DAVID BRIN's world of ideas

An Open letter to Alien Lurkers

By David Brin, Ph.D.

First, a message for you humans out there who happen to be reading this right now.

As many of you know, I approach the topic of non-human intelligent life from two perspectives. As an author using fiction to explore notions beyond today's science, I explore the forms and motivations that alien beings might assume, from outlandish to eerily familiar. I am also involved in the same subject at the scientific end, participating in the International Astronomical Union's Subcommittee on Bioastronomy.

SETI -- the Search For Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence -- can be a difficult and confusing topic, straddling the concerns of everyone from sober researchers to politicians to dreamers hoping that alien contact may somehow save humanity "from ourselves."


[1870 ufo image from UFOCasebook.com]

The good news? This widely-shared interest seems to reflect an eager expansiveness of spirit and willingness to entertain fresh ideas far beyond our mundane lives. The bad news is that our imaginations have forged so far beyond the sparse data on hand that things can get rather silly at times. Take those paranoic rumors that the U.S. Government has kept an alien spaceship stashed away, studying it for decades. (Hmm... so it's been studied incessantly by three generations of our brightest engineers... without any of them blowing the whistle by now? Right.)

Nearly all SETI researchers agree that the public should be told right away, after any radio contact is confirmed. Most have initialed or signed a "protocol", agreeing in advance to principles of openness -- e.g., that the contents of any message must not be kept secret. Still, there is disagreement over details. For example; though no signal from an interstellar civilization has ever been confirmed, controversy rages over whether or not we should reply, when and if someone does pick up such a message. Should our openness policy extend to announcing the exact sky coordinates of the signal source, and the frequency extraterrestrials are using?

Many SETI researchers think any confirmed signal will automatically result in a cacophony of replies, sent at once by any nation or interest group with the technology to shape a radio signal. Everyone from Ayatollahs to the Mafia, from science fiction fans and Klingon language scholars to recently-discovered Amazon tribes will begin beaming appeals and tracts at a particular point in space, almost the very next day.

A minority in the SETI community thinks it would make better sense not to reply right away. Waiting a decade or so, to gather data and discuss the ramifications, might seem more prudent than instantly hollering into the unknown. Just look at the history of contact between human cultures, in our recent past. The less technologically advanced nearly always suffered.


[image from PBS.org]

True, aliens may be a lot nicer than 18th Century European colonialists were. But would you bet our future on it? Our limited experience suggests that it's sensible for the weaker party to be cautious, and concentrate on listening before shouting.

As I've written elsewhere, the apparent emptiness of the cosmos seems to suggest that something may be dangerous about our galaxy.

But in fact, it seems that a message to aliens is about to be sent, whether we like it or not! This one doesn't involve expensive transmitters or engravings on a space probe. There won't be any extravagant shouting into interstellar space, because this message will go out swiftly and cheaply... on the Internet. Toronto academic Allen Tough and 80 colleagues plan to issue an appeal via the World Wide Web, inviting extraterrestrial intelligent life-forms to please say hello.

Professor Tough's operating assumption -- and hope -- is that a smart probe from some advanced civilization may already be monitoring our telecommunications. Perhaps it has resided in our solar system for centuries or longer. Or maybe it was drawn in recently, by radio signals emanating from our little world. Either way, if it has kept up with the increasing sophistication of our signals, it may be monitoring the Web right now.

In other words "they" may already be here, in a manner of speaking. They just haven't chosen to speak up.

Dr. Tough hopes to do something about this possibility. His web site is designed to draw the attention of any alien "lurker" (or lurkers) out there. He hopes the content of the hello page will persuade the alien to abandon its present policy of silence. Perhaps the right kind of invitation will sway ET (or ET's probe) to phone us.


[image from David Brin]

All right, let's go along with this assumption. Before crafting any such message, we should ask -- what do we already know?

The one clear fact about any purported lurking space alien or probe is that most of us are presently unaware of its existence. It's been silent, so far. At least to a majority of human beings.

