American renaissance man Elon Musk announced on Friday that he intends to put a Tesla Roadster into orbit around Mars, where it will circle the planet for billions of years and, with any luck, attract the interest of alien life forms. The e-car will be delivered via one of Musk's own SpaceX rockets. A recording of David Bowie's "Space Oddity" will loop endlessly from the console.
Where to begin deconstructing the rich symbolism of such a grand gesture?
In 1977, courtesy of NASA, we Earthlings recorded and pressed a "Golden Record" for inclusion on the Voyager space probe, which is drifting through endless space even now. The contents of that recording evoke pure Seventies idealism: environmental but also industrial noises; music from Bach, Mozart, Chuck Berry and numerous non-Western folk genres; earnest greetings from world leaders in multiple languages. The Golden Record takes the form of a more-or-less conventional LP, but it was pressed at 16 2/3 RPM rather than 33 1/3, coated with actual gold, and blasted into space without a playback device. That's the Seventies zeitgeist in a nutshell: forcing alien life forms to reverse-engineer a turntable and sound system to hear the sacred sounds of Earthling civilizations, in a playback format Earthlings never used.
Fast forward to 2018, when visionary Silicon Valley tycoons have taken rightful charge of the human future. Musk has simplified all of the consensual ethno-techno clutter of his NASA predecessors to the vanishing point. His $200,000 sportscar distills human achievement into a single cultural moment—the apogee of American car and advertising culture, when a carefree driver could hit the open road, stereo blasting, roof down, the sun pouring in, the world flying past in a blur of euphoria-inducing speed. Assuming that Musk can deliver on his brash celestial plan, his Roadster will encapsulate the Earthling/Martian zeitgeist more perfectly than the Golden Record ever could. The aliens who encounter it countless millennia from now won't have to waste time figuring out how to access sound bites of Jimmy Carter and humpback whales. They'll just have to hop in, crank up the volume, and drive.