In her theorisation of modern time, anthropologist Laura Bear argues that “science and technology tightly link social, human time to external non-human rhythms; frame time as a radically other secular force; and project a deep history of natural time” (Bear, 2014: 7). Following these insights, I like to think of space science infrastructure such as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) as a timescape. The notion of timescape interrogates the relationship between terrestrial formation and extraterrestrial space in terms of the social production of time. Astronomy infrastructure are sites where the normative mediation between conflicting representations, technologies, and rhythms in time become visible. The gaze of astronomy into the deep time of our universe raises the fascinating question of how this scientific imagination is mediated through human temporalities of the everyday, or to use again Bear, though labour in/of time (Bear, 2014: 7).
One of the ways we can look at the SKA as a timescape is through the mutually constituting relation between the temporalities of the distant and the near future that the work in science and technology mobilise. The distant future is about looking at how the belief in the force of scientific endeavour and technological innovation drives societal change and shapes notions of political modernity. The distant future operates through technologies of imagination that ‘invoke an invisible realm and make it visible in order to explain the past, present and future’ (Bear, 2015: 7). Science and technology perform a civilising mission to tame scapes of the future that remain unknown (Groves, 2014). The near future puts into sharp focus how these futures of imagination are mediated in the everyday work of scientists and engineers through labour in/of science and technology.
The dialectical relation between distant and near futures constituting the SKA timescape emerges most clearly in a promotional video clip entitled ‘Discovering the Unknown. The world’s largest radio telescope’. Through the crescendo of an increasingly engaging soundtrack, the video collates interviews from astronomers, engineers, and other staff members to explain what the SKA is about, as well as what are its scientific and technological objectives. The video clip is effectively meant to inspire the public about the exceptionality of the project from the perspective of its scale and potential discoveries.
The very first frame introduces the viewer with a quotation from Einstein, pointing at the centrality of scientific knowledge production to broader ideas about human progress: ‘The important thing is not to stop questioning’. The act of questioning is based on the empiricist stance that accessing knowledge is possible through the systematic experience of the world provided by the scientific method. This is the ultimate justification for building the SKA radio telescope as this will allow humankind to explore the universe in ways that have not been possible before. The quotation is followed by a rapid succession of single camera shots of scientists extolling the main questions that the SKA project is expected to answer. These are scientific questions but are framed in a way to highlight their implications beyond the domain of astronomy, casting the SKA as a frontier project for the broader advancement of humanity.
All these questions point to unknown aspects of the universe and revolve around the importance of studying its history, formation, and evolution to answer questions about the human. ‘What are gravitational waves? How does magnetism work throughout the universe? How are planets formed? What is dark matter?’. These questions are then linked in a reflexive way to a universalised human history when other scientists ask: ‘What is our history? Was Einstein right? And for me the most important, is there life out there?’.
The second part of the video clip explains that an effort to answer such questions is currently underway: ‘We are building what will be the largest science facility ever built by mankind. (…) we are pushing technology to its limits’. And continues ‘We are building a time machine, we are looking at what our surroundings were like almost at their inception’. Global technoscience is cast with the civilizational mission to pave the way to a distant future – as a domain that can be tamed – for an abstracted and yet essentialized humanity. The underlying thread is between progress in science and technology and human progress. The video clip conveys the same message by highlighting the multicultural nature of the project that is made possible only because of multi-country collaborations of scientists and engineers across the globe.
‘Projects like this can only happen when we work together on a global scale. (…) We got yet 500 engineers to work together over 20 countries in all time zones in the world. It’s like building a jigsaw puzzle but the pieces keep changing. Part A being designed in one place, part B being designed literally on the other side of the world’.
The underlying message here is that scientific endeavour transcends culture and place, categories that lose meaning when represented against the infiniteness of an unexplored universe. Humanity-as-one is the direct implication of recasting the infinite smallness of the human being when compared against its broader, boundless, outer space environment. In the video clip the idea of astronomy as a cross-cultural undertaking is also rendered by the representation of language. While English is dominant throughout the video clip, scientists from different nationalities ask questions about the project in their own native language. This for instance includes Italian, Chinese, Spanish, and Hindi. The effective message here is that the language of science is universal and transcends national boundaries, ultimately speaking to humanity-as-one. The linear correlation between progress in science and human progress constitutes the normative frame within which the distant future of the SKA’s timescape operates.
The third part of the video clip gives us some insights on the second aspect of the SKA’s timescape. This is about how the big questions driving humanity-as-one (the distant future) are operationalised through the work of scientists and engineers in the near future through labour in/of time. The clip explains that the facility is currently being constructed in two sites in South Africa and Australia. These sites are ‘far away from towns radio interference, anything that could impact on the science that we are trying to do. (…) And it is really tough, it’s hot environment’. The two locations are identified as the ‘the middle of the western Australian desert’ and ‘a remote location in the middle of South Africa’ where antenna receptors and satellite dishes ‘will stretch out beyond the horizon (…) [and] are going to spread out literally hundreds of kilometres’. While the voiceover describes the sites’ location, the video clip displays images of countless computer-rendered satellite receptors over a generic semi-arid landscape.
Here the scientific imagination that mobilises the SKA infrastructure operates two consecutive levels of abstraction. First, it detaches the places where the infrastructure is under construction from their histories and environments. These are effectively depicted as non-spaces – places without a past – that come into existence only in relation to their prospected use for the project. Second, it casts the existence of these spaces in the near future (Guyer, 2007), spaces in-the-making that become meaningful through labour in/of science and technology. They become visible – and take on meanings – when they are populated by antenna receptors that engineers and astronomers will put on the ground.
In the final part of the video clip the distant and the near future of the SKA’s timescape collapse into each other. The viewer’s imagination is increasingly stimulated through a set of ‘amazing facts’ about the SKA project. An increasingly triumphalist soundtrack reaches its apex while the rhythm of the information provided by each of the interviewees intensifies, and frames change more quickly.
‘We are almost bound to discover something new, something that will disrupt our current everyday life. That generates new knowledge now. Huge amounts of data. Imagine the amounts of data that is flowing through the internet at any one moment, we are talking about that kind of level coming out steadily. We have to develop the software that will handle all of this data. The SKA can do for interplanetary exploration what broad band did for the internet. We are doing this now, there is equipment in south Africa and in Australia. Radio waves give us a unique way of probing the deep universe. We can do all of this by picking up incredibly faint signals, radio waves that come from all over the universe’.
The climax ends when the soundtrack suddenly fades and the voiceover is silent for a couple of seconds. This is the moment that the video-maker has been preparing for the entire clip and that serves the purpose to ask the final and most intriguing question. Ultimately, what is the SKA is going to discover? The last words before the end credits answer this question and conclude ‘What we will discover is the unknown. We are going to build a real thing it’s not just dreaming’.
Bear, L. (2014) ‘Doubt, conflict, mediation: the anthropology of modern time’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 20(1): 3-30.
Bear, L. (2015) Navigating Austerity: Currents of Debt Along a South Asian River. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Groves, C. (2014) ‘Taming the Future or Surfing Uncertainty?’, Science as Culture 23(2): 283-288.
Guyer, J. (2007) ‘Prophecy and the near future: thoughts on macroeconomic, evangelical, and punctuated time’, American Ethnologist 34(3): 409-21.
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