What follows are my extended thoughts and personal reflections
a week two weeks after watching Bruce Sterling deliver a lecture on Alien Aesthetics. It’s a look at the weirder side of cyborg life and our posthuman future. A glimpse at the many ways in which we try to see the unseen and embrace the cosmos. It’s about thinking like an alien and joining a Galactic Civilisation. But above all else it’s about climate change and what is to be done here on Earth.
CETI & the Aesthetics of Aliens
This is how it’s been done for billions of years…
The thing about aliens is we have no idea what they’re like! That’s the very definition, after all. Lovecraft himself was very thin on details, letting the reader project their own nightmarish visions of the beings that caused such Cosmic Horror onto his words.
No amount of space opera or science fictional speculation can prepare us for the actual encounter.
Chris Impey, author of Beyond: Our Future In Space, recently said as much in an interview:
If there’s one assumption that it’s safe to make, it’s that the wider our range of perceptions are, the greater the probability that we’ll find an overlap in the communication capabilities of whatever forms of life, sentient or otherwise, it turns out we share this multiverse with.
As Chris Impey says, “it means that you have to really go way out of the box, even to imagine what astrobiology elsewhere might be like.”
Which brings to mind that classic quote that I’ve basically adopted as both a motto and challenge:
“Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.” ~ Sir Arthur Eddington, 19th Century English astronomer
The Orthodox approach to SETI (the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) generally starts with math. Look for mathematical structures, things that are definitively non-random, against the background radiation of the universe. Order amongst entropy. Structure amongst decay.
But there’s another way to look for such life that’s worth remembering, as one character says in Prometheus:
God doesn’t build in straight lines.
Or, I presume, perfect circles:
If I was a Type IV Civilisation on the Kardashev Scale, capable of Galactic Engineering, I wouldn’t bother trying to guess just which subset of the electromagnetic spectrum another sentient species on the other side of the galaxy might think to tune in to in order to receive my message. I’d just move all the stars around into an unmistakeable sign that I was here.
I’m not alone in that opinion. This paper [PDF] also asks the question: “is Hoag’s Object an example of galaxy-scale macro-engineering?”
I also can’t help wondering: that smaller ring galaxy, sitting there at 1 O’clock inside what Earthlings have labelled “Hoag’s Object”, is that an invitation from the most god-like entities we can currently conceive of? Are they giving us directions for a meet-up?
Instead of descending to Earth and leaving coded cave art… have they made an actual star map out of stars? There’s an undeniable elegance to that. It’s so perfect and natural as to be the most un-alien form of communication imaginable, as if speaking to a child. Which barely covers the true nature of any relationship that might exist between our species and there’s. The most frequent observation – that we would be as ants to them – holds true. But as someone recently pointed out, we have people who study ants.
Humanity though, seemingly struggling to choose between extinction and becoming a Type 1 Civilisation – our actual Kardashev ranking was calculated to be, at 2012, 0.724, but it could still clearly go either way – can’t even fathom the concerns that would comprise the “set of principles underlying the work” of such beings, unless they made an effort to explain themselves to us. The native culture of a peoples just one rung up the Kardashev scale could well be invisible to us; or unnoticed at least.
It could surround us and still be beyond our perception, or comprehension.
Even if they were the acts of those of our long distant, time travelling descendants, such an aesthetic possessed by them is just as unknowable, is completely alien to our minds.
And yet we reach. We know all of this, but none of it has stopped us from attempting CETI – Contacting Extra Terrestrial Intelligence. We shout into the void and hope someone is listening to our mumbling.
One of these attempts is known as the Arecibo Message. Sent out from a Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico in 1974, it’s the most powerful broadcast ever intentionally aimed at the stars; the globular star cluster “M13”, to be precise.
