Apollo, Apple, and Cosmic Nihilism
Apollo and Apple. There’s a deep existential connection. Apollo was the great secular and scientific triumph which generated awe and wonder around the world. By showing Earth alone amid the black void of the universe, Apollo also introduced cosmic nihilism to the world. Apollo forced humanity to confront the possible meaninglessness of our existence on a tiny planet. Meanwhile, Apple’s products generate awe and wonder, while personifying our species’ attempt to counter the nihilism with cosmic narcissism and endless consumption—the only narratives with meaning offered by secular culture.
Rather than living in a mere postmodern culture or post-fact culture, we’re living in a post-Apollo culture trapped in a desperate quest for meaning and relevance. That’s because our secular thinkers and artists have not developed a unifying philosophy that provides meaning and hope in a vast universe in which our planet and species are insignificant and perhaps meaningless. Ironically, post-Apollo culture is trapped in pre-Copernican worldviews. That’s why we are nowhere near the space-faring civilizations in the original Star Trek (1966–1969) or in Stanley Kubrick’s philosophical masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
Apollo and Cosmic Nihilism
In December of 1968, the Apollo 8 spacecraft headed to the moon, with the astronauts becoming the first humans to escape Earth’s gravity and leave the planet. En route to the moon, the Apollo 8 astronauts turned the TV camera back toward Earth and showed our planet floating in space (Photo 1). Later, as the Apollo 8 astronauts orbited the moon, they turned their 35mm camera back toward Earth and took the photo known as Earthrise (Photo 2). By showing Earth against the black cosmic void, Earthrise provided humanity with its first view of its true existential condition, namely that we inhabit a tiny planet floating alone in a massive universe. This visual perspective introduced cosmic nihilism to humanity—namely that our planet and existence are insignificant, not the center of anything, and perhaps meaningless in the vast and ancient universe. Further, the images challenged the narratives humans have long used to explain their origins and destinies. Naturally, most humans soon tuned out these new possibilities.
Apollo 8 and its cameras showed we were the center of nothing in an immense and majestic cosmos. Apparently, this truth was so terrifying that NASA altered the perspective of the original photograph (Photo 3) by flipping it 90 degrees clockwise—so that Earth was rising above the moon. This perspective gave humans the cognitive feel of cosmic stability. I guess NASA deemed the original photo too vertiginous, as if humanity could fall off at any moment. Amid the great triumph of venturing to the moon, Apollo 8 offered a massive injection of cosmic nihilism into human consciousness. This was a deep and profound existential shock from which the human species has yet to recover. The evidence is all over our planet, ravaged by warfare, consumption, and pollution, the very expressions of our deep-seated cosmic narcissism.
The Apollo Moment
Apollo’s images of Earth from space challenged humanity’s grand narratives about our origins, societies, and destinies. Combined with the insights of Darwin and evolution, the view of Earth floating alone in space—with no borders visible amid the clouds, oceans, and land masses—could only mean we humans are a single species sharing a single planet with millions of other species. The views of Earth from space instantly refuted the tribalism and nationalism that had long dominated human society, still wedded to visions of planetary conquest and the domination/exploitation of other humans. Though the Cold War was raging, Apollo offered a moment to hit the pause button—a moment to rethink what we were doing on planet Earth and begin developing a new narrative for a planetary civilization.
Yet, when confronted with Earth in the cosmic void, the Apollo 8 astronauts resorted to reading from the Bible’s Genesis to a global TV audience approaching one billion people. Five decades later, Genesis and stories of all-powerful Creators still reign as the dominant narratives most humans turn to for explaining humanity’s origins and destiny in the universe.
In contrast, the overall secular meanings of Apollo 11’s moonwalk and Neil Armstrong’s phrase—“One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”—have yet to generate any serious challenge to the theologies and cosmic narcissism that inspire most of the people on planet Earth. Though Earthrise and Apollo did inspire Earth Day (founded in 1970) and help reboot the environmental movement, ecology as a secular narrative has been overwhelmed by the narratives of consumer society. By 1972, NASA ended the Apollo trips to the moon. The Apollo moment quickly disappeared. Few cared.
