It's time to embrace the healing power of the 'overview effect'
A view from Tracey Follows

It's time to embrace the healing power of the 'overview effect'

Tech firms and wider humanity could all do with seeing the bigger picture, says the Futuremade founder.

In Campaign’s Year Ahead issue I wrote about the clash between ethics and technology. Since then we have seen more and more evidence of this and any discussion about technology turns almost immediately into something more regulatory. Only a few days ago Martha Lane Fox tweeted about digitisation and quoted Professor Vicky Nash saying: "At this juncture, regulatory innovation is needed far more than technological innovation."

Perhaps though there is a step before regulation which is just about us as a society taking more responsibility for how we use technology as well as a government and enterprise role to provide us with the tools to best cope with it in our everyday lives.

Take, for instance, the mental health effects of extended or intensive use of technology on a daily basis. Depression, anxiety and stress are all on the increase and the forecasts for the future are grim. Now one thing we know is that mental health issues often come about from a loss of perspective. Small issues can come to loom large and concerns can, over time, turn into insurmountable and overwhelming problems.

Our current usage of technology is probably contributing to that. Spending time in echo chambers, and filter bubbles and having less social contact with actual people in real life could alter one’s perspective on the world.

The tech industry wants to hem us into smaller and smaller worlds - where we only experience what we already know and see and hear things that reinforce the perspective we already have

We have to take a step back and start to see the big picture.

And there is no bigger picture than the one you are able to see if you go into space, when you look back at this tiny spinning blue ball in the vastness. At the moment the technology that enables that renders it only accessible to the extremely wealthy. It is a shame, because there’s nothing more likely to put things in perspective than getting a wide and wondrous view of this planet, its place in the universe, and our place within that universe too.  

But to date only a handful of lucky and well trained astronauts have had the chance to experience it, only millionaires look to be able to in the future.  And most of the funding around space technology is concentrated on hugely ambitious projects like populating Mars or flying to the moon as space tourists will.

But there might be a way for more people to experience this big picture if we start to think about the experience as a kind of therapy for anyone who wants to change their perspective in life. In June last year, a VR company called SpaceVR helped by NanoRocks, deployed the world’s first virtual reality camera into space.

Located in the heart of San Francisco’s emerging nano-satellite industry, SpaceVR is focused on creating cinematic, live, virtual space tourism. SpaceVR Founder and chief executive Ryan Holmes was inspired by exactly the view I’m talking about. It is formally called the Overview Effect and it is that exact moment an astronaut realises their place in an infinite universe through direct observation. It is the point of realisation which can lead to a reprioritisation of protecting the earth and working together on a global scale.

SpaceVR will launch state of the art virtual reality camera satellites into space to capture this experience and distribute it throughout the world for entertainment and education.  And I think this is the right direction of travel for technology such as this. Why should space travel be only for the rich, after all no-one owns space (as yet)?

Bold, curious and alien

Why shouldn’t space travel be for the less well off: the less wealthy but also the less healthy. In fact, I’d go further, shouldn’t everyone on this planet have the right to experience the Overview Effect?

Last week, Ursula Le Guin, passed away at the age of 88. She had imagined many bolder, curious, perhaps more alien, alternative worlds which captured our own imaginations, too. Unfortunately the tech industry does the opposite, it wants to hem us into smaller and smaller worlds - where we only experience what we already know and see and hear things that reinforce the perspective we already have.

Which brings me back to technology vs. regulation. There is less need for regulation if the tech leaders start to think of technology as therapy, as a way to broaden our perspectives and to alleviate some of the mental health symptoms that our usage of technology has already caused. The perspective-shift I’m talking about has a healing power, not just on the human mind but on technology itself too.

The question is: can technology be an antidote to itself?

I think it can but we need people running tech firms who have experienced the Overview Effect and are eager for others to experience it too.

Tracey Follows is the founder of Futuremade