Big Think Interview With Jonathan Lethem
Jonathan Lethem is a novelist and essayist known for his genre-bending work that draws on science fiction and detective fiction. He was born in 1964 to an artist father and an activist mother, who moved their family into Brooklyn before it was fashionable. His mother, Judith Lethem, died of cancer when he was 13, an experience which Letham says has haunted him and his writing ever since. In high school, Jonathan followed in his father's footsteps, attending the alternative High School of Music & Art in New York. He matriculated at Bennington College in Vermont before dropping out in his sophomore year to move to California and pursue writing.
Lethem's first novel "Gun, With Occasional Music," a sci-fi/hard-boiled detective hybrid met with enthusiastic reviews and was a finalist for the 1994 Nebula Award. His fifth novel, "Motherless Brooklyn," won a National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 1999, and 2003's "The Fortress of Solitude" was listed as one of The New York Times's editor's choice books from that year. His most recent novel is "Chronic City," which is set in a surreal version of Manhattan's Upper East Side.
In 2010, Lethem was hired as the Roy Edward Disney '51 Chair of Creative Writing at Pomona College, a position formerly held by the late novelist David Foster Wallace.
Jonathan Lethem: I’m Jonathan Lethem. I’m a novelist, short story writer, essayist and writing teacher.
Question: Do you find nostalgia misleading?
Jonathan Lethem: Yeah, there is a hugely bogus script that things fall into in American culture life that there was always just the moment before we began to you know just before we arrived it was all perfect. Things were great. It was a golden time and we have to fight to get back to that perfect simple place. And this it just purveyed so many different realms, high, low, in the middle, the arts, politics. It’s this really strange dream that people insist on dreaming that it was just good a minute ago and now we’ve ruined it.
And I mean there is a lot of things that we’re ruining all the time, but that’s not to say that there was this sanctuary, this moment in the past that we should be so self-reproachingly trying to reconstruct. That seems like a lot of nonsense and I try to puncture it wherever I can, even though I’m an American. I’m susceptible. I probably indulge it in all sorts of ways. I’m you know I mean in a book like "The Fortress of Solitude," I’m both complicit with a nostalgia for imaginary perfect Brooklyns that just preceded my own, and I’m trying to examine that impulse and expose that impulse. And I think if I wasn’t exemplifying it, if I wasn’t susceptible to it, I wouldn’t have the same insights I do into how treacherous it is, so sometimes the best testimony comes from inside these perplexities.
Question: Society often paints change as either sweepingly utopian or dystopian. Do you buy it?
Jonathan Letham: You know I began making fun of this tendency in my first novel, in "Gun, with Occasional Music." On the second or third page I think the main character opens up a package that has been sent to his office and there is an anti-gravity pen. It’s a ballpoint pen that floats out of the package when he opens it up and he realizes well they’ve finally done it. They’ve gone and created anti-gravity and what do they use it for? It’s like a promotional pen for a stationery company or something and then he tries to use it and the ballpoint, you know the ink is very bad. It’s a bulky, crappy little ballpoint pen that just happens to float, and he throws it away except it won’t stay in his wastebasket.
That is how change comes. And it’s never as sweepingly utopian or dystopian as we hope or fear. It’s usually much more kind of neutral verging on dull than that, and it’s all about what use it gets put to and you know I mean if you look back at when radio was invented there was a kind of beautiful hysteria about what this meant for human civilization that voices would travel now through the air. And, yeah, I mean it was transformative, but it was also like Pepsident commercials and really back crooners night and day. And then television comes along and among the claims that are made that are very similarly, you know, or you know film is introduced and again and again you see the rhetoric of crisis, moral panic at what these technologies will produce and futuristic exaltation at how they’re going to destroy all previous modes of discourse and communication. You know they do and they don’t.
It’s like the e-book. You know we’re now going to have like e-books and paper books probably for a good long time. And it’s very exciting that the market share may have crept in one year from 2% to 12%. It’s revolutionary in one sense, but, lo and behold, 20 years after the first inkling that publishing was going to be transformed we still do buy books in paper and glue and cloth boards and people really like them and they’re probably going to like them for awhile yet. There is just this weird persistence to the human use of these delivery systems.
Question: What are your favorite neighborhoods in New York?
Jonathan Lethem: Well of course I’ve written about my leading favorites and it’s something to… It may be obvious. It may not be obvious, but even if I seem prickly or satirical or suspicious most of what I select to write about I may seem to be dissecting or examining or exposing it, but to be writing about it at all must mean that I care for it. I don’t really write about anything I don’t love even if that love sometimes gets all screwed up and tormented.
So obviously I mean you can go to the books to know which neighborhoods matter the most to me. It’s terribly obvious, but there are others that I respond to that I’m really interested in that sneak up on me sometimes; places I take for granted or didn’t discover until lately. I mean right now I’m having a romance with my grandmother’s neighborhood of Sunnyside, Queens, which growing up it was associated... it was circumscribed by her very difficult personality, her very difficult sensibility and her own love/hate relationship to it, which verged too much on hate sometimes. But there it is, this place I knew in this very particular way that I never let myself possess before, but I’m suddenly going there. I’ve decided to write about it, and I’m realizing how much it means to me and it’s just there where it was taken for granted.
