Friday, January 27, 2017

Technological rites of passage in the liminal space of Earth orbit.

In February 2016, a  cosmonaut on the International Space Station lobbed a USB stick out of the hatch to become an orbital object for perhaps a few weeks, before a fiery death in the Earth's atmosphere. To give it enough mass to leave, it was attached to an empty film cannister stuffed with paper towels. Presumably these objects were due for disposal as waste in any case.

Cosmonaut Sergey Volkov about to release the package.
Image credit: NASA TV
The USB stick contained messages and videos from the 2015 celebration of Victory Day, May 9, which commemorates German surrender to the USSR at the end of World War II. It was the 70th anniversary of this day.

It's not entirely clear from the media accounts whether the flash drive was material from the cosmonauts themselves, or of Russian people and celebrations back on Earth. I think it is most likely the latter, as otherwise, surely, cosmonauts could have thrown their own USB out for the actual 70th anniversary in 2015, rather than a year later in 2016.  (Although I suppose they may have had to wait for an EVA).

It's worth musing a little further on this hybrid orbital object, though. It was composed partly of junk, and yet it was not itself junk. The usual definition of space junk is something in orbit that does not serve a useful purpose now or in the foreseeable future. Mostly, we think of space junk as all the many thousands of defunct satellites, rocket bodies and fragments of spacecraft.

The purpose of this object was (1) to BE in orbit and (2) to vanish from orbit. Its brief passage of time in space between launch and de-orbit was all it was about. Clearly, though, the materiality and physicality of both the object and the sequence of events is important - the fact that it happened even though no evidence survives and no-one can access those messages and images.

It's hybrid nature is also evident in the combination of tangible objects and intangible data. The videos and messages were not actually playing as they left the ISS. They were passive and silent. You'd have to plug the USB stick into a computer to see what they were. In this ceremonial act, seeing the videos and listening to the messages was not important.

You could argue that the data was not intangible as it was physically stored in the device as 0s and 1s. What's intangible, though, is the interpretation and meaning given to a certain de-coding of those numbers, as perceived by a body with a certain range of senses.

The old archaeology joke is that if you can't tell what the hell an artefact was used for, then it was ceremonial or ritual. Sometimes this is actually true! Rituals can be classified in a number of ways. The celebration of Victory Day is a commemorative rite, marking the end of a war. On Earth there are probably millions of war memorials from grand triumphal monuments to plaques and honour boards. They have a static component and an active component when people gather on significant days to carry out ritual actions and speak ritual words. The USB release is also commemorative as it marks the 70th anniversary of a ritual.

But it's also a sort of technological rite of passage. Van Gennep's classic Les Rites de Passage uses the metaphor of passing from one room of the house to the next. The nature of the commemoration was to allow the USB to pass from one state, space, to another, the Earth. In van Gennep's terms, the stages of the ritual are separation, liminality and incorporation. Orbit becomes the liminal space, neither one state nor the other, suspended, falling, as ambiguous as the junk-notjunk. Incorporation comes when the object disintegrates in the atmosphere, returning to Earth with the new identity of spaceflown object. For this ritual, to have lived and died in space is more important than never having existed in the first place.

Note: I wrote about this because I found some notes scribbled on a piece of paper from a talk preparation, so this is to help me remember the ideas - I've recycled the paper already!

Saturday, January 07, 2017

The bright and hollow sky: a review of Passengers


I went to see the new science fiction film Passengers this week. This is the synopsis from the official web site:
Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt star in an exciting action-thriller about two passengers who are on a 120-year journey to another planet when their hibernation pods wake them 90 years too early. Jim and Aurora are forced to unravel the mystery behind the malfunction as the ship teeters on the brink of collapse, with the lives of thousands of passengers in jeopardy.
The film has been controversial because
  • Jim watches, cyberstalks and then wakes Aurora from hibernation, even though he knows it's wrong and
  • the trailers conceal this 'plot twist', leading you to think that the two main characters were in it together by mutual choice or accident.

I was aware of the critiques of the film, but just wanted to see starships.

The starship Avalon. Avalon is the island where King Arthur sleeps, waiting to return. Credit: Sony Pictures

The ethics of choice

But, I'm sad to say, the film can't escape its rotten core.  The plot is divided into roughly three parts. In the first, the aim is to build sympathy for the character of Jim Preston, awake 90 years too early and destined to die alone on the colony ship. Then he starts becoming obsessed with the sleeping Aurora - and oh, I've just got that one, as Aurora is also the name of the Disney Sleeping Beauty, woken by a kiss from the prince - and despite knowing that waking her is condemning her to the death of his choosing, he decides to do it. 