Post-Apollo Culture: Countering Nihilism with Narcissism
In the wake of Apollo and the cosmic nihilism it televised, we found ourselves facing two potential paths into the future:
1. We could deny the cosmic nihilism and continue seeking meaning in our pre-Copernican narratives (Creators, tribes, careers, corporations, nations, wars, etc.), while maintaining the illusion of cosmic centrality with theism, consumerism, and social media technologies.
2. We could develop a new cosmic cultural narrative that overcame the nihilism by integrating our planet and species into the cosmology of the expanding universe. From that would emerge a peaceful, sustainable, and enlightened secular planetary civilization.
Since Apollo, most everyone selected some combination of path 1. It’s the “pre-Copernican” path, the path that keeps us at the center of the universe. While our sciences have continued to accelerate into the future and into ever-deeper space, most of our cultural ideologies have reversed inward toward pre-Copernican cosmic centrality, symbolized by the narcissistic fixation on Creators, consumption, and selfies. So in some ways we are going forward, but in many ways we are going backward. It’s cognitive acceleration and reversal happening at the same time. It’s like we’re moonwalking into the future—Michael Jackson style, not Neil Armstrong style.
That’s part of the irony of post-Apollo culture. We discovered a majestic and mind-blowing universe, erased it from our daily existence, and then still pretended to be the center of it all. Since 1969, we have been living a post-Apollo culture where the acceleration of art, science, and technology into the cosmos are countered by retreats into ever more tribalism and narcissism on Spaceship Earth. With no connection to nature or the cosmos, today’s dominant secular narratives are devoid of any sense of universal meaning or shared cosmic destiny. Most of secular culture is still pre-Copernican in its counter to cosmic nihilism. Should we be surprised that fundamentalist and creationist narratives are proliferating around the planet, offering Creators with promises of eternity and salvation beyond consumption?
Apple: From Outer Space to Cyberspace
If any one firm typifies post-Apollo culture, it is Apple Computers. Founded in the aftermath of Apollo in the 1970s, Apple has co-evolved with media culture to express the cosmic narcissism that attempts to counter the cosmic nihilism revealed by Apollo’s views of Earth from space. No products better signify the nonstop narcissism than Apollo’s iPads and iPhones — the aptly named devices which let every user pretend to be the center of everything. This is not an indictment of Apple or Apple users (I have been using Apple products since the 1980s), but merely the observation that Apple perfectly mirrors the dominant secular narratives since Apollo. With no chance for journeying into space and no meaning for human existence as seen from outer space, the only option secular culture provided was to consume more products and migrate to cyberspace.
Freedom and Desire via the iTribe
As personified by Apple products and its overall identity, the dominant secular narratives direct us to express our “freedom” and “desires” and develop our individual “self” by doing the following:
- Find and adopt an identity within a tribe;
- Endlessly consume products and services to reflect this tribal identity and differentiate yourself from the other tribes;
- Remember that you are unique and super-special; life is all about you enjoying yourself, being entertained, getting it on, and expressing your desires and feelings;
- Use the internet and social media (cyberspace) to express your desires, feelings, and specialness for the world to see, especially for you to see yourself—to reflect you back to you, to say you exist in a massive universe. After all, the iPhones and iPads (and all mobile media) make it feel like the universe and Earth are satellites orbiting around you, that you’re the center of everything.
Through this process of tribal identification and consumption, an individual expresses their freedom and realizes their self—around which is a culture that places our self and it’s desires at the center of everything. We are a culture of iTribes. In fact, this culture places the human species at the center of all value, purpose, and meaning. All of this is precisely the opposite message of Apollo, which showed humanity is one tribe existing at the center of nothing and perhaps with little meaning (at least as we currently understand “meaning”). How did we get here?
