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We Need a New Vocabulary to Talk About the Human Future in Space

If humans want to expand beyond Earth in an optimal way, we’ll need novel language to keep pace with novel technologies.

by Frank White
Jun 25 2018, 1:00pm

Frank White is the author of The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution and is a commentator on the future of spaceflight.

Some 30 years ago, an incisive comment from the late Tom Wolfe, author of The Right Stuff, inspired me to embark on a quest that has profoundly shaped my outlook and career. In the wake of the Challenger disaster in January 1986, Wolfe appeared with pundit George Will and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov on a panel discussion of “This Week with David Brinkley.”

Responding to Will’s observation that we may need “a new vocabulary to discuss space” because investment in the space program is justified in the “most banal, utilitarian ways,” Wolfe responded: “You put your finger right on it…the country has never had a philosophy of space exploration.”

At this time, I was already thinking about these issues as I worked on my book The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution (now in its third edition). But Wolfe’s observation clarified the need for a broader interdisciplinary conversation about spaceflight, and that effort has focused much of my work since.

It has now entered a new phase with the launch of the website 2211.world, dedicated to the goal of creating a philosophy of space exploration to guide us as humans begin to leave our home planet. The brainchild of Dylan Taylor, who also founded Space for Humanity and co-founded the Space Angels investment group, 2211.world imagines the world 250 years after the first crewed spaceflight in history, Yuri Gagarin’s 1961 voyage in Vostok 1.

“We’ve been exploring space for over 50 years and it’s time we had a discussion about why we are doing it and how we will shape it,” said Taylor. “Opening space is about more than science and engineering. It’s about people, life, and our human future.”

As a co-founder of the site along with Taylor and Rick Tumlinson, initiator of numerous NewSpace efforts, our goal is to build a collaborative effort by some of the most curious minds of our time. We want to avoid the mistakes made in terrestrial exploration, like biodiversity loss and suppression of Indigenous peoples, while creating a robust spacefaring civilization.

But as Will noted in that 1986 panel, we will have to develop an entirely new vocabulary for this philosophy, excluding or redefining some words and adding new ones, because we may find ourselves searching for terminology to describe the concepts we are developing.

Toward that end, I have begun to compile a glossary of relevant terms. Here is a sample of definitions selected from The Overview Effect and my forthcoming book The Cosma Hypothesis: Implications of the Overview Effect, to be published by Emergent Media LLC in 2018.

Contelligence refers to an entity that is both intelligent and self-aware (conscious).

Cosma is another name for the known universe. Giving the universe a name suggests that it may well be alive and contelligent.

The Cosma Hypothesis suggests that everything in the universe (“Cosma”) is a part working with the other parts to support evolution of the whole. Insofar as life is one of the parts, the universe is partly alive. Insofar as life is intelligent and self-aware, the universe is intelligent and self-aware (contelligent).

The Cosmic Web is a term coined by scientists to describe Cosma’s structure. They have found that galaxies organize themselves into clusters and superclusters that spread across the universe in filaments that create the impression of a web.

The Copernican Perspective is the realization that the Earth is not only a whole system of which human beings are part but also that it is a part of the solar system. This perspective recognizes that Copernicus was right: the Sun, not the Earth, is the center of the system. It is a realization, reinforced by the astronauts’ experiences, that our perception from the surface, ie, that the sun revolves around the Earth, is inaccurate.

The Gaia Hypothesis, which was originally advanced by James Lovelock, states that life, rather than being a mere passenger on Spaceship Earth, plays a vital role as a balancing and regulating mechanism. It suggests that the entire planet is an interconnected, living organism.

Galaxia is a galactic overview system manifesting as a galactic civilization, including numerous planetary and solar overview systems, and based on awareness of the galaxy as a whole.

Homo Acumensis is another name for a “Super-AI,” or artificial intelligence system with capabilities far superior to those of humanity.

Homo Spaciens is a radically different kind of human being, one highly adapted to living in the conditions of space and poorly adapted to living on planets.

An Infosystem is an information processing system; the Cosma Hypothesis suggests that every entity in the universe is an infosystem.

The Overview Effect is a shift in worldview reported by some astronauts and cosmonauts during spaceflight, often while viewing the Earth from orbit, in transit between the Earth and the moon, or from the lunar surface. It is also a shift in identity from relating to parts of the planet to relating to the whole system. It refers to the experience of seeing firsthand the reality that the Earth is in space, a tiny, fragile ball of life, hanging in the void, shielded and nursed by a paper-thin atmosphere. The experience often transforms astronauts’ perspectives on the planet and humanity’s place in the universe.

An Overview System is a pattern of organized self-awareness in which the whole is perceived as the context of all the parts within it. An overview system can exist at any level within the universe, from a planet to a solar system to a galaxy and beyond.

Solarius is a solar overview system manifesting as a solar civilization with a presence throughout the solar system, and based on awareness of the solar system as a whole.

Space exploration is the exploration of the relationships among sub-systems within the universe, involving changes in perspective to increasingly more comprehensive points of view (Overview Systems).

Terra is a planetary overview system manifesting as a planetary civilization with a presence in Earth orbit, institutionalized awareness of the planet as a whole, and planetary management as its primary science.

Terranauts are people who have achieved a degree of astronaut awareness without going into orbit or to the moon. They realize that the Earth is a natural spaceship (described as “Spaceship Earth” by Buckminster Fuller and all of us are, in a very real sense, astronauts who make up its crew).

Technos is the worldwide technology system, or technosystem, consisting of satellites, networks, computers, tablets, smartphones, robots, androids, and other interconnected electronic entities.

A technosystem is a nonorganic interconnected system like that described by the term “Technos.”

The Universal Insight is an intensification of the Overview Effect that brings a similar understanding of the nature of the universe and our place in it. It tends to occur when astronauts look beyond the earth and focus their attention on the universe in which our planet exists.

These are some suggestions for a new lexicon of space philosophy, but we should also question some of the existing terms. While censorship is a bad practice, part of developing this philosophy and glossary is to consider words that might be left out, or at least used with caution. For example, “colonization” is being bandied about without much thought as to what it might imply for millions of Earthlings.

To some, the word may hold no charge. However, to those who experienced the destabilizing impacts of colonialism, or heard about it from their parents and grandparents, it calls up images of exploitation and oppression.

Read More: NASA's Newest Interstellar Concepts Rely on Huge Laser Arrays and Gravity Surfing

As Vandana Singh, PhD, Professor and Chair, Department of Physics and Earth Sciences at Framingham State University, told me: “The word 'colonization' or 'colony' can seem innocent. In fact we use it unconsciously all the time with no negative intent…My objection is to the unquestioned use of the word colonization.”

“When we don't question the word, when we don't examine its history, we run the risk of repeating the mistakes that colonizers here on Earth have committed, from habitat destruction to genocide,” she continued. “The current paradigm has ruined our world—look at climate change! I don't see the point in exporting it elsewhere.”

This is to say—words matter. They shape our thoughts, which in turn form our philosophies, which inform our behavior. We need, then, to create new words as the building blocks for a new space philosophy and we must also become more aware of how our old words structure our actions.

Do you have ideas for additional words for the glossary, or a contribution to our space philosophy efforts? If so, reach out to 2211.world.