Monday, January 28, 2013

Extraterrestrial Contact: Identity Crisis

There could be plenty of challenges that arise if First Contact with an extraterrestrial civilization occurs some day. Most of those challenges would be created by the nature of contact and the type of intelligent beings that we might encounter. The circumstances are impossible to predict. If First Contact ever does occur it could happen in a million different ways and would most likely surprise us in many respects. We’re imaginative, but not imaginative enough to consider all of the possibilities.

So, that leaves us to one challenge that seems likely in almost any scenario: a human identity crisis. We can’t predict what the aliens might be like, but we know what we are like. Our human frame of reference is based on the current truth: we are alone in the universe. A change in that frame of reference would likely lead to self-examination. We would need to acquire a new perspective. That sounds like a natural process and perhaps it would be. I doubt, and surveys seem to support this, that humans will freak out in the wake of First Contact. It’s the long-term consequences that I think could be most challenging.

The most obvious challenge in perspective would be an inferiority complex. If we meet an alien civilization with technology much more advanced than ours we will, for the first time, face a collective feeling of inferiority. The outcomes of that feeling are hard to predict. It could cause us to become isolationist. Fear would be a big part of that reaction. Inferiority can easily lead to a feeling of vulnerability. That could spur defensive actions. Another scenario is what I call the “star treatment”. In this case we are so in awe of alien technology that we begin to view the extraterrestrial culture as something to aspire to. This could be damaging to our own culture. The worse-case scenario would, over time, lead to a washing away of our scientific institutions. While I think this is a long-shot, I suppose it really depends on the star power of the aliens in question. Just how cool are they and how much do we want to be like them?

Of course, the most notable feature of an alien civilization might not be technology at all, but the cultural aspects of their society. Perhaps they have a religion, or faith of some sort, that we begin to admire? There’s certainly nothing wrong with admiration. However, you would worry about our own religions and faith. Jumping head-long into another civilization’s culture would seem a mistake at any level and in any manner.
It comes down to one important challenge: we will need to hold onto our culture and ways of thinking, while expanding our knowledge. We need to protect ourselves and still learn about the new civilization. We need to find out what they have determined about the universe and share what we have learned. This won’t be easy. We may have to institute something that the French have had for years- actual institutional actions to try and safeguard french culture. It seems a bit silly to us Americans at times, but it makes sense. In a world dominated by American culture in the media, the French are bombarded with an American perspective. They have fought to protect their language and culture. The same is true of the Canadians. Efforts to promote Canadian filmmaking and music go as far as to require a percentage of homegrown movies and music on television and the radio. An Earth-wide effort might be necessary in the wake of First Contact.

Why do we need to worry about this now? There is certainly no reason to worry. First Contact could be decades or centuries away. However, it seems prudent to consider the possibilities and ask some serious questions. What will we do when our perspective changes forever?

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