Friday, November 3, 2017

Extraterrestrial Contact: Considering What Aliens Might Look Like

Image Credit: Helen S. Cooper
We’re familiar with the standard pop culture aliens from the movies and TV. The similarity of those alien depictions to humans has been under criticism for years by astrobiologists. Just this week, a group of Biologists at the University of Oxford said that there may be some key aspects of the development of Earth species that we may be able to apply to alien lifeforms. had a write-up recently.
The paper, titled “Darwin's Aliens,” is published this week in the International Journal of Astrobiology.  You can read the whole article here. Authors Samuel Levin, Thomas Scott, Helen Cooper and Stuart West pick through elements of human evolution to find actions that might apply on other worlds. The most obvious is natural selection, and thus the nod to Darwin in the title. The authors hypothesize that mechanistic features of lifeforms (multiple functional parts- the biological things that allow a creature to live and reproduce) would likely develop on alien planets in the same way they develop on Earth- through variation, differential success and heredity. If reproduction is an intrinsic part of life everywhere, then natural selection would be as well. The authors use the term directional force, meaning that organisms find better ways to reproduce in order to survive. It all comes down to survival, a foundational part of life here on Earth, and perhaps so on other planets.

Image Credit: Helen S. Cooper
So what might these alien creatures look like? The authors don’t rule out some similarity to humans. After all, we are the product of thousands of years of natural selection. But the geology and atmosphere of a planet will also dictate how lifeforms develop. The paper includes a couple of drawings of hypothetical alien life designs by co-author Cooper. You can see in those pictures a rendering of multiple functional parts, which in advanced life forms provides the ability to manipulate surroundings. The paper makes a distinction between simple alien life and complex alien life:

“We have established that aliens will undergo natural selection. It also seems reasonable that, given the sliding scale from replicating molecules to large creatures with many body parts and beyond, some alien discoveries would be more interesting than others. In particular, the more complex the aliens we find, the more interesting and exciting they will be, irrespective of whether they appear anything like the life forms on the Earth.”

The authors conclude with a caution to avoid what they call “circularity” in thinking about the development of alien life. If natural selection is a widespread action in the universe, then alien life will also have a “nested hierarchy of entities” as we have on Earth. In short, organisms would move through a ladder of development that not only creates complexity, but demands it as a means of survival and success.

Does this mean that we won’t be shaking hands with E.T. or one of those popular alien “grays” as the UFO folks like to call them? Not necessarily, but given the potential differences in the chemical composition of other planets, we had best broaden our imaginations and use the teachings of Charles Darwin to guide us in our speculation.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Extraterrestrial Contact: Protecting the Planet, One Bug at a Time

The news media had fun last summer with the notion of a NASA Planetary Protection Officer.  Here’s an example from the BBC.
In reality, the position is quite interesting and would be an important part of Extraterrestrial Contact. First, let’s get the obvious question out of the way: is this person in charge of preparing defensive weaponry to respond to dangerous aliens? The answer is no. Planetary Protection refers to biological contamination. That could go either of two ways- humans bringing Earth contamination to other planets or Humans visiting other planets and bringing back biological contamination to Earth. Humans visiting another planet and bringing back an organism would be what is called back-contamination. It was closely monitored with the lunar landings.

Given that focus, planetary protection would be a big issue if aliens visited Earth. Biological contamination from an alien world could be quite dangerous here on Earth. In the settlement of Australia Europeans brought rabbits to the continent. Unfortunately, those rabbits did not have any natural predators there and soon Australia was overrun with rabbits. It may sound funny, but it was a serious problem for agriculture. Organisms here on Earth are controlled by the environment- an environment the organism has been a part of for thousands or even millions of years. An Earth organism is unlikely to run amok due to the checks and balances of our ecology. But there would be nothing in place to control an alien organism. Something as seemingly innocuous as a single-celled alien organism could cause terrible problems here on Earth. NASA would want to study a visiting alien craft quite carefully for alien organisms, radiation and other potentially harmful tag-alongs. The aliens themselves could be quite benign, but their contamination could be dangerous.

So, yes, the NASA Planetary Protection Officer would be one of the first scientists called if aliens do land on Earth someday. But they won’t be in charge of nuclear weapons- they will be using electron microscopes and other scientific instruments. Hopefully visiting aliens would have done their homework before landing and made sure their craft, and whatever else touches the Earth atmosphere, is clean and free of foreign contaminants. If not, they better be prepared to answer to NASA.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Extraterrestrial Contact: Geopolitical Challenges

Extraterrestrial First Contact, if it is high information contact, could be like a societal earthquake, shaking the foundation of human institutions.  That could create significant geopolitical issues. We are undergoing many changes in international relations. The period of U.S. dominance appears to be ending. Cold War era alliances are breaking down.  

Chrystia Freeland wrote about geopolitical challenges in Atlantic Monthly back in 2015. The article is even more relevant today. Freeland’s primary point is that the usual system of international relations is disintegrating. The United States has led the world in the geopolitical realm in the wake of World War Two. The Cold War era further moved the Unites States to the forefront of world powers. The collapse of the USSR left many people considering the United States the only remaining superpower. That didn’t last long.  Now we have an increasingly aggressive Russia to contend with. China, which has grown into an economic giant, is trying to assume dominance in the Pacific region. Europe is struggling to find a new identity.

The article quotes political scientist Ian Bremmer. Remember, this is from more than two years ago, before President Trump had even declared candidacy. Bremmer calls this time- “a period of geopolitical creative destruction—the glue that is holding the world together no longer sticks. The last time this happened was the end of World War II. The level of geopolitical risk as a consequence of this transition—which is just starting—is absolutely going to be a big deal.”

