Alex Howerton is a Business Development Consultant with American Aerospace Advisors Inc. Alex has been researching the commercial space industry for over 16 years. He started publishing "Space Available: The Space Investors’ Report" in 1992, and was its publisher, editor and principal author until 1995, when it was acquired by Countdown Magazine.
Alex has written two books on space development. Free Space: Real Alternatives for Reaching Outer Space (Loompanics, 1995) is an assessment of the then current private space initiatives. Project Avalon (Space Available Press, 1998) is a science fiction novel exploring the ramifications of private space development and the potential consequences to society of not moving swiftly enough to create a space-faring civilization. He was formerly a Business Development Manager of Space Training at NASTAR Center.
Written by Alex Howerton on Wednesday, 10 October 2012.
In the first chapters of The Overview Effect, Frank White challenges us earthbound fish to jump out of our habitual perspective. That is the analogy he uses, along the lines of classic explanation of 4 dimensions to us by imagining a 2-dimensional creature encountering a 3-dimensional world. A fish flopping onto land, if he could survive it, would have a hard time comprehending what he was experiencing, and even harder time communicating that experience to other fishes once he reentered the water.
White does not push the analogy further, but I will. At the very least, the other fish might call the transformative fish crazy. No one likes their worldview challenged. At worst, they might crucify him or martyr him in some other way. Throughout history, humans have proven that they are more likely to solve their cognitive dissonance by denying or repudiating new factual evidence than doing the hard, often painful work of modifying their worldview to accommodate a new reality. Exhibits: Socrates. Jesus. Hypatia of Alexandria. Giordano Bruno. Galileo. Darwin. Climate change scientists. I think you get my point.
But over time, that which was once highly controversial becomes accepted. No one seriously disputes anymore, for example, that the Earth revolves around the Sun, or that the solar system is located in an obscure arm of the Milky Way Galaxy. Nothing of the physical layout of the universe has changed. But a very fundamental change has happened in the universe – our perception of it. Even more important than that is our ability to communicate that change with each other, to share the experience of change. As White says, “A shared context is critical for real communication to take place, because without it, what is meaningful to one person may be nonsense to another.”
We fish are currently struggling to maintain our worldviews in the face of an onslaught of new information and stimuli. The normal human reaction is to dig in and double down. “I’m right, and so by definition everybody else who disagrees is wrong.” We have seen the results of what that type of thinking leads to (Americans are no less culpable in this regard).
What is needed to break the logjam is the new physical perspective that the Overview Effect offers. Such a jarring “fish out of water” experience may be too much for some to handle, and we have to be prepared for that. But for most of us, I suspect, it would be a positively transformative experience, one that would take many years, if not a lifetime, to assimilate and express in new cultural forms.
Even the way we experience transformation may be transformed. It is common to hear statements like, “When I contemplate the immensity of the stars, the galaxies, the universe, I realize how insignificant I am.” If that is true, why then do you not feel correspondingly omnipotent when contemplating cells, molecules, atoms, and quarks? Often such contemplation leads to a similar feeling of insignificance. Why? Because those scales are out of our control, outside of our carefully constructed worldview. But consider this – who is doing the contemplating? How is it that a mass of biomatter can come to perceive scales from quasars to quarks, and have some measure of control over it, at least locally? That is amazing all by itself. We are a legitimate part of the universe, and belong in it, and we have to understand things on a human scale.
One of the beauties of the Overview Effect is that it can broaden that “human scale” to encompass so much more, so we are not shocked into insignificance or incapacity when faced with realities far beyond our current comprehension. We fishes can help each other to comprehend this majestic, magnificent universe we find ourselves in, and strive to become more than fishes, without ever losing our essential “fishness.”
White says, “Our ‘worldview’ as a conceptual framework depends quite literally on our view of the world from a physical place in the universe.” We will always be human. We will always be constrained by the physical limitations that that implies. But that does not mean that what we think are our limitations now are the actual limitations. We will never discover those limits unless we push the boundaries, then communicate with each other, rationally, artistically or otherwise, the new parameters of what it means to be human. That is the gift that the Overview Effect can give all of us.
