely, in that routine, was how dangerous space flight remained, even after nearly thirty years.  Until 1986, no American had ever died in space – the fire that claimed the lives of the three Apollo 1 astronauts occurred during a routine test on the launch pad.  Even the infamous Apollo 13 “successful failure” returned its crew unharmed.  It was inconceivable, even as we looked at that strange image of the two-pronged trail of smoke in the sky that such a thing could happen, given the reach of our technological genius.  When it did, we were shattered, and we stepped back.  And failure became a meme – telescopes broke, probes disappeared without trace and Columbia broke apart, killing its entire crew (including another first, the first Israeli astronaut), on re-entry in 2003.

Twenty-seven years after the Challenger tragedy, the space shuttle has flown for the last time.  In a political climate where the number one obsession is deficit and debt, the expensive notion of space exploration, where the financial return on billion-dollar missions is difficult to explain to the Tea Party congressmen who control NASA’s budget, is unpalatable to say the least.  Yet the promise and the appeal of what waits up there remain potent and meaningful, and retain their ability to stir the soul and set dreams alight.  Over the last several weeks Canada’s astronaut Chris Hadfield has been tweeting from the International Space Station, offering stunning pictures of our world from high above, where one cannot see a single trace of war, hunger, poverty or pop star shenanigans – merely the peace of a beautiful planet.  Hadfield nearly broke the Internet with his much-retweeted exchange with William Shatner, advising the “Captain” that he was in standard orbit and detecting signs of life.  When considering the scope of the universe beyond our little world, our recurring conflicts over lines on maps and ever-dwindling resources seem to be the apex of Lilliputian pettiness and futility.  Yet we still hope.  Could the final frontier unite us as everyone who’s ever seen an episode of Star Trek hopes it will?  Could we at long last stop obsessing about who has the most toys and instead devote those energies toward a higher pursuit?

It seems to me that when Challenger died, much of our collective imagination went with it.  We chose to cut back, to scale down, to play things safe.  To outsource much of the work and the risk to the same Russians everyone was once desperate to defeat in the cosmic theatre.  When it comes to the exploration of space, we think small, cheap and forgettable.  Newt Gingrich absorbed his fair share of ridicule for suggesting during the GOP presidential primaries that the U.S. should try to build a lunar colony, and as far-fetched as that might seem, so was John F. Kennedy’s declaration in 1961 that America intended to land a man on the moon and return him safely to the earth by the end of the decade.  Between promise and realization it took 8 years.  What’s even more frustrating is that when Kennedy spoke those words, scientists had no idea how to accomplish the task.  Today, we have all the technology we need to get us back to the moon or to Mars or even beyond; we lack only the will to do so.  (The cynic in me believes we might get there faster if one of these heavenly bodies is proved to contain vast reserves of oil.)

In his commemorative address offered to the nation on the evening of January 28, 1986, President Ronald Reagan spoke about the sacrifice of the Challenger crew and promised that they would never be forgotten; that the exploration of space would continue.  Yet I don’t believe that the lethargic careful dipping of our toes into the interstellar ocean is paying tribute to them in the way the substance of Reagan’s speech intended.  We should be doing more.  If humanity is fated to disappear from the universe without ever spreading itself beyond the confines of the pale blue dot it inhabits, it will be solely because of our lack of will.  Do we truly want our epitaph to be a Douglas Adams-esque pronouncement like “Galactic Chickenshits”?  Or is getting the chance to touch the face of God, as Reagan described it, worth the risk?  The Challenger crew believed it was.  The Columbia crew believed it was.  Deep down we know it is too.  The greatest tribute we can pay those who have lost their lives is to make their sacrifice mean something – to go on, to shake off the creep of apathy and to continue charging toward the blinking lights in the night sky on a tail of flame, carried by our science and propelled by our dreams – for they, like the spirits of the Challenger crew, truly have no limits.

This is your brain on digital media

Arianna Huffington addresses the Toronto Digital Media Summit, photo by yours truly sitting four rows back.

