One of the things I've been reconstructing in the cyberspace book is how going online was interpreted and experienced by people in the early days of the Web, and how the details of getting onto the Internet contributed to the feeling that you were going to another place when you went online. Trying to rebuild the experience years later, to pull together the different strands of practice and fiction and metaphor that people bring together when interpreting an experience, is a challenge, but one that I think is essential. Tonight I was struck by another example of how technology and our own mental worlds intersect.
This evening I set up a telescope and let the kids look at a couple planets, and after it rose over the garage, the Moon. My son's a bit young for the patience required for even simple stargazing– you have to be careful about touching the telescope and mount, to avoid creating vibrations that disturb the image. My daughter, however, quite enjoyed it: she kept saying, "That's really cool" when I showed her anything new, then proceeded to spin stories about what she was seeing, which is always a good sign that she's engaged.
When I was about nine or ten, I developed a passion for astronomy. I remember it being a special issue of National Geographic that sparked my interest; I don't know if that was really it, but for a time I read tons of astronomy books, devoured astronomy magazines, and had posters of the 1973 solar eclipse and the Andromeda galaxy on my wall. I didn't have a telescope, but we had a pair of binoculars that I would take out at night and look at the moon, major planets, and just random stuff– the dimmest stars I could see, areas where I knew Messier objects were, but were too faint for me to see.
My binoculars were pretty pathetic in objective optical terms, but they were plenty for me. I was reading a lot of science fiction at the time (my taste ran to Heinlein and Asimov– pretty canonical and, in retrospect, strangely unimaginative), and I could look at the dark space between stars and fill them with spaceships, or the Foundation, or an article about stellar evolution, of any number of other things. At that age, what you observe through the eyepiece is but a trigger to what you see in your brain. Indeed, I could get lost in space pretty easily, and usually had to be pulled back inside at bedtime. It wasn't the faint objects I saw in the binoculars that kept me going out: that was neat, but you could see much more impressive things in a book. And knowing that I was looking at the exact same things, but just a million times fainter, was usually more effective a reminder of how pathetic my own instruments were, not a thought that connected me to the universe. What I liked about stargazing wasn't just seeing stars; it was the fevered mental state it triggered, the combination of observing, recall (an accurate memory feels very powerful at a certain age), and imagination.
Years later, when I was writing my dissertation on eclipse expeditions, I would sometimes think back to that poster, and wonder if there was a direct line from my childhood interest to this project. Would I have written about the history of astronomy if I had developed an interest in butterflies or geology?
After about half an hour, my daughter went in, my son came back out, and after a couple minutes looking at the moon declared he was cold. It got colder and darker. I didn't notice anything. I was somewhere else.