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Pics or we didn't happen
October 30, 2012 12:58 PM   Subscribe

The Last Pictures. In Billions of Years, Aliens Will Find These Photos in a Dead Satellite. Interview with artist Trevor Paglen (previously).
posted by homunculus (33 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
The pictures seem pretty poorly chosen. A few shots of adult representatives of both sexes from all major ethnic groups with no physical defects would seem to be a necessary start to give the hypothetical aliens a reference point for the other photos of humans outside that norm (the shot of the children with skull deformities for example).

Further, if you're going to the expense of a satellite in geosynch filled with gold nanoetched images, why limit yourself to 100 black and white photos? For only a little more mass and expense you can get nanoetchings of a wide variety of literature, or just a bigger library of photos. Heck, even video and sound can be added for not much more money.

The project seems more like a bit of performance art than any real attempt to achieve the claimed goal. The photos, especially, seem chosen to challenge and engage modern American/European viewers rather than to be actually representative of humanity.
posted by sotonohito at 1:07 PM on October 30, 2012 [24 favorites]


Nowadays whenever I give it any thought, I can only think that aliens aren't gonna have any idea what to make of us if they can even differentiate us from background noise.
posted by cmoj at 1:10 PM on October 30, 2012


Don't misunderstand, it's interesting, and I think homunculus for linking, I just think it seems like a potentially useful project that has been poorly implemented.
posted by sotonohito at 1:10 PM on October 30, 2012


Either that or they're gonna find this thing and think we're a race of angsty art school students.
posted by cmoj at 1:11 PM on October 30, 2012 [20 favorites]


The complete set of one hundred images can be found in The Last Pictures book, co-published by Creative Time Books and University of California Press, available for purchase in bookstores nationwide and online.

When you proclaim you've made some art statement through timeless expression of humanity, but you won't show humanity the pictures unless they buy the book, you unintentionally tell humanity more about itself than any of the pictures will tell to an alien.
posted by Muddler at 1:15 PM on October 30, 2012 [44 favorites]


I think homunculus for linking

And I thank you for thinking me.
posted by homunculus at 1:37 PM on October 30, 2012 [5 favorites]


The project is based on the idea that after billions of years, all signs of human civilization will have eroded away on Earth, but its satellites will still spin around the planet, making them the best bet for an indefinite time capsule.

Seems they forgot that the projected lifetime of our sun is approximately 5 billion years. Sometime after that our sun will start to become a red giant, and will engulf the Earth and its satellites. So the aliens better hurry.
posted by Uncle Grumpy at 2:04 PM on October 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


To be honest, my money's on the Voyager Golden Record for alien discovery / last representative of humanity. Seems like anything leaving the Solar System stands a better chance.

Also, wouldn't drag on the geosynchronous satellites eventually slow them enough to fall back to Earth well before billions of years?
posted by scottcal at 2:12 PM on October 30, 2012 [5 favorites]


i will bet anyone $1 million that the book's got a picture of Beavis in it.
posted by facetious at 2:44 PM on October 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


It's comforting to imagine wise aliens in the distant future being fascinated by our space artifacts, but I'm convinced the Voyager Golden Record will be collected by an Earthling on a faster-than-light stunt 500 years from now. Its contents will reveal little about 20th century Earth but will nevertheless be remixed into a pop video that goes viral.

I give the Last Pictures satellite about seventy five years before it meets a similar fate.
posted by Chinese Jet Pilot at 2:55 PM on October 30, 2012 [4 favorites]


As a thought experiment, I propose a similar project, with a slight twist: Select the 100 images which, without context, would be the most utterly baffling to whatever hypothetical far-future alien xenoethnographer beholds them.

Difficulty: nothing from memebase.com.
posted by sourcequench at 3:02 PM on October 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


All the pics being B&W may lead to aliens assuming we're all colorblind.
posted by doctor_negative at 3:05 PM on October 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


All this assumes space aliens have eyes, of course.