The interstellar transmission “consisted of a simple, pictorial message”:
1679 bits, arranged into 73 lines of 23 characters per line (these are both prime numbers, and may help the aliens decode the message). The “ones” and “zeroes” were transmitted by frequency shifting at the rate of 10 bits per second. The total broadcast was less than three minutes. A graphic showing the message is reproduced here. It consists, among other things, of the Arecibo telescope, our solar system, DNA, a stick figure of a human, and some of the biochemicals of earthly life. Although it’s unlikely that this short inquiry will ever prompt a reply, the experiment was useful in getting us to think a bit about the difficulties of communicating across space, time, and a presumably wide culture gap.
Someone that is helping to progress this process, imagining just what reception such a message might receive amongst the citizens of the globular star cluster M13, is the sound artist Jeffrey Thompson. He has presented us with this conceptual art piece: “An imagined set of poetic readings that an alien race might make upon receiving the Arecibo Message:”
While the odds that any audience that eventually enjoys the transmission does so in such a manner are low, it certainly can’t hurt for us to pause and consider it. Because, of course, we are really the intended audience for this piece, and it ultimately acts to inform our thinking on the very nature of CETI.
Yet we can’t also help but wonder – amongst the higher civilisation, who are the ones that study the ant? And why? Is it for da lulz? Do they transform whole galaxies into an upscale Kardshev version of a SETI program? Are there multi-dimensional entities who are their societies equivalent of a Paris Hilton and her rumoured vintage radio hobby? Do they start new cultural trends with what they find? Does the Arecibo message make an appearance on the other side of the universe as a piece of cultural appropriation?
There is an argument to be made that art, rather math, is a better medium for such a momentous meeting of minds. And who better to hold such a cosmic dialogue than Lovecraftian Cyborg aesthetes that can speak of the feel of solar particles passing through them as their local star rages, or the many shades of the darkness of the void. Acting as emissaries for their home world, natural bridges between humanity and the galaxy.
Two things are worth keeping in mind here. The first is that the Cyborg – as envisaged by Clynes and Kline [PDF scan] – was, from the beginning, about adapting to a life in space:
“Not only technologically, but also spiritually.” Though we’ve so far seen little else but an occasional doomsday comet cult and oddball UFO religion, there’s some still time for a genuine spiritual transformation to effect a substantial proportion of the human population.
For a true Space Religion to emerge. There’s also those who argue that – moving past the Chariot of the Gods interruption of the Old Testament – vast sections of the Vedas depict a cosmic war from deep time; meaning that there has in fact been an extant space religion on Earth for thousands of years.
You can argue of course that every cargo cult has in fact been a space religion. And one might be tempted, for instance, to emulate the Contact section of The Culture in just such a way, until the LARP has in fact become the change you wanted to affect in the world.
As S.C. Hickman reminds us, Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris is an entire novel devoted to exploring the idea of CETI as a replacement for Religion. Quoting from the novel that would later serve as source material for two different film adaptations:
“Solaristics, wrote Muntius, is a substitute for religion in the space age. It is faith wrapped in the cloak of science; contact, the goal for which we are striving, is as vague and obscure as communion with the saints or the coming of the Messiah. Exploration is a liturgy couched in methodological formulas; the humble work of researchers is the expectation of consummation, of Annunciation, for there are not nor can there be any bridges between Solaris and Earth. This obvious fact, like many others—the absence of shared experiences, the absence of conveyable concepts—was rejected by solaricists, the same way the faithful reject arguments that would subvert the underpinnings of their faith. Besides, what do people expect, what can they want from “informational communication” with thinking seas? A recording of experiences of a being that endures through time, and is so old it probably cannot remember its own beginning? A description of the desires, passions, hopes and sufferings, that are released in the instantaneous birth of living mountains, the transformation of mathematics into existence, of loneliness and resignation into plenitude? Yet all this constitutes uncommunicable knowledge, and if one attempts to translate it into any terrestrial language, all those sought-after values and significations are lost, they remain on the far side.“
Any further exploration though, of the relationship between CETI and Spirituality, is best left to a separate work, dedicated specifically to the subject. Because at the end of that particular wormhole lies the problematic territory of the Ancient Astronaut. Yet we can’t also leave specific consideration of this topic without noting the strong connection between the transformative effect the living sea of Solaris has on its observational astronauts, and our projected estimates of the change in consciousness likely to occur as Neil Harbisson is being sung the song of our planet, by our own local space station and the cyborg ecology of the world.