Bremmer is concerned about risk in the Trump era as well, seeing the withdrawal from world leadership as damaging to the “American brand.” Much of this attention centers on risk for global corporations. Freeland focuses the 2015 piece on how the business world is responding to such change and the impact that may have on the world economy and globalization. Remember globalization? It was the mantra of the early 2000s. Now globalization is a swear word on the lips of politicians across the world.  In many countries it is blamed for creating economic woes for the middle and working classes. Whatever the truth to that assertion, there is no doubt that globalization criticism is a powerful political tool.

And what of the other challenges that have come up since 2015? Consider the American withdrawal from international accords; the Russian intrusion into the elections of other nations; a potential Chinese economic downturn; and the shake-up of the European Union. If anything, the world Freeland describes in 2015 has become much more troubling…disintegrating as fast as the media can keep up. Did we ever think we would hear the Chancellor of Germany declaring that Europe needs to go it alone, implying that means without reliance on Great Britain and the United States?

What does all of this mean for extraterrestrials? If they did decide to make contact now, they would be contacting an increasingly unstable human civilization. That would mean much more turmoil for humans considering what to do in the wake of extraterrestrial direct contact. The old days of the world looking to the American president to greet aliens is gone. Nations would fight for their place at the front of the extraterrestrial communication line.

Does that mean that extraterrestrials should wait if they are considering contact? Possibly. There may be better geopolitical circumstances ten years from now. But quite frankly, that seems unlikely. There is no obvious trend that would point to more stability ahead. The opposite seems to be true.

There is one other thought- perhaps extraterrestrial contact could pull nations together? Perhaps such a remarkable event could help us re-set our global relationships? I know this is a common fantasy among those who consider extraterrestrial contact. And perhaps it is naïve. First Contact would certainly not correct any of the underlying world difficulties.  But it would be an unprecedented opportunity for humans to view our world with a new perspective- that of outsiders. That doesn’t mean that we need or want aliens telling us how to fix our problems. But First Contact could provide the impetus for humans to unshackle their minds from the tumultuous present, take a deep breath, and consider what our civilization should be in the future. Only then can we make ourselves fully prepared to become citizens of the universe.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Extraterrestrial Contact: The Negotiation between Bureaucracy and Change

Many things in our human society require balance. It may be naïve to consider human behavior only on the basis of poles and a spectrum, but the model does apply to much in our world. One basic spectrum is between bureaucracy and change. Absolute states of either category don’t exist and for good reason. Complete bureaucratic control would allow nothing to be accomplished. Complete change would be chaos. Our human bureaucracy, in so many forms beyond the usual meanings of governance, allows us to get things done. Bureaucracy in the larger sense of the term is simply an established process with the promise of efficiency. There is no need for humans to determine how to drive a car on the streets. There is a system of rules and laws that direct that action. However, change is needed in any bureaucratic system. It helps us to respond to new conditions, fix problems or engage new opportunities. German sociologist Max Weber is well-known for his work discussing bureaucracy needs and dangers.

What does all of this have to do with extraterrestrial First Contact? The negotiation between bureaucracy and change will be a big deal in human response to First Contact. There will be new conditions created, which will require many human bureaucracies to change. One could argue that this happens all the time in human society; new conditions, bringing about the need for change.  My concern is that it may happen very quickly in the wake of Extraterrestrial First Contact and could create instability. Human organizations of all sorts would be impacted- governments, universities, scientific bodies, economic groups, just to name a few. The more immediate the communication with extraterrestrials, meaning a larger amount of information shared, the more change that would be created. New scientific information is one obvious example. But humans could experience problems with corporations, economic markets and religious groups. As I said, I prefer Max Weber’s broader view of bureaucracy to the more common one that emphasizes it as a governmental organization. Bureaucracy is everywhere in human society. First Contact impact could surprise us in terms of which human bureaucracies are affected.

So, how do we deal with a great deal of information from aliens and the change it would create? I think the key is flexible bureaucracies. Humans will need systems to respond to the new information. At first, the only systems in place will be the ones we already have. They have to be allowed to flex and grow as conditions change. If we simply blow institutions up, deciding that some scientific group or organization is no longer relevant in a post-alien society, we risk chaos. Bureaucracies must be allowed to change organically. Forcing change could be a problem. That means people who lead a bureaucracy will need to be aware of changing conditions, listen to different viewpoints and ideas, and then respond effectively. Eventually there will be a need for new bureaucracies to handle human interaction with aliens. But in the meantime, our current system must be brought up to the challenge.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Extraterrestrial Contact: Mass Psychology

We think individually, but we often react in groups, and when we do so we can lose our critical thinking skills. It’s an idea posited by Gustave Le Bon in 1895 as he described the concept of the “Group Mind.” Sigmund Freud developed the theory into what we know today as Group Psychology. First Contact with an extraterrestrial civilization would take such considerations to a new level. Imagine the whole of humanity reacting to an entirely unique event in history? We would consider it, at first, as individuals, but that would quickly turn into group reaction.
The impact of First Contact on human group psychology would likely depend on the type of alien contact. The impact would be significant, but limited, if contact is simply human scientists discovering a far-off civilization through signals. The impact would be much greater if we could have an immediate conversation with aliens. That would probably only happen in a Direct First Contact scenario, where aliens come to our solar system. The challenge to the Freudian concept of Group Psychology would come from the size of the group. Psychologists have studied mob psychology, large group psychology and even the psychology of entire nations. But what of worldwide group psychology? In many respects there has not been a need to study the reaction of all humanity to a situation. Even our biggest Earth events are regional in impact. (The first moonwalk might be an exception). Direct First Contact would affect all of humanity in a psychological sense and that would, in turn, lead to group reactions.
Those group reactions will likely be caused by specific catalysts. Let’s say that a religious leader comes out condemning contact with aliens. That would lead to reactions within that religious group. The same could be said of a national government reaction. If a government speaks out in favor of contact with aliens, that could impact that national group. And yes, it seems likely that there will be much splitting of opinion here on Earth about First Contact.

