An App for the Stars?

I’d like to take some time to follow up on my recent post, “The Pace of Life,” which concerns the implications of technology for culture, human relationships, and values in the world of today.

This post expands on these concerns by addressing how technology mediates our experience with the mysterious.

The story begins a few weeks ago in Yala National Park, in the southeast corner of Sri Lanka. I was going on an overnight safari with my mom and stepdad, who were visiting me in Sri Lanka, and we had the privilege to stay at a “luxury camping” site inside the park. I had some suspicions going into the trip about hoards of jeeps converging upon a not-so-wild leopard, but I was excited and grateful to have the opportunity to experience this unique natural environment first-hand.

We did the first of two safaris on the afternoon we arrived, and I have to say, the experience was little short of magical. Our driver took the three of us on a less trodden route where we could glimpse the ecological vitality of this place, which reminded me of the African savannah–a stark contrast from the lush, high-altitude wet zone we had descended from that day. My mom and I still reminisce about stopping at a particular watering hole at sunset, where we experienced a beautiful symphony of sight and sound as bathing water buffalos, storks, herons, crocodiles, and other bird species converged here under the setting sun. It was perhaps the closest thing to an untouched, biodiverse wilderness I’ve ever witnessed, evoking a humbling sense of awe in displaying the interconnectivity of life so visibly.

We returned to our campsite that night, and gathered with the other guests around an outdoor, long table for dinner. I was impressed with how the camping outfit was able to prepare such a gourmet meal in the midst of the jungle. At one point, the director of the outfit asked us to pause, announcing he had a message for the group. He proceeded to blow out the candles lining the table, directing our attention up to the explosively starlit sky. With little light pollution, the sight was astounding. We laid witness to the vibrant milky way, the southern cross, and what appeared to be the planets Mars and Venus, amid seas of stars and other celestial bodies.

It wasn’t long after this stunning and silencing shift in focus that one of the guests pulled out her iPhone, beckoning our attention to her “SkyView” app, which labels stars and constellations when pointed to the sky. Admittedly, the app is pretty impressive in delineating particular forms and patterns across the night sky. And in considering its content more critically, it also reflects particular cultural understandings of how people have conceived our galaxy through time.

But I had to wonder, in watching my fellow guests vying for a glimpse of this starlit sky through the prism of an iPhone, if something profound was being lost here. After all, a more direct, creative experience of the night sky has been a source of great inspiration as well as an inducer of humility in humans for millennia, situating our modest place on this colorful rock floating through space, while also prompting us to wonder what it all might mean. This experience was certainly a seedbed for the Greco-Roman religious imaginaire, manifesting in powerful deities such as Saturn, Jupiter, Venus, and Mercury, as well as an inspiration for the Aztecs, who conceived of the northern stars as a signification of the central deity, Tezcatlipoca. It’s perhaps the closest things we earth-dwelling humans can glimpse of that paradigm shift astronauts are said to experience when they first see the earth from space–the realization that all our greatest triumphs, challenges, and joys are contained within this comparatively miniscule “pale, blue dot.”

What does the SkyView app represent? Or, perhaps more appropriately, what does our fascination with SkyView seem to represent? That we humans can effectively comprehend something as mysterious as the night sky or, at least, that an encounter with the sublime is better filtered through the more comforting, “known” prism of technology.

I don’t intend to denigrate the tremendous achievements of science and technology, which have made revolutionary contributions to our understanding of the universe and our place within it. Where I take issue is the notion that science, and more precisely modern science, is omniscient enough to render curiosity, mystery, or wonder as obsolete in the world. In fact, I would argue that that very exclusion is actually unscientific in nature.

And it’s a worrisome prospect. Because as Albert Einstein wrote in his book, Living Philosophies,

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead–his eyes are closed.”

In a world that casts humans so visibly as the primary actors of the universe, a direct experience of the night sky offers a most salient vestige of not only the humbling unknown, but of a truth we increasingly know, that our universe has a vastness and dynamism beyond comprehension. Switching off our iPhones, and simply gazing up, we’re able to glimpse a universal order that transcends the ego-consciousness telling us over and over again that we are the absolute epicenter of cosmic life, or that this mysterious expanse before us can be encapsulated within the bounds of technological ideation. For most of us subject to the trappings of ego, it’s an uncomfortable prospect, for it challenges our identifications with ultimate importance, solidity, and form as “lawyer,” “well educated,” “popular,” or “athletic”–conventions based on earthly-bound constructs that are, like all things, unstable and subject to cessation.

But in awakening to the relative tininess of self, and perhaps even experiencing the existential realization that as I have originated from the suchness of planets and stars, so I will return, we align ourselves with a whole far more truthful and ultimately powerful than the rigid finitude of self. So we join the milky way, the southern cross, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter–indispensable streams of consciousness occupying unique confluences of space and time, joined inextricably with the totality of it all.

So keep your Snapchat, and your Instagram, and your Google Maps (though the ability of the latter to explore Loch Ness is for another story!). But when it comes to the night sky, just look up.