Of course, nobody is calling Neil Harbisson the man-machine prophet of a new form of cosmic spirituality. Yet.
The second thing we do want to make explicit note of, as we sketch out the role that such a Lovecraftian person will play in this enterprise about which we speculate in so much detail, is that we’re just as likely, and perhaps far more certain in fact, to encounter a completely post-biological, machine civilisation amongst the stars (stars which include our own). So stocking any First Contact teams with cyborgs – part human/part machines – is just prudent really.
Our classic, nightmarish imaginings of alien invaders coming to take all our precious resources speaks more to an infantile, Type 0, scarcity orientated way of thinking. Such acts are best thought of as being cruel, and ugly. As many who have given this real thought quickly conclude, space is vast and full of resources. Water, for example, we are increasingly finding to be abundant.
What is in short supply, as we survey our own solar system at least, is intelligence, and culture. Novelty, and someone new to talk to.
Or play with. Maybe, when you’re a post-biological entity, and have spent thousands of years travelling the cosmos to get here…. maybe after such an arduous journey you just wanna chill out and jam, as I think this clip of the entire CETI scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind is really saying:
There is another answer to Fermi’s question of “where is everybody?” that has the universe full of life and intelligence; brimming with culture, just waiting for us to join in. Where it only appears to be empty because “they have set us aside as part of a wilderness area or zoo.” This is known as the Zoo Hypothesis. And as much as I believe in anything, I believe this is the most likely answer to Fermi’s Paradox.
And again, so much as we might know the minds of aliens – or the consensus acts of a galactic society of them – it means we’re either barricaded off (and just need to sneak past the line) and/or they’re watching the whole time and/or they’ve been here the whole time and we just haven’t noticed. And so we return to Bogost’s initial premise as the literal truth:
“let’s assume they are all around us, and at all scales – everything from dogs, penguins and trees to cornbread, polyester and neutrons.”
Let’s make a conscious choice to be optimistic and assume that they really can’t wait for us to join them.
Maybe they keep nudging us with signs and wonders:
Perhaps, just like the planetary mind of Solaris, any advanced intelligence visiting our world would only be able to communicate by directly adjusting our consciousness – hacking, or pranking it – applying its sense of beauty, trying to give us a dose of sensawunda as an initial greeting.
What does a highly ranked Kardashev Scale post-biological species do for da lulz? What are the things it considers its jam?
Maybe we just need to extend our senses and perceptions and philosophy and cosmology and communicate with them and the whole galaxy could be our playground.
Maybe we have to get all the way to a Type 1 Civilisation first, before that can happen; prove we can grow up. Heal the Earth, show we’re not to be a blight on the cosmos. At the very least prove we’re adult enough to not shit where we eat.
Worst case we all level up, and start that grand quest to Find the Others ourselves. Or fade away, just another data point to prove Fermi’s pessimistic equation correct.
“Whether it is to be Utopia or Oblivion will be a touch-and-go relay race right up to the final moment…. Humanity is in ‘final exam’ as to whether or not it qualifies for continuance in Universe.” ~ Bucky Fuller
Whatever the future may bring, there’s one thing that’s certain… a First Contact team already exists, is spread out across the solar system and will continue on in its mission regardless of what Humanity does to the Earth, or itself.
Each of the space probes currently exiting the solar system will carry a message to any space faring race that may come across them.
They will drift intact for aeons, if all goes well. Voyager 1 should reach the territory of Alpha Centurai in 40,000 years, for example. As for that other elder, first to breach the Asteroid belt:
Pioneer 10 will continue to coast silently as a ghost ship through deep space into interstellar space, heading generally for the red star Aldebaran, which forms the eye of Taurus (The Bull). Aldebaran is about 68 light years away and it will take Pioneer over 2 million years to reach it.
All of them with their messages from Earth. A primitive attempt to greet the universe, and preserve a basic record of our existence. A small candle flickering through the void, waiting for somebody to take notice; to acknowledge our efforts to rage against the dying of the light.
