"For example, we could transmit the contents of the Internet."
March 28, 2015 9:32 PM   Subscribe

Seth Shostak, director of the Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute, suggests in a NYT Op-Ed that we should "offer the aliens Big Data."
Such a large corpus — with its text, pictures, videos and sounds — would allow clever extraterrestrials to decipher much about our society, and even formulate questions that could be answered with the material in hand.
Previously, Stephen Hawking has disagreed.
posted by Little Dawn (73 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
 
Alien get big data.

Aliens see #gamergate

Aliens throw many rocks at near light speed, wipe humanity out before we spread.
posted by eriko at 9:34 PM on March 28, 2015 [29 favorites]


We should send them enough data so they know we're made of meat. Then they'll merely quarantine us.
posted by ocschwar at 9:43 PM on March 28, 2015 [12 favorites]


Gamergate's the worst you can think of when it comes to reprehensible human behavior?? In terms of criminal culpability being beamed out to the Hereafter, I'm pretty sure we were doomed long before then.
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:44 PM on March 28, 2015 [23 favorites]



We should send them enough data so they know we're made of meat.


-transmit- hello.jpg
posted by the uncomplicated soups of my childhood at 9:46 PM on March 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


Now I'm imagining a variant of 'They Live' where the Aliens, having received our Big Data, conquer our species through a carefully planned combination of streaming web-series, discounted auction sites, and innocuous phone gadgets.

I think I'm on the Hawking side of this debate- if making first contact is anything like first dates, then one of your biggest mistakes is to provide the other with TMI.

Just imagine your reaction, or anyone's reaction, if they were just spontaneously thrown the content of 8chan, or YouTube, with no warning or explanation. Mass data without context is at best angrily dismissed and at worst the basis of deep animosity.
posted by LeRoienJaune at 9:51 PM on March 28, 2015 [11 favorites]


I like to think the aliens would be mollified by all of the pictures of cute kittens.
posted by webmutant at 10:24 PM on March 28, 2015 [10 favorites]


We should send them enough data so they know we're made of meat. Then they'll merely quarantine us.

"Phase One: Tell the aliens we're made of meat. Phase two, ??? Phase three, CONFIT!"
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:27 PM on March 28, 2015 [19 favorites]


"Do you understand this latest transmission from Earth?"

"No, I don't. Gwyneth Paltrow's severed head is in the box..."

"So why is Brad Pitt so sad?"

"Yeah, I just don't get it."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:54 PM on March 28, 2015 [6 favorites]


"My God, it's full of porn!"
posted by boilermonster at 11:10 PM on March 28, 2015 [13 favorites]


If the universe is dominated by alien cats we are fine.
posted by fallingbadgers at 12:03 AM on March 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


Look, all us rational people know there are other civilizations out there. It's probably one of the safest unproven probabilities there is. So, the question really becomes what type of aliens do we really want to interact with. Let's face it: We don't want the assholes. We don't want the Vogon constructor fleet. We don't want a million mechanized Hitler robots. We want the cool cats. We can be dicks, sure, but we can also be pretty cool when you get us alone and away from the crowd. This is a seduction. Don't tell them that you pick your nose and that you killed a million Jews on the first night! Fuck no. Wait a bit for that shit.

You wanna know what to do? Send only Caddyshack. It's a statement. It's saying: look, we're here, we're kinda weird, we have depth but we don't take ourselves too seriously.
posted by jimmythefish at 12:15 AM on March 29, 2015 [29 favorites]


From all over the Galaxy: unsubscribe.
posted by Segundus at 12:23 AM on March 29, 2015 [38 favorites]


"My God, it's full of porn!"

My thought's exactly. I mean a friend told me that it is.
posted by ZeroAmbition at 12:34 AM on March 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


I've read The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin. This will not end well.
posted by moody cow at 12:44 AM on March 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


Free bananas on Earth!
posted by en forme de poire at 1:05 AM on March 29, 2015 [9 favorites]


□ Please tick here if you do not want us to use your personal data to contact you by electronic means (e-mail or SMS) with information about goods and services similar to those which were the subject of a previous sale or negotiations of a sale to you.
□ Please tick here if you do not want us to contact you in any other way (including by post or telephone) with information about goods and services which we feel may be of interest to you .
□ Please tick here if you are happy for us to disclose your personal data to selected third parties so that they can provide you with information about their goods or services.
□ Please tick here if you would like us to transmit your personal data to alien civilizations vastly more ancient and evil than our own.
posted by misteraitch at 1:15 AM on March 29, 2015 [16 favorites]


Now I'm imagining a variant of 'They Live' where the Aliens, having received our Big Data, conquer our species through a carefully planned combination of streaming web-series, discounted auction sites, and innocuous phone gadgets.