Adapted from the book Free Space — Real Alternatives for Reaching Outer Space, Loompanics, 1995
Space exploration and development is exciting! It is easy to become absorbed in the details, the discoveries, the adventure, and forget why we began sucha quest in the first place. If we are ever to reach space as a civilization, it is imperative to understand the minutiae, the nuts and bolts of how it is done. It is, however, no less important to examine why we want to go, what we intend to accomplish, what our hopes and dreams are upon achieving our goals.
I embarked on my quest toward a a spacefaring civilization to fulfill a personal vision. I have, from my earliest memories, loved the idea of space. I have always marveled at science fiction, and in eighth-grade science class, where I was racking up a solid C average, I achieved A pluses for the two weeks we concentrated on space.
As I grew into adulthood, other interests absorbed me, and space studies slid to the back burner. Then, in 1983, I participated in a seminar entitled “2013: the World 30 Years from Now.” The task on the first day of the seminar was to envision the state of the world in that future time. On the second day, we had to figure out how to bring it about.
With a fellow attendee I was assigned to go into a darkened room, close my eyes, and relate my vision of the future. Upon shutting my eyes, a fully-articulated vision leapt into my imagination. I saw a re-greened Earth, dedicated to agriculture and environmental parks. There were perhaps six large cities on the whole planet, mainly distribution and collection centers for the solar system’s economy. The cities were built downward, into the Earth, with no eye-jarring artificial structures to assail the senses. Ground transportation was achieved by means of magnetic strips between destinations. Vehicles were encoded with their destinations, much like bar-coding, then glided along the steps at tremendous speeds. Since every vehicle was locked onto the strips and traveling at uniform speed, there were no accidents. Power was provided by clean-burning hydrogen fusion and solar power satellites.
My mind then flew to the Moon. It was one massive industrial park. Every conceivable industry was represented and allowed to prosper in a free and open market. The goods and services produced there were shipped all over the solar system. The Moon’s far side was reserved for pure science and astronomy.
I saw great ships plying the pathways of the solar system, visiting the colonies of Mars and beyond, bringing back valuable resources from the nether regions, enriching everyone. Beautiful pleasure yachts powered by solar sail gracefully wandered about the spatial sea. Huge free-floating space resorts supplied every kind of diversion, from flying under one’s own power, to all kinds of space sports, to discreetly-appointed zero-g love nests.
The outer worlds of Europa, Titan, and others were being explored for organic matter and even life, while tiny robots of nano-technological origin set about terraforming the worlds where no life previously existed, yet which would be useful to humanity.
A great power generator was in full operation around stately Jupiter, producing energy from Io’s interaction with the great planet’s magnetosphere. Automated probes with the most advanced hydrogen-scoop and antimatter engines were forging their way to the nearest stellar neighbors to initiate a first reconnaissance. The whole neighborhood of the Sun was bustling and thriving with human activity.
I had not heard of the Overview Effect when I experienced that vision — indeed, Frank had not yet written the book. But in retrospect, I did have a proto “Overview Effect” moment at that seminar. That is why, once I finally read the book, the idea resonated so deeply within me.
The Overview Effect is the unifying principle which gives a sense of unity and purpose to our current seemingly chaotic cultural state. Just as in Chaos Theory, order seems to break down at an increasing rate, until a strange attractor enters the picture, and a new dynamic equilibrium is achieved. The idea of the Overview Effect is just such a strange attractor.
The current news about SpaceX’s successful resupply mission to the International Space Station and the announcement by Planetary Resources of the intention to mine an asteroid may seem to most people to have come out of the blue, but these ideas have been percolating for many years, even decades, and are now emerging, just when they apparently seem to be needed the most.
We are witnessing and participating in the birth of cosmic consciousness, not just as an abstract idea, but as a practical program of action, an alternative to the standard methods of global problem-solving. This is the true power of the Overview Effect, and I am proud that my vision of three decades ago has now found a home with the Overview Institute.
