Rage Against the Machine

legs

I’ve been home from Launchpad Astronomy Workshop for more than a month now (!) and I keep meaning to write about the experience, but I keep not doing it. The world has been a little overwhelming since I got back and there’s been a book release and short stories aplenty– and let’s face it, 2016 in general is…what’s the word…is there a word for what 2016 is?

The more I think about writing about Launchpad and how amazing it was, the less I want to, because it was also, in the end, pretty personal. I learned a good deal about space, but also about other people and myself. And I didn’t want to put that out there. Because everything’s out there. And everything is getting a little overwhelming.

We used to worry about the government becoming Big Brother, but I think we have become a kind of Big Brother. We are each Person of Interest‘s Machine. Most of us carry a device that allows us instant and constant access to the world. All its glories, all its woes.

We know almost in real-time when a thing happens. When a friend sells a book. When a terrorist bomb explodes. The results of an election. When a plane goes missing. The fallout of a friend’s personal relationship. We know how someone’s surgery went, we know who’s on our porch and what they’re delivering. We know where our packages are from point to point to door. We see you when you’re sleeping, we know when you’re awake. (Even as I write this, a friend is waiting to board a plane, and we’re chatting.)

I don’t think the world is any worse than it’s ever been — crazy men have always run for president and have always connected with a larger segment of the population than most of us would like to acknowledge. But I think our access and interaction with the world has changed in a way that we can’t quite ever take back. It’s hard to close the eyes on the world once they’ve been opened. It cannot be unseen.

It’s important to try to reclaim some of our space though — going to Launchpad was, in a way, going away from the world at large. Even as we studied the unending universe, the world seemed smaller. I stood on a mountaintop with colleagues and teachers, in starlight alone, and could breathe easier than ever when I looked through a telescope’s lens, to watch Titan gleam off the rings of Saturn. I could see the bands of clouded color across Jupiter and count four of its moons. The world was big and small all at once.

Every summer, I’m very lucky to have access to the community pool, where I can go after the sun has long since set. Where I can cannonball into the deep end and listen to…nothing. Where I can swim endless laps and stare at the stars above (Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, still keeping me company, though Jupiter sinks fast into the west these nights). Where I can think about precisely this rectangle of glowing blue light and for a little while else, nothing else. (This is the story generator, the percolator, the chlorine womb.)

We have forgotten those spaces. Even when we take to the mountains, the satellites slip across the skies, carrying calls to friends, depositing the freshest, hottest news into our inboxes and eyes. We know that books are coming out months before they do. We know when someone’s life is tragically taken. We know when someone is to speak, when a deal is to be closed, a bell to be rung. We watch death tolls creep upward in real-time. We smirk at everyone hunting wild Pok√©mon. We send emails that arrive instantly, but forget the joy of a handwritten letter we aren’t expecting. We fret over Scrivener releases when there remains a distinct pleasure in writing by hand in a notebook of smooth paper.

One of the strangest joys I remember is this: I was in the mall, wandering through Waldenbooks, when I spied Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon on the new releases wall. Outlander stood so well on its own, I had no idea a sequel was planned or due, and I remember telling myself to be calm, that maybe it wasn’t related at all, but gosh the cover did look related, and when I opened it up to read the flaps, my breath caught in my throat, because the story I loved so well was continuing. (This was about three years before I was regularly online.)

We have, to some extent, forgotten those experiences too. We hound authors for the next volume in the sagas we love — why are you online when you could be making this thing I want! We know exactly how much an author still has to write; we know the book has not been delivered and we know when it is.

As much joy as can be found in sharing the wonderful things that happen to the world and our friends, there’s an equal measure of sorrow when things fall apart. How do we balance that? How do we not sink into despair when the world appears so awful? Does Big Brother ever turn itself off? Do we, like Winston in Nineteen Eighty-Four, smile up at Big Brother in the end, because it is us and we are it?

We are part of the Machine, but the part that still has access to the off (or at least the pause) button.

1984-John-Hurt

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