The Conversation

How to screw up first contact with aliens

Sci-fi fan website io9 has an interesting article about a meeting of anthropologists, held every year for the last 25 years, in which the best methods for communicating with extraterrestrial life are discussed.  Clearly, the appearance of flying saucers in the sky would be a veritable Super Bowl of anthropology, as these scientists suddenly became the most important people in the world.  It sounds like they have a lot of wish-fulfilling power-fantasy fun at these "CONTACT" conferences.

It's not entirely frivolous for serious people to put some thought into this.  Should the situation arise, we don't want to be caught flat-footed.  Contingency plans should be made.  The task is more difficult because we have no idea what these prospective aliens would be like.  It is difficult to communicate effectively without some knowledge of culture, and it's impossible to anticipate extraterrestrial culture with no knowledge of their biology.  

Science fiction is rife with tales of simple misunderstandings that rapidly blew up into horrible interstellar wars.  It also includes at least one excellent novel, Footfall by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, in which the advantages of having contingency plans for first contact are highlighted.  (In Footfall, a team of science fiction writers is hastily assembled by the Pentagon and spirited off to a bunker to work on the alien situation.  It's been a while since I read the book, but I think there might also have been an anthropologist in there somewhere.)

Unfortunately, some of the anthropologists working on the first contact situation sound like real sourpusses.  One of them suggested it would be crucial to extend "hospitality" to visiting extraterrestrials, as we would "to any alien entity, including the human variety illegal alien."  All righty then.

Another anthropologist approvingly cited the linguistics work of Noam Chomsky, mourned the inability of humans to figure out dolphinese, and hoped the aliens would be smart enough to do the heavy linguistic lifting.  A third growled that speculation about what we should do is moot, "because governments and corporations with spaceships, satellites, anti-sat weapons, and space stations would be acting in what they reckoned to be their own best interests."  They're already dropping the ball by failing to employ "xenoanthropologists," and anyway humanity is not organized enough to have "stable world peace and prosperity and some kind of international council of experts whose authority was uncontested and which made decisions about space which made everybody happy," so we're probably not worth the valuable time of an advanced spacefaring race.

Then there's the scientist who assumes no amount of soothing behavior from the E.T.s would "prevent rampant paranoia from becoming part of the national posture of the United States and other countries."  I guess a lot of that depends on what the alien spaceship looks like, doesn't it?  If we're talking mile-wide "Independence Day" battleships hovering over cities, I could see a bit of "paranoia" resulting.

I think the most important element in making first contact with aliens is to select ambassadors who think well of the human race.  You don't want to send up a team of tut-tutting misanthropes.  You want people who can energetically sell the virtues of humanity to the new arrivals.  That's good advice for real-world diplomacy, too.


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