Saturday, February 21, 2009

Rethinking ET "civilizations"

When scientists address the possibility of contacting extraterrestrial intelligence, they generally use terms in keeping with our own (necessarily limited) experience. Consequently, we're treated to expansive speculation about the agendas of ET civilizations. But why the typical assumption than ETI will necessarily take a readily comprehensible form? After all, the galaxy might be governed by novel forms of intelligence that challenge conventional definitions of government, economics, and even personhood.

To be sure, terms denoting some form of alien "civilization" make speculating about the nature of ETs easier -- usually by implying that even the most technically savvy aliens, despite cultural differences, will be fundamentally comprehensible to present-day humans. But it's a big universe. If we achieve contact -- whether through the discovery of artifacts in our solar system or by happening across a telltale signal -- there's no promise the senders will hail from any sort of familiar social structure. Indeed, it's not unlikely that an alien intelligence "merely" a few thousand years ahead of us would completely defy comparison to terrestrial institutions.

I've always been frustrated by the prevailing assumption that aliens will eschew interstellar travel in favor of radio transmission due to the presumed cost of space travel. While aliens might suffer from constraints posed by limited access to resources, the notion of "cost" is rooted in our own brief, limited experience as social primates. We humans might bemoan the seemingly prohibitive price of manned spaceflight, but a more far-sighted intelligence might possess vastly different priorities. Spared the hurdle of terrestrial economic imperatives, I would expect aliens to prove surprisingly resourceful.

Contemporary discussion about a "post-scarcity" economy predicated on molecular manufacturing begs theorists to re-evaluate the likelihood that ET intelligences will conform to the models conceived by Frank Drake and Carl Sagan. For instance, instead of communicating with groups of like-minded beings, we may find ourselves in the midst of solitary god-like beings with only tenuous ties to their biological forebears. Allegiance to a community might turn out to be a uniquely human trait.

If galactic civilizations are indeed exceptional rather than the norm, much of SETI's operative wisdom will demand reinvention. For example, we may have to dispense with realistic hopes of happening across Sagan's "Encyclopedia Galactica." Likewise, we may never be invited to "join the club" -- not because we're not deserving, but simply because there's no club to join in the first place.

Ultimately, I'm haunted by a vision of a Cosmos inhabited by forever-roaming AIs who have long since jettisoned the quirks and baggage forged during their ancestors' brief tenure as biological beings. Some of these wandering minds might be quite indifferent to the antics of emerging technological civilizations such as our own. Others, possessed of infinite patience, might choose to observe.

But the ones who want to play are the ones that interest me most of all.

This piece originally appeared at


Thuth said...

We need to REALLY rethink Alien Civilization. Believing they would be using some kind of craft, probe or any kind of radio signal seems very ethnocentric in a quantum universe.

This is a great article from Goro that talks about this. I saw you mentioned Jacques Vallee in one of your previous posts. His four books do a lot to dissolve the ET Hypothesis as does much of the work from the edge of conspiranoid thinking.

"Ultimately, I'm haunted by a vision of a Cosmos inhabited by forever-roaming AIs who have long since jettisoned the quirks and baggage forged during their ancestors' brief tenure as biological beings."

This is a great idea and as we see the archetypes being activated across the public sphere, one whose time has come.

Keep searching. Can't wait to read more.



Anonymous said...

Not that he mentioned fear, but wouldn't "the ones who want to play" be the ones who play with us like ants in a jar? I guess you could say that's fear, but I'm not losing sleep over it. ;)

purrlgurrl said...

There's just something basically too narrow minded about SETI. It's entirely possible that civilizations can reach a very advanced level of social and cultural development without relying on techology (technogeeks who read this can now assume the fetal position). We believe that because we value technology other intelligent life forms will do the same. Technology just may not matter to most galactic civiliaqtions (What? No Wii or GPS?). Seriously, our search for life elsewhere suffers from a fatal flaw - we are always searching for some version of ourselves - biologically, socially, culturally, and even spiritually. When we've learned to communicate about Plato with a cockroach, we're ready to go looking for intelligent life elsewhere. And we may actually need to visit to communicate with it.