Monday, March 7, 2011

The Dichotomy of Information After First Contact

The future of humanity could be exemplified by the ability of a Chinese teenager to watch a video by the Korean pop musician Super Junior. Why Super Junior? I had never even heard of the fellow until I started to Google music banned in China. The Chinese government has a tradition of using firewalls to block access to banned websites and reportedly employs thousands to police websites in the country. Apparently, they have issues with Super Junior. Music, web sites and specifically any protest oriented material is routinely blocked in China. It’s a battle being waged across the globe. Egypt shut down the Internet for several days in an attempt to quash the protest movement. Clearly, the Egyptian situation was a victory for freedom of information. The situation in China will be a major issue in years to come.

In the United States it’s another form of control. Corporations would like to decide how we use the Internet, primarily to determine how we receive advertising, as those channels become increasingly more “interactive”, which in reality means that they want to target advertising without you knowing it. The near future will bring ads to your television determined and targeted especially for you based on that last Internet search. I’m not sure how they will keep the search terms “Britney Spears Nude” from influencing the ads shown in a Disney show now being watch by the kids, but dads everywhere should be very afraid. I know, this is nothing new; Internet freedom activists have been bemoaning attempts to control the web for years. And you know what? They’re right. The future of humanity, both in technological and social aspects, depends on free access to information and the freedom to share ideas.

It’s not a simple debate of democracy versus totalitarian rule. This goes beyond the political labels and goes straight to the heart of human development. We need ideas and we need to be able to share those ideas with others. We live in a technological era where much of the collective knowledge of the planet can be accessed by a $100 device in your pocket. The imperatives of that technology say that information should flow freely and new ideas should be allowed to blossom. Then, instead of some authority figure determining whether an idea is worthwhile, the entire planet can chime in.

Transparency is what happens when information flows freely. Transparency is a level of honesty that seldom occurs between a government and its people. It says that the actions of that government can be viewed and dissected by the general public. It goes well beyond the old fourth estate and far beyond any level of honesty we experience here in the United States. I have concerns about the personal motives of Julian Assange, but I can appreciate what Wikileaks supporters are saying. Secrecy inevitably gives someone power over a particular situation and that power breeds corruption. It only serves to help prop up a government or institution, it does very little to help people.

What does this have to do with alien First Contact? Unfortunately, it’s the centerpiece of a debate that I imagine would rage After First Contact. I have advocated for some time now for having a carefully controlled flow of information and an established framework for disseminating alien knowledge After First Contact, if ,of course, the aliens are willing to share. That means setting up a system of filters and controls. Groups of people, probably best led by the scientific bodies that represent scientific fields, would have to decide what information is to be released and how it is released. The goal is to prevent a meltdown of the human system of science. A tidal wave of new information could have a profound impact on many scientific fields and spoon fed knowledge, coming from an alien source, could do real damage to the human research and scientific process. The business world could also be turned on its ear. Dramatic technological revolutions could cause major shifts in the economy. All of this would probably occur After First Contact, with or without tight control of information. The filters and framework would only serve to lessen the severity of the impact and slow the speed of change.

Why can’t we know everything there is to know about the extraterrestrials? Why can’t they just lay out their scientific knowledge and let us decide what to do from there?  Why should certain people control the information that comes as a result of First Contact? Those will be among the arguments made by many people After First Contact, and probably most notably freedom of information advocates. And you know what? Those protesters will have valid concerns, and so will the people in charge of regulating that flow of information. Information does demand to be free and technology makes that a strong imperative. However, the protection of our human society requires us to prepare for that new alien information, building a framework for dispersal that protects our scientific and cultural institutions from washing away in a deluge of new ideas. After First Contact, if it is a highly interactive First Contact, this will be the dichotomy that will test human civilization.

I don’t see many easy answers. Perhaps, the only simple way out is to take matters out of our hands. We could hope that visiting extraterrestrials would be just as concerned. The information would be ultimately controlled by them- to give to us or to keep to themselves. They could control the flow and they could decide what content should be included. This seems like a rather paternal role to wish on visitors, but it may be the best way possible. Humans must fight for transparency and freedom of information. They must also be very worried about the impact of thousands of years of alien thought on our tender and rather fragile human civilization.

I realize that this discussion seems rather esoteric given the fact that there is no evidence at all that extraterrestrial civilizations are out there. But imagine the consequences if we do make contact? There could be no greater concern and we have done little to prepare. Perhaps, it’s worth just a brief moment of thought?

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