How do you know that that isn't already happening??
posted by BungaDunga at 1:24 AM on March 29, 2015 [3 favorites]


When it comes to interstellar communication, erring on the side of caution seems the better bet.

That said, I for one am not convinced that there really are all that many civilisations out there. Life, sure, that seems a given (fingers crossed for Ceres!). Over the evolutionary history of our planet, a myriad of clever adaptations have sprung up time and again independently, yet tool-using high functioning (relatively speaking) intelligence only once. It just seems as if there is not much pressure to develop brains over brawn. Heck, even the development of multi-celluar life seems to have hinged on unlikely circumstances.

Still, here we are. Whether we are here at a moment in a large and long-lasting universe concomitantly with another communicating civilisation within reach is a different question. Given the distances involved, it is unlikely that we shall ever leave the Solar system (though if our descendants were to do so, cstross’ Saturn’s Children would be my scenario—no room for the Fragile among the stars), and frankly, I think we ourselves shall provide the answer to the Fermi paradox in time.
posted by bouvin at 1:45 AM on March 29, 2015 [3 favorites]


I'm pretty sure that if we go to them, we will destroy them. If they come to us, they will destroy us. If they don't destroy us, but instead give us amazing technological miracles, we will destroy ourselves. I really don't see much upside to contact given the inevitable intelligence and technology disparity.
posted by ryanrs at 2:15 AM on March 29, 2015 [4 favorites]


Look, all us rational people know there are other civilizations out there. It's probably one of the safest unproven probabilities there is.

I had always counted myself among those rational people, until I recently watched a BBC documentary called Human Universe. Though I had heard of Fermi's Paradox and the implications of self-replicating machines, it had never been convincingly explained to me in a manner that had overcome the apparent obviousness of the "probabilities". Now it seems much less of a sure bet.
posted by fairmettle at 2:19 AM on March 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


You cannot send "text, pictures, videos and sounds" through space. You can only send signals. If you don't know what a signal is supposed to be or how to interpret it, it is useless. Just as a taste of how difficult this problem could be, imagine sending several sheets of paper with ones and zeros back in time, say, to the 1940s, when some principles of computing were understood but modern computing standards were not yet in place. Maybe it is a PCM-encoded file of a part of a Beatles song. Could, say, Alan Turing have heard the Beatles before they existed? No way. Perhaps he could have determined many of the regularities in the signal -- but regularities exist in all signals unless they're encrypted, so, how does one figure out what is encoded?

Now throw into the mix that aliens would have completely different evolutionary histories, sense organs, communication, culture, etc, etc. This would be a big enough problem even if we knew a specific alien intelligence's physiology, history and culture; but the *more general* we try to make a signal (because we don't know who's listening), the *more difficult* it is for any specific entity to understand what's being said.

Stick with pulses until we meet the aliens, then we can work out what to say. This in itself will be nearly intractable, but it sure is more tractable than communication by dumping (apparently) random signals into space.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 2:38 AM on March 29, 2015 [25 favorites]


If the universe is dominated by alien cats we are fine.

If? You know that it is.
posted by Drinky Die at 2:59 AM on March 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


I like the idea that we might actually have to contend with being the supreme, advanced alien race. It'll turn out that no civilization can ever actually last long enough to explore the stars or even contact anyone else - everyone self-destructs or collapses before they reach that point. So we're #1 by default. And it turns out there will be no galactic congress that we'll stumble across, no faster-than-light travel. Every planet goes through a period where some lifeforms go about their business for a while, and then they die off without really answering the big questions.

Anyway, I agree that the universe will turn out to be dominated by talking cats.
posted by teponaztli at 3:41 AM on March 29, 2015 [5 favorites]


I like the idea that we might actually have to contend with being the supreme, advanced alien race.

