Monday, March 21, 2011

The After First Contact To-Do List

For the sake of argument let’s set up a First Contact scenario. It goes like this: Through one method or another we are contacted by, or perhaps manage to contact ourselves, an extraterrestrial civilization. We have a conversation that occurs without a great lapse of time in between comments (and I know this is unlikely given our current understanding of physics, unless they are in the neighborhood). The extraterrestrial civilization is willing to share what it has learned about science, life and the universe. They are advanced enough, and different enough, for us to acquire some revolutionary new ideas and perspectives.

How might such a thing change who we are as human beings?

What might we have to do as individuals to handle the challenges that such a relationship would create?

How we could change as human beings is a tough one to consider, primarily because we are dealing entirely in speculation. If we don’t know what types of things we might learn, or what would happen in this new relationship, how could we possibly consider how that information, or the situation, might change us?

The actions we would need to take in responding to the situation are a bit more specific. We have no idea what we might learn from an extraterrestrial civilization, but we can imagine what types of choices and decisions we would have to make After First Contact. Here are a few:

-We would need to allow for world representation on a scale not experienced thus far. A relationship with an extraterrestrial civilization requires that we hold the resulting conversation as one planet. Think about what that really means: We would have to be joined together with one voice, something that has never occurred in human history. Okay, so you point to the United Nations. Does the United Nations currently represent the entire planet, or is it rather a meeting place for discussions involving many countries on the planet? The United Nations is a body of nations. It is not a singular voice or the sole representation for the planet. In a First Contact event the United Nations would have to act as the primary representation for planet Earth. Humans would need to view the United Nations in an entirely new light. There would likely be many people not happy with such a situation. The resulting unrest could be significant.

-We would be forced to confront our religious beliefs and find a new perspective for old faiths. Recent surveys have shown that a majority of people are comfortable with incorporating the concept of extraterrestrials into their religion. However, like all things speculative, what people say now in a pure environment of thought, could be quite different from the reaction to something real and present. It would seem likely that there would be many people, especially those with strong or extremist religious views, who would not accept the concept of extraterrestrial life so easily, let alone approve of a human relationship with an extraterrestrial civilization.

-We would have to learn many new things. Information shared with us, of any sort, would have a dramatic impact on specific fields and the many subsets throughout human civilization that operate in those arenas. Let’s take physics as an example. We would assume that academics and researchers would have quite a bit of work to do in processing any alien knowledge in regards to physics. But what about the multitude of private companies that are science based? Revelations in physics would create a tidal wave of impact, first through the sciences, then into private industry and further out into the rest of society. Perhaps the impact, much like a wave, would not be as great for those further out from the primary field of academic and research physics, but it would be profound enough to change how millions of people do their jobs. Learning would take on a much greater importance. Those who could not keep up with the change would be left behind professionally. Professors would not be able to rely on well-worn lectures. Researchers in private industry would search for ways the new alien information could be exploited. On the flip side, those same companies would also be extremely worried about what the competition might be doing with that information. This could create a volatile environment for higher education, research and private industry.

-We would need to overcome fear. This could be the big one. We have worked ourselves into a near-frenzy of mass market movie fiction about aliens marauding across the planet or secretly manipulating us behind the scenes. The number of movies and TV shows with such plots is growing. We have told ourselves too many scary stories. There will be fear inherent in any First Contact scenario. The level of fear would probably depend on the amount of interaction we have with extraterrestrials, and of course the physical ability, if any, that they would have to actually travel to Earth. Direct First Contact, an extraterrestrial civilization arriving in person or via mechanical emissaries, would create the greatest fear, because it would have the greatest risk.

-We would need to learn how to maintain a balance between our old world and the dramatic new universe. Most things on Earth would not change after First Contact of any type, even the most dramatic. We would still need to go to work, feed the family, participate in human social occasions and even mow the lawn. The basic elements of our lives would stay the same. On the other hand, for some people their entire profession, or religious faith, or world perspective, could undergo dramatic change. Keeping a balance between the old world and the new world could be a major challenge. Once again, the level of impact would depend on the type of First Contact. The higher the degree of interaction, and the more information shared, the higher the possibility of significant disruption in the lives of humans. The order that we keep each day, by going to work and cooking dinner for the family, is how society maintains itself. The commonplace is the bedrock of humanity, allowing us to function as a civilization. It will be important for people to maintain the commonplace while dealing with the extraordinary.

Are we up to the task? I think humans are incredibly resilient and manage to respond well to challenges. If we can survive World War Two, the nuclear arms race and ravaging global diseases, it seems likely we could survive, and perhaps thrive, After First Contact. The key will be human leadership. Are our leaders up to the task?

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