originally published July 29, 2014
Presently, our only tangible research into the cultural and societal impacts of extra-terrestrial life arriving on Earth seems limited to the fanciful concoctions from the Hollywood daydream machine. Will aliens greet us with a peaceful hand-gesture like they did to that pig-owner guy in the Star Trek movie? Will they fire up the blasters and devastate our cities like that movie where the Fresh Prince teams up with that jazz singer?
Actually, people – and I’m talking about educated people who probably wear business attire to work – have put time and effort into calculating precisely how our society would react to a party of interstellar visitors. Given the unlikelihood of this ever occurring, one could make the argument that the dude who stacks salad plates at your local Sizzler is contributing more to the smooth functioning of society than these educated folks, but I’m not here to make that argument. I’m just the messenger.
When it comes to the purported existence of our little green friends, I find it unfathomably selfish to believe we’re the only slabs of meat who have put together a society in this vast universe. I also believe it likely that someone else has fashioned some sort of tin can (or whatever they have in place of tin) and blasted into space. But to believe they’ll stumble upon us, or even care to say hi if they do? That’s where my credulity glides off the track. Still, it’s fun to daydream.
For thirty years, the SETI Institute (that’s Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence for you acronym-lovers) has been using science, research and speculation to look into the likelihood and nature of possible ETs who might drop by unannounced. The first part of the discussion centers around how they contact us. Do they send us a coded message like the ones we’ve launched into deep space? Do they take over our computer systems and implant a digital hello on Google’s front page? Or will they do a pop-in, no prior call, completely oblivious to the fact that we already made plans to watch the game with some old friends from college?
The SETI squad, working with the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams, has a series of protocols in place for… wait, telegrams? Yes, the CBAT was founded in 1882 by Astronomische Gesellschaft (that’s a society, not a guy’s conveniently space-ish name) as the Copenhagen-centered international clearing house for everything astronomical. They used to send their most urgent messages by telegram, and when that was usurped by greater technology, they kept the name for the kitsch value.
The CBAT has a series of protocols that dictate the proper response to a legitimate message received from the great Up There, and they also have the intelligence to know that no one is going to follow these protocols. If the aliens are savvy enough to contact a major world government, maybe the government in question will follow the plan: verify the message, notify the UN, don’t respond without consulting with other leaders, and gather together people who readily admit to being fans of the Kardashians, just in case we are forced to offer the aliens a sacrifice of some kind.
Ideally our planetary newcomers will plop onto our soil with an innate understanding of our language and customs. But it’s more likely that we’ll receive electromagnetic signals or some other ethereal communication first. Either way, our collective response is going to depend on whether the visitors are friendly or if they’re the conquering type. If it’s the latter, let’s face it, we’re screwed. If it’s the former, and if they can muster the patience to put up with our bumbling response, there are a few considerations that will pop up.
First, there are the religious implications. A study performed in 2000 of American and Chinese students reveals a tendency for more conservative respondents to believe that any aliens who pop in on our world will do so with a malicious intent. As for whether the mere presence of aliens will thwart centuries’ worth of religious dogma, well that’s not necessarily true. Yes, Christianity is very earth-centric, and it’s believed that we folks on this rock are God’s pet project.
But spinning the discovery of intelligent life elsewhere would be a piece of Easter cake for the patriarchs of Christian theology. God is a busy dude; maybe while we were myopically toiling and praying in the belief that we are His big display at the science fair, he had a side project going on. This is where that convenient ‘works in mysterious ways’ bit applies. The next question then is whether the truly devout would see these aliens as equals, or as lesser creatures. And for those of us who like our church nicely separated from our state, what about the legal conundrum?
An extra-terrestrial being on earth would technically be covered under nothing other than animal cruelty laws. They would be citizens of nowhere, and given how long it took for women, children and people with assorted non-pink hues to gain basic human rights on this planet, there might be a clustered knot of legal red tape awaiting some lucky lawyers when the green guys drop in.
If they instead opt to send us an electromagnetic transmission, that’s another jumbled-up kettle of kielbasa. Who owns the copyright to these messages? Can they be legitimately sampled by Snoop Dogg or parodied by Weird Al? What if Expedia.com wants to use the messages in a Super Bowl ad? Someone needs to figure this stuff out.
The political mess from an alien invasion would be horrific. Nations would be fighting for the right to speak as Earth’s official spokescountry, likely causing so much grief and so many mixed messages, our new friends will be tempted to pack it in and go home. That’s assuming they contact a world leader first, and not introduce themselves to us by jamming a probe up some Kentucky redneck’s back door. I think the bigger worry with an alien arrival would not so much be that they’d kick our galactic asses, but that our own governments would stumble and fall all over themselves, like Lucy Ricardo struggling to keep up with a conveyor belt of policies, strategies and genuine schlemieliosity.
There’s always the possibility that the aliens who do finally swing over to our neighborhood will have biology that won’t mesh with what our atmosphere provides. That might be the best-case scenario: they stay up in their ship and wave hello, then let us get on our way. We also have to account for the chance that our human biology won’t jive with theirs, and that they’ll unleash some unforeseen bacteria into our air that kills us all – something they had developed an immunity to, that they’d never suspect would wipe us out.
I think we’re better off as a solo act down here.