The most likely conclusion to draw from this sole fact? Why, that such a lurker probably doesn't exist!

Still, that's not the only possible explanation. My 1983 short story -- "Lungfish" -- explored this very situation, coming up with a number of possible alternatives. I admit, the subject fascinates me.

So let's stretch our imaginations! In drafting this essay, committed to electronic form and cast into space, here's what I came up with, so far.


[image from LizaPhoenix.com]

To Any Alien Lurkers Prowling or Waiting Out There

If you are reading this, perusing the electronic communications network of our lonely little planet, please pick whichever of the following applies to you, and ignore the rest:

  1. If you've spent years monitoring our radio, our television -- and now our internet-- and the reason you haven't answered is that you are afraid of the rash or violent behavior you see depicted in our media... please be reassured!

    True, many of our movies and TV stories portray distrust, selfishness, hot tempers and extreme violence. But you should know that, in fact, very few of us ever experience events as disturbing those you see in our dramas. Most of us actually dislike such violent traits in ourselves. By exploring these ancient feelings, inherited from a dark past, we hope to understand them better.

    Also note: in a vast majority of these stories, the "loser" tends to be whichever person or group was more aggressive or intolerant at the start. Doesn't that say something about our moral heading?

    The same holds for non-fiction. Despite news reports depicting a riotous world, the actual rate of mayhem in human society has declined dramatically during the last five decades, if measured on a per capita basis. Look up the actual numbers! More than two thirds of all humans living today have never personally witnessed war, mass starvation or major civil unrest -- an unprecedented fraction who have been allowed to improve their lot in peace. Many ancient bigotries and cruelties have been lessened, or have at least been put in bad repute. And with the spread of education, many far greater advances now seem possible.

    True, these achievements are still woefully unfinished. They leave tremendous amounts for us yet to do, in working toward a just and mature civilization. But they are clear signs of progress and overall good will by a majority of our species.

    Despite the self-critical news reports and flamboyantly exaggerated "action" stories you may have watched, please be assured that most human beings are calm, nonviolent people who treat strangers well. Many millions of us would be thrilled to meet you, and would expend every effort to ensure that peaceful, honest visitors are made welcome.

  2. If you've monitored our TV, radio, and internet, and the reason you haven't answered is that you are damaged, or otherwise incapable of sending, please be assured that we are on our way!

    We have begun, slowly, to explore our solar system. If you are not too deeply hidden, we should come upon you in the due course of time. We hope to make peaceful contact and learn your needs. If you are incapacitated, and our explorers feel you mean no harm, they will surely render you whatever aid they can, and call on the resources of our planet to bring more. Try to find a way to let us know where you are and what you need.

    If you are lost and far from home, welcome to our small part of this enormous universe. We offer whatever warmth and shelter we have to share.

  3. If you've monitored our TV, radio, and internet, and the reason you haven't answered is that you see us as competitors, we ask that you reconsider.

    In our long, slow struggle to achieve some degree of decent civilization, humans have slowly learned that competition and cooperation aren't inherent opposites, but twins, both in nature and in advanced societies. Under terms that are fair, and with goodwill, even those who begin suspicious of each other can discover ways to interact toward mutual benefit. (Use the Web to look up the concept of a positive-sum game, where "win-win" solutions bring success to all sides.)

    Surely there are ways that humanity -- and other Earth species -- should be able to join the cosmos without causing injury to your legitimate aims. Remember, most stable species and cultures seem to benefit from a little competition, now and then! So please answer. Let's talk about it.

  4. If you've monitored our TV, radio, and internet, and the reason you haven't answered is that you are waiting for us to pass some milestone of development... well then, how about a hint? Pretty please?

    If that milestone is for us to assertively ask for membership in some society of advanced sapient beings, please take this paragraph as that asserted step, taken by one subgroup of humanity, hoping to serve the interests of all our planet. Please give us the application forms... and all information (including costs and benefits) that we may need in order to make a well-informed decision about joining.

