Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Extraterrestrial Contact: Paranoia

We’re used to paranoid ramblings on the Internet. They have become a loose string in the fabric of our society. There are many blogs and websites about alien conspiracies. But what would happen if the situation flips some day? What if aliens do make contact, either via far off signal or by coming to our solar system to say hello? How would the paranoid people react? How else might paranoia play out?

Amanda Hess hosts the “Internetting” video blog for the New York Times. She and Shane O’Neil put together this fun piece examining the impact of the Internet on paranoia and extremism. As she points out, the Internet is a great platform for people claiming conspiracy. You have instant access to other paranoid people, which can provide your fan base. You can edit photos, videos and even database information to your liking. You can easily turn a small kernel of truth into something completely fictional with just a bit of creativity.
But how far can that activity go? Some researchers argue that the Internet is not a good place for creating wide-spread conspiracy theories, because of the compartmentalized nature of social media networks. This is often called the “echo effect.” You are preaching to the choir- your friends already agree with you and other groups may reject your ideas. Cambridge University Professors John Naughton, Sir Richard Evans and David Runciman have examined conspiracy over decades and conclude that to a certain extent the Internet can help to debunk conspiracies, because often the truth and proof is just a few clicks away. We’ll get back to that in a moment.
Why do people believe conspiracy theories? Professor Viven Swami with Anglia Ruskin University in the U.K. said belief is tied to feeling disaffected and alienated. If you don’t believe in your government or institutions, you may be more likely to believe outsider information.
There are two basic definitions of paranoia. The first is specific to a psychological condition and focuses on delusions of persecution and an exaggerated sense of self-importance. But there is a wider definition which is closer to how we often use the word: suspicion or mistrust of people and their actions. If you use the wider definition, paranoia can be seen in more than just individuals; groups can be paranoid as well.
Paranoia would be a big issue in the wake of First Contact with an extraterrestrial civilization. People would be concerned about alien influence on human governments and potential alien domination of society through open actions or subterfuge. Religious groups could consider aliens to be a threat to their beliefs. There will be legitimate concerns in any First Contact situation and that will make it all the more confusing. Confusion will make it easier for conspiracy promoters to attract attention.
However, paranoia wouldn’t be limited to some crazy people whacking away diatribes on a computer in the basement.  Governments will be actively paranoid, as will the military and intelligence wings of those governments. First Contact would provide potential threats in many different areas. And it won’t just be concerns about aliens, but also about the actions of other governments. And group paranoia will likely go well beyond public institutions; big businesses could be paranoid. What if a competitor gets access to alien technology? Luckily, governmental institutions and corporations are quite used to being paranoid, so it is integrated into a framework that manages fear through process (the classic SWOT analysis). I know this as part of my day job as a public relations professional. It’s our job to be paranoid about the potential impact of negative news or public discourse about the organization we represent. We weed through a steady stream of potential problems, picking out the ones that could cause harm to the organization. The best way to manage institutional paranoia is to provide information. When an institution evaluates threat, all relevant information is considered. That information is found to be relevant if the source is trustworthy. Thus there are built in professional protections operating with institutional paranoia. That is not the case, sadly, in personal or extremist paranoia.
So, if institutions are paranoid in order to be effective in evaluating threats, why do individuals and small groups use paranoia? Hess points to self-esteem issues for the individuals. It’s nice to have people pay attention to you. Conspiracies are usually quite salacious and controversial in nature- so they tend to attract interest. That means people listen to you. But for small groups it can go beyond that feel good motive. Often groups use paranoia to advance ideas and ultimately get things done. The underlying motive is power. It could be a pro-life or pro-choice group trying to influence politics. Or perhaps a church attempting to gain followers. One would expect plenty of paranoia and conspiracy theories coming from individuals and small extremist groups after First Contact. And the veracity of their claims will be confusing- since the entire situation itself will be quite unusual.
There’s another version of paranoia and conspiracy theory on the Internet that has come to light in recent years. That is the use of individuals and small extremist groups to further a cause promoted by a large institution. The Russian government is suspected of using individuals and small groups to spread political conspiracy theories on the Internet during the 2016 presidential campaign. The motive was to influence the U.S. election. They are also accused of using the same techniques to impact the UK Brexit vote. And it’s not just Russia, countries all over the planet are accused of using similar tactics. These actions are proving to be quite troublesome in international relations. It seems likely they would be used After First Contact. An institution promoting misinformation through individuals and extremist groups is actively working to undermine a part of human society. That’s a frightening prospect now and would be even more so in a high stress environment created by First Contact.
Transparency is the best defense against paranoia, and misinformation feeding on paranoid concerns. The more information you put out there- the more you empower people on the Internet who will refute paranoid claims. That’s ultimately where the battleground occurs- in your personal Facebook group. You have probably witnessed one of your friends posting a surprising bit of information, only to have other friends debunk it as untrue. That’s the critical time- an immediate debunking before the surprising information can be believed and retransmitted. To do that, you must empower reasonable people with information. Transparency is providing as much correct information as you have. Even with transparency, and millions of people debunking conspiracy theories, some paranoid ideas will grow and require more forceful denunciation by the people in control of First Contact. It might help to have a daily repudiation list of sorts to respond to the concerns trending on social media. However it is done conspiracy management will need to be an organized process After First Contact and one that involves established groups of professionals. Whether it be the United Nations or the International Associate of Astronautics, the group in charge of the First Contact process had better monitor the Internet closely and have a process to respond quickly. Think of it as SNOPES for the post-alien world.