Apollo: The End of an Era
In the wake of Apollo, we have followed the trajectories in technology, production, and consumption. In effect, the economics of scarcity have dramatically evolved with the introduction of new technologies and changing demographics — from scarcities of goods to desires to attention.
By the time the Apollo program arrived, industrial capitalism was highly efficient in making most products abundantly available, so buying products to satsify needs was superceded by consuming products to satisfy desires. Products and services were branded and customized to satisfy consumer society’s new scarcity: desires and identities. By the 1950s, General Motors dominated the automobile market by offering multiple vehicle designs and colors aimed at a diversity of desires and unique preferences (Ford was slow to follow such innovations). Credit cards were also introduced and fiercely marketed by Madison Avenue (as cleverly shown in the hit series Mad Men [2007–2015]).
Critics of capitalism assume these desires are merely byproducts of advertising and commercialism, but many are actually inherent to our species, residing deep in our evolutionary psyche. For example, we have a primal need for the world around us to have an aesthetic quality. (See, Ellen Dissanayake’s profound book, Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why, 1992). We need artistic design that inspires us and products and services we appreciate and respect, as Apple founder Steve Jobs understood all too well. In principle, there is nothing profane about product consumption in such contexts. It becomes a problem when satisfying the desires lead to hyper-consumption and obscene levels of narcissism, tribalism, and massive pollution.
With the proliferation of radio and television, western society saw the rise of cultural and consumer tribalism, beginning with the Beats in the 1950s, the mods and hippies in the 1960s, then the punks, rappers, new wavers, and urban cowboys in the 1970s and 1980s, followed by a succession of yuppies, preppies, goths, gangstas, grungers, grrls, geeks, gamers, techies, hipsters, fashionistas, metrosexuals, lumbersexuals, and so on. In the 1960s, Coke gave birth to Sprite and Tab, and eventually Diet Coke and Coke Zero. Blue jeans came in pre-shrunk, bell bottoms, and women’s styles, then stone washed, loose fit, boot cut, and skinny cut. Levi’s was challenged by Lee and Wrangler before Calvin Klein, Jordache, and Guess arrived on the scene. By the 1970s, cable introduced specialized TV programming, followed in the 1990s by the explosion of the internet and the ever more tribalized and personalized social media of the 21st century — which encourage a daily existence of 24/7 entertainment.
From this perspective, Apollo 11 signaled the end of an era, at least for television, electronic media, and shared identities and universal destinies. Apple, the internet, and social media take center stage.
The Internet and Social Media
With proliferating and miniaturizing media technologies, electronic capitalism was poised to satisfy the next scarcity: attention and engagement. Television merged with microprocessors in the creation of the personal computer. This was followed by the internet, which connected computers around the world. The World Wide Web provided a way for computers to “communicate,” which soon led to social media, linking people via cyberspace. But the internet soon became another delivery system for cosmic narcissism and ever more iTribes in a 24/7 entertainment culture.
We were invited to explore a range of internet aggregators (Yahoo, Google, Amazon, YouTube) and attention-consuming social media (Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram) accompanied by engagement phenomena (blogging, fan cultures, micro-celebrities, binge viewing, status updates). Consumer products complement these trends, including craft breweries, artisan coffee houses, and restaurants and supermarkets offering locally grown produce, grass-fed beef, and organic poultry. By purchasing these various items and products, we subsequently purchase the tribal identities they represent, all designed to make us feel hip and super-special. In post-Apollo culture, we have gone from mass production to mass customization to mass participation, under the imperative of satisfying more desires and creating “unique” and “authentic” identities while consuming endless products and entertainment—the worlds of the iTribes. And we talk nonstop about these tribal worlds on the internet and in the 24/7 media spectacle.
