Monday, May 31, 2010

The Value of Explosive First Contact

Timing would play an important role in First Contact with an extraterrestrial civilization. A SETI based message from light years away would give plenty of time to react to the discovery and prepare a response. A Direct First Contact event would give us minutes or hours to react. Last week I looked at the pros and cons of two types of Direct First Contact: Explosive and Structural. Both of these scenarios assume that aliens are close enough to the Earth to be able to visit quickly, and of course possessing the necessary technology to do so. I have said this many times, I don’t necessarily think this is the case; it’s simply the premise of this blog.

From the alien perspective I noted that the method of Direct First Contact would depend on their needs and worries. Are they concerned about the human political ramifications of First Contact? Do they worry that bureaucracy could channel notice of First Contact to a particular government and thus be subjected to control by that government? If so, Explosive First Contact makes the most sense. If the primary concern of the extraterrestrial visitors is to elicit a calm reaction from governments then the structural approach might be best.

It comes down to a basic choice: would governments help establish a positive First Contact relationship between humans and extraterrestrials? Or would governments hinder that process?

If the extraterrestrials have had time to examine human civilization they would probably come to the conclusion that while technology is pulling the planet closer together, humans still have a conflicted and sometimes dangerously volatile global political environment. It comes down to the bigger danger- the one created by allowing bureaucracy to work or the danger that comes from the lack of government control. Those dangers could be expressed as short term and long term. There is short term danger in an Explosive First Contact event. Public unrest and hostile military reaction are just two examples. There is long term danger in the Structural First Contact event. Dominance by one government could cause First Contact to become politicized. This could harm the budding relationship and foster major political problems for years to come.

I would choose Explosive First Contact. The risks of the first few days can be mitigated with careful planning and strategy. The dangers of a Structural First Contact approach could multiply and spin out of control over time, even with the best planning. The short term risks of an Explosive First Contact event can be managed. The long term risks of a Structural First Contact event cannot be controlled. They would be subject to political forces beyond the management of anyone or any group.

What would be the best for humans? I suppose it comes back to the same set of issues. What do we trust the most- how we react in periods of intense threat? Or how we react under the long term stresses of world politics? Let’s take terrorism as an example. How did the world respond in the wake of 9-11? For the most part there was a controlled, thoughtful reaction to a horrific event. There was no further loss of life and for a period of time the tragedy seemed to bring people closer together and fostered good will. What followed in the years after 9-11 was a long term war on terrorism. It has been fraught with political and religious implications. Some nine years later we are embroiled in two destructive wars and terrorist strikes continue across the globe. Which did we handle better- the short term reaction or the long term reaction? I know it seems farfetched to compare the concrete reality of terrorism to the speculation of First Contact. History provides the best examples for helping us speculate about what our future might hold.

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