Enlarged version: challenges to comprehension
Home/Search
Documents  >>
Themes  >>
Visuals  >>
Context  >>
FAQ/Contact  >>

Joy in the Present
Alternative view of segmented documents via Kairos
      

29 March 2000

Test Challenges for Alien Encounter:

Communicating with Aliens (Part I)

- / -


Introduction
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
References


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.

B: Behavioral contexts

Challenge of overlays of etiquette / protocol between:

  • Average Westerner -- Southern African Bushman
  • Average Westerner -- Aristocrat (at court)
  • Average Westerner -- Diplomat
  • Average Westerner -- Gypsy
  • Average Westerner -- Spiritual hierarch (charismatic guru, etc)

Etiquette may be of far greater consequence to communication than is assumed in the crude etiquette of average western society. This may be more clearly seen in less common cultures -- and most readily accessible in simplifed form in the country-by-country Culturgrams produced by a program of Brigham Young University. Is there a case for an interactive cross-cultural web database on etiquette and protocol to guide people venturing into challenging dialogues that may be filled with behavioural minefields and protocol traps that could potentially undermine any fruitful outcome?

Such challenges have been most charmingly exemplified in a scene from The Gods Must Be Crazy where the desert bushman reaches out to take the muzzle of a revolver pointed at him in anger -- thinking it was some kind of gift to be graciously accepted. It is therefore very possible that when the aliens gesture to indicate some distant possibility, humans (like dogs) will look attentively and expectantly at the gesturing portion of the alien anatomy.

More challenging to the westerner is the continuing problem of communication between 'castes', such as those of Hindu culture, in which associating with a westerner may itself be problematic for the higher castes. An intriguing test case is the process of interaction with a gypsy group, perhaps one of the best defined 'aliens' in western society -- and visiting extraterrestrials could well be interstellar gypsies looking for a place to camp for a while.

Perhaps the most obvious challenge is that associated with gender bias. It is only in very recent years that gender bias in formal dialogue has been to some degree overcome amongst westerners. It is still the case that the presence of women in dialogue with Arabian cultures, for example, can be extremely problematic. Japanese culture, for example, makes assumptions about the seriousness of dialogue where younger generations are present -- also an only recently overcome bias in the West. For aliens, of course, the reverse may well apply in each case. The West is developing its own cult of youth -- notably in the high tech industries and the fundamental sciences, where creativity is not to be expected beyond a certain age.

Many have explored the communication challenges of relating to gurus or other people held to be of spiritual authority. Especially interesting is where the special conditions of such communication raise issues about the replicability of development-related insights across cultures, as explored in an earlier paper concerning the Swadhyaya (Judge, 1995)

C: Behavioural attributes

Challenges of communication between:

  • Average Westerner -- Dwarf/Midget
  • Average Westerner -- Super-gifted, genius, etc
  • Average Westerner -- Mentally or behaviorally challenged
  • Average Westerner -- Exceptionally beautiful, elegant, etc
  • Average Westerner -- Exceptionally ugly

Communication may be severely conditioned by differences in physical or psychological attributes and how they are to be negotiated by both parties, as has been amply demonstrated in human societies.

Aliens may have quite different memory (and mental) capacity to that of humans, whether individually or collectively. In human scieties the erosion of collective memory, especially in a situation of information overload, can lead to many dysfunctionalites (explored in Judge, 1982). There is a striking parallel between the many attempts by the UN Secretary General to communicate to world society the urgency of the present human situation and the following fictional account of an analogous situation for an alien encountering a planet-bound individual:

"To say that he understood what went on was true. To say that he did not understand -- was true. I would sit and explain, over and over again. He listened, his eyes fixed on my face, his lips moving as he repeated to himself what I was saying. He would nod: yes, he had grasped it. But a few minutes later, when I might be saying something of the same kind, he was uncomfortable, threatened. Why was I saying that? and that? his troubled eyes asked of my face: What did I mean? His questions at such moments were as if I had never taught him anything at all. He was like one drugged or in shock. Yet it seemed that he did absorb information for sometimes he would talk as if from a basis of shared knowledge: it was as if a part of him knew and remembered all I told him, but other parts had not heard a word. I have never before or since had so strongly that experience of being with a person and knowing that all the time there was certainly a part of that person in contact with you, something real and alive and listening -- and yet most of the time what one said did not reach that silent and invisible being, and what he said was not often said by the real part of him. It was as if someone stood there bound and gagged while an inferior impersonator spoke for him". (Doris Lessing. Re: Colonised Planet 5 - Shikasta, London, 1979, pp. 56-57).

