2 03 2009


At a NASA sponsored conference on Human Systems I reminded the audience of the impact that a photo of the earthrise over a moonscape had on the perception of our planetary condition. The making of this image marked an important moment in the history of human experience. I suggested that a similar event may mark the first voyage to Mars when the blue planet fades into the background of stars before the red one becomes prominent. The sense of profound isolation may not be pleasant but should make for an interesting moment of reflection. One similar to, but I expect orders of magnitude greater than, when mariners first ventured out of sight of land. These experiences have value to our culture in that they shape our understanding of ourselves. Much of what can be learned about extreme environments will be in the form of data, measurements that we can compare to others that we have made in order to shape an understanding of the new in relation to the known. Some have suggested that extreme environments such as those found in extraterrestrial, undersea or polar environments require interrogation by robotic and remote sensing techniques rather than by human exploration and habitation. While these techniques are capable of providing representations that can be understood intellectually, they are incapable of providing a direct experience. Others argue that human beings are the most robust and versatile autonomous control systems available and must be included on missions for that reason. But beyond functionality and instrumentality, arguments that will be continuously eroded by technological innovation in any case, I argue for the irreplaceability of human presence in extreme environments on the grounds of human experience.

However, there is a contradiction here. Extreme environments, as noted by Louis Bec (2007) , do not exist a priori but depend upon the relationship between an environment and the organism in question. We count those as extreme that are hostile to life and are able to venture into them only by virtue of our technological interventions. We participate to the extent that we can remain within a protective technological bubble. These technologies reduce or eliminate the experience of the extreme conditions even as they protect the organism from it. But, can technologies be developed to open extreme environments to experience rather than shielding us from them? I believe that prototype devices have already been developed that show how this can be accomplished. Perceptual prostheses of the kind described here will enable the direct perception of hostile conditions from with in the technological womb. While humans are physiologically capable of experiencing many salient features of their terrestrial environment, this may not be the case for extreme and alien environments. These environments may require the immediate awareness of other spectra or conditions by means of technologically mediated perception. Prosthetic perception may become a key enabling technology for the habitation of extreme conditions in addition to providing the principle justification for a human presence in them.

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1 03 2009


The synesthetic hypersurface refracts the activity of matter […] It is the hinge-plane not only between senses, tenses, and dimensions of space time, but between matter and mindedness: the involuntary and the elicited.” (Massumi, 2002)

It can be argued that extreme cognition is always already. Its possibilities and limits expressed in the half-second interval between brain stimulus and conscious perception. In that interstice, cognition, hallucination, memory and perception are indistinguishable as potentiality. Physiologist Benjamin Libet called this durational gap readiness potential (RP). Here, matter meets mindedness and past meets future in the illusory “backwards referral” of conscious experience; neural activity prepares a movement before the decision to move is made. Synesthesia research, the study of cross-modal correspondence and the RP interval together provide a resonant playing field for creatively thinking through the dynamics of thought as it melds with sensory experience of the world. One of synesthesia’s primary conditions – involuntary and elicited cross-modal perception – can be considered a link to unraveling the mysterious processing of “mind time.” Brian Massumi’s concept of the biogram exemplifies one effort to interweave these conditions by speculating on the implications of 1) the recursive duration of lived experience manifested in the half-second interval and 2) cross-modal connectedness.

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