There are two fundamental human rights in any First Contact situation. Humans have the right to know if extraterrestrial intelligence is discovered. Humans also have the right to be part of the conversation about how to move forward after First Contact.
These statements may sound obvious, but on dissection I think you’ll see where I’m going with this. Clearly humans are going to be involved in any First Contact situation. The big question is which humans and, perhaps more importantly, which institutions those humans represent. I believe that the fundamental human rights listed above apply to all of us. That means that fairly quickly after First Contact all of humanity should be made aware of the discovery. And then all humans, in every nation on Earth, should be part of the conversation about what to do next.
Now, that said, there are reasons that we have organizations and institutions. It would be tough to hear from more than 7 billion people, let alone come to a consensus. There will have to be representation. I have stated here before that I believe the only way that representation can occur is through the United Nations. The General Assembly should be the deciding body in how the process moves forward After First Contact. This would not be an easy path, but it would be a necessary one. Most nations on Earth are represented in the General Assembly. It would provide a mechanism for bringing in alternative views. It could provide an open forum for discussion and debate.
The key to the entire process is transparency. We have the established media networks and Internet platforms to ensure that everyone on Earth can know exactly what is happening. This can only occur if the institutions and organizations involved in the First Contact process support transparency at every step.
Why do I worry about this? It’s often assumed that First Contact would be controlled by science or government. SETI scientists have done their best to assert the human right of knowledge- suggesting that scientific discovery of alien life should be shared quickly with the public, once that discovery has had time for rigorous confirmation. However, the right to an open debate and discussion is less discussed. Part of the problem is the endless nature of speculation. If we don’t know how First Contact will occur or anything about the nature of extraterrestrials, how can we possibly determine what should happen next? I agree that a detailed outline of the path forward After First Contact would be a waste of time. There are simply too many variables. A general framework could be determined, though, and that framework could set the tone for human response to First Contact. We may not know anything about extraterrestrials (if there are even extraterrestrials out there at all) but we do have an understanding of our human society and how we interact. This is an important part of the First Contact equation.
There is a dichotomy in this transparency and open discussion. If members of an extraterrestrial civilization were willing to share with us their knowledge of science we would have to make decisions about how we would handle such information. We may decide that some information has to be locked away for a time, until our sciences can catch up and truly embrace new knowledge. While information freedom advocates may cry foul, if the process in deciding such things is open and transparent, it still involves all humans in the conversation.
Some nations and cultures could be resistant to such openness. They could see alien contact as a threat to stability. They may try to keep information from their people. I don’t think that would last very long. First Contact would be an extraordinary event, beyond any other in history. An attempt to keep the substance of such an event from the public would be like trying to establish a dike against a continuous tsunami. At first that dike might hold, but as information trickled in from the outside world, eventually it would undermine the dike, most likely washing away the restrictive government and institutions in the process.
Public opinion polls will be an important part of the worldwide discussion. Those opinions are likely to change quickly as new information comes out. It will be important to provide this measure of the pulse of humanity, so that the representatives of nations can make better decisions.
There is one thing I can guarantee. No matter how the process unfolds it will not be perfect by any measure. It will be contentious, confusing and at times chaotic. However, it will be our human conversation. We will discuss and we will move forward- as one planet, one people- citizens of the universe.
What do you think about transparency and open debate? Check out the Alien First Contact Facebook page to get involved in the discussion.