Extra-Planetary Digital Cultures

David Crouch, Katarina Damjanov


Digital culture, as we know it, owes much to space exploration. The technological pursuit of outer space has fuelled innovations in signal processing and automated computing that have left an impact on the hardware and software that make our digital present possible.   Developments in satellite technologies, for example, produced far-reaching improvements in digital image processing (Gonzalez and Woods) and the demands of the Apollo missions advanced applications of the integrated circuit – the predecessor to the microchip (Hall). All the inventive digital beginnings in space found their way back to earth and contributed to the development of contemporary formations of culture composed around practices dependent on and driven by digital technologies. Their terrestrial adoption and adaptation supported a revolution in information, mediation and communication technologies, increasing the scope and speed of global production, exchange and use of data and advancing techniques of imaging, mapping, navigation, surveillance, remote sensing and telemetry to a point that could only be imagined before the arrival of the space age. 

Steadily knotted with contemporary scientific, commercial and military endeavours and the fabric of the quotidian, digital devices and practices now have a bearing upon all aspects of our pursuits, pleasures and politics. Our increasing reliance upon the digital shaped the shared surfaces of human societies and produced cultures in their own right. While aware of the uneasy baggage of the term ‘culture’, we use it here to designate all digitally grounded objects, systems and processes which are materially and socially inflecting our ways of life. In this sense, we consider both what Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri describe as “those results of social production that are necessary for social interaction and further production, such as knowledges, languages, codes, information, affects, and so forth” (viii), and the material contexts of these products of the social. The effects of digital technologies on the socio-material ambits of human life are many and substantial and – as we want to suggest here – evolving through their ‘extraterrestrial’ beginnings.

The contemporary courses of digital cultures not only continue to develop through investments in space exploration, they are themselves largely contingent on the technologies that we have placed in outer space, for instance, global telecommunications infrastructure, GPS, Google maps, weather and climate monitoring facilities and missile grids all rely on the constellation of satellites orbiting the earth. However, we have been increasingly witnessing something new: modes of social production that developed on earth from the technical demands of the space age are now being directed, or rather returned back to have new beginnings beyond the globe. Our focus in this paper is this outward momentum of digital cultures. We do not aim to overview the entire history of the digital in outer space, but instead to frame the extraterrestrial extension of human technologies in terms of the socio-material dimensions of extra-planetary digital cultures. 

Hannah Arendt described how the space age accelerated the already rapid pace of techno-scientific development, denying us pause during which to grasp its effects upon the “human condition”. Our treacherously fast technological conquest of outer space leaves in its wake an aporia in language and “the trouble”, as Arendt puts it, is that we will “forever be unable to understand, that is, to think and speak about the things which nevertheless we are able to do” (3). This crisis in language has at its core a problem of ontology: a failure to recognise that the words we use to describe ourselves are always, and have always been, bound up in our technological modes of being. As thinkers such as Gilbert Simondon and Bernard Stiegler argued and Arendt derided (but could not deny), our technologies are inseparably bound up with the evolutionary continuum of the human and the migration of our digital ways of life into outer space still further complicates articulation of our techno-logic condition. 

In Stiegler’s view the technical is the primordial supplement to the human into which we have been “exteriorising” our “interiors” of social memory and shared culture to alter, assert and advance the material-social ambits of our living milieu and which have been consequently changing the idea of what it is to be human (141). Without technologies – what Stiegler terms “organised inorganic matter” (17), which mediate our relationships to the world – there is no human in the inhuman extraterrestrial environment and so, effectively, it is only through the organisation of inert matter that culture or social life can exist outside the earth. Offering the possibility of digitally abstracting and processing the complexities and perils of outer space, space technologies are not only a means of creating a human milieu ‘out there’, but of expediting potentially endless extra-planetary progress. 

The transposition of digital culture into outer space occasions a series of beginnings (and returns). In this paper, we explore extra-planetary digital culture as a productive trajectory in broader discussions of the ontological status of technologies that are socially and materially imbricated in the idea of the human. We consider the digital facilitation of exchanges between earth and outer space and assign them a place in an evolving discourse concerned with expressing the human in relation to the technological. We suggest that ontological questions occasioned by the socio-material effects of technologies require consideration of the digital in outer space and that the inhuman milieu of the extraterrestrial opens up a unique perspective from which to consider the nascent shape of what might be the emerging extra-planetary beginnings of the post human. 

Digital Exurbias

The unfolding of extra-planetary digital cultures necessitates the simultaneous exteriorisation of our production of the social into outer space and the domestication of our extraterrestrial activities here on earth. Caught in the processes of mediated exploration, the moon, Mars, Pluto and other natural or human-made celestial bodies such as the International Space Station are almost becoming remote outer suburbs – exurbias of earth. Digital cultures are reaching toward and expanding into outer space through the development of technologies, but more specifically through advancing the reciprocal processes of social exchanges between terrestrial and extraterrestrial space. Whether it be through public satellite tracking via applications such as Heavens-Above or The High Definition Earth Viewing system’s continuous video feed from the camera attached to the ISS (NASA, "High Definition") – which streams us back an image of our planetary habitat from an Archimedean point of view – we are being encouraged to embrace a kind of digital enculturation of extraterrestrial space. 