Of course Aurora is beautiful, blonde, and eminently fuckable. This is what he chooses. I'm not the only person to reflect on a different choice - the computer Holly's selection of the obnoxious Rimmer as Lister's companion on board the mining ship Red Dwarf, after all the crew have perished. Holly does not bring back Lister's crush Kristine Kochanski (who didn't know he fancied her), but the person most likely to keep him sane. Lister has a similar unhealthy obsession with Kochanski, but at least he knew her in real life.

Aurora. Credit: Sony Pictures

The second part is when Aurora finds out what he's done and repudiates him. In typical stalker fashion, he's as incapable of recognising her agency and leaving her alone as he was when he formed his one-sided attachment to her. The situation seems irreparable. Now both of them will be alone on the huge ship, avoiding each other until, one presumes, death.

The accidentally woken Gus agrees with Aurora's assessment of murder, but in an action a billion women will recognise, minimises the seriousness of Jim's deed and brushes aside her claim because there are bigger problems. Now I'm not saying the imminent death of 5000 people isn't a bigger problem; it's rather the dismissive attitude that rankles. It's the beginning of the persuasion process to bring Aurora to heel.

To move things along, the ship starts to malfunction. This is a crisis manufactured (plot-wise) to allow Jim the opportunity to redeem himself and make himself worthy of her love by acting in a heroic manner. He has to offer to sacrifice himself to save the remaining 4997 souls aboard the ship. Now it's her turn to contemplate 90 years of solitude. She begs him not to do it, because, we are to understand, that little murder thing is just a minor obstacle in the way of true love. Is this supposed to be her equivalent moral dilemma?

Needless to say they save the ship and survive, living happily every after.

As many people have pointed out, there are numerous ways you could have still had a really gripping plot with all the suspense of the final race to save the ship, without Jim stealing Aurora's life. The heroics of the final scenes ring hollow when you realise their purpose is to provide a reason for her to stop hating him and allow him to "get the girl" in the end.

For my money, one of the most interesting aspects of the film is the character of Arthur the android bartender. Arthur clearly has the ability to develop and react to people and situations, learning over time. His dialogue is finely done, revealing the limitations of a personality run by algorithms. There is a black hole in some areas which correspond precisely to the points where a human has to make a moral decision, such as to lie or to do something that affects another person adversely. He can't advise Jim as he is unable to reconcile the unreconcilable opposites on the horns of the dilemma.

Arthur the Android Bartender. Arthur, hovering between life and death on the island of Avalon. Do I detect a theme here? Credit: Sony Pictures

Why do shopping malls and concourses all look the same?

There's many things to appreciate about the way technology and society have been imagined in this future world. Commentary on capitalism and class, automation and autonomy is minimal but illuminating. Like the best fantasy, the underlying logic and philosophy is just hinted at. We know that corporations rule; it is an uber-capitalist society, perhaps the end result of the present growth of the commercialisation of space. 

On board the ship, cabins and services appear to be strictly stratified by what level people have paid for. First class get fancy suites and crepes for breakfast; the hoi polloi get small cabins and generic coffee. Everyone comes together in the concourse and the dining rooms, though. There also appears to be no differentiation in the hibernation pods. Jim and Aurora come out of identical pods despite the fact that she's a first class passenger and he's a mechanic.

The concourse. Credit: Sony Pictures

The concourse looks every bit of the same non-place as an airport (Changi springs to mind). As in a casino, there are no windows to let you know what time of day it is; or in this case, to remind you that you're light years from a solid planetary surface. But you can see out of the spaceship, as there appear to be numerous viewing decks.

Does the overview effect exist when you can't see the Earth?

There are some just breathtaking views of outer space far, far from Earth. The infinity pool, where one end is enclosed in a transparent bubble so the swimmer appears to be swimming out into open space, is stunning. It's a simple but effective visual play on the concept of the infinitude of space.

What is also interesting is the human reactions to being in naked space. Jim and Aurora venture outside the spaceship suited up and safely tethered, looking into a limitless abyss filled with stars. The stars are unfamiliar - they are not the night sky of Earth, which is 36 light years or so behind them.

This is an experience we don't yet have on Earth. There is, in fact, no human experience of space which is not dominated by the Earth and moon. Sure, you can look away from the Earth, but astronauts are always situated in relation to it or within view of it, or in its gravity well. There are many accounts of the reaction known as the 'Overview Effect': a feeling of united humanity and the insignificance of petty terrestrial wars and politics when the whole fragile Earth is seen in perspective from outer space. Now I'm a bit skeptical of claims that this would be a universal human reaction (if only all humans had the opportunity to do it). But perhaps we need to understand the Overview Affect against something we can only imagine at this point, the feeling when the Earth is out of view - not even the pale blue dot, just absent.

Wouldn't you feel adrift, unmoored, with no way home? Wouldn't this inspire an existential terror that would threaten to overwhelm your very being?

I am a passenger
I stay under a glass
I look through my window so bright
I see the stars come out tonight
I see the bright and hollow sky

Iggy Pop, The Passenger