Monday, February 13, 2012

Extraterrestrial Contact: Dangers as a Reason to Say Hello

If aliens have been monitoring human activity (and I’m not saying they have) there could be a reason for the lack of contact. As many people have pointed out over the years, watchful extraterrestrials might believe that we are not ready for contact. Or they might believe that we would best develop without outside interference. If that is the case, what reason would they have to contact us? Science fiction writers have often postulated that First Contact could occur because extraterrestrials want to save us from some impending doom. That fictional doom has included nuclear war, environmental disaster and asteroids threatening Earth.

Preventing disaster on Earth suggests a caretaking, paternal role for extraterrestrials. The aliens act as the Calvary, coming to the rescue of inept humans. Such a concept is of course exceedingly anthropocentric in nature. It assumes that human feelings such as altruism extend to alien races, which they may or may not. We don’t know any extraterrestrials, so we can’t really ask.

But for the sake of speculation, let’s say that watchful aliens are worried about events on Earth. What might precipitate an extraterrestrial intervention? The use of technology is an obvious answer. Many of the aforementioned plot lines involve aliens providing humans with an advanced technological fix for our technology-caused problems. That fix could be a non-polluting form of energy or a way to prevent global warming through atmospheric manipulation.

However, assistance could come in a less-direct form. Let’s take a look at a major current challenge here on Earth: the economy. We have entered into a curious cycle in the last few years. Many nations on Earth are experiencing economic difficulties. While the factors causing such problems vary from country to country, the interdependent nature of the modern world economic system means that economic trouble in one country can spread to others quickly. Can you imagine Americans 50 years ago caring about Greek financial woes? Technology and other factors have contributed to a level of interdependence between banks and other economic systems unimaginable just a few decades ago.

You can argue that current world economic problems are cyclical and that most countries will manage to climb out of recession and experience positive growth. Some analysts though, are taking a negative view. Adam Davidson of NPR’s “Planet Money” published an excellent piece in the New York Times Magazine recently (his columns are always a highlight of the magazine). He examined economic doomsday scenarios, featuring some well-regarded economists. Nouriel Roubini of New York University was one of the few to predict an impending U.S. housing market crisis in 2005. Today his worry is China. As Davidson points out, Roubini believes that Chinese banks are headed toward a meltdown reminiscent of the U.S. banking crisis of 2008. The reason is basically the same: a massive economic bubble finally bursting. In the Chinese case it is state-sponsored and capitalism-fueled building projects, such as the ghost cities of China. These massive projects have a “if you build it they will come” mentality. Entire cities with skyscrapers and infrastructure are built well before there is a need. The speculators and the Chinese government hope that Chinese workers will move in to seek new opportunity. Crazy? Perhaps. Dangerous? Perhaps. But how would the rest of us be impacted? The collapse of the Chinese banking system would cause shock waves across the world economic system. It would cause capital and to dry up and lending to freeze up. It could lead to consequent crises- such as a second American economic meltdown due to government indebtedness and currency policies.

Humanity is in a precarious position. We have a vast system of economic interdependence that is loosely structured and not very well controlled. While there are some quasi-government systems that hope to mediate some decision making regarding world economic issues, they are largely without any real power. Groups like the G-20, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund act as facilitators to bring nations together in a common discussion. They also control some central banking activity. It’s a start, but it still leaves us with a powerful world economic engine and no one truly at the controls.

We are also in a fragile state with our information technology. We are almost completely reliant on the Internet and information technology for many aspects of our lives. Yet, this too is a complex system without anyone at the controls. Cyber terrorism has become a popular worry. One massive virus could impact countries across the globe. A cyber war could be devastating. No one would die and yet human civilization could be set back by decades or even centuries.

I don’t necessarily believe that any of these things will occur. But they are just a couple of things that altruistic aliens might watch closely. If they truly care about our development as a civilization, they might decide to take action to prevent the massive damage that either scenario could cause.

How could aliens help us? Well, the cyber threat could have direct technological repairs. The fragile world economic state would be a tougher thing to fix, since essentially we’re the only ones that can solve the problem. First Contact would provide one powerful message: we need to join closer together as a civilization and find ways to strengthen our common institutions with more established global linkages and most importantly, control over those linkages. This solution would take a while. The shock caused by First Contact could just as easily throw our economic system into chaos as it could help provide stability. That’s part of the problem with speculation- when you get this far out in thought you are in completely uncharted waters. I don’t think anyone on the planet would know what might happen in such a situation. Perhaps aliens have been studying us and have their own predictions. You would imagine altruistic aliens would have reason to believe that introducing themselves would benefit the human race.

I have a final thought that is a bit disquieting. There is a flip-side to this conversation. Perhaps the aliens are not altruistic are all, but rather malevolent. Hollywood loves to show aliens blowing things up on Earth. In reality, there would be a much easier way to bring humans to their knees: plant your own computer virus and watch it run wild. Then, when our society has stopped cold and chaos is taking over the planet you can step in with an offer: we’ll fix it, but now we’re in charge. What could we do?

We’ve made ourselves a rather complicated world here on Earth. Technological developments have given us wonders and improved the lives of many. However, it comes with a cost. We are now subject to forces that we don’t fully understand and that we currently don’t have an organized system to reign in those forces. We’re like a baby behind the wheel of a Lamborghini. Maybe we’ll keep it under control. But there’s always the chance that our need for speed will drive us over the brink. If there are altruistic aliens looking out for us we can only hope that they’ll spot the fatal curve in the road before it’s too late. In the meantime, since there are probably not any aliens out there examining us, we had better roll up our sleeves and solve our own damn problems.

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