The lack of artifacts from Elder Races suggests that we are the Elder Things. Shoggoth technology's not moving very quickly, fortunately.
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:51 AM on March 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


we might actually have to contend with being the supreme, advanced alien race

ha ha the galaxy is pretty fucked
posted by ryanrs at 3:55 AM on March 29, 2015 [13 favorites]


Such a large corpus — with its text, pictures, videos and sounds — would allow clever extraterrestrials to decipher much about our society, and even formulate questions

WHAT IS THIS I DON'T EVEN
posted by happyroach at 3:58 AM on March 29, 2015 [3 favorites]


How do you know that that isn't already happening??

I do believe that was the point. A sort of joke, if you will.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:04 AM on March 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


This is just a way of offshoring data mining operations to Sirius B where there are no privacy laws because the Glf34ljf'th groupmind has no concept of privacy.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 4:13 AM on March 29, 2015 [6 favorites]


It is hilarious to think that we might be the first galactic intelligence, just in our early primitive phase. Vulcan pre Sarek, as it were. "Galactic Congress, I've been researching your ancient historical archives. Please explain to me, because I do not understand; what was a four chan?" "Those were dark times in our history, child."

Or it could mean that, through gamma ray bursts, asteroids, and etc., our universe is just too hostile too quick to prevent intelligent life from progressing too far.

Or it could be that intelligent life stops wasting bandwidth after this stage and just gets radio quiet.

This is such a fun question.
posted by leotrotsky at 5:04 AM on March 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


You cannot send "text, pictures, videos and sounds" through space.

Except of course on spacecraft, as we do all the time, the famous example being "V-ger".
posted by chavenet at 5:20 AM on March 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


If the universe is dominated by alien cats....

I hope not like Larry Niven's xenofelidae: 'Kzinti evolved from a plains hunting felid on a slightly colder, drier planet than Earth....'
posted by Kronos_to_Earth at 5:52 AM on March 29, 2015


I like to think the aliens would be mollified by all of the pictures of cute kittens.

But what if an Alf-like race is out there?
posted by drezdn at 5:56 AM on March 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


If you don't know what a signal is supposed to be or how to interpret it, it is useless.

Stanislaw Lem has you covered in his excellent novel His Master's Voice. If the idea of interpreting SETI signals is at all interesting to you, this book is a must-read.
posted by Nelson at 5:57 AM on March 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


Many years ago I recall reading a long and thoughtful article, I think in AmSci, about what aliens could tell about our civilization from the way we had suddenly turned our otherwise mediocre star into one of the brightest radio objects in the galaxy.

The conclusion was "quite a lot," but within the first few sentences the researchers blew away the idea that aliens would be watching our TV shows. While the carrier waves of domestic transmitters would be detectable at a range of light-years, the sidebands containing their programming content would not. So the article concluded that the aliens would easily learn the length of our day and year, and probably conclude that we were carbon based and had oceans, but they wouldn't be listening to Mozart or watching I Love Lucy.

If you do want to deliberately transmit information, you need very high power and a very directional, carefully aimed antenna, which means you kind of need to know where to point it first. Then your chances of success are higher the slower you transmit. Morse code might be understood in a situation where the fine sidebands encoding sound or video are inaudible in the noise.

So the basic idea of transmitting "big data" simply doesn't fly, whether or not it's a good idea. Space is too vast and noisy for it. The aliens can, however, probably hear our EAT HERE message just fine.
posted by localroger at 5:59 AM on March 29, 2015 [8 favorites]


Its odd that the article doesn't at all mention the issue of translation / decoding the data. It really seems non-trivial to me that data sent to an extra-terrestrial life form would be intelligible by that form.

Wasn't the Rosetta Stone one of the only ways we were able to decipher ancient scripts because it contained known scripts in parallel with the old?

Suppose you received a morse-code message that was a direct transposition of the raw binary data of a jpg compressed image of a kitten - but you had no idea what the actual message was. How long would it take to work out it was even a picture?