That kind of anthropomorphism says more about us than anything depicted in those photos can or does.
posted by notyou at 3:15 PM on October 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I thought that this was going to be about the Voyager Golden Record, which will be ploughing its way through interstellar space long after the Sun has ballooned up to swallow the earth and any remaining artificial satellites in orbit, including this art project.

The photos, especially, seem chosen to challenge and engage modern American/European viewers rather than to be actually representative of humanity.

This, truly. It's pretty clear that the photo book — and its sales to first-world, liberal-artsy homo sapiens — was their primary product, and the satellite second, or else they would have put some more thought into it and come up with a much more representative set of photos, or maybe just well-digitized copy of Gray's Anatomy.

Luckily Carl Sagan beat them to this particular project and did a better job.
posted by Kadin2048 at 3:36 PM on October 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


Somebody's been littering and.... littering and...
posted by phaedon at 3:37 PM on October 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


My money's on the idea of finding a way to modulate the Sun's emission spectra by serious laser, and letting that go for a few million years.

As for content? The complete Police Academy oeuvre should give them a pretty good idea.
posted by Devonian at 4:08 PM on October 30, 2012


"These satellites are destined to become one of the longest-lasting artifacts of human civilization, quietly floating through space long after every trace of humanity has disappeared from the planet."

Well, AFAIK the satellites are probably destined to either fall to Earth and be destroyed in the process or to be disintegrated by space debris over a time frame far shorter than billions of years.
posted by vidur at 4:08 PM on October 30, 2012 [4 favorites]


Heck, even video and sound can be added for not much more money.

Yeah, why didn’t they put up an ipod and maybe a cool selection from the itunes store? Or maybe a bunch of credit and let them pick out what they want to watch?
I think the idea was that they wanted something that had a chance of lasting a long time.

As far as the comments that the satellite won’t last billions of years, I can’t imagine our civilization is going to be around long enough for that to be a concern. If someone finds it in a few million we will have been long gone. It’s still an interesting project, even if MetaFIlter thinks they’re doing it wrong. I wonder how they’ll sleep tonight?
posted by bongo_x at 4:21 PM on October 30, 2012


Am so going to setup a Kickstarter for Space Goatse just annoy the type of people who think this is meaningful.
posted by Damienmce at 4:56 PM on October 30, 2012


Either that or they're gonna find this thing and think we're a race of angsty art school students.

Maybe we can talk the Chinese into shooting it out of orbit, with goatse nano-etched on the kill vehicle for good measure.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 4:57 PM on October 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


*blink*
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 4:59 PM on October 30, 2012


Either that or they're gonna find this thing and think we're a race of angsty art school students

It Came From the Planet Trust Fund!
posted by maxwelton at 5:14 PM on October 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


Man metafilter loves to criticize stuff they don't really understand. The life of objects that high up isn't limited by orbit decay--it's limited by being pummeled by space dust and potential collisions over thousands, and millions of years. You can keep stuff up there for a billion years, but it might be in pretty bad shape by then.

As for it being an art project. Well duh. It was made by an artist, who said that the selection of photos is more about expressive narrative than simply cataloging life on earth. That's the project goal, and you guys are accusing him of incompetence because he's doing what he said he'd do?

The leaving a clear as possible message project has already been done, several times over. Carl Sagan in one of his books mentions a plaque placed on a satellite that has three drawings of the continents: as the were in the distant past, as they are now, and as we think they will be in the distant future.

So we've done the equivalent of scrawling "I was here" on a park bench, we've done the "this is WHO we are" (most famously with voyager), and this seems to be an attempt at a "this is WHY we are" message.

All that's left is the "trolololol" message where we leave deliberately confusing and deceptive evidence for alien archaeologists, for the lulz.