NASA’s Budget v. Apple’s Profits
Apple has profited off humanity’s deep-seated “pre-Copernican” desire for cosmic centrality. Of course, Apple is but one of the millions of firms and organizations that celebrate and capitalize on the planetary tribalism of post-Apollo culture. As of 2015, Apple sold over 700 million iPhones. In 2014 alone, iPhones contributed over $120 billion to Apple’s overall $182 billion in revenue for the same year. So NASA‘s current budget (about $18 billion) is less than 20% of Apple’s 2014 iPhone sales and equals Apple’s $18 billion profit for the fourth quarter of the same year. That’s right: NASA’s budget equals Apple’s profits for three months.
We similar patters in the advertising industry. Global advertising expenditures reached $590 billion in 2015, and Google grabbed 11% of that with over $67 billion while Facebook had $17 billion. This means spending on global advertising is 31 times greater than NASA’s $18 billion budget, while Google’s ad revenues are triple NASA’s budget and Facebook’s ad revenues almost equal NASA. Mobile-media advertising has also tripled NASA with $60 billion
Universal Truths vs. Transient Enthusiasms
It is possible the proliferation of tribes may signal a new cultural universality, a vibrant new model for a hybrid global civilization. Maybe the diversity and universality will converge and replicate within the cultural niches and media technologies. Then again, as surfers of tweets, status updates, and websites, we may become ever more shallow, ever less grounded, potentially more open-minded in some aspects yet close-minded about any cosmic truths beyond the electronic screens and our attention deficit disorders. While I do hope this era of diversity might be able to generate an age of benevolent universality, I can’t help but be skeptical when I look at the Google News reader or peruse the user comments following any given internet article about the events of the day. As of 2017, superficiality and diversity seem to have overwhelmed depth and universality.
Apollo and space exploration ultimately signify humanity’s quest for universal truths. By contrast, media culture is solely invested in transient enthusiasms — products, messages, and events that are hollow and vacant of deep meaning and hence disposable, only to be replaced with new hollow and vacant products, messages, and events. We get bored quickly; nothing holds our attention for too long. Space enthusiasts are psyched about the idea of a mission to Mars, but in truth, such a voyage will have minimal impact. Apollo itself became just another transient enthusiasm, serving more as spectacle and entertainment instead of having any long-term meaning as a cosmic narrative for our species. Apollo has long been eclipsed by Apple.
iTribes Lost in Space
All of the above is what freedom means in secular culture—the freedom to endlessly consume and celebrate one’s tribal self. Meanwhile, the planet and oceans are being pillaged and polluted to serve our cosmic narcissism. A sixth extinction event is likely underway and we have entered the Anthropocene, the human epoch in which we are altering the geological layers of the planet. Yet, we continue our consumption and plan on extending this culture to the moon and Mars.
In terms of daily life and meaning, nothing has changed since Apollo provided the views of Earth from space. Our everyday existence is more or less akin to a human carnival inside a technological shell, where most everyone is scurrying about in a desperate search for meaning and relevance, supposedly satisfied by our tribal identities, fulfilled desires, and super-specialness. The very cultural narratives we need right now require the integration of science-based cosmology, ecology, and technology. Such cosmic cultural narratives have the potential to unite human society over the long term — that is, if we can find them and embrace them.
But how can we when our post-Apollo civilization is divorced from the universe? With electric light constantly spewing photons into the sky, the closest most stargazers get to observing the planets and the Milky Way is by watching a science documentary on TV, a video on YouTube, or a Milky Way app on their iPhone. Absent a cosmic cultural narrative, we find ourselves with no universal philosophical foundations for the beliefs and activities of the human species — on our planet or in the cosmos. As a species currently without a cosmology, we are lost in space.
When are we going to accept the challenges posed by Apollo and Kubrick in 2001? It’s time to develop a new philosophy for human existence, based on our actual place in the cosmos. Why not embrace our non-centrality as a new starting point in an awe-inspiring universe? Isn’t time to grow up?
The above is based on passages from my new book, Specter of the Monolith (2017). For more information or to purchase the book in Amazon, click here.
To view a 30-second trailer for the book, see below.