I also, kind of, you know... it’s incredible how long you can live in a place and not go somewhere and I only very lately figured out how amazing Inwood, the upper, the last mile of Manhattan, the park, the neighborhoods, the terrain, just the geography, the topography I should say of that part of the city is mind-blowing. It’s another place entirely and one of those that is a little bit frozen in time. It holds an essence of the city as I knew it when I was growing up in the '70s, that perfect time that’s gone forever.
Question: Are hipsters ruining Brooklyn?
Jonathan Lethem: Well you know I’m really strangely tone-deaf about certain things, just as I think in the '50s the word "beatnik" was made up to try to put something obnoxious or pretentious in its place and then there were people who came along, the Maynard G. Krebses of the world who were like "Hey I’m a beatnik" and they, just almost in a kind of idiot savant way they made it a good thing to be a beatnik because they liked to be one. It took me a little while to understand how much nastiness people generally intended when they used the word hipster. It just sounds sort of attractive to me, a hipster. I thought yeah, I guess that is sort of my culture. Those are my people and I was just about able to go on thinking that it was a perfectly nice thing to be until someone pointed out to me or it finally sank in that it was meant contemptuously and I really I’m not sure I accept the premise that I think it’s a self-loathing term and I’ve come to be very alert to this self-loathing propensity that surrounds certain kinds of cultures of what are essentially connoisseurship, generational affiliation.
Question: Do you see yourself as a champion of pop culture?
Jonathan Letham: People often ask me to kind of weigh in on pop culture or they sort of throw me questions that dare me to defend a love of pop culture and I realized... I stopped wanting to because the premises of the question contain so much self-loathing. It was generally being asked by people who loved a lot of those things that they thought fit under the container of that name, fit inside the container of that name, but didn’t feel good about loving those things. So they were sort of simultaneously hoping I would make them feel better about what they liked and daring me to make an ass of myself defending things that at some other level of their being they thought were indefensible. You know, bad, ephemeral, crappy commercial culture and I started to say I don’t want to defend pop culture. I don’t even want to talk about thing according to that... the implications of that term, the assumptions that nest in that taken-for-granted term. I’m not sure I know what it is or that I like it. What I am responsive to are two different things that nest inside there that don’t bring with them so many automatic associations.
I’m really, really interested in what I would call vernacular culture. And this covers things like the hip-hop culture that I documented in part in "Fortress of Solitude." The indigenous, essentially indigenous urban scrawlings on the wall and chanting rhymes over records in schoolyards that became—once they became commodifiable and self-conscious art forms—became whatever you know. Well both Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jay-Z and everything in between.
But the actual vernacular moment when things are not even bothering to think of themselves as art forms. They’re just expressivity, but not expressivity in some pure raw you know Thoreau-at-Walden sense of like pre-cultural, you know. They’re deep within culture. They’re responsive to culture. They acknowledge urban life, contemporary life, the consumer culture and they just make something of it. And of course you see a lot of what I would now call vernacular culture on the Internet; people sort of slamming together something in a weird way on YouTube. You know, it’s... sure there are people who are calculating about it already and trying to create either a reputation or a career for themselves in some way. But there are a lot of people just sort of making stuff because it’s like a way to almost just blurt something back at this world that’s so loud and full of stuff; noise, art and commercials and junk and argument and they’re sort of like making some argument back, here is something. I like that.
That’s vernacular culture to me. I’ll talk about that. I’ll defend that and on the other hand I also will discuss and describe and defend some parts of what I would call commercial culture, things that arise and are made, the first and founding impulse behind their making is to have something that will like blow up and fill a theater or hit the pop charts. That’s anything constructed sort of by committee or where you sort of have to wonder who is the auteur here, why is it good, like The Monkees or a lot of Hollywood film, a lot of what we new revere as film noir was made by people who were not thinking about art principally or sometimes at all, right. That is commercial culture and I do think greatness and extraordinary expressivity kind of rise there too.
Question: Are art and entertainment mutually exclusive in literature?
Jonathan Lethem: I think there is so much anxiety about the cultural capital attached to capital-L literature and it just doesn’t actually have to do with how we got here and how I spend my days, either one of those two things. I think most of what forms the cannon that is so nervously clung to was written in an exuberant indifference to the idea of a kind of elite, sanctified, cultural authority. The novel for most of its life was a dubious form. It was itself not pop culture, but entertainment. You know 90% of the syllabus in a history of the novel course up to a very definite moment in the 20th century was written by people who are either eccentrically pleasing themselves and their friends, or were trying to be as loveable and irresistible and entertaining as Dickens and Defoe. And, you know, this idea that it’s really, really specially sacred, the practice just doesn’t... help. It doesn’t help anything. And I think that the novel’s greatness comes precisely from its weird durable openness. It’s constantly engulfing all sorts of other cultural matter.
It’s a permeable form that draws a lot of energy from different kinds of… well from vernacular culture and also from the energy of other kinds of storytelling. I mean I think the 20th Century history of the novel... is among other things a history of an argument with... a very excited, nervous argument with cinema. You know oh gosh, this rival form can do so many things that the novel can do and what can we steal from it? How can we fend it off? How can we beat it at its own game or invent new games for the novel that the cinema couldn’t reach in to like the unreliable narration, et cetera?
Question: Why is the detective motif so pervasive in film and literature?