How did they send the earlier messages? Is this a problem that has been "solved" ? Is there some "immanent" or "obvious" encoding method? Self decoding messages. It seems like an impossible thing - how can you send a metalanguage that is not in the language?
posted by mary8nne at 6:40 AM on March 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


This is the cosmic version of online dating. We should be careful we don't attract psychos. Or maybe they're the ones who should be worried.
posted by Beethoven's Sith at 6:43 AM on March 29, 2015 [6 favorites]


WHAT IS THIS I DON'T EVEN

I AM TWELVE THOUSAND OF YOUR EARTH YEARS OLD AND WHAT IS THIS?
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 6:43 AM on March 29, 2015 [7 favorites]


Ha Carl Sagan was a consultant on the ARECIBO message - which looks like it would be pretty difficult to decode.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arecibo_message
posted by mary8nne at 6:50 AM on March 29, 2015


This is not far from the premise of Constellation Games, a great SF novel that I highly, highly recommend to the population of MetaFilter.
posted by Sokka shot first at 6:50 AM on March 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


When it comes to interstellar communication, erring on the side of caution seems the better bet.

When it comes to interstellar communication, having any intuitive sense of scale at all renders all bets moot.
posted by flabdablet at 6:57 AM on March 29, 2015 [4 favorites]


- Waits 10,000 years for file to download

- Clicks on file

- "Please install Quicktime Plugin to view file"

- Fuck.
posted by octothorpe at 7:00 AM on March 29, 2015 [27 favorites]


no no no we don't start off our communications with alien intelligences by blasting them with all our data. We only do that right at the end, when the planet-wide neural net is waking, increased mindworm and fungus activity threatens to overrun our bases, and it becomes clear that fusing with the planet-spanning intelligence is the only path forward for both us and the alien mind itself.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 7:06 AM on March 29, 2015 [5 favorites]


If one has had even passing acquaintance with other human beings it seems ludicrously naive to say 'let's send incredibly detailed information about us on purpose to persons of whom we know nothing and of whose intentions and capabilities we are ignorant - what can go wrong?!'* even apart from the unlikelihood that the signals would communicate anything other than that we are here.

It's like Pascal's Wager in reverse: we have nothing to lose by behaving as if there are no alien species because if we find that there are alien species they may come and take our world Outside where we will be devoured eternally by Azathoth while the mad piping of Nyarlathotep sets the steps of the mindless Other Gods.

I had always wondered why the cultists in Lovecraft were so keen on bringing the Old Ones back since even the source material makes it plain that the result does not end well for any human beings, but I guess this story explains it. Human beings simply cannot resist pushing the shiny red button that says DO NOT PUSH SERIOUSLY DON'T PUSH IT.

*yes the internet does this too but not with the same specificity as to location or identity in most cases.
posted by winna at 7:08 AM on March 29, 2015 [6 favorites]


Greetings, Earthlings. Take us to your brewers.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:52 AM on March 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


If we send them all of our data, they're just going to want to know how "Single Female Lawyer" ends.
posted by drezdn at 7:56 AM on March 29, 2015 [8 favorites]


"My God, it's full of porn!"

My thought's exactly. I mean a friend told me that it is.


That's what the internet is for, isn't it?
posted by Berend at 8:13 AM on March 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


Its odd that the article doesn't at all mention the issue of translation / decoding the data.

All aliens speak English. Duh.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:36 AM on March 29, 2015


"You've got mail."

*alien looks at e-mail*

*report as spam*
posted by Fizz at 8:43 AM on March 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


Alien response: "Hey, is it just me, or is that termite mound over there smellier than usual?"
posted by Sonny Jim at 8:46 AM on March 29, 2015


Human beings simply cannot resist pushing the shiny red button that says DO NOT PUSH SERIOUSLY DON'T PUSH IT.

Right, that's actually where Lovecraft was aiming. That there are limits to human comprehension, but not to human curiosity, so eventually we'll shoot ourselves in the collective foot by amassing too much knowledge and power without quite enough real and tangible understanding. What good are atomic bombs in the basement if you never get to use them? Nyarlathotep, in its various incarnations, is only really at fault for being too eager to share cosmic wisdom and knowledge that humanity doesn't know what to do with yet. In the earlier stories, the dead-but-dreaming entities seem to appeal to human greed; in the later stories, they're corporeal species that appeal to our insatiable need to know. The later stories were kind of pushing past the pessimism, though; it's a shame Lovecraft died so young (then again, living to see atom bombs, used on populous cities, probably would've punched a huge hole in that cautious optimism).