Where does that leave the individual in that situation? They are now confronted with conflicting reactions from tribal groups close to them. They may also feel a threat to family and community and that is a fierce driver in human thought. It seems likely that there will be confusion for individuals trying to navigate this new perspective. The good news is that if the aliens are considerate they would not want to bring much physical disruption to our world. The mental perspective challenges would be plenty enough. The bad news is that those challenges could be considerable.
There are clear dangers, and once again we can learn much from the study of group psychology in the early 1900’s. Freud published his initial paper on the subject in 1921. World War One was the primary example of group psychology in action. Wilhelm Reich used those examples in drafting his book The Mass Psychology of Fascism in 1933. The timing was critical as the author also viewed the Nazi rise to power and the actions of the Soviet Union. Reich tied the growth of fascism to repressed sexuality. That may sound like a stretch in this extremely abbreviated description, but he was really speaking to a great number of human experiences tied together, not just sexual repression, but also threat to family, authoritarianism in education and economic fear. Reich shows how the Nazis used such human weaknesses to develop messaging based on those problems, to eventually rally the public. German propaganda used a number of psychological techniques to push the German public to support irrational acts.
New studies show how this works in the brain. Our moral code is actually suppressed when we are in a mob. Can one consider an entire nation a mob? Certainly not everyone in Nazi Germany agreed with the actions of the Reich, but the mob effect was strong enough to force others into submission.
It seems likely that human groups would use fear and weaknesses to persuade members of the public to take a particular stance in the wake of Direct First Contact. Fear could be harnessed to support specific views, most likely isolationism. Why would groups do this? For the same reason the Nazis did it: control. Human groups have gained control by firing up public support throughout history. The mob mentality, broadened to group psychology, can be a powerful weapon. The Manufacture of Consent is a technique often used by people who are trying to gain power or accomplish a specific goal, by influencing members of the public. The original term came from the journalist Walter Lippmann. He thought of it in a more objective fashion- as a necessary way that decision-making is made in public- through an orchestrated effort by a much smaller group, with a specific agenda.

Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman took the term in a much more negative direction, calling it a propaganda model used by elites to maintain control
But back to the Lippmann use of the phrase- isn’t it likely that people who support a relationship with aliens would also try to be manufacturing consent in the public? Let’s face it, everyone uses the media, and especially social media, to manipulate groups. The Russians appear to have done it in the most recent American election.  But in the same measure, if you support the right of Killer Whales to be free, you were likely part of “manufacturing dissent” with the movie “Blackfish.” We can’t be naïve about the use of forces to control the public. It happens in every way imaginable.

Let’s get back to the human. What is an individual to do? Studies of consumer mentality can provide some useful tips for how individuals may want to handle alien First Contact. Forbes has a good article, taking ideas from a 2014 study in the Journal of Consumer Research. How do you avoid herd mentality?

  • Make a conscious effort to form your own opinion.
  • Take time to make decisions.
  • Be aware of ways that stress can affect your decision making.
I will add to those consumer tips these suggestions:

  • Check facts before reacting.
  • Don’t spread rumors
  • Consider long-term goals- what is the best way to provide a good outcome for future generations?
  • And most importantly: Take a deep breath.
Yes, First Contact would be surprising, awe inspiring, frightening and confusing. Perhaps all at the same time. Humans are resilient. We can take in this new perspective, learn from it, and grow. However, let’s be careful to consider whom is pushing us to do what. A little critical thinking will go a long way in the wake of alien First Contact.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Extraterrestrial Contact: Six things for Elected Officials to Consider

Alien First Contact work may start with scientific groups, but the responsibility for the response will be largely shouldered by politicians. The amount of responsibility would depend on the type of First Contact. If aliens make contact via messaging from far away, that would be a lower level of responsibility for politicians. In that scenario scientists would likely lead the effort. However, if an alien craft was to arrive on Earth, politicians in the landing area, and the surrounding nation, would have a great deal of responsibility. Here are six things for elected officials to consider in such a situation.
  1. You have been thrust into one of the most important points in human history.
  2. Your actions could impact humanity positively or negatively for many generations to come
  3. If you don’t control this situation with carefully measured, and yet quickly carried out, actions, there could be many damaging outcomes.
  4. If you don’t work with all nations and international agencies you will risk global conflict. Such a response may also hurt your nation’s relationship with the aliens.
  5. You must work quickly to establish a framework for response that is based on international cooperation, transparency in actions, and public reassurance.
  6. Make use of scientific experts. Start with people in the SETI community who have considered such events and responses for many years now. Reach out quickly to other important fields in the social sciences: sociology, political science, religion, and international relations, to name just a few. Consider the impact of information coming from extraterrestrials with scientists in all fields that could be effected by that information: physics, astronomy, engineering etc.
Scientists may balk at having politicians lead such a response, but elected officials represent humans, and it is inevitable that those elected officials will need to determine the process for developing a relationship with extraterrestrials.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Extraterrestrial Contact: The Way Things are Right Now

Things are a little different on planet Earth these days and if anyone wants to say hello, they need to pay attention. Human social and political dynamics should be a concern for any extraterrestrial group attempting to make Direct First Contact. I define Direct First Contact as aliens coming to our solar system, or planet Earth itself, to say hello. Why should they bother with trying to understand how our society works? If they want to make contact they would have a reason for doing so. Understanding our society would be critical to them carrying out their agenda, whatever it may be. Human social and political dynamics are particularly volatile right now. In one moment US relations with China appear to be deteriorating and in the next strengthened. Russia is the reverse situation, at least as far as we can tell given the current rhetoric. All of this would have a direct impact on how humans respond to a big alien introduction. If humans are confused by what is happening on planet Earth right now, imagine how extraterrestrials would consider the current state of international relations?