The production of social life outside our own planet has already had many forms, but perhaps can be seen most clearly aboard the International Space Station, presently the only extraterrestrial environment physically occupied by humans. Amongst its many landmark events, the ISS has become a vigorous node of social media activity. For example, in 2013 Chris Hadfield became a Twitter phenomenon while living aboard the ISS; the astronaut gathered over a million Twitter followers, he made posts on Facebook, Tumblr and Reddit, multiple mini-vids, and his rendition of David Bowie’s Space Oddity on YouTube (Hadfield) has thus far been viewed over 26 million times. His success, as has been noted, was not merely due to his use of social media in the unique environment of outer space, but rather that he was able to make the highly technical lives of those in space familiar by revealing to a global audience “how you make a sandwich in microgravity, how you get a haircut” (Potter). This techno-mediation of the everyday onboard ISS is, from a Stieglerian perspective, a gesture toward the establishment of “the relation of the living to its milieu” (49). As part of this process, the new trends and innovations of social media on earth are, for example, continuously replayed and rehearsed in the outer space, with a litany of ‘digital firsts’ such as the first human-sent extraterrestrial ‘tweet’, first Instagram post, first Reddit AMA and first Pinterest ‘pin’ (Knoblauch), betraying our obsessions with serial digital beginnings.  

The constitution of an extra-planetary milieu progresses with the ability to conduct real-time interactions between those on and outside the earth. This, in essence, collapses all social aspects of the physical barrier and the ISS becomes merely a high-tech outer suburb of the globe. Yet fluid, uninterrupted, real-time communications with the station have only just become possible. Previously, the Iinternet connections between earth and the ISS were slow and troublesome, akin to the early dial-up, but the recently installed Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science (OPAL), a laser communications system, now enables the incredible speeds needed to effortlessly communicate with the human orbital outpost in real-time. After OPAL was affixed to the ISS, it was first tested using the now-traditional system test, “hello, world” (NASA, "Optical Payload"); referencing the early history of digital culture itself, and in doing so, perhaps making the most apt use of this phrase, ever. 

Open to Beginnings

Digital technologies have become vital in sustaining social life, facilitating the immaterial production of knowledge, information and affects (Hardt and Negri), but we have also become increasingly attentive to their materialities; or rather, the ‘matter of things’ never went away, it was only partially occluded by the explosion of social interactivities sparked by the ‘digital revolution’. Within the ongoing ‘material turn’, there have been a gamut of inquiries into the material contexts of the ‘digital’, for example, in the fields of digital anthropology (Horst and Miller), media studies (Kirschenbaum, Fuller, Parikka) and science and technology studies (Gillespie, Boczkowski, and Foot) – to mention only a very few of these works. Outside the globe material things are again insistent, they contain and maintain the terrestrial life from which they were formed. Outer space quickens our awareness of the materiality underpinning the technical apparatus we use to mediate and communicate and the delicate support that it provides for the complex of digital practices built upon it. Social exchanges between earth and its extra-planetary exurbias are made possible through the very materiality of digital signals within which these immaterial interactions can take place. 

In the pared down reality of contemporary life in outer space, the sociality of the digital is also harnessed to bring forth forms of material production. For example, when astronauts in space recently needed a particular wrench, NASA was able to email them a digital file from which they were then able print the required tool (Shukman). Through technologies such as the 3D printer, the line between products of the social and the creation of material objects becomes blurred. In extra-planetary space, the ‘thingness’ of technologies is at least as crucial as it is on earth  and yet – as it appears – material production in space might eventually rely on the infrastructures occasioned by the immaterial exchanges of digital culture.

As technical objects, like the 3D printer, are evolving so too are conceptions of the relationship that humans have with technologies. One result of this is the idea that technologies themselves are becoming capable of producing social life; in this conception, the relationships and interrelationships of and with technologies become a potential field of study. We suggest here that the extra-planetary extension of digital cultures will not only involve, but help shape, the evolution of these relationships, and as such, our conceptions and articulations of a future beyond the globe will require a re-positioning of the human and technical objects within the arena of life. This will require new beginnings. Yet beginnings are duplicitous, as Maurice Blanchot wrote – “one must never rely on the word beginning”; technologies have always been part of the human, our rapport is in some sense what defines the human. To successfully introduce the social in outer space will involve an evolution in both the theory and practice of this participation. And it is perhaps through the extra-planetary projection of digital culture that this will come about. In outer space the human partnership with the objects of technology, far from being a utopian promise or dystopian end, is not only a necessity but also a productive force shaping the collective beginnings of our historical co-evolution. 

