I spend too much time thinking about aliens

August 22, 2017

I spend too much time thinking about aliens—what they'll be like, whether we'll ever be able to understand them, why everything we typically think about them is probably wrong. Imagining realistic extraterrestrial intelligences occupies far more of my brainspace than it should. So I was happy when I first pitched this idea about the Fermi Paradox to my editor at now.space, Heather, and she said go for it. 

 

The basic idea is that most writing about aliens assumes that they will inevitably stumble across the same exact technology that we humans happen to have created during our parochial human history. More specifically, their technological pathways will mimic those of a 21st-century Eurocentric scientific Space Age culture (and that they will then go on to produce the future technologies we happen to have dreamed up at the moment). This assumption is often so embedded in theories about extraterrestrial civilizations that most people don't seem to notice it's there. So I wanted to bring it to light and suggest that hey, maybe technology isn't objective. Maybe it conforms to a specific place and time and species and history and a million other things that we aren't always paying attention to.

 

To back up my theory, I looked at the evidence of how people in the past have imagined aliens. For this I relied on the excellent textbook Civilized Life in the Universe: Scientists On Intelligent Extraterrestrials by historian George Basalla, which I really think more people should read. As it turns out, human beings have a habit of taking the technology and culture of their time, tweaking it slightly, and saying oh this is probably how aliens will be (at least for the few examples we have of people contemplating alien civilizations in history). We're extremely self-centered, which is perhaps not that surprising. And I feel that the Fermi Paradox fits in very well with this historical tendency; taking the elements of our modern age and giving them to extraterrestrials and then scratching our heads going "Well but why don't we see evidence of ourselves out in the universe?" 

 

I can't remember what the original title of the piece was going to be but Heather liked the second line so much she insisted that it be the headline. Looking at it now, I see that she was right. 

 

All We Want Is Someone Else To Talk To In This Universe

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