EchoStar XVI, seen being prepared for launch, carries an unusual art
project and message to future generations, human or otherwise.
(credit: EchoStar)

The Last Pictures:
Contemporary pessimism and hope for the future (part 1)

by Larry Klaes
Monday, February 18, 2013

In the history of humanity, there have been a select number of key events that define the moments when our species became truly intelligent in terms of a self-aware consciousness. One of the relatively more recent milestones is when we perceived of a true sense of the future and endeavored to preserve representations of ourselves, along with more direction information, for the appreciation and edification of our distant descendants.

Of course when one attempts to send a message to future recipients, more than just mere illumination is involved: Often enough the creators and senders of the messages into deep time want to show their remote children (or in certain cases, as we shall see, the remote offspring of other intelligences) that they and their society had something of importance to say and offer, that they mattered as much to and in their era as the recipients likely consider themselves to be of value in their own time and place.

Over the ages, the successes and failures of humanity’s efforts at cultural and informational preservation have primarily depended upon a combination of interest, the utilized technology, the education levels of the participants, and especially the location.

For example, much of what we do know about ancient European societies comes from the efforts of Roman Catholic monks and Muslim scholars who spent centuries during the Middle Ages copying and recopying by hand the relatively few surviving texts from the Greek and Roman eras. Outside of those few centers of learning and preservation, ignorance, neglect, and deliberate destruction turned those once great civilizations into literal ruins and vague cultural memories. Sadly, this has been the fate of most human societies throughout the ages, leaving us with a rather incomplete record of our ancestors’ past.

On Earth, a geologically, environmentally, and biologically active world, most of structures and objects created by our modern human civilization that survive the next several centuries of demolition, discarding, and rebuilding will one day collapse into dust and be buried. Certain deliberately designed artifacts may survive without becoming fossils for longer periods, but eventually most things built by our minds and hands will turn into mere remnant artifacts at best. Our biological remains will disappear from the natural historical record even sooner, except for those who are “lucky” enough to be fossilized or artificially preserved.

The ability to preserve aspects of ourselves changed dramatically in the 1950s when we were able to directly access space. Artificial objects in the celestial realm are subject to far less erosion and other debilitating factors than on the surface of our ever-changing planet. In the solar system, a spacecraft might last for many millions of years sitting on the lunar regolith or drifting around our sun in interplanetary space. A vessel sent into the even calmer and emptier reaches of interstellar space is expected to remain intact for one billion years or more. All of these factors involve vehicles and equipment that are protected from the space environment primarily for the duration of their missions. Anything after that is considered a bonus.

It is this feature of very long-term existence beyond Earth that intrigued New York geographer, independent scholar, and photographic artist Trevor Paglen to create an art project and a deeply deep time artifact he named The Last Pictures.

Read more: The Space Review: The Last Pictures: Contemporary pessimism and hope for the future (part 1).

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