If representatives of an extraterrestrial civilization make contact with us some day, we will be at a distinct disadvantage. It seems unlikely that such aliens or the machines made by aliens, would make contact without first doing some research about us. That means that, chances are, they will know more about us than we know about them. There is really only one responsible way to handle such a situation: react quickly and then go slow and learn. I’m going to explore this in reverse.
How do we ensure that we go slow and learn? The first step would be to set the agenda. This would be tough to do, if the aliens are the ones making contact. But it would be important for humans to take a couple of steps back and analyze the potential impact of whatever it is the aliens are suggesting. Do they just want to say hello? Are they interested in providing information about themselves? Do they want to unlock the secrets of the universe for us? These examples are quite simplistic and the process is unlikely to be simple. But I think you can see the problem. Our reaction needs to be based on what they are suggesting and also what is in the best interest for humanity. Saying hello back sounds like an entirely logical response. Showing a willingness to learn about their culture and history also seems logical. But we need to set that agenda and decide what topics we should discuss and how it will be done.
Their culture and history could teach us much about aliens, especially if we look behind the communication for indications of the nature of the aliens and their culture. Where are the conflicts in their society? Where are the divisions? How could such issues impact humanity? Who are we dealing with, and perhaps more importantly, whom do they represent? Is it a small sub-culture of aliens or part of a larger group? It’s easy to assume that visiting aliens or their probes represent the entire alien society. But one look in the mirror reminds us that that is seldom how things operate on Earth. Can we really assume aliens are monolithic and of one mind about First Contact with humanity?
Learning the complications and nuances in an alien society would be extremely important and require an expert eye. Human anthropologists might be the most skilled at such an endeavor. They could certainly delineate differences between aliens and humans. But there would probably need to be a wide range of expertise brought to the study of extraterrestrials. Because of that need, it seems likely that we would need an organized effort, so that people from different fields and with different backgrounds can share perspectives and insights.
This would take time. Some human group would need to set a thoughtful and clear agenda. Questions would need to be prioritized. We would need to know alien intentions and expectations. We would need to discuss human security issues and receive assurances about how contact will proceed. There would need to be an organized human structure to carry out the process. All of this would need to be transparent and inclusive to reassure the human public.
Arguments and power struggles in designing this process could be devastating. Humans will need to choose carefully, but the process needs to be mapped out quickly. I know that moving quickly to decide a process sounds like a contradiction for go slow and learn. But in reality, coming up with a general process and deciding who is leading which effort, is critical and needs to happen quickly. Then, with a basic process and organizations structure in place, we need to go slow and learn.
We must respond to First Contact with one clear voice. There would most likely be plenty of debate here on Earth and that would be healthy. However, debate must stay here in the family. When speaking to aliens or alien machines we would need to be united and with a clear purpose and agenda. And then, given some room to breathe, it would be time to go slow and learn. Imagine how exciting that would be.
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