Monday, May 17, 2010

Who Makes the Decisions?

The debate over extraterrestrial First Contact always comes back to the same issue: who’s in charge here? You can be arguing about sending messages into space (active SETI) or the protocol for announcing the discovery of an extraterrestrial communication. It all comes back to control. The SETI institute and the International Astronomical Union have a set of guidelines for discovery, confirmation and publication, which makes sense from a scientific standpoint. However, those protocols tend to fall apart when it comes to top level decisions. Does the United States government play a larger role than the United Nations? If the United Nations is the governing agency who exactly is charged with that mission? Is it the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs?

Mike Treder gets to the heart of the problem in a recent entry for the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies blog:

How do we choose who makes decisions that affect the entire human race and potentially all life on Earth?

In the case of Active SETI, it might not matter what choice is made, but in deciding who gets to choose, we could be setting precedents that will have very definite impacts in other areas.

For example, how do we decide who gets to choose whether major geoengineering projects are initiated? Or whether genetic modification of the human germline is widely practiced? How do we decide who gets to choose whether the Internet is free or restricted? Or whether global federalism is attempted?

How do we decide who gets to make those choices on behalf of all of us? That global federalism link points to a wiki that describes the need well:

Transnational governance is an implementation of world federalism. It is world government of where a single political body would make, interpret and enforce international law. Transnational governance is important to technoprogressive policy, both as a social policy and as a way to mitigate globally catastrophic risks and existential risks.

The lack of a representative and strong transnational government makes us extremely vulnerable in a number of ways and certainly when it comes to First Contact. SETI based First Contact would likely cause an uproar in the political world and suddenly we’ll have to make some decisions. A Direct First Contact event would leave no time for discussion and depending on the intentions of the visitors could be extremely dangerous.

Treder suggests just a few of the myriad of issues that impact every human. The United Nations is not currently up to the task of responding. The body is simply too weak and not representative. The General Assembly includes most nations, but those representatives are not chosen by the people, they’re chosen by governments and often in a very political arena. However, it is the only body that comes close to what would be needed After First Contact and you have to start somewhere.

It is time for us to consider the planet as one and decide our future. A world of many conflicted nations is weak and vulnerable. And it won’t take hostile extraterrestrial visitors to throw the entire global political system into chaos. Even the most benign of visits would expose our weakness.

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