Some events seem to change the world instantaneously, like the very first small, beeping satellite soaring overhead, or a wall that has divided a country for decades being torn down overnight. Yet in most cases, these events are the fruition of ideas that have incubated in our collective consciousness for years, even decades. Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are dramatic events, but are ultimately the end product of slow, even imperceptible movement in the underlying plate tectonics. In the end, it is the gradual, inevitable build-up of tensions that finally releases vast, unstoppable power and transformation of the environment.
One such idea is the Overview Effect. It has been 25 years now since Frank White wrote this brilliant, insightful work, looking into our immediate future as well as scanning far more distant horizons. While this idea ultimately has the power to permanently and positively change our collective worldview, it is currently little known amongst the general populace, even a quarter-century later.
I am envious of Frank’s patience and even temperament. If I had written this book, I would yell to anybody who would listen, "Can’t you see how brilliant I am? Why don’t you pay attention?" But not Frank. I have been working closely with him and others to launch the Overview Institute, and I am continually amazed at Frank’s calm demeanor and laid-back approach. It is as if he is confident in the inevitability of the coming paradigm shift, and he is under no pressure to hurry it along faster than its natural rate. He seems to view it as being like a glacier, which will eventually, dramatically, sweep before it everything in its path.
I believe Frank can adopt this attitude because he knows he’s right. Not right, as in "Ha ha, I’m right, you’re wrong," but right as in, "This is the natural course of things. This is as it should be." Because he knows the advancement of humanity into the cosmos is a multi-generational affair, and he is playing his significant yet tiny part in pushing the paradigm forward. He knows that all he has envisioned, in broad outline, will come to pass.
Which brings up a complementary idea to the Overview Effect in space. That is the Overview Effect in time. We are on a journey that began countless eons ago, and we do not stand at the pinnacle of human development, but are wayfarers, stewards, along the way. Human culture exhibited its first unmistakable flowering in the Aurignacian period, 40,000 years ago. If we imagine ourselves standing at the midpoint of a human journey that will extend at least 40,000 years into the future, it is staggering to try to conceive what can be achieved in that timeframe.
In that sense, we are one of the most fortunate generations, standing at the fulcrum of time, just before we ascend into the heavens in earnest. And I don’t mean that only in general, but very specifically -- now is the fulcrum. Recently SpaceX successfully launched the first private resupply mission to the International Space Station. That is the beginning of the true, unstoppable journey outward.
So now is the perfect time to re-read The Overview Effect. In following posts, I will share my reflections on specific themes and ideas found in the book, as they relate to our current conditions, 25 years after its initial publication, and as they also relate to the Overview Effect as it unfolds in time. The journey is just now, continually, and always, beginning.
When we gaze upon that awe-inspiring, full-Earth image from Apollo 17, it is no wonder we feel a strong pull of something ineffable, something transcendent. It is a pity, then that that very image, and others like it, which were produced by the highest pinnacle of our technological achievement at the time, are used by some to deride that very technology as the doom of us all. Some champions of technological progress are inclined to call people of that sentiment liberal tree-huggers. Many of those deeply feeling, deeply caring people respond by calling the former crowd cold-warrior planet-destroyers. But the tossing about of such incendiary labels only fans the flame of controversy, and does nothing to mitigate the underlying problems. All this sound and fury, signifying nothing, merely serves to mask the true irony of the situation, which is that, increasingly, the champions of technology and the environmentalists are strong natural allies, and are more often than not, these days, one and the same person.
To be able to find solutions to the grave problems facing us all these days, one must have hope that the problems are indeed solvable. To be able to do that, one must have hope for the future, that solutions are within our grasp, that tomorrow can be better than today. That is one of the prime goals of the Overview Institute: to give us a sense of wholeness, of wonder, of unity on this delicately-balanced, wondrous blue ball of ours, floating in the blackness of space. It is when we perceive this whole, this majestic beauty of the mother of us all, Gaia, that we realize our deep responsibility to use all the technology at our disposal to ameliorate conditions on the planet. We are all in this together, and together, we can rise to the challenges that we ourselves have created. That is the ultimate message of the Overview Institute, and its program of bringing images like the Apollo 17 picture and other advanced simulation technology to bear on the problem of increasing awareness, of fostering a desire to properly care for this beautiful, wonderful planet we call home.