Monday, December 4, 2017

Extraterrestrial Contact: Why Not China for First Contact?


A recent Atlantic article describes why, technologically, China may be the first nation to discover extraterrestrial intelligence. A huge radio telescope, called FAST, has put China far ahead of other nations in the ability to search for far off signals that might have been created by an extraterrestrial civilization. How open would the Chinese be to sharing such a discovery? Would they try and manage communications with extraterrestrials on their own?

The Chinese are taking space exploration seriously. The construction of FAST, which stands for Five hundred meter Aperture Spherical Telescope, cost more than $184 million and included relocating more than 2,000 Chinese families near the construction project to create a “sound electromagnetic wave environment.” That’s a fancy way of saying that they are clearing out humans to prevent electronic interference to their listening project.  Just try doing that in the United States. And despite news reports focusing on uses of the radio telescope in the hunt for extraterrestrial intelligence, the main function of the technology is to examine pulsars, black holes and gas clouds.

However, Chinese astronomers are working closely with their counterparts in America and Australia in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, as part of the Breakthrough Listen international project. That means that technically they should follow the long-established First Contact protocol endorsed by the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA).

SETI organizations have advocated for the use of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) telegram system (which one assumes has evolved well beyond telegrams) in any signal discovery. It is used for communication between astronomers at various observatories. This would be critical in a detection, because that detection would need to be confirmed by several different observatories before the signal could be declared not of Earth origin and not a natural phenomenon. That means even a Chinese detection would need to involve scientists from other countries, and thus such a discovery would be tough for any one government to control. And that includes the United States.

But what if First Contact is not discovery based, but rather direct? What if the aliens reach out to contact humans? Such an event has no protocol. One could infer from the wording of the IAA-SETI protocol that such contact should be treated as any other scientific discovery. Perhaps scientists would do so. But if aliens come to our solar system to say hello, they wouldn’t necessarily contact human scientists. They could spend some time learning our languages; have a probe connect to our internet; and then simply email politicians or the news media a greeting. Granted, that type of contact would be complicated given how skeptically most humans would react. But there would be no reason to approach scientists first, unless you wanted to have them involved.

At the very beginning of this blog (ten years ago), I provided a Direct First Contact scenario that relies on the use of the American broadcast news media to reach all of humanity at once with messaging from extraterrestrials, avoiding control by any one nation. However, America is a complicated country right now, politically. Alien visitors may determine that China has a more stable form of government. Research studies have shown the Chinese to be generally positive about First Contact issues.

So, would it make more sense for aliens to send their greeting to Chinese researchers or perhaps the Chinese government directly? Clearly that depends on what the aliens are trying to accomplish. If they want to deal directly with the largest and most stable government on planet Earth, China would make a good choice. However, there would be a severe consequence- Russian and American leaders would be immediately suspicious. It would be hard to overcome that suspicion. The same would be true if an extraterrestrial civilization contacted the Russian or American governments first. Any First Contact between an extraterrestrial civilization and one nation is going to be viewed suspiciously by other nations. That reaction could be dangerous, setting up a potential global conflict. And it would be hard to overcome the suspicion, no matter how transparent the nation was in revealing First Contact. Conspiracy is a tough thing to disprove when a situation starts with secrecy.

An alien craft could land in China, in much the same scenario as the American one I describe on this blog. The Chinese news media have the technology needed to cover such an event and could quickly share it with the rest of the world via satellite. But would they? The Chinese media is closely controlled by the government. Even if a media outlet was to begin covering an extraterrestrial contact event, there is no guarantee that they would be allowed to continue broadcasting. The same could be said of Russia, where the media is also carefully managed. The United States government could try to stop coverage of the landing of an alien spacecraft, but it wouldn’t be easy. In the United States the distributed nature of the news media means that no one national outlet controls coverage. For example, the ABC TV network has many affiliates, but very few are directly controlled by the network itself. Most are independently owned by many different companies. There is no place on the planet that has the number of broadcast outlets with full service news operations as the United States. Cracking down on all of those regional broadcast news operations would be tough. And even then, the American Internet would be carrying the event via citizen journalists on social media. Such Internet coverage could be curtailed quickly in China. It could not be easily shut down in the United States. And if one social media platform was carrying First Contact, American competition would soon have every social media platform, and every traditional media outlet, fighting to cover First Contact.

China has become a leading force in science on planet Earth. The investment of billions of dollars in scientific research will make them a growing influence for many generations to come. It’s critical to consider China in any First Contact scenario. But the closely guarded nature of Chinese electronic discourse means the country is a poor candidate for Direct First Contact. If the goal of extraterrestrial representatives is to reach all of humanity at once, they would be advised to take a close look at human communications technology and find a way to bypass governments and scientists altogether.

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. Futurism.com 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.