Jonathan Letham: The detective motif, well, it’s a number of things all at once. It’s a really, really flexible, vital, fluent metaphor for the alienated observer who is nevertheless compelled to act that we all frequently feel ourselves to be in the teeth of the 20th and now the 21st Centuries. We’re all sort of wanting to hide in our office and drink the whiskey bottle in the drawer and then... you know, and savor the solace of our own dry contemptuous wit, but then are somehow startled again and again to find ourselves both complicit with the action before us and falling in love with the character that comes and asks us, begs for our involvement and suddenly we’re inside the story. The detective is always trying to be outside the story... and always ends up inside.
Well this is a metaphor for life in the 20th century. It’s also you know I mean this... One of the things that, when I began to study the hardboiled detectives that I was so attracted to when I first wanted to write that kind of story, I was reading the Ross McDonald novels and rereading all the Chandler books and going deeper into the origin myths of this image. You know it’s so easy to overlook really, really crucial parts of this image. The detective wears a trench coat. A trench coat is an explicit reference to trench warfare. Trench warfare was World War I. The hardboiled detective was, to begin with, a veteran of World War I who had come back traumatized from a kind of violence, brutality, a despair at what mankind was capable of... that transformed philosophy, politics, literature, everything. And this man in a trench coat is, among other things, a traumatized veteran unable to confront this material directly in civilian life because it seems irretrievably distant from the surface reality of peacetime.
So it’s an urgent historical question that is being enunciated. The answer isn’t there, but the question is formed, how do we live after what we saw in World War I? And well when was the great second flowering of this image, especially in cinema? Right after World War II. We have another shock to absorb. Even worse, we could do that a second time. We could set up camps and film noir is a translation of the nightmare of the 20th century into the suburban optimistic manifest destiny American dream of the peacetime '50s, the prosperity and it is a shattering conflation of one part of the middle of the century with another, so we needed film noir to say how irreconcilable these two stories were.
Question: Do you have the whole plot arc sketched out before you begin a novel?
Jonathan Lethem: Yeah, I wait until I have enough to conduct my improvisation or my experiment. I need to have a lot in mind. I don’t work it out on the page. I don’t like notes and outlines. I need to have characters I’m fascinated with, confused by, attracted to, want to spend years with and in a setting that is equally attractive and confusing to me, familiar and strange and I need a voice. I need a kind of a language path into the work. I also need along with those kind of three pieces of equipment for the opening I usually need an image of an ending. I need some kind of set piece or mood or situation or strange moment that while I may not now, in fact, I’m certain not to know how I’m really going to get there, how I’m going to attain it, how I’m going to bring it into being, I know I want to.
And so using those other things I described, the equipment for the beginning of a journey it’s like being loaded up for a mountain climb and you see this kind of slightly cloud-covered top that you’re driven to reach. What lies between you and that top is unknown and that’s excitement. That’s not only fear. It’s a great discovery. It’s a great journey, once you feel the confidence in those things that I’ve just described, to go into unknown territory; to write day after day thinking "I have to figure this out, how do these characters end up where I’m imagining they’ll be and how do I explore this material?" you know. I love that feeling. That’s what I live for now, is to be in the grip of it.
Question: Are there common traps into which inexperienced writers often fall?
Jonathan Lethem: I’m not sure I like to think that there are traps, common or uncommon. There are mostly opportunities and the things that might seem most perplexing or the largest, most immoveable obstacles are also usually areas of potential fascination and obsession.
And writing is not a... you’re not on a journey that has been charted for you, externally. There's no map. There is only you and your own set of impulses. The only directive is to care immensely about stuff that no one else could possibly understand—let alone care about as deeply as you do—and probably wouldn’t even be able to grasp except if you accomplish the task of making yourself into the writer who can bring it forth. I mean when I wanted to write at the outset I was full of these turbulent, impossible-to-paraphrase images of what kind of writing I was going to do. Some of them were nonsense, never to be realized. But the one thing that was certain was that I had to cherish them because there is nothing else except you, in the void, imagining what kind of books you might be able to make people see and understand and enjoy and you’re making...
Thomas Berger was asked why he writes. I’ve already used mountaintop imagery in this conversation and he turned the little famous mountain climbers you know... the Zen reply that the mountain climber gives, “Why do you ascend Everest, because it’s there.” And Berger asked why he wrote said, “Because it isn’t there.” So that doesn’t describe a situation full of traps because traps are laid on a path that someone else has gone. For similar reasons I don’t really think that the image of a writer’s block is a very... is a necessary one. Being blocked, if that it's called, is my job. I sit everyday not knowing.
I mean in a technical sense people will say, “How long did that book take you to write?” Well it took me four years, but it doesn’t mean that I sat typing words for four years of hours. The great majority of that time I spent not even at my desk, but even at my desk, if you had a film of me there, I’d be sitting doing nothing occasionally with little bursts of activity—or sometimes with a cancelled burst of activity. I look like I mean about to... He didn’t do it. It would be like play by play, oh, he, woops, he almost wrote a sentence there.
So being blocked, being uncertain, sitting there not knowing, waiting, abiding with it: this is the work. If you don’t have the tolerance for that you’re in great trouble. If you want to call it a writer’s block... that doesn’t seem a very useful name for that kind of abiding that I think is the essence of the work.
Recorded on September 25, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller
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A global survey shows the majority of countries favor Android over iPhone.
- When Android was launched soon after Apple's own iPhone, Steve Jobs threatened to "destroy" it.
- Ever since, and across the world, the rivalry between both systems has animated users.
- Now the results are in: worldwide, consumers clearly prefer one side — and it's not Steve Jobs'.
