Sunday, May 10, 2009

What we want from First Contact

It’s interesting to read the various web sites and blogs devoted to issues of First Contact. It runs the gamut of those, at one end of the spectrum, who tell us about the conversations they are currently having with extraterrestrials, and for that matter ghosts, to those at the other end of the spectrum who believe First Contact will occur in some distant context picked up by radio telescope.

The scientists who consider First Contact are probably right: it will most likely occur when we pick up some far off signal from another civilization. While this will be a dramatic development in the history of the human race, it will be tempered by how much information we glean from such transmissions. The other possibility is direct First Contact, the scenario I explore in this blog. Direct First Contact has a wider set of immediate implications, including safety. It would require a much more challenging response. We would have to consider our new role in the universe and this would probably require a complete makeover of our system of government. The need to speak and act as one planet would be immediate. In the radio contact scenario we would have more time to consider implications and develop a response. The one type of First Contact is like a small wave hitting our beach, not much of a threat and certainly no immediate need to change our civilization. Direct First Contact would be more of a tsunami, threatening everything and capable of washing us away in a deluge of new information and knowledge.

So, what exactly do we hope for from a relationship with an extraterrestrial civilization? In the media the aliens tend to fall into two camps: buddies and bad guys. The buddies will usher us serenely into a new era. They are smarter, calmer, and distinctly parent-like in their attitude towards us humans. The bad guys just blow up the White House or try to gobble us up in massive machines that crash through our cities.

Not exactly an easy set of portrayals for extraterrestrials to deal with. On the one hand we want beings that will solve all of our problems and on the other hand we are frightened that they will take over our planet and make us their pets. There is a middle ground to all of this: the extraterrestrials may have good intentions, but come with plenty of baggage: perhaps the knowledge that the wider universe is made up of a web of civilizations with complex political issues and the same violent disputes that we have experienced here on Earth. Even if the universe proves to be a placid place there is the unrest and massive change that will occur here on Earth, just with the introduction of an extraterrestrial civilization and the knowledge that they might bring. We could go through years of tumult from such an introduction as our systems of government, religion and science are changed overnight.

Does that mean we should stick our heads in the sand and hope that they never appear? Change is always a challenge and the history of human civilization is based in change. We are an extremely resilient race. We have bounced back from catastrophic wars, devastating natural disasters and plagues of all sorts. If people can survive nuclear blasts, the holocaust, carpet bombing, and AIDS we should be able to survive First Contact and the days after. The real issue is what we make of the challenge. Does it bring us together and help us move forward as one civilization? Or does it pry us apart so that we splinter into factions?

We won’t know until we get there. Until then, let me speak for myself when I say: I think we are ready. I think we can rise to the challenge and greet the wider universe as a proud and strong people. I think we can take the new knowledge that would come from First Contact and reinvent ourselves in a larger, bolder way.

First Contact Extraterrestrial Alien Proposal Idea Hello Introduction Space Visitors

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