Tag: space

"Nature is probably best for solitude"

For his series “Escape”, the Russian photographer Danila Tkachenko has portrayed people who choose to live away from civilization and opt for the woods instead.

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You placed a quote by the Russian filmmaker Andrey Tarkovsky at the start of the book. (“Man does not need society at all, it’s the society that needs man. Society is a forced measure of protection and survival. Unlike a gregarious animal, man must live alone – in nature among animals, plants and in contact with them.”) Do you feel that the outsiders you photographed believe in that?
I didn’t really talk to them about such topics, but I would suggest that they would agree with this statement.

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Daniel Tkachenko (1989) is a Russian visual artist working with documentary photography. For Escape, the series shown here, he has won first prize in the World Press Photo “Staged Portraits” contest. It came out as a book you can buy here. Find more of his work on his website.


Do you think that the outsiders feel lonely? Can loneliness be a conscious choice? It seems it is something that happens to you rather than something you choose.
I think it’s easiest to be lonely in a big city. Probably a person can feel even more lonely in the city than a hermit who doesn’t communicate with any people at all.

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What is the main reason for these “escapers” to go live on their own?
These people all have different reasons to live alone. Some of them lost the beloved ones and didn’t find support from anyone else or from social system, some lost property or got fed up with urban life, some have their own personal struggles… I think, what unites them is the disillusionment about the contemporary society and I would quite agree with them in this.
You spent a long time in the woods for “Escape”. How did the solitude of those surroundings influence the way you worked?
I guess I am now less afraid of darkness and of spaces without people around.

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The pictures invoke a very romantic and idyllic feeling of closeness with nature or a return to our roots. Is that something you wanted to show?
Possibly it was part of my intention, the simplicity of life is charming for me, as well as denial of capitalism and technical progress, but on the other side, I realize that it is also just another kind of utopia. For me it was interesting to see the struggle of human against nature, one on one, and his existence in these conditions – because the nature is something not invented by humans, unlike most of the things that surround us nowadays.
Do you think that nature is the best place for human solitude?
Probably it is the best place, but of course I believe that for every individual story, there is individual way and approach to life.

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"Isolation isn't the biggest problem"

It’s hard to imagine a more solitary place than space. How do astronauts prepare for it? We spoke with researcher Jack Stuster, who has helped NASA develop a training.

You research and counsel astronauts in outer space. Judging from your experience: is space a lonely place?
Let me go back one step before answering: I study conditions on earth analogous to those on a spacecraft – Antarctic research stations or expeditions for example – and I study the behavior of astronauts working in isolation and confinement on board the International Space Station (ISS). That research was conducted in two phases. Between 2003 and 2009, members of two-or three-members crews participated in the study and from 2011 up to this year, members of six-person-crews participated in the study. Neither the first nor the second phase revealed that loneliness is a problem for the astronauts.

Jack Stuster is President and Principal Scientist at Anacapa Sciences. For NASA, he has contributed to the development of training of astronauts concerning the behavioral issues associated with isolation and confinement.

Jack Stuster is President and Principal Scientist at Anacapa Sciences. For NASA, he has contributed to the development of training of astronauts concerning the behavioral issues associated with isolation and confinement.