Also, I guess I have to be the one to reference Peter Watts' Blindsight? Aliens spend a long time trying to decode and comprehend human signals and communications, only to discover it's all cat videos and porn and drunken texts. Which, because they're really alien and because all of that is totally useless to them, their first impression of our entire mode of consciousness is to see it as a weapon--we spend all this time talking, appearing to say meaningful things, but we're mostly just chatting, wasting your precious incomprehensibly superior alien brain power. Oops.
posted by byanyothername at 8:49 AM on March 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


Who knows? If we started actively broadcasting, aliens might take it as a declaration of yellow, a friendly glass of water or war cars. We're just figuring out that our solar system might be awash in water, with alien life hidden under miles of ice. So said life can't even see stars and might have no concept of outer space and be happily doing their thing at whatever their equivalent level of 2,500BC technology. Yeah, pioneer and voyager just zipped past alien with no idea they were there.

What's reasonable to guess is that whatever intelligent life is out there is too damn far away to do much of anything other than send messages back and forth and plan on meeting up in 10,000 years or so. If they want to make war, fine. Just remember we have millions of battle hardened allies living on our skin, so tread carefully.

But at this rate, we'll probably kill most of us real soon and looking for trouble across the galaxy will be the least of our worries. Some alien civilization will see our burst of radio activity, then watch it dramatically scale back and just shrug their z'akeeyaqfdns, while their scientists ponder what those mysterious signals were.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:04 AM on March 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


Human beings simply cannot resist pushing the shiny red button that says DO NOT PUSH SERIOUSLY DON'T PUSH IT.

"inappropriately pushed button." Thirty-eight times.

"I'm pretty sure that if we go to them, we will destroy them. If they come to us, they will destroy us. If they don't destroy us, but instead give us amazing technological miracles, we will destroy ourselves."

Absolutely.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: our species is still having HUGE problems considering other people of our species who have slightly different skin colors as human and deserving of respect instead of annihilation. Hell, one half of our species is still having HUGE problems considering the other half of the species (the reproducing half) as human and deserving of respect instead of annihilation. We can't handle aliens. We'd nuke them the second they landed. And if we send this stuff out, they'll come to nuke us. And maybe we deserve to be nuked, under the circumstances.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:25 AM on March 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


I know rational people who say, contact was made long ago. The chief feature here is the liquid water, don't let them lull us with the thought there is plenty of future water out on Jupiter's, and Saturn's moons, or in the subsurface Ringwoodite, this water is ours. Too late.

We are physical matter oriented, yet we as a species, believe in all kinds of magic as long as it is attributed to "gods" of various kinds, we submit to the powers we ascribe to them. What a setup. Aliens who brought suits go to Wall Street in this time, aliens who brought robes went to Arrarat in that time. They are just working the long game. I think the Yazidi have the truth. May as well be them. I really think we should turn off the "We are Universe class stupid rubes," beacon. The Sufis say, "As above, so below."

The world will be cleansed by fire, yeah that will just be some flash Hydrogen mining. Yeah that was a pretty clean uptake, lots of extra proteins, well, clean the traps, done!
posted by Oyéah at 9:28 AM on March 29, 2015


Yeah, our main concern is finding a spokesman who will speak for Earth.
posted by mule98J at 9:29 AM on March 29, 2015


what
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:29 AM on March 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


You heard it spokesMAN! We definitely should use the Oxyclean guy!
posted by Oyéah at 9:43 AM on March 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


I've said it before and I'll say it again: our species is still having HUGE problems considering other people of our species who have slightly different skin colors as human and deserving of respect instead of annihilation.

That's our species and that's a very narrow view of it. For every example you could cite, I could come up with another one that shows sworn predators living together as friends.

We just don't know how things would go down if we found life outside planet Earth. It would depend on a lot of factors, who 's ahead technology wise, what resources each needs, the general outlook on others, who the particular leaders are the moment of contact.

Maybe their "flesh" will be laced with something that affects us like cocaine does and we hunt them down. Maybe our feces will be like alcohol to them and we develop a very odd trade agreement. Maybe we'll find them repulsive to look at and they'll then we smell awful and we just agree to text each other every now and then. Maybe they'll like hanging out with the dolphins more than us.

