Big Think Interview With Gay Talese
Gay Talese is an American journalist and a nonfiction writer. He wrote for The New York Times in the 1960s after working for its copy and obituary sections. In the 1950s, he was one of the first writers to add minute details, use literary flairs, and begin articles in medias res.
His groundbreaking article "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" was named the "best story Esquire ever published," and he was credited by Tom Wolfe with the creation of an inventive form of nonfiction writing called "The New Journalism."
He has written many non-fiction books, beginning with 1964’s The Bridge: The Building of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. His 2006 autobiography A Writer’s Life focuses on his trials and failures as a writer, such as having a profile piece rejected by The New Yorker, which ironically reviewed the book positively and said it had a “distinctly moving” quality.
Gay Talese was named the winner of a George Polk Award for career achievement. The awards, presented by Long Island University, are considered among the top prizes in U.S. journalism. His latest book is High Notes: Selected Writings of Gay Talese.
Big Think interviews Gay Talese
Gay Talese: Okay. My name is Gay Talese and I’m the author most recently of a book called “A Writers’ Life” which came out published in 2006.
Question: What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?
Gay Talese: I wasn’t given any advice. I wasn’t even aware of writers during most of my life until I came to New York at the age of twenty-one after college. What made me a writer is what made me curious, and what made me curious was being an American that wasn’t sure how American I was. I think this is true of a lot of people who have foreign parents, and my mother and father ran a store in the southern part of New Jersey where I was born. The town was called Ocean City. I was born in 1932. When I was ten years old, the war, WW II, was very much being enacted through the European theatre, and the part of Italy that my parents come from, which is the southern part, was being attacked by allied forces, Americans, Canadians and British, moving up through areas that were the centers of my ancestry. Though I was born in New Jersey as I said before, I was ten years, eleven years old, twelve years old during that 1942, ’43, ’44 period, and the only thing I remember that made me a writer, and the curiosity that is necessary I think for being the kind of writer I am, a nonfiction writer, was that as a boy in the store I would see my parents react during the daytime in one manner as they dealt with customers.
My mother spoke English very well. My father spoke English with an accent, and he worked in the back of the store. My mother worked in the front of the store selling dresses, and what started me thinking about other people was when I overheard conversations between my mother and her customers, and I became very curious about the women and their stories.
The value of listening
Gay Talese: And so it was my listening to the stories as women on one end of the counter, who would talk across the counter to my mother on those leisurely afternoons while browsing through the clothing racks picking fabric or picking dresses to try on. They would be talking about things, and the thing that would be talking about weren’t necessarily of any significance in a social or historical sense, but they were revealing of personal moods, personal feelings, and during the war, there was references to the war, to the rationing of food, to the lack of gasoline during that period, to the fear of their sons or maybe daughters in the military service, or their uncles or fathers working in defense plants late at night in far away Philadelphia which is fifty miles away. And so as a boy, I was hearing references to the war while being remote from the war, and at the same time, I was intimately involved with the enemy in the war—the Italians—who of course were allied with the Germans because my father’s three brothers were in the Italian army.
Now you say what does that have to do with being a writer? What this has to do with being a writer is this; at a young age, I would eavesdrop in the store and hear stories of American women talking about their lives – the kind of material that might make for fiction writers; the essence of fiction, private life. At night I would hear in our apartment above the store – the stores close at 7:00, 6:30. I would hear my father who wasn’t very vocal during the day talking very much about his fear of his brother’s welfare and the village itself where his widowed mother lived, and I was getting at this young age a sense of story and how in this little building with the store on the first floor and the apartment on the second floor the emergence of characters and the changing personality between the day and the night; the father who was reticent during the day; no doubt internally very defensive and possibly insecure in a sense of being Pro-American and at night more outspoken because there weren’t any customers that he had to worry about being overheard what he was saying. I was just interested in a story here. Now what was the story? The story is no story in a way, but it’s a full story of character inquiry promoting my curiosity.
Question: What other characteristics are required of a writer?
Gay Talese: Patience. The most important thing as you perhaps in the beginning is definitely curiosity; the ability to be outside yourself, to see other people and wonder who are they; how are they different from me; how did they get through the day and night; what motivates them; where do they come from; where do their parents come from – all of this curiosity about people. Next thing is to get bridge the ignorance gap and get to talk to these people. I have that. That again comes out of the store. Anybody in your audience who had parents who had a store; kids who hang around stores because their parents are the proprietors or because the kids have a job in a store learn at an early age to deal with people of many different ages. As a kid, I would see older people coming into the store. I would hear them talk. I would watch the way that they moved; what they dressed; how they looked; how they comported themselves, so I’m dealing with difference ages groups. Also, in stores you have to have good manners. That’s another thing I picked up very quickly, and it helps in journalism I think – good manners, store manners. You always have to be respectful towards the customer. My parents certainly that was a mandate in their little business that I certainly followed. What you need as well as curiosity and being able to engage people and be polite and presentable and therefore make yourself acceptable to strangers in the beginning; you have to have patience.
Many journalists, many writers, many curious people are curious but not patient enough in taking in the time, properly the amount of time, not pushing it, to patiently, patiently court the people that the writer wants to know about; that I in this case would want to know about. I’m never in a rush. I take very long time in my research, and it never is it interrupted with note taking and tape recording. I never do any of that. What I do is try to introduce myself most differentially to people I’m curious about, and I tell them with sincerity that I’m interested in them and why, and I am sincerely interested in these people because they represent to me something I believe is an enlargement of my life. These people are different from me. I am interested in describing the difference. I’m also interested in bringing to the fore to the printed page their stories. Why, because I’m searching for material. The material I search is reality, real people, but of most particularly people who are not making the news; people who are not well known. I’ve always wanted to be writing about people that the reader perhaps heard about for the first time because I wrote about them.
The writer as outsider
Gay Talese: I was very different myself, and I think that a writer, many writers, whether you’re talking about the great fiction writers – Philip Roth or the late John Updike or the late William Steinen. I mean they very much present something of the – in the case of Roth particularly, the outsider, and I was in the world of nonfiction very much in the persona of the outsider from that boy in the store to the boy in Alabama, and I’d write little stories for the college newspaper as I’d written little stories I didn’t mention in the town weekly, my New Jersey town weekly. I would write school news. I’d write about my fellow students in grade school and high school and later was in college the same, and I wasn’t writing fiction. I wanted to write nonfiction because I thought that there wasn’t much different between fiction and nonfiction except in fiction you imagined stories and you change the names of living people that might have inspired the stories. In nonfiction, which I wanted to do and did do, and do do, I thought I want to write stories, but I don’t want to change the names.