Objects of technology that migrate into space appear designed to smooth the ontological misgivings that might arise from our extra-planetary progress. While they are part of the means for producing the social in outer space and physical fortifications against human frailty, they are perhaps also the beginnings of the extraterrestrial enculturation of technologies, given form. One example of such technologies is the anthropomorphic robots currently developed by the Dextrous Robotics Laboratory for NASA. The latest iteration of these, Robotnaut 2 was the first humanoid robot in space; it is a “highly dexterous” robot that works beside astronauts performing a wide range of manual and sensory activities (NASA, "Robonaut").  The Robonaut 2 has recorded its own series of ‘firsts’, including being the “first robot inside a human space vehicle operating without a cage, and first robot to work with human-rated tools in space” (NASA, "Robonaut"). One of the things which mark it as a potential beginning is this ability to use the same tools as astronauts. This suggests the image of a tool using a tool – at first glance, something now quite common in the operation of machines – however, in this case the robot is able to manipulate a tool that was not designed for it. This then might also include the machine itself in our own origins, in that evolutionary moment of grasping a tool or stealing fire from the gods. As an exteriorisation of the human, these robots also suggest that a shared extra-planetary culture would involve acknowledging the participation of technologic entities, recognising that they share these beginnings with us, and thus are participating in the origins of our potential futures beyond the globe – the prospects of which we can only imagine now.

Identifiably human-shaped, Robonauts are created to socialise with, and labour together with, astronauts; they share tools and work on the same complex tasks in the same environment aboard the International Space Station. In doing so, their presence might break down the separation between the living and the nonliving, giving form to Stiegler’s hypothesis regarding the ontology of technical objects, and coming to represent a mode of “being” described as “organized inert matter” (49). The robonaut is not dominated by the human, like a hand-held tool, nor is it dominating like a faceless system; it is engineered to be conducted, ‘organised’ rather than controlled. In addition to its anthropomorphic tendencies – which among other things, makes them appear more human than astronauts wearing space suits – is the robonaut’s existence as part of an assemblage of networked life that links technical objects with wet bodies into an animate system of information and matter. While this “heralds the possibility of making the technical being part of culture” (Simondon 16), it also suggests that extra-planetary digital cultures will harness what Simondon formulates as an “ensemble” of “open machines” – a system of sensitive technologies toward which the human acts as “organizer and as a living interpreter” (13). In the design of our extra-planetary envoys we are evolving toward this openness; the Robonaut, a technical object that shares in digital culture and its social and material production, might be the impetus through which the human and technological acquire a language that expresses a kind of evolutionary dialectic.

As a system of inclusions that uses technologies to incorporate/socialise everything it can, including its own relationship with technical objects, digital culture in outer space clarifies how technologies might relate and “exchange information with each other through the intermediacy of the human interpreter” (Simondon 14). The Robonaut, like the tweeting astronaut, provides the test signals for what might eventually become points of communication between different modes of being. In this context, culture is collective cumulative memory; the ‘digital’ form of culture suggests an evolution of both technologic life and human life because it incorporates the development of more efficient means of storing and transmitting memory as cultural knowledge, while recognising the experience of both. Social learning and memory will first define the evolution of the Robonaut. Digital culture and the social expressed through technology – toward a shared social life and cultural landscape established in outer space – will involve the conservation, transmission and setting of common patterns that pool a composite interplay of material, neurobiologic and technologic variables. This will in turn require new practices of enculturation, conviviality with technologies, a sharing, incorporation and care. Only then might this transform into a discussion concerning the ontologies of the ‘we’.

(Far from) Conclusions

Hannah Arendt wrote that technologic progress could not find full expression in “normal” (3) language and that we must constantly be aware that our knowledge, politics, ethics and interactions with regard to technologies are incomplete, unformulated or unexpressed. It could be said then that our relationship with technologies is constantly beginning, that this need to keep finding new language to grasp it means that it actually progresses through its rehearsal of beginnings, through the need to maintain the productive inquisitive force of a pleasant first meeting. Yet Arendt’s idea emerges from a kind of contempt for technology and her implied separation between ‘normal’ and what could be called ‘technical’ language suggests that she privileges the lay ‘human’ tongue as the only one in which meaningful ideas can be properly expressed. What this fails to acknowledge is an appreciation of the potential richness of technical language and Arendt instead establishes a hierarchy that privileges one’s ‘natural’ language. The invocation of the term ‘normal’ is itself an admission of unequal relations with technologies. For a language to develop in which we can truly begin to express and understand the human relationship with ever-changing but ever-present technologies,, we must first allow the entrance of the language of technology into social life – it must be incorporated, learnt or translated. In the future, this might ultimately give technology a voice in a dialogue that might be half-composed of binary code. Digital culture is perhaps a forerunner of such a conversation and perhaps it is in the milieu of outer space that it could be possible to see advances in our ideas about the mutually co-constitutive relationship between the human and technical. The ongoing extra-planetary extension of the digital cultures have the productive potential to sculpt the material and social ambits of our world, and it is this capacity that may precipitate beginnings which will leave lasting imprints upon the prospects of our shared post-human futures.    


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extra-planetary; digital; technology; extraterrestrial; culture; media; beginnings

Copyright (c) 2015 David Crouch, Katarina Damjanov

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