Monday, July 15, 2013

Extraterrestrial Contact: The Problem with What We Want

Malcolm Gladwell has a knack for digging deeper into human reality. He enjoys applying criticism to common lines of thought. Gladwell has a book review in the New Yorker that examines the life and thinking of German-born economist Albert Hirschman. I found two points particularly helpful for taking a critical look at commonly held ideas in regard to extraterrestrial contact.

The first Hirschman point is that hard undertakings are often better for humans in the long run than easy undertakings. And the corollary: if we knew something would be tough we might not take on the challenge. Thus, humans often benefit from a certain amount of ignorance.  The example Gladwell refers to in his article is the digging of a railroad tunnel through the Hoosac Mountain range in Western Massachusetts in the mid-nineteenth century. It was expected to be an accomplishable engineering project, even if it was subject to much debate at the time. In the end, it cost 10 times what was projected and the construction work took 193 lives. The tunnel opened up the mills of Northwestern Massachusetts to trade in the growing West. What would have happened to the Massachusetts economy if the tunnel had never been dug? If developers had known the true cost and trouble would they have attempted such a scheme? Would the critics have won out? The tunnel is still in use today.

I think that Hirschman’s proposition applies to extraterrestrial contact. For the most part, humans paint a rather rosy picture of what first contact will bring for the human race. Of course, there are those who can only consider disaster due to war with aliens. Everything we imagine seems to fall along those two poles: wonderful contact or deadly contact. How about another possibility: arduous contact? Is it possible that contact with aliens would provide many challenges for human society, challenges that we did not anticipate and challenges that would take many years of hard work for us to deal with? If we knew how tough it would be, would we choose to pursue a relationship with extraterrestrials?

The second Hirschman point that applies to first contact is the idea that the challenges in life often benefit us in ways that easy actions do not. It’s not just a matter of what the struggle will provide in the end, but also what the process of the struggle will provide of benefit. I’ll give me own shameful example here. I have a 1952 Ferguson tractor that does not run. I have attempted to fix the tractor over and over again, and yet I do not have the skills to keep it running. I could go out and buy a new tractor and be rid of the problem altogether. This would certainly solve my tractor problem easily. However, if I persevered and forced myself to learn how to repair the tractor imagine the knowledge I would gain? I might be able to rebuild my chainsaw if it was to break. Or perhaps I could better repair my lawn mower? There would be many benefits that would come from doing the hard thing- learning how to fix that damn tractor.

Another, much more extreme example is war. Advances in radar, sonar, jet engines, nuclear technology and the development of early computers are a direct result of research done during World War Two. Satellites and space exploration came out of the Cold War. Anxiety and fear act as catalysts to innovation during war. The problem is that by removing obstacles you remove the fuel of anxiety and worry. I’m certainly not proposing that we torture ourselves to stimulate innovation. However, we do need to consider the implications of cheap knowledge and what is lost if we don’t forge ahead in our own, laborious way.

One could also argue that the Cold War caused economic stagnation and great waste in the 1950’s and 1960’s, because of the vast amount of money put into nuclear weaponry and defense research and development. How could have humanity benefited if such money was used for medical research? Still, it goes back to anxiety and worry. Money really wasn’t the fuel for Cold War research. The fuel was fear. Would AIDS drugs have been developed so rapidly if it wasn’t for fear in the gay community and the immense education and lobbying effort by gay political organizations that came as a result? When considering human development we can’t forget the important role of group psychology.

There is the possibility that anxiety and worry will fuel a technology quest in the wake of First Contact. If we’re concerned about our safety we may put effort into bolstering space monitoring and defenses. A certain amount of effort would be a practical response. However, if we let fear and anxiety rule the day we may end up squandering both resources and opportunities. Like everything else in human society there will be a necessary balancing act. Perhaps anxiety should prod us and yet not rule us?

But let’s get back to the primary issue. Humans often mention all of the wonderful technical knowledge that we could get from a relationship with extraterrestrials. They could give us a new perspective on the laws of science and show us how to build everything from space-faring craft to planet-sized climate adjusters. We could be given the technology to generate cheap, non-polluting power. Imagine all of the human problems we could solve? What would come of us after many years of this knowledge transfer? Hirschman would probably be worried about the infantilization of the human race. He watched such problems develop all over the globe, as he did work for the World Bank and other organizations assisting developing nations. When given technology and infrastructure outright, these nations didn’t develop in the same way as Western nations. The supposed colonial beneficence proved to be worthless in places like the Congo. That Belgian infrastructure lies in ruin today (relatively minor next to the real tragedy- the Belgian Congo genocide). Taking a society away from an organic path of growth is both dangerous and stupid. Perhaps we need to learn from our mistakes, lest we become victims of the same problem.

Struggle, no matter how horrible the consequences for the participants, is often best for long term growth. Hirschman points to the wars European settlers had with Native Americans in settling North America. These dangers kept settlements in close contact with established Eastern cities. Thus, the United States developed the infrastructure and the close cultural ties to progress faster (and clearly this example does not address the disastrous impact to the Native Americans). In Brazil, where pioneers did not face such challenges in the hinterlands, Hirschman points out that the settlers became isolated and thus regressed economically and culturally. I’m not proposing that European conquest of the Americas was a good thing; it certainly wasn’t for Native Americans. However, the struggle forced the European settlers to devise new strategies, which ultimately helped their society thrive.

Can we afford to gain knowledge without working for it? What would happen to the fundamental process of science? Today, knowledge is earned with the sweat, toil and tears of many researchers. Think of all the ancillary knowledge that comes when trying to tackle one big problem. Research in cancer gene therapy has led to new cancer cell targets for other therapies. Roy Plunkett of Kinetic Chemicals accidentally invented Teflon while attempting to make a new CFC refrigerant.

Can humans afford to skip the hard work and go straight to the front of the line? How will we understand technology without the foundation that comes from developing that technology? This is not to say there may not be ways to benefit from alien knowledge. But it seems a good idea to put a great deal of thought into the implications of alien information, before we become the recipients of such “gifts” of knowledge.

Perhaps, well-meaning extraterrestrials may already think this way. Imagine how angry some humans would be if extraterrestrials refused to give us information about their scientific discoveries? Albert Hirschman would probably understand and applaud such a decision. He would know that we are better off in the long-run, if we follow our usual process in development: hard work, many mistakes, and plenty of detours, before coming up with that big breakthrough. After all, such a process may not just be a human behavior- it may be a fundamental process for the development of intelligent life.

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Anonymous said...

Excellent points. One of the most important ancillary lessons that comes through the arduous process is how to self-limit. Simply because we have the means to do a certain act does not mean that such acts should be undertaken. Might does not mean right.

Humanity is much, much too far from being ethically capable of handling advanced technologies and knowledge. It would be even worse than anything we can refer to in human history. Imagine modern day America handing over its technical knowhow to Nazi Germany in WWII..... Times ten million.....

The humans of 2013 typically think of themselves as so advanced in terms of ethics and values, yet a majority of the planet kills animals for fun/pleasure (I.e., taste.... As food).

Eric Melcher said...

Anon: it seems to be a matter of the rate of development of our society versus the rate of development of our technology. But the big question would be whether aliens would care? Would they have a set of morals that we could understand? Even without morals practicality may dictate how they interact with us. If they give us advanced technology would we use it to destroy each other, as you suggest? If the aliens wanted to see humans progress as a civilization then they would probably think twice before giving us any help. Thanks for commenting. Good post.