Monday, July 18, 2011

When SETI Succeeds: The Impact of High-Information Contact

I would like to correct a major omission in this blog. Over the years I have frequently bemoaned the lack of serious consideration of the implications for human society in First Contact. While I’ll still maintain that there is not nearly enough discussion, I have missed an important and comprehensive examination of the issue. In 1999 Allen Tough, working with the Foundation For the Future, put together a seminar in Hawaii that featured 16 scholars and their perspective of issues relating to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and most importantly the aftermath of First Contact. Tough later collected the results of that discussion and the series of papers created for the seminar, in a publication titled “When SETI Succeeds: The Impact of High-Information Contact.”
It is one of the most insightful and wide-reaching explorations of the subject that I have found. The group of participants will be familiar to those who read this blog: Albert Harrison, Jill Tarter, Steven Dick, Paul Davies, Douglas Vakoch, John Billingham and Ben Finney, among others. And through the papers other noted writers such as Michael Michaud and Donald Tarter added their thoughts.

The importance of this particular seminar is that while it does touch on issues of SETI research methods, it is primarily focused on issues of human reaction and response to First Contact, both in the short-term and the long-term. Why do we care? Several of the seminar participants note that while there are protocols in place for researchers to handle the scientific aspects of First Contact response, there are virtually no plans for a wider societal response. In particular, the focus on high-information First Contact is important because it has received very little attention in the field of SETI research. High-information First Contact is quite different from the simple discovery of some engineered extraterrestrial signal that we don’t understand. High-information means that we gain knowledge from First Contact. Extraterrestrial information would have wide-reaching implications for human society.

In the paper “The Role of Social Science in SETI” several authors suggest a simple scale showing, much in the same vein as hurricane warnings, the impact of First Contact.

Force One: Knowledge that we are not alone, primarily in discovery of some form of extraterrestrial communication.

Force Two: Humans gaining scientific or technical knowledge from communication with an extraterrestrial culture.

Force Three: Direct interaction with an extraterrestrial culture leading to a long-term dialog.

While the authors maintain that Force One is the most likely scenario, the real challenges for humanity lie in Force Two and Force Three First Contact. They create the most disruption to human society and would cause the greatest change. How that change occurs and to what degree is a matter of debate. Several of the authors predict that a Force Three scenario would be deeply troubling for humanity and perhaps have primarily negative outcomes.

The call for action in this paper is for greater involvement in the SETI discussion by researchers in the social sciences, and in the areas specifically related to gauging how humanity actually perceives extraterrestrial contact and how humanity might react to such news. Social scientists could conduct in-depth surveys to try and better determine how humans might respond to certain First Contact scenarios. Most surveys conducted thus far have been shallow, mainstream media oriented and extremely narrow in focus. While many people use the results of those surveys to show that humans would not be perturbed by First Contact, that view seems questionable given the lack of examination of high-information First Contact scenarios and the threat implications of communicating in an active and engaged way with extraterrestrials.

Over the next several weeks I will take a closer look at some of the individual topics presented in the seminar and resulting publication. It is material well worth an in-depth look.

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