April 10th, 2020

Somewhere over the event horizon

For most of humanity's history, human settlements around the world dreamed of distant lands full of exotic wonders. People would imagine what life would be like in a land thousands of kilometres away, or on the other side of a vast body of water, and they would write or tell each other stories about imaginary civilizations in imaginary places. People are naturally curious about foreign places, and they tend to idealize those places, imagining that somewhere else is better than where they are right now.

As the modern world developed and people gained an understanding of global geography, becoming aware of the shape of planet Earth and the cultures which live on the various continents, people came to understand that most of the world is actually not as exotic as they had imagined it to be. People speak different languages, and there are different customs and beliefs and values, but overall, the way that people live around the world is mostly not that different. With this understanding, humans turned their eyes to the stars, imagining that life on distant planets must be where things get really different, where life forms and environments and languages and lifestyles exist which are so different that we cannot even imagine them. But people tried to imagine them anyway, which made for a lot of "science-fiction" which was actually very little science and almost entirely fiction. But it was fun, because people like to dream about different realities.

A couple of years ago, I declared that "science fiction is dead". I do not really feel the need to repeat my reasons for saying this (I think that they were made pretty clear in what I wrote back then), but I reiterate this point because we need to change our thinking about distant life forms, and we need to stop idealizing them, imagining that somewhere out there, a race of advanced aliens live in peace and harmony, because the truth is that if intelligent life does exist elsewhere, it's likely that they don't live that differently from how we do. Why would their lives be different? Any life form needs to do the things that are physically necessary for survival, and so extraterrestrials would likely spend much of their lives searching for sources of biological energy, just as we do. And what's even more likely is that we'll never have any contact with them. I am not saying that there is no intelligent life outside of Earth; chances are high that there is intelligent life somewhere else, but chances are also high that it's too far away for us to be able to contact the extraterrestrials in any way, or vice-versa. They might be out there, but to blunt it bluntly, it doesn't matter whether they are or not.

Perhaps there's something we can learn from an analogy here, though.

There are still a handful of places left on Earth where people do not know about world geography. The only place where human life is radically different from what you're probably used to is in the few remaining places on Earth which remain untouched by modernity. There are still groups of people extant today who have not had contact with global society, people who not only have never seen or used a computer or smartphone, but don't even know what such things are. A few isolated tribes like this exist in the jungles of South America, on tiny islands in the ocean, and perhaps in a few remote places in Africa. People in these places lack an understanding of science, technology, geography, and pretty much anything which human beings learn in academic settings. One fascinating artifact of modernity's contact with one tribe of such people is the "cargo cults" which exist on some tiny, isolated islands in the Pacific Ocean as a result of military outposts which had been set up there during World War II. Many of these islands served as important bases for the transportation and gathering of soldiers and supplies, and makeshift airstrips were set up where military cargo planes would land to drop off their shipments. To the natives on these islands, who had likely never seen an airplane in their lives, these events must have been analogous to what an alien spacecraft landing on our planet would seem like to us. Understandably impressed by these wondrous (to them) events, the natives on those islands still maintain a practice of constructing airstrips like the ones they'd seen military engineers building, apparently in the belief that the airplanes were gods who could be summoned by creating shrines to them. For those people, isolated on their island with no way to get off it, there exists, far beyond the horizon, a civilization with a way of life that is beyond what they could even imagine. What would a person who's never seen a car, a computer, or a city of millions think if they were suddenly dropped in the middle of any modern city?

The wonder of these people is understandable, but their mistake is clear: They believed that whatever goods the airplanes brought to their islands were somehow magical or divine. In reality, they were common Earth-based objects which human beings can make with things found on their own planet. Rather than waiting for some magical aircraft gods to descend from the sky and bring them their hearts' desires, they could have created their own industry and started producing things.

It's sort of the same thing with us. Somewhere over the event horizon, so far away that even the light they reflect does not reach us, there's probably a civilization of beings who are more advanced than we are, and it's tempting to imagine that their way of life is so far beyond anything we've ever known that we cannot begin to imagine it. Perhaps that is even the case. But Earthlings have made the mistake of assuming that our only hope is to keep waiting until those aliens come by and show us how to be advanced. If we are ever to become as advanced as "science-fiction" writers imagine extraterrestrials to be, we'll have to get there ourselves, without external help.