The Biggest Physical Risk of Exploration Today Is Carpal Tunnel

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Sept. 23 2013 9:14 AM

The Biggest Physical Risk of Exploration Today Is Carpal Tunnel

Has technology replaced the thrill of adventure?

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This new paradigm cuts the cord that has historically linked adventure and exploration. In centuries past, fitness, strength, and endurance were competitive advantages in attaining new knowledge. If you could brave the whitecaps of the Southern Ocean and the mind-numbing Antarctic gales, then you had a scoop: all kinds of waddling flightless birds, for example, new to the realm of human knowledge.

130918_FUT_AntarcticExploration
The ship Endurance is stuck within a ice jam on Ernest Shackleford's 1915 expedition to the Antarctic.

Courtesy of Underwood & Underwood/Library of Congress

Today, barriers to new knowledge are technical, not physical; we’re limited not by food supplies and warm clothing, but by propulsive constraints and interplanetary bandwidth, making athletic daredevils less integral to the acquisition of new scientific samples. As a result, adventurers and explorers pursue different goals with distinct tools and incentives.

Modern-day adventurers—glorified stuntmen, some would argue—are in a constant race of one-upsmanship, collecting superlatives in an attempt to climb mountains faster or scale rock faces with less equipment. These daredevils are often remarkable athletes, but their contribution of new knowledge is minimal; their aim is corporate sponsorships, traded for with the professional currency of “extremeness.” Our front-line explorers, like the scientists and engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who operate dozens of missions examining the far reaches of outer space, need not be Herzog-esque physical specimens. Mohawk-ed though they may be, carpal tunnel is the most pernicious physical risk.

What do we lose—and gain—by this great divergence? Does it matter that exploration is no longer so linked with physical exertion and bodily risk? The benefits, perhaps, are easier to recognize. Billions of pixels’ worth of images, heat maps of the early universe, glimpses billions of years into the past. This information—and we’re far from converting even a small fraction of it into “knowledge”—holds the secrets to the laws of the universe and our place in the cosmos.

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The negative consequences are harder to define, but equally real. Without embodied emissaries, our connectedness to the endeavor is compromised. As the physical reality of exploration becomes more similar to video games, we are less present, less participatory, and perhaps less emotionally invested. The human drama of exploration has inspired compelling storytelling, forming the backbone of man-vs.-nature narratives. Some of the most riveting contemplations on mortality have come from those who have hovered near its edge while plumbing the depths of endurance in pursuit of the new.

Robots lack the emotional heft of human explorers, and we lose some of the inspiration inherent in seeing fellow humans at their physical peak, similar to a transcendent athletic accomplishment or dance performance. A clear consequence of this void is the psychic need to anthropomorphize our robotic emissaries, as shown by first-person Mars rover Twitter accounts and, most adorably, by Wall-E’s emotive sensors.

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity's self-portrait combines dozens of exposures during the 177th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's work on Mars, Feb. 3, 2013. The rover is positioned at a patch of flat outcrop called "John Klein," which was selected as the site for the first rock-drilling activities by Curiosity.
NASA's Mars rover Curiosity's self-portrait combines dozens of exposures on Mars on Feb. 3, 2013.

Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Exploration is stronger than ever, but what of its spirit? We’re learning more about the universe and our place in it than at any other time in human history, but the new era of roboticized exploration changes our relationship with our surroundings; there are emotional and philosophical losses that accompany this new paradigm.

Consider this: The photograph of Buzz Aldrin on the moon, boots planted firmly in the gray dust of another celestial body, is one of the most evocative signals of human progress and capability of the past century. But would this photograph, shorthand for the pinnacle of exploratory achievement, be just as affecting if there weren’t a gold-tinted visor staring back at you?

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

Jeffrey Marlow is a geobiologist and writer at the California Institute of Technology, where he studies exotic microbial metabolisms to understand life’s limits.

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