Monday, May 9, 2011

The Blind Side

The subject of extraterrestrial First Contact has not been treated well in the popular media. Thankfully, there are serious science writers who have taken the time and effort to put together thoughtful pieces on the topic. Tim Folger published just such an article in Scientific American a few months ago. “Contact the Day After” is an overview of the current state of the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) scientific effort and an examination of what might happen after First Contact.

Folger points to the very human reactions of researchers when confronted with a signal that they believe may be of extraterrestrial origin. Seth Shostak with the SETI institute shares as story that he has also talked about in his book. It was an “engineered signal” discovered 13 years ago. Eventually, that signal was determined to be coming from a NASA satellite, but in the meantime, while taking a closer look at the signal, researchers did what humans are prone to do: act human.

“It’s not that people do anything mischievous or malevolent—you’re so caught up in the excitement of the moment, the media are calling you on the phone, people send e-mails to their friends,” Shostak said.

The main point of the Folger article is that SETI based First Contact is likely to occur in a drawn out fashion, with many years needed to study and decipher an alien signal. In the meantime, the public, while initially excited, will have a relatively muted response because of the many unknowns.

“I think the assumption that one day someone is going to announce that we’ve discovered extraterrestrial intelligence, and now the world knows, is a fallacy, because there’s going to be much more ambiguity in the process,” said Douglas Vakoch at the SETI Institute.

Vakoch, and others, realize that First Contact, if it behaves like most other scientific discoveries, will not be an absolute process. There will be debate, many research studies conducted over a great deal of time, and probably a fair amount of controversy along the way. That’s just how human science moves forward. There is rarely the Eureka! moment.

Fair enough. I have said all along that such a discovery is the most likely form of First Contact. However, I still think that the SETI protocols need to be merged with broader protocols, which would describe a diplomatic response, moving in step with the scientific effort. It’s a subject that has yet to even be discussed by the United Nations.

And what if we do experience a Direct First Contact event? What if communication, for whatever reason, is possible and can be conducted relatively quickly? What if we can have a conversation with an extraterrestrial civilization? We haven’t planned for that possibility. You can argue that Hollywood and fiction writers have worked this ground over again and again. And yet it’s a shallow reworking of tired soil that has lent very little to a practical discussion of how we might handle Direct First Contact. It’s the blind side in this discussion. The UFO folks find it boring, because, of course, aliens are currently running Proctor and Gamble. The SETI folks don’t have time to think about it, because they have too much else to do. Science writers touch on the idea from time to time, but leave it behind because of the high wackiness factor. And that leaves us with very little else.

The problem is that Direct First Contact is a much different animal. If we can have an actual conversation with an extraterrestrial civilization, there are many, many considerations to take into account. Threat becomes an immediate issue. The sharing of information is a concern. Diplomatic roles and leadership is a major problem. Politics, economics and even psychology suddenly are some of the most relevant subjects in regards to human response. And yet there very few people actively considering these issues in a rational and thoughtful way.

This little blog isn’t designed to be that forum. It’s simply a “what if” whispered in the dark.

I leave this entry with one of my favorite pieces of writing on this subject. It’s on a website titled “Invitation to ETI.” The open letter is designed as a direct welcome to an extraterrestrial civilization. While you can tell from the tone of the letter that it’s probably much more instructive for humans considering First Contact issues, and most likely written as such, it does set a tone for the conversation that seems well considered.
“We will treat you with respect, courtesy, friendship, and caring. We will speak and act truthfully, avoiding lies and deception. We will deal honestly and fairly with you, avoiding any temptation to exploit the situation for personal greed or for any particular nation or organization. Without forsaking our own values and integrity, we will be as empathic, helpful, and flexible as we can in understanding and fostering your goals and plans.”

And of course that’s how we hope they would treat us.

I disagree with those who believe First Contact would be of minimal impact to our society. The effect on the human psyche of First Contact, especially Direct First Contact, would be profound: we are not masters of the known universe any longer. We have neighbors. We cannot control them. There is risk and there is incredible opportunity.

It’s time to move forward.

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