I have ideas. Call me NASA.
posted by danny the boy at 5:18 PM on October 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ok, I'm a human who lives on earth, and I can't figure out the meaning of most of those photos. How on earth is an alien archaeologist supposed to?

Here is an idea; Code all the text humanity has produced in hardcopy onto metal. Put it on an outgoing space probe.
posted by Canageek at 5:22 PM on October 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Will the aliens have to reload the entire page every time they want to see a new image?!
posted by nosila at 5:32 PM on October 30, 2012 [16 favorites]


As they are aliens, perhaps they will have realized the power of javascript.
posted by Dr. Fetish at 5:36 PM on October 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Don't misunderstand, it's interesting, and I think homunculus for linking, I just think it seems like a potentially useful project that has been poorly implemented.

I wouldn't worry too much, these kinds of projects aren't potentially useful. Even if there are a billion other intelligent species, the chances of any of them running across the bits of matter we've touched is infinitesimally small.
posted by odinsdream at 7:15 PM on October 30, 2012


The KEO satellite is a similar but better idea. Because it's designed to fall back to Earth as a coruscating rainbow 50,000 years from now, it actually has a chance of being discovered by somebody.

There's a big danger, though, that satellites like these will be destroyed by space debris. Either natural space dust or man-made Kessler Syndrome (space junk smashing into other space junk and causing a cascade of shattering junk to make an orbit impassable) will pose a huge hazard to any long-term satellite.

There's also lots of other cool time capsules.
posted by Sleeper at 8:47 PM on October 30, 2012


*blink*

We are one in Goatse.
posted by homunculus at 9:24 PM on October 30, 2012


I think the photos were selected in such a way that the selector believes will make him to be perceived by other artists, as sophisticated. IOW: Wankers In Spaaaaaaaceeee!
posted by Goofyy at 3:23 AM on October 31, 2012


@bongo_x: I think you misunderstood. Video and sound can be nanoetched on long term media as well. It costs more, because it's more data to encode, but it's far from impossible and has been done.

"Lasting a long time" and "video and sound" are not mutually incompatible.
posted by sotonohito at 7:56 AM on October 31, 2012


@bongo_x: I think you misunderstood. Video and sound can be nanoetched on long term media as well. It costs more, because it's more data to encode, but it's far from impossible and has been done.

My smart assed point was; what are you going to play the data on, how are you going to power this device, and/or who’s going to decode it? We will likely not be able to play our own video data in 100 years, I have files from the 90’s I’d have trouble accessing and I kept all the hardware.

There is a fear that another life form would not understand the photographs, encoded video data would seem a stretch. If another being could understand the how to use and process the video data we wouldn’t really need to explain much to them, they would be us.

See; Solaris.
posted by bongo_x at 9:19 AM on October 31, 2012


bongo: That's why the Voyager Golden Record comes with instructions. (As well as a map of where it came from.)

IIRC, Sagan is on record saying that he suspects that the Record would present a multi-generational challenge to an equivalent-tech civilization, should it fall suddenly into their laps; when he sent around drafts of the Record's diagrams to prominent physicists at the time, none of them were able to understand more than parts of it immediately. However, that's a consequence of it being designed to be as non-anthrocentric as possible.

The map, for instance, expresses the position of Earth with reference to a number of very stable pulsars. The assumption being that pulsars are something that any spacefaring civilization would have charted, which seems pretty safe. The pulsars are themselves identified by their pulse frequency, expressed in very simple binary, using the state-transition time of hydrogen as a time base. (Hydrogen was chosen as it's the most common element, and it also has one of the most easily visible transition states.)

The same timebase is used to express the time for each scanline of the recorded video, and the number of scanlines per frame is represented diagramatically.

It's not guaranteed to be decipherable, but it's a pretty good attempt. The intended result is for the whole thing to fit together like a puzzle: if you figure out the 'map' part and which pulsars it refers to, then it will help you decode the video, as it provides an independent time reference, or vice versa.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:41 PM on October 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


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