You are here

Test Challenges for Alien Encounter:

Communicating with Aliens (Part I) (Part #1)

Part I: Test challenges for alien encounter
Part II: Strategic clues for alien communication
Part III: Distinguishing patterns of assumption in dialogue with aliens
Part IV: Designing a team for alien encounter

The SETI debates have included cautionary arguments about the possibility that aliens might be hostile. But this perspective, most easily dealt with by military attitudes, tends to be set aside in favour of an assumption that aliens would necessarily be intelligent and motivated to communicate in a way that fits comfortably into western assumptions -- to the point of commercializing the despatch of personal messages into deep space at a charge of $14.95 each.

Unfortunately the assumptions associated with this process do not seem to have been explored. Reliance on number theory as a basis for developing communication could easily be interpreted as a convenient projection by a psycho-socially unchallenged scientific milieu -- which has its own internal communication problems between disciplines for which no common language has yet been developed. The nature of the challenge can perhaps best be scoped out by exploring the difficulties of communicating with the 'aliens' that are frequently encountered in the daily life of a global society.

In exploring these challenges it is worth reflecting on the Aztec culture which, according to some archeologists, was effectively destroyed by its own surprise at the arrival of the conquistadores in 1519 -- in conformity with predictions by its own priesthood. It could not respond effectively to the surprising nature of those who arrived -- or the diseases they brought. To what extent does modern civilization -- with its own apocalyptic and doom-mongering 'priesthoods' -- have lessons to learn from the cultural unpreparedness of the Aztecs? Is our civilization as brittle and inward-looking as that of the Aztecs proved to be? Many strategic studies relating to the future of modern governance stress the challenge of surprise in a turbulent environment. How might aliens surprise us and undermine assumptions vital to the integrity of our civilization? And why is it almost universally assumed that they would bring no microbial lifeforms that might be highly problematic for some species on Earth?

In the examples which follow it is not the issues of negotiating the evident differences -- already difficult enough -- but understanding what those differences may imply. A major part of the challenge may come from unforeseen ways in which humans are challenged by what aliens value as 'positive' as well as what they necessarily question as 'positive' in human society. Then there is the challenge of what aliens value as 'negative', including differences in their evaluation of what humans consider as 'negative' -- especially when it is accompanied by deep denial. For an extensively documented review of such challenges as they manifest in the relationships between modern culture and the 'alien' cultures of indigenous peoples, see the study by the United Nations Environment Programme: Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity: a complementary contribution to global biodiversity asessment (1999).

The experiences of 'alienness' in communicating with 'normal' terrestrials can be clustered as follows:

A: Language: challenge between languages
  • of same group (English-French, English-Greek)
  • of different language groups (English-Chinese, English-Hopi)
  • of different accent (Average English-Caribbean English)
  • of different subculture (Average English-Teenage jargon)
  • of different age group (older/parent--younger/teenager)
  • of different gender (male (chauvinist) -- female (feminist))
  • of different ideology (right-wing (establishment -- left-wing (revolutionary))
  • of different computer languages (Windows -- Macintosh -- Unix)

Some of these challenges are best explored in the light of the work on linguistic typology. The challenges of communication with aliens are perhaps best exemplified in the classic parent-teenager situations, where supposedly a common language is in use -- and despite lack of familiarity with prime number theory ! The challenges of communication with mothers-in-law are a continuing theme of drama. The appropriate language for communication between sexes has been explored in a variety of ways in many cultures known to anthropologists -- challenging assumptions about how neutral aliens may be to such matters. In discussing aliens, it is ironic that a current best-seller is entitled Men are from Mars and Women from Venus!

In a discussion of anthropomorphism, Stuart Watt (The Lion, the Bat, and the Wardrobe: myths and metaphors in cognitive science) comments on Ludwig Wittgenstein's (Philosophical Investigations, 1953) point "if a lion could talk, we could not understand him". Watt remarks, in points relevant to any foreseen communication with aliens:

Wittgenstein's point was that language forms part of a larger "language-game" outside which that language cannot be understood: the language is shaped by aspects of the language-game that form "outward criteria" for it, implying that since humans and lions don't share language-games they cannot share language or understanding. Unfortunately, it isn't that simple. Somehow we intuitively feel that we could interpret, to some very small degree, what a lion would say to us, even though we don't speak 'Lion.' A lot of human interaction is based in paralinguistic rather than linguistic communication.

It would be interesting to see a typology of cultures, in the light of cultural anthropology and cross-cultural psychology, that could be used to identify test challenges for communication with aliens -- and to hypothesize the existence of challenges in cases which are outside any such Earth-bound framework. Of special interest is the possibility may have fundamental concepts that cannot be translated into any human language. Examples in the case of human languages havge been well-explored by Howard Rheingold (1988) and suggest the need for an Encyclopedia of Conceptual Insights from the World's Cultures.

The case of communication between incompatible computer languages is intriguing because of the precise intermediary steps involved in ensuring an appropriate interface.

guing because of the precise intermediary steps involved in ensuring an appropriate interface.

[Parts: Next | Last | All ] [Links: To-K | From-K | From-Kx ]