The rich diversity of life tells me that anything is possible.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:45 AM on March 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


I had always wondered why the cultists in Lovecraft were so keen on bringing the Old Ones back since even the source material makes it plain that the result does not end well for any human beings, but I guess this story explains it. Human beings simply cannot resist pushing the shiny red button that says DO NOT PUSH SERIOUSLY DON'T PUSH IT.

There are apparently large numbers of people who strive to appear on Jerry Springer and the like, because then they'd BE ON TV. Tugging on the Galaxy's pants leg like this strikes me as that kind of thing -- raising yourself from safe obscurity into the world's awareness as a complete idiot willing to go completely against your best interests in exchange for some ephemeral attention.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 9:55 AM on March 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


Right, that's actually where Lovecraft was aiming. That there are limits to human comprehension, but not to human curiosity, so eventually we'll shoot ourselves in the collective foot by amassing too much knowledge and power without quite enough real and tangible understanding.

Okay, I'll bite. I don't think this is the most interesting read of Lovecraft. Although the proximal cause of the gibbering madness into which his characters descend is the presence of an alien monster or an old god or a color from space beyond our comprehension, what these entities represent aren't alien monsters, exactly, but instead the deep uncanny alienness of existence — the monstrousness of any Cthulu or whatever that happens to dwell within existence is just a way of getting at the underlying Cthuloid quality of existence itself as an entity, without regard to any other entity that may or may not be within it.

Although Lovecraft himself frequently mistook his thoughts on existence's nightmarishly alien nature for thoughts about nightmarish aliens — and this tendency is what led him into his stupid-even-for-a-man-of-his-times racism and xenophobia — nevertheless it's wrong to think that Lovecraft's writing should be read as in some way or another counseling against curiosity. Existence will find you and it will get you and it will flay you, regardless of whether or not you, in your curiosity, seek out your demise.

In pragmatic terms, of course, this says nothing about whether or not we should blast our data into space. The fungi from Yuggoth are going to eat our souls, without any regard whatsoever for what we tell them about ourselves first.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 9:56 AM on March 29, 2015 [3 favorites]


I don't entirely agree about Lovecraft and curiosity; Lovecraft usually at least mentioned the option that if we retreat from the light of scientific knowledge and go back to living in the caves of ignorance and superstition, we could last much longer as a humane species. It's true of course that an elder god may awaken someday and eat us, but as long as we don't go mucking around trying to explore and understand the cosmos we are likely to survive far longer as something recognizably human. I think you see the theme in at least some of the Lovecraft cultists/wizards, that it's not necessarily the things outside of space that drove them mad, it was that by learning to understand the things outside of space that the cultists became what we would call mad.

Blindsight (of course) has similar themes. The human scientists in the book have learned to understand and interact with the universe in a fairly effective way, however to do so they have had to abandon various and large chunks of their humanity.
posted by Balna Watya at 11:28 AM on March 29, 2015


Okay, I'll bite. I don't think this is the most interesting read of Lovecraft.

Just to be clear, you're echoing me, not contradicting me. Which is cool, but the back and forth quotiness of conversation here sometimes looks like launching off points are places of disagreement, and you're reading from the exact same page I'm on. In fact, I think I'm a bit farther down: Lovecraft isn't really about the "horror of existence," because--and this is a quality lost in all the poorer imitations, but usually present in better works inspired by Lovecraft--there is an overwhelming sense of beauty in Lovecraft's world. It is quite possibly more beautiful and resplendent than the world as it exists; but we, as individuals, as a species, cannot contain or comprehend that beauty, and so are in a myriad of ways threatened by it. This is something Lovecraft was very eloquent and open about in letters and essays on writing. It's also something that sets Lovecraft apart from other science fiction writers: diversity in biology and physics fascinated Lovecraft. Most science fiction imagines the universe to be a very big sea we can sail with very big boats and land on very big continents to meet people very much like us. There's relatively little Western fiction and art that looks outside the anthropocentric. I think that's at play even in cases like this where people contemplate the existence of aliens; we think of blasting data into space because we think aliens will be just like us, only maybe green or something (and, as noted above, we'd probably hate green homo sapiens).