That’s the big difference between what I do and a fiction writer does, and maybe a big difference between the nonfiction that I advocate and advance and personify from the nonfiction that is strictly journalism. It isn’t journalism what I’m doing. It is stories about real people and real names. I insist on real names. I never make up information. What I do is spend an inordinate amount of time with the people I write about, but my ambition is to try to describe realistically the life of people, particularly private people, ordinary people; the sort of people who went in my mother’s dress shop when I was a boy observing and eavesdropping. I was really motivated then as I still am now at the age of 77 to write about people that you might not have never heard of, but perhaps through my efforts as a writer, my descriptive efforts, my ambitions as a writer of scenes and visual writing, you will see them, and you will understand them. And you will get a sense of the people that it took me a long time to know, but now I want to communicate them to you, and that’s really what I do.
Question: Is investigative journalism in danger?
Gay Talese: It’s very difficult. Sometimes you know in my senior years a lot of work in print I’m asked to go to colleges to teach a class or speak before students – students of nonfiction writing, and they ask a lot of questions and how did you do this and how did you do that, and I tell them. But sometimes I think to myself how are these people gonna get a job, and while these people are very interested and eager and certainly attentive to what I am saying in these classroom sessions, I wonder how are they ever gonna do it because the life is changed, and the year 2009 it’s not at all like it was in 1959 when I started writing for magazines. And I kept writing for magazines through the 1960s into the ‘70s. That piece on Frank Sinatra was published in 1966, and when I did that piece, Esquire was the publisher. They sent me out to California. They put me in a very fine hotel – the Beverly Wilshire a Hotel in Beverly Hills, California. I was able to rent a car. I was able to have an expense account and take people to lunch to dinner, and I kept careful records of course; I have always of what I spend, because I’m to be reimbursed, and I want to be very accurate about it. And there was never even I was not getting the cooperation that it was expected I would, because it was expected I would get an interview, but I never got an interview, but I still stayed out there and talked to all these minor people that I mentioned earlier. And never did the editor say oh listen you better come home.
I actually volunteered when I was staying in the Beverly Wilshire – it was the third or fourth day. I was aware that maybe I should move to a cheaper hotel; find a place I was gonna spend a lot of time out there. Turns I out I spent about four weeks at Beverly Hills, just research, and I’d asked the editor if he wanted to me to try to look for a hotel room that wouldn’t be so expensive, and he said no stay where you are. Not that that wouldn’t happen now, but a lot of things have happened that make life hard for young writers who would like to do what I used to do, but it’s so changed that the technology I think has had a ruinous effect. It started with the tape recorder; that was number one the worst thing that ever happened to serious nonfiction writing was the tape recorder. What this did was allow reporters or magazine writers to use Q and A techniques – question and answer; take a tape recorder and then rather not much time at all to get a lot of verbatim quotes from well-known people. Magazines prefer to have well known people when they put them on the cover – usually they’re movie stars or well known people in aspects of political life, and the tape recorder allows the reporter to go to a hotel room for example and interview a movie star, and within a matter of about an hour, we’ll get enough for an article and then go back and write it using a lot of direct quotes. Some of these quotes I said earlier aren’t quotes that I would want to use because it doesn’t necessarily mean what people have in their heads. It’s rather what’s coming out of their mouths; extended sound bites is what they’re getting, and also I think in the process of having a tape recorder they brought the whole format of the magazine article indoors because the tape recorder is done indoors. Most of the pieces that I wrote and still would write if I was able to do what I want to do would be outdoors. I travel with people. My technique is hanging out with people.
When I wrote about Sinatra, I was never indoors with him. I was watching him in the studio, and I described him when he was recording. I watched him taking walks in Las Vegas as he went to casino to casino – the scenes of his gambling, going to a prizefight in Las Vegas. There were big scenes, and they were outdoors and they were very descriptive, and they told the reader what it was like to be there. It wasn’t this narrow question and answer, and the owners of magazines – the publisher or the editor, or the owner are very interested in cost cutting of course, and the tape recorder played right into that. Moreover, it would be to the advantage of the publisher of a magazine to have things directly on quote with the tape recorder to verify, so the lawyers would be able to fight off any challenge in terms of misquotation and libel suits. So that was another contribution to the cost cutting emphasis that was brought by editors upon the writing process. What you have now –a great magazine like “The New Yorker” is the exception—but what you have now is nothing of the kind of art of the magazine piece that I, and many others of my generation used to practice. We had expense accounts. Also, the tape recorder meant you didn’t have to send people out to the other side of the United States. You could wait for the movie star or the singing star or the rock star to come to New York, performing at Madison Square Garden and staying in the Pierre Hotel or the Plaza Hotel or wherever they’re staying, and you send somebody over there with a tape recorder for an hour, so they’ll get a lot of quotes. So the magazine piece is not a work of art anymore.
Question: What does it take to stay married for 50 years?
Gay Talese: I had no desire ever to marry. I feared marriage to tell you the truth. Ironically, the marriage that I knew best was my parents’ marriage which was a very healthy, wonderful marriage, sixty years, and I also but I thought the marriage – my parents being partners in the business, having a store I told you were very close day and night. It was almost claustrophobically close, and they had only two children. I was the first born. There was a daughter born four years after me, so the four of us were in this very tight family and these very tight quarters, but my parents were so compatible; almost to the expense of their children where they were – and I felt that the marriage that had was just too close and suffocatingly so. There’s no freedom there. They were under the gun. I mean my mother and father were rarely out of sight of one another, and my father never would make trips without my mother. They’re together all the time. This togetherness was obsessive at least I felt so, so I thought I never want to be so linked to another person. I wouldn’t have a sense of adventure, exploration, or the option I’m doing things on my own without necessarily announcing in advance what I wanted to do. My ambition as a young boy was to travel freely not to have an itinerary, not to be committed – that was one of the major things, to a person or to a situation, not to be dependent. I wanted freedom. Journalism afforded that. I mean of all the occupations, if I were a doctor I wouldn’t be free out of the, you know the confinement of the career of being a physician or anything. I wanted to be free. I wanted to write about other people to escape. A lot of escape is in my mentality with a desire to escape into other people’s stories. It’s all a matter of getting outside yourself.
Question: Is love important to a marriage?
