Wonder or horror. We never go much further than these dramatic and yet shallow human reactions to direct alien First Contact in our film and fiction. If extraterrestrials say hello to us, before we discover them, there would be a big impact to our human civilization. I like to consider that impact to humanity, past the knee-jerk reactions in the initial moments. This is an examination of extraterrestrial First Contact in a timeline of possible human reaction based on our current human condition.
Step 1: Contact
The initial revelation and reaction. People will be stunned. Leaders will scramble to cope. It will seem at first that the initial wonder will last forever. It won’t.
Groups involved: scientists, media, government, first responders and military.
Public: acting as spectators only, no impact aside from psychological.
Length: This period will be quite short, perhaps a few days.
Step 2: Communication
The very first communication between humans and extraterrestrials would probably focus on the reason for the alien visit and a discussion of a process to move forward.
Groups involved: international agencies, governments, media, and perhaps scientists. With any luck the international agencies will quickly establish advisory boards from important scientific areas, especially the social sciences. The primary issues we will face are social science issues.
Public: the coalescing of individual reactions into movements begins.
Length: A few days or a couple of weeks.
Step 3: Negotiation
The discussions lead to concrete proposals and counter-proposals for action in developing a framework for a relationship. How much information will they provide us? How will they provide it? What do we humans control in the process? Politicians begin to assert themselves. Some people seek to grab power by utilizing fear to mobilize the public.
Groups involved: international agencies, governments, politicians, media, public and hopefully scientists. Civil society organizations will also become involved, advocating for the dispossessed public.
Public: beginning to impact government action and international agencies through opinion polls and formation of movements in reaction to First Contact. There could be the very first sign of civil unrest during this period. Fringe groups will become quite active.
Length: It could last anywhere from a few days to several weeks, depending on the amount of debate between nations and inside international agencies. The length is critical, because the longer negotiation takes, the more time it gives for civil unrest and violence to break out. The lack of a concrete plan will lead to instability.
Step 4: The Relationship Begins
The first trading of information in an organized fashion takes place.
Groups involved: Scientists, international agencies, governments, media, fringe groups, religious leaders, civil service agencies and the public.
Public: fully involved, some groups responding with action, civil unrest and violence. Fear based appeals by politicians and other people seeking power. It becomes difficult for scientists and international agencies to do their jobs because of the noise of the conflict.
Length: A few weeks or possibly months.
Step 5: The Relationship Continues or Isolationism Develops
This is the true fork in the road. The debate that has been raging will lead towards a positive framework for a relationship or the debate will cause some nations to separate and isolate. Isolationism could be accompanied by calls for military reaction for defense. The military could become an active part of the debate.
Groups involved: everyone in developed nations and increasingly the public in developing nations. We need to listen to developing nations and the concerns of their citizens.
Length: no longer an issue.
Step 6: A Long-term Relationship or Isolationism Prevails
There may be a split here between nations. Some may choose isolationism and others may choose to continue in an information exchange with extraterrestrials. However, this type of split seems unlikely. Nations outside of the relationship with extraterrestrials would be worried about missing out on technological and economic benefits of contact. It seems more likely that it will be all or nothing for human reaction, with the debate being played out in the United Nations. Nations must be shown the benefits of a unified international response to First Contact. Scientific advisory boards can provide the expertise and information to support this effort.
Step 7: The Long-Term Impact
Disruptions to the economy could be quite hard on the public. Some industries may wither in the new perspective and others may grow stronger. This could leave workers in a difficult situation, especially for those lacking the education to take part in the development of new technology. Nations will need to respond to these challenges early, through massive education programs and workforce training partnerships with industry.
The big question is: when would we actually benefit from extraterrestrial contact? It could take a while. The positives, aside from the wonder of revelation, could take months, years or decades to develop. And in the meantime, the negative impacts could cause us to turn our backs on extraterrestrials. Isolationism could be a big debate, just a few weeks or months into First Contact. Sadly, if it grows unmanageable, fear has the possibility of ruining our relationship with extraterrestrials and never allowing us to experience the benefits of contact.
Our Human Challenge
I know this sounds quite negative. And it will seem inconceivable in those first few heady hours after the announcement of First Contact. But that wonder of enlightenment could quickly lead to human conflict. We need to be prepared for this. We need to develop a First Contact framework to reduce conflict. Initial kneejerk reactions will be impossible to control. But what happens next, with those reactions coalescing into movements and long-term change, can be managed if we are prepared to counteract the negatives immediately with the facts, whatever they may be. As I have said many times- a little paranoia is a good thing. It helps humans to be cautious and consider the risks properly. Rampant paranoia can lead to all sorts of horrible reactions. Preventing this will take fast-acting leadership, courage and true vision. Let’s just hope that our scientific community, politicians and religious leaders are up for the challenge. The future of humanity will depend on it.