  5. If you've been monitoring our TV, radio, and internet, and the reason you haven't answered is that you are studying us and have a noninterference policy, let us now say that we understand the concept.

    Observing more primitive species or cultures can seem to demand silence, at least for a time, in order for the observer not to interfere with the subject's natural behavior. Your specific reason may be scientific detachment, or to let us enjoy our "innocence" a while longer, or perhaps because we are unusual in some rare or precious way. In fact, we can imagine many possible reasons you might give for keeping the flow of information going in just one direction -- from us to you -- and never the other way. Similar rationalizations are common among human beings.

    Of course, some humans might respond that it was cruel of you not to contact us during the Cold War, when news of contact might have prodded us away from our near-brush with nuclear annihilation. Or that you should have warned us of the dangers of ecological degradation. Others might argue that it's heartless to withhold advanced technologies that might help solve many of our problems, saving millions of lives.

    In fairness, some other humans would argue that we have won great dignity by doing it all by ourselves. They take pride in the fact that we show early signs of achieving maturity by our own hard efforts, alone. If your reason for silence is to let us have this dignity, that might make sense... so long as it isn't simply an excuse, a rationalization, to cover more selfish motives.

    To interfere or not? It is a moral and scientific quandary that you answer by silently watching, to see if we'll solve our problems by ourselves. (Perhaps we are doing better than you expected?) Who knows? Your reasons may even have great validity.

    Still, if you continue this policy, you cannot expect profound trust or gratitude when we finally overcome our hardships and emerge as starfaring adults without help. Oh, we'll try to be friendly and fair. But your long silence will make it hard, at least at first, to be friends.

    We understand cold-blooded scientific detachment. But consider -- the universe sometimes plays tricks on the mighty. In some distant age, our roles may be reversed. We hope you'll understand if our future stance toward you is set by your past-and-present behavior toward us.

  6. If you've monitored our TV, radio, and internet, perhaps you have a policy of noninterference for a different reason... in order to spare us and our culture from some harm that might come as a result of contact. An erosion of our sense of free will? Or our sense of having a high culture? We can understand this notion, too. Certainly the history of first contact between human cultures tells that the one with lower technology and sophistication often suffered ill effects.

    If mercy motivates your reticence, we grasp the concept. Yet, this provokes a question -- are you absolutely sure? Can you be certain we're so fragile? Is it possible you might be mistaken? Or (again) perhaps rationalizing a decision that you made for other reasons?

    Maybe you should test it by contacting small groups of humans -- perhaps via the internet -- to explore matters that concern you. This will be surprisingly easy and safe, since you can make your enquiries in the form of email letters, or by participating anonymously in online discussion groups. You can even call yourselves by your real names! Everyone on the discussion group will simply assume you are eccentric human beings, using internet pseudonyms to play-act as aliens! Any awkwardness with our language will be taken as another part of your act.

    On some sites, your overtures will be dismissed. Elsewhere, bright individuals will gladly play along, engaging you in conversation with lively enthusiasm, pretending to believe you are alien and discussing your concerns for the sheer intellectual joy of doing so. Anyway, you'll get to taste the diversity of human thought, plus a chance to reconsider your assumptions.

    Of course, it's possible that you are already doing this and testing us, perhaps by posing as eccentric participants in some of today's internet discussion groups... or possibly by writing intriguing science fiction stories under a pseudonym, to tease our imaginations.

    Perhaps you even lace these works with special clues that can only be deciphered by purchasing and carefully reading every one of the purported author's books.

    In hardcover, yet.

  7. If you've monitored our TV, radio, and internet, and the reason we don't know it is that you are already in contact with one or more human sub-groups -- perhaps a government or clique of individuals -- please consider the following.

    Human beings have discovered that secrecy is seldom an effective way to create or conduct good policy. It can have many temporary uses. But over the long run, we appear to make our best and most creative decisions -- and commit the fewest errors -- in situations of openness.