Gay Talese: Love is not important. You know what’s really important that’s more important than love, respect. What keeps a marriage together is not love. What keeps a relationship together whether it’s marriage or relationship outside of marriage, a committed relationship; it’s respect. No one can define love. Sometimes people associate sex with love. You know boy I’m in love. You can be in love in a way that you can maybe convince yourself is a definition that subscribes that is particular to you, but it’s very vague. What is not very vague is respect. If you don’t have respect for a person especially a spouse, there’s no way that relationship can survive. You lose respect for a person it’s all over. They could be the sexiest person, the most beautiful person, the greatest sexual mate. They could perform you know all the acts of physical love in ways unmatched in the universe, but if there’s a limited respect or not great amounts of respect, it’s over.
Question: What about sex?
Gay Talese: No. Sex is not important to a good marriage. No. You want to know more ask me a better question, but it’s true; sex is not important. Sex is very temporarily important in the beginning because the quest for companionship and compatibility is certainly fostered by active and fulfilling sexual experience – absolutely true. Sex is in the beginning of the mating game very important. Sex is the lure – the allure of a woman who can through sexual appeal attract a man who’s attracted to her because she’s sexy because in bed she’s very, very fulfilling. But that’s okay for a while. That’s not gonna carry you through years. The only thing that’s gonna carry you through years is being compatible with a person, having a lot in common, shared values, and I keep repeating respect for one another; that is it. Without respect the game is over.
The importance of mutual independence
Gay Talese: I think what kept the marriage together during times of stress and there was certainly many times of stress as in any relationship and certainly in our kind of marriage there was because I was traveling a lot. In my research I would go all over the place sometimes to other countries – well beyond my Frank Sinatra experience. There were times when I’d go live in Italy for two or three years when I started writing long books. After my magazine career ended, I was writing books exclusively, and some of them would take five or six years to research. Four or five books that I wrote from the 1960s to the 2006 were books of seven or eight years of being on the road while staying married, but the reason it wasn’t so stressful for my wife Nan with whom I’ve been married now fifty years in 2009. We were married in 1959, and fifty years is this year. One of the reasons that it wasn’t so stressful is she always had a full-time career. She could no less than me fulfill herself in her work. Her work became as she became older and more skilled recognized. There are books now called Nan Talese books/Doubleday, and she’s got her own career. Her writers are among the best - there’s Margaret Atwood, there Ian McEwen, there’s Antonio Fraser, there’s Pat Conroy, there’s Barry Unsworth; there’s all kinds of distinguished literary writers that are published under her imprint, and so it isn’t like she’s ever lived through me. She was never just Gay Talese’s wife, never. I mean she wouldn’t mind – I don’t mean to suggest that she’s very publicity hungry or that she needs reassurance by having her name on the product, but she happens to have her name on the product, her books, so she’s had her independence. And it was so different from my mother and father who were people in the store and day and night within reach of one another and scrutiny of one another. I had a lot of freedom from the beginning and through the 50 years, and I think that’s kept this marriage together.
Question: Are fiction writers afforded more respect than non-fiction writers?
Gay Talese: I think that from the time I was young to even now the idea that the novel is the big desirable beast, and Mailer used to call it the beast, the novelist. I think that the great writers more often than not are fiction writers because the fiction writer has the capacity to imagine, to make up things, and the nonfiction writer, the historian or the current events writer or the journalist, the essayist are restricted by having to be truthful and also verifiably truthful, but I believe that you can counter this and not be restrained by the form of nonfiction and the limitations of nonfiction and having to be truthful.
You can overcome this by spending a little more time. I’m not myself very, very prolific as a writer. In my seventy-seven years, I have written five long books. I’ve had two short books and four collections. Meaning, I’m not a lazy man. I’ve written a lot, but for the amount of time I spend writing and researching, there are people who have written three times as much as I have, but I take a lot of time ‘cause I want to have a lot of time with my characters because in all the time I spend I get to know my characters better. I get know them inside themselves because of the time I take in knowing them. It’s a kind of courtship you’ve mentioned. It’s a kind of relationship that’s very personal. I’m personally engaged in my work and the people I’m writing about, and as I result, I can write with the freedom since I know well what I’m writing about, who I’m writing about that borders very closely upon fiction writers who are making it up. I’m not making it up, but I sound like I’m making it up which is what I want to achieve the lack of believability initially on the part of the reader wondering how this guy knows this much; does he make it up. No, I didn’t make it up. I just knew it very, very well, and it took a lot of though and patience that word I use; again, curiosity and then patience, the capacity to hang out and to write about ordinary people as if they were in the imagination of the fiction writer, extraordinary.
Wily Loman is a great character, a minor character, but in the hands and the imagination of the great playwright Author Miller, Willy Loman is an international figure played on the stages of the world. “Death of A Salesman” is around the world in many languages performed every week – minor character but not minor when you get a great play and a great writer like Miller to write about.
Question: Has the state of the American libido changed since you published “Thy Neighbor’s Wife?”
Gay Talese: That book dealt with a lot of things – censorship; what was immoral by the standards of that time meaning the 1970s and ‘80s. What is going on today in 2009 – anything goes; you just to have to know to look in a different place for it. When I was researching in the 1970s to do that book that was published in 1980, the aforementioned “Thy Neighbor’s Wife”, things were very visual on the streets. You could see massage parlors. If you walked up Lexington Avenue, Park Avenue even, all over the cities major cities of the United States – for example you would find massage parlor signs right open, and they’re newspapers such as the pornographic newspapers that advertise. Massage parlors were really little more than places of prostitution. I mean you would pay women to perform sexual acts upon yourself. It might be masturbation; it might oral sex; it might be intercourse, but what happened after that AIDS period now the Internet offers everything. If you know how to use the Internet, there’s nothing you can’t get – swingers, mate swapping as I said; the most hardcore pornography’s available. You see when I started to research that book some quarter century or more ago there was a kind of a moral squad of people who wanted to restrict the right of adults to have access to sexual dalliance. Right now you can’t control it because what’s happened through the technology of the Internet is it brought the merchandising of sex into the home, and people can just sit there on their lap top and order whatever they want. I mean it’s like it’s just as easy as takeout. I mean it’s like going to Kentucky Fried Chicken or having pizza sent in. You can get everything.
Question: Does the mass availability of sex make the act less important in marriage?
Gay Talese: No. You could always go and get sex anyway; that’s nothing new. There’s very little new about sex. It’s just different ways of merchandising it and different ways of obtaining it. If we’re talking about mercenary sexuality, that’s what you are talking about. Now let’s talk about marital sexuality. I said before and I repeat now marriages are not gonna be held together because of sexual performance. You see all these Viagra – God you can barely watch a football game without having 16 Viagra commercial interrupt between every exchange of football. That’s nice I mean it’s great that there is such a thing for impotent men as Viagra and all those other competing products, but again, marriages are not gonna be held together because of sexual performance, it’s not. I mean the beginning as I said the courtship period – okay, that’s a phase, but the sexiest woman alive is not gonna be a marital mate of any consequence if her mate doesn’t respect her or the other way around.