A woman on her phone in Havana, Cuba. Mobile phones have become ubiquitous the world over — and so has the divide between Android and iPhone users.Credit: Yamil Lage / AFP via Getty Images.
Us versus them: it's the archetypal binary. It makes the world understandable by dividing it into two competing halves: labor against capital, West against East, men against women.
These maps are the first to show the dividing lines between one of the world's more recent binaries: Android vs. Apple. Published by Electronics Hub, they are based on a qualitative analysis of almost 350,000 tweets worldwide that presented positive, neutral, and negative attitudes toward Android and/or Apple.
Steve Jobs wanted to go "thermonuclear"
Feelings between Android and Apple were pretty tribal from the get-go. It was Steve Jobs himself who said, when Google rolled out Android a mere ten months after Apple launched the iPhone, "I'm going to destroy Android, because it's a stolen product. I'm willing to go thermonuclear war on this."
Buying a phone is like picking a side in the eternal feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys. Each choice for automatically comes with an in-built arsenal of arguments against.
If you are an iPhone person, you appreciate the sleekness and simplicity of its design, and you are horrified by the confusing mess that is the Android operating system. If you are an Android aficionado, you pity the iPhone user, a captive of an overly expensive closed ecosystem, designed to extract money from its users.
Even without resorting to those extremes, many of us will recognize which side of the dividing line that we are on. Like the American Civil War, that line runs through families and groups of friends, but that would be a bit confusing to chart geographically. To un-muddle the information, these maps zoom out to state and country level.
If the contest is based on the number of countries, Android wins. In all, 74 of the 142 countries surveyed prefer Android (in green on the map). Only 65 favor Apple (colored grey). That's a 52/48 split, which may not sound like a decisive vote, but it was good enough for Boris Johnson to get Brexit done (after he got breakfast done, of course).
And yes, math-heads: 74 plus 65 is three short of 142. Belarus, Fiji, and Peru (in yellow on the map) could not decide which side to support in the Global Phone War.
What about the United States, home of both the Android and the iPhone? Another victory for the former, albeit a slightly narrower one: 30.16 percent of the tweets about Android were positive versus just 29.03 percent of the ones about Apple.
United States: Texas surrounded!
Credit: Electronics Hub
There can be only one winner per state, though, and that leads to this preponderance of Android logos. Frankly, it's a relief to see a map showing a visceral divide within the United States that is not the coasts versus the heartland.
- Apple dominates in 19 states: a solid Midwestern bloc, another of states surrounding Texas, the Dakotas and California, plus North Carolina, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island.
- And that's it. The other 32 are the United States of Android. You can drive from Seattle to Miami without straying into iPhone territory. But no stopovers in Dallas or Houston – both are behind enemy lines!
North America: strongly leaning toward Android
Credit: Electronics Hub
Only eight of North America's 21 countries surveyed fall into the Apple category.
- The U.S. and Canada lean Android, while Mexico goes for the iPhone.
- Central America is divided, but here too Android wins hands down, 5-2.
Europe: Big Five divided
Credit: Electronics Hub
In Europe, Apple wins, with 20 countries preferring the iPhone, 17 going for Android, and Belarus sitting on the fence.
- Of Western Europe's Big Five markets, three (UK, Germany, Spain) are pro-Android, and two (France, Italy) are pro-Apple.
- Czechia and Slovakia are an Apple island in the Android sea that is Central Europe. Glad to see there is still something the divorcees can agree on.
South America: almost even
Credit: Electronics Hub
In South America, the divide is almost even.
- Five countries prefer Android, four Apple, and one is undecided.
- In Peru, both Android- and Apple-related tweets were 25 percent positive.
Africa: watch out for Huawei
Credit: Electronics Hub
In Africa, Android wins by 17 countries versus Apple's 15.
- There's a solid Android bloc running from South Africa via DR Congo all the way to Ethiopia.
- iPhone countries are scattered throughout the north (Algeria), west (Guinea), east (Somalia), and south (Namibia).
Huawei — increasingly popular across the continent — could soon dramatically change the picture in Africa. Currently still running on Android, the Chinese phone manufacturer has just launched its own operating system, called Harmony.
Middle East: Iran vs. Saudi Arabia (again)
Credit: Electronics Hub
In the Middle East and Central Asia, Android wins 8 countries to Apple's 6.
- But it's complicated. One Turkish tweeter wondered how it is that iPhones seem more popular in the Asian half of Istanbul, while Android phones prevailed in the European part of the city.
- The phone divide matches up with the region's main geopolitical one: Iran prefers Android, Saudi Arabia the iPhone.
Asia-Pacific: Apple on the periphery
Credit: Electronics Hub
Another wafer-thin majority for Android in the Asia-Pacific region: 13 countries versus 12 for Apple — and one abstention (Fiji).
- The two giants of the Asian mainland, India and China, are both Android countries. Apple countries are on the periphery.
- And if India is Android, its rival Pakistan must be Apple. Same with North and South Korea.
Experts point to the fact that both operating systems are becoming more alike with every new generation as a potential resolution to the conflict. But as any student of human behavior will confirm: smaller differences will only exacerbate the rivalry between both camps.
Maps taken from Electronics Hub, reproduced with kind permission.
Strange Maps #1096
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
English is a dynamic language, and this summer's new additions to dictionary.com tell us a lot about how we're living.
