A screenshot from Pavel Klushantsev's "Луна́" (or "Luna"), 1965. Image: Screenshot
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This is (maybe) how we’d have colonised the Moon if the Soviet Union had got there first

This fascinating documentary from 1965 shows what Soviet scientists hoped would be possible with colonisation of the Moon. 

Looking back at the Space Race of the 1950s and 1960s it can be startling to realise just how much was pioneered in such a short period of time. The narrative of that era is often constructed as a political one, with two superpowers spending significant proportions of their national budgets on scientific endeavour in an effort to be the first to reach the Moon. This is fine, and true, but with the passing of time it feels as if that story we tell - one of the Soviet Union reaching space first with Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin, but the United States coming from behind to triumph with Apollo 11 - implicitly downplays the fact that both "sides" involved were responsible for some astonishing scientific advances and breakthroughs, both before Neil Armstrong's first lunar step and after.

Here's just one of them, in full colour - the first ever spacewalk, by fighter pilot and cosmonaut Alexey Leonov:

For 12 minutes, Leonov floated around on the end of a 5.35m-long steel tether. His spacesuit ballooned hugely in the vacuum of space, and he became wedged in the hatch opening of his spacecraft, Voskhod 2, when he tried to re-enter. He had to slowly release air from inside his suit, and wait to see if it would deflate enough for him to squeeze through without the air pressure dropping so much that he would pass out. It must have been terrifying - an experience almost on a par with that of Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano, who almost drowned from a leak of water inside his helmet.

Here's an English translation of the narration in that clip:

Man continues to assimilate (or make his own) [indecipherable]. In the Soviet Union, for the first time in history, man has performed a spacewalk. This is genuine documentary footage, filmed on March 18 1965 by an automatic film camera mounted on the outside of the Voskhod-2 spacecraft, piloted by [Pavel Ivanovich] Belyaev. Aleksei Leonov leaves the spacecraft - a man in outer space! He lives, he works, he smiles, and this means that people can repair spacecraft, build and maintain space stations, transfer from rocket to rocket, get out of [difficult? not clear] situations. A bold and important step has been taken on our journey to the moon, and it was achieved by a Soviet [indecipherable]."

(And many thanks to Ben Phillips (@BenPhillips1989) and Elizabeth Harrison (@CorArdens) for answering my call on Twitter for Russian speakers to translate it.)

As a historical artefact, that clip of Leonov is striking - the framerate makes his actions seem jerky, the way he floats almost as if an actor on strings. It's literally surreal, a real event with the qualities of a dream, and the time when Leonov made his spacewalk was a time characterised by some rather intense dreaming about the stars, and the future.

The clip above is part of a longer documentary directed by Pavel Klushantsev and released in 1965, called Луна́ (literally "Moon", but usually translated phonetically as "Luna"). It's available on YouTube, and even if you don't speak Russian (I don't) it's a feast of retrofuturism:

Klushantsev was a documentarian with a background in special effects and an obsession with the utopian possibilities of space travel, and he combined the two in a series of films in the 1950s and 60s that beautifully illustrated what he thought the future of humanity in space would look like. The first half of Luna is factual, featuring Soviet rocket and space scientists talking about what we knew of the Moon at the time, from mountains to craters, ancient volcanism to whether the surface is solid or covered in fine dust. (We now know that it is, but not so deep that a spacecraft cannot land in it.) There's a great bit starting at 22 minutes showing what happened to the Soviet Union's Luna 1 and Luna 2 probes, too, which were fired at the Moon directly and took some of our first good close-up photographs of the lunar surface. (Luna 1 was another Soviet space first - by missing the Moon it became the first human-made object to enter into orbit around the Sun.)

Yet it's the second half that's truly fantastic. Leonov's spacewalk segues into animated sequences showing how rockets might carry dogs and humans to the Moon, and then... we're there:

Klushantsev envisions teams of suited cosmonauts clambering over the lunar surface, climbing its mountains and surveying its ridges. These are film sets, with actors, but one of Klushantsev's great achievements is that there's little difference (to the casual eye, at least) between footage like that of Leonov's spacewalk and Klushantsev's Moontopia:

With the benefit of hindsight we can see the flaws in some of his fantastical imaginings - there's a spider-like lunar lander which crawls around unusably slowly, for example, and the other planets in the Solar System wouldn't loom as large, or as vibrantly, in the night sky - but there are other moments which have a hint of prophecy about them. The reason space agencies around the world are now talking about going back the Moon is because it might finally be economically viable, with substances like deuterium (a heavy isotope of Hydrogen, vital for generating power through nuclear fusion) relatively plentiful and cheap to extract. In Luna, the cosmonauts prospect for gold and oil:

