Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Protecting who we are

I called this blog First Contact for a reason. It's the term most used to describe alien contact with Earth. It's also the term used to describe native interaction with European explorers. When Captain Cook first landed in New Zealand he found a culture that could barely understand the concept of a masted sailing ship, let alone the idea of other cultures from thousands of miles away. The danger for native cultures is that the impact of the new civilization can be an explosion of sorts that jeopardizes native ways. The Maori in New Zealand found themselves swept up by British culture and quite literally swept away. In the last 20 years the resentment of the last 200 years is finally coming out. Tony Horwitz does a good job of describing this in his book "Blue Latitudes" in which he goes back to the sites of the original Cook voyages to examine culture today. The danger is two fold. It can occur when natives seek out technology and advances that the new cultures bring. It can also occur if the explorers are demanding and exploitive, which occurred in most European colony situations.

So, what lessons can we learn from our past, about the impact of first contact with an alien culture? It seems evident that steps must be taken to avoid a technology explosion. In order to reach Earth any alien civilization would have to be much more technologically advanced. If there is an open and immediate sharing of science we could find ourselves suffering from paradigm collapse in a number of fields. It seems imperative that a strict filtering system be set up immediately that could determine how information about technology will flow. There will be a massive grasping for new information on the part of scientists world wide. Someone needs to control what we receive and how we receive it. This will go against all normal precepts of open research and peer review. However, it must be established to prevent paradigm collapse. One idea could be a United Nations organized panel of scientific organizations. Most fields have well established organizations that represent scientists world-wide. It only makes sense to use these organizations to help establish a body to determine information flow. Since it will be different for all fields organizations would be the best method for determining impact to specific fields. These review panels should be established within the framework of already established protocols in each field and ultimately respect and uphold the scientific principles that have developed over the years.

The other issue is culture. As our entire view of the universe changes our perceptions of who we are and what is important to us will change as well. It's critical that there be a self-examination process to determine what we want to keep in our culture and what we want to pick up from new civilizations. This will not be a simple process. We are so used to protecting national, regional and local identity that the concept of human race identity may be hard to grasp at first. In the first weeks and months of first contact information must be limited to allow for an organic growth rather than a culture explosion. In the race to help determine our new human identity we must also be careful to make sure fragile cultures around the world are not swept away in the change. The Maori have a right to their culture no matter what the rest of the world, or universe is considering.

At first this will be criticized as censorship. The entire planet will be clamoring for more information. Thus the process and the need for the process must be discussed in the very initial stages of first contact. It also must be supported and understood by the governmental and scientific organizations that will ultimately need to nurture a careful information transfer.

For years we have seen the dangers of alien contact portrayed as invasions and enslavement. The threat to our culture and science is much more likely. And because it could come in the guise of open and caring dialogue between the Earth and alien civilizations it is actually much more dangerous.

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