What may aliens believe that we have equivalent difficulty in understanding? The collective inadequacy of society in the face of information on the world problematique suggests that such aberrations should be reviewed carefully. Collective memory would seem to be exposed to processes leading to its very rapid erosion. Psychiatrist Ronald Laing has given an account which can be interpreted as dramatising the problem of institutional and inter-institutional learning (see elsewhere) that may be relevant to how aliens will experience humans. Such examples suggest that understanding the possible constraints on societal learning in the presence of aliens could benefit from a systematic review of the pathology of individual memory (see elsewhere) -- notably with respect to its fragmentation, whether as systems almost completely independent of each other, or individually in their isolation of subject categories from each other.

D: Different agendas

Challenges of communication between:

  • Average Westerner -- Media attention freak (movie star, etc)
  • Average Westerner -- Mafia gangster
  • Average Westerner -- Demonic cultists, satanist, etc
  • Average Westerner -- Obsessive salesperson, con-artist, etc
  • Average Westerner -- Obsessive entrepreneur, 'developer', etc
  • Average Westerner -- Security freak, agoraphobe, etc
  • Average Westerner -- Health freak, or severely/chronically/terminally ill
  • Average Westerner -- Obsessive seducer, nymphomaniac, etc
  • Average Westerner -- Obsessive substance abuser
  • Average Westerner -- Obsessive (psycho)therapist
  • Average Westerner -- Obsessive religious proselytizer, soul-saver, etc
  • Average Westerner -- Obsessive socio-politcal reformer
  • Average Westerner -- Political subversive, terrorist, etc
  • Average Westerner -- Political refugee / Economic refugee
  • Average Westerner -- Hypernationalist (Yugoslavia, etc)
  • Average Westerner -- Obsessive gambler
  • Average Westerner -- Obsessive property claimant
  • Average Westerner -- Obsessive hunter (scalps, trophies, booty, or food)

These cases point to the ways in which the interest of the alien in any communication may be far from as innocent as the SETI programs assume. From the reverse perspective, presentation of a sequence of prime numbers by a visiting alien, desirous of establishing communication with any of the above could have quite laughable consequences. Such examples make clear that in an encounter with an alien the process may not be a neutral, innocent exercises in mutual curiosity.

Science fiction scenarios have vaunted human skills as traders, but humans may even be perceived like a special food to some aliens (caviar for extraterrestrials !). Groups concerned by alien abduction have articulated their own perspective on 'communication' with aliens. Intelligence aside, it may be that aliens have more developed skills in areas in which humans are totally naive.

The legal issues may be significant, especially since the aliens would necessarily be defined as 'stateless' and subject to the many challenges of statelessness. More intriguing is the possibility that the aliens may have a more highly developed sense of property, to the degree that any utterance by them may be considered personal property (for which some unforeseen 'release' may be obligatory), or that they would be free to lay claim to real estate and mining rights according to some galactic regime (in a manner similar to European colonial claims on American soil in recent centuries past). Current concern with the patenting of genetic products from developing countries may point to the need of aliens to act in a similar manner -- perhaps as a consequence of obsession with extremely challenging diseases (such as the equivalent of AIDS). Science fiction has explored scenarios of dying alien civilizations subject to chronical illness for which remedies are desperately sought at any cost. The use of humans for alien breeding programs is another theme -- making 'alien abduction' a major preoccupation for some. The human equivalent, in the form of (forced) acquisition and trading in physical organs, should not be forgotten. Genetically modified animals are now being used by humans to produce new drugs -- a process known as 'pharming' that aliens may have developed in ways that humans would find challenging.

