First Contact with an extraterrestrial civilization would have an impact on human society. How much of an impact could be decided by the amount of change that occurs. That change would seem to be decided by how much information we receive. SETI detection of an alien message would be a relatively low impact discovery. While staggeringly important, if the message has little discernable information the immediate impact to our world would be low. Direct First Contact, though, brings with it the possibility of conversation, and that conversation would likely bring forth startling new information about the universe around us. This would be a high impact discovery.
Storytellers tend to portray the cause of alien impact on the direct actions of extraterrestrial visitors. Either the aliens are trying to take over the planet or they seek to convince us that we are going down an environmental or nuclear road to ruin. In reality, it could be the information the extraterrestrials provide us, and not their actions, that would have the most extreme consequence.
If an extraterrestrial civilization did have a conversation with us, what would they share? Our first questions would likely be about them: where they come from, how their culture is organized and their biological nature. Soon, though, the conversation would turn to the rest of the universe. Are there any other civilizations out there? How did they cross the vast distance of space? You would assume we would share our scientific principles, in hopes that they would share as well. What new things will we learn about science?
The answers would have a profound impact on the human race. I think it could be the end of an age of innocence. Being alone in the universe has distinct advantages: what you know is what you know; you don’t have to worry about what other beings know and if your planet is relatively ignorant in comparison. Currently our only threat is from ourselves, or from natural occurrences in our solar system. The revelation of any extraterrestrial civilization changes this immediately. Extraterrestrials would likely have a different way of viewing science and perhaps a startling difference. What if we learn that our perception of reality is limited? Are we prepared to question the very foundation of our way of thought?
The end of innocence is inevitable in the human family. There is a point when kids realize that their parents are not all powerful and the world can be a dangerous place. For some children this happens at all too early an age. After First Contact humans will have to come to a new understanding of the universe around them and face the challenges that come with that knowledge. We might view the days Before First Contact as a protracted childhood. Let’s just hope that we can enter into the adolescence of the human race with dignity and grace.