So, what advice would I give aliens interested in contacting humans, given current conditions?

Human fear would be a real issue in any First Contact situation. Some national leaders may find it necessary to resort to military threat to appease a worried population or gain control. Aliens would need to be prepared for this and ready to stay the course. Appealing to the entire international community makes it less likely a nation would go rogue and threaten military action.  There are ways to lessen the likelihood of such reactions. Threat is often heightened by location. An alien craft in Earth orbit would be considered a threat to Earth satellites and every nation on Earth. An alien craft landing in a particular country would be considered a direct threat to the leaders in that nation. Most human governments have multiple levels, from local to regional and national. Any of those levels could take aggressive action, if the situation is not well managed. A problem at any level could set up a chain-reaction of aggressive behavior. I stress that the situation could be managed, but only with an elegant process. All actions taken by the visitors should be communicated ahead of time. After the initial contact, which should be controlled by aliens, humans should be allowed to determine their own process for moving forward. Aliens could suggest ideas, but humans must have the autonomy to do what they want, collectively, as one planet.

Aliens would want to stay out of security entanglements, such as entering secure computer systems or intercepting communications. If they decided to land on Earth they would want to avoid capital cities and military installations. They would also want to pick a stable nation that is aligned with the international community. A major consideration would be the transparency of such a hello. Hidden actions could lead to mistrust and fear. Aliens would need to find a way to reach all humans at once with a message of introduction. Playing favorites with particular nations could cause global stress, especially right now. Aliens would want to make their intentions clear and have simple guidelines for the process, such as how they would like to communicate and with whom. It is likely that many nations would try to contact visiting aliens directly to gain advantage. Aliens would have to realize that this could have a disastrous impact on human society. Impartiality would be a prudent approach to keep humans from fighting with each other.

International relations may seem especially confusing on Earth recently. However, the basic institutions that hold together our human civilization are still strong. Aliens would need to understand those human systems and design a First Contact to match their alien needs. And hopefully those alien needs would match our human needs. Aliens with hidden agendas, and devious intentions, are another matter entirely. In any case, a united human response would be critical for our civilization.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Extraterrestrial Contact: Six Things to do in the First 48 Hours

If extraterrestrial First Contact does occur someday, there are six things that would have to be accomplished by the organization making the discovery and the primary governmental group connected to that organization.

  1. Reveal everything you know. Secrets will come back to haunt you and serve to undermine public trust. Reveal what you know quickly. If you wait, you risk leaks and fearful reaction from the public.
  2. Discuss the intentions of the aliens immediately. If those intentions are not clear, discuss that.
  3. Provide comfort to the public with whatever assurances you can. Let them know how you are monitoring the situation. Let the public know of precautions that are being taken.
  4. Involve the international community immediately. First Contact should be for all humans and all humans should feel they are represented in decision-making.
  5. Develop a short-term process with the international community of nations. Outline the necessary next steps.
  6. Communicate the process to the public and promise transparency. Transparency is the best defense against rumors and conspiracy theories.

Groups like the SETI Institute have protocols that cover a signal-based First Contact scenario. My suggested steps above would be most necessary in a Direct First Contact event, where extraterrestrials arrive in our solar system. However, many points apply to both scenarios. The key to keeping humans calm is continuing communication and absolute transparency.



Monday, April 3, 2017

Extraterrestrial Contact: Communicating with Extraterrestrials

First Contact with an extraterrestrial civilization could happen in a myriad of ways, if it ever occurs at all. However, you can break down First Contact scenarios into two general categories: Direct First Contact and Long-Distance First Contact (I have sometimes called this Indirect First Contact). The two general types of First Contact can also help to determine the challenges involved in communication with aliens.
Long-Distance First Contact is the most likely scenario. It involves humans receiving a message, or intercepting some sort of data, from an extraterrestrial civilization. If the message comes from the star system where the aliens live, communication back and forth, with our current technology, would take many years or decades. There would be major challenges along the way. We would need to decipher the message. We would need to analyze the message. We would need to formulate a response. We would then try to respond in the language used by the aliens. Without linguistic teaching help from the aliens, such a scientific effort could take many years.

The Atlantic Monthly has a story about the flip-side of this idea- what language should we use to send messages out into space in our effort to communicate with extraterrestrials? Writer Daniel Oberhouse examines a language created for just such a need. It’s a math based language called Lincos and was designed by German mathematician Hans Freudenthal. The premise is that aliens would be more likely to understand a math-based language, since some math concepts may be universal, or at the very least easier to decipher. Oberhouse writes that recently scholars have been working to update Lincos to make a new language that could be used in sending a human message to specific star systems in an effort to make contact.
We are fortunate that we have talented astrophysicists and other scientists working on Long-Distance First Contact issues. Direct First Contact is a different animal altogether, with a very different set of challenges. Direct First Contact is differentiated by location. In a Direct First Contact scenario the aliens are in our solar system and can communicate relatively quickly. The possibilities under this category are also myriad. It could range from an alien probe entering our solar system and contacting us, to aliens landing a spacecraft on Earth to say hello.

The challenges for Direct First Contact are primarily response-oriented. Direct First Contact would be a much more threatening type of contact for humans, simply due to the relatively close proximity of aliens or alien-designed machines. There is one area, though, that Direct First Contact could be easier than Long-Distance Contact and that is language. Aliens in our solar system could easily monitor our TV signals. They could even tap into our Internet system. If the aliens have the technology to travel great distances in space to reach our solar system, they would likely have the technology to study our languages and design communication systems to reach out to us. Television could be particularly helpful, since there are pictures to help put words into context. This could involve years of study for aliens, but communication would likely be achievable in a shorter time-frame than Long-Distance First Contact.

