Monday, January 10, 2011

Losing Our Humanity

The French have been grappling with ways to maintain their essential French-ness in a rapidly homogenizing world. In 1994, they passed the Toubon Law, designed to protect the French language from an onslaught of English. This has become an issue particularly in the French business world,where English is often used as the informal language of commerce. The French Coalition for Cultural Diversity takes it a step further, seeking to create protections in many cultural areas.

Are the French simply afraid of change? Or do they have a real concern?
The rise of the global economy, coupled with advances in communication technology, means that the world is becoming, in a sense, smaller or at least not as geographically confined. Americans can listen to African music or Russian poetry with a couple of keystrokes on the computer. Australians can read Finnish literature or watch Brazilian TV broadcasts. This cross-cultural influence will naturally create concerns about cultural identity. The world could become a great melting pot and some worry that will mean the death of individual cultures. One could argue that the American melting pot still retains plenty of distinct cultural differences. However, that cultural complexity comes in large part from recent immigrant communities. One only need look for signs of the Irish identity in many Southern cities to realize that cultural assimilation, and the formation of a new culture, occurs rather quickly.

So, the big question is: what happens after First Contact with an extraterrestrial civilization? Suddenly, human culture would be the least interesting thing to consider. All attention will be focused on the culture of an extraterrestrial civilization. It would seem possible that many academic fields will change radically After First Contact. What will happen to the social sciences? Will they be lost in the rush to study an extraterrestrial civilization? What impact will those extraterrestrial cultures have on human religion and philosophy?

This is the essential long term dilemma of First Contact. What will happen to our human culture in the wake of meeting an extraterrestrial culture? It is a scenario that has been analyzed in many human interactions through history, essentially the original concept of first contact. Let’s take Tahiti as an example. The island is thought to have been first visited by Europeans in 1767. English and French visitors wrote about the “noble savage” and the “Earthly paradise” in the Polynesian culture. Trade and interaction between the two civilizations soon took its toll. Guns, prostitution, venereal disease and alcohol decimated the Polynesian people and eroded Polynesian society. Disease proved to be too much for the native population to bear. By 1797 the natives shrunk to just four percent of the original pre-contact population.

We can hope that the problem of disease transmission between humans and extraterrestrials would be well managed, as it will be foremost in the minds of scientists in the immediate days following First Contact. It is the cultural erosion that will probably be less well-considered. The Tahitians of today are basically French with a Polynesian cultural undercurrent. Despite efforts to revive and maintain Polynesian ways, it is primarily a French society.

The biggest danger would seem to come with the generations born After First Contact. They will be a new breed of human: individuals with no recollection of a time when humans were the center of the universe. They are likely to focus their attention on the wider universe and the many things to explore within that context. In the wake of First Contact, the study of human culture will likely decline in academia. We may even see entire fields in the social sciences disappear.

Will we need to learn a lesson from the French and set about to protect our human culture? I have written about the New Isolationists, those people likely to oppose extraterrestrial interaction After First Contact. These people may have an important role: reminding us of the dangers we face in cultural assimilation. We will need to listen to many voices in the conversation that occurs After First Contact. If not, we may find ourselves in years to come lamenting a human civilization lost to the wider universe.

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