- The summer update to Dictionary.com added hundreds of new words and definitions.
- Many of them are in areas related to justice, technology, and COVID-19.
- The new slang terms will leave more than a few people confused.
In any given year, new words are added to the dictionary to reflect how society's use of them has changed, often in response to ongoing events. For Summer 2021, more than 1200 new, improved, and revised definitions were introduced to Dictionary.com, including 231 entirely new words. A review of those words, the subjects they cover, and the stories behind their creation tells a rich story about the times we live in.
A word by any other definition?
You might wonder why we need to carry out such extensive addition and redefining campaigns. John Kelly, the Managing Editor of Dictionary.com, explained in a statement why these changes were made and their importance:
"The latest update to our dictionary continues to mirror the world around us. Long COVID, minoritize, 5G, content warning, domestic terrorism — it's a complicated and challenging society we live in, and language changes to help us grapple with it. But sometimes language changes just for fun. Yes, yeet is now in the dictionary, which may prompt some of us to use one other of our new entries: oof! Perhaps these lighter slang and pop culture newcomers to our dictionary reflect another important aspect of our time — a cautious optimism and a brighter mood about the future ahead after a trying 2020."
The English language isn't static, so it is up to lexicographers to get the dictionaries up to speed. Let's face it, we might need more than a few new words to talk about last year.
The times they are a-changin'
Good Communication 101: Mirroring, Jargon, Hifalutin Words | Alan Alda | Big Think www.youtube.com
Words that describe the continuing COVID-19 pandemic are still being added. The recent additions, which include long haul and long hauler may speak to the shift in how we interact with the pandemic — it is now a long-term rather than an acute concern for many people. Changes to our lives as a result of the pandemic and new ways to cater to those challenges, like ghost kitchen and side hustle, also made their way in.
In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed, Americans searched for terms related to racial issues at significantly higher levels than before. This not only called for updates and additions to words in this area last year but a continuing review, which has added new terms like the acronyms JEDI and DEI and the new word one-drop rule. Other terms long included, like Jim Crow and Black Codes, saw updates this summer.
Technology continued to advance through thick and thin as well. Terms like 5G, asynchronous, and abandonware made it into the recent update. Given how much time we all spent using tech in the last year and a half, it is only fitting that we would need these terms. 5G also has the unfortunate distinction of being both a telecommunications technology and a target for conspiracy theorists, perhaps making a dictionary entry for it all the more important.
Other words previously defined as regional or cultural in nature have been redefined in the light of their evolving use. Y'all is now listed as its own term and deemed an "informal" pronoun rather than a mere variant of "you-all." The post explaining the update noted that the term is now more known for informality than regionalism and has enjoyed a surge in use as a gender neutral pronoun.
Mind hack: 7 secrets to learn any new language | Steve Kaufmann | Big Think www.youtube.com
Perhaps it is necessary that after a year that required so many of the above words to be added or clarified, there are new slang terms that will seem like absolute gibberish to somebody disconnected from popular culture. New words like yeet, zaddy, and oof were added this year, showing that even in difficult times, fun new ways to use language are cropping up all the time.
The website's lexicographers also saw fit to officially add one of the honorable mentions for 2020's word of the year to the list of vulgar slang terms. Regrettably, it is unfit for publication, but it rhymes with spit-snow.
So, now that y'all know about these updates, perhaps we can all order from the new ghost kitchen from apps on our 5G smartphones before getting back to our side hustles. Yeet!
Reality is far stranger than fiction.
- Black holes are stranger than fiction, especially when we explore the weird effects of watching someone or something fall into one.
- Rotating black holes may be traversable if the physics as we understand it holds.
- To discuss the physics, we explore a fictional tale with a grand ending.
What happens when someone falls into a black hole? If you are the unfortunate soul being gobbled up, things don't look too bad until they turn really bad. Unless, there is an outlet through a wormhole. And you are really lucky.
The fictional story below — an abridged version of one published in my 2002 book The Prophet and the Astronomer explains why. Since we now know that black holes exist and that even Jeff Bezos can fly into outer space, it is only a matter of time before humans fly into black holes — albeit a very, very long time from now: the nearest black hole to Earth (as of now) lies a "mere" 1,500 light-years away.
But first, a refresher. In his general theory of relativity, Albert Einstein equated gravity with the curvature of space around a massive body. The effect is quite negligible for light masses but becomes important for massive stars and even more so for very compact massive objects such as neutron stars, whose gravity is 100,000 times stronger than at the sun's surface. Distortions of space caused by a larger mass (stars) will cause small moving masses (planets) to deviate from what Newtonian gravity predicts. Another remarkable consequence of Einstein's theory of gravity is the slowing down of clocks in strong gravitational fields: strong gravity bends space and slows down time.
Now, on with the story.
In my young days, I traveled from planet to planet looking for old spaceship parts. It was in one of my travels in search of a rare gyroscope for a 2180 Mars Lander that I found "Mr. Ström's Rocket Parts," an enormous hanger littered with mountains of space garbage. While I was consulting the store's virtual stock-scanning device to search for the gyroscope, Mr. Ström himself came to greet me. He was famous throughout the galaxy for claiming to have come closer than anyone to a black hole, a story that, to most, was just that — a story.
Like many before me, I asked Mr. Ström to tell me his story. After hesitating a while, he gave in.
