Monday, September 20, 2010

Leveraging the Media for First Contact

The focus for this blog is Direct First Contact with an extraterrestrial civilization. It’s an unlikely event and one not taken very seriously in the scientific community. Still, I believe it is a topic worthy of discussion.

Most Direct First Contact scenarios involve aliens contacting a specific government, or a group of scientists. While this may be a perfectly reasonably place to start a new relationship, it comes with many problems. Contacting a specific government leaves all other human governments out in the cold. First Contact becomes a political event and subject to the turbulent forces of world politics. If aliens contact the United States there is an immediate schism created with the Islamic world. If Russia is contacted suddenly Americans are worried. Contacting a specific government is prone to all sorts of issues.

Scientists work for specific institutions and those institutions are connected to governments in many ways, including the most basic of all: funding. I would venture to say that there are very few research institutions in the United States that are not up to their elbows in federal funding. What does this mean for First Contact? Certainly researchers could use academic freedom to try and keep contact with an extraterrestrial civilization out of the hands of the government. It is unlikely they would succeed. Institutions are run by administrators and administrators are extremely protective of their relationships with their funding bodies. Perhaps more importantly many research institutions are directly tied to government agencies, such as NASA, in research itself. And finally research institutions need each other to verify and confirm findings. They work closely together and that means that word of extraterrestrial contact would travel quickly and involve government agencies quickly.

This raises the question: are governments or scientific bodies needed to make Direct First Contact? They will certainly be extremely important in the days following First Contact. Are they needed to the initial introduction?

There is another way for an extraterrestrial civilization to say hello: use the news media. Technology has allowed journalism to move into a new realm of information sharing. No longer does a newspaper publish a story in a vacuum. They have web sites and sharing partners and all sorts of digital means for the story to get out instantaneously. The same is true of television. Most television stations in the world are connected to networks. They share live video feeds 24 hours a day. The global news marketplace would allow a satellite transmission from a farm field in Iowa to be seen live in Sydney, Australia with only a few minutes of set up time. The deciding factor is not the technology, but rather the interest level. Do the folks in Sydney care about what is being shown in that live video feed from Iowa?

The other advantage to using the news media is the competitive nature of the beast. News operations have one primary directive: get the big story and get it first. Because of this nature the news media becomes incredibly predictable. A huge news event, with live pictures, can be guaranteed of spreading across the global media world in a matter of hours, if not minutes. It’s simply a matter of retransmitting that live feed through network satellite connections that are an ingrained part of the global news sharing networks. All of the American networks have partners in other countries. Those partners feed video of their news stories and the American networks feed them what they have collected. Competition, especially for an extremely visual event, would drive this system. It’s not a matter of if it would happen; it is only a matter of the degree of reach. How big a story it is and how many global news networks pick it up will decide the reach. The juicier the story - the bigger the reach.

An extraterrestrial civilization could say hello to the entire human race at the same time and with the same message. The key is having some sort of a visual event to attract news media attention and then finding a way to communicate.

The advantages are clear: you avoid government controls; you curtail immediate political entanglements (plenty more would likely follow, but it would be a start); you conduct the introduction with complete transparency (this is the only way to help alleviate all of the natural suspicion an alien hello would create); you make the introduction quickly (this helps to prevent the other problems from developing).

The media is ready and waiting to perform. The only question is the form of communication and the message itself.

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