Johnny Mnemonic features a pre-Matrix Keanu Reeves as a “futuristic” (I put the quotes around futuristic because many of the movie’s concepts have grown quite out-of-date) courier whose packages of data are uploaded directly into his brain.  Eager to take on a high-paying job, Reeves’ character agrees to carry more information than his brain can handle.  I find myself in a similar situation after two days at Toronto’s 2012 Digital Media Summit, having assimilated the insights of dozens of expert speakers and panellists, including representatives from Facebook, Google, LinkedIn and Microsoft, on what this whole concept means and where they think it might be going.  The key word there is “think,” because digital media is progressing too fast for the majority of us to simply keep up, let alone predict.  Today’s phenomenon is tomorrow’s relic, and what seems like a ludicrous concept this morning might be a smash success this afternoon.  The statistics are cosmic in their scope:  2 billion people on the planet access the Internet as part of their daily lives.  52 billion pages indexed on Google, 1.3 million articles on Wikipedia, 100,000 years’ worth of YouTube video shared on Facebook in 2011 alone.  Futurist Michael Tchong, one of the featured speakers this past weekend, refers to it as an ubertrend, which he defines as “a major movement, pattern or wave emerging in the American lifestyle that ripples through society leaving many subtrends in its wake.”  Although opinions on how to harness these ripples are numerous, one fact that seems to be shared is the idea that all of this is fuelled by the human need for connection – and kinship.

Associated with that need for connection is the humorous acronym FOMO, that Tchong suggests is behind much of the social media explosion – Fear Of Missing Out.  When so much flies by at lightspeed, billions of times every nanosecond, we are terrified that we might not see all of it, whether it be the latest updates from our friends and family, infinite funny cat videos or actual breaking news.  Texting and driving, Tchong says, happens because some of us have decided that being in touch is more important than being alive.  Perhaps, if one can venture down the garden path of existentialism, for many people being in touch is being alive; this idea of ambient awareness that I have discussed before.  But it is far more than simply wanting to know what’s going on – it’s wanting to know.  Arianna Huffington, who gave the closing keynote address yesterday, referred to her early book The Fourth Instinct, which suggests that beyond the usual human needs for survival, sex and power, there is a hunger for spiritual fulfillment and meaning; to answer that fundamental question of Life, The Universe and Everything (yes, Douglas Adams fans, I know it’s 42, but stick with me here).  Digital media is a sublime leap towards the realization of this answer, because it brings people together in a grand unified search.  This is why I put no stock in the philosophy of every man for himself; the mere existence of the ubertrend under examination here suggests that we are inclined towards a sense of community, of belonging, and that the reason why the technology of information has been the fastest to progress (instead of jetpacks) is because it reflects what we want most as a species gifted with intellectual curiosity.

And as expected, many fear the undiscovered country it is leading us towards.  Misguided approaches to regulate digital media, such as SOPA, ACTA or the Vic Toews nonsense going on in Canada, are the last refuge of an old guard longing for the simplicity of the era when everything could be explained as God’s will.  Ironically, that fear comes from the very same place as the curiosity that drives the democratic exchange of ideas as exemplified by digital media.  When information rested only in the hands of a few, those few were respected and admired as learned leaders.  The more the truth spreads, the less those people are needed – the influence they have built for themselves, out of this same, basic longing for community, diminishes as others cease to listen to them, until they are finally left alone, and forgotten.

So what then, in a nutshell, could you say is the biggest takeaway from my massive data intake of the last two days?  Certainly enough thought to chew on for the conceivable future (and more than a few blog posts I’m sure), but above all else, reinforcement of the notion that a global community, a global family, is not just a pipe dream of a few starry-eyed prognosticators, it is a place we are going whether we like it or not.  Our existence as individuals in a population of 7 billion mirrors our tiny earth adrift in an incomprehensibly vast universe, and just as each of us longs to find meaning as part of a family, our entire race hungers for meaning within the endless dark.  Why are we here?  Maybe Cousin Phil has an idea – check his status update.  Connection, knowing that we are not alone, is tremendously liberating – it reassures and emboldens us to take the next step.  Host Rob Braide of Galaxie Radio kicked off the conference by invoking the analogy of a drunk who drops his keys on a dark street and wanders to the safety of a street light instead of looking for them straight away.  The connection provided by digital media is that light.  And the more light the better.