I came across this the other day (HT Instapundit) which cheerily discusses the problems inherent in plausibly anticipating what contact with an extra-terrestrial intelligence might be like.
The genesis of the article was a meeting of the Royal Society in London on the consequences of alien contact. Essentially, the question raised was, “Should we broadcast our presence to the universe?” We’ve been (sort of) sacanning and listening for signs of extra-terrestrial intelligence for a few years abut aside from some LP records (analog records!!!) stapled to the side of a space probe (Veeger!), we haven’t done much to advertise our existence to the cosmos. David Brin responded with a cautionary note intended to squelch at least a little of the geek squee.
Robin hanson summed it up,
As Brin notes, many would-be broadcasters come from an academic area where for decades the standard assumption has been that aliens are peaceful zero-population-growth no-nuke greens, since we all know that any other sort quickly destroy themselves. This seems to me an instructive example of how badly a supposed “deep theory” inside-view of the future can fail, relative to closest-related-track-record outside-view. As Brin says, the track record of contact between cultures, species, and biomes is not especially encouraging, and it is far too easy for far-view minds to overestimate the reliability of theoretical arguments to the contrary.
J. Storrs hall goes further,
In fact, it’s a lot worse than that. As far as I can tell, nobody talking about interstellar contact has a model even vaguely close to a reasonable analysis of the situation. Short form: these discussions are the equivalent of the natives of a Polynesian island deciding who shall be allowed to wave as the galleons heave into view. Our own technology, today, is getting close to detecting Earth-like planets around other stars, for heaven’s sake. The galleons see the island, not the waving. …
Reality is that any alien race out there with whom we have any kind of physical contact at all is virtually certain to have (a) full-fledged nanotech, and (b) hyperhuman AI. Given these capabilities, if they want to find Earth-like planets anywhere in the area of space they would have the physical capability of travelling to, they will find them. Period. Doesn’t matter whether we are standing on the shore waving or not.
Undoubtedly true. But Hall then goes on to make the same kind of errors he disdains,
Any sentient creatures that actually get here will be nanotech-based robots, not water-based organisms. They won’t have spacecraft, they’ll be spacecraft. They will be unlikely interested in the carbon-poor mudballs of the inner solar system, but reap abundant carbon from the outer planets and carbonaceous asteroids to build Dyson-sphere-like structures around the orbit of Mercury. …
We aren’t going to see any less ambitious visitors due to simple evolution: in a universe where the ultimate meaning of “carbon footprint” is the total mass of the superintelligent diamondoid robots you’ve built, spaceships burning cellulosic ethanol simply aren’t going to be anywhere near the fittest. Indeed, cultures that aren’t inherently aggressive and ambitious aren’t going to put the effort into sending out starships at all.
Well… maybe. But probably not.
Any alien intelligence capable of traveling interstellar distances would have routine access to technology that is simply unimaginable to us. Let me be clear about this, we can’t imagine what it would be like. Whatever we do imagine is almost surely wrong. The analogy isn’t Polynesian islanders waving to European Galleons, it’s Iron age Celts meeting 21st century archaeologists face to face. Alien technology would be as impossible for us to imagine as a nuclear reactor would have been for the druids who danced around Stonehenge. Saying that Aliens would have “full-fledged” nanotech is like an ancient Celt imagining that 21st century technology would have really, really big anvils and lots of iron tools. Hyperhuman AI? Maybe… but that’s sort of like Columbus imagining that 21st century navigators would have really precise sextants. Sure, we still have anvils… but we also have titanium alloy golf clubs. We don’t use sextants because we have GPS systems.
