Rage Against the Night

The dark side of global internet access

I was sitting with some friends by a fire on the roof of my apartment building, when I saw something in the sky that I couldn’t make sense of. It didn’t fit into any mental category I had available. It looked like a string of Christmas lights being pulled by an invisible bird (or, well, sleigh). Yet something about the way it moved across the sky struck me as unnatural—it didn’t seem to shrink in the way it should as it moved towards the horizon.

Later, I learned what it was. The UFO’s movement had seemed off to me because it was not flying through the air, as I had imagined, but in low orbit in outer space. It was Elon Musk’s new constellation of “Starlink” satellites for providing internet to remote regions, passing over Amman as it circled the globe.

There have been manmade satellites in the night sky for a long time, and a few of them are visible to the naked eye as tiny lone dots passing through the stars. But the Starlink satellites feel different. They provoke a sort of strange awe—wonder at humankind’s achievements, a sense of shifting into a futuristic age.

But they also fill me with some foreboding. Because it doesn’t end with Starlink.

Cluttering Up the Heavens

In fact, the Starlink satellites are not the most striking recent addition to the globe of the heavens. A new satellite called BlueWalker 3, created by AST SpaceMobile, is now one of the brightest things in the sky, period. It outshines all but a handful of stars.

BlueWalker3 and the Starlink constellation are so obtrusive because they need to be in low orbit to provide internet access. These new additions have caused spasms of worry in the global astronomical community. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) keeps track of all the planned satellite projects in the world, based on filings submitted to the international regulatory body, and they have noticed that it appears there could be around half a million new satellites in orbit by 2030—a hundred times the current number. Some of them will be bright, low-orbit satellites like BlueWalker 3 and Starlink.

That’s only the satellite projects currently under development. Who knows what the sky could look like in 10, 50, or 100 years?

As astronomer Hugh Ross explains in the latest issue of Salvo, the huge number of satellites in orbit are already causing problems for astronomical observations—and if they keep proliferating they will eventually even begin to affect how the sky looks to the naked eye.

It may be difficult to forestall this trend. Dr. Jeremy Tregloan-Reed, an IAU astronomer, says that dark-sky advocates have had some success persuading companies like SpaceX and AST to introduce features in future satellites to mitigate light pollution—making them less reflective, for example. But, he says, regulating satellites internationally will be a problem, because countries like China and Russia may not agree to the regulations. With more and more governments and private companies venturing into space, things could easily get out of control.

Hiding from the Heavens

The problem is usually framed as a tension between the desire to provide internet to the entire world, and the unfortunate side effect that doing so could clutter up the sky.

But what if these are simply two sides of the same coin? What if they arise from the same primal impulse: that we want to get rid of the night?

What do I mean by that? Well, think about what night really means, both literally and symbolically. Before the invention of electric lights, work could only be done in the day. At night, it had to stop. It was difficult to farm, go to war, or even play games. The most you could usually do was sit by the fire and tell stories.

In that time of forced inactivity, you were blind to the whole world. Yet, ironically, you could see much more. A far, far greater portion of the cosmos is visible at night than in the day. In the day, it’s impossible to see anything farther away than our own sun; at night, you can see (with the naked eye) the Andromeda Galaxy—160 billion times farther away from us than the sun.

Something hidden, something revealed. The realm of Man veiled; the realm of the Sons of God exposed to view. When the human-centered world is obscured, our eyes are open to the vastness of a creation that does not bow to us. And since we are unable to work or play, we can contemplate it—we must contemplate it. The night sky has long been a source of revelation, not of practical things, but of the deeply impractical—a source of the very insight that not everything is practical, not everything is made for us to use, not everything is in our reach; something is greater than us, beyond us; a revelation of our limitations, and God’s lack thereof.

That’s why Night has always represented the End—from the literal end of a day, the symbolic end of a life; from the literal end of a man’s work, the symbolic end of Man. Naturally, no one wants the end of Man. But when you arrive at the end of Man, you can look beyond him.

For most of human history, this humbling experience was forced on every single person, every single night.

But many people in the modern world have never experienced a Night; not a real one. Sure, you can turn out the lights. But it’s not the same type of experience when it’s optional—the inescapability of the experience was integral to its nature. Night in the modern world isn’t really Night.

The first time I experienced a true Night was in the jungles of Myanmar in 2015. I was in a little village with strictly limited electricity, powered by solar panels and a generator. Not long after sunset, the lights went out. There was no option to turn them back on.

And I found that things I had taken for granted all my life were suddenly impossible. Even simple tasks, like washing dishes, became frustratingly difficult. There was no TV to watch. There was no web to browse. I was stuck.

And above me, the heavens were open, dark and brilliant at the same time. Little stars that you would never see in a city twinkled above. And the jungle was full of danger, but there was safety in the village.