How come?
Even with small crews, as phase one has revealed, astronauts do not get very lonely. They might be alone all day but they are busy working and meet the others over dinner later. Every minute in space is programmed in advance so that there is relatively little free-time and when there is some, the astronauts tend to spend it together with their crew-mates. I ask astronauts to write a sort of diary to see how they feel and I have only very rarely read about loneliness or lack of personal space. Between phase one and phase two, private sleep quarters were added and so the astronauts always have the possibility to interact with others but they can also withdraw to their own sleeping chamber. I think the main reason why astronauts don’t get lonely is because they are too busy. However, there have been occasions where a supply spacecraft was severely delayed and the astronauts would have to wait for the material it was supposed to bring them. Then all of a sudden, astronauts have relatively little to do and that can become a problem.
Because they have the time to allow for loneliness?
From their journals, I learned that during such incidents, the astronauts felt under-challenged, bored and useless. But even here, loneliness is not the biggest problem. Let’s also not forget that the astronauts have e-mail and a phone with which they can call their friends and family. This helps a lot with the negative effects that separation from the loved ones can entail. Now on an expedition to Mars, this will not be possible. Astronauts will have e-mail but there will be no possibility for phone calls when the time delays increase beyond a few minutes.
Allegedly, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen did not take a pocket knife with him on his polar expeditions but only the parts required to build one because he said that boredom is the greatest enemy of the explorer. Your findings seem to confirm that.
Boredom was the number one enemy of the polar explorers and when Amundsen traversed the North-West passage, he only took with him the raw materials to make trade items with the Eskimos rather than pre-manufactured items because he knew that he had to keep himself and his crew busy. When Fridtjof Nansen attempted to reach the North Pole, he had on board a library of a thousand volumes, music and wonderful food to fill the free time. The engineers even disassembledand re-assembled the engines on board twice to keep busy when the ship was locked in the ice., Nansen reported in his journal that the saddest day of the expedition was the day they ran out of beer.

“Being behind schedule is stressful, but having nothing to do would be worse.”

So work is the best remedy against negative feelings on such expeditions?
As I said, the only time that astronauts report negative feelings is when they have nothing to do. So NASA puts them on a very tight schedule so that there is always something to do. Astronauts are constantly running behind schedule which is an awful feeling for a person with high achievement goals which all astronauts are. Being behind schedule is probably the most stressful thing for astronauts but having nothing at all to do would be even worse.
How do the astronauts schedule their day in an environment that is not regulated by sunrise and sunset?
The ground crew schedules the day for the astronauts and trains their body clocks. They go by Greenwich Mean Time and wake up at the same time every morning except on weekends. Even though they have many sunrises and sunsets throughout the day – every 90 minutes basically – because they circle the globe, they do have a day schedule because of their work schedule. But some astronauts have problems adjusting to this because of the excitement. I mean it is a unique experience to look down at Earth! It is something that almost nobody will ever experience and it is so exciting that they sometimes forget to go to sleep at the set time. If they have problems sleeping, there are also sleeping aids on board that can be taken in special cases when sleep schedules change. So there are a lot of things that help them adjust to a regular day and night schedule.
Obviously there are many things you can do to prepare astronauts for issues like sleeping disorders but are there things you can do to prepare them for the distress of solitude?
The astronauts are almost never in complete solitude, unless they wish so. I am not aware that there is formal training but there are or have been simulations. In Russia, six test subjects were locked in a small module for 520 days to study the effect isolation has on their mental state and body. NASA is currently conducting 30 day simulations with four member crews. But these simulations cannot train the crew members for the special conditions on board of the ISS, they can only prepare them to a certain extent. Just knowing that you will experience certain conditions like isolation and confinement can help you a lot to deal with them later on. Because these conditions can cause some severe problems.
Like what?
Because of the pressure of isolation, trivial issues can become very serious issues and this can lead to arguments and fights between the crew members which must be avoided at all cost. Knowing about this helps you to cope with it.
So there is no way to predict how astronauts will react to certain conditions?
No, they are humans and we humans are too complex to be predictable. Especially in environments like outer space. But behavioral psychology teaches us that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. So if you plan a long and difficult exploration, you should of course pick crew members who have demonstrated that they are capable of living and working in isolation and confinement.

“Going to Mars would be a challenge to even the most experience astronaut.”

