Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Rhymes of History

Exploration & Discovery

For much of human history, we have been explorers. Something in our nature drives us to seek out the unknown, sailing across vast oceans, traversing the highest mountains, and even propelling ourselves into space. Yet, as our civilization has evolved, we have become far more sedentary. Museums, zoos, aquariums, and planetariums emerged as a way for the average person to experience the unknown and the exotic, bringing those interactions into translocational spaces. Marxist criticisms aside, these spaces served an important function, allowing people to fulfill their innate need to explore and discover. Yet in recent years, budget cuts, dropping attendance, and ethical considerations around the fetishism of cultural and natural artifacts have had an enormous impact on these institutions. Some might argue that technological innovations have contributed to this phenomenon, and while that might be true, it is equally true that these innovations are rekindling that sense of exploration and discovery (Laureate Education, Inc., 2009). While one could select any number of technologies to represent this trend, those that bring the stars and space exploration to the fingertips of the user are especially interesting.

There are an abundance of mobile and web applications being released each day that allow the user to track the stars, explore far away galaxies, see satellite images of other planets, and experience what it is like to pilot a space shuttle. Particularly innovative are the so-called augmented reality applications that overlay digital images onto real life perspectives. Kevin Kelly (2007), in his discussion of the next 5,000 days of the Internet, suggests that as the web evolves, we can expect more and more blending of the atomistic and digital worlds, culminating in an Internet of things. While I understand and agree with much of what he suggests, I might characterize it as the Internet of experience rather than the Internet of things. Technologies such as these astronomy apps present a level of interactivity that museums and planetariums rarely were able to provide. And perhaps more importantly, the experience is individualized and on demand, making it a far more personal experience.

Star Walk is one of the most popular iPhone applications on the market today. The application allows the user to point his or her camera at the sky and see what stars, planets, and constellations they are looking at in real time. It also allows the user to “zoom in” taking the user on a digital exploration of astronomical phenomena such as supernovas and black holes. Applications such as these challenge the barriers of physical space, allowing the user to take a journey without ever leaving the comfort of their own backyard while simultaneously rekindling the childhood fantasy of one day walking on the moon.

Kelly, K. (2007). The next 5,000 days of the web [speech]. Speech delivered at the EG 2007 Conference, Los Angeles. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/kevin_kelly_on_the_next_5_000_days_of_the_web.html

Laureate Education, Inc. (Executive Producer). (2009). Rhymes of history. Baltimore, MD: Author.

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