Also intriguing is whether the arriving aliens are accompanied by special guarantors of appropriateness in the person of the equivalent of: a priest (as with Columbus), a political commissar (as with Communist regimes), an intelligence agent (reporting to secret military authorities), the representative of the equivalent of Galactic Greenpeace (preoccupied by the environment) or Amnesty Galactica (concerned by species rights), a trading agent (to ensure the commercial prospects of multigalactic corporations), or a scientific researcher -- as some would like to assume. Which might be dominant, and what others might be possible?

Some have speculated that aliens might have strong game-playing agendas the outcome of which would determine the form of communication with humans. Such games are as likely to be mental as emotional. The mental variants would delight (or depress) the IQ-obsessed, as with the mathematical puzzles favoured by Mensa. The psychological and emotional variants, used by humans in occupational tests, might be another matter -- although those resonating with the psycho-cultural dimensions of Hermann Hesse's famous Glass Bead Game (discussed in Part II) might be especially intriguing. If the tests take the form of virtual reality simulations the uncertainties might increase considerably. If they are situational, as with some Japanese-style executive team-building programs (termed 'hell camps'), it is quite unclear how prepared humans might be -- especially if the stakes are a matter of life or death. The current avid enthusiasm for videogames may however be a vital preparation for such games. Perhaps aliens might make use of virtual 'avatars' to portray and explore a variety of positions in virtual role-playing -- or maybe this is done through forms of psychodrama (as with the Transformation Game).

Some might hope that aliens will have a strong spiritual preoccupation, affirming religious beliefs of mankind -- and Earth's 'universal' values. An appropriate tone of dialogue may be evoked by some equivalent of preliminary prayer, attunement or meditation. Arranging this process, and its aesthetics, can also be fraught with challenges and traps -- as outlined in an earlier paper (Judge, 1997) based on the challenges of inter-faith dialogue. Clearly there is a high probability that there spiritual beliefs would be 'alien' in many ways that would make humans extremely uncomfortable and offer every opportunity for negative stereotypes. They may have very strong proselytizing agendas like the Christian charismatics -- effectively visiting Earth on a door-to-door-missionary circuit armed with an appropriate sacred text through which humanity should be saved.

Checklist of possible alien purposes (incomplete)

curiosity aesthetics, landscapes fauna, flora
scientific exploration 'because its there' sport, mountains, waves
pilgrimage inspiration missionary / charity
tourism weather photo safari analogue
for the opera (Wagner!) for the art people watching
'for a laugh' carnival / to party 'to hang out'
gourmet tourism food (blood, vampire, etc) drugs, drink
gambling trophy hunting
organ replacement bodies for breeding
tax write off analogue sex-tourism analogue
infliction of pain Schadenfreude disaster tourism
'pacification' 'human rights' analogue 'development'
products / minerals trade military / security / strategic
therapy rest / recuperation biomedical experimentation

The ultimate irony would be if the communication priorities of the visit mirrored those of the international community in relating to developing countries (and transitional economies) -- namely concerned the severe underdevelopment of the planet, the treatment of 'minority' species, and the need to implement a variety of remedies through some stringent austerity programs à la IMF (designed by galactic economists preoccupied by the unquestionable logic of rapid galactization or universalization). Science fiction has frequently explored the possibility that they might be refugees from environmental collapse, terror or exploitation elsewhere.

E: Different knowledge disciplines (epistemological frameworks)

Challenge between:

  • Average Westerner -- Pure mathematician
  • Average Westerner -- Lawyer
  • Average Westerner -- Psychologist
  • Average Westerner -- Cybernetician
  • Average Westerner -- Engineer
  • Average Westerner -- Biologist
  • Average Westerner -- Political scientist
  • Average Westerner -- Religious dogmatist (Catholic, Islam, Hindu, Buddhist)

The challenges in human society of communication with specialists, or conveying their insights to others, are well-documented -- as are the tragic dynamics of communications between specialists, even of the same discipline. Practitioners of opposing schools of thought can readily perceive each other as totally alien -- even in the same university common room. Those strongly identified with a particular discipline, whether mathematics or classical music, are commonly understood to perceive those that do not share their enthusiasm as 'alien'.

