Schrodinger & The Golden Records

On interstellar probes, Twitter, and hypothetical audiences.

Art by Ben Hines.

Humans are a curious breed. Fingertips outstretched in the name of progress, we constantly reach into the beyond seeking enlightenment and meaning, ear attuned to the whirring cosmos in hope of a reply.

Perpetually waiting for such an answer, we are also a lonely breed.

In 1977, NASA launched two interstellar probes, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, to study our solar system and space beyond the heliosphere. Aboard each spacecraft is a golden record, a glimpse into the collective consciousness of humanity etched in gold-plated copper intended for an audience only hypothesised; with greetings in 55 languages, soundscapes of Earth, and a selection of music from around the world throughout the ages, they are a cry to some far-off intelligent life that we are (or were once) worthy of intrigue and understanding.

Interim, the face of humanity has changed. The widespread dispersion and omnipresence of smartphone technology, wifi, and social media has arguably made cyborgs of us all — these mediums allow entire relationships to be enacted through screens and a significant portion of ourselves stored in intangible spaces. Despite the reptilian coolness associated with technological augmentation, we use these mediums as windows into our humanity. When we talk of humanness, we talk of vulnerability — of ugly crying and snorting laughter and a base, inherent fallibility (indeed the ability to feel emotion is often the metric of consciousness). Twitter’s thread function in particular encourages live-microblogging our thoughts, and viral memes make relatable all the foolish and ugly emotions and experiences that might otherwise inspire shame. When we spill 280 characters as our thumbs fumble to keep up with our thoughts, we bare our very souls for the world to see.

Only we don’t.

The allure of ‘oversharing on main’ is of intimate and confessional stream-of-consciousness monologue without the intimidating and confrontational nature of tête-à-tête conversation, lacking the pressure of an immediate response or the rawness of being seen vulnerable. To be seen is to be perceived and to risk being perceived incorrectly, and so we circumvent this heartbreak by affording ourselves the luxury of unburdening not without perception, but without knowledge of being perceived. Unlike read receipts on other text-based apps, tweets can be seen without being interacted with; they may be buried in the timeline or skimmed over for other offerings by the sheer volume of output, and public replies don’t encourage reciprocal conversation. The tweet is both seen and unseen, the audience entirely hypothetical. 

And yet, to be seen is to chance being understood, to not feel loneliness settle in the distance between the atoms of your being like mould. When our words exist in purgatory between presentation and interpretation, we are both free of our thoughts yet imprisoned by a vacuum of isolation. The comfort found in authentic relationships is undermined when communication is no longer reciprocal and the accountability of proactive response shifted entirely from the seeker to the sought. But a grotesque glimmer hopes: perhaps, someone will see. Perhaps, such a person may understand. Perhaps, such a person will reach out and give us the answer we crave. 

There is nothing simultaneously more comforting and confronting than yelling into the void when the void can only stare back with marked indifference. We are both seen and unseen, heard and unheard. Our message in a bottle is simply out in the ether, a soul distilled in ones and zeros for a hypothetical audience like a golden record drifting through space, yearning to be played.

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