What if we discover aliens who have 16th century technology on other planets? (Part I)

by phil on Wednesday Jun 16, 2010 12:42 AM

In the movie Contact, Jodie Foster and Tom Skerritt act out a common talking point about extraterrestrial life:

Jodie: We pose no threat to them. It would be like us going out of our way to destroy a few microbes on some ant hill in Africa.

Tom: Interesting analogy. And how guilty would we feel if we went and destroyed a few microbes on an ant hill in Africa?
That back-and-forth is too black-and-white, though. So, what if we change the parameters a little. What if instead of talking about modern humans vs. microbes, how about modern humans vs. a-little-less-than-modern humans? What if the differences between us and aliens are about as distinct as the differences between us and our 16th century ancestors?

So let's speculate about how we would feel encountering a faraway planet with aliens who have about as much sophistication as we had during Columbus's time.

The story stars you, an planet-hunting astronaut. You exit hyperspace and your computer scans a local group for signs of planets that have similar life-supporting properties to Earth. *Bloop* *Bloop* Your computer discovers one, and so you steer a bit closer. The planet looks like a murky green-blue-and-white marble, similar to Earth, which is exciting, since you haven't seen one of these types of planets in about a month.

Hovering at 500,000 miles away, your scans reveals atmospheric distributions similar to Earth. You dash off a message back to Houston that you're going to take a closer look. Pretty soon you realize that the green parts are from forests, and you stop the ship and send the good news back to Houston.

Back at Earth, headlines pop-up all over everyone's ePads, "Tenth Planet with Life Found!" The President sends you an video congratulations. The NASA press office then assigns you a litany of photo-ops to make. You gladly oblige, while also sneaking in a digital camera photo to send back to your mom.

You alternate between being really busy and then waiting for new orders, due to transmission delays. Since you're no longer in planet-hunting mode, your old routine is thrown out the window while NASA prepares its plan for your preliminary data-finding tasks.

The planet should have a name, and in the tradition of how the previous nine planets were named, this one is named after you, Major Tom. The planet is officially called Thomas.

While you're beaming at Thomas and snapping gratuitous photos, you notice an oddity. There's a thin strip of dark color that doesn't fit with Thomas's natural patterns. You zoom in closer and discover that its a single, connected piece of constant width, and the first thought that enters your mind is of the Great Wall of China.

So you capture a ton of videos and photos to send back to Houston. And the previous headlines are now replaced with, "Thomas May Have Intelligent Life!" and "Major Tom Discovers 'Great Wall'-like structure."

The US Government gets uneasy at the breakneck speed at which details pour out, and they command you to stop everything you're doing. This leaves you, hanging out in space, with nothing to do, anxiously awaiting your next orders. A day passes, and a bunch of emergency sessions are held with US President Martinez. In the mean time, China and India vow to send their own ships to Thomas within a month. Martinez, in response, announces that the exploration of Thomas will continue full-speed ahead, but will be done transparently. He declares the sovereignty of Thomas, but leaves open the question as to how close non-American ships can get to it.

While the other nations are scrambling to get their own ships to Thomas, the following players determine the next steps for exploration: NASA, President Martinez, His Special Council on the Exploration of Thomas, and American popular opinion. World opinion, in the mean time, rejects vehemently to America's unilateral approach, but it has little impact on Martinez's final sayso.

Unfortunately for you, you can't get any closer to Thomas, but you do get to maintain a live feed of the planet that's beamed back to Earth. This is streamed from whitehouse.gov, and Martinez's ratings soar through the roof.

Twenty days later, Major Tom returns back to his space station, and in his place arrive about a hundred autonomous ships to monitor Thomas.

This move goes without controversy, but then Martinez orders satellites to be placed in Near-Thomas orbit. This is met with some initial resistance in the polls. But before an effective opposition forms, the satellites beam back more anomalies similar to the "Great Wall." There are all sorts of artificial geometric shapes to be found on the planet, and Google analyzes the satellite feeds and creates Google Thomas, allowing users to virtually fly through and a visit the planet's wonders. This becomes the primary focus of the media. OmniFOX (formerly FOX News) is especially supportive, with newscasters making gratuitous use of MRTouch (Minority Report Touch) to zoom all over Google Thomas, while waxing poetic about the glory that space travel has brought to America. A few of the less popular networks bring on academics who want to debate the ethics of these decisions.

Emboldened, Martinez ratchets things up one step closer, and sends in unmanned aerial vehicles to hover at 10,000 feet. These are like the spy drones used in Afghanistan and Iraq, except that they can return back to space for fuel and maintenance.

And the backlash is harsh. Abroad, there is a nearly unanimous sentiment that this is just a furthering of American imperialism. At-home, the country is evenly split, with some afraid that once our drones are spotted, we will forever taint precious Thomas. On OmniFOX, however, the pundits argue that the drones would explode on impact anyway. But while this is true, these pundits have a different agenda, and are more interested in getting the best intel on Thomas before India and China get their programs underway.

Now that the drones are buzzing around Thomas, instead of just seeing monuments like the "Great Wall" or their equivalent of the pyramids, we see humanoids, buildings, and ships. We see a vibrant civilization. By NASA estimates, there are about 500 million Thomasanians.

Earth goes nuts, and for a month the entire world is in a frenzy, trying to process such a fundamental paradigm shift in their worldview. But then its curiosity overtakes its awe, and everybody wants to know what the Thomasanians are saying. What is their culture like? Do they know love? All we can see are Thomasanians milling about, but what exactly are they doing.

Normally, you'd expect Martinez to ratchet the level of observation again. Instead, he's at an impasse. But it's not for lack of technological options. Martinez could send astronauts to land on Thomas if he wanted to. Rather, the people are afraid of irrevocably changing the Thomasanian worldview. A random exploding drone is one thing, since Thomasanians could chalk it up to an aberrant natural phenomena, like a crazy form of lightning. But what if a handful of them independently bump into one of our mini camera-crawlers? What if they took them apart and studied them? Do we want them to know there is more advanced life elsewhere?

To be continued...


Ryan Humenick said on June 20, 2010 4:49 PM:

Interesting they're so concerned with impacting this new world, yet hundreds of years ago Columbus & company weren't so concerned with impacting the New World of the Americas.

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