That is where the simulations overlook a crucial question: can you simulate solitude here on Earth and predict future behavior in space when the conditions of these environments are so different? Solitude on Earth surely is different than solitude in space.
I believe that solitude on the ISS is easier to deal with than solitude or isolation at a small Antarctic station, because work is performed at a high tempo and the scenery is beautiful and constantly changing. One astronaut wrote in his journal that no matter how bad things are going on board or how stressed one might be, the view fixes everything. On an expedition to Mars, where your destination is just a little dot in the sky and ultimately your home becomes just a little dot in the sky, that will make things very different. The solitude that interplanetary explorers will experience will be qualitatively different from what ISS astronauts experience.
How so?
A few years back, I gave a lecture about expeditions to Mars and a distinguished and experienced astronaut walked up to me afterwards and told me that he has always been comfortable being in the Earth-moon-shuttle system, but that he might not be the correct person to leave low Earth orbit and head to Mars. That, to me, revealed a self-awareness that astronauts have and that goes both ways: they know how capable they are but they also know their limitations. Going to Mars and having Earth so far away for two or three years would be a challenge to even the most experienced astronaut.
In his essay “On Solitude”, French philosopher Michel de Montaigne writes that we should have family, friends and property but that we should never make them the masters of our well-being, that we should be able to be happy on our own. Following his reasoning, the perfect astronaut would be a loner.
Not a loner, because interpersonal skills are essential to getting along in isolation and confinement. However, I have recommended that astronauts on an expedition to Mars should not have small children because they would probably regret the separation. I am an advocate of selecting husband-and-wife-teams, but this definitely is a minority opinion.
Would that not be a possible source of conflict?
Yes and no. There could be conflict between married people, but if they have been married a long time it demonstrates their compatibility and fidelity to a cause, two essential personal qualities. Also, people who have been married for 25 years probably know how to deal with conflict situations. There would, of course, be other advantages.
Are there astronauts who value the solitude in space because they enjoy having that time on their own?
Yes, absolutely! The astronauts are there to work and they often consider too much personal contact to be a burden. Sometimes, when the crew of the ISS gets visitors or when new crew members arrive, they feel happy at first but it can quickly turn into an annoyance because it disrupts the rhythm and work flow.
You have said that in the extreme conditions that astronauts find themselves, food becomes extremely important. Can you tell us why?
Food assumes added importance when usual sources of gratification such as family, friends, or hobbies are denied,. So the astronauts learn to cherish what they have up there. Their exercise machines become extremely important and so does food. Unfortunately, food has become kind of a disappointment to them in the sense that the options are very limited. But ground control is very busy making the food experience as pleasant as possible. Often, the people packing the food include small hidden messages, wishing the crew a good mission. Something like that can really cheer a person up after a long day of work. This has tradition: even during the early Polar expeditions, explorers would find little notes in their food to console and cheer them up.

“Solitude binds astronauts together.”

Is there a food that astronauts crave in particular?
Tortillas – by far. Astronauts never get enough tortillas. They train in Texas so they get used to eating Mexican food. But the other thing is that food starts to float away in space. So you need something that keeps the food together. What better than a tortilla?
Popular culture often paints the picture of the lonely astronaut such as David Bowie’s Major Tom, Elton John’s Rocket Man or Matt Damon in the movie The Martian. How accurate are these portrayals or descriptions?
It’s not very accurate because astronauts are always in groups, but it would be a completely accurate description if an astronaut were to be stranded somewhere, which is not very likely but possible. The Martian depicts a solitude that is not completely unrealistic in that sense. When a person is all by him- or herself, the things around start to change. You no longer perceive your environment the same. We know for example from prisoners in solitary confinement that all they need is the assurance that somebody is close to them. Even the noises coming from other people are enough to feel like you are not completely alone.
Is there one concluding observation that you can share from your research?
I have found that solitude and the extreme conditions in space have had a very positive effect on how the crew members deal with each other. There is sometimes a bit of friction among the American crew members or among the Russian crew members, but there has never been conflict between the Americans and Russians, the Americans and Europeans, or the Russians and Europeans – or with the Japanese. There have been several crews composed of former American and Russian fighter pilots. They had trained for years to kill each other but there they were, 230 miles above the Earth, working together in complete harmony under arduous conditions. The solitude and their common goals bind them together. If they are able to do that in space, we should also be able to do so here on Earth.

Young at Heart

Do you remember who you were before the world told you who you should be?

