Monday, May 2, 2011


In a dangerous situation the severity of a threat is often in direct relation to the proximity of the threat. An Earthquake in Japan creates the highest degree of threat for people who live in Japan and less so for those who live in Finland. A shooting incident is of primary concern for people close to the line of fire and less so for those who live in another neighborhood. The same could be said of First Contact. The threat, both real and perceived, would be in direct relation to proximity. If the aliens in question are 50 light years away, there is much less of a threat than if they are hanging out in Paris, France. Technology is important in these considerations as well. Do the aliens have the ability to travel here, and if so, how quickly?

In a sense, there is an insulation of distance when a disaster strikes or there is an external threat. Still, this blog examines the possible impact of Direct First Contact. That entails an extraterrestrial civilization showing up in our solar system and perhaps here on planet Earth. So, what can we predict in the way of human response to a Direct First Contact event?

There is, of course, no real answer to this question. There are too many unknowns and too many variables. However, we can take a look at how humans react to disasters here on Earth. Bagrow, Wang and Barabasi examine communication immediately after disasters to try and uncover a pattern of human reaction to large scale emergencies. In the March issue of the journal they published a study that looks at “cooperative human actions under externally induced perturbations.” They scanned media reports to pick a bombing, plane crash and earthquake and then used cell phone records to chart communication activities. For a control group they took a look at similar cell phone records for large concerts and sporting events. The results, not surprisingly, show that proximity is the best indicator of the volume of communication following a disaster. In the bombing the spatial decay of the communication volume came to 2.38 kilometers. In the plane crash that increased to nearly 10 kilometers. In the earthquake it was 110 kilometers. Human communication immediately after a localized disaster is most important for those who could be most impacted. Proximity is the prime motivator.

A Direct First Contact event may start in the same fashion. If an alien spacecraft was to land in New Jersey, it seems likely that, at first anyway, the Jersey residents would be the ones most concerned. However, Direct First Contact has an element that is different from anything we have experienced thus far in human history. Direct First Contact would contain an element of threat for the entire planet at once. Just the revelation that we are not alone in the universe and that we really don’t know much about the new visitors creates a threat. What are their motivations? Can we trust them?

So, what of the human reaction? One would expect that if Bagrow, Wang and Barabasi were to conduct a similar study after a dramatic Direct First Contact event they would find cell phone communication patterns consistent with a large scale emergency- at first. The locations nearest the alien landing would experience the greatest amount of cell phone activity. I suspect though, that they would soon find a reverse effect. As the news would spread across the globe, the level of concern in all corners of the planet would grow greatly, with corresponding cell phone traffic increasing in an expanding pattern outward from the point of contact itself. It would be a pattern unlike anything we have seen. And of course communication is just the start of human reaction. What would happen next?

Recent surveys have found that humans polled about First Contact issues seem relatively nonplussed about the possibility. That term applies well in this case, because while it means unperturbed in the popular lexicon, it also means surprised and confused to such a degree that the person does not know how to react. I would suspect that this may be the immediate response to a Direct First Contact event. A period of stunned silence seems likely, as people simply try to comprehend the news and watch to see what happens next. Extreme reactions of civil unrest or hysterical response could come later, after people have had time to process the information and decide how it fits into their world view. Some may say it’s the end of the world. Others may view First Contact as a sign of religious significance. These people would probably be in the minority; however it is unlikely they would be a quiet minority.

Threat is certainly a legitimate concern in any First Contact event. Whether the aliens are light years away or just down the street, there is some degree of threat, especially perceived threat, until we know more about the situation. Information and education would be the key to keeping people calm, if indeed we should want to remain calm. Transparency would be essential. First Contact would have to be handled in a way that allayed fears and answered many legitimate questions.

I think the positive aspect of a dramatic Direct First Contact event is that it would draw all humans together in a collective living room of sorts. People would gather around televisions worldwide to see what happens next. While there have been many large world events that have brought people together, nothing would compare to dramatic First Contact. For whatever unrest such an event would create, it would also bring humans together in a way we have never experienced before. That common bond could be enough to sustain us through the great challenges that would come After First Contact.

No comments: