Infinite Voyager: The Golden Record

Sound, science, and soft senses in the Digital Humanities

The Voyager 1 is the first manmade spacecraft to enter interstellar space. It was launched on September 5, 1977, with the Golden Record — a documentation of songs, images, and sounds collected from Earth. The record is intended for any extraterrestrial life form or future humans who may find it.

Like most science and sound nerds, I fell for this project when I first heard about it — and hard. So hard that I would regularly visit the Library of Congress site for the Voyager 1 and listen to its audio archive. But the player felt a bit bureaucratic, less inviting and much less magical than the Golden Record lore that drew me to the site in the first place.

Image: Library of Congress, archive.org/details/Voyager1
So, I did what any hardcore fan would do. I built a website for it: http://bit.ly/infinitevoyager
Image credit: Lily Bui

The site runs on JavaScript, jQuery, HTML5, HTML + CSS. The code for the player is open source from SoundManager2 and the code for my site is in my GitHub repo. It has a single-page user interface on purpose to keep the experience simple. It was also my first front-end design/development project and the first site I ever built from scratch.

In broad terms, I wanted to repurpose the public domain audio for a nicer user experience for the listener. To be perfectly frank — I mostly designed this for myself so that I wouldn’t have to access the archival audio through the Library of Congress portal. But apparently, an audience of “myself” also seemed to fit into other use cases, particularly within radio- and science-loving audiences. Since I first published the site, according to Topsy, it’s been circulated by NPR social media strategist Melody Joy Kramer, Creative Commons, Wired writer Aatish Bhatia, the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed UK, Science Studio, an “influential” person at Adobe Engineering, Science Friday Espanol, NOVA PBS, Association of Independents in Radio, someone who stars on the History Channel, and, most importantly, a Mars Rover driver.

All is well and good, and I’m happy to be able to share something that my bleeding geeky heart loves with others. But there’s more to it than that.

This site was the end result of a Digital Humanities module I’m currently taking at MIT, in which we examined a “migration of cultural materials” into the digital space, combining traditional humanities with computational methods (Burdick, et al. 3). So, with my graduate student cap on, I feel obliged — nay, compelled — to share the theoretical basis on which this work is grounded, at least from my perspective.


Manifestoid*

*To extend the space analogy: like meteroids, which are smaller versions of meteors and asteroids, manifestoids are (relatively…relativity-ly?) less pithy manifestos. Like meteroids, they run the risk of burning up in the atmosphere without ever hitting earth. So I’ll try my best here.

When the Voyager 1 spacecraft first reached Saturn, it sent back astonishing, close-up pictures of the planet. For the first time, people on earth saw the detail in its rings, the resolution of its clouds, the girth of its diameter. Then, the Voyager did something else. It swung around, turned the camera back toward us, and took a photo. Below is that photo, and we are right there, “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam,” as Carl Sagan put it, on our little Pale Blue Dot.

Image: Pale blue dot, Wikimedia

In Maps, Graphs, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History, Franco Moretti advocates an approach of “distant reading”: understanding literature not only by studying texts but by aggregating and analyzing massive amounts of data. Close reading, Moretti argues, can’t uncover the true scope of literature (Schultz). Texts are shaped from without as well as within. In our module on Digital Humanities, we discussed data as capta (Drucker), mapping literature (Rosenberg & Grafton), and other ways of diagramming texts in order to experience them differently and potentially coax out patterns we otherwise might miss when reading too myopically.

We might think of the Pale Blue Dot as a distant reading of humankind, and the songs and sounds represented on the Golden Record as capta of us. A Peruvian wedding song, an Indian raga, a heartbeat, the language of whales and the greetings of world leaders — what would a far-off being be able to conjecture from a close reading or “close listening” of the human species?

Media theorist Marshall McLuhan suggests that prehistoric man lived in “a harmonious balance of the senses, perceiving the world equally through hearing, smell, touch, sight and taste. But technological innovations alter this sensory balance” (Playboy interview, 1969). Here, McLuhan is referring to the soft senses, our own five senses. This can be seen in opposition to hard senses, a term I’ve heard used to describe environmental sensing with the aid of ancillary tools. If this is true, then our modern technology has privileged certain senses over others in experiencing the world.

Think about it: we study and read stories and poetry as text, but both were once more commonly performed, heard, felt on multiple levels and with others present. Similarly, in theater, we diagram the movements, dialogue, and action of performers on pages and often study them textually. Hearing is often described as “touch at a distance,” an invisible haptics that evokes alternative pathways into memory, toward truth. Yet we mute this part of this experience in text-based humanities, and other senses too. Thus, I deliberately chose to unmute the oral and aural for the Infinite Voyager.

What might this project also teach us about the concept of authorship? Over three decades, the project has captured the popular imagination again and again, remixed in multipe ways by its fans. I did the same when I chose to repurpose the archival audio for my project. Is the Golden Record a body of work in and of itself, or does the Golden Record corpus include paratextual elements too — everything that has been created and re-created about it, including media, merchandise, even tattoos?

Image: RadioLab episode about the Voyager (radiolab.org)
Image: The Truth podcast Voyager t-shirt, based on an episode called “Voyager Found” (thetruthpodcast.com/)
Image: My tattoo, Voyager etchings mixed with Tycho Brahe model of universe

Umberto Eco asks what it takes for books or movies to become cult objects in fan cultures, then suggests that a work’s fragmentation is inevitably part of that process:

“The work must be loved, obviously, but this is not enough…I think that in order to transform a work into a cult object one must be able to break, dislocate, unhinge it so that one can remember only parts of it, irrespective of their original relationship with the whole.” (Eco 462)

Henry Jenkins, who frequently writes about fan culture, riffs off of Eco and posits a similar view:

“The reader’s activity is no longer seen simply as the task of recovering the author’s meanings but also as reworking borrowed materials to fit them into the context of lived experience…The text becomes something more than what it was before, not something less (Jenkins 51).

The ability to change, reprogram, and remix media is a function of today’s technology and participatory culture. It is a process that returns power to the subject; it affords us the potential to be both authors and spectators of works.

A final node of connection between the Voyager and the Digital Humanities for me is the notion of infinity (hence the name Infinite Voyager). Given the various approaches to analyzing texts, one can either arrive at the idea of fixed meanings or ones that constantly evolve across contexts, across time. The Voyager itself drifts eternally through space, embodying the original meaning instantiated in it by those who were initially involved in its export from earth. And yet, the body of work that has emerged around it since its departure has ascribed always new subjectivity to it, though its contents remain unchanging.

I leave you with this quote from an essay by Elena Passarello, who illuminates something about the Voyager that tethers it, unequivocally, to the humanities and humanism — digital, analog or otherwise:

“…It means more to me that once all the funding and red tape was secure, once the Voyager was loaded with its telemetry modulation units and spectrometers and radioisotope thermoelectric generators, we then made the decision to affix human voices to the contraption’s flanks. And we added not just the voices of our leaders but singing voices…According to NASA and Carl Sagan (and me), this is what we want the universe to hear.” (excerpt from “Space Oddity”)

References:

Special thanks to Professor James Paradis and Professor Kurt Fendt of MIT Comparative Media Studies.

Burdick, Anne et. al. Digital_Humanities. MIT Press: Cambridge, MA. 2012.Drucker, Johanna. “Humanities Approaches to Graphical Display.” Digital Humanities Quarterly. Vol. 5, No. 1., 2011.

Eco, Umberto. “Casablanca: Cult movies and intertextual collage.” Modern Criticism and Theory. Routeledge, 2014.

Jenkins, Henry. “When Texts Become Real.” Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. Routeledge, 2013.

Library of Congress archive, Voyager 1 Golden Record.

Moretti, Fraco. Maps, Graphs, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History. Verso: London, UK, 2005.

Passarello, Elena. “Space Oddity.” Let Me Clear My Throat: Essays. Sarabande Books, 2012.

Rosenberg, Daniel & Anthony Grafton. Cartographies of Time. Princeton Architectural Press: New York, 2012.

Schultz, Kathryn. “What is Distant Reading?” The Mechanical Muse, The New Yorker. Published June 24, 2011. Accessed November 5, 2014.

The Playboy Interview: Marshall McLuhan”, Playboy Magazine, March 1969.

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