What we can say for sure is that Alien tech would be fantastically advanced. Nanotech? Sure, why not? But nanotech might be as meaningful to the Aliens as blacksmithing is to us. Dyson spheres? Well, maybe. But again, that’s us imagining future technology in reference to our own context. We’re obsessed with power production, so we imagine really honkin big power plants. Like the Sun! Our Iron age forebears were really worried about food production. Imagine the farmland and grazing pasture needed to support 5 billion people using Iron age farming technology! Yeah, we have big farms, but our farms are many, many orders of magnitude more efficient than the druids would ever have imagined. Capture the power of a star by building a sphere to surround it? Why do that when you have a Magwumpzillwapper that generates a hundred times the power, fits in your pocket, and smells like daffodils? Or more likely, something else entirely?
As for motivations…. I don’t see why we should even try to guess the motivation of our supposed visitors. Do they want to conquer us? Maybe, but I can’t see what we could offer them. Resources? Whatever they’d want we’re very unlikely to value. Imagine meeting a group of Druids and telling them you really want the rights to dig up that nasty black stuff in the bog. Think they’d argue much? I think it’s more likely our first encounter would be with alien anthropologists and research scientists. But again, maybe they’d be zookeepers. Or teenagers on a joyride. Maybe instead of Cattle Tipping, rural alien punks go Human Probing. Or maybe we’re already in the zoo.
Whatever, we can broadcast or not broadcast. Whatever the aliens want to do, they’ll do. If they can get here, we won’t be able to stop them. And if they can get here, they can see us whether we wave or not.
But there’s another option too… that they’re really NOT out there, or if they are, it’s just as freakin’ hard for them to get here as it for us to get to them. It’s at least as plausible as any other theory. Brin says that it’s likely we’d be the newcomers to interstellar society, but it’s also possible that we’ll be the first. Why not? Someone’s got to be first.
But just in case we’re not the first to the party, let me start the ball rolling by saying howdy to all the aliens reading this blog.
The New Orleans Saints are going to the Superbowl.
I’ve been a Saints fan for a long time and through some pretty woeful seasons. When I was a kid, we moved around a bit, out of necessity. From New Orleans to Mexico, to New Jersey, and back to Mexico and then back to New Orleans.
I was a shy, timid child and had a difficult time making friends after we returned to New Orleans. I started fifth grade at Holy Name of Jesus elementary school and spent most of my school days in a kind of dull, bewildered funk. I didn’t make friends easily and I was the target of a good deal of physical abuse and bullying from my classmates. I was small and skinny and shy and awkward and I didn’t stand up for myself.
We lived in the bottom half of a duplex on South Liberty Street in Uptown, New Orleans and the landlords–who lived in the upper story–had a boy my age, my grade, in my school.
He was an asshole. He killed rats for fun, abused his parents’ status as our landlord, and rubbed plastic beads around his anus and threw them at my face. He was also the closest thing I had to a friend.
We’d come to New Orleans straight from Tula, Hidalgo and most of our possessions were still in New Jersey. I remember asking my parents if they could make sure that my favorite toy could find its way into the next shipment. It was a 2-XL, a little eight-track cassette player in the shape of a robot.
The eight-track tapes made 2-XL special. The tapes would prompt the listener to answer questions by pressing the buttons–switching the tracks of the cassette. The tapes were constructed so that track switching created an interactive, dynamic experience. There were educational tapes, choose-your-own adventure story tapes and other fun stuff. Plus, his eyes would light up and flash.
I loved him. And more, I missed him.
2-XL would talk to me. He didn’t make fun of me. He didn’t pick on me. He was my friend, the only one I could think of, and I missed him.
My parents knew I was lonely, and they knew I was sad. They searched and tried and did what they could. And eventually, in what had to be an act of desperation, they thought of Saints tickets.
The Saints were bad. Monumentally, abysmally, catastrophically bad. They were the Aints, the worst football team in America. They’d never had a winning season. Years (years!) later Sports Illustrated would name them the worst professional sports franchise in the world.
But that meant that tickets were easy to get.
