Monday, October 25, 2010


First Contact with an extraterrestrial civilization could occur in one of three basic scenarios. These have been explored by several writers in recent years. Each scenario presents a level of impact on human society:

1. SETI interception of a stray signal. This is the lowest impact scenario. It would provide a scientific puzzle and certainly be a major event for humanity. However, it would have very little impact on the day to day lives of humans.

2. SETI reception of a signal intended for us. This scenario steps up the drama. A signal intended for humanity would be the start of a new relationship. Given the time needed for such messages to travel interstellar distances, it would likely take many years for our response to reach an extraterrestrial civilization and many more years for us to receive a reply. The true impact would come in the content of such a message. Does it reveal new information about the universe?

3. Direct First Contact. This is the scenario I explore in this blog. It is the most unlikely of these three scenarios; however it comes with a huge impact to human society. Direct First Contact brings with it a wide range of immediate concerns: safety, diplomacy and information sharing. The impact could be felt in the sciences, the global economy and the world political stage.

The nature of the impact of Direct First Contact and how it could play out in real time fascinates me. I think the only way to speculate about the reaction of humans to Direct First Contact is to look at dramatic world events in recent history and see the underlying nature of the human response.

I think there could be a period of time After Direct First Contact when people are simply stunned. It may only last a few days or weeks. People will be trying to process a huge shift in thinking. In time, though, that surprise will wear off and old beliefs and concerns will begin to resurface to face the new reality.

I’ll compare it to the election of President Obama. At first, there was a period where the political right became very quiet and almost seemed to disappear into the background. Eventually, though, these folks found ways to cope with the new reality and began an active and energized campaign against the President and his policies. I don’t want to take political sides here; I think Democrats and Republicans could agree on this assessment of the situation.

The next example is 9-11. Needless to say most people were stunned in the hours that followed the attacks. The first few days after the terrorist attack were devoted to the very real threat and response. For a time political agendas were put on hold in the United States. World reaction was interesting. Many people around the globe expressed sympathy and understanding. And some of course viewed the developments as a victory against the United States. Still, the world was changed for a period of time. Old lines of differences were broken down and it took many weeks for them to be built back again. However, when those differences did re-emerge, it happened in a new reality.

This period of a stunned public and then the recovery reaction, when the old ways of doing things re-emerge in new ways, will be important in the aftermath of a Direct First Contact event. The entire world will be watching and for a while traditional lines of difference will be blurred. This will provide an opportunity to bring humans closer together and if it is done properly, lay the groundwork for long term change. In both of the previous cases I have mentioned there was no groundwork laid during the recovery reaction. No clear agenda was set. In the case of 9-11 we were understandably just worried about domestic security. It is the example of the Obama win that is troubling. What happens if we simply ignore the recovery reaction, as the Democrats did in 2008?

First Contact that ignores these possibilities will play into the hands of extremists. Without a strong message and theme, fringe reactions will become the news and will gain support. There is of course a fine line between providing a positive united message for humanity and attempting to use First Contact to support a larger political agenda. If the message is simple and devoid of political entanglements and political ideologies it could become an important marker on the path forward for humanity.

The message?

We are one people, joined together on this planet, and now facing a much larger universe. This new reality means that we must come together as never before, and forge a new alignment for the future. This change must involve all of humanity, regardless of country, class, geography or culture. We will need to be stronger in will and more creative in collaboration. There will be great challenges and many new opportunities. We are the generation that will lead the human race forward. We can welcome this new civilization and this new reality, united as one planet and one people. We have a clear purpose: make planet Earth a better world for future generations. Only then can we take our place as responsible and valuable citizens of the universe.

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