Question: Is there a connection between alcohol and creativity?
Gay Talese: No. When I was young, I do remember there were a lot of drinkers who were known to be good writers. A lot of the great writers when I was a kid the names like William Faulkner was a big drinker, and a F. Scott Fitzgerald who was one of my favorite writers when I was a young man and reading fiction for the first time was a notorious drinking and his wife. There was a celebration of alcoholism almost within the creative arts and also even in journalism. I remember my first time in the city, remember the New York Times.
I remember one job I had was working late on what they called the rewrite desk. That was where you’re in a rewrite bank of typewriters, and people call in information. Well, some of those rewrite men some of them were so drunk. One time I saw a man whose head fell on his typewriter. This was the center of the New York Times, and he was just out for the drinking. He had a bottle in his drawer. I remember when I was a sports writer. At one of the jobs I had in my early career was working in the sports department. One time I was sent out to Arizona to cover the New York Giants baseball team on the year it moved from New York to San Francisco to become the San Francisco Giants. They trained in Tucson or Phoenix, Arizona, and I remember I met sports writers from other newspapers, and there was a sports writer for the New York News and a sports writer for the New York Mirror which used to be a tabloid in New York, and these two guys who covered the New York Giants. And I was doing it for the New York Times – these two guys were pals, and one of them was a heavy drinker, a big drinker. He his name is Jim McCullough, and the guy his pal from The Mirror’s name is Kent Smith. Kent Smith because McCullough would always get drunk before the game was over would write both stories. He would write a story for the New York Mirror, and then he would write under the name Jim McCullough another story to cover up for his friend. His friend was never able – he was never sober enough to get into the game to write what happened. I mean this was incredible. I couldn’t believe this is journalism – the journalism that abounded in my time, and the presence of alcohol was part of it.
There’s nothing like that today. City Room in those days was full of smokers. The whole room was full of smoke and drinking. Now there’s a big series on television called “Mad Men” about the advertising agency – life of the 1960s and the ‘70s. Hell, the drinking that went on journalism was beyond that; drunken people all over. It’s a wonder the paper could ever get out. There were enough sober people at least for every issue to get a paper out, but another half of the staff was out of it.
Question: What are you wearing today?
Gay Talese: Well, sometimes I wear clothes that are made for me by tailors. Sometimes, I go to special stores where I like the merchandise. Now this jacket I’m wearing is – I have a favorite store in Paris. I sometimes go to Paris once a year at least, and I always go to the store it’s called Francesco’s Smalto, and this is a Smalto jacket. I purchase often things from there. I like the cut, very continental cut, very distinguished. It’s the finest off the rack tailoring you can get I think. Now the tailoring I usually wear are clothes that are made for me by relatives of mine who are also in Paris – my cousins Christiani and Francis Christiani, Antonio Christiani. Their father was the owner Antonio was a mentor to my father. They’re Italians who went to Paris in the case of the Old Christiani in 1911, and they had a shop for 50 years on the Route De Lape, and they made all my clothes, and I have tailor made clothes from other people.
Question: And the tie?
Gay Talese: The tie is certainly not made for me. I go to special places to have the ties. I have a tailor that I know, and I live on the east side of Manhattan, and there’s a shop that sells ties that I go to and have shirts also made. The shirt maker is called “Addison on Madison”, but they’re not Madison; they used to be. They’ve now moved to a private place. The store is no longer on the street. They have a little back business, but I get all my shirts made for me.
Question: Are there any issues today that keep you up at night?
Gay Talese: No. What keeps me up late at night are watching a baseball game when the Yankees are on the west coast; that’s about it
Recorded on September 22, 2009
Big Think interviews the legendary journalist and author of, most recently, "A Writer’s Life."
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Since 1957, the world's space agencies have been polluting the space above us with countless pieces of junk, threatening our technological infrastructure and ability to venture deeper into space.
- Space debris is any human-made object that's currently orbiting Earth.
- When space debris collides with other space debris, it can create thousands more pieces of junk, a dangerous phenomenon known as the Kessler syndrome.
- Radical solutions are being proposed to fix the problem, some of which just might work. (See the video embedded toward the end of the article.)
In 1957, the Soviet Union launched a human-made object into orbit for the first time. It marked the dawn of the Space Age. But when Sputnik 1's batteries died and the aluminum satellite began lifelessly orbiting the planet, it marked the end of another era: the billions of years during which space was pristine.
Today, the space above Earth is the world's "largest garbage dump," according to NASA. It's littered with 8,000 tons of human-made junk, called space debris, left by space agencies over the past six decades.
The U.S. now tracks more than 25,000 pieces of space junk. And that's only the debris that ground-based radar technologies can track. The U.S. Space Surveillance Network estimates there could be more than 170 million pieces of space debris currently orbiting Earth, with the majority being tiny fragments smaller than 1 mm.
Space debris: Trashing a planet
Space debris includes all human-made objects, big and small, that are orbiting Earth but no longer serve a useful function. A brief inventory of known space junk includes: a spatula, a glove, a mirror, a bag filled with astronaut tools, spent rocket stages, stray bolts, paint chips, defunct spacecraft, and about 3,000 dead satellites — all of which are orbiting Earth at speeds of roughly 18,000 m.p.h.
By allowing space debris to accumulate unchecked, we could be building a prison that keeps us stranded on Earth for centuries.
Most space junk is floating in low Earth orbit (LEO), the region of space within an altitude of about 100 to 1,200 miles. LEO is also where most of the world's 3,000 satellites operate, powering our telecommunications, GPS technologies, and military operations.
"Millions of pieces of orbital debris exist in low Earth orbit (LEO) — at least 26,000 the size of a softball or larger that could destroy a satellite on impact; over 500,000 the size of a marble big enough to cause damage to spacecraft or satellites; and over 100 million the size of a grain of salt that could puncture a spacesuit," wrote NASA's Office of Inspector General Office of Audits.
If LEO becomes polluted with too much space junk, it could become treacherous for spacecraft, threatening not only our modern technological infrastructure, but also humanity's ability to venture into space at all.
By allowing space debris to accumulate unchecked, we could be building a prison that keeps us stranded on Earth for centuries.
