The collection of images included on EchoStar XVI may be easier
for any extraterrestrial intelligences to find than the plaques
and records flown on the Pioneer and Voyager missions.
(credit: Creative Time)

The Last Pictures:
Contemporary pessimism and hope for the future (part 2)

by Larry Klaes
Monday, February 25, 2013

[Editor’s Note: Part 1 of this essay appeared last week].

Of optimism, pessimism, and convergences

For the most part, one can rather easily be forgiven for thinking that The Last Pictures is primarily an early 21st Century artistic response to or mirror of the Voyager records made 35 years earlier. Most of those who commented on the records in relation to Paglen’s art project, including the artist himself, portray the construction of the Golden Record, those who put it together, and even the era in which this physical Message to Extraterrestrial Intelligences (METI) was made as overly optimistic, especially towards the future in which the shining grooved disc was intended for.

Unfortunately for us, a positive and progressive view of the future has often been seen as both naive and retro since the time of the Voyagers (and often before) in various cultural circles, thanks, ironically, to a growing awareness of the negative effects human civilization has had on our planet’s environment and society. Our cultural and technological problems have often seemed insurmountable in the past and thus the rejection of a bright and shining future and anything that goes along with this view. Whether we become the makers of our own perceived demise has always been up to us, guided by our own mental and educational limitations, biases, and fears.

Now granted, the Record was designed with the intent of putting humanity’s “best foot forward” as declared multiple times in the wonderfully detailed 1978 book about the Record authored by the key members of the creative team titled Murmurs from Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record. While the team certainly knew that the human species and its history was hardly full of saints and noble acts of enlightenment, they decided not to show our pollution, poverty, and warfare among this earliest gesture of introduction to the rest of the Milky Way (or at least some part of it), no more than one who is first meeting a potential friend and ally would start things off by telling them all about their problems and such. There would be the chance that the other person might not be shocked and offended by such an overt act, but it is better not to risk a negative reaction.

Perhaps there are cultures and species which would consider not addressing one’s flaws and other issues up front to be an offending deception, but that, in turn, would be a deception of the culture that made and launched the Voyager Records. With these early, tentative METI efforts heading off into a galaxy with so many unknowns, it is probably best to keep the metaphorical waters as clear as seemingly possible.

Read more: The Space Review: The Last Pictures: Contemporary pessimism and hope for the future (part 2).

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