By David Beaver
Cofounder, The Overview Institute
The Importance of the Planetary Documentary
The Overview Effect is the impact of space travel on the human mind and society. While until now it has been the exclusive experience of government astronauts, soon commercial space travel will make it available to tens of thousands of private citizens, spreading this profoundly positive perspective through our culture.
The curious question is why half a century of astronaut statements and pictures have not already brought this awareness to the world. The answer lies in the very nature of the Overview Effect and the inherent barriers to communicating such a radically different perspective. Today, the effort and expense of space travel is justified by scientific, strategic and more recently, business reasons. Leaving the Overview Effect to be discovered after the fact has greatly hindered all space programs, both public and private.
By understanding the reality and nature of the Overview Effect, as well as the difficulty of communicating it, two goals will be reached simultaneously. First, we will see a new and far more universal reason for all space programs. And second, we will begin the unexpectedly difficult effort of communicating this hugely valuable cultural shift in perspective. Overview, the best and most professionally produced media piece on the subject to date, powerfully adds to this effort.
What is the Overview Effect?
The essential nature of the Overview Effect experienced by space travelers is a shift in their internal model of the world, or “Worldview,” often resulting in changed or enriched ideas, attitudes, and behaviors concerning life on Earth. It is similar to other better-known and more widely studied experiences that broaden one’s conception of the world.
Examples are global travel, higher education and the heightened sense of the natural world that often accompanies mountain climbing, wilderness trekking, ocean sailing, and other extreme experiences. All create shifted worldviews previously based only on media portrayals. Frank White, author of The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, calls them “Overview Analogues.” While the analogues focus on individual aspects, the extraordinary scope of the Overview Effect shifts one’s perspective on the entire Earth.
While every school child knows that we live on a small round planet hanging in a star filled universe, many astronauts say they realized that this had been only an intellectual understanding until their direct experience “rewrote” their worldview and they became “Citizens of the Earth” rather than just their place of origin. This often leads to a sense of stewardship and awareness of the unity of the planet.
Relationship of the Overview Effect to Current World Challenges
The most significant fact about this constellation of shifted perspectives is how closely they correspond to many critical issues currently occupying the world’s attention, i.e., increased sensitivity to the environment, international conflicts, natural resource shortages, and a host of humanitarian concerns.
Leaders working on various world problems have long argued that a planetary perspective is vital to addressing global issues. The Overview Effect reveals space travel as a powerful technological tool that enables just such a shifted worldview and will change the perceived value of space flight.
Perception Research and the Overview Effect
Current cognitive (brain/mind) research into human perception helps to explain both the Overview Effect and the difficulty of communicating it. It reveals how deeply dependent perception is on prior sensory experience and mental models.
The brain takes “inherently ambiguous” sensory data and creates visual images that correspond remarkably to our experience. Hence, what we are seeing is not a direct mirror image of the world but a model created by the brain/mind based on prior experience or knowledge. In the scientists’ words, we perceive our brain’s “best guess” as to what is “out there.”
The Difference between the Perception of Space and Space Media Images
Research also shows the vast difference between media images and direct perception. As Apollo 11 Astronaut Michael Collins has said:
“Those who saw pictures of the Earth and then thought ‘Oh, I’ve seen everything those astronauts have seen,’ were kidding themselves…an image alone was a pseudo-sight that denies the reality of the matter.”
Art and media theory have long recognized that the brain can only “see” depth, shape, and a sense of reality in pictures by drawing on prior sensory experience. Many speak of images as a “visual language” that we learn to “read” much as we do words.
Unlike the astronauts, our mental models of space are based only on other space media! Overview “analogues” have been experienced by millions, but only slightly more than 500 people have traveled into orbit or to the moon. Thus we have no personal perceptions of space, and little shared knowledge to inform our “reading” of space images.
The shock of seeing pictures of the Earth for the first time did offer new sensory information that shifted our worldview. But now those same images add little to our mental models.
A New Space Age Has Begun. Why then is it Necessary to Spread the Overview Effect Now?
Commercial space companies like Virgin Galactic, XCORE and Bigelow Aerospace are creating public space travel. NewSpace Industry projections suggest tens of thousands of private citizens will be exposed to the Overview Effect over the next decade.
To bridge the cognitive/media barriers to the Overview Effect, new forms of space media are needed, drawing directly on the astronauts’ “Overview” descriptions and crafted with artistic talent and sensibility. Many astronauts have argued for such collaborations since the days of the Apollo Program. New generations of simulation technology will also bring a heightened sense of reality to space media.
Communication of the Overview Effect needs to begin well before public space travel becomes commonplace because of the inherent resistance to shifting paradigms and worldviews. Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which introduced the idea of “paradigm shifting,” explained that scientists’ mental models so shape their concepts and even their perceptions, that those who hold different mental models in some sense live in different worlds and have great difficulty even seeing the evidence of other paradigms.
This parallels the differences between those who have seen the Earth as a planet in space and many who have not.
Communicating the Space Experience
The space industry’s efforts to educate the public on their services have focused more on technology than the experience. While sometimes described as “life-changing,” the nature of the space experience is seldom explained. Their marketing is directed at the “Space Enthusiast” who already values space travel.
However, many technology-marketing gurus such as Regis McKenna and Geoffrey Moore have emphasized that the psychology of the mainstream buyer is more pragmatic than that of the enthusiast. They urge communicating to them the “experience” of the product and its life- or work-enhancing benefits rather than just the technical features that attract the enthusiast.
Moore says that new technology companies that fail to shift their marketing message early enough risk falling into the “chasm” between the two market psychologies.
While many NewSpace leaders are knowledgeable and successful businesspeople, as space enthusiasts, they tend to underestimate the difficulty in communicating the real value of space travel. Today, even among those who are aware that public space travel will soon be available; there is much opposition to from those who see it as a diversion of resources from current world challenges.
The Missing Piece is the Overview Effect
By spreading awareness of the Overview Effect, the value of space travel to the world will change dramatically, bringing about this positive worldview shift much sooner.
Since shifting worldviews is difficult, marshalling the knowledge, advanced tools, and strategies to raise awareness of the Overview Effect needs to begin NOW rather than waiting until after commercial space flight begins. As Thomas Kuhn emphasized, predictions made prior to demonstrations are more powerful drivers of paradigm change than those made after demonstration.
This is the work of the Overview Institute and the real value of Planetary Collective’s “Overview” documentary. We hope that all those who see the value of quickly spreading this “meme” through our culture will help us to viralize the message of “Overview.”