The implications of use of different patterns of logic, beyond the binary logic favoured by Western cultures, has been explored in an earlier paper (Judge, 1982), but especially by Magoroh Maruyama. Even the constraining tendency towards polarization can be usefully reframed in the light of non-Western insights (Judge, 1998) as an illustrative challenge of the possible nature of dialogue with aliens. Such exercises are valuable reminders when endeavouring to deal with cultures that have a different relationship to space and time.

F: Different temporal contexts

Challenge between:

  • Average Westerner -- Gung-ho, high pressure yuppie
  • Average Westerner -- Hanging out style (Caribbean, etc)
  • Average American -- Latin style
  • Average American -- Arab style
  • Average Westerner -- 'Eternal' style (Vatican, monasteries, ashrams, etc)

Aliens may not favour directive, instrumental communication. Scheduling a dialogue may be the kind of nightmare which northern Europeans experience in dealing with other cultures. As in some rural and other contexts, communication may only be considered possible after a variety of lengthy processes of co-existence and mutual adjustment. Also intriguing is whether the aliens would be primarily concerned with the past (the historical sweep of their own cultural evolution), the future (evolution of their culture), or the present encounter with humans. Like the Hopi or the Australian Aborigines, aliens may have a different relationship to time and the co-presence of the past.

Like many Asians, even amongst elites, successful communication for the aliens may be highly dependent on the auspiciousness of the time -- just as many westerners are averse to acting on days about which there are superstitions (such as the 13th, notably Friday the 13th). It would be ironic if, in terms of galactic time, the recent non-communication with humanity was due to the 20th century having been an inauspicious period for dialogue -- or perhaps the century was the galactic equivalent of Ramadan or the Sabbath.

Much more intriguing is the possibility that aliens may have an entirely different understanding of time. This might be described by humans in terms of either a much more rapid pace or a much slower pace. If faster, their experience would be akin to that of encountering the slowest of country bumpkins (intriguingly a key presenter at the Davos 2000 Forum spoke so rapidly that the chairperson had to promise to replay the presentation at half speed). Humans might experience them like mayflies. If slower, as perhaps befitting a species that had achieved longevity, humans experience of them might resemble that of encountering a guru who only responded in dialogue after an hour or day of reflection on any remark made.

G: Different spatial contexts

Challenge between:

  • Average American distance -- Latin touching/proximity
  • Average American distance -- Diplomatic/Aristocratic distance
  • Average American distance -- Chinese/Japanese imperial distance

Only a few decades in the past the degree of physical distance considered appropriate between the cultured and others was very high. Marked traces of this remain in the attitude of diplomats and government officials, whose status and identity may be largely defined by the distance they maintain from those they consider their inferiors. Aliens may hold such views to a much higher degree, or may practice the reverse (possibly even requiring a degree of intimate contact that would be considered offensively invasive). However, reduced distance does not imply successful communication, even when it may seem to do so.

In addition to differing senses of appropriate linear distances, there could well be radical differences in the configuration of participants considered appropriate to meaningful dialogue. Traces of this are to be seen in setting up a table arrangements for a multilateral peace negotiation or great power summits -- on which much preliminary negotiating time can be spent. Current concern about terrorist groups is relevant in that it is claimed that such groups do not want to get 'a place at the table' but rather to 'destroy the table'. Other variants can be seen in ritual settings, notably with respect to some religions, and especially those based on pagan or magical inspirations stressing geometrical configuration of participants. Aliens may react like some dialogue groups who see any table structure as an inappropriate separating device between participants, as well as symbolically differentiating between what is above (or on) the table from what is below (under) or off the table. Much is made of this symbolism in secretive arrangements and 'under the table' deals. This is more clearly recognized in Eastern cultures where there is as much sensitivity to what is said as to what is not said (cf the Japanese distinction between tatemae and honne, between the explicitly stated and the unspoken realities). It leads to conditions in which people say one thing and do something different -- typical of the more cynical at many international conferences