My concern is that currently almost all of extraterrestrial contact research is focused on Long-Distance First Contact. It’s understandable, as I pointed out before, it’s the most likely form of alien contact. But because the challenges are very different between Long-Distance First Contact and Direct First Contact, it leaves us rather unprepared if the unlikely does occur some day and we find aliens on our doorstep.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Extraterrestrial Contact: Politics and Polarization

Have you felt the urge to strangle someone who supports a political party that you oppose? You are not alone. Some analysts suggest that America has the most polarized political climate in 150 years. The Washington Post has a cool graphic representation. And it’s not just the United States. Europe is also suffering from a political polarization problem.
So, what’s the big deal about political polarization and how does this tie in to extraterrestrial First Contact? Polarization is the movement of political debate to the extremes of the political spectrum. It moves debate away from moderate, and potentially problem solving discussion, to extreme stances that make negotiation problematic. Political polarization makes it difficult for governments to get things done. Polarization in a Direct First Contact event would likely come down to two extremes. The first would be people who want complete, open contact with visiting extraterrestrials. They would view First Contact as a tremendous opportunity for humans and not be concerned with security issues. The opposite end would be individuals who don’t want any sort of relationship with extraterrestrials. Fear would be the driving factor for people on that pole.  How does all of this compare to political polarization? Politics would be a big part of a Direct First Contact event. Nations would need to decide what they think of a relationship with extraterrestrials and those views would be represented in the United Nations. And current political polarization could play a part. One could imagine that in America liberals might be in favor of a relationship with extraterrestrials and conservatives would be concerned about human safety and perhaps be protectionist.
The primary problem is that the likely battle between both sides of the spectrum…those in favor of a human relationship with extraterrestrials and those opposed to it…would make decision making difficult. Consensus is important in any process. When two sides cannot find some degree of agreement, everything bogs down. The inaction of the U.S. Congress in recent years is an example of what can go wrong.
Why do we care if the extraterrestrial relationship process takes longer? There are important decisions that would need to be made immediately. They include protocols for handling extraterrestrial contact and the assurance of human security and autonomy. The issues are complex and would require input from experts in many different areas. If political polarization makes that process even more difficult, we could be in for trouble.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Extraterrestrial Contact: Fake News

Fake news is one of the most challenging communication issues we face today. Fake news stories have been lurking around social media for several years. But the number and impact of those fake stories seems to have grown during the 2016 U.S. presidential race.
For many years political leaders and the media have been hesitant to mention incorrect information and fake news that is trending on social media, perhaps not wanting to legitimize such posts. I think the torrent of fake news and the impact of such stories is changing that. The social media user who shot up a pizza restaurant in Washington over a fake news story is a dramatic example. However, such stories don’t have to involve gunfire to be extremely damaging. This makes it imperative for media, law enforcement and government representatives to respond to the big rumors and fake news stories immediately.
Back to the blog topic: What challenges would fake news present during an alien first contact event?  We can’t predict what aliens would want or do, or even if that will ever occur. However, we can look at current events to see how humans react to other public stressors, such as a nasty political race or communication during a disaster.

The first challenge would be misinformation during the initial hours of extraterrestrial Direct First Contact. Direct First Contact can be described as aliens (or robotic representatives) landing on Earth or contacting us from our solar system, to say hello. Confusion, exaggeration and other such misinformation during a First Contact event would be a huge problem. This can been seen during disasters here on Earth. In the initial minutes and hours observer social media posts dominate the discussion. It’s logical, since more authoritative sources need time to respond. While, people on the scene can post immediately, professionals know to double-check information before they make it public. Members of the public simply let their fingers fly.
But soon others will realize that they can cause confusion and fear through fake news or disinformation. Misinformation happens due to human error. Disinformation is an active campaign to spread untrue information.

I would imagine that fake news would at first be conducted by people who are amused by causing trouble. However, the next groups to latch onto the fake news technique will have specific agendas: political, monetary, and social goals. These fake news disseminators will be trying to influence the public for a focused reason. The fake news could be just one part of all sorts of social media mayhem created by people who are trying to influence the public. We saw quite a bit of that happen during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Partisanship was certainly the big driver in the presidential social media battle.

So, would partisanship drive fake news in a First Contact event? And what groups would be battling?  I would imagine the big debate would be between those strongly in favor of a relationship with extraterrestrials and those completely opposed to such a relationship. The drivers would be excitement and optimism on the one side and fear on the other side. The bigger the debate in public, the more partisan forces will be tempted to use fake news to influence people. The dangerous part is that both sides would have legitimate concerns. Using fake news and disinformation to promote their agenda could cause huge issues in the public arena. It would drive the debate to extremes at either end of the spectrum, and drown out nuanced, moderate responses.

Media outlets, the law enforcement community, and government representatives, will have to correct confusion, exaggeration and fake news immediately. It is critical that someone in these agencies monitor trending topics on the major social media sites and develop a response plan. It could be a simple refutation of the top ten trending confused, incorrect or fake social media posts. Such statements should always be capped with a reminder that there is going to be much incorrect and fake information out there. People need to know they can’t trust all communication, even from friends and family. Members of the public must be encouraged to double-check information before reacting.

Alien Direct First Contact would cause anxiety for many humans across the globe. If incorrect information and fake news is allowed to grow in audience, that human anxiety could turn to civil unrest and violence.

Are our institutions prepared to respond quickly to incorrect information and fake news? Perhaps not as quickly as would be needed. Each media outlet, law enforcement agency and government office would need to assign a team to the problem immediately. Corrections and denunciations of such social media postings are not something that could wait an hour or two. They would need to happen immediately in news coverage and be featured prominently in news conference by authorities or scientists.

The response would need to be continued in the long-term. Some of the most damaging fake news could be quite hard to dispel. It may take weeks or months of work to keep fake news and incorrect information at bay.

