Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Extraterrestrial Contact: The Elite, The Disenfranchised and First Contact

A small number of scientists are leading the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. From that research-based scientific inquiry, a few have also been considering the challenges that would come from alien First Contact. These questions include the process that should be used to inform the public of such a discovery, and how a response to alien contact would be developed. These scientists have been primarily astrophysicists and astronomers. In recent years, though, through the efforts of groups such as the SETI Institute and the NASA AmesResearch Center, biologists, anthropologists, sociologists and religious experts joined the conversation. Most of the effort is still focused on the scientific inquiry. That makes sense. Without the discovery itself, the rest of the issues are moot. But there is a growing realization that we are not prepared for what might happen after First Contact. Do we reply? What do we say? Who makes these decisions?

The International Academy of Astronomics (IAA) and the International Astronomical Union (IAU) have suggested that scientists would be heavily involved in such decisions. Certainly, in a case of Indirect First Contact- the reception or interception of an extraterrestrial signal or message- scientists would lead they way. They would be the ones who made the discovery and it makes sense that they would be the ones that the world would turn to for advice on what to do next. The good thing about indirect First Contact is that it would likely give us time to ponder such decisions. There could be a healthy debate and, hopefully, then a consensus about how to proceed. These very scientists have attempted to get the United Nations to consider the issue. There would be a great need for international leadership in the wake of First Contact and a coalition of scientists and international leaders would be a good start for developing responses to First Contact. Unfortunately, the United Nations has yet to take substantive action. 

Just last month scientists at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting discussed the issue of sending intentional human messaging into space in hopes of making contact. The arguments ranged from those favoring the approach to those warning of dire results if we make contact.

But what about Direct First Contact- contact that happens within our solar system and leads to the possibility of direct communication? Suddenly, the issue of time becomes a primary concern. Rather than waiting for our signal to reach an extraterrestrial civilization light years away, the communication time frame is much more immediate. That means that decisions would have to be immediate. Direct First Contact also poses a greater risk for humanity. It’s not just the dangers of attack or interference, but also the impact on humanity from what we learn from an extraterrestrial civilization. If communication is near immediate and the aliens willing to share, there could be dramatic revelations for humanity in the areas of science and technology. How do we handle such opportunities and threats?

Initially, in the wake of Direct First Contact, a coalition of scientists and international leaders, perhaps under the umbrella of the United Nations would also make sense. But that umbrella would need to expand quickly. Astrophysicists and astronomers would need to be joined by, not only the above-mentioned biologists, anthropologists, sociologists and religious experts, but also by political scientists, and economists. The potential disruption to human civilization would be a primary concern in the wake of Direct First Contact. The amount of information shared would ramp up those concerns.

But there is another fact that we would have to face in such a situation. Scientists, academics and international leaders are part of an elite segment of our society. I know the word elite, especially concerning academics, has been used as a political club for ideological bludgeoning recently in America, but nonetheless, there is a valid point to be made. Can those in the top income brackets and the higher leadership circles in human civilization, necessarily speak out for the rights of the larger, poorer, majority of humans?

I think that bodies formed in the wake of First Contact should include people who represent third world nations and humans who live in poverty. Governments of those nations could be involved through representation in the United Nations. They would need to have a role. As I have pointed out previously, it would be easy for humans to let the most powerful nations run the show. That would be a mistake. First Contact response should be developed with a wide range of ideas and opinions. That cannot be gained from just a few powerful nations. I would suggest that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that represent those in poverty, from third world nations, would be a good place to start. Someone will need to advocate for the needs of the less powerful humans on planet Earth. First Contact cannot be the province of elites. The voices of middle and lower class people, and especially those living in poverty, need to be considered.

Would such an approach make things more complicated in the wake of First Contact? Absolutely. Adding more debate to already divisive alien contact issues would not be easy. It would make it tougher to develop a response. If not carefully managed it could lead to chaos. It is a problem worth managing. All segments of human society have a right to be heard when it comes to First Contact response.

This is the process that must be developed. We should be thinking about it now, both in the context of Indirect, signal-based Contact and immediate communication based Direct First Contact. Alien contact may not occur for many years or decades. It may never occur at all. But the implications for humanity are huge. We must be ready to act with at least a very basic plan of response. A little thought now into the development of that plan, and methods to help all humans be involved, would help tremendously. 

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