The overview effect
When astronauts gaze upon the Earth from space, they experience powerful feelings of global interconnectedness. This blog explores what this phenomenon, called ‘the overview effect’, contributes to understanding how the covid-19 crisis might expand the scale of social relations.
Enacting ‘social distancing’ triggers, in some ways, an increased sense of togetherness and interconnection. The UN recently adopted a resolution of global solidarity on covid-19. Nations exchange knowledge, technology and resources. Multinational corporations like Givenchy and H&M are re-routing their production process to create hand sanitiser or hospital garments. People around the world express their unison in isolation by emphasising they are “staying together, at home”. The connected fate of humanity is powerfully visualised by designers Tiago Silva and Hugo Suissas, who changed the worlds flags into houses, “because everyone in the world should stay home right now.” What could be the effects of this sense of unity through isolation? One potential answer lies beyond Earthly horizons. In March 2020, ten astronauts from the European Space Agency and NASA shared their advice for life in isolation and living in small spaces. But the science of space travel offers more tools to understand the possible consequences of this global crisis. The increased sense of interconnection is strikingly similar to what space explorers know as the ‘overview effect’. This particular effect provides some clues that covid-19, for all its devastating consequences, could durably expand the scale of social relations. Especially for those who have the luxury to be able to self-isolate.
Seeing the bigger picture
Coined by space philosopher Frank White in 1987, the overview effect is a sudden realisation of border-crossing unity that astronauts have when they gaze upon the Earth from space. It is the profound awareness that all of humanity is closely connected via the biological, social, technological, and cultural ecosystems that span the planet – and the communal vulnerability that accompanies it. In their research, a team of psychologists explain that the overview effect means that “the simultaneous complexity and fragility of our lives on Earth is no longer a mere concept, but a reality that can be understood personally.” The scientists cite numerous astronauts who describe this shift in perspective. Sam Durrance for example says, “It’s an emotional experience because you’re removed from the Earth but at the same time you feel this incredible connection to the Earth like nothing I’d ever felt before.” And Rusty Schweikart noted, “… you recognise you’re a piece of this total life”. Importantly, this “greater affiliation with humanity as a whole” has an enduring effect on the life of space explorers and many of them report a transformed perspective on what it means to be human on Earth. By changing our ideas about inhabiting the world, the current pandemic might spur a similar altered state of consciousness amongst people who are practicing social distancing.
Shifting horizons of belonging
Living through the covid-19 crisis is an immediate and visceral physical experience. It differs from the crises that precede it because of the politically ordered contraction of mobility that is happening at an unprecedented global scale. National borders close. Public and private transport via air, land and water have near but ceased. Even those working in vital sectors such as health care, education, or food supply and distribution do not move when they are off duty. In order to preserve life, what is happening is a synchronised, physical, re-bordering of the world. In this way, covid-19 solidifies the abstract, intangible knowledge of global interconnectedness into something felt. Like with the overview effect, feelings of shock and awe can arise when the world abruptly looks very different. And in this case the world is different not only to you, but to (nearly) everyone. The universal call for immobility and social distancing makes it possible for people to imagine how distant populations fall in step with each other – whether this is actually happening or not. From theorists of nation-building, like Benedict Anderson, we know that such a sense of temporal simultaneity inspires feelings of allegiance and affiliation. Rather than a rise of territorial nationalism as predicted by some commentators, it might very well be that the covid-19 crisis sows the seeds of a shift in perspective towards one that is more expansive, outward looking, and inclusive. The overview effect predicts that, for the people who experience a collective sense of vulnerability and shared global immobility, the horizon of belonging might radically shift.
In this way, covid-19 could have long-term consequences that go beyond those of the crises that precede it. It is special because it triggers a shift in perspective; a deeply and personally felt grasp of the entwinement of our lives across borders and differences. To be sure: my point is not that covid-19 is an equaliser of difference. Examples from the USA and Kenya for example show that the crisis damages more vulnerable populations disproportionately. My point is that the overview effect can say something about the aftermath of the covid-19 crisis; especially with regards to the masses of people around the world who have the possibility to enact social distancing within their homes. After all, there is a significant chunk of the Earth’s population who experiences a similar form of vulnerability and collective immobility. Such a sudden and personally felt transformation ignites, or sharpens, an awareness of global interconnectedness. As with astronauts who have experienced the overview effect, perhaps some of this greater affiliation with humanity and the faith of the planet will remain.