"I was commander of a fleet built to explore the complex astrophysical X-ray source known as Cygnus X-1," he started. "Since the 1970s, over three millennia ago, this was suspected to be a binary star system 6,000 light-years from Earth. The two members of the binary system, thought to be a blue giant star about 20-30 solar masses and a black hole about 7-15 solar masses, orbited so close together that the black hole frantically sucked matter from his huge companion into a spiraling oblivion. This mad swirling heated the in-falling stellar matter to enormous temperatures, producing the X-rays astronomers on Earth observed. Even though the data indicated that the smaller object of the pair had a mass much larger than the maximum mass for neutron stars, it was still not clear if it was a black hole. Since other attempts to identify it had failed, the League of Planets decided that the only way to know for sure was to go there.
"The fleet consisted of three vessels, each under the command of a Ström, a great honor to my family. I led the vessel named CX1, my middle brother led CX2, and the youngest led CX3. I will spare you the details of how the mission was prepared, and how, after many problems with our hyper-relativistic plasma drive, we finally arrived to within one light-month of our destination. Through our telescopes we could see an enormous hot blue star being drained by an invisible hole in space.
"We were instructed to fly single file toward the black hole, keeping a very large distance from each other; my younger brother first, my mid-brother second, and me last. We knew that, from a large distance, a black hole behaves like any other massive object, as the differences general relativity predicted happen only fairly close to it. We also knew that every black hole has an imaginary limiting sphere around it known as the 'event horizon,' which marks the distance from which not even light could escape.
"My young brother's ship, the CX3, was to approach the hole, sending us periodic light flashes with a given frequency; we were to follow at a distance, measuring the frequency of the radiation emitted by my brother's ship as well as the time interval between the pulses, and then compare them with the theoretical predictions for gravitational redshift and time delay. The three vessels plunged to a distance of 10,000 kilometers from the hole; while CX1 and CX2 hovered at that distance, my brother closed in to 100 kilometers from the hole. He was instructed to send us infrared radiation, but we detected only radio waves. The gravitational redshift formula was indeed correct. Furthermore, the intervals between two pulses increased quite perceptibly; time was flowing slower for my brother, as viewed from our distant ships. He plunged to the dangerously close distance of ten kilometers from the hole, only seven from the event horizon; this was the closest distance the ship could stand, due to the enormous tidal forces around the hole, which stretch everything into spaghetti. (Numbers assume a one-solar-mass black hole.)
"From that close orbit, my brother was to send pulses of visible light, but all we detected were (invisible) radio waves; we could not see my brother's ship any longer, and I started to feel very uneasy. The theory was correct: a ship falling into a black hole will become invisible to a more distant ship (us) due to the red shifting of light. That also meant that we would never be able to see a star collapsing into a black hole, as it will become invisible before it meets its end. A related effect was the slowing of time. As my younger brother approached the black hole, the radiation pulses were arriving at increasingly long intervals. Thus, not only could we not see him, but we would also have to wait an enormous amount of time to receive any message from him. This confirmed the prediction that for a distant observer, the collapse of a star would take forever. Of course, for the unlucky traveler that freefalls into the black hole, nothing unusual with the passage of time would happen, as explained by the equivalence principle: gravity is neutralized in free fall. Unfortunately, his body would be horribly stretched.
"The turbulence and steady bombardment of matter swirling around the black hole caused my brother's spaceship to drift uncontrollably into the maelstrom. I had to try to rescue him. After all, this was a rotating black hole, and the theory predicted that instead of a crushing singularity at its center, there should be a wormhole connected to another point in the universe. A desperate maneuver to be sure.
"My mid-brother waited in a safe distant orbit around the black hole. As I plunged in, the whirling of space dragged me in as water into a drain. The combination of enormous gravitational pull and furious bombardment of radiation and particles took a toll on my ship; but its fuselage miraculously — what else could it be but a miracle? — survived, as I did, thanks to the once controversial anti-crunch shield. Outside, space seemed to convulse into infinitely many coexisting shapes. Inside a black hole, I realized, reality had no boundaries.
"I felt an enormous push, as if the spaceship was being coughed up by a giant. I must have remained unconscious for quite a while. When I looked into a mirror, I could hardly believe what I saw; my hair had turned completely white, and my face was covered with wrinkles I didn't have moments (moments?) ago. I checked my location in the computer and realized that, somehow, I re-emerged 2,000 light-years away from Cygnus X-1. The only possible explanation was that I traveled through a wormhole, which somehow was kept open inside the black hole and was tossed out by a white hole at a faraway point in space."
Apart from the sequence of facts inside the black hole — where we know very little — the rest is what we should expect from watching someone fall into a black hole. Reality, for these cosmic maelstroms, is definitely stranger than fiction.
Virtual reality continues to blur the line between the physical and the digital, and it will change our lives forever.
- Extended reality technologies — which include virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality — have long captivated the public imagination, but have yet to become mainstream.
- Extended reality technologies are quickly becoming better and cheaper, suggesting they may soon become part of daily life.
- Over the long term, these technologies may usher in the "mirror world" — a digital layer "map" that lies atop the physical world and enables us to interact with internet-based technologies more seamlessly than ever.
What will the Disneyland of the future look like? | Hard Reset by Freethink www.youtube.com
Immersive technology aims to overlay a digital layer of experience atop everyday reality, changing how we interact with everything from medicine to entertainment. What that future will look like is anyone's guess. But immersive technology is certainly on the rise.
