17: Jewish Civilization and the Overview Effect

In this episode Jacob reviews Frank White’s philosophy from his book “The Overview Effect,” and how this phenomena/effect can be positively embraced by a forward-thinking Jewish Civilization.


You are listening to space midrash. I am your host, Jacob Sager. I believe in an artful, ethical and inclusive humanity thriving amongst the cosmos. We are on a mission together to probe the intersection of Jewish civilization and the space age. This is Episode 17 titled Jewish Civilization and the overview effect.

 The overview effect is this phenomena and philosophy coined by Frank White. He started building this theory and he published the first version of his book in the mid to late eighties. The idea is that seeing Earth as a whole from space and seeing Earth as a whole in space has a profound cognitive and emotional impact on the individual who doesn’t necessarily need to experience it firsthand in outer space.

The 60s were a crazy time of generational change. That’s when we had the Apollo program. That’s when we flew around the moon, that’s when we started landing on the moon. It’s no coincidence that the radical social upheaval that empowered the civil rights movements as well as the emergence of Earth Day occurred alongside the photographs of Earth from space.

There’s this maturity and evolution in human consciousness that comes from being able to really know that now in the space age. So at this point, some 60 years later, it’s almost passe or even kind of boring to see an actual picture of the Earth from space.

My name is Jacob Sager. I’m an Earthling of over 34 revolutions around the sun. I’ve taken various science classes during my formal schooling, including astrophysics. And one thing our teacher Frank Mikan made us do back in high school was measure the sun every morning with a geocentric assumption in our measurement. Even though it was incorrect, we were able to plot and predict so much. Then, with a simple adjustment so we didn’t have to replot too much, he helped us understand how we could just shift those measurements into the still simple but more accurate heliocentric model of our universe and solar system.

I don’t think most modern people have considered what it means that we are on a whole planet. Sure, our capitalist society is now a globalist capitalist society, and the growth of pro-environmental thinking has helped attune some. But beyond those who are really in a space, we tend to think of Earth in much of the same way that they did before Galileo. I am here, you are there. We are all that’s going on.

But now, like in 2022, now that people we’re going to know personally are going to pop up and see the curve of the Earth for maybe ten minutes or, uh, go and spend their spring break on the space station, now is an opportunity to quickly spread the more truthful awareness of our planet in space. And it’s through learning about the overview effect. So in this episode of Space Midrash, I want to describe the overview effect by quoting Frank White from his most recent edition of The Overview Effect. I’d like to discuss how it should affect Jewish civilization in the present moment. And as Marshall McLuhan says, the future of the future is today. So what we do now, as a Jewish civilization – and thinking about Jewish civilization in the current moment in terms of the overview effect, will have a profound effect on the future and the future of the future. Lastly, I’d like to talk about why you should care and what it could look like if you took interest into the overview effect at this point in time.

Like I said, the overview effect – It’s a philosophy put together by a brilliant man Frank White. And the overview effect started from him. He says in his book he had a specific experience in which he was on a cross country flight and just his thinking about the country and really the world changed as he watched multiple landscapes come in and out of view. And it’s a really beautiful story there. This is the quote from him from the beginning of the book. He says “from the airplane the message that scientists, philosophers, spiritual teachers and system theorists have been trying to tell us for centuries was obvious everything is interconnected and interrelated, each part of a subsystem of a larger whole system.” Which is a really beautiful piece of thought – So he continues on, this is what he says page four: “people in space settlements will always have an overview. They will be able to see how everything is related, that what appears to be the world to people on Earth is merely a small planet in space and what appears to be the present is merely a limited viewpoint to one looking from a higher level. People who live in space will take for granted philosophical insights that have taken those on Earth thousands of years to formulate. They will start at a place we have labored to attain over several millennia.”

 That’s from page four of the overview effect. So that is Frank’s philosophy there, is that there are spiritual truths that are really scientific that can be taken for granted from those in the space faring generations. And right now, and possibly for the last few millennia, these have been the attempts of the most spiritual and the most intellectual to try to convey to the rest of us, whether through poetry or science or art, and we just don’t get it. But at some point very soon when people are living in space settlements, that will be the basis of their knowledge. And right now we are struggling to accept that truth. And that’s the interesting thing.