An outsized problem
Space debris of any size poses grave threats to spacecraft. But tiny, untrackable micro-debris presents an especially dreadful problem: A paint fragment chipped off a spacecraft might not seem dangerous, but it careens through space at nearly 10 times the speed of a bullet, packing enough energy to puncture an astronaut's suit, crack a window of the International Space Station, and potentially destroy satellites.
Impacts with space debris are common. During the Space Shuttle era, NASA replaced an average of one to two shuttle windows per mission "due to hypervelocity impacts (HVIs) from space debris." To be sure, some space debris are natural micrometeoroids. But much of it is human-made, like the fragment that struck the starboard payload bay radiator of the STS-115 flight in 2006.
"The debris penetrated both walls of the honeycomb structure, and the shock wave from the penetration created a crack in the rear surface of the radiator 6.8 mm long," NASA wrote. "Scanning electron microscopy and energy dispersive X-ray detection analysis of residual material around the hole and in the interior of the radiator shows that the impactor was a small fragment of circuit board material."
The European Space Agency notes that any fragment of space debris larger than a centimeter could shatter a spacecraft into pieces.
Impact chip on the ISSESA
To dodge space junk, the International Space Station (ISS) has to conduct "avoidance maneuvers" a couple times every year. In 2014, for example, flight controllers decided to raise the ISS's altitude by half a mile to avoid collision with part of an old European rocket in its orbital path.
NASA has strict guidelines for how it decides to perform these maneuvers.
"Debris avoidance maneuvers are planned when the probability of collision from a conjunction reaches limits set in the space shuttle and space station flight rules," NASA wrote. "If the probability of collision is greater than 1 in 100,000, a maneuver will be conducted if it will not result in significant impact to mission objectives. If it is greater than 1 in 10,000, a maneuver will be conducted unless it will result in additional risk to the crew."
These precautionary measures are becoming increasingly necessary. In 2020, the ISS had to move three times to avoid potential collisions. One of the latest close-calls came with such little warning that astronauts were instructed to take shelter in the Russian segment of the space station, in order to be closer to their Soyuz MS-16 spacecraft, which serves as an escape pod in case of an emergency.
The Kessler syndrome
The hazards of space debris grow exponentially over time. That's because of a problem that NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler outlined in 1978. The so-called Kessler syndrome states that as space becomes increasingly packed with spacecraft and debris, collisions become more likely. And because each collision would create more debris, it could trigger a chain reaction of collisions — potentially to the point where near-Earth space becomes a shrapnel field through which safe travel is impossible.
A paint fragment chipped off a spacecraft might not seem dangerous, but it careens through space at nearly 10 times the speed of a bullet, packing enough energy to puncture an astronaut's suit, crack a window of the International Space Station, and potentially destroy satellites.
The Kessler syndrome may already be playing out. Perhaps it began with the first known case of a spacecraft being severely damaged by artificial space debris, which occurred in 1996 when the French spy satellite Cerise was struck by a piece of an old European Ariane rocket. The collision tore off a 13-foot segment of the satellite.
The next major space debris incident occurred in 2007 when China conducted an anti-satellite missile test in which the nation destroyed one of its own weather satellites, triggering international criticism and creating more than 3,000 pieces of trackable space debris, most of which was still in orbit ten years after the explosion.
Then, in 2009, an unexpected collision between communications satellites — the active Iridium 33 and the defunct Russian Cosmos-2251 — produced at least 2,000 large fragments of space debris and as many as 200,000 smaller pieces, according to NASA. About half of all space debris currently orbiting Earth came from the Iridium-Cosmos collision and China's missile test.
There's more. Russia's BLITS satellite was spun out of its orbital path in 2013 after being struck by a piece of space debris suspected to have come from China's 2007 missile test; the European Space Agency's Copernicus Sentinel-1A satellite was struck by a tiny particle in 2016; and a window of the ISS was hit by a small fragment that same year.
As nations and private companies plan to send more satellites into orbit, collisions and impacts could soon become more common.
The promise and peril of satellite mega-constellations
Space organizations have recently begun launching satellites into low Earth orbit at an unprecedented pace. The goal is to create "mega-constellations" of satellites that provide high-quality internet access to virtually all parts of the planet.
Internet-providing satellites have existed for years, but they're typically expensive and provide slower service than land-based internet infrastructure. That's mainly because it can take a relatively long time for a signal to travel from the satellite to the user due to the high altitudes at which many of these satellites float above us in geostationary orbit.
China and companies like SpaceX, OneWeb, and Amazon aim to solve this problem by launching thousands of satellites into lower orbits in order to reduce signal latency, or the time it takes for the signal to travel to and from the satellite. But some space experts worry satellite mega-constellations could create more space debris.
"We face entirely new challenges as hundreds of satellites are launched every month now — more than we used to launch in a year," Thomas Schildknecht of the International Astronomical Union said at a European Space Agency conference in April. "The mega-constellations are producing huge risks of collisions. We need more stringent rules for traffic management in space and international mechanisms to ensure enforcement of the rules."
A 2017 study funded by the European Space Agency found that the deployment of satellite mega-constellations into low Earth orbit could increase the number of catastrophic collisions by 50 percent. Still, it remains unclear whether sending more satellites into space will necessarily cause more collisions.
SpaceX, for example, claims that Starlink satellites aren't at significant risk of collision because they're equipped with automated collision-avoidance propulsion systems. However, this system seemed to fail in 2019 when a Starlink satellite had a close call with a European science satellite named Aeolus. The company later said it had fixed the bug.
A batch of 60 Starlink test satellites stacked atop a Falcon 9 rocket.SpaceX
Currently, there are no strict international rules governing the deployment and management of satellite mega-constellations. But there are some international efforts to curb space debris risks.
The most concerted effort is the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC), a forum that comprises 13 of the world's space agencies, including those of the U.S., Russia, China, and Japan. The committee aims "to exchange information on space debris research activities between member space agencies, to facilitate opportunities for cooperation in space debris research, to review the progress of ongoing cooperative activities, and to identify debris mitigation options."
The IADC's Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines list three broad goals:
1. Preventing on-orbit break-ups
2. Removing spacecraft from the densely populated orbit regions when they reach the end of their mission
3. Limiting the objects released during normal operations
But even though the world's space agencies recognize the gravity of the space debris problem, they're reluctant to act because of an incentives-based dilemma.
Space debris: A classic tragedy of the commons
Space debris is everyone's problem, but no one entity is obligated to solve it. It's a tragedy of the commons — an economic scenario in which individuals with access to a shared and scarce resource (space) act in their own best interest (spend the least amount of money). Left unchecked, the shared resource is vulnerable to depletion or corruption.
For example, the U.S. by itself could develop a novel method for removing space debris, which, if successful, would benefit all organizations with assets in space. But the odds of this happening are slim because of a game-theoretical dilemma.
"[In space debris removal] each stakeholder has an incentive to delay its actions and wait for others to respond. This makes the space debris removal setting an interesting strategic dilemma. As all actors share the same environment, actions by one have a potential immediate and future impact on all others. This gives rise to a social dilemma in which the benefits of individual investment are shared by all while the costs are not. This encourages free-riders, who reap the benefits without paying the costs. However, if all involved parties reason this way, the resulting inaction may prove to be far worse for all involved. This is known in the game theory literature as the tragedy of the commons."
Similar to trying to curb climate change, there's no clear answer on how to best incentivize nations to mitigate space debris. (For what it's worth, the game theoretical model in the 2018 study found that a centralized solution — e.g., one where a single actor makes decisions on mitigating space debris, perhaps on behalf of a multinational coalition — is less costly than a decentralized solution.)
Although space organizations have been slow to act, many have been exploring ways to remove space junk from orbit and prevent new debris from forming.
Cleaning up space debris
Space organizations have proposed and experimented with many ways to remove debris from space. Although the techniques vary, most agree on strategy: get rid of the big stuff first.
That's because collisions involving large objects would create lots of new debris. So, removing big debris first would simultaneously clean up low Earth orbit and slow down the phenomenon of cascading collisions described by the Kessler syndrome.
To clean up low Earth orbit, space organizations have proposed using:
- Electrodynamic tethers: In 2017, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency attempted to remove space debris by outfitting a cargo ship with an electrodynamic tether — essentially a fishing net made of stainless steel and aluminium. The craft then tried to "catch" space debris with the aim of dragging it into lower orbit, where it would eventually crash to Earth. The experiment failed.
- Ultra-thin nets: NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts program has funded research for a project that would deploy extremely thin nets designed to wrap around space debris and drag them down to Earth's atmosphere.
- "Laser brooms": Since the 1990s, space researchers have proposed using ground-based lasers to strategically heat one side of a piece of space debris, which would change its orbit so that it re-enters Earth's atmosphere sooner. Because the laser systems would be based on Earth, this strategy could prove to be relatively affordable.
- Drag sails: As a relatively passive way to accelerate the de-orbit of space junk, NASA and other space organizations have been exploring the viability of attaching sails to space junk that would help guide debris back to Earth. These sails could either be packed within new satellites, to be deployed once the satellites are no longer useful, or attached to existing space junk.
Illustration of Brane Craft Phase II, which would use thin nets to capture space debris.Siegfried Janson via NASA
But perhaps one of the most promising solutions for space debris is the ESA-funded ClearSpace-1 mission. Set to launch in 2025, ClearSpace-1 intends to be the first mission that successfully removes space debris from orbit. The goal is to launch a satellite into orbit and rendezvous with the upper stage of Europe's Vega launcher, which was left in space after a 2013 flight.
ClearSpace-1 satellite using its robotic arm to capture space debrisClearSpace-1
Once the satellite meets up with the debris, it will try to capture the junk with a robotic arm and then perform a controlled atmospheric reentry. The task will be challenging, in part because space junk tumbles as it flies above Earth, meaning the satellite will have to match its movements in order to safely capture it.
Freethink recently spoke to the ClearSpace-1 team to get a better understanding of the mission and its challenges.
Catching the Most Dangerous Thing in Space Freethink via youtube.com
But not all space debris removal strategies center on technology. A 2020 paper published in PNAS argued that imposing taxes on each satellite in orbit would be the most effective way to clean up space. Called "orbital use fees," the plan would charge space organizations an annual fee of roughly $235,000 per each satellite that's in orbit. The fee would, in theory, incentivize nations and companies to declutter space over time.
The main hurdle of orbital-use fees is getting all of the world's space organizations to agree to such a plan. If they do, it could help eliminate the tragedy of the commons aspect of space debris and potentially quadruple the value of the space industry by 2040.
"The costly buildup of debris and satellites in low-Earth orbit is fundamentally a problem of incentives — satellite operators currently lack the incentives to factor into their launch decisions the collision risks their satellites impose on other operators," the researchers wrote. "Our analysis suggests that correcting these incentives, via an OUF, could have substantial economic benefits to the satellite industry, and failing to do so could have substantial and escalating economic costs."
No matter the solution, cleaning up space debris will be a complex and expensive challenge that requires a coordinated, international effort. If the global community wants to maintain modern technological infrastructure and venture deeper into space, conducting business as usual isn't an option.
"Imagine how dangerous sailing the high seas would be if all the ships ever lost in history were still drifting on top of the water," Jan Wörner, European Space Agency (ESA) director general, said in a statement. "That is the current situation in orbit, and it cannot be allowed to continue."
It uses radio waves to pinpoint items, even when they're hidden from view.
"Researchers have been giving robots human-like perception," says MIT Associate Professor Fadel Adib. In a new paper, Adib's team is pushing the technology a step further. "We're trying to give robots superhuman perception," he says.
The researchers have developed a robot that uses radio waves, which can pass through walls, to sense occluded objects. The robot, called RF-Grasp, combines this powerful sensing with more traditional computer vision to locate and grasp items that might otherwise be blocked from view. The advance could one day streamline e-commerce fulfillment in warehouses or help a machine pluck a screwdriver from a jumbled toolkit.
The research will be presented in May at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation. The paper's lead author is Tara Boroushaki, a research assistant in the Signal Kinetics Group at the MIT Media Lab. Her MIT co-authors include Adib, who is the director of the Signal Kinetics Group; and Alberto Rodriguez, the Class of 1957 Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Other co-authors include Junshan Leng, a research engineer at Harvard University, and Ian Clester, a PhD student at Georgia Tech.Play video
As e-commerce continues to grow, warehouse work is still usually the domain of humans, not robots, despite sometimes-dangerous working conditions. That's in part because robots struggle to locate and grasp objects in such a crowded environment. "Perception and picking are two roadblocks in the industry today," says Rodriguez. Using optical vision alone, robots can't perceive the presence of an item packed away in a box or hidden behind another object on the shelf — visible light waves, of course, don't pass through walls.
But radio waves can.
For decades, radio frequency (RF) identification has been used to track everything from library books to pets. RF identification systems have two main components: a reader and a tag. The tag is a tiny computer chip that gets attached to — or, in the case of pets, implanted in — the item to be tracked. The reader then emits an RF signal, which gets modulated by the tag and reflected back to the reader.
