Saturday, 4 January 2014

The Overview Effect - a short film

A really stunning short film on what astronauts call 'the overview effect' - the sense of Earthly oneness and unity that astronauts get from watching the Earth as a whole from spacecraft, particularly the International Space Station:

(There doesn't seem to be an embed code for this video so I'll just post the link.)

I think this is a really interesting example of what Latour might call the premature unification of the common world.  Because certain politically, economically and scientifically privileged people are able to look down on a single planet as an immediately and wholly present totality it seems to them as though we all live in a single, always already unified 'common world.'  It's undoubtedly an achingly beautiful and extremely onto-aesthetically powerful effect as merely watching the earth rolling over on a screen creates a similar sense of awe but it's really a cheap, quick and apolitical unity that belies the fractured multiplicity of the many worlds on the planet below.

It's also interesting that the astronauts emphasise the fragility of the planet itself as if they, gazing far above it, were also 'watching over it.'  Reading Lovelock et al. the really striking thing is not that the Earth is fragile so much as that we are.  The very moment when the human species becomes a force on a planetary, geological scale is the moment when it is revealed to be so extremely fragile that it is in danger of destroying itself through the very industrial processes of which its largest mouths were hitherto so loudly proud.  The Earth will most likely outlive us.  It is fragile, yes, but we are far more so.

But I don't want to merely criticise the overview effect as such.  For all its short-circuiting political and aesthetic limitations it is a truly stunning vista - it is not a window onto the world but it might be a window onto a world, a world that is indeed fragile because it is not yet assembled.  Yes, the astronauts are right to see the beautiful ball spinning below them as incredibly fragile and in need of our care and attention but not because the planet itself is in desperate need of us (indeed, it could do without us) but because the possibility of the planet as a common world is so in need of us - and not only those astronauts among us.  If the planet is one all well and good.  That is proof only that it has no real need of us.  The same cannot be said of the world or worlds in which we live.  One planet doesn't mean one nature.  Gawping astronauts are as multinatural as any Amerindian.

But, no, I don't want to diminish or demean their incisive, insightful oversight - quite the opposite.  That thermospheric vista might be the viewpoint of a necessarily immensely privileged subject but, past a certain point, I'm inclined to say: so what?  How ice-hearted do you have to be not to be awed by the sight of thunderstorms rolling across the face of the planet, entire continents lighting up at night and whole civilisations scuttling away under a puffy slither of atmosphere that looks like it could blow away with the slightest cosmic breeze?

I have a real soft spot for this overview effect and its promoters.  Their ontology and their politics may be simplistic but their heart is in the right place - and perhaps their eyes are, too.


  1. just not sure that the effect/affect carries over into ground-level life on the planet for most folks, don't know what makes the difference.

  2. Whose ground-level lives are unaffected by climate change, resource scarcity, population growth, pollution, etc.? Whose will be in the coming decades? The global may be local inasmuch as it is a perspective that depends on specific, highly situated technological and representational vistas and these vistas may be, to some extent, the preserve of elites (due to reasons of availability and interest, both). But (a) this is changing and (b) this is, I think, a good thing, broadly speaking.

    The issue is that the form these representations take will be contested - and must be. Extremely affectively powerful media such as this 'overview effect' are not self-interpreting nor, I want to argue, should they be written off if they are *initially* interpreted questionably.

    Sure, many people on this planet are more concerned with where their next meal is coming from than in 'planet gazing' but then again three quarters of the world's population apparently now have access to a mobile phone. I don't see the separation between ground-level life and global politics. Inasmuch as there is such a separation this is a problem more than anything and it certainly isn't something fixed and permanent.

    The global is local, of course, and so the global must be globalised - or, rather, there are many 'globes' (and other words besides, without Latin roots) that must be put into conversation with one another. 'Global politics' needn't be politics on the scale of the globe as a fixed thing but can also be understood as the contestation of what 'the globe' is and what passes through that shared, constructed, infrastructural matrix - and that is an essentially local, pragmatic process. Very much ground-level.

    (Thanks for that link by the way, very useful.)

  3. not suggesting that anything is "fixed", nor so hopeful that they might be fixed tho what can we do but try? was just responding to the phenomenological questions of scale, horizons, shifting-frames/transportability, and such. On a more general note I don't think these matters can be decided beforehand or in general, so let the testing of prototypes begin!

  4. Experimentation is the name of the game!