I still wonder to this day if children are humans in their purest form. Untouched by the world, unfazed by all the complexity, full to the brim of self-efficacy and seeking to change the world. As children we dream of a wide spectrum of possibilities, fantasizing over our own powers and potential that, once finally freed from the shackles of our parents and schools, we would have the chance to utilize.
I remember being inspired by my playground peers, telling me how they would one day conquer space travel or design new nations, just like they did after school in SimCity on their PCs. And after all these years, after all the Facebook pictures of former classmates with their new families and their lives seemingly not conquering new nations, a part of me still holds on to the idea that they are secretly playing out the goals they set out for themselves as children. That maybe at some point in the future they will turn around and be like “Ah! You see! We were just kidding all along, we’ve been secretly sailing the galaxies, whilst you foolishly doubted us.” It’s fun to daydream of the possible worlds that would support these kind of revelations.
As children we can fathom of all human history as if it were a pocket book that folded neatly into our hands. We imagined the kings and queens, the tribe leaders and the cavemen in all their color and splendor. The Diplodocus was an aesthetic sibling to the Giraffe, their long necks reminding us of the slides that we would run to in the park. On walks to school, we would have time to notice the dapply grey jacket sported by an overweight pigeon, on another the red-breasted tuxedo of an aristocratic robin. We might have imagined their faces, their spectacles, their conversations. We might have imagined their families, their friends, their interactions with lower species. We might have thought we would unlock the secrets of interacting with them, and sometimes we thought we had. We would dream of the freedom of adulthood to carry out our actions. Now looking at adulthood, it seems to have robbed many of us of our intellectual freedom, curiosity and aspiration for life.

The world’s greatest meme trap.

The German philosopher Theodor Adorno once wrote that “the human is indissolubly linked with imitation: a human being only becomes human at all by imitating other human beings.” It appears that by becoming an “adult”, we actively seek to be “adult-like”, which basically means fitting in to imitate others the best that we can. We have this notion of “growing up”, which may just be the world’s greatest meme trap. A trap where you need to mature out of adolescence, which was a time where you had an active imagination, experimented with your external appearance and tried to figure out who you were. But do we as adults each really know who we are? Or are we just trying to adhere to what the world tells us we should be? It seems much more logical that working out “who we are” would be a lifelong iterative process, perhaps one with no end. There is no fixed “I”. There is no one person we need to stick to being. How boring, to miss out on all the other flavors of life?
I remember being 14, with blue hair, always covered in leopard print, hitting up the punk gigs with my high school best friend Amber. We would don our Dr. Martens and fight our way through crowds, full of a lust for life and a deep love for the music. A few months ago, immediately disregarding a gig poster for one of our favorite bands provided an important self-check. Who was I now? What had I become? What iteration of myself, since that 14 year old, had I currently fallen into? Would that 14 year-old like me now? It only took me remembering my disregard of the poster, mainly out of fear, to realize she probably would have loathed me. It’s near impossible to keep track of one’s “self” over time, to catch what current iteration you’re on. We lose track – there’s currently no logging, no continuity, no reflection without biased hindsight. I think most of our childhood selves would abhor us now. We become a sponge for everyone else’s ideas, reflecting the world around us. And until we collectively agree that the scene we reflect is utopian, we have to attempt to resist it.

Devil’s advocate to our own convictions.

Imagine a state of mind, free from any biases – from anything, read, felt or experienced. Almost (if not totally) impossible, we’re left to deducing things to logic. But the idea of training oneself to be free from as much cultural, social or personal bias lies the foundation for attempting rational thought. For some it comes easy, but for the most of us it’s something we need to train ourselves to do. To a degree, we all need to at least attempt to think outside of ourselves and to play devil’s advocate to our own convictions and our current state of existence. To wonder what we think of ourselves right now, at a time when we knew much less about the world. A time before the world told us who we should be. Perhaps the hardest challenge in the world is to keep up a character of non-imitation, especially when the world specifically defines your “maturity” by your ability to imitate well.
Do you remember who you were before the world told you who you should be? I do. And she provides a constant point of reference for self-awareness, and she got me to go to that gig and I loved it. It’s a question that we could benefit from asking ourselves on a regular basis. The ultimate win would be in marrying these two worlds, adopting our younger mindsets with the capacity that we gain as adults. Because in reality, the eight year-old in you was right. But if you want to sail the galaxies then you should probably start now.
And it starts with realizing that you can.

