Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Extraterrestrial Contact: Shock Value

Last week I reiterated my argument that a direct and dramatic First Contact event might be a good way to introduce an extraterrestrial civilization to the people of planet Earth. I suggested that if extraterrestrials were to fly a spacecraft into Earth atmosphere and fly it above a mid-sized American city, they could engage the world news media directly, bypassing governments and other institutions that might seek to control such a message. There is another reason that such a method might be helpful to visiting extraterrestrials: shock value.

Shock is not always a bad thing. It can provide a period of time in which humans are stunned and do not react in their usual fashion. Why is this beneficial? Well, think of our usual human reactions to global events: self-interest, fear, greed, hegemony and protectionism. Now granted, that’s not the case in major natural disasters, and I think those responses are important for this argument. In a great international crisis we often manage to suspend our conflicts to some degree in order to react to help the effected nation. I think a dramatic and direct First Contact event of the type I have described would create an international crisis of sorts. If managed properly to minimize fear and protectionism, there would be value in the initial period when people are stunned. This period would allow the alien visitors to get a message of introduction to all humans. It provides the opportunity to engage the institutions that would be most beneficial for a positive long-term diplomatic effort. I suggest the United Nations, as it is the world body that represents the most individual nations and that has a framework to support such efforts.

Shock requires people and institutions to react differently at first than they normally might. There has never been any situation close to such an event in human history. There is no established protocol. Previous experience would not apply. It would force people to think, pardon the cliché, out of the box. Now, I don’t think this period of being stunned would last for long, perhaps just a few days or a couple of weeks. Eventually, humans would return to their usual positions and begin to react in the ways they have in the past. This means that much work needs to be done in the stunned period. An entire process for introduction and diplomacy would need to be established and established quickly.

There are, of course, many dangers in shock. The primary concern would probably be the military reaction. Shock could cause the military to respond with force and the result could be disastrous. I think there is something helpful in how we have formulated our reaction to terrorism here in the United States. There have been several circumstances of aircraft doing things considered threatening in the last ten years. In every circumstance the responding fighter pilots have reacted with thoughtful caution. These pilots are trained to evaluate threat in a calm and collected manner. If an alien ship moved in a way to lower the threat perception, a hostile response by humans could be prevented. It would also be important to start a message of introduction as quickly as possible, to provide information and decrease uncertainty.

The other danger of shock comes in our financial system. Such an event would cause extreme uncertainty in the world markets. The markets do not like uncertainty. The stunned period could extend to the markets at first, but that would likely change quickly as people began to consider the financial risk posed by First Contact and tried to engage the financial opportunities that such a revelation would create. Luckily, the past few years have brought a better understanding of the interconnectedness of the global financial system and strengthened institutional control over crisis reactions. We are in a much better position today to provide some degree of global financial security in the event of such a dramatic event.

I know, many of you may think I am off the deep end by discussing such things. Sorry, I enjoy considering this line of thought. I don’t think that First Contact with humans has occurred and I doubt it will occur for many, many more years. However, I do think First Contact with an extraterrestrial civilization will happen eventually and a discussion now could help set the table for a reasonable and positive human response in the future. Wouldn’t that be nice?

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