CHACO, HUBBLE, FACEBOOK
"Yearning to Be the Center of Everything When We Are the Center of Nothing: Parallels and Reversals in Chaco, Hubble, and Facebook."
Published in Telematics and Informatics, Volume 30, Number 1, February 2013, pp. 35-46.
Barry Vacker and Genevieve Gillespie
Click for a PDF: paper
Below is a brief summary of some of the key ideas of the paper. The illustrations are not included in the published paper.
IF YOU LOOKED THROUGH THE HUBBLE SPACE TELESCOPE IN REVERSE, WOULD YOU SEE TINY PEOPLE IN FACEBOOK?
At some point in our lives, perhaps we have all peered through binoculars or a telescope in reverse and seen the world at a much smaller scale. This visual experience is an apt metaphor for explaining the deepest and most existential meanings of Facebook, Twitter, and social media. Seems crazy, right?
We know the Hubble Space Telescope is designed to see stars and galaxies as it peers across the vast universe, so if we looked through the Hubble in reverse would we see tiny people in Facebook? Sure, it is a metaphorical question, but it does prompt us into thinking different about Facebook.
Of course, Facebook is the most successful of the “social media” sites exploding around the world, networked technologies which permit people to share everything from photos to status updates to the latest events in their lives. In this sense, Facebook and all social media are “apps” for the internet, applications which permit people to document and represent their lives to themselves and their friends. And Facebook provides this free app in exchange for the panoptic power to surveil and archive every action taken in Facebook and provide that data for prying corporations and spying governments. Much theory and research have already gone into exploring the social and economic implications of the many facets of Facebook.
But, does Facebook have a meaning that is deeper than social or economic, perhaps an existential meaning that says something about how we are adapting (or not adapting) on Earth to our place the cosmos?
PARALLELS AND REVERSALS
Consider the following patterns.
1. Hypertext: Douglas Engelbart publicly debuted hypertext the same month (image at left, December 1968) that Apollo 8 was capturing Earthrise and reading creation myths from Genesis to console the billion people watching on TV back on Earth? The image of Earthrise revolutionized ecology, but its message of "Spaceship Earth" floating alone in the universe was an unbearable cosmology for humanity, even the astronauts! Why else read ancient sacred texts while gazing at Earth in space, texts which place us at the center of the universe? And it's hypertext that places humans at the center of cyberspace, the expanding media universe.
2. Facebook: It debuted the month (February 2004) after the Hubble Space Telescope completed the first "Ultra Deep Field" image, which involved the Hubble peering across 13 billion years of space and time to reveal 10,000 galaxies beyond a tiny dark spot in the night sky. The photons from the galaxies reached Hubble after traveling for billions of years before passing through the tiny dark spot in the night sky. YouTube also has many video representations of the Ultra Deep Field (often with dates that conflict with NASA's timelines.)
Coincidences? Perhaps, perhaps not.
Isn't social media the counter to space telescopes? Cyberspace counters outer space, hypertext counters telescopes, and Facebook counters Hubble. By extending our eyes and consciousness across the cosmos, electric light and electronic media have also triggered an existential reversal, returning humans to the center of everything, the center of all that matters, the center of the substitute universe, the expanding media universe.
The evolution of electronic television, hypertext, the world wide web, and Facebook follows a strange parallel trajectory to Edwin Hubble, the Hubble Space Telescope, and how we see ourselves in a vast and expanding universe. In a subtly profound way, television and the electronic screen have always been “social media,” emerging and evolving with key moments in the use of telescopes, the central “cosmic media” in revealing the size and scale of the universe and our place in that universe. Consider the following table:
We Are Not the Center of the Universe
We Are the Center of the Universe
A VERY LARGE UNIVERSE
Edwin Hubble uses the Hooker telescope to discover galaxies outside the Milky Way; 1925.
• the universe is much larger than previously imagined.
AN EXPANDING UNIVERSE
Hubble discovers the galaxies are moving away from the Milky Way; 1929.
• the universe is expanding because of what is now known as the “big bang.”
A VERY SMALL SCREEN
John Logie Baird transmits the first live moving images on a television screen: a human face; 1925-26.
• humans are the center of the electronic screen.
