The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has been an ongoing endeavour for the last 50 years. Detecting radio communications from an alien civilization would be the most profound event in mankind’s history; its effect would change the way we view our origin and our place in the Universe. It could mean that far from “being alone” we could be existing in a cosmic ecosystem, where life is more common than not and advanced extraterrestrial civilizations are no longer science fiction. A positive SETI signal would affect us globally; science, religion, society, daily life would alter radically.
Unfortunately, SETI is currently drawing up blanks. Apart from one or two inconclusive signs, it looks like we live in a dead part of the galaxy. Life As We Know It™ is an Earth-only affair. Who knows, we might be searching for another five decades and still be no closer to answering the question “are we alone?“
Not to be too downhearted, scientists have been trying to make our presence felt by reversing SETI; we’ve been Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI, a.k.a. “Active-SETI”) ever since we attached a plaque depicting the human form and a handy galactic map to Earth to the side of the Pioneer probes in the 1970s. Now we send a variety of radio signals to the stars in the hope of attracting ET’s attention.
But what signal do we send? Do we send a message with only good stuff from Earth? Or should we send a more gritty message, detailing our flaws as well as achievements? What actually makes a “good” METI signal in the first place?
Perhaps SETI could take some advice from the evolving social media scene, after all, when done right, there’s no more efficient way of conveying a clear message via 140 characters or less…
In February 2008, Douglas Vakoch, Director of Interstellar Message Composition at the SETI Institute, pointed out that sending out too much information to the stars could hurt future generations:
“Before sending out even symbolic messages, we need an open discussion about the potential risks [...] It’s very charitable to send out our encyclopedia, but that may short-change future generations.” – Douglas Vakoch (Feb. 2008).
Basically, Vakoch’s opinion is that if we send a detailed message into space, when the signal is picked up by ET in years/decades/centuries(/millennia?), the signal might be seriously out of date, not properly representing the future inhabitants of this planet. Fair point.
However, it would appear that in a recent article written for New Scientist, Valkoch is keen to make the METI signal as “honest” as possible, detailing mankind’s achievements as well as our failings:
“An acknowledgement of our flaws and frailties seems a more honest approach than sending a sanitised, one-sided story. Honesty is a good starting point for a conversation that could last for generations.” – Douglas Vakoch (Apr. 2009).
Once again, all fair points, but isn’t there a little confusion about what we should really be saying? As discussed in an article I prepared for the Universe Today (Should We Really Tell ET Our Problems?), perhaps we should keep the detail to a minimum. Telling ET all our problems and failings not only puts us in a bad light (as an example, I pointed out that if you moved into a new neighbourhood, you wouldn’t tell your neighbours all your problems at first meeting – if you did, you can forget about asking for a cup of sugar in the future), but it puts us at a strategic disadvantage. What if the potential aliens are aggressive? They could use this information against us. What if this advanced extraterrestrial civilization deems us “not worthy” and decides to put us under a communications embargo?
No, for the sake of “first impressions”, mankind will need to send positive stuff into space to make our presence known. Once we set up a two-way conversation, then we can divulge more information. However, all this is pure conjecture, how do we know what an alien race considers to be “positive”, “negative”, “right” or “wrong”? Either way, we need to be patriotic and do what we do best, show off what an amazing species we are.
Providing a galactic service
So, how should METI communicate with the cosmos? Do we keep doing piecemeal bursts of “Hello Universe!” with pictures of naked humans, a map to Earth, some mathematics and golden records of classical music? Or do we do something more useful? Sure, we need to make contact and we need to introduce our carbon-based, squishy biology and gloat about how “intelligent” we are, but what if we provided a “service” to the galaxy?
Which brings me to social media, Twitter in particular.
The key advantage to using Twitter is that it forces you to make each tweet as rich with information as possible. After all, 140 characters or less accounts for a couple of sentences at most, how can you possibly have a meaningful online relationship just sending such tiny messages? Actually, it turns out to be a very good way to inform the world about all kinds of information. It goes far beyond the simple “What Are You Doing?” tagline. Sure, you can tell your tweeps what you had for dinner, you can also tell them your personal issues.
However, as a brand new Twitter user, what would you say? This can be a problem if you didn’t already have any friends using the microblogging service. You’re on your own, you need to get people’s attention.
I’m thinking at that first instance, you probably wouldn’t start telling the public about your personal issues, use profanities or just keep typing “Over here! Follow me! I need friends!“. Your follower count would remain at a depressing zero for a long time.
To get anywhere on Twitter, you either need to be famous (look at Oprah, first day on Twitter and she acquired 300,000 followers), already have a social network online (so you’re just adding your friends you established on another social network or in “real life”), or you start making your presence felt by publishing informative tweets that people will find interesting. You might have a unique perspective on something, or you might want to tweet useful links for the world to see.
Now let’s turn the Twitterverse into our real-life galactic neighbourhood, where the Earth has just joined the cosmic community, ready to start transmitting radio signals. The biggest difference however, is that we have no idea if there’s anyone else to talk to. We could be the only ones. Still, we have to try, that’s why we have SETI and METI after all.
So, we begin our interstellar social conversation.
If we map our METI attempts in Twitter terms, we’ve only just gotten past the “Is this thing turned on?” or “Just testing this Twitter thing out,” or “Hello, we are humans, we’re cool,” messages. Yes we’ve already provided information about our cultures, languages, music, arts, sciences, physiology and some advertising, but what else do we transmit?
We could just keep on finding new and innovative ways to send the same signals over and over again, and we could just sit here worrying that we’re not transmitting loudly enough. Perhaps we should forget whether or not a potential alien civilization can hear us and we should assume that if they are advanced enough, they would have worked out what we are and what we do (after all, that message has been sent out repeatedly for 50 years).
It’s time to change the record, let’s send something useful. Wouldn’t it be nice if Earth is considered to be the galactic equivalent of a transmitting archive of facts about our understanding of how the Universe works? We need to open a continuous stream, with short, yet informative messages (I have no idea how this can be translated into METI signals, but I’m sure SETI scientist Douglas Vakoch could find a way).
Each message could be automatically transmitted via radio antenna to Sun-like stars or Earth-like exoplanets and, funding permitting, it would be long-term. A collection of international transmitters could send out identical messages, detailing the best our planet has to offer, our understanding of the world around us, our beliefs, understanding of space-time, or mathematical and artistic abilities. It would be a stream of data, but not just a beacon identifying our existence, it could be a streaming archive for any advanced civilization to listen to and understand what this human race is all about. By keeping the stream full of facts, eventually ET will understand we are a race of problem solvers, rather than a race of trouble starters. We might be viewed as primitive, and some of the data we transmit will become outdated, but I seriously doubt this will compromise our future generations. Why should we inform the universe about our problems? For aliens to give us a chance, we need to give ourselves a chance first.
We need to keep it simple, transmitting good information, but not too much information. Once we attract attention and we are seen as an island of interesting, intelligent beings, social conversations with a potential web of transmitting alien civilizations may begin.
However, there’s always the risk that the number of Earth’s followers remain at a depressing zero… but at least we’d be trying.