Luna was a sequel and update of sorts to what is perhaps Klushantsev's most famous and influential work, 1957's Дорога к звёздам (Road to the Stars). Released around the time of Sputnik's launch, it was a comprehensive exploration of the current state of rocket and space technology as it existed then, while also imagining the future milestones to come: the first human in space (wearing classy leather fighter pilot uniforms), the first manned space station, the first spacewalk and the first colonisers of the Moon. Among its most groundbreaking achievements is what is considered to be the first accurate depiction of weightlessness on film (beginning 07:00):

Many of the shots in Stanley Kubrick's 1968 classic 2001: A Space Odyssey are almost identical to those found in Road to the Stars - from conversations over videophone to circular space stations with artificial gravity - while his influence on other science fiction directors like Ridley Scott and George Lucas is pretty undeniable. Klushnatsev spoke to Robert Skotak for a piece in American Cinematographer in 1994, five years before his death, about how he filmed these scenes:

"The ordinary theatrical or circus methods of hanging in a girdle wouldn't do for us," Klushantsev notes. "That's good enough when the actor has to fly straight ahead in a line or in a circular fashion, not changing his position. We had to do slow floating with somersaults, turns, etc. In all of my space pictures we employed [several] methods of imitating weightlessness. The first method was the 'vertical shot' The actor is dressed in a strong girdle and hangs from the ceiling via a thick steel rope, pulleys, and counterweights. The camera stays on the ground, the objective vertically above. The rope by which the actor hangs is hidden from the camera by his body."

To be effective, such a shot needs plenty of vertical clearance. Klushantsev and crew had to cut a hole in the stage floor to put their cameraman in the basement, again arousing the ire of the studio bosses. This method was used for shots in the spacecraft cabin and for shots depicting the building of an orbiting station in space. When Stanley Kubrick made 2001: a Space Odyssey in 1968, he claimed to have been first to fly actor/astronauts on wires with the camera on the ground, shooting vertically while the actor's body covered the wires. But Pavel Klushantsev had actually used the technique years before.

After the Apollo 11 Moon landings, many of the conspiracy theorists who believed that the United States had faked the whole thing believed that Kubrick must have filmed it on a set somewhere, possibly in a desert - after all, he'd pulled it off with 2001. It is somewhat ironic, then, that Alexey Leonov has been claimed by that group as one of their own after saying that it's possible that Kubrick did film some unimportant shots for the TV coverage, like a hatch opening or the flag being pulled out of its container, beforehand. Some of the fantastical ideas that Leonov's first spacewalk inspired were more grounded than others.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

MAHMOUD RASLAN
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“I was frozen to the spot”: the psychological dangers of autoplay video

Videos that play automatically are now ubiquitous across social media, but the format leaves many viewers vulnerable to harm and distress.

Have you ever seen a dog being skinned alive? Witnessed a child, whimpering for his mother, getting beheaded? Have you watched a man, pinned down by two police offers, being shot multiple times in the chest and back?

A few years ago, if you answered “yes” to these questions, you might have been considered deranged. Possibly, you would have been on a list somewhere, being monitored for seeking out disturbing and illicit videos online. Now, you’re more than likely just a victim of social media’s ubiquitous autoplay function.

No one likes autoplay. Back in the Nineties, homepages often came with their own jaunty background tune that would automatically play, but it didn’t take long for this annoying and invasive practice to die out. Nowadays, when you click on a website plastered with noisy adverts and clips, you immediately click off it. But although users frequently bemoan them, autoplay videos remain a huge business model for social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.

That’s fine, of course, when the autoplaying video in question is a bird’s-eye view tutorial on how to make nacho-chicken-pizza-fries (though even then, the videos might be gobbling up your data allowance without your consent). The problem arises when disturbing content is posted by users, and even media outlets, without any warnings or disclaimers.

“There are many incidents where the autoplay feature has affected me negatively,” says Sarah Turi, a 19-year-old college student from Boston, USA. Turi suffers from anxiety, and says that anything related to horror or gore can keep her awake for multiple nights on end. She has previously experienced anxiety attacks after viewing autoplaying horror movie trailers.

“Recently though, many of the videos that begin playing have to do with police brutality or terrorism or riots,” she says. “There was one incident where someone had shared a video of an execution. The video started playing, and before I could scroll away, I watched a man get beheaded by a terrorist organisation. It left me pretty shaken to say the least. I wasn't crying, but I was frozen to the spot. Even just thinking about it now leaves me feeling somewhat ill.”