AN EXPANDING SCREEN
Philo Farnsworth transmits the first all electronic images: a straight line, a dollar bill, and a human face; 1927-29.
• humans are the center of the electronic screen, an expanding media universe of power and profit.
Apollo 8 orbits the moon and captures the Earthrise image; December 1968.
• hundreds of millions watching on TV see Earth floating in the cosmic void.
Douglas Engelbart introduces hypertext to the world; December 1968.
• no longer passive viewers, each human are the central navigators of their place on the electronic screen.
Hubble Space Telescope is launched; April 1990.
• the universe is soon to be revealed as much larger and older than expected.
WORLD WIDE WEB
Tim Berners-Lee launches the world wide web; May 1990.
• humans and hypertext placed at the center of the global information network represented on the screens.
HUBBLE DEEP FIELD
Hubble completes the Ultra Deep Field; January 2004.
• thousands of galaxies are found in an “empty” spot in the night sky, revealing a universe of mind-boggling size and scale.
Facebook is launched; February 2004.
• humans are placed at the center of a global network, a social media universe created for them, starring them.
McLUHAN'S "LAWS OF MEDIA"
Drawing from Marshall McLuhan and Jean Baudrillard, this pattern of dual discoveries can be theorized and explained in terms of retrievals, reversals, and stances toward the future. McLuhan’s “tetrad” helps explains the dual discoveries, while Baudrillard’s theories of simulation and reversal shed further light on the existential connections between Facebook and Hubble. In addition, Sartre’s concepts of nothingness and “the future” can help explain why Facebook and social media are one way we console ourselves for not being the center of the universe.
In the book Laws of Media, McLuhan explained that each medium and technology simultaneously extends our senses and retrieves something previously lost. At the same time, each technology contains the genetic code of its own reversal, the point when the technology is pushed to its limit — overextended or “overheated” — and users lose the enthusiasm for its original functions and benefits. Here are just a few examples:
• The car extends mobility into the highway system, but its overextension created traffic jams and the effects of fossil fuels, thus triggering a reversal in a return to bicycle riding and pedestrian culture. The acceleration of the car generated speed and fast food, thus triggering reversals into the movements of "slow city" and "slow food."
• Radio and the cell phone extend our voice, ears, and consciousness around the world, while retrieving town criers and oral traditions lost to print media.
• Television extends our eyes and ears around the planet, while the light shining through the screen retrieves cave paintings and campfire tales for urban and suburban homes.
• Satellites extend our eyes and ears around the planet (and into space), thus putting Earth inside its own technological sphere and helping to retrieve ecology and environmentalism.
• Telescopes and space probes extend our eyes and ears — and electronic light — around the planet and into deep space, across 13 billion light years, triggering a reversal that seeks to return humans to the center of the universe.
• The Hubble space telescope extends the electronic eye into deep space, along with the television, the microchip, and the computer, while retrieving the petroglyph, the campfire, and the night sky lost to electric light in the metropolises. Hubble’s overextension into deep space triggers the reversal of hypertext and social media. That’s right, Hubble extends the eye in the Deep Fields, retrieves the Sun Daggers of Chaco Canyon (now closed to public access, but viewable in this museum-created 3D virtual reality video) and triggers the reversal expressed by Facebook. Surely, you might still see this connection of Hubble and space telescopes with Facebook and social media as implausible or a bit crazy.
CONSOLING OURSELVES FOR NOT BEING THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE
Yet, the pattern is undeniable. And, it is consistent with human history since Galileo's telescope. Just as theology permits people to pretend they and their destinies are at the center of the universe, when all telescopes and cosmic media say otherwise, so does the technology of television and social media. The table shows the key moments in which we understand we are not the center of the universe. At the same time, there were major technological breakthroughs that allow us to pretend we are the center of the universe, the center of everything important. Via the internet and social media, haven't most people exchanged:
• a vast universe of which we are not the center for a vast media universe of which we are the center?
• the flat earth for the flat screen?
• the space age for the face age?
• being adrift in outer space for being aglow in cyberspace?
• the dread of being alone for the desire to show we exist?
In other words, our social media allow us to be at the center of everything, when our cosmic media show we are the center of nothing, except our own individual consciousness.
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