    The groups or governments you converse with may claim that there are good reasons to keep Contact secret from the public. It is even conceivable that such reasons have short-term validity. But small groups of humans are also notorious for rationalization -- elites have always claimed that the masses are too stupid or fragile to understand. After all, this helps justify their special position in society. Such rationalizations can be self-sustaining, far beyond their initial usefulness.

    We suggest you check this out by using our internet in the manner described above (in section #6). You might join some discussion groups. Apprise them of the supposed reasons for secrecy -- under the guise that you are just another human, pondering an abstract notion. If most or all of the participants disagree with those reasons, you may find it's time to re-evaluate your policy, and make yourself known to the rest of humanity.

  8. Let's suppose you've monitored our TV, radio, and internet, and the reason you haven't answered is that you enjoy watching. Perhaps you draw entertainment from our painful struggles to survive and grow. Worse, you may be profiting by pulling our cultural, scientific and artistic riches off the internet, without seeing any need to reciprocate or pay for them.

    In that case, there is a word for what you are doing. It's called stealing.

    Stop it now. We assert ownership over our culture, and a right to share it only with those who share in return. In the name of whatever law or moral code applies out there, do not take without giving or paying in return.

    The same holds double if you've been responsible for any of our current problems. For example, if you are behind any so-called "UFO sightings."

    The author of this web site is part of a group which consists mostly of SETI scholars who don't believe in UFOs. But millions of humans do believe. The reports they circulate describe purported visitors behaving in ways that are almost universally secretive and nasty, often downright vicious. Others claim that aliens have meddled in our politics, social structures or even our genes. Again, we in this group don't believe these stories. But if any of them happen to be true, and you are responsible, we ask you to desist at once.

    Instead, come forth openly, as honorable visitors should. SETI personnel would be eminently qualified to make the arrangements.

    Consider that maliciousness inevitably has consequences. If either of the scenarios described in this section are true, and you still refuse to come forward honestly, then we have just one thing to say to you. Go away! Ask your parents, guardians or other responsible folk to please come and see us instead.

    We hereby assert and demand any rights we may have, to appeal for relief or protection from the sort of behavior described above.

  9. Let's say you've monitored our TV, radio, and internet, and the reason you haven't answered is that you are meddling secretly in ways that you feel are beneficial to us. If so, please consider what has happened to human civilization, during the last century.

    We spent the first half of it plunging headlong into passionate ideologies, giving as much devotion to simpleminded political doctrines -- from communism and fascism to nationalism, fundamentalism and even solipsistic individualism -- as we used to dedicate to religion. Was this partly your doing? Or was it a horrible, adolescent phase that you could only watch us pass through, like an awful fever? In any event, it damn near killed us.

    The second half of the century was also a turmoil, featuring many episodes of wrath, violence and ultimate risk. And yet, across the last five decades, ideologies have gradually lost some of their grip on millions. Instead of oversimplified assumptions or "rules" of human behavior, multitudes began living according to pragmatic systems that allow give-and-take among countless complex citizens. Our media filled with messages promoting both tolerance of diversity and suspicion of central authority. Eccentricity became more acceptable. And while varied forms of hatred still fill many hearts, hatred itself has acquired a growing odor of disrepute.

    As bigotries slowly give way, there has also been change among our utopian dreamers. Even idealists now admit that there are roles for both competition and cooperation in human affairs. Exhorting people to be good has never worked as well as giving them the freedom to hold each other accountable.

    Did you help bring about this recent trend? If so, thanks. We can understand why you would want us not to know of your help. It makes children proud to think they did something all by themselves.

    On the other hand, perhaps this recent trend puzzles you. Do you have some ideology that you believe in? Some simple prescription that you think should be just right for us? Something that worked for your species, and now you hope to push on us "for our own good"?

    If so, we suggest you reconsider. Nearly all the positive things we've accomplished lately came about by abandoning simplistic formulas and learning to embrace our complexity instead. Please look up our recent scientific discoveries concerning emergent properties, complexity theory and related matters. (a good start might be Kevin Kelly's book, Out of Control.) Then join some of the best discussion groups, as recommended in items 6 & 7 above. Perhaps we can guide you to a better understanding of our intricate and sometimes perplexing natures.

