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On the Sensational and the Banal

I've been watching NASA TV a fair bit recently. If you're not familiar with that, it's mostly live feeds from whatever is happening in space at the moment. The last few weeks, it was the Atlantis shuttle mission (STS-115) to the International Space Station to install some new solar collectors. It's sort of CSPAN-like coverage, but with some really exquisite video of these space vehicles and the earth.

Most people, it seems, would rather be watching Entertainment Tonight, though... catching up on the latest rumors and gossip surrounding the death of Anna Nicole Smith's son, and likewise of the late croc-hunter Steve Irwin.

Space Exploration has became banal.

I remember, as a child of not many years, watching the Apollo moon missions, my Lego reproduction of a Saturn V rocket in hand, each stage disconnected and "returned to earth" along with the fuzzy black-and-white signal coming into the house by rabbit-ear antenna. It was exciting. It hadn't been done before. We were sitting on the edge of history, with one foot in the age where man dwelt exclusively on earth, and one tentative foot in the "Space Age." It was exciting, and it was on everyone's lips. Now, unless the shuttle blows up, it's almost not news. The shuttle landed successfully in Florida again. Ho-hum.

And that's the way of things, I suppose. Technology becomes commonplace, and we soon take it for granted. A century ago, the automobile was as exotic as, say, your neighbor commuting home on his personal helicopter. That was the sort of stir the vehicle evoked: the auto mechanic was a heroic figure. Decades before that, the railroad engineer captured the hearts and minds of young boys. Today, an engineer is no longer so presigious a calling, and I don't need to tell you how highly auto mechanics are regarded...

(And it won't be long before, say, software engineers suffer a similar fate. ;-)

So there are two points to this. One is that popular appeal is fickle, and even though there's still a lot going on in our continued space exploration, it doesn't happen at a fast enough pace—or at least, isn't sensational enough—for the ordinary person to keep an interest alive. Watching NASA TV might be seen as gauche. Un-trendy. Even geeky (and not in a good way.) Which is too bad. There's so much still going on.

But the other point is that horizons, frontiers, limits, are always expanding. Technology is always changing; that much is certain. But as a result, our perception of it is, too. The exciting, cutting-edge pioneering work of today is likely to be the greasy-overalls toil of the future.

That's the human condition, no? The once-exciting is boring; the sensational, banal. The fuel of innovation, I suppose. I wonder where it'll take us.

Sections: 1

How Mundane is Your Day?
 — Thomas M. Tuerke

Here's a thought: no matter how mundane and ordinary life seems today, it would knock the socks off of anybody from a hundred years ago.

They say you get sick of Disneyland after a certain age, until you "rediscover" it with kids who are experiencing it for the first time. Imagine being a tour-guide for a time-traveller from, say, 1906.

Let's see. What could we show them?

  • Waking up to a radio broadcast.
  • Hot coffee, pretty much "on demand."
  • Almost endless supplies of hot water.
  • Microwaves, toaster ovens...
  • Land-line telephones, not to mention cellular phones.
  • Paved streets from everywhere to everywhere, and cars driving at "break-neck" speeds (faster than 20 miles per hour) on them.
  • City skylines, day and night.
  • The supermarket produce aisle, and just about every other aisle, for that matter.
  • Television, DVD's, CD's, MP3's...
  • Computers, and the Internet.
  • Flying to just about everywhere in the world.
  • Vaccines and cures for a host of all-too-common diseases last century. Polio? Rubella? Back then, these were common. Today, a case is almost headline news.

Imagine seeing your day-to-day life as a time-tourist from a hundred years ago would... it would be kind of interesting, wouldn't it?