Dr Dawn Branley, a health and social psychologist specialising in the risks and benefits of internet and technology use, tells me that autoplay videos on social media raise a variety of ethical concerns.

“Social media is more personal in nature compared to news channels and it is also often idly browsed with little conscious effort or concentration, and, as such, users may not be mentally prepared for the sudden appearance of a distressing video,” she says. “Suddenly witnessing a beheading, rape or graphic animal cruelty whilst scrolling through photos of your friends and family, holiday snaps, baby videos and wedding announcements may provide a real shock to the viewer.”

Branley says that, in her line of work, she has spoken to users who have experienced distress at photos of abuse and violence on social media, and speculates that autoplay video could only exacerbate this problem. She also notes that they can trigger vulnerable users, for example, people who suffer from eating disorders or PTSD.

Even those without pre-existing conditions can be negatively affected, however, as anyone who has seen disturbing footage before knows how it can pop into your head intrusively at any time and refuse to budge, remaining plastered to the edges of your skull. Even trolls are aware of this, as some tweet distressing footage at people, aware that it will autoplay.

In January 2015, Facebook responded to these issues by adding warnings to videos users flagged as graphic, meaning the footage wouldn’t autoplay and was preceded by a warning message. Viewers under 18 would be shielded from seeing violent content on their feeds. Yet just over seven months later, in August, autoplay meant thousands inadvertently watched footage of the shooting of TV journalists Alison Parker and Adam Ward.

Remember when I said no one likes autoplay? That’s not strictly true. You have three seconds to scroll away from an autoplaying video before Facebook counts it as a view. In a world where Facebook, and the users of it, are desperate to tally up as many views as possible, autoplay is considered a smart business model.

“Autoplay video originated as a way to capture viewers’ attention and prevent them from ignoring or scrolling past website content,” says Branley. “The autoplaying nature of a video is likely to capture the viewers’ attention and may potentially be harder to resist watching – compared to a static image and text.”

For those profiting, it seems not to matter that some people who can’t look away are viewers like Turi, frozen on the spot by distress.

Because of how profitable autoplay is, then, many news outlets continue to upload sensitive footage that might better be suited on their website – a consensual click away. They might add their own pre-roll warnings, but Branley notes that these are easy to miss if the video is autoplaying. If you were online yesterday, you might have seen this in action, as footage of a boy – or rather the boy – in an ambulance, distressed and bloodied, autoplayed repeatedly across social media.

News outlets have been called out for this before, and have admitted their mistakes. In August 2015, New York Times social media editor Cynthia Collins told The Media Briefing that she wishes she’d added a warning to a video of men being shot and killed at sea. After backlash from their audience, she said:

“If we could do it all again . . . there would have been a discussion about whether or not we should upload the video at all. But if we decided to upload the video I absolutely would have added a warning.”

The video ended up on the website, and viewers had to click through a handful of warnings before watching it. News footage has always had the potential to alarm and distress, but at least in the past viewers had a choice about whether they watched it. Although many news outlets have guidelines on graphic content (such as, for example, the famous breakfast test), these haven’t always been updated for social media.

It’s important that users are made aware of potential solutions to this problem,” says Branley, noting that Facebook and Twitter include options in their settings to turn off autoplay, and your browser or phone may also allow you to disable all autoplay. “However, that does not detract from the moral obligation that internet platforms should consider when introducing autoplay.

“I would suggest that an ‘opt-in’ approach (where users are required to switch on the autoplay setting if they wish to enable this function) would be much more appropriate than the current ‘opt-out’ approach, which requires users to find the settings to switch off autoplay if they do not wish to use it.”  

This seems like the simplest and fairest answer. It’s hard to argue that distressing videos shouldn’t be posted on Facebook – last month, the footage of Philando Castile’s shooting dramatically shed light on police brutality – but it seems only natural that viewers should have a choice about what they watch.

“It is possible that autoplay videos could be used to raise awareness of sensitive topics and/or to grab users' attention for positive reasons like charity campaigns,” says Branley. “However, it is a fine line between raising awareness and distressing the viewer and what one viewer finds acceptable, another may find highly distressing. Therefore, care and consideration is required.”

Right now, both care and consideration are lacking. In its current iteration, autoplay is like Anthony Burgess’ Ludovico technique – pinning our eyes open and forcing us to watch violence and horror without our consent. There are things I know I never want to watch – the curb stomp in American History X, an Armenian weightlifter dislocating their elbow during the Olympics – that could be sprung upon me at any time. Why? Because someone, somewhere, profits.

“I don't think autoplay is necessary in Facebook,” says Turi. “I think that people should decide for themselves whether or not they want to watch something. And yes, I think that it should be banned.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.