    In the meantime, please stop interfering with things you do not understand.

  10. All right, let's suppose you haven't answered because the universe is horribly dangerous. For instance, perhaps radio transmissions tend to be picked up by "berserker" world-destroyers, sent to wreck burgeoning civilizations, as soon as they rear up and speak.

    Well, you could have warned us, no? But then, any warning might expose you, and besides, by now we must have already poured out so much bad radio and television that it's already too late. Is a great big bomb already headed our way, to punish us for broadcasting Mister Ed?

    In that case, maybe you could spare us some battlecruiser blueprints and disintegrator-ray plans? Some spin-dizzies and Alderson Field generators would come in handy.

    Do try to hurry, please.

  11. I guess we could have stopped at ten options. But that would have been terribly parochial and narrow minded, revealing a chauvinistic cultural bias in favor of beings with five digits on each of merely two hands. So, for all you lurkers out there who use base eleven math and such, here's a final hypothesis -- that you've monitored our TV, radio -- and now our internet -- and the reason you haven't answered is that you are weird.

    Are you waiting until the Earth evolves a more physically attractive sapient race, more like cockroaches?

    Do you stare down at our extravagant road systems and imagine that automobiles are the dominant life form?

    Are you afraid that letting us onto the Galactic Internet will unleash torrents of spam-advertising and pornography?

    Perhaps you think we humans all look great when we're old, and galactic-level immortality technologies would leave us with yucky-looking smooth skin for centuries, so we're better off without them?

    Maybe you have an excuse like the following one, sent in by a member of a ETI-related discussion group:

    "Yes, we have been monitoring your earthling communications, but we cannot respond yet. The Edict of Knodl states that all first contact situations be initiated only during the High Season of Jodar, which on our calendar does not begin for another 344 years. Sorry, but your first radio transmissions reached us just nine years too late for the last one, and the Lords of Vanathok do not look kindly upon violations of the Edict. This may sound like we're a bunch of close-minded religious zealots, but I think you need to get out and see the rest of this galaxy cluster before you make a judgement like that. All praise Knodl, and may his seven tentacles protect you from harm."

    If your reason is something like that... or if you take pride in some other special weirdness... well, all I can say is just you wait until we get out there.

    You think you've seen weird? We have beings down here called Californians! They'll show you a thing or two about weird....


[image from wn.com]

Enough. This message is now finished... for the time being, at least. Take it for what it's worth, you alien skulkers out there.

Meanwhile, I now turn my attention back to the humans who are reading this... real people who buy Science Fiction stories and help pay my bills.

In other words, folks truly worthy of my time and attention.

Over and out... for now.

Hello again, fellow humans.

Of course what I've just shown you above is just a sampling of potential reasons why alien lurkers might not openly say hello. Can you think of still more hypothetical reasons why living or machine entities, already prowling in nearby space, might detect us and yet not choose to make contact? Reasons that are consistent with our one firm fact? The fact that a majority of contemporary human beings aren't presently aware of contact with extraterrestrials.

Again, the most likely explanation is that there is no alien space probe lurking in our solar system, soaking up our radio and web traffic while listening silently. If extraterrestrial intelligence exists, it probably lives much too far away.

Indeed, a stronger supposition is that we may be the ones who will venture forth and rescue others from isolation in this dauntingly vast cosmos. We have the brains, the guts, the potential... and the dream.

If that does become our destiny, I hope we'll find good reasons to behave better than some of the scenarios I described above.

Ultimately, this topic is interesting and important, but it's not the most important thing of all. That happens to be the business of solving today's problems and achieving our potential as a species. Because like it or not, we are probably going to have to do it alone. It's a stark and lonely challenge... and one I think we're up to handling.

Have we finished discussing this issue? Not by a light year! After all, whenever humans discuss the possible nature of alien minds, what we are really talking about is ourselves.

THE END