This was the shared experience of all of humanity, occurring every few hours, all the way back to the dawn of Man, until just a few short decades ago.

Now, all that is past. Electricity has made it possible for the hive of humanity to go on buzzing away around the clock. You are never forced to stop; you are never compelled to sit still. So you rarely need to ponder the deep mystery of the little world we live in, or to remember that it is only a small thing in a much bigger world. You hardly even need to go outside, and if you do, the streetlights turn the night sky into a low black ceiling. You are never left exposed to the chilling depth of the heavens.

What the lightbulb began, the smartphone takes further. The invention of electric lights made it possible to forgo that long stretch of forced stillness that was Night; the internet means that you never have to be inactive at all. Electric lights made it possible to stay safely enclosed in the bright little human world, unexposed to the terror of that beyond it; the internet allows you to remain enclosed in an even brighter, even smaller world.

Nowhere to Fly

The goal is for this bright manmade world to engulf everything—to leave nothing Outside. Then we will be perfectly safe, perfectly in control. As of 2021, only about 5 percent of people in the world live in areas outside of cellular coverage. That remnant will soon be gone. Of course, many people in those areas are eager for the internet to come to them. But not everyone. And when the whole world is incorporated into the system, those deviants will have no choice. There will be no option to stay out; there will be no “out” left.

Of course, global internet access is just the next phase in a something that has been creeping forward for a long time. Back in 1943, during the Second World War, J. R. R. Tolkien complained in a letter to his son that technological progress was giving “ant-communities” the power to take over the whole world. He wrote:

[T]he special horror of the present world is that the whole damned thing is in one bag. There is nowhere to fly to. Even the unlucky little Samoyeds, I suspect, have tinned food and the village loudspeaker telling Stalin’s bed-time, about Democracy, and the wicked Fascists who eat babies and steal sledge-dogs.

That was merely the age of Radio and Aeroplanes. What about now?

Tolkien went on to say:

We were born in a dark age out of due time (for us). But there is this comfort: otherwise we should not know, or so much love, what we do love. I imagine the fish out of water is the only fish to have an inkling of water. And we have still small swords to use. ‘I will not bow before the Iron Crown, nor cast my own small golden sceptre down.’

To me, this is more than a small silver lining. Even if the sky were to become so crowded in my lifetime that I couldn’t see it at all, even if the government insisted on installing the internet in my eyeballs, I would still have my love of the dark and silence, and the vast, shining, untouchable world far above our petty, self-absorbed, arrogant human world—and nothing could take that away.

But what about the people who have never learned that love at all? I’ve met people who have never set foot outside a city. That means they’ve never walked in a forest, or a farm, or smelled clean air, or really seen the stars. Such a being would have been almost impossible a few centuries ago, when cities were smaller and the vast majority of the world’s population was rural. But as of around 2007, most people in the world live in cities.

Filling the Void

They say that you don’t know what you had until you’ve lost it. It’s true. But sometimes, you don’t know what you lost until you’ve had it. Each generation, more and more people have never really experienced the Sky, much less the Night. So they don’t know what they’ve been deprived of.

“Don't get the wrong idea,” one astronomer told the press, “I like this technology to have internet from anywhere in the world. But should we sacrifice the night sky to get it?” If it really came to a choice between the night sky and the internet, I’m sure that the de facto answer would be “yes, we should absolutely sacrifice the night sky to get that!” Because really, people don’t care that much about the sky. Who has time to stand there looking at it, anyway?

To most of us, the sky seems like a luxury good—not a bare necessity like the internet. AST SpaceMobile touchily told Space.com:

AST SpaceMobile's mission is to help solve the major global problem of lack of connectivity, which affects billions of people around the world… Our planned network aims to connect devices around the world and support a universal good. Cellular broadband for more people globally would help ease poverty, support economic development, build a more equitable and diverse digital society, and save lives.

Who can argue with equity, diversity, and saving lives? As always, progress must march on. (Where to, no one knows.)

I wonder—suppose nothing hindered the march of progress. Suppose humanity succeeded in all our attempts to shut out the dangerous, incapacitating, tedious Night and make everyone perfectly safe, free, and entertained forever. What would the end result be?

Maybe it would leave our descendants all dull and happy forever, so that no one was ever again forced to stare into the dark and be afraid and wonder.

Or maybe the kind of life we had made would turn sour somehow, come out hollow, and leave those distant descendants well aware that something was missing, but no longer able to discern or remember what—free, happy, surrounded by lights, staring helplessly into a void.

Further Reading:

The Wild & the Fear of God

Eulogy for a Dead Planet

Creeping Towards Mordor

Caught in a Web

Daniel Witt (BS Ecology, BA History) is a writer and English teacher living in Amman, Jordan. He enjoys playing the mandolin, reading weird books, and foraging for edible plants.

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