Humans join together in a variety of ways. The interactions and inevitable conflicts between those groups are the provenance of sociology. Social structure and individual agency are the principles of the study. While this may seem like a stretch now for consideration in the area of interaction with extraterrestrial intelligence, I think it could become one of the most important areas for study should alien First Contact ever occur.
There are very few social scientists considering such human social ramifications in the wake of First Contact. Douglas Vakoch of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California has written and edited a number of works on the subject of human interaction with extraterrestrials. While much of his work is centered on the concept of human messaging, he has gone further afield to consider the consequences of alien interaction on human society.
In a most basic sense, we can go back to Social Network Analysis to see how the power of relationships joins humans together. That web of group affiliations can grow larger and larger, eventually impacting politics, governance, economy and science. Group behavior would be extremely important in the wake of First Contact, because different groups will react to alien contact, well, differently. For some groups First Contact could pose a threat. Other groups could see opportunity. We can try to imagine some of these scenarios. Some religious groups could feel that First Contact is a threat to their religious beliefs or a sign of apocalypse. Business networks could see a potential for new scientific information that could lead to new technology and thus economic opportunity. Institutions could feel threatened in terms of their involvement in alien contact. The leaders of smaller nations may feel like they will be left out, as the super powers move in to control alien contact.
Such possibilities consider what we already know of our society. In plain fact, because we have nothing to compare to the impact of First Contact, there may be the development of new social groups and networks that arise from the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence. How great these changes could be seems to depend on the amount of information traded between humans and extraterrestrials. A large amount of information trading could bring great change. While little information, or much more likely, slow information trading (especially if we are communicating across the vastness of space) would bring lesser change.
No matter what the case, the impact of extraterrestrial contact to human social networks is important, because it will decide how humans react to First Contact and what actions humans take. Do we react in fear and try to hide from extraterrestrial intelligence? Do we react with great joy and attempt as much interaction as possible? It seems likely this will be a significant conflict.
Why worry about this now, since we have absolutely no evidence that extraterrestrial intelligence exists and that such alien societies would have the technology needed to communicate with us? Speculation about what conflicts might arise in the wake of First Contact provide a road map that can be used to help develop a cohesive plan of reaction. If we have considered what conflicts might exist and how to better mediate those conflicts, we will have taken an important step to ensuring that humans get the best possible result from alien contact.
It’s time that we move beyond the shallow special effects of Hollywood depictions of alien contact and begin to consider more pertinent matters. What will we do and how will we do it? These matters may decide the fate of humanity for hundreds of years after First Contact.
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