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Chelsea Haramia (Spring Hill College & University of Bonn), "Understanding the Question of Whether to Message Extraterrestrial Intelligence"
Forthcoming, Routledge Handbook of Social Studies of Outer Space
Should we send messages to aliens? Did that question make you smirk or even laugh a little bit? SETI scientists call it the “giggle factor.” It’s a common reaction. We don’t really know anything about actual aliens, but there are a lot of amusing connotations that surround our ideas of them. However, there is also serious scientific research and legitimate philosophical debate. My recent focus has been on the question of whether we should be attempting to initiate communication with extraterrestrials.
‘SETI’ stands for the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence. Notably, the use of the term ‘intelligence’ is regularly criticized in SETI circles. Colonialist and ableist attitudes have historically pervaded Western science, and SETI science is no exception. Many SETI practitioners are careful to note that the word ‘intelligence’ is used merely as a proxy—SETI scientists are looking specifically for evidence of extraterrestrial technology. These practitioners treat technology as a sufficient—but not necessary—condition for intelligence, though some have nonetheless proposed changing the established terms in favor of more accurate and less oppressive language.
SETI has traditionally been a largely passive endeavor, with astronomers scanning the cosmos for evidence of detectable extraterrestrial technology. But a more recent way of searching involves intentionally announcing our presence in the cosmos through unsolicited communication—typically involving digital messages embedded in high-powered, narrowband radio signals directed toward presumptively habitable parts of our Galaxy. This communication-activity is commonly referred to as ‘METI,’ which stands for Messaging ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence. METI searches are on the rise. In my forthcoming chapter in the Routledge Handbook of Social Studies of Outer Space titled “Understanding the Question of Whether to Message Extraterrestrial Intelligence,” the question I engage with is: Should we be sending these messages to aliens?
The question itself raises several important issues. First, there’s the puzzling issue of the absence of evidence of extraterrestrial technology, highlighted by the Drake Equation coupled with Fermi’s Paradox. We simply don’t know whether aliens exist. Second, assuming they exist, we have no concrete details about the referent of ‘aliens’ and can only speculate about the nature of such extraterrestrial life. Beyond that, the reference to ‘we’ in the question involves various unchecked assumptions about humans, and it invokes ideas of humanity writ large. Yet, there are only a handful of particularly situated individuals and groups who are attempting to communicate with aliens. Many humans are unaware that messaging has been taken up, and many who are aware have expressed concern. Third, the outcomes of communication with extraterrestrial intelligence could be extremely harmful, extremely beneficial, neutral, or mixed for some or all parties involved. Thinking through potential outcomes with so many unknowns raises distinct concerns. Finally, there’s the issue of the communication act itself. Not all messages are created equal, and properly determining whether and when humans ought to attempt communication requires a critical analysis not only of a message’s content but also of who is engaging in communication and under what conditions they are attempting to communicate. Even if we do not currently know the effects of these messages out in the cosmos, we do know that messaging can have predictable effects here on Earth, and there are important critiques to consider with respect to social justice, environmental justice, intergenerational justice, and the like.
In sum, we should start with a careful analysis of the question itself, considering facts about extraterrestrial others as well as the significant absence of facts. Additionally, we should ask what constitutes proper representation of humanity and our planet. We are in a unique position as we consider revealing ourselves to entities that are essentially unknown to us. But we are also in familiar territory as we question assumptions and biases, assess the implications of human ignorance, and challenge actions that stand to create or reinforce unjust power dynamics here on Earth. The search for extraterrestrial life continues, and those who search by sending messages to aliens face important hurdles and challenges, both empirical and philosophical. Though my chapter falls short of exhaustively presenting all of the relevant considerations, I show that the question of whether we should be sending messages to aliens is crucially unsettled at this time.
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