Sometimes I like to imagine places before people were there. What did NYC look like before all the buildings were there? What kinds of trees and animals were there? In New England, where Europeans have been for such a long time, it’s hard to imagine what any place looked like before we were there. Even the trees that seem to be so permanent now were mostly not there even 150 years ago when everything was clear cut for farming and timber. What did it look like to the first people who saw it undisturbed?
For almost all of human history, there was always more. Another hill, another horizon, another corner. The Greeks and Romans were able to expand their empires to new lands unknown to them. There was always some far away place where a strange (read: different) people lived and where exotic spices, animals and terrain could be found. The oceanic exploration from 1000CE to the 1700s kept turning up new places. New islands, new lands. Maps kept becoming better and better. Just look at all this stuff we’ve found! What will we find tomorrow?
In the modern era of the past 300 years, we expanded in 3 dimensions for the first time. Oceanic depths. Stratospheric heights. The last untamed areas at the poles even fell to intrepid explorers. Even in the last century, when it seemed all was known, and we could see ourselves from high above, we extended our reach beyond anything anyone could’ve imagined previously by making a tenuous leap to the moon.
But what now? What unexplored horizons are there for my and future generations? This is a unique time. Never before have there been so few unknown spaces. Space? The handful of robotic emissaries we send on multi-year voyages? It’s not the same as having a human do it. There’s no risk, and I think that makes all the difference. A robot can’t convey what a place feels like. A robot can’t appreciate the experience of being somewhere new. Does anyone really sit around daydreaming about the places that robots go? I doubt it.
I’m not sure what can be done about this, or how much of a problem it really is. I don’t know what it means for my and future generations. It seems like we’re falling backwards for the first time in, well, centuries. Did we become complacent? Did our cultural priorities get reversed? Is it information overload? Actually, I do think it’s a big problem. Without some kind of hope of something beyond I think we’ll drift further apart, become more disillusioned and more isolated than ever before.
Space could be the next generation’s domain, but with the way things are right now, I won’t be placing any bets on success of that endeavor. How can we possibly make a dent in exploring space when it seems like we’re constantly bogged down in earthly trenches? It would be easy to assert that my generation is more concerned with the features of the next i-gizmo than with exploration and something bigger than ourselves. I’m not sure how true that is, but I know I’m not unique (at least, I hope I’m not), so there must be other people who feel the same way even if they don’t consciously realize it yet. We desperately need to take a hard look at ourselves, because we’re spinning in circles. My sense is that we will not like what we see at all.
I’ve written and talked about the following dozens of times over the years, but it’s still pertinent as ever, so I’ll repeat it once again. When I was a kid, before I had been corrupted by the internet, I obsessed over space travel and exploration. Even then I was disillusioned with the apparent lack of desire. The last person on the moon was more than 15 years before I was born. While I tried to feign excitement about the 1997 Sojourner Mars rover, I knew it wasn’t the same as a person being there. Hell, I knew we had already been to Mars in the 70s, so why was this a big deal? Because this robot had wheels? I spent a lot of time trying to think up better spacecraft engines. I hated seeing shows on TV saying that the “best” they could do was theoretical suspended animation on multi year journeys even inside the solar system. My developing engineering mind called bullshit even then. That solution is simply unacceptable, find another one. I likened it to breaking the sound barrier. I know it’s not the same physically, but in principle it is. If reasonably timed space travel was possible, what would that mean for us? I thought all kinds of barriers would come down. We’d finally see ourselves as we are: relatively insignificant. What would that say about our “big” problems?