Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Are Technologies Cocooning Side Effects Needed for Deep Space Exploration?

Let's consider Mars One, the project with the goal to start a permanent human settlement on Mars.  What's a day like for the first colonists?  How will technology help them to survive physically as well as mentally?

I recently heard the common refrain that technology is driving us apart and creating a personal cocoon that we are individually being drawn into.  Our interactions are becoming smaller with people in face to face situations but larger in virtual settings.  Is this just a part of the natural evolution of the human species?  A necessary step for long duration missions off Earth?  I think it is.

Let's face it, there are not a lot of people who will be going on the first missions to Mars and beyond.  How are they going to deal with the boredom and tedium of months in space traveling to Mars and then years living on a planet with no modern day amenities?  It's not like you will be able to go to the grocery store or head to the theatre or go for a run in the park.  What are they going to do to relieve the boredom?

Phillip K. Dick touched on this in the short story, I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon.  From the wikipedia entry:
In the story, a man (Victor Kemmings) regains consciousness during a failed attempt at cryosleep on board a spaceship. The ship's artificial intelligence cannot repair the malfunction and cannot wake him, so Kemmings is doomed to remain conscious but paralyzed through the ship's entire ten-year-long journey. To maintain his sanity, the AI replays Kemmings's memories to him. But when this goes awry, the ship AI asks Kemmings what he wants most -- and the answer is that Kemming wants the trip to be over and to arrive at his new home. The AI constructs such a scenario for Kemming and plays it to him over and over for the next ten years. When the ship finally arrives at its destination, Kemming cannot accept reality and believes his arrival to be yet another construction.
As well, I feel he touches on the subject again in A Maze of Death.  In this story, the astronauts are trapped in a perilous situation they can not escape.  They are bound to die and as such have decided to spend their final time in virtual reality reliving the same scenario over and over.  This allows them to forget the reality of floating in space, waiting to die.

Yes, not happy stories but then Phillip K. Dick is not about mirth and joy.  He does present interesting takes on how people could deal with long durations of boredom so as to try to stay mentally stable.  I will let you judge if the characters in the stories stay stable.

So, where do I see a connection?  I spent a couple years deeply engrossed in virtual reality playing Asheron's Call, an early fantasy MMORPG.  I gave up months of my life to the game.  During this time I formed relationships with people I have never met in real life.  I travelled a virtual world that I can still to this day see in my mind like I was there.

I don't remember these times as me looking at a computer.  I was there, in a physical form, with my friends, standing on a mountain after a long day of dungeon crawling, watching the sun set on our virtual world.  I was there, surrounded by my friends in combat against virtual creatures.  It does not in my minds eye feel like it was someone else, it feels like it was me there.  Minus the death and running.

I think that connections to Earth like Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, the greater internet, social media, and virtual reality gaming will be critical to helping space travellers stay in touch.  It will be a critical component to keeping their mental health in check.

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