October 11, 2017 – Secret weapon for space travelers: A steady diet of TV?
No one knows for sure what a long-range space journey will be like for the people on board. Nobody in the history of our species has ever had to deal with the “Earth-out-of-view” phenomenon, for instance. How will it feel to live in close quarters with a small group, with no escape hatch? How will space travelers deal with the prospect of not seeing family or friends for years, or even ever again? How will they occupy themselves for years with nothing much to do?
Researchers do know some things from observing astronauts who’ve stayed in space stations revolving around Earth for long periods of time, people who spent a lot of time shut off from the outside world in isolated regions (such as on polar expeditions) and from experiments with simulated Mars missions.
Because astronauts would have a lot of free time to fill, some researchers have casually suggested sending along a selection of books and films or even bespoke video games. As a social scientist who studies media use and its effects on behavior, I believe television could help. Recreating the media environment from before we had permanent, continuous access to anything we want to watch or listen to might be just the thing to help space travelers cope with a loss of a sense of space and time, with loneliness, privacy issues, boredom and more.
Floating rudderless in space and time
In space, the distinction between days of the week, day and night, or morning and noon will be mostly meaningless. Before DVDs and streaming, television helped us structure our time. For some, “lunch” was when a particular game show came on. “Evening” started with the news. “Thursday” was when the next episode of our favorite drama finally arrived. Seasonal programming split the year into chunks (Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas). Annual events, such as the Super Bowl, helped us realize yet another year had passed.
A media system that recreates structured access would help define time in space, something unlimited access to a random list of movies would not. Knowing that you were watching something that millions of others were watching at the same time created a particular group feeling – think tuning in to a royal wedding or a presidential funeral. It remains to be seen how today’s fracturing of the media landscape has changed that. Interestingly, one of the earliest occasions where millions around the world shared a bond in front of their or their neighbor’s TV was the first lunar landing.
Out of reach, out of touch
One reason prisoners like to watch television is that it shows them how the world outside is evolving. If we don’t want long-range space travelers to return feeling like aliens, they will need to keep up-to-date with what’s happening back on Earth.
Television news has an “agenda setting” effect: It tells viewers not only what is going on, but also what matters to people, and public opinion about current events. Entertainment media, from reality shows to game shows to drama, display how fashion, vocabulary and even accents are evolving.
Tuning in to what’s going on back home is also a way to counteract the “Earth-out-of-view” phenomenon. The feeling of being on top of what’s happening on Earth may help keep the psychological connection to the home planet active and strong.