Transparency is the best weapon against fake news. If people can disseminate and monitor entire meetings and news conferences about alien First Contact, it will be tougher for fake news to worm its way into the public discussion. That means a long-term effort by organizations, scientists, governmental leaders, and media outlets to stream meetings live on the Internet and for reporters and others to sum up the most important points online and in news reports. That will be easy in the short-term, while interest is quite high. It will be tougher, and in many respects more important, in the long-term as public interest wanes.

Dissemination of true information, the correction of incorrect news, and the response to fake news will be among the most important human activities in the wake of extraterrestrial First Contact. But we can’t expect our institutions to be the only ones responsible for screening the fake news and raising a red flag. Individual social media consumers, you and I, will need to check questionable posts and then respond if we find that post is incorrect or fake. Critical thinking and quick response, may be the glue that holds human society together during what would be, arguably, the biggest event in human history.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Extraterrestrial Contact: The Communication Flowchart

A dramatic extraterrestrial First Contact scenario on Earth would require a great deal of action on the part of local, state and world leaders. They would have to take measure of the situation; explore the situation to determine if there is a threat to humanity; employ experts in many different fields to study the situation; and communicate to the human population. I put communication last in that line of actions for a reason. It would likely be the last thing scrambling leaders would consider. And yet, in many respects, it is the most important action. That’s especially true if the aliens are either non-threatening or indeterminate in action. In that scenario human reaction becomes the biggest threat, not the aliens themselves. Now I don’t expect that humans will run in fear or riot if faced with a direct alien First Contact event. Awe and wonder would be the first reaction for most humans. But what would happen after that?

There are no events in human history that would compare to First Contact with extraterrestrials on Earth. However, if we chop the fantasy scenario up into smaller bits, we can find some human comparisons. Let’s consider how modern humans react during sudden natural disasters and incidents of terrorism. And in doing so, let’s use time as our form of organization. We’ll develop a flowchart of reaction, and the communication needed to respond to that reaction, from immediate to long-term.

Social Starters

The first rule of thumb in the digital age is that individual civilian communications will lead the way in reaction to any sudden and dramatic event. Those communications include text messages to friends, postings to twitter, pictures on Instagram, and Snapchat messages. The media will catch up quickly, but initially they will utilize those same individual communications to report on what has occurred. This could get out of control quickly as speculation and exaggeration proliferate. It’s critical that the next step occurs as soon as humanly possible.

Made for Television

Media outlets will scramble to get reporters and photographers in place to cover the event. People will turn to television coverage immediately. TV is the superior method of communication in a disaster. The reasons are obvious. TV stations and their networks have many different forms of live broadcast equipment, including weather skycams, helicopters, and live trucks. They have trained on-air professionals and an entire support staff to dedicate to a sudden emergency. TV stations and networks may rely on individual civilian reports, such as spectators phoning into the TV station, Tweets and public Internet posts at first. Soon, though, they will move on to their own reporters and experts. Internet posts will continue to drive some elements of the story, perhaps seeking new directions that the mainstream media has not considered. The experts used by the media will grow larger in stature as the situation progresses. In initial reports they will be first responders, such as police and firefighters. As the emergency organizations deploy more resources those experts will be further up the hierarchical ladder. It may only be a matter of hours before state and national leaders take control of the communication flow.

Information Vacuum

Governmental leaders will quickly formulate a strategy. In emergencies there are two major issues: putting out the facts and telling people what to do. Putting out the facts is critical. In the initial stages of an emergency there is often an information vacuum. That leaves media outlets to rely on individual civilians for information, as I stated above. The danger is that some of these civilians could exaggerate the facts or even report things that are not true at all. This makes the information vacuum a very dangerous time during an emergency. The authorities know they must get facts out as quickly as possible to fill the vacuum with the truth or in some cases what they want to portray as the truth. Leaders have to be careful at this stage. They could easily lose credibility if the statements of authorities conflict with the statements of civilians. This is an important part of the digital age- authorities are quickly held accountable for statements. If a government downplays a disaster civilian reporters can quickly show the truth, through video and reporting. Conversely, authorities being truthful will have to speak out against false reports coming from members of the public.

If it all sounds rather complicated, that’s because it is. And the events will be moving incredibly fast.

Short-Term Communication

In the short-term, the authorities will use news conferences as the primary form of public briefing. News conferences are easy to stage; they can provide a great deal of information in a short time; and they can be carried live by television and the Internet. You can reach a whole lot of people very quickly with a TV news conference. But you can’t do that forever. In the days and weeks following a Direct First Contact event, governmental leaders will need to put out a steady stream of information and not have time for continuous news conferences. This is where social media comes back into play. Twitter is probably the most used Internet source during social unrest, wars and disasters. That’s because anyone with an account can tweet and hundreds of millions can easily find and follow that Tweet. Twitter requires no network of editors and handlers. The message goes out and followers receive it unfiltered and immediately. Facebook and other social media outlets are not nearly as adaptable and scalable as Twitter. This puts Twitter in the forefront of the crisis communication toolbox and not just initially. It could continue in that role for quite some time, just as it has in U.S. Presidential races.

Medium-Term Communication

There would be a massive world-wide interest in a Direct First Contact event at first. Eventually, though, that interest will wane. It may get reignited in spurts based on the drama inherent in an action or a particular piece of new information.

In the medium-term, information would be less immediate and more in-depth. It would consist of world leaders in meetings with experts and many layers of bureaucracy at work. I have stated before that transparency would be critical in keeping humans calm. It needs to continue long after widespread interest dies down. While TV might cover entire meetings in the initial days and weeks, eventually they will tire of such coverage. The Internet is well prepared to take up the cause.  Streaming meetings in their entirety would allow all interested people to look in and see what is happening. That would include people with expertise in a specific area, who may not be called to participate. They could evaluate what happens in a meeting and discuss it with colleagues via social media. Those ideas could then reach back to the decision makers.