In an effort to fix what NASA calls a “glitch,” Voyager 2 has been given instructions to transmit only information about the status of the spacecraft while scientists continue to analyze the problem. All NASA has said of the glitch is that Voyager 2 suddenly began transmitting data in a completely different format, according to Spaceflight Now, who interviewed Dr. Stone. The spacecraft is said to be completely fine, and the on-board computer also is thought to be functioning properly, aside from the glitch in the transmission of data.
However, the glitch has prompted speculation. German researcher Hartwig Hausdorf has chalked up the problem to aliens. To be specific, he posits that the Voyager 2 was hijacked by aliens.
According to Bild.com, Hausdorf said:
It seems almost as if someone had reprogrammed or hijacked the probe – thus perhaps we do not yet know the whole truth…
Bild writer Attila Albert speculated that the Golden Record might have attracted the aliens.NASA is not confirming that there is anything special about the transmission it received on April 22.
Hausdorf is a prolific writer who specializes in extraterrestrials.
There is one major difference between the message carried by previous probes – the Voyager and Pioneer twins, clear veterans of the Contact team – and what New Horizons will deliver to any inquisitive entities it encounters. The veterans are all fitted with plaques that were etched at the time of their construction, the very act and choice of encoding itself a message from that period. New Horizons’ is still being written and will be beamed to it from Earth once its survey of the solar system is complete; there’s still work for it to do beyond Pluto, in the Kuiper Belt. So maybe Hausdorf can talk to aliens after all.
Sometime in the next million years, an alien might find it, read the message, and remember the distant Earth.
The New Horizons Message is open to public submissions – a set of photos, sounds and so on are being collected in an effort to create the most representative sample from Earth. The people of the planet are being given a chance to collaborate in their communication with the cosmos.
Help us decide what to send and what to say about our world to an intelligent alien being. Thinking about yourself and your world in this cosmic context will change your perspective forever. Once you contribute, you can truly claim to be a Citizen of the Galaxy.
Of course, even more difficult than developing a platform to crowd-source the construction of a dialogue between civilisations is deciding how to deliver it. The website simply states: “develop ways to program a message designed to be decoded by beings in the far future.”
The challenge will be to create the richest and most durable message possible that is also as easy as possible for hypothetical ETs to decode.
And if we were seeking a simple definition that captures the complexities of alien aesthetics, there it is.
Fortunately, for so long as the space probe can receive a transmission we’ll be able to update not just what we wish to convey to our cosmic counterparts, but how we hope for it be received.
One of the novel features of this message format is that it can be changed. Unlike the Voyager Records or Pioneer plaques, which are beyond human reach after they are launched, the NH message can be enlarged or corrected so long as the spacecraft is in communication with Earth, perhaps for several decades. So the message could be improved and updated to reflect events on Earth during the post-Pluto phase of the mission. “Energy crisis solved” “World poverty ended” – That sort of good news!
Which gives us new things to aim for – like not fouling the planet so completely that we are – or the guilt ridden grim faced survivors, to accurately sketch out the scenario – forced to mark out an exclusion zone ourselves, updating New Horizons to carry a message with images of Earth and every imaginable way to associate that with the phrase: “this is not a place of honour.” Sending out further space probes, not to act as search lights, but instead as hazard lights.
In the most optimistic scenario, after the most gentle of graduations into the galactic community, together with our new friends, the updated idea of space tourism might include flybys to wish the first adventurers well on their deep space missions into eternity. Our descendants may warp in to watch their progress and marvel at what a primitive race as us could accomplish. There’s every chance still they’ll out last everything we build on Earth.
But there are others, more pessimistic, defensive and just plain controlling, that would have us never announce our presence to the rest of the cosmic neighbourhood.
One final insight then, to serve as a demonstration of the need for a transformation of consciousness before we can progress – or I repeat, survive – as a species. Why it is so vital that we seek to see the world-without-us; to cultivate an alien aesthetic. Quite simply, because it’s the very people that aren’t that are ruining the world.
