Monday, January 24, 2011

The Human Reaction to First Contact

What is the fate of humanity in the wake of First Contact? Will we descend into chaos with crashing religions and collapsing truths? It is a subject never fully rendered by the popular arts. Hollywood is too obsessed with instant gratification and special effects to take up the matter. Science fiction authors are, for the most part, perhaps too starry eyed and reaching to examine the gritty reality of life on Earth After First Contact.

Social scientists have touched on the subject and a recent paper for the Royal Society is the latest discourse by Dr. Albert Harrison, with the University of California, Davis, Department of Psychology. It is provocatively titled “Fear, pandemonium, equanimity and delight: human responses to extra-terrestrial life.”

One of Harrison’s central statements: “The discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) may be far less startling for generations that have been brought up with word processors, electronic calculators, avatars and cell phones…” His point is that human technological development may better prepare us to handle the revelation of ETI. He further states that in North America and Europe an announcement of the discovery of ETI is not likely to lead to widespread psychological disintegration and social collapse. Fair enough. As Harrison points out, the type of ETI discovery would determine the human response here on Earth.

The newest work in this paper seems to be an overview of surveys done in regards to human perceptions of ETI issues. He tracks Gallup Poll results between 1966 and 1987 to show that belief in ETI has increased from 34-50 percent in that time. A Roper Poll, conducted for the National Institute of Discovery Science showed that 25 percent of respondents said the discovery of ETI would make no difference to their day to day lifestyle. 42 percent expected to be slightly affected, 11 percent moderately affected, and three percent severely affected.

These surveys indicate that the public would be relatively calm in handling news of First Contact and hopefully this would be the case. However, I do think these sorts of questions may obscure the larger issue. In a dramatic Direct First Contact event, with an extraterrestrial civilization coming to Earth to say hello, many areas of human civilization could be impacted, including: economy, politics, and science. The affects of these challenges could be widespread and have a significant impact on many humans over the long term.

One would expect, After First Contact, the historically human acts of political clawing for control, the corporate grab for new opportunity, and the battle for social reordering as hegemonic forces collide with new truths. The wheelers and dealers in human society will struggle for identity and control in the wake of First Contact. Each of them will seek to reinvent him or herself in the light of the revelation. Primarily though, the same self-interest and personal protectionism will be the order of the day. And this should not surprise us at all. It has been the most predictable reaction throughout the course of human history. I suspect the biggest problem may be that this process occurs on steroids After First Contact. If a failing economy is enough to drive many segments of the world into acrimony and distrust, as has happened in recent years, what is likely to happen After First Contact?

In the wake of First Contact we will do what we always do: we will search for advantage in the new era. This is what I think we should expect not some great catastrophe for our civilization, but rather the same, brutal set of human reactions we have seen each and every year of human existence, just in a new context.

If this seems excessively negative, I can point to the positive. There will also be the joyous, creative celebration of new idea, unimaginable promise and awe at the unfolding wonder of it all. After First Contact will support the human spirit in ways we cannot imagine. This isn’t to say that we should rhapsodize and worship the new visitors. Not at all. We will need to apply critical thinking and a hard-nosed, practical approach to our relationship with any extraterrestrial civilization. But no matter who they are (barring of course, outright aggression) this will be an exciting time for humanity and for human development and thought.

Unfortunately, it will all be wrapped up into one confusing mess, just like every other day here on planet Earth. I suspect the one thing we can expect is that we will be every bit human in our reaction to a wider universe.


kenneth said...

Unless they comunicate their intentions in some way we will try to shoot them down. I think we will have fear like no other thing that has happened on earth. They may very well be who we are waiting for in the bible but not believe it. I think we may be hundreds if not thousands of years before they make themselves known to the world but I think they are watching us.

Eric said...

kenneth: I think military action is certainly a possibility in a Direct First Contact event, but I think if the event is planned and executed properly the fear can be quickly dissipated and military action turned from aggressive to watchful. Leveraging the news media is the key in my scenario. Quite frankly, the news media could move quicker than the military if the event is well planned (military response..fighter planes in the air is one thing, the order to attack is quite another.) Once the media is covering the event the threat of military action will diminish. Thanks for reading the blog!