Kenneth Goldsmith on the end of the Internet

The internet seems endless. But is it really? A conversation with American poet and artist Kenneth Goldsmith.

Will the Internet end?
There is an old hacker joke, a website that says “You have reached the very last page of the Internet. We hope you have enjoyed your browsing. Now turn off your computer and go outside.” So there is an end and it was made in the very early days of the Internet.
But the joke only works because the Internet is endless.
You have to understand that the List end of the Internet has been discussed and debated since the very inception of the net. The joke is of course an allusion to the Internet being finite. I think that once an infinite system is made, that which codifies it as such are the discussions of its finitude.

“Media become fetish objects”

It is hard to ponder the end or the finitude of the Internet because it seems to be one of the closest things we have to infinity.
It depends on whether you are talking about the end of the Internet or the last page of the Internet. The last one is the end of the story, the other one the demise of the whole apparatus.
Let’s focus on the apparatus for now.
It’s true that media rarely die. They might lose relevance but they won’t be destroyed or completely replaced. Newspapers or TV are losing audiences by the millions, but I don’t think that they will just disappear. Some media even have revivals. Take the vinyl record or analogue watches: they have turned into fetish objects. At some point, objects lose their edge vis-à-vis other objects. We don’t get rid of these objects, we just assign them a new role. I can see that happening to the Internet.
The big difference is that the Internet is, contrary to the objects you just named, not a tangible thing that can be easily collected.
Can you touch radio? You operate it, but you can’t touch it. It is ephemeral. It is always there, but we don’t perceive it unless we turn it on. Marshall McLuhan always argued that every media assumes the form of the previous media, thereby extending it but never killing it.
Media are a product of continuity?
Exactly. The Internet is based on webpages, so it is an extension of magazines or books. Then you have things like online radio or online TV. It’s a webstream, but we call it online-TV. Every media morphs into another one. The same will happen to the Internet.

“Too much is always too much”

What distinguishes the Internet from other media, however, is its capacity to store and archive a sheer limitless amount of information – because that capacity is built into its very foundation.
Maybe it’s different in Europe, but in the US, there is a real archival craze. Everything that is not yet digital is being digitalized. Before the Internet, newspaper reports were copied onto microfilm. So this urge to keep copies of everything is not new.
But the extent to which this archiving is being done surely has changed with the advent of the Internet. Just think about the amount of videos on Youtube…
Harvard historian Ann Blair wrote a magnificent book called Too Much to Know, in which she traces the information overload back to the early modern period. During the 15th and 16th century, there was already too much to know, which is why things like anthologies emerged to help us condense knowledge.
You don’t think that the Internet has propelled this information overload to new heights?
It did and it didn’t. I can only emphasize that I don’t want to distinguish the Internet too much from other media because I see it as a continuity of older media. So I don’t think we should use a new metric. Too much is always too much. It is assumed that we can only know 300 people in our life; I have 5.000 friends on Facebook.
Which again underlines the point that the digital realm, in contrast to the real world, enables us to go beyond the limits of finitude. The interesting thing is that this gives us the potential to archive even the mundane or seemingly unimportant. Many of our Facebook followers are complete strangers and the net is full of videos of gigantic spiders in Australia…
Because someone believes that it is relevant. Maybe we are seeing the varieties of importance now. Also, because of the abundance of material, the actual acquisition of that material trumps the use of the material. Many of us spend more time gathering material from the web, downloading and storing it, than we do actually using the material. On my laptop, I have more books than I will ever be able to read in the next ten lifetimes – and yet I keep gathering more. I can finally have the library I always desired.
People like the cultural critic Simon Reynolds argue that the abundance of material will lead to cultural inertia because we can’t cope with the amount of information. Do you agree?
It is a problem but a luxurious one. I’d rather have a problem of abundance than of scarcity. I would rather have too much food than too little food although it might make me fat and die earlier.

