Hanna Arendt wrote shortly after the launch of the first satellites that the conquest of space would make the triumph of scientific man short-lived. Seeing humans as but one of several components of Earth erases the species’ exceptionalism once humans are equated with what used to be their surroundings. Now humans were a part of the environment. And observing Earth from outer space, Arendt argues, is a choice dictated by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle whereby human observation determines one aspect of nature while blurring or altering another The argument so far is that a vertical expansion of the technosphere constitutes data collected in order to provide a world-view of a global environment or Earth system and that this systemic knowledge, in turn, produces debris throughout the environment that is orbital space. The environing activities whereby the technosphere is envisioned, also enlarges it, eliciting the question of how the sensing and shaping of the technosphere are connected and how this allows us to interact with both its data and debris.
But why is the view from above different from how humans have otherwise perceived, or not, the world as a system and a global environment? There are several counterarguments to be made based on previous vertical efforts, depictions, and intuitions of the world. First, a world-view from above is not confined to satellites or indeed any vertical medium as such. William Fox argues that an aerial view of reality, “aereality,” has been fundamental to human survival. In extreme or arid landscapes, where points of reference are few, the grounded view of human sight is to produce an operative sense of place from above, an aereality. Artists and cartographers producing maps were adapting more than they were constructing aereality, which is something that humans have been making use of long before technoscientific enterprise or the military-industrial complex funded and made prominent a world-view from above As for the conceptualization of Earth from above, Kerry Magruder attributes the circulation of a global imagery to the proliferation of new mediums in the 1700s, most notably cheaper printing techniques for books. Illustrations of Earth allowed several disciplines to converge and correspond as to how to depict a planetary reality and form subsequent debates about science and ethics for life in a global world Both Magruder and Fox rely on Denis Cosgrove’s scholarship of how Western states and scientists in particular asserted authority over and through aerial views In the work of Fox, Magruder, and Cosgrove there is nothing to suggest that satellites would shift human perception of Earth, nor one’s place within that global environment or system. Satellites could be considered just another medium to adapt human aereality in a longer tradition of technoscientific military enterprise.
There is also the prospect that the environing of Earth is cultural. Lisa Parks argues that the Western use of outer space simulated the global Earth before there was technical capacity to produce any global data sets. Television series like the 1960s international Our World constructed a live-broadcast feel that, via satellites, could switch between different locations around the world. Parks concluded that programs in the same vein as Our World asserted fantasies of Western culture in order to later acquire a synoptic view and presence in outer space before this was technically possible
Each of these points of criticism deserves further study on how humans perceive the environment, but the technosphere’s verticality, its data and debris, offer a historically novel approach to how humans interact with a global environment regardless.
Here it is as well to remember Yi-Fu Tuan’s account of how physical science, aesthetics, and architecture and, thereby their perceptions of environment throughout various cultures, began by the late 1700s to shift from vertical to horizontal expressions. Vertical landscape elements evoked a sense of striving, a defiance of gravity, while the horizontal elements were easier to incorporate into planning and rest. One example is the European horizontal organization of nature into spheres that unfold across the Earth’s surface of which the hydrologic cycle became widely circulated to explain transportation of matter and energy from land and sea The previous vertical model from Aristotle’s Meteorologica is a cosmos where water transforms into other elements; a model that sought to pedagogically translate the transcendental relationship existing between the human soul and God, where the soul is a water droplet seeking absorption into heaven or, in other cases, God as the rain that brings back sustenance to the souls of a parched Earth. As the hydrologic cycle acquired its horizontal dimension it became a physical process that did not retain previous metaphoric powers or symbolic overtones
As a physical environment is expanded and manageable horizontally, there are no indwelling spirits of that nature mirrored in a vertical cosmos transcending the immediate landscape In this open horizontal space, the technosphere will always be larger than any human interacting with it. Human agency in a physical environment is also hard to perceive, because the horizontal notion assumes that the environment as something apart from the humans within it. But it has already been illustrated how humans contribute to the spatial verticality of the technosphere through the launch of satellites and debris into outer space. And it has already been suggested how data from satellites provides knowledge of a global environment with which humans can interact and know the technosphere. As a horizontal concept, the technosphere is a rich description of energy flows. But with inference from Tuan’s analysis, the technosphere requires more sophisticated formulation of its vertical elements in order to serve as a metaphor ‒ both transcendental and symbolic – for human meaning, agency, and activity. In order to know oneself, humans in the technosphere need to gaze up to the vertical life into which the technosphere has expanded, and from which humankind made a view of the technosphere possible, probable, and practical.