Why Send an Astronaut to Congress?
Notes on a New Senator, News Morale, and Emotional Clarity.
On Wednesday, an astronaut was sworn into Congress.
To me, this felt like a big deal; sending a man of science into a group that has spent more than a year denying empirical reality and exploiting opportunities to profit from it.
So, we have an astronaut in Congress. What’s next? Like many, I find myself returning to the same question as this year dragged on: “What now?”
Journalists professionalize that question. This year has been particularly hard on the news industry which is, like others, confronting a morale problem, onset by the emotional floundering from COVID-19.
With the normalization of social media, news reporting and consumption has become more centered, conducive, and responsive to emotions.
Many challenges confront a global economy defined by attention merchantry and emotion curation. But, some say this is an opportunity to square emotional literacy and media literacy — that how we feel can help us learn what we need to know.
But, before media literacy and emotional literacy, we need self-literacy.
Though industry seems to value self-expression, it invests little in self-literacy — knowledge about who we are and why. And self-optimization is not self-literacy in the same way that a software update is not an operating system.
Today’s media is designed to arouse us. But does that excitement really help us gain awareness by any virtuous measure? Emotions often paralyze us between our needs and ideals.
President Obama expressed a similar concern when discussing the merits of the phrase “defund the police.” We often sacrifice self-knowledge for self-expression. We choose cultural currency over logical resonance.
We opt for reactions instead of reflections.
An exciting phrase can bring us attention, but once we get it, we don’t know what to do with it — or how to keep it. There is a time feature of attention that we often overlook.
Emotions are similar. When indulging an emotion, we overlook many others also occurring. When privileging some emotions, we risk over-defining our experiences by them.
A high nutrition media diet entails an emotionally diverse one, unconstrained by binaries — outrage and joy, triggered and confirmed, real and fake.
We must engage, not indulge, ourselves through tools that bring perspective about how we change and society with it. Like Byron Katie says, the illusory constancy of time tricks us to keep things present that belong in the past.
Our problem is not the abundance or lack of information, but inarticulation — our inadequate ability to identify, calculate, and organize how we think, feel, and learn all at once.
But, emotions don’t need to be a Sisyphean task. We can learn from them without being lectured by them. Emotions are to be felt, not rid.
Approach emotions as “psychological technologies.” We can use them to develop the characteristics (resilience, ingenuity, and self-awareness) underlying creative leaps. And at a time when we are not short of crises literal and figurative.
I think that’s why an astronaut, Mark Kelly, was sent to Congress. Senator Kelly often describes how seeing earth from space changed his perspective: “You get a really good appreciation for the fact that this planet is an island, floating in the blackness of space. We really don’t want to mess it up.”
Why send an astronaut to congress? The self-knowledge of a cosmic man might be just what we need.
Aarshin Karande is an Audience & Narrative Advocate who writes about beliefs, technology, policy, and global affairs. He previously worked at Ernst & Young and Valve Corporation and studied at the London School of Economics, Oxford, and the University of Washington Bothell.