And so the other side of it is that in order to start exploring that the only proxy Frank White had were astronauts who had already been to space. So in asking questions and trying to understand what this may look like, he came to a place where he was trying to understand as well how astronauts were experiencing this and how this was changing for them. And so there’s this other dimension, the overview effect being this knowledge that we can have in the future, this knowledge that we can have right now about an overview of all of Earth. And then there’s this overview effect which is the effect on the individual who has seen the overview. Two different things this personal overview effect and the overview effect which is this larger philosophy here and the overview affect this individual change in consciousness.

As Frank says on page 106, “an overview system is a pattern of organized self awareness in which the whole is perceived as the context of all the parts within it. An overview system can exist at any level within the universe from a plane to a solar system to a galaxy and beyond.” That’s Page 106.

So there’s other tenants of the overview effect. The first is this dimension of understanding and being able to see the Earth as a whole in space. And the second is the Copernican perspective which is to see that the Earth is in space, or that Earth is hanging in space. At some level you can get the overview effect but still be very geocentric in your feeling, interpretation or meaning – which isn’t necessarily wrong or bad. It’s just limited and immature. So there’s this Copernican perspective. We can finally really understand what Copernican has demonstrated to us and what I learned in my astrophysics class that day we plotted out the Sun’s measurements is that the Earth is in space and space is big.

And so that leads to the third tenet which is this universal insight that Frank explores so much more deeply in a lot of the rest of his books. But in short, the universal insight is that we’re citizens of the universe and that the universe is almost calling us to come and know it and to explore through it. And that meaning, our meaning in the universe’s meaning can come through that call and that call to journey and that call to action there.

So that’s the Overview effect by Frank White. I really highly recommend buying the book. It’s in its fourth edition. There’s three parts of the book. The first part is Frank describing his philosophy and analysis of all the interviews he has done. It’s brilliant. The second part is a brief history of the future as conceptualized by Frank White. Not really a Brief History of the Future but he goes over some of the ideas of human settlement and growth by looking at history and the past he was able to point out how human civilization is going to grow in a way that not a lot of other people are talking about. It’s interesting. I would really recommend going in there. It’s not the point of this episode. And the third part of the book, which is the largest part, which is three fourths of it is just the raw interviews with astronauts going back to early astronauts and continuing through today where he interviews some of the commercial tourists who are going up just in these exciting, highly commercialized rides. It’s awesome. I highly recommend the overview effect.

So the overview effect, once again, is the experience of seeing Earth from the distance in space. And it is both the philosophy that will be a huge set of knowledge that defines society and propels a technological civilization forwards, but there’s also an individual experience that changes the individual from coming to know that and it changes and matures their perspective on the world. So that’s the overview effect. That’s the first part. The next part of this episode, I want to talk about how the overview effect should affect Jewish civilization.

Let’s talk about how the overview effect can affect Jewish civilization. And I think one of the first and most important things is that most Jewish self conceptualization is archaic and immature. A lot of Jewish self conception is archaic and immature. We see ourselves very much in a mythology, in a very simple part and it is time for who the Jew is in the world and who the Jewish people can be for each other can really be expanded and matured through an awareness of the overview effect. So many people are talking about how we can solve these issues that are going on within Jewish communities issues of population attrition, issues of disinterest and just not identifying as being Jewish. And a lot of the answers are going to go very sociological and are going to go religious or cultural and I want to go intellectual here. I think that piece of Jewish self-conception that needs to be very presently attuned, and it needs to be very attuned to the future. And one of the things that you’d be attuned to is that the world population has tripled since my dad was born. It doubled between the time that he was born and I was born. And since it’s grown by half since then, it’s tripled. World population is growing exponentially and we’re expanding into space. It’s happening.

We are the generation that’s watching Columbus or the Mayflower cross the ocean or maybe we’re a few generations later and we’re already starting to begin to have our civilizations change as a result of having these greater channels of access and distances that humans and human minds can go. So is Jewish civilization ready for that? Are we seeing ourselves from a high enough perspective where that is an overview perspective? Can we see all of the Jewish people, all of Jewish history, all of Jewish civilization and all the planet Earth together and just see it and almost judgment free and just take it in? That’s what we need to do at the time of now.