The extended reality (XR) industry — which includes virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality (MR), which involves both virtual and physical spaces — is projected to grow from $43 billion in 2020 to $333 billion by 2025, according to a recent market forecast. Much of that growth will be driven by consumer technologies, such as VR video games, which are projected to be worth more than $90 billion by 2027, and AR glasses, which Apple and Facebook are currently developing.
But other sectors are adopting immersive technologies, too. A 2020 survey found that 91 percent of businesses are currently using some form of XR or plan to use it in the future. The range of XR applications seems endless: Boeing technicians use AR when installing wiring in airplanes. H&R Block service representatives use VR to boost their on-the-phone soft skills. And KFC developed an escape-room VR game to train employees how to make fried chicken.
XR applications not only train and entertain; they also have the unique ability to transform how people perceive familiar spaces. Take theme parks, which are using immersive technology to add a new experiential layer to their existing rides, such as roller coasters where riders wear VR headsets. Some parks, like China's $1.5 billion VR Star Theme Park, don't have physical rides at all.
One of the most novel innovations in theme parks is Disney's Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge attraction, which has multiple versions: physical locations in California and Florida and a near-identical virtual replica within the "Tales from the Galaxy's Edge" VR game.
"That's really the first instance of anything like this that's ever been done, where you can get a deeper dive, and a somewhat different view, of the same location by exploring its digital counterpart," game designer Michael Libby told Freethink.
Libby now runs Worldbuildr, a company that uses game-engine software to prototype theme park attractions before construction begins. The prototypes provide a real-time VR preview of everything riders will experience during the ride. It begs the question: considering that VR technology is constantly improving, will there come a point when there's no need for the physical ride at all?
Maybe. But probably not anytime soon.
"I think we're more than a few minutes from the future of VR," Sony Interactive Entertainment CEO Jim Ryan told the Washington Post in 2020. "Will it be this year? No. Will it be next year? No. But will it come at some stage? We believe that."
It could take years for XR to become mainstream. But that growth period is likely to be a brief chapter in the long history of XR technologies.
The evolution of immersive technology
The first crude example of XR technology came in 1838 when the English scientist Charles Wheatstone invented the stereoscope, a device through which people could view two images of the same scene but portrayed at slightly different angles, creating the illusion of depth and solidity. Yet it took another century before anything resembling our modern conception of immersive technology struck the popular imagination.
In 1935, the science fiction writer Stanley G. Weinbaum wrote a short story called "Pygmalion's Spectacles," which describes a pair of goggles that enables one to perceive "a movie that gives one sight and sound [...] taste, smell, and touch. [...] You are in the story, you speak to the shadows (characters) and they reply, and instead of being on a screen, the story is all about you, and you are in it."
The 1950s and 1960s saw some bold and crude forays into XR, such as the Sensorama, which was dubbed an "experience theater" that featured a movie screen complemented by fan-generated wind, a motional chair, and a machine that produced scents. There was also the Telesphere Mask, which packed most of the same features but in the form of a headset designed presciently similar to modern models.
The first functional AR device came in 1968 with Ivan Sutherland's The Sword of Damocles, a heavy headset through which viewers could see basic shapes and structures overlaid on the room around them. The 1980s brought interactive VR systems featuring goggles and gloves, like NASA's Virtual Interface Environment Workstation (VIEW), which let astronauts control robots from a distance using hand and finger movements.
1980's Virtual Reality - NASA Video youtu.be
That same technology led to new XR devices in the gaming industry, like Nintendo's Power Glove and Virtual Boy. But despite a ton of hype over XR in the 1980s and 1990s, these flashy products failed to sell. The technology was too clunky and costly.
In 2012, the gaming industry saw a more successful run at immersive technology when Oculus VR raised $2.5 million on Kickstarter to develop a VR headset. Unlike previous headsets, the Oculus model offered a 90-degree field of view, was priced reasonably, and relied on a personal computer for processing power.
In 2014, Facebook acquired Oculus for $2 billion, and the following years brought a wave of new VR products from companies like Sony, Valve, and HTC. The most recent market evolution has been toward standalone wireless VR headsets that don't require a computer, like the Oculus Quest 2, which last year received five times as many preorders as its predecessor did in 2019.
Also notable about the Oculus Quest 2 is its price: $299 — $100 cheaper than the first version. For years, market experts have said cost is the primary barrier to adoption of VR; the Valve Index headset, for example, starts at $999, and that price doesn't include the cost of games, which can cost $60 a piece. But as hardware gets better and prices get cheaper, immersive technology might become a staple in homes and industry.
Advancing XR technologies
Over the short term, it's unclear whether the recent wave of interest in XR technologies is just hype. But there's reason to think it's not. In addition to surging sales of VR devices and games, particularly amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Facebook's heavy investments into XR suggests there's plenty of space into which these technologies could grow.
A report from The Information published in March found that roughly 20 percent of Facebook personnel work in the company's AR/VR division called Facebook Reality Labs, which is "developing all the technologies needed to enable breakthrough AR glasses and VR headsets, including optics and displays, computer vision, audio, graphics, brain-computer interface, haptic interaction."
What would "breakthroughs" in XR technologies look like? It's unclear exactly what Facebook has in mind, but there are some well-known points of friction that the industry is working to overcome. For example, locomotion is a longstanding problem in VR games. Sure, some advanced systems — that is, ones that cost far more than $300 — include treadmill-like devices on which you move through the virtual world by walking, running, or tilting your center of gravity.