Don’t worry, I’m not drifting completely off-track. This strongly involves SETI too. In fact, dear reader, it involves in detail the thing you probably most associate with this search, because it’s been all over the internet. The big story about the Russian billionaire dropping a cool hundred million to fund the search for aliens. With the full support of Stephen Hawking, amongst others. Who had something, to my mind, very curious to say:
Hawking famously revealed his worry that any aliens advanced enough to contact earth would be “looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they could reach” during a 2010 episode of the miniseries Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking. And he clearly hasn’t changed his mind completely. “If you look at history, contact between humans and less intelligent organisms have often been disastrous from their point of view, and encounters between civilizations with advanced versus primitive technologies have gone badly for the less advanced,” he told reporters at the Breakthrough announcement. “A civilization reading one of our messages could be billions of years ahead of us. If so, they will be vastly more powerful, and may not see us as any more valuable than we see bacteria.”
Still, he said, the initiative is of special importance in a moment when humanity’s achievements in space are in the spotlight. “We are alive. We are intelligent. We must know,” he said of the search for life beyond earth.
Now I’ve already said how any fear of colonisation by ETS is Type 0 scarcity thinking. That any aliens so advanced might want to steal our stuff is to my mind more the product of the Jungian Shadow than a likely characterisation of the expected behaviour of a race, or races, that can engineer galaxies or fold spacetime, for instance, upon contacting us. And the part about primitive civilisations being overwhelmed by a more technically superior society is cribbed straight from the Brookings Report. In fact, if anything that report from the Apollo Space Program era makes our case for us:
“Anthropological files contain many examples of societies, sure of their place in the universe, which have disintegrated when they have had to associate with previously unfamiliar societies espousing different ideas and different life ways; others that survived such an experience usually did so by paying the price of changes in values and attitudes and behavior.”
Developing our own local approximation of an alien aesthetic, being more in touch with the world-without-us, communing with the cosmos – by their own logic that will only increase our fitness to survive contact with a “superior” species, and join in a multi-racial galactic society. Expanding our worldview will only increase our resilience to change. And if the price of admission is a change in values and attitudes, we’ve got plenty to get rid of there. First to go will be those that obviously mark our road to ruin. Scarcity thinking for one: I gotta get mine and screw the rest of you. I think a good 50% of the population would be quite happy if we did away with the Patriarchy.
It’s that last line of Hawking’s though, that says everything: “We must know.” We. The plutocrats and their elite intellectuals; the rich and their mandarins. Now, without opening a fresh portal to the fringe world of the Breakaway Civilisation and how that funhouse mirrors our present circumstances (that too is a subject for another time) let’s briefly contemplate the mind and concerns of the ultra rich; the 0.001%. What worries the people who hang out with Ray Kurzweil and take him at his word that they – definitely they – can be immortal? The people who have the Global Business Network on retainer, and think themselves the fulfilment of Stewart Brand’s prophecy that they can be “as Gods”, and plan on getting great at it. These people are the very embodiment of a world-for-us mentality. They do nothing for da lulz.
What do such people worry about? People who have all the money and all the power and every intention of never letting go? Anything that might come alone suddenly and ruin it all. Nobody is more paranoid than a plutocrat. They think the whole world is out to take what they’ve got.
This is why you have Nick Bostrom & Co. writing books and papers on Existential Risk that cry about Aliens, AI & Asteroids and obsess over whether we’re trapped in a machine simulation universe.
From that paranoid plutocratic perspective then, 100 Million dollars is nothing. It’s just risk management, plain and simple. It’s just good business; and think of all the good will they buy, ever trying work the angles and play the long game. They want the most accurate possible assessment of all imaginable threats. Threats to them, and their place at the top of the hierarchy.
Then they can plan their next move, which to them is a menu full options like: “buy private [is]land(s) in zone(s) least likely to affected by climate chaos on Earth|Mars|Other.”