Even with transparency there will be some degree of speculation occurring in the medium-term and that could allow conspiracy theories and outright lies to grow, especially on the Internet. People will use such communication to attract attention or promote their cause. But transparency can still help. Average Internet users will often police social media themselves by quickly refuting false statements. But those average Internet users need the ammunition of truth to do so. Putting out information, far beyond what may seem of interest to the general public, is essential. There will be some members of the public interested in even the most esoteric of discussions. Those people can help protect against Internet conspiracy theories and misinformation.

I think that this medium-term stage would be the most dangerous for humans in terms of physical threats. It is the point at which terrorists could begin to take action. Politicians could use the situation to rally for their cause. Despots could wield fear to take or solidify control. There will still be a high degree of agitation in the human population in the medium-term. People may seek to use that agitation to their advantage.

Long-Term Communication

Long-term communication becomes easier as the agitation wears off. This could be months or years after the original event. It would depend on the nature of the event itself and the challenges presented. The more decisions we need to make, the greater the agitation and the more complicated the long-term communication needs. Leaders will need to continue to make transparency the hallmark of action. Conspiracy theorists love quiet- because it allows them to interject their own ideas without anything to refute them. I say bury the public in as much live streaming and document release as possible. There is nothing that should not be made public. Let me say that again- there is nothing in a Direct First Contact event that should not be made public. This will be really tough for emergency first responders and governmental leaders. They will see transparency as a threat. Transparency would in fact be their greatest tool for keeping the human population calm.

Where does the flowchart go from there? Hopefully to happy and peaceful times. That level of peace and happiness will likely depend largely on actions taken in the very first minutes, hours and days of a direct extraterrestrial First Contact event.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Extraterrestrial Contact: Arrival Movie a Welcome Respite

Okay, so there is one explosion in the new science fiction movie Arrival. But it’s a small part of the plot. The film is an intelligent look at alien First Contact and that’s a welcome respite from the multitude of marauding extraterrestrial flicks.

I won’t go into the plot. It’s an excellent movie and you should see it for yourself. Like the best alien First Contact movies it says a lot more about us than it does the aliens. Alien ships appear hovering above several countries across the globe. This leads to the fear of proximity. The ships don’t communicate at first and that leads to the fear of mysterious intentions. The process also leads to military control of First Contact in those countries, which in turn raises the issue of many different responses to First Contact by those nations. Will the countries work together or go their own way? Those are all important factors to consider in First Contact. The movie explains the alien reasoning for handling First Contact in such a dangerous way. But without the reasoning used by the aliens, the movie shows everything visiting extraterrestrials would not want to do. So many alien craft appearing on Earth leads to increased fears. The lack of clear and swift communication of intentions builds worry in the public and leads to unrest. And the method used by the aliens makes it necessary for the military to take control in each country.

No plot spoilers here. You will have to see the movie for the answer to why the aliens choose such an odd method. Lacking that reason, aliens with good intentions would be advised to do everything differently. Here are some tips:

-Send your intentions via some form of electronic communication and well ahead of the appearance of any space craft. Let humans know you are coming and that you are coming in peace.

-Beware of proximity threat. Land in a place that is not highly populated or near a military base.

-Keep it simple and easy for us to monitor. Only one spaceship at a time please.

-Communicate your intentions quickly to avoid paranoia on the part of humans.

-Don’t make nations compete against each other. Find a way to reach all nations at once and treat them equally.

-Learn our most used languages before you get here. There is no reason to say hello until you can communicate.

-Have a process for initial First Contact in mind and communicate it clearly. After that, let humans take charge. Humans should have a right to determine how a Direct First Contact scenario develops on planet Earth.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Extraterrestrial Contact: First Contact and Nationalism

There has been a significant movement towards nationalism and protectionism across the globe. The most notable examples would be the U.S. presidential election of Donald Trump and the British vote to leave the European Union. While there is much debate about the policies associated with nationalism and protectionism, the philosophy comes down to world leaders wanting what they consider to be the best possible outcomes for their country.

First contact with aliens would at first blush appear to be a threat to nationalism and protectionism. Certainly from a military perspective it could be so- if the aliens have hostile intentions. But if an extraterrestrial civilization offers a non-threatening introduction that perspective could be very different for world leaders, especially where it concerns the United Nations. The UN has long been a flash-point when it comes to supporters of nationalism and protectionism. The UN is often viewed as a threat to national sovereignty.  But in a Direct First Contact situation, one where the aliens come to our solar system to say hello, the United Nations could be a necessary tool for world leaders.

Much of the debate would be decided by the aliens themselves. If they extend their welcome to one nation or a specific group of nations, that would have to be respected. Other nations could argue their point, but ultimately it’s up to the aliens to decide who they want to communicate with. The same is true if the aliens want to deal with all nations. Individual countries could grumble about it and even try to gain advantage behind the scenes. But if the aliens are not interested in dealing with individual nations, this would quickly prove to be a fruitless endeavor. More so, it could risk an individual nation’s relationship with aliens and the rest of the world. This could prove to be a big problem for aggressive nations who are intent on making their own deal. They may very well get left out of the international deal-making.

The countries most likely to seek control of First Contact would be the United States, Russia and China. Why? They have much at stake with large economies and a preference for asserting influence in global affairs. All three are members of the UN Security Council- likely to be the first UN body to consider alien contact. The question is how the use of their influence would be most effective – alone or in the UN Security Council? Taking a separate path could be dangerous, as it could cause the straying country to be less influential in the United Nations. It would seem prudent for world leaders to consider this- the United Nations may be their most effective way of exerting influence on the process. This is true for the Security Council nations, especially the P5 permanent serving nations of China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Other nations would also be advised to exert their influence through the United Nations. To go it alone would be foolhardy. If the aliens want to deal with individual nations they will. If they want to deal with everyone, the United Nations would be the best alternative for individual countries.

