I was listening to an NPR report this morning about the pharmaceutical industry battling with the FDA over the promotion of drugs. I had a feeling that I’m sure is familiar to nearly everyone: who can you trust these days? It’s certainly not a new issue. I would guess that the lack of trust has been part of human society since we first gathered together in small tribes. Self-interest is an underlying part of the human condition and that means the person next to you may or may not operate in a way that is in your best interest.
How does this tie in to First Contact with an extraterrestrial civilization? Trust is likely to be a huge issue. We’ll wonder if we can trust extraterrestrial visitors to be honest and open with us. We’ll form opinions about how much we can trust our own government in First Contact. We’ll question corporate responses to First Contact. The importance of trust in human society seems to grow in proportion to the risk that a situation creates and the uncertainty in the outcome of the situation. Certainly First Contact with an extraterrestrial civilization has a high degree of risk and uncertainty.
How does trust factor into our responses in First Contact? On one end of the spectrum of response we find high trust, which could lead to extreme openness with aliens. An example is welcoming them to Earth without any restriction or control. Aliens are allowed to land wherever they please and interact with humans in any way they want. The other end of the spectrum is low trust, with a possible response being termination of First Contact; basically turning our backs, locking the door and insisting that they go away. Neither one of these responses is likely, but our response as a society will fall somewhere within that spectrum.
Wikipedia brings up an interesting solution. Mistrust is the fear of hidden agendas. Distrust is something else entirely, at least from a civic standpoint. Here is how Wikipedia makes the distinction:
Distrust is a formal way of not trusting any one party too much in a situation of grave risk or deep doubt. It is commonly expressed in civics as a division or balance of powers, or in politics as means of validating treaty terms. Systems based on distrust simply divide the responsibility so that checks and balances can operate. The phrase "trust but verify" refers specifically to distrust.
Distrust should not be confused with mistrust, which is believing that a particular party has a hidden agenda. When such is the case, however, distrust plays a role in minimizing the power of specific individuals with roles in "the system." For instance providing the benefit of the doubt to someone accused of a crime.
First Contact would appear to have elements of grave risk and deep doubt. Distrust may be a way we can forge a new relationship and move forward. Distrust means that both parties need to be vigilant and independently verify claims. That level of caution will be extremely important for humans in a First Contact situation. We will have no knowledge of our new neighbors or their history. We will have no way of really knowing why they have contacted us and what they hope to gain in the relationship. We will only have what they tell us.
A formal distrust and diplomacy could be a way of handling these concerns. If we establish a system of understanding between humans and the extraterrestrial visitors, the relationship can continue in a structured fashion. We can raise issues in a structured way and have a formal way of resolving our differences.
So, does this mean we basically lawyer up at the inception of First Contact? Well, yes and no. We need to have a positive introduction and start the relationship on the basis of friendship and mutual understanding. However we also need to work quickly in diplomatic ways to establish the parameters of our new relationship. This needs to happen behind the scenes.
We can’t wander blindly into the larger universe. We need to protect ourselves and our civilization. Finding the balance between a warm welcome and extreme caution will be challenging. Governmental leaders will need to join with the United Nations in a swift and thoughtful response. Protocols will have to be established and new diplomacy inaugurated. This may appear to some as bureaucratic paper shuffling. In reality these actions will be the foundation of a new relationship.
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