But for the consumer-grade devices, the options are currently limited to using a joystick, walking in place, leaning forward, or pointing and teleporting. (There's also these electronic boots that keep you in place as you walk, for what it's worth.) These solutions usually work fine, but it produces an inherent sensory contradiction: Your avatar is moving through the virtual world but your body remains still. The locomotion problem is why most VR games don't require swift character movements and why designers often compensate by having the player sit in a cockpit or otherwise limiting the game environment to a confined space.
For AR, one key hurdle is fine-tuning the technology to ensure that the virtual content you see through, say, a pair of smart glasses is optically consistent with physical objects and spaces. Currently, AR often appears clunky, unrooted from the real world. Incorporating LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) into AR devices may do the trick. The futurist Bernard Marr elaborated on his blog:
"[LIDAR] is essentially used to create a 3D map of surroundings, which can seriously boost a device's AR capabilities. It can provide a sense of depth to AR creations — instead of them looking like a flat graphic. It also allows for occlusion, which is where any real physical object located in front of the AR object should, obviously, block the view of it — for example, people's legs blocking out a Pokémon GO character on the street."
Another broad technological upgrade to XR technologies, especially AR, is likely to be 5G, which will boost the transmission rate of wireless data over networks.
"The adoption of 5G will make a difference in terms of new types of content being able to be viewed by more people." Irena Cronin, CEO of Infinite Retina, a research and advisory firm that helps companies implement spatial computing technologies, said in a 2020 XR survey report. "5G is going to make a difference for more sophisticated, heavy content being viewed live when needed by businesses."
Beyond technological hurdles, the AR sector still has to answer some more abstract questions on the consumer side: From a comfort and style perspective, do people really want to walk around wearing smart glasses or other wearable AR tech? (The failure of Google Glass suggests people were not quite ready to in 2014.) What is the value proposition of AR for consumers? How will companies handle the ethical dilemmas associated with AR technology, such as data privacy, motion sickness, and the potential safety hazards created by tinkering with how users see, say, a busy intersection?
Despite the hurdles, it seems likely that the XR industry will steadily — if clumsily — continue to improve these technologies, weaving them into more aspects of our personal and professional lives. The proof is in your pocket: Smartphones can already run AR applications that let you see prehistoric creatures, true-to-size IKEA furniture in your living room, navigation directions overlaid on real streets, paintings at the Vincent Van Gogh exhibit, and, of course, Pokémon. So, what's next?
The future of immersive experiences
When COVID-19 struck, it not only brought a surge in sales of XR devices and applications but also made a case for rethinking how workers interact in physical spaces. Zoom calls quickly became the norm for office jobs. But for some, prolonged video calls became annoying and exhausting; the term "Zoom fatigue" caught on and was even researched in a 2021 study published in Technology, Mind, and Behavior.
The VR company Spatial offered an alternative to Zoom. Instead of talking to 2D images of coworkers on a screen, Spatial virtually recreates office environments where workers — more specifically, their avatars — can talk and interact. The experience isn't perfect: your avatar, which is created by uploading a photo of yourself, looks a bit awkward, as do the body movements. But the experience is good enough to challenge the idea that working in a physical office is worth the trouble.
Cyberspace illustrationtampatra via Adobe Stock
That's probably the most relatable example of an immersive environment people may soon encounter. But the future is wide open. Immersive environments may also be used on a wide scale to:
- Conduct job interviews, potentially with gender- and race-neutral avatars to eliminate possibilities of discriminatory hiring practices
- Ease chronic pain
- Help people overcome phobias through exposure therapy
- Train surgeons to conduct complex procedures, which may be especially beneficial to doctors in nations with weaker healthcare systems
- Prepare inmates for release into society
- Educate students, particularly in ways that cut down on distractions
- Enable people to go on virtual dates
But the biggest transformation XR technologies are likely to bring us is a high-fidelity connection to the "mirror world." The mirror world is essentially a 1:1 digital map of our world, created by the fusion of all the data collected through satellite imagery, cameras, and other modeling techniques. It already exists in crude form. For example, if you were needing directions on the street, you could open Google Maps AR, point your camera in a certain direction, and your screen will show you that Main Street is 223 feet in front of you. But the mirror world will likely become far more sophisticated than that.
Through the looking glass of AR devices, the outside world could be transformed in any number of ways. Maybe you are hiking through the woods and you notice a rare flower; you could leave a digital note suspended in the air so the next passerby can check it out. Maybe you encounter something like an Amazon Echo in public and, instead of it looking like a cylindrical tube, it appears as an avatar. You could be touring Dresden in Germany and choose to see a flashback representation of how the city looked after the bombings of WWII. You might also run into your friends — in digital avatar form — at the local bar.
Of course, this future poses no shortage of troubling aspects, ranging from privacy, pollution from virtual advertisements, and the currently impossible-to-answer psychological consequences of creating such an immersive environment. But despite all the uncertainties, the foundations of the mirror world are being built today.
As for what may lie beyond it? Ivan Sutherland, the creator of The Sword of Damocles, once described his idea of an "ultimate" immersive display:
"...a room within which the computer can control the existence of matter. A chair displayed in such a room would be good enough to sit in. Handcuffs displayed in such a room would be confining, and a bullet displayed in such a room would be fatal. With appropriate programming such a display could literally be the Wonderland into which Alice walked."