We’re only halfway through the year 2023, and it already feels like the year of alien contact.
In February, President Joe Biden ordered the release of three unidentified aerial phenomena – NASA’s title for UFOs. Then, the alleged footage leaked from a Navy UFO pilot, and then news about a the whistleblower’s report on a possible US government cover-up of UFO research. Most recent, independent analysis published in June suggests that UFOs may have been collected by a secret agency of the US government.
If any actual evidence of extraterrestrial life emerges, whether from whistleblower testimony or a cover-up confession, humans would face a historical paradigm shift.
As members of an Indigenous Studies working group, we were asked to lend our disciplinary expertise to a workshop affiliated with the organisation. Berkeley SETI Research Center, we studied centuries of cultural encounters and their results from around the globe. Our collaborative preparation for the workshop drew on cross-disciplinary research in Australia, New Zealand, Africa and across the Americas.
In its final form, our group statement it showed the need for different perspectives on the ethics of listening to alien life and a broadening of what defines “information” and “life”. Based on our findings, we consider first contact to be less of an event and more of a long process that has already begun.
The question of who is “in charge” of preparing for contact with alien life immediately comes to mind. The communities – and their interpretive lenses – are the most likely to engage in any contact situation, military, corporate and scientific.
By giving Americans the legal right to profit from space tourism and the extraction of planetary resources, the The Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015 it could mean that corporations are the first signs of finding extraterrestrial societies. Otherwise, while the detection of unidentified phenomena from the air is usually a military matter, and NASA is in charge of sending messages from Earth, most activities related to extraterrestrial communication and evidence fall to a program called SETI, or the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
SETI is a collection of scientists with a variety of research efforts, including Breakthrough Listen, which listens for “technosignatures,” or markers, such as pollutants, of designed technology.
SETI investigators are almost always STEM scholars – science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Few people in the fields of social science and humanities have been given opportunities to contribute to contact concepts and preparations.
In a prospective act of disciplinary inclusion, the Berkeley SETI Research Center invited working groups in 2018 – including ours. Indigenous studies working group – from fields outside of STEM to craft perspective papers for consideration by SETI scientists.
The ethics of listening
There is no current statement of ethics on the Breakthough Listen site or the SETI site other than a commitment to transparency. Our working group was not the first to raise this question. And although the SETI Institute and some research centers have included ethics in their event programming, it seems relevant to ask who NASA and SETI answer to, and what ethical guidelines they are following in relation to a possible first contact situation.
Post SETI Detection Hub – another rare exception to SETI’s ETIM-centrism – a range of contact scenarios is likely to be developed. Possible scenarios envisioned include finding ET artifacts, detecting signals from thousands of light years away, dealing with language incompatibility, finding microbial organisms in space or on another planet, and biological contamination of their species or ours. Whether the US government or military leaders will pay attention to these cases is another matter.
SETI-affiliated scholars tend to reassure critics that the intentions of those listening for technological signatures are good, since “what harm could come from simply listening?” SETI Research chair emeritus, Jill Tarter, protective hearing because any ET civilization would see our listening techniques as immature or primitive.
But our working group drew on the history of colonial encounters to illustrate the dangers of thinking that entire civilizations are sufficiently advanced or intelligent. For example, when Christopher Columbus and other European explorers came to the Americas, those relationships were shaped by the preconceived notion that the “Indians” were not as advanced because of their lack of writing. This led to decades of native slavery in America.
The working group’s statement also suggested that the act of listening itself is already within a “contact phase”. Like colonialism itself, contact is best thought of as a series of events that begin with planning, rather than as a singular event. Seen this way, is listening without permission just another form of surveillance? The working group seemed to listen carefully but without discriminating against our working group.
It seems contradictory that we begin our relationship with foreigners by eavesdropping without their permission while actively working to stop other countries from eavesdropping on certain US communications. If humans are initially perceived as disrespectful or uncaring, ET contact is more likely to colonize us.
Throughout the history of Western colonization, even in those small cases where contact people were intended to be protected, contact has resulted in brutal violence, pandemics, slavery and genocide.
The HMS Endeavor James Cook’s voyage began in 1768 on the HMS Endeavour Royal Society. This prestigious British academic society commissioned him to calculate the solar distance between the Earth and the Sun by measuring the visible movement of Venus across the Sun from Tahiti. The association strictly forbade him from any colonial commitment.
Although he achieved his scientific goals, Cook also received orders from the Crown to map and claim as much territory as possible on the return voyage. Cook’s actions implemented wide-scale colonization and Indigenous dispossession across Oceania, including the the violent conquests of Australia and New Zealand.
The Royal Society gave Cook a “prime directive” to do no harm and only to conduct research that would benefit humanity in general. However, explorers are rarely independent of their funders, and their explorations reflect the political contexts of their time.
As scholars grapple with research ethics and the history of colonialism, we wrote about Cook in our working group statement to demonstrate why SETI would want to overtly separate their minds from the actions of corporations, the military and government.
Although separated by time and space, both the Cook and SETI expeditions share key qualities, including their appeal to celestial science in the service of all humanity. They also share a discrepancy between their ethical protocols and the likely long-term consequences of their success.
The initial dominos of an ET public message, or recovered bodies or ships, could initiate cascading events, including military actions, corporate resource mining and perhaps even geopolitical reorganization. The history of imperialism and colonialism on Earth shows that not everyone benefits from colonization. No one knows for sure how engagement with aliens would go, though it’s better to look to cautionary tales from Earth’s own history sooner rather than later.