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The Alien Hunters of Mountain View

The Ecotopia 2121 Project details the futures of 100 cities across the globe as though they've somehow overcome all environmental challenges to become super-ecofriendly. This month, we highlight the future of Mountain View, California.

Mountain View, California, is home to Google’s head office as well as the SETI Institute, the former devoted to colonizing 'cyberspace' and the later devoted to the Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence in 'Outer Space'.

Mountain View 2121

Mountain View 2121

Members of both these organizations seem to be of the opinion that once we contact hyper-intelligent aliens, life on Earth will immediately change for the better. Alien hunters also believe our contact with aliens is imminent; if not over the next few decades then probably within a century or so.

On the basis of this belief, we arrive at "Mountain View 2121", where we find 22nd century biologist Dr. Sidney Schnoll, who has earned many prestigious awards by sticking sharp instruments into octopus and hurting them. The octopus he sticks things into all wriggle in pain, and many think that Schnoll would have been aware of this, but alas, no. His mind was on the science.

Anyway, Dr. Schnoll is also a keen SETI-ist, and so he spends much of his spare time energetically broadcasting messages into the heavens in order to contact intelligent space aliens.

Schnoll’s trust in the essential goodness of all science, and also in the universal benevolence of technology—alien technology included—lead him to believe that contact with any technologically advanced alien would immediately provide humanity with beneficial knowledge and access to super-duper useful gadgetry. The dubiety of this assumption only dawns upon Schnoll when -- after a night of particularly enthusiastic broadcasting -- a hyper-advanced alien patrol ship lands near his house in Mountain View before sending out powerful probes that were pushed painfully into his head. He wriggled madly in pain but to no avail.

All was not a total loss, however, since the sad grunts and screams that he let out when each probe was wriggled around in his head were imaginatively used by the aliens to communicate benevolently with California's octopus community.


In 2018, I participated in the 'Future Studies Working Group' of the 'Making Contact' workshop organized by various Californian SETI groups. Here below is the abstract of my written contribution:


An abstract delivered by Dr. Alan Marshall to the Future Studies Working Group of the ‘MAKING CONTACT WORKSHOP’ at UC Berkeley’s Astronomy Department, May 2018.

For all the buoyant chatter of an impending ‘day of discovery’, my hunch is that an ETI ‘discovery’ may well be a very long-term affair; perhaps extending over a period of hundreds of years or more. The ‘signals’ will be ambiguous, the ‘evidence’ rather paltry and disputed, and the meanings and relevance of the ‘contact’ debated, dismissed, and ignored (both inside of the scientific community and outside).

As a historical analogy, consider that the ‘discovery’ of our heliocentric Solar System took centuries to identify, to percolate beyond a small circle of astronomers; facing resistance and naysayers and well-founded skepticism whilst only very slowly gaining new advocates and social significance. So, let’s not get too excited that some clear unambiguous ‘signal’ -- publicly distributed -- will usher in an immediate new global understanding of the Cosmos.

Whilst I’m talking history, I’d best acknowledge that the ‘long discovery’ by imperial powers of the geographical places where SETI is now operating (California and Australia, for example) are usually sites of displaced and disrupted native cultures. If it has not already done so, some representatives of these specific native cultures should be invited into the decision-making process of the Breakthrough Initiative (lest the idea that ‘colonialism is cool!’ washes over SETI’s earthbound or extraterrestrial audience).

Elevated by the micro-machine triumphs of the modern industrial world, it’s probably an acceptable speculation by Silicon Valley SETI-fans that very ancient ETIs may have dispersed organic/inorganic machines which have long ago visited or settled upon our planet. Thus, ETIs may be ‘among us’ in some form. Any evidence of this (no matter how ambiguous) is likely to raise public engagement with ETI to a higher level than gazing into the faraway heavens. This public engagement may not be positive or encouraging as humans feel anxious about the aliens amongst them. (For sure, the Breakthrough Initiative should consider this as they draw up plans to disperse physical nano-craft into the heavens. Just as humans, aliens might consider such invasive nano-craft a challenge to their safety, culture, environment and security).

Of course, the cyber-triumphalism of the early 21st Century may just be a passing phase in our current infotech- dominated and algorithm-hyped world. Maybe AI on Earth, or elsewhere, is not ever going to be anywhere near as powerful as some of us often think.

Since, I’ve started talking about ‘tech’, please also allow me time to posit the idea that there’s little reason to believe that any contact with tech-sharing aliens will be beneficial to humanity. The idea that ‘advanced / advancing’ science and technology somehow leads, on average, to a better society is a common bias that scientists and technologists project upon the advanced aliens they imagine. Yet, I think alien tech hacked by Earthly technologists is just as likely to displace/destroy humanity as it is to benefit it.

Fortunately, the ‘long discovery’ scenario alluded to above might give humanity some ‘social learning’ time to become more democratic and egalitarian so that any new technology entering the planet Earth does so in a ‘responsible’, ‘just’ and ‘equitable’ way.

(But, of course, human beings may also squander this ‘long discovery’ social learning opportunity to produce a climate-weirded, war-torn, grotesquely tech-ravaged unlivable and unlovable dystopia. In this case, ETI contact is liable to be either irrelevant or to make things worse).

One last comment: it’d be nice to see the wonderment invoked by SETI for the mysteries of the living cosmos reflected upon the indigenous lifeforms of the Earth; those lovely aliens that are microbes and insects and trees and mammals. These guys all communicate with us in their own ‘alien’ ways, and they are also well worth listening to, not least because we share our planet with them.

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