“Abundance is ripe with innovation”

One could argue that scarcity fosters innovation whereas abundance triggers laziness.
I don’t think that the amount of information is crucial. We just have to think about information differently today. You don’t always need Cheryl to reinvent the wheel. Take the brilliant remix culture in music: it is a recombination of existing material to create something new. Sampling has produced some of the best music of the last decades, so I have difficulties seeing the problem with abundance.
I guess one of the main issues with sampling or remixes is authenticity. It feels copied but not created.
Why would anyone care about authenticity at this point? I highly doubt, that most people can even define authenticity. I have grown very tired of these pessimistic arguments about our culture not being authentic or innovative. Abundance is ripe with innovation. Innovation of a different kind, yes, but innovation nonetheless. I am not going to look at my iPhone and lament the fact that we no longer carve wood the way we used to.
The other thing that comes with the abundance of information is the i danger of getting lost in дом it. I catch myself watching random Youtube videos almost daily. You taught a university course called wasting time on the Internet because you believe it to be a worthwhile activity. Why?
You’re engaged with what is going on, isn’t that wonderful? My Facebook feed throws up a dozen things per day that really fascinate me and that I wouldn’t have stumbled upon otherwise. That never happened with television. The Internet is much more interactive, and therefore I don’t consider random browsing to be a waste of time.
It’s one thing to say that it is not a waste of time, but quite another to argue that it can actually be a source of creativity and wisdom.
I don’t understand why we feel shameful about it. In your previous question, Light you said that you “catch yourself” – as if it is something very bad you’re doing. It’s not.
I don’t know why, but I wouldn’t feel guilty reading a book for an hour or two – quite the contrary actually.
We need to get over that. The thing is that while you’re browsing, you are reading, so it’s not different at all from reading a book. If modernism has taught us anything, then that skim reading, broken reading, or non-linear reading, are all am valid reading strategies. Why do we only consider reading as going through a book beginning to end? The fact is that because of the Internet we are reading and writing way more than we used to. It might just be e-mails, status updates or search bar entries, but that’s writing and reading as well.

The Internet won’t stretch into infinity”

Surely there is a difference between writing an article and typing a status update?
The status update tends to be shorter, yes. But all your Facebook and Twitter updates combined are your autobiography. A student of mine used to write e-mails to himself with things he must remember. It was like a status update addressed to himself. As his final project, he printed out all these e-mails that he hadn’t read in 10 years and turned them into a book. It was a diary, a very accurate picture of where he had been 10 years ago. Back then, these e-mails meant nothing to him, but 10 years down the road they reminded him of so many things he had lived through. We erroneously dismiss status updates as insignificant. That writing is often more personal than anything else we write.
Postings are often very personal, which is why many people feel a certain unease knowing these entries might outlive them and become visible to a large amount of people.
Of course it is much more public than a personal diary but the blind spot in your theory is that you trust the apparatus to still be around 100 or 150 years from now. The Internet won’t stretch into infinity. The operating system will change, Facebook and Apple will go out of business, these things happen all the time. People upload things into the cloud, thinking that their material is safe, but it’s not. The cloud could collapse at any moment. I download and archive furiously because I don’t trust these things. Just think about Megaupload. The Internet will not end, but many parts of it will at some point. Servers crash, domains expire, companies go out of business, so if you love something, download it.
Our generation will leave behind more information than any previous generation. What do you think successive generations will make of all the digital material we have produced and saved?
Again, that is assuming that the material will still be around in 100 years or so, but you are right that we will leave behind a lot of material and information. I however think that successive generations will be much more interested in their own lives and not so much in ours.
We look back at previous generations.
Some us do, many of us don’t. The notion of presentism is very powerful when it comes to the digital realm. People live in the present – especially online. The world changes every time a webpage refreshes. When something falls off the bottom of the Twitter feed, it’s gone. I like this sense of being in the moment; it’s almost a Zen concept. We have regained a craving for the present. I like that.
But this fixation on the now might lead to an inability to let events unfold or deepen. Following that logic, 9/11 would have been yesterday’s news by September 12th.
It was. On September 12th 2001, the question wasn’t “what happened?” Seven but “why did it happen?”. Of course the event wasn’t forgotten, but the questions had changed by the next day.
As a concluding question: How would you design the last page of the Internet?
It would say: “You have reached the very last page of the Internet, click here for the next one”.