I got a new ipad app. It is an astonishing piece of technology. It allowed me to point the device at the sky, and a map of the heavens appeared with the stars named, the planets identified, and the constellations lightly manifest in all their Greco-Roman pictography. The app even had a night mode so the touchscreen was displayed in a soft, night-vision friendly red, that allowed you to move from the sky to the pad with a minimum of iris adjustment. What is that star? Point at it and with a couple of calibrating moves between the ipad and the sky you recognize Arcturus. Wonder where Mars is? Ask it, and little arrows appear guiding you to its position, even if it’s through the center of the Earth.
We rushed out after downloading. We’ve spent many nights trying to get a telescope to work, standing thoughtfully under the starry sky venturing to find our physical place in the universe. Now a method was in our hands. A knowledge-base that pointed instantly to the thing in the world to which it was referring. A machine that generated what, for me had been a daunting bit of memorization and patient skytime. I have always had trouble with the constellations. Take Cygnus, for example, the great swan, sure I can pick out the principal stars very quickly, but I was never sure I was including all the stars that make it up, or excluding stars that shouldn’t be counted. There was always a sense of doubt that I had gotten it right. Now, boom! There is is! Those are the stars in it. Those stars don’t count.
We downloaded the app and flew outside. I planned to stay up extra late that night. My son and daughter were with me, and I debated the wisdom of pulling this out on a school-night. Sill! It was the stars! We all love the stars. This was education in action. We had it burning through the digital stream in moments. It was so cool. It showed us that Jupiter and Venus were close together, we found the place Neptune was hanging out, even though we could not make it out with our naked eye. We IDed Cassiopeia and Cygnus. Yes, we looked a bunch of things and had names for them in seconds.
That lasted about fifteen minutes. We were soon bored. The quickest fizzle-out in the history of our backyard excursions into the visible universe (visible that is, from our light-soaked city). We soon wandered back inside. My daughter did not have to compromise her school sleep schedule. I checked Facebook.
Why? Why didn’t this become a night of magic and mystery? This is what I think is the answer to that question, but, in truth, I’m not sure (although I’ve speculated about it in poetry). Experienced nature had been reduced to names. The immersion into nature connects to deeper things. Sometimes when we lie on the lawn with the visible universe above us there is an experiential depth there. I feel connected to bigger things. Something about the grass underneath, and light from ancient stars overhead, and us in between, could be felt as complexity and connectedness. There was something about the machine, the focus on names, that separated us from the things we were seeking knowledge about. This wasn’t about the philosophy of science debates about empirical knowledge (does it count as sensual experience if I’m having it mediated through a microscope, e.g.). But somehow the device cut us off from the very thing we looked to the heavens for. Why this should be so, I’m not sure, but I think it had something to do with the disappearance of wonder. We didn’t have to ask the objects, “What are you? How do you fit into the universe we share?” The names of things became not memory aids (what need is there for those in the digital age), but lists without context or meaning, even thought the context and meaning where handed to us on a plater. Wonder, complexity, place, sensation, were cutout in weird and strange ways that I did not expect or anticipate. Is knowledge without wonder worth having? Is wonder and experience without a physicality a reduction of what and who we are? What’s being lost? Do bodies that feel and sense and experience these connections important? Why did we come here to get one if not?
The final irony was that while the device was in use it played soft, pleasant, new age music. As if the developers knew that something was missing: Ambiance.