By Bethany Webb-Strong
2017 will mark the fortieth year since NASA sent off voyagers I and II on a tour of the solar system and then beyond into interstellar space. On board these vessels, which were designed to last for thousands of years, was a time capsule of sorts named the golden record. This record was created in the hope that one day extra-terrestrials may intercept the ship and listen. Carl Sagan was commissioned in 1977 to produce the record, which includes a message reflecting the diversity of life on earth and what it means to be human.
The golden record is certainly not our first attempt at a time capsule. William Jarvis recognises that “there have been time-capsule type experiences ever since humans have measured time”. A look at the contents (and omissions) of the record show an interesting picture of what a small team in America deemed to be the essence of human life. The record notably omits any images of war, strife or poverty, reflecting an immensely inaccurate, utopian view of our civilisation. The contents are inevitably prejudiced and discriminatory; the record names US senators but leaves persons of other races anonymous. Indeed, it is unclear why NASA thought that Carl Sagan was qualified to produce a message from the entire human race and it was inevitable that an exceedingly limited and predisposed dispatch would follow. “It was very presumptuous of Carl Sagan and the rest of the US to speak for Earth [in 1977],” Lomberg told National Geographic in 2014, “but at the time it was either do it that way or don’t do it at all”.
The record produced in 1977 includes greetings in fifty-five different languages, messages from President Carter and UN Secretary General Waldhiem and ninety minutes of a mixture of all types of music. More controversially, it features a kiss which Sagan was under strict orders from NASA to keep heterosexual (as if we could tell the difference). Clearly, the moral order of the time drastically influenced the material covered on the record. Not only was the kiss censored; the nude images of a man and a woman were only shown as figures without the anatomy depicted in detail. Perhaps there was a concern that extra-terrestrial beings would find this crude. Whatever the reason, it seems ludicrous that such a natural part of humanity was so thoroughly censored. Restraints upon the message did not only come in the form of moral authority. Legal restraints were also present; the copyright for ‘Here Comes the Sun’ was not granted by the publisher, despite the Beatles consenting to its inclusion.
If nothing else, the record represents humanity’s innate desire to make a mark on the future, but what does it really say about the future of our race? Is the capsule timeless? Or would a record produced today look very different from forty years ago?
Perhaps, more poignant is what a record produced today would include. It is pertinent to note that the record created forty years ago was tasked by the United States, which inevitably led to extensive limits on the material. It is interesting to consider how society would approach such a task today. Would it fall again to America? Would their newly elected ‘The Donald’ spearhead the mission? It seems we would be left with a message of white male discontent, images of walls to keep out outsiders and a farcical assortment of testimonies to ‘Great’ America. Perhaps women would not even make it onto the record. Or worse still, a message of aggression to aliens may be extended. If Trump feels threatened by Mexican immigrants, imagine how his hostility would extend to extra-terrestrial beings.
It would be nice to think that a record of today would be more inclusive and representative, markedly different from the last record. The reissuing of the golden record to the public and the commentary alongside this move seems to suggest the capsule reflects a timeless depiction of our race. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The message inevitably conveys a prejudiced snapshot of a mere sector of humankind. Azzera calls it “kind of like the ultimate selfie of human kind”. Furthermore, what language would be contained on a capsule today? Language is an immense part of our lives and the relevance of slang (and even memes) would surely make an appearance. In the last forty years, humankind has made leaps and bounds in technological and scientific advances. It seems unlikely that we would extend the message in the same vinyl format given the availability of 3D videos and the like.
Not only would the format of the message be different in shape, but it is also undeniable that our progressions, both legal and political, would influence the creation of a new record. The emergence of environmental law would undoubtedly feature. Our increasing awareness of our own destructive nature and the importance of other living creatures and our climate may also lead to inclusion of non-human life on the capsule. However this would depend on whether the creator connected the existence of environmental issues with the meaning of human existence.
The law has also progressed in terms of human rights and the protection of the vulnerable. One could suggest that this would mean a capsule that would be more indiscriminate and inclusive. It may even attempt to reflect our values of equality, dignity and freedom. However, this would once more depend on how constrained the creators felt by ‘political appropriateness’. It would be interesting to see how the record would deal with communication between nations and political alliances, especially given that we are on the brink of Brexit. Or perhaps this would be deemed either irrelevant in the portrayal of what it means to be human, or too controversial to tackle in what could be called a glorified mix tape.
Science takes a higher precedence on the original record. Why, then, is this projected above politics, law, order and society? Do they not constitute what it is to be human just as much? Perhaps science was seen to be less contested and more fixed. However, recent developments disprove this assertion; we continually discover that our previous scientific knowledge was in error. There are messages from various political leaders, but there is a lack of inclusion of civilisation and our functioning beyond everyday life and eating. Culture features in the form of music, but what of our values? A record today should capture more of our lives beyond our physical workings.
A record produced today would inevitably be just as prejudiced as one forty years ago. All that remains clear is our uncertainty about where the human race is headed. However, perhaps the contents of the record are immaterial and merely a symbol of humanity’s desperation to cling to a future existence, or at the very least remembrance of ourselves. As Einstein wrote, “anyone who thinks about the future must live in fear and terror”.
Given the unprecedented political upheaval this year, the next forty years will certainly be both politically and legally historic, but who will be around to read said history in thousands of years? It is presumptuous to expect that anyone will listen to a record of the human race, or even that other beings would be able to understand our perplexing concoction of sound and images. A capsule is inevitably no more than a snapshot of our existence. We must accept that the record is primarily a message to ourselves, of our values and our prejudices alike, and we learn from what is depicted there, rather than clinging to the fancy of immortalising a partisan version of ourselves in golden vinyl.
Instead of looking outside ourselves for remembrance and recognition, we should reflect inwards and try to resolve the issues of conflict so glaringly absent from the record. Such a record should be a warning of our own misguided, self-serving attitudes, and so too, a celebration of our progress and eccentricities.