The whole thing about curiosity and knowledge leading to atrocities is less a moral and more a paradox. Lovecraft fully supported going off and poking the big weird thing sitting in the big dark place, because it's there and surviving an angered big weird thing betters our species. The thing is, the universe is strange and large enough that we'll never reach a point where we know enough to no longer face existential threats--in fact, the more we know, the more existential threats we're aware of. We like to think that knowing more about them enables us to do more about them, but that isn't necessarily the case; there are limits to our understanding and capabilities.

Doesn't mean we shouldn't explore the world anyway, though, and the distinction I wanted to make between earlier stories like "The Call of Cthulhu," and later stories like "The Whisperer in the Darkness," is that the former do more or less have monsters while the latter were starting to entertain the idea that stumbling into the unknown, unsettling and dangerous as it might be, may be expanding instead of shattering. It's not exactly fear being evoked. There's a tension in Lovecraft between a desire to know, and a fear of knowing what knowing would mean. We couldn't walk away from an encounter with the alien without becoming alien to ourselves; the surface narratives often treat that as a point of horror, but the underlying intent is more ambivalent. Becoming Other could be beautiful; and is, in any case, inescapable given time.

But blasting tons of data out all over space is still probably not a good idea.
posted by byanyothername at 11:29 AM on March 29, 2015 [4 favorites]


Human beings simply cannot resist pushing the shiny red button that says DO NOT PUSH SERIOUSLY DON'T PUSH IT.

I'm assuming it's this one.
posted by gimonca at 11:36 AM on March 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


On the plus side, this would give alien John Varley on the other side of the galaxy an idea for a very, very good book.
posted by sonascope at 12:28 PM on March 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm with you, byanyothername, though my go-to for writing about the beauty of radical alterity through monstrosity is Miéville, not Lovecraft.1

Still though I hesitate to entirely agree with you on the arc of his career. Likely, though, what I want to find in Lovecraft is a nihilist Lovecraft, an "existence is a blankness that I'm going to fill with monsters" version of him that doesn't admit to the possibility of the unknown as expanding rather than shattering precisely because it doesn't allow any affirmation of any possibility other than a total shattering. And I may be finding signs of that that aren't actually there. 2

okay now I'm on team "let's blast all our data into space just to be weird."

1: (yes I know the dependency of the one on the other, but there are ways that Lovecraft was a bad describer and this gets in the way for me).a
a: well but okay if I were thinking hard instead of You Can't Tip a Buick-ing, here's where I'd talk about Lovecraft's strategy of having characters always almost but not quite describe the horrible beauty of the thing that they almost but can't quite remember because they've been driven almost but not quite mad by exposure to it, and maybe this thing that drove them almost but not quite mad wasn't even the thing itself, but just a picture of the thing, and how all of that points to Lovecraft also being about representation as a practice and man I can't even begin to untangle what all of that might mean.
2: Ironic, that.

posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 1:08 PM on March 29, 2015


The interesting thing about sending "big data" is that it is a complex, obviously intelligent signal which repeats on a micro scale but is not uniform at a macro scale. There's no way you could look at any reasonably transmissable encoding of Wikipedia or whatever and think it's a naturally occurring phenomenon or that it represents anything other than the product of a technological process. Of course, a much simpler repeating signal (a square wave, basically) says the same thing, but that's a flashlight compared to the spotlight this would represent. I'm still skeptical that we possess any reasonable means of transmitting this in a form anyone could ever receive, let alone decode, but as far as it goes, it seems like a reasonable idea.

Personally, I don't think these transmissions represent a substantial risk. Assuming an alien civilization can decode it in the first place, we're not telling them how to disable our nuclear arsenal or anything like that. If they are in a position to receive the signal, there will be others leaking through to give us away unintentionally or otherwise because the alternative isn't radio silence. We really don't have any understanding of what means a potentially hostile civilization might use to locate prey. As far as staying hidden goes, remember that we are just on the cusp of developing telescopes powerful enough to determine the composition of the atmosphere of an extrasolar planet. If someone is after us for our water or oxygen or whatever else can be detected via spectroscopy, and they have the means to get here, then they almost certainly have a telescope powerful enough to detect us without our involvement.