So one afternoon, I went with my step-father to the Superdome. We lined up with perhaps a couple dozen other people in the access hall leading to the floor of the field. The dome was enormous, huge… massively, impossibly immense. And completely empty. Paper covers hung over the backs of a smattering of seats, like flecks of salt in an endless sea of gray: the seats open for purchase as season tickets. And then we ran. It was a race. Everyone lined up in the hall ran onto the field and into the stands to grab the covers for the seats they wanted. Most made pell-mell down the turf for the low, 50 yard line seats. We ran up. Up the stairs past the first level. Up more stairs past the second level. Up more stairs…. and grabbed the covers off a set of three seats in the upper section, visitor’s side, about the five yard line. They were cheap seats. But for us–one parent working, the other in grad school–they were fantastically expensive. An absurd, ridiculously expensive luxury expense that–had times been better and I been healthier–my parents would certainly would not have undertaken.
We bought the tickets with a family friend, Gus Orphan. And for the next seven years I went to every Saints home game with Gus and my step-father.
None of us knew anything about football when we went. Which was OK, because apparently the Saints didn’t know much about football either. They lost and lost and lost and lost. But even in their astonishing ineptitude, I’d found–my family–had found something to hold on to. And we held on tight.
We went and watched and yelled and screamed and shouted. George and Gus drank beer and ate hot dogs. I drank soda and ate Chipwiches. We watched the away games at home. I had something to look forward to every week. I’d found sanctuary with the Saints and in the Superdome.
I started tossing the football around with a neighbor kid. I got some friends at school.
And I got my step-father. Every week, we sat together and rooted together. We celebrated together and we commiserated together. We laughed and we cursed–and yes, it was too often much more cursing than laughing, but we did it together. It was ours. The Saints were ours. They were what brought us together.
So now, I’m grown. I don’t live in New Orleans and haven’t since 1990. My step-father lives in Mississippi. We don’t have the season tickets anymore and haven’t for many years. But every Sunday, I watch the game. And every Sunday, after the game, I call my step-father. And we laugh. Or we curse.
But lately? Lately we’ve been laughing. As if all those years of losing have been washed away.
I haven’t been back to New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina. I don’t have any family in the city anymore and when I visit my parents, I visit them in Jackson. But I grew up in New Orleans. Dear friends were deeply affected by the flooding. And I watched in horror, along with everyone else, as the city I loved drowned. I watched as the dome that had sheltered me when I was lost and scared and lonely failed and crumbled in the storm.
But I followed the city and I followed the Saints. And both began to rebuild.
I watched the first home game in the Superdome post Katrina. The dome, so recently broken–a concrete metaphor for a city in ruin–had been patched and repaired. The reconstruction of the Superdome was heavily criticized. It had been a local priority and siphoned money and labor from other areas of the city. It was an expensive, absurd, fantastically ridiculous luxury project that–had the times been better and the people healthier–the city would certainly not have undertaken. But when Steve Gleason blocked that first Atlanta punt, I know that my cry echoed with each and every one of the those seventy thousand in that building, and with each and every other fan watching the game. That same shaking, exultant, desperate cry of hope.
The Saints began to win. And the city clung to them, just as I had. Because the Saints were theirs.
Yeah, it’s just a game. Grown men putting on costumes and throwing a ball. But in New Orleans, putting on costumes and throwing a ball is a tradition that goes back hundreds of years. The city has grabbed hold of the team in a way that is truly unique. New Orleans has defined itself with its cuisine, Mardi Gras, and now the Saints. It might be silly, it might be trite, but it still seems to be more than just football. Black and gold. The Fleur-de-Lis. A dog that fetched kick-off tees. A silly un-grammatical cheer.
“Who dat? Who dat? Who dat say dey gonna beat dem saints?”
The answer of course was everyone, for years and years. But it didn’t matter to me because what I got from the games I got from the man sitting next to me. What happened on the field was lagniappe.
