Billionaires in space and bottling the overview effect

17.21, Tuesday 20 Jul 2021

Let’s suppose that seeing the Earth from space genuinely does trigger a spiritual experience leading to an appreciation of the fragility of life and a step increase in empathy. Then I propose that we pathologise the syndrome that going to the Karman Line fixes, and get millions of people cured as soon as possible – by going up and over, or otherwise.

It’s called the overview effect, a psychological effect that creates powerful shifts in the way you think about Earth and life. (That link is a NASA podcast episode with Frank White who coined the term in 1987.)

Here’s Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 14 astronaut:

You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics looks so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, “Look at that, you son of a b–.”

After coming back from the Moon in 1971, Mitchell co-founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences, researching human potential and parapsychology such as clairvoyance and psi.

So in recent weeks Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, silly billies, have been racing to be simultaneously rich and also riding on their own ships technically into space and back.

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo (Branson) and Blue Origin’s New Shepherd 4 (Bezos) each spent a couple minutes in space – according to their own definitions: 50 miles up for Branson; 62 miles/100 km up for Bezos, the so-called Karman line.

(Straight up and down for both. Neither attempted the 17,000 mph sideways velocity required to enter orbit.)

The semiotics of the crew outfits are fascinating. Virgin Galactic suits are straight out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (BBC News), blue and gold out of a material that looks like some kind of sci-fi synthetic, textured with dimples and flight booties too. Blue Origin also went for blue space onesies (BBC News) and I’m guessing there is a legit reason for this convergent suit design – safety in the case of cabin depressurisation maybe? Looks like it would be fiddly to pee in any event.

But honestly it looks like astronaut cosplay.

It’s space tourism I know. Both these companies will be selling seats, and I sincerely hope that customers get to take their suits home with them, mission patch and all and, I don’t know, wear them to the pub or whatever. I am into the idea that the fashion concepts explored in these overalls somehow trickle down into everyday streetwear.

ALSO: both companies are going pretty hard on the overview effect. For example, PR from Virgin Galactic.

Is this just marketing?

Like, are they bigging-up the Earth-from-space perspective shift because that helps sell seats at $250k a pop… or is there really a profound psychological effect from those couple of minutes seeing the sky go black and the curve of the Earth and the weightlessness?

An aside about the politics of the thing.

Look, proceduralising access to space is awesome. A real step in the right direction. The engineering accomplishment alone is awe inspiring.

I’m impressed. I watched the YouTube live streams. Well done to everyone involved.

However I am increasingly uncomfortable with society’s surplus being directed by billionaires and not democratically. Deciding whether we spend money on space or homelessness is a decision for the state and not for the hoarders of capital. No matter how benevolent they are now, should we be ok with decisions about the direction of society being made be people just because they are rich? And how did they get there? As Alexei Sayle said: Show me a millionaire and I’ll show you 999,999 people short of a quid.

THAT SAID: the US’s growing private space programme has had heavy state aid along the way. New Mexico paid for Virgin Galactic’s spaceport; NASA funds the flights via research contracts. Blue Origin has benefited from NASA development contracts, though it’s mostly funded directly by Bezos. But Bezos’ wealth comes from Amazon, and Amazon’s warehouse employees are big recipients of welfare. Perhaps if they were paid properly, the US government wouldn’t have to support them, but the Bezos couldn’t afford to support Blue Origin. So there’s a kind of invisible state support going on there too.

What I’m saying is that I would prefer to see both Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin as a triumph for smart state investment over many years.

Holding up the billionaires as heroes in these situations is misleading and tells everyone that something is going on that really isn’t. The success belongs to everyone. To present it otherwise undermines democracy and manufactures consent for oligarchy.

Back to the overview effect, which should be studied methodically.

Because if the overview effect is real then business leaders and powerful politicians should be sent into space, asap. It should be a condition of office or of being a billionaire that you viscerally acknowledge the oneness of life.

I remember hearing that the breakthrough with Viagra was getting “erectile dysfunction” in the book of official pathologies, and this seems like a clever trick (as previously discussed).

What pathology does the overview effect cure? Let’s call it negempathy.

(Named in honour of the slightly outdated scientific concept of negentropy, big in the cybernetics era and also in mid-20th-century sci-fi.)

Negempathy: the lack of common cause with other life on Earth; the absence of appreciation that we’re all in it together; a disease of the body politic; the inability to care.

If people, especially powerful people, can be vaccinated against their negempathy, then let’s go for it! Line them up at the spaceports! And then once they’re done, set up a conveyor belt for everyone else: once you hit 16, bang, you get your four minutes in space.

And you come back down wanting to save the planet.

Having named it, perhaps the mechanically-induced overview effect isn’t the only inoculation against negempathy. Could there be a chemical cure?

Globally taxpayers and philanthropic organisations have spent billions on researching and rolling out Covid-19 vaccines. And the pay-off is worth it: it turns out that 3 billion vaccines, at a cost of $40 each, is worth $17.4 trillion to the global economy, a value of $5,400 each (source). It’s a huge bargain. So that justifies all kinds of investment into vaccine capacity acceleration.

Now think of the climate emergency: what is the cost to the global economy of each month’s delay in setting global carbon reduction targets? It must be staggering.

Imagine that cost could be reduced, just by buying select members of the political elite seats on Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin. So let’s do that.

But ALSO let’s find ways of reducing the cost further, and rolling out the overview effect faster to millions and billions of people.

Maybe psilocybin?

What if a precision-calibrated psychedelic effect could be captured in a test tube, the Karman Line in a vial, transcendence, the results rolled out in something like the global vaccination program?

Somebody ought to be researching the heck out of this.

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