I think the awareness of the overview effect is critical for Jewish civilization in the 21st century because it is like Frank says, eventually people are going to take it for granted. And right now we’re actually at a point where in human history at least I see it in the United States right now, where ignorance is trying its best to take control and it’s time to be real with just the scientific facts of the universe. We’re on a ball floating through space. We are in space. Space is going out. There’s so much we don’t know, but there’s so much we can become by trying to. So that’s another thing.

Another thing about the overview effect in the 21st century and space age is that the overview effect can lead to a narrative collapse. What a lot of the big philosophers wanted was this picture of Earth from space. They wanted to take it with a Hubble or whatever so they could show people because they knew that would change a lot of impacts. And it did. Like I said before, the environmental movement really was benefited by these pictures that they took from Apollo of seeing the fragile, beautiful little Earth from the other side of the moon. M can I lost my place there for a second. And in a lot of ways it made positive change. But also maybe it didn’t in the way that we thought. But we are in a world connected by satellites and in that factious fractured world. A lot of the old systems are starting to fall apart, and those systems are supported by stories and those stories are just aren’t holding up anymore.

And that is a normal thing for human experience. It’s like a generational thing. Maybe like once in a generation you could have a huge narrative collapse. Maybe. But if you take a bigger perspective on Earth and human life, narrative collapse is normal thing and also great thing to happen. And so from a Jewish perspective, we’re actually really Jewish civilization. And Jewish history is a history of narratives collapse. It is one of people who are dealing with society completely changing, being fallen apart, being conquested and dominated by an outside empire. And it just completely changes. And in each and every one of those generations, Jewish people in that present moment look to their present, they look to the future – They dug into the past and they stepped powerfully into the future. That’s the opportunity with the overview effect and Jewish civilization right now. It’s an opportunity to powerfully respond to the narrative collapse that is occurring all around us already.

I’ll talk about that more in another episode. But that is why Jewish civilization should really care about the overview effect is that a lot of narratives in the world are changing already. And with more people going into space, it’s a powerful opportunity to continue to do so. The only thing that’s going to get us through and get us through the present moment is storytelling. And to be present and to be listening and talking and drashing through it all. That’s why we have this show.

Last part. I just want to say to you, dear listener, if you care and you’re taking interest in the overview effect after listening to this episode, what should you do? First and foremost, I recommend go read Frank’s book. Go check it out from the library, buy it on Amazon. It’s an excellent book. I would recommend getting one of the most recent editions. I read it on Kindle. I’ve purchased two or three copies already, some to give as gifts. That’s the first part. There is an overview movie which you can find. I will include the link on the show page. I believe it’s on YouTube, which is just a short, brilliant and emotional documentary, trying to recreate this experience and document it and really think about the overview effect. There’s a lot of great videos on YouTube by different philosophers, local armchair philosophers in their local languages discussing the overview effect because they care and they want to share it with local people. So that’s another way you can learn more. But most importantly, and I know this sounds stupid and dorky I admit that and I own it, but you got to talk to people about it. We don’t really talk about this enough. Uh, SpaceX sent up another rocket. Yes, I heard about that James Webb telescope. But it’s no. We live on planet Earth, and our society in a lot of social issues act like we live on some flat space, like we’re playing a game of Risk and it’s just some board game. And it’s not. There’s something else going on here. It’s much, much bigger. And so you should care. And if you do care, talk to people about it. A lot of the great ideas are there in The Overview Effect by Frank White and some of these other books, including The Cosma Hypothesis. I love it. This has changed a lot of how I think about the world and about myself.

There is a special place in bringing the overview effect, in preparing humanity for this narrative collapse. There’s a special place for everyone who’s not a scientist or an engineer. We’re actually just as an important or more important, because we need to get people ready. And that takes thinking and feeling and storytelling. And that’s why we’re here. That’s why Space Midrash is here. And that’s why I want to bring awareness of the overview effect into Jewish communities worldwide.