I’ve been looking at footage from the NASA Perseverance rover over the last couple of days and been wondering about how Space Travel with intelligent rovers and drones is a medium of pure information, similar to how Marshall McLuhan describes electric light in Understanding Media:
The electric light is pure information. It is a medium without a message, as it were, unless it is used to spell out some verbal ad or name. This fact, characteristic of all media, means that the “content” of any medium is always another medium. The content of writing is speech, just as the written word is the content of print, and print is the content of the telegraph.
Since we saw space as a medium of pure information without a message, we started to build our own narratives and message for it. We tried to explain it with patriotism, science and as humanities next frontier.
Which makes me think if we mistook the content as the message. As McLuhan points out later in Understanding Media about electric light:
Let us return to the electric light. Whether the light is being used for brain surgery or night baseball is a matter of indifference. It could be argued that these activities are in some way the “content” of the electric light, since they could not exist without the electric light. This fact merely underlines the point that “the medium is the message” because it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.
I think what happened with the content being mistook as the message was that we missed out on the various possibilities that space offers. The way we utilized space had to conform to all the content and by extension meaning we had given it, hence we limited the things that could be done in space to a subset of things considered “the right thing to do for humanity”. Intuitively this seems to go against how technological advancements have tended to work. The things we took less seriously in the beginning such as the internet have advanced and consumed our life while so many things that people took seriously such as space and supersonic flight kind of stagnated. Part of the reason we probably mistook content for the message was because the amount of information we received from space travel as a medium was relatively scarce so every bit had to be considered sacred and meaning assigned to it.
But I think with Starlink, rovers and high uplink speeds, the amount of information we receive is going to potentially increase exponentially in the next couple of years.
The internet adds a different scale and form to our association with space. We can experience it as a cool medium at the moment. Much more reliably than we experienced the Curiosity rover, uplink speeds seem to be faster. But we cannot interact with it and we experience it the way we experience a YouTube video or Twitter handle , hence it’s not an accident that those are mediums through which content reaches us first and not the NASA website. At some point, with Starlink and more rovers on the surface we could potentially enter an era where space travel becomes a hot medium. Starlink could be the App Store of space travel, and you could potentially build apps on it to blow up rocks on Mars (I’d pay for it).
Here’s a little something I made for the medium.