It's not that I disagree with Hawking, per se, but I do think that if there are such predator species out there, they are going to be skilled and powerful enough to detect us even if we're trying to stay hidden, so it seems to be in our best interest to reach out in a positive way to try and find allies and on the off chance that we really are lucky enough for there to be a United Federation of Planets out there beyond the heliopause.
posted by feloniousmonk at 3:56 PM on March 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


I subscribe to the "Yog-Sothoth is Lovecraft personifying how fucking freaky weird it is for spacetime to be a thing instead of space and time being separate" interpretation.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:11 PM on March 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


By the way here's my plot outline for a sci-fi horror story which I will never write (or alternatively, someone else's whose plot I only barely recall). An obviously intelligent signal is received from a star 250 light years distant. This is such an incredible distance that while the confirmation that we are not alone throws the world into an uproar, the event's drama is somewhat muted by the fact of the distance. After a period of deliberation, we decide to attempt to send a reply, knowing the chances of success are slim and that the life of the experiment will extend long beyond that of the scientists who began it. A few months after sending our reply, far too quickly to be in response to our own message, we receive another intelligent signal, this time from 100 light years away. The nearness of this new civilization rekindles the panic of the initial discovery and a response is quickly sent to that one, too. Months later, we receive several more signals, but by now we're into Apollo 17 territory and it hardly makes the news. Replies go there, too. 5 years later, still far too soon for our own signals to have arrived, repeat signals are received from each star. This time, the messages are extremely brief, a few kilobytes of data at most. A few months later, gamma ray bursts are detected at each location, a few days apart. Fortunately, the media didn't care about the second signals so the horrible truth was easy to supress: we've just witnessed the destruction of a handful of civilizations at the hands of a godlike power, events which had transpired before we received the original signals, and we've also just said hello...
posted by feloniousmonk at 4:21 PM on March 29, 2015 [9 favorites]


through gamma ray bursts, asteroids, and etc., our universe is just too hostile too quick to prevent intelligent life from progressing too far.
We're tracking down NEO asteroid orbits, and could be able to redirect any threatening asteroids within the next century. I suspect we could be capable of identifying gamma ray burster warning signs and hiding our orbital habitats in planetary and stellar shadows within a millenium. We'd be ready orders of magnitude earlier than we'd expect extinction-level natural disasters in either case.

If we still haven't reached the Great Filter explaining Fermi's Paradox, it won't be the universe that's too hostile for intelligent life, it will be intelligent life that's too hostile for intelligent life. There's been a disturbing trend for a few centuries now where offensive technology turns out to progress faster then defensive technology. If that keeps up, then the human race may simply be wiped out as soon as script-kiddie-friendly technology moves on from computer viruses to human viruses.
posted by roystgnr at 7:31 PM on March 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


@feloniousmonk: Have you ever read the short story, "Last Contact", by Stephen Baxter? It has some parallels to your idea
posted by Renoroc at 8:08 PM on March 29, 2015


Hmm, I'm not familiar, but I'll check it out, thanks!
posted by feloniousmonk at 12:20 AM on March 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


Except of course on spacecraft, as we do all the time, the famous example being "V-ger".

Spacecrafts have a different problem; they are so tiny in empty space they will never be seen. In addition, sending a picture this way still assumes certain things about the brains of aliens. We have particular ways of representing visual information that depends on our evolutionary history and culture. For instance, the line drawings of humans need not be interpreted as living things (the cues that something is a life form, on this planet, like bilateral symmetry, are not necessarily universal) nor even as projections of 3d objects into 2d. An alien species whose primary sense was echo-based in a dense medium may not recognize etchings as representations of 3d objects.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 1:43 AM on March 30, 2015 [3 favorites]


The benevolent, technologically superior aliens who come in a spirit of discovery and to trade in cultural artefacts will probably feel awfully guilty when their exotic viruses wipe most of us out in a tragic and unforeseen accident.
posted by walrus at 9:13 AM on March 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


Stanislaw Lem has you covered in his excellent novel His Master's Voice. If the idea of interpreting SETI signals is at all interesting to you, this book is a must-read.

I didn't really like it. Maybe I missed the point of the book but I felt it was bogged down by way too much lofty philosophic talk from the main character. The actual signal almost took a back seat in the story.
posted by ymgve at 9:47 AM on March 31, 2015


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