The problem is what the United Nations represents for nationalists- the threat of an extra-governmental agency running the show. There is already a fear of the United Nations turning into a world government. First Contact would likely increase that fear. However, in the specific case of alien First Contact the United Nations could be viewed as a valuable tool- a conduit of sorts for contact. The major nations exert much influence over the United Nations currently and would continue to do so in a First Contact scenario. Less powerful nations would have their only opportunity to be involved in the decision making process through the United Nations. Does this mean that the United Nations should gain more control over international affairs? That would depend on how the arrangement is put together. In a conduit scenario the UN would be a process body. And much of First Contact would be about process. Nations could decide how the UN should structure response to First Contact and the framework for a global relationship with aliens. Strong involvement from the General Assembly in the decision-making process could ensure national control. It also means a great deal of responsibility for nations to work together and make decisions with alacrity. Hesitance and in-fighting could make a General Assembly controlled First Contact strategy untenable. Nations can control how much of the process is decided by United Nations bureaucracy. There will have to be some level of action and decision-making in the United Nations. The framework for the process will be an important point for General Assembly consideration. It comes down to this: if the General Assembly can be effective in decision-making countries will retain control. If they fail, the bureaucrats in the UN will have to lead the way. That means it is critical that American, Russian and Chinese UN ambassadors work together to solidify support for actions in the General Assembly. This is the type of superpower leadership that will be necessary in the wake of First Contact. Those ambassadors can be extremely important in the process, but only if they have the complete backing of their bosses. And First Contact would not be a time to play games. If a national leader chooses to “go rogue” in public statements and push for something else behind the scenes they could find their national influence undermined. Any sign of gamesmanship would send a signal to other nations that the process cannot be trusted.

So, how should the United States, China and Russia present themselves in a First Contact situation? It depends on what the aliens want in the First Contact process. If the aliens want to deal with the entire planet it would seem best for the big three, and the rest of the UN Security Council members, to act as strong leaders within the context of the UN. It seems likely that the nations who figure this out quickly, and set forth a UN-based strategy will fare better in the post- First Contact world. It’s one situation in which going it alone could be a very, very bad idea.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Extraterrestrial Contact: Cultural Autonomy

Cultural autonomy is the ability of a group of people to decide their own fate. Cultural harm is one of the significant threats that we would have to consider in a direct alien First Contact event. It’s a topic addressed in a recently published book titled “Commercial Space Exploration: Ethics, Policy and Governance.” In one chapter Philadelphia area writer Brent Franklin focuses on the interaction between civilizations and what that could mean for humans in a First Contact situation. Cultural harm is the potential damage that interaction between civilizations could have, especially for the weaker, less-advanced society. Franklin points to Brazilian relations with the isolated tribes of the Amazon. These may be the last such isolated societies on the planet. Brazil has gone to great lengths to protect the autonomy of the indigenous tribes. Those actions are based on the negative outcomes for many other tribes in previous years. Interaction with humans has collapsed indigenous economic and social structures, to the point of completely dissolving some cultures. This is not a new aspect of human life. We have experienced such actions for thousands of years. Some may argue that it is a natural progression for more advanced societies to subsume less advanced. However, in the last 100 years fierce opposition to this argument has developed. It can be seen in the efforts of Native North Americans to preserve their culture, much of which was decimated by European settlement and intrusion.

We may consider our human society rather advanced in terms of depth and complexity. But there could be risks in interaction with extraterrestrials. Technology is one of the most obvious considerations. Should aliens provide technological information to us? If they are more advanced we may not even have the foundation to understand alien technology. But if we did, would having knowledge given to us make us stronger or weaker? Science is a foundational system that grows through the sharing of ideas and replication of study results. Each new piece of information is a building block, but that block is only put in place once it has been critically reviewed. Along the way, all sorts of other ideas, challenges and considerations can come to light. Human science is a complicated set of interactions and development. Alien technology could throw us off course. Or it could make us dependent on alien tutoring.

Human religion could also suffer cultural harm. Perhaps the aliens have a religious system that is adopted by humans? That could undermine human religions and have a drastic impact on human culture.

There could also be benefits to alien interaction with humans. New ideas could cause us to develop our technology in new directions and grow our religious perspectives. A lot would depend on how interaction with aliens would occur. The negative comparisons in human history usually involve the new society encroaching on the geography of the indigenous group, quite often through dominance and even war. If aliens were not threatening us physically, could interaction create positive change for the human civilization? Many would argue that we need new religious perspectives, as religion is the source of much conflict here on Earth. Perhaps alien technology could be shared in a way that would incorporate our human scientific system?

Cultural autonomy is the ability of a group of people to guide the future development of their culture. If there is agreement that some alien perspectives might be beneficial, those perspectives could be incorporated into human society. The point is that humans need to make the decisions. If aliens do visit our solar system some day they will be encroaching on our space. We should be the ones who decide how the relationship should progress. We should have the ability to limit and control contact. That could even mean turning down alien assistance.

Franklin suggests a “peaceful and cautious approach to contact.” This is something I have been promoting for several years now. Yes, there would be clear threats to humanity in an alien First Contact scenario, especially if it is Direct First Contact, taking place in our solar system. But there may also be benefits in such a relationship. The tough part would be setting up a framework for the relationship that would allow for that “peaceful and cautious approach.”

In simple terms humans would need to assess the following in any First Contact scenario:

-The details of the situation itself: what are the aliens proposing?

-Our position in this scenario: what are our weaknesses and strengths?

-The risk that further contact could provide to the human civilization

-The benefits that further contact could provide to human civilization

It’s basically the SWOT analysis that businesses use for planning. You evaluate strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. From there you can develop a short-term response and a long-term strategy.