While the rest of us are left to deal with the consequences of just how they accrued so much wealth. An ever approaching near-future where so much of Earth has been turned into a series of wastelands and sacrifice zones. Wandering the planet in search of safe haven, clutching only our smartphones that contain the memories of a pre-Collapse life.
The near-extinction of the human race as an apocalypse of running zombies; racing into oblivion, running away from the past when we could have fixed things.
If we were really clever we’d fake them out. LARP an Eschatological event. Send the entire ruling class scurrying for their secret bunkers and space planes. Prank them off the island for da lulz, then get to work building our way through the Collapse. Even if we failed, it might be such a grand attempt, get us all high enough ratings on the viewing portals of a Galactic Civilisation monitoring its Exclusion Zones as a decedent form of entertainment to warrant some covert assistance from any higher powers that were watching. A Roadside Picnic style scenario. The covert delivery of care package from the god-like. The sudden appearance of Zones full of Clarkean technomagical artefacts we can use to bootstrap our way up the Kardashev scale, and kick out the JAMS in the process. Or hasten our demise. The final test, either way. One last selective filter to pass through. The survivors get the cosmos. Either way, it’s probably great viewing for them.
The version of the machine simulation scenario you don’t frequently hear is perhaps the most nightmarish; that we are all the result of an elaborate, higher dimensional art project. Our entire existence; our lives, our species, our planet, our entire universe created on a whim according to whatever random inspiration followed through the Creator at that particular moment. No underlying structure, no unifying theories to be found. No sacred truths. A cosmos created for da lulz. That our entire reality is just the unconscious manifestation of various aspects of an alien aesthetic. Where we’re stuck in a pocket universe that’s like a snow globe on a shelf, one that can be shaken up whenever they get bored; and destroyed just as easily, and just as accidentally. Where the best we can hope for is neglect. To be forgotten. And to never know the truth. Blissfully ignorant ants in a glass farm.
The worst imaginable Alien Contact Scenario isn’t an alien invasion. It’s some semi-functional mothership finally breaking the embargo and landing here, taking pity on the survivors. Ferrying the near-extinct human population to a new homeworld. It’s District 9, and we’re the alien refugees.
Where does this all end? How does this epic work of Blackhat Futurism disguised as a reflective meandering thought piece on an alien art theory lecture hiding its true nature as a cryptic application in a bottle to actually join a First Contact Team, or seek asylum amongst the citizens of the time travelling galactic civilisation that might come to read this in the 51st Century… how does this even begin to conclude? How do you wrap something up when the Zeitgeist is simultaneously obsessed with doom porn and frozen with inaction in preventing the demise of its own species and the planet that has selflessly played host to it. How do we even begin to repay our milk debt to Mother Earth?
How about with some magical thinking? The latest K-Hole report has let the cat out of the bag that Chaos Magick is one of the best mechanisms to navigate and decode the ever complexifying reality that is this arbitrary period of time we’ve labeled the early 21st Century. The clear cusp of a new era… nothing short of a civilisational becoming. The total collapse of all categories, which were always false anyway. The sacrificial destruction of all models, thanking them for their usefulness up until now as we watch them explode. We are developing the true art of self-transformation. Genetic editing and technological symbiosis are the barest beginnings. The only limits now are our will and our imagination. We can Tinkerbell our way out of this.
So an invocation then:
Choose life. Choose a weird life. Choose philosophy.
Talk to your friends about the power of the Alien Aesthetic today.
Become a model citizen of a Galactic Society full of wonders that we don’t have words to do any more than barely sketch out the edges of with. The shapes and shadows we see as our eyes adjust to a new, richer light. The strange lifeforms of dark matter. Artificial dimensions and generative realities. The systematic synaesthesia of synthetic senses.
Awaken the Lovecraftian Cyborg inside you.
If you’re interested in more such science-fictional meditations on finding a path through the end of the world that leads to a reborn planet and a galaxy full of wonders, you can sign up for my newsletter at the (De)Extinction Club. If you’d like to support the full set of my output, which includes a podcast frequently featuring conversations with other Blackhat Futurists, and get early access to new material like this, please head over to Dark Extropian Musings.
We’re gonna win.