Monday, March 26, 2012

Extraterrestrial Contact: Finding Out About Us

If an extraterrestrial civilization discovered intelligent life on planet Earth and wanted to know more about our society, they would have an easy method of tapping into our collective knowledge, assuming they had the ability to put a probe into Earth orbit. The Internet provides a wealth of information and certainly in a form far more conducive to research than the electromagnetic signals that we have been sending into space for many years. Radio and television may provide a glimpse of our civilization, but it is a fleeting glimpse at best and probably a confusing one at that, given the nature of television and radio. The Internet provides all sorts of research possibilities.

So, if members of an extraterrestrial civilization were to plug-in to the Internet, what would they find from that research? Certainly, most modern topics are discussed in great detail on the Internet. The items lacking would be those documents out of print or forgotten in time. However, even Vatican library documents are now available online. The amount of original source material is increasing by the minute. If extraterrestrial researchers could bypass security codes, they could search all sorts of databases to find both original source material and follow-up works examining those materials in a new light. If they had the ability to import huge amounts of information (from our perspective) they might be able to map the human condition to such an extent that they could begin to understand our civilization in a complexity that even we might have trouble fully understanding.

I know… there’s plenty of speculation there. But go with me on this thought. If extraterrestrials did have access to most of our databases, giving them a link to published works, websites and social media, there would be two major issues. The first would be context. It’s one thing to take in vast amounts of information, it’s quite another to place it into context. One would assume that such enterprising aliens would have a clear objective for plugging-in to the Internet. They would be conducting the research to accomplish something, even if it was simply the quest for information about another civilization. To actually take action, to say hello or do something to engage humans, they would clearly need a reason to do so. That reason would likely shape the nature of their search and provide a context for their research. However, they would be missing the human context, that being the thousands and thousands of years of history and development that brought us to this point in human society. Sure, they could find plenty of articles and books about our development, but would that really provide the context of what it is to be human?

They may not even care. But if they hope to influence us somehow or find a good method for making contact, they would be very interested in that context. Human fiction could provide a way to develop context. Fiction is about feelings, needs and interactions expressed in a complex set of scenarios. If an alien researcher was to take the time to examine our stories that researcher would have a much better insight into what it is to be human.

Even then, there is one major part of knowledge that would be lacking: experiential knowledge. Experiential knowledge, needless to say, is gained through experience. Knowledge gathered on the Internet would be a priori knowledge. Writer Barry Lopez uses the distinction to delve into human experience in regards to the environment. Unless you experience nature you cannot truly understand ecosystems. Dr. Thomasina Borkman of George Mason University defines experiential knowledge as “truth based on personal experience with a phenomenon.” Aliens would certainly have their own experiential knowledge. But they would not have experiential knowledge of life on Earth, unless they had lived it.

Reading all the non-fiction and fiction available on the Internet would not teach you what a human feels when they experience everyday life. It would not provide insight into how humans might react under a particular set of circumstances. In fact, if the aliens did peruse human works of fiction in an attempt to tap-in to experiential knowledge, that writing could be quite confusing. An alien researcher would have to sort out how humans really act, versus how our fiction likes to describe us acting. Without context, how would you understand those fine shadings in fiction? Just look at horror novels. There are no vampires to be found here on Earth. However, after just a few minutes spent perusing popular fiction, you would think Earth is overrun with overwrought (and often shirtless) vampires.

In the end, alien researchers might turn to the sources known for carefully stating objective, process, results and conclusions: the scientific research paper. By sticking to peer reviewed research journals aliens could find a discernable logic in communication and most importantly a common, established form of communication. Research papers follow the same general format and provide a common context for understanding. Once you know the format of a scientific paper, you can start to categorize the information you receive, and compile it in a way that might help direct extraterrestrial contact choices.

There’s plenty that alien researchers could accomplish without experiential knowledge, but they would need to be careful about moving forward with decisions based on a priori knowledge. The human world is complex enough for us humans. One would imagine that for an extraterrestrial civilization the complications of human society could take a long time to decipher.

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