The Pioneer and Voyager messages were high-minded attempts to communicate with other civilisations, to let them know we are here. Postcards for aliens, if you like. But Paglen says that the Last Pictures project is very different. “[The Voyager team] were very sincere about how to explain life on Earth to extra-terrestrials. This is not like that at all, we’re not going to the final frontier or anything like that.” In fact he does not imagine that his work will find an audience. “I don’t think it will ever be found,” he says.
In that case, why do it? “I really started thinking about how we develop an ethical relationship with the future,” Paglen explains. “Even though we cannot imagine geologic time, or even evolutionary time, or barely think about tomorrow, we can intervene in it. And that’s new.”
“If you look at things like nuclear waste or climate change or geostationary spacecraft, we have set things off into geologic time or cosmic time almost by accident.” In other words, as humans, we have already altered the very far future. The future beyond the lifespan of humanity.
So if we were all wiped out tomorrow, what would we leave behind? We’ve made our mark on Earth, and 20,000 years after our ancestors created bison paintings in caves, we are now leaving snapshots of our memories in space, there for future generations of anyone or anything to stumble upon. Now there are plaques on spacecraft at the edge of the Solar System, expired landers on Mars, spacecraft in orbit around Saturn, Venus and Mercury and even a probe on Saturn’s moon Titan. We have left rovers, flags and footsteps on the Moon, satellites in orbit and now one hundred pictures.
It’s a sobering thought, though, that eventually, even those will be gone – swallowed up when the Sun becomes a red giant in five billion years, or scattered to dust when our galaxy collides with another in four billion; fragmented into nothingness as the Universe expands into infinite darkness. For, ultimately, nothing lasts forever.