The reflected signal provides information about the location and identity of the tagged item. The technology has gained popularity in retail supply chains — Japan aims to use RF tracking for nearly all retail purchases in a matter of years. The researchers realized this profusion of RF could be a boon for robots, giving them another mode of perception.
"RF is such a different sensing modality than vision," says Rodriguez. "It would be a mistake not to explore what RF can do."
RF Grasp uses both a camera and an RF reader to find and grab tagged objects, even when they're fully blocked from the camera's view. It consists of a robotic arm attached to a grasping hand. The camera sits on the robot's wrist. The RF reader stands independent of the robot and relays tracking information to the robot's control algorithm. So, the robot is constantly collecting both RF tracking data and a visual picture of its surroundings. Integrating these two data streams into the robot's decision making was one of the biggest challenges the researchers faced.
"The robot has to decide, at each point in time, which of these streams is more important to think about," says Boroushaki. "It's not just eye-hand coordination, it's RF-eye-hand coordination. So, the problem gets very complicated."
The robot initiates the seek-and-pluck process by pinging the target object's RF tag for a sense of its whereabouts. "It starts by using RF to focus the attention of vision," says Adib. "Then you use vision to navigate fine maneuvers." The sequence is akin to hearing a siren from behind, then turning to look and get a clearer picture of the siren's source.
With its two complementary senses, RF Grasp zeroes in on the target object. As it gets closer and even starts manipulating the item, vision, which provides much finer detail than RF, dominates the robot's decision making.
RF Grasp proved its efficiency in a battery of tests. Compared to a similar robot equipped with only a camera, RF Grasp was able to pinpoint and grab its target object with about half as much total movement. Plus, RF Grasp displayed the unique ability to "declutter" its environment — removing packing materials and other obstacles in its way in order to access the target. Rodriguez says this demonstrates RF Grasp's "unfair advantage" over robots without penetrative RF sensing. "It has this guidance that other systems simply don't have."
RF Grasp could one day perform fulfilment in packed e-commerce warehouses. Its RF sensing could even instantly verify an item's identity without the need to manipulate the item, expose its barcode, then scan it. "RF has the potential to improve some of those limitations in industry, especially in perception and localization," says Rodriguez.
Adib also envisions potential home applications for the robot, like locating the right Allen wrench to assemble your Ikea chair. "Or you could imagine the robot finding lost items. It's like a super-Roomba that goes and retrieves my keys, wherever the heck I put them."
The research is sponsored by the National Science Foundation, NTT DATA, Toppan, Toppan Forms, and the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS).
A 19th-century surveying mistake kept lumberjacks away from what is now Minnesota's largest patch of old-growth trees.
- In 1882, Josias R. King made a mess of mapping Coddington Lake, making it larger than it actually is.
- For decades, Minnesota loggers left the local trees alone, thinking they were under water.
- Today, the area is one of the last remaining patches of old-growth forest in the state.
Vanishingly rare, but it exists: a patch of Minnesota forest untouched by the logger's axe.Credit: Dan Alosso on Substack and licensed under CC-BY-SA
The trees here tower a hundred feet above the forest floor — a ceiling as high as in prehistory and vanishingly rare today. That's because no logger's axe has ever touched these woods.
Pillars of the green cathedral
As you walk among the giant pillars of this green cathedral, you might think you're among the redwood trees of California. But those are 1,500 miles (2,500 km) away. No, these are the red and white pines of the "Lost Forty" in Minnesota. This is the largest single surviving patch of old-growth forest in the state and a fair stretch beyond. And it's all thanks to a surveying error.
Despite its name, the Lost Forty Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) is actually 144 acres (0.58 km2) in total. Still, it's an easily overlooked part of the Chippewa National Forest, which sprawls across 666,000 acres (2,700 km2) of north-central Minnesota. And that – being easily overlooked – is kind of this area's superpower.
In the 1820s, when European-Americans arrived in what is now Minnesota, they found about 20 million acres (80,000 km2) of prairie and 30 million acres (120,000 km2) of forest. Two centuries on, both ecosystems largely have been depleted. Fewer than 100,000 acres (400 km2) of natural prairie remain, and fewer than 18 million acres (73,000 km2) of forest.
And today's woods are different. They're not just younger; the original pine stands have been harvested and largely replaced with aspen and birch.
To the moon and back
White pine especially was in heavy demand during the lumbering boom that had Minnesota in its grip by the 1840s — a boom driven by an insatiable demand for building materials and supercharged by the steam that powered the saws and the rails that transported the goods to market.
The two decades flanking the turn of the 20th century were the golden age of lumbering in Minnesota. At any given time, 20,000 lumberjacks were at work in the woods, a further 20,000 in the sawmills, and another 20,000 in other lumber-related industries.
Production peaked in the year 1900, with over 2.3 billion board-feet (5.4 million m3) of lumber harvested from the state's forests. That was enough to build 600,000 two-story houses or a boardwalk nine feet (2.7 m) wide, circling Earth along the equator. From then on, yields declined, albeit slightly at first. By 1910, however, the first lumber operations started packing up and moving on to the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere.
Minnesota's era of Big Timber symbolically came to an end with the closure of the Virginia and Rainy Lake Lumber Company in 1929. At that time, a century's worth of lumbering in Minnesota had produced 68 billion board-feet (160 million m3) of pine — enough to fill a line of boxcars all the way to the moon and halfway back again.
Now spool back a few decades. It's 1882, and the Public Land Survey is measuring, mapping, and quantifying the wilderness of northern Minnesota — and its as yet unharvested north woods. Setting out from the small settlement of Grand Rapids, Josias Redgate King leads a three-man survey team 40 miles north, into the backwoods.
Mapping error becomes cartographic fact
Their job, specifically, is to chart the area between Moose and Coddington Lakes. And they mess up. Perhaps it's the lousy November weather, the desolate swampy terrain, or both. But they make a serious mistake: their survey stretches Coddington Lake half a mile further northwest than it actually exists. As happens surprisingly often with mapping mistakes, the error becomes cartographic fact, undisputed for decades.
The area is marked on all maps as being under water and is therefore excluded from the considerations of logging companies. Only in 1960 is the area re-surveyed and the error corrected. But by then, as we have seen, Big Timber has moved on from the Gopher State.
Map of the "Lost Forty" SNA (top right). Bordering it on the south is the Chippewa National Forest Unique Biological Area. Credit: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources
Incidentally, Josias R. King was more than the mismapper of Coddington Lake. He has another, and rather better, claim to fame. When the Civil War broke out, Minnesota was the first state to offer volunteers to fight for the Union. At Fort Snelling, Mr. King rushed to the front of a line of men waiting to sign up.
So it was said, with some justification, that he was the first volunteer for the Union in all of the country. During the war, he attained the rank of lieutenant colonel. After, he returned to his civilian job, surveying. Because of his credentials as the Union's first volunteer, he was asked to pose for the face of the bronze soldier on the Civil War monument which was unveiled at St. Paul's Summit Park in 1903.
The loggers' loss is nature's gain
But back to the Lost Forty. The loggers' loss — hence the name — is actually nature's gain. The SNA's crowning glory, literally, is nearly 32 acres of designated old-growth red pine and white pine forest, in two stands, partially extending into the Chippewa National Forest proper. (In fact, much of the mismapped area seems to fall within the Chippewa National Forest Unique Biological Area adjacent to the Lost Forty.) Old-growth forests represent less than 2 percent — and designated old-growth forests less than 0.25 percent — of all of Minnesota's forests.
The oldest pine trees in the Lost Forty are between 300 and 400 years old, close to their maximum natural life span, which is up to 500 years. Similar pines in other parts of the National Forest are harvested at between 80 and 150 years for pulp and lumber. As a result, the pines in the Lost Forty are not only higher than most of the surrounding woods but also bigger with a diameter of between 22 and 48 inches (55 to 122 cm). One of the biggest has a circumference of 115 inches (2.9 m).
With their craggy bark, massive trunks, and dizzying height, these trees look like the ancient beings they are. And they exist in a cluster the size of which is unique for the Midwest. There's nothing lost about these trees; in fact, it's rather the reverse. Perhaps the area should more precisely be called the "Last Forty."
At 52 feet, only half as high as an old-growth white pine: Josias R. King's likeness atop the Soldier's Monument in Summit Park, St. Paul.Credit: Library of Congress
Get a good look at the Lost Forty in this video of the local hiking trail.
Strange Maps #1084
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Is working from home the ultimate liberation or the first step toward an even unhappier "new normal"?
- The Great Resignation is an idea proposed by Professor Anthony Klotz that predicts a large number of people leaving their jobs after the COVID pandemic ends and life returns to "normal."
- French philosopher Michel Foucault argued that by establishing what is and is not "normal," we are exerting a kind of power by making people behave a certain way.
- If working from home becomes the new normal, we must be careful that it doesn't give way to a new lifestyle that we hate even more than the office.
You wake up, you put on your work clothes, and you go to the office. You sit behind a desk, or in some designated space, and you work until the clock says it's over. This is what life is like for the vast majority of people. That is, until COVID came along. Then, everything changed.
Recently, an interesting idea has emerged called the "Great Resignation." This is a phenomenon that Professor Anthony Klotz of Texas A&M University has predicted will happen when people are asked, or told, to return to their offices. Klotz argues that, when we're all forced back into the old reality of the commute, a nine-to-five job, and cubicle life, there will be a "Great Resignation" among the workforce.
The argument is that in times of uncertainty and insecurity — like during a global pandemic — people behave conservatively. They'll stay put. But once things "normalize" again, we ought to expect employees to head for the exits.
But why? What has changed? Why has working from home made us so dissatisfied with our previously normal lives? Other than the comfort and convenience of working from home, one explanation might involve the concept of "normalization," a topic that fascinated French philosopher Michel Foucault.
The power of normal people
Foucault argued that we often spend an inordinate amount of time trying to be normal. We must dress the same way as everyone else. We must talk about the same things. We must work just like everyone else works. It's hugely important that things are normal. But, behind all of this, is a power dynamic that many of us are simply unaware of — and unconsciously unhappy about.
Someone, somewhere, must define what is "normal." It is then for the rest of us to bend over backward to fit into this narrow mold. To be powerful, then, is to say, "Do this, otherwise everyone will call you weird." Power is to hold the hoops everyone else must jump through. It's what Foucault describes as "normalizing power."
COVID was a wake-up call to the abnormality of modern work
Let's apply Focault's normalization concept to the modern workplace. Accepted wisdom had it that the best — and really, the only way — to work was in an office, usually downtown, far away from where we live. We were told this is where collaboration and creativity occur. Largely unchallenged, this "normal" functioned for decades, and we all obeyed.
We had to wake up at the crack of dawn to get ready for work. We had to travel in clogged and joyless commutes. We had to eat ready-packaged lunches behind our too-small desks. We had to sit through meetings in "good posture" ergonomic chairs that wouldn't be out of place in the Spanish Inquisition. Then we had to travel back home in yet another clogged and joyless commute. And we did this day after day after day.
Then COVID came along and revealed just how artificial, unnecessary, and abnormal it all is. It's as if someone ripped a blindfold off of society. We have laptops, wi-fi, and 5G (at least when people aren't burning the towers down). Many of us were just as productive — if not more so — than during the "normal" pre-COVID era. We don't need to be in an office. We don't need to waste countless hours of our lives sitting in traffic.
While the idea of a Great Resignation is quite appealing right now, we should be careful the "new normal" isn't so much worse.
Even better, people got to spend more time with their families, enjoy long and restful breaks, and have space to pursue their hobbies. In short, people like not going to an office. And, as Klotz argues, when companies see this dissatisfaction — this Great Resignation — they're going to ask some revolutionary questions, like, "Do you want to come back full time? Work remotely? In-office three days a week? Four days? One day?"
The silver lining to the COVID pandemic is that it has made us re-examine what "normal" is.
Beware the new normal
Of course, the idea of a nine-to-five office job was not established by some moustache-twirling villain just to satisfy his sadistic whims. It came about because people thought that was the most effective and productive way to operate.
People do need direct human contact, and it's often easier and more productive to speak to a colleague next to you or walk across an office to ask for some help. Remote-working software like Zoom is indeed convenient, but can a company honestly say that it's as efficient as working in an office?
What's more, there's a particularly pernicious sting in what Foucault argued. It's something that ought to slow any would-be Great Resignation. This is the idea that there likely will always be some kind of normal.
While COVID has revealed the office for the normalized power play that it is, what's to say what the next "normal" will be? Let's say that working from home becomes the new normal. Will we be expected to attend Zoom meetings at any hour of the day or answer text messages at midnight? Might cameras be used to monitor our every movement? Might software check that we're working at the right pace and in the right way?
While the idea of a Great Resignation is quite appealing right now, we should be careful the "new normal" isn't so much worse.