The city is rebuilding and recovering. And if the Saints have helped, they’ve helped by bringing the people of the city together. By giving them a respite from their troubles. What the people of New Orleans take from the Superdome, they take from each other.
And now the Saints are going to the Superbowl; it’s all lagniappe.
For no particular reason, I offer a selection of quotes from Frank Zappa:
Communism doesn’t work because people like to own stuff.
Art is making something out of nothing and selling it.
The United States is a nation of laws: badly written and randomly enforced.
Rock journalism is people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read.
Some scientists claim that hydrogen, because it is so plentiful, is the basic building block of the universe. I dispute that. I say that there is more stupidity than hydrogen, and that is the basic building block of the universe.
Stupidity has a certain charm – ignorance does not.
I’ll give you a simple formula for straightening out the problems of the United States. First, you tax the churches. You take the tax off of capital gains and the tax off of savings. You decriminalize all drugs and tax them same way as you do alcohol. You decriminalize prostitution. You make gambling legal. That will put the budget back on the road to recovery, and you’ll have plenty of tax revenue coming in for all of your social programs, and to run the army.
The rock and roll business is pretty absurd, but the world of serious music is much worse.
It isn’t necessary to imagine the world ending in fire or ice — there are two other possibilities: one is paperwork, and the other is nostalgia.
I’ll tell you what classical music is, for those of you who don’t know. Classical music is this music that was written by a bunch of dead people a long time ago. And it’s formula music, the same as top forty music is formula music. In order to have a piece be classical, it has to conform to academic standards that were the current norms of that day and age … I think that people are entitled to be amused, and entertained. If they see deviations from this classical norm, it’s probably good for their mental health.
The most important thing to do in your life is to not interfere with somebody else’s life.
Scientology, how about that? You hold on to the tin cans and then this guy asks you a bunch of questions, and if you pay enough money you get to join the master race. How’s that for a religion?
A drug is not bad. A drug is a chemical compound. The problem comes in when people who take drugs treat them like a license to behave like an asshole.
Watch out where the huskies go, and don’t you eat that yellow snow.
The Ultimate Rule ought to be: ‘If it sounds GOOD to you, it’s bitchin’; if it sounds BAD to YOU, it’s shitty. The more your musical experience, the easier it is to define for yourself what you like and what you don’t like. American radio listeners, raised on a diet of _____ (fill in the blank), have experienced a musical universe so small they cannot begin to know what they like.
James Lileks might be my favorite writer. He’s always worth reading, he’s funny, sharp, witty, insightful and writes about nearly everything. And he peppers his prose with Simpsons references that give me inordinate joy.
As with most good writers, he has that ability to write about whatever (old noir, matchbook covers, gun ads, Minneapolis, bad interior design) and keep the reader (at least, this reader) nodding and chuckling through every piece. It’s a rare ability, to keep your readers laughing and engaged. To do it on a daily basis is a sign of great talent.
I didn’t love America any less in the Clinton years than I did in the Bush years, or vice versa; I don’t conflate my opinions about transitory leaders with my opinion about the nation’s role in history and its exceptional, if occasionally improvised, conflicted, and compromised struggle to do the right thing. I mean, go back in history and find another one of us. (Note: small ethnically coherent Nordic states that can’t project power six feet over the border really don’t count.) But unqualified love of country unnerves some people, as though the lack of qualifications means you don’t recognize qualifying factors. Me, I think they’re obvious; we’re made of humans, after all, and every house we build has beams of crooked timber. But I don’t recall a lot of FDR speeches laying out a litany of American sins in order to bolster the case for why America should fight Hitler, despite all those troubling similarities. After all, we lynched Jews, too, ergo we must face our own demons as well as those abroad. And so on.
The really wonderful thing about Lileks is that there’s so, so, so much more. Really, he’s actually put up a frightening amount of material… check out the Institute of Official Cheer, which is just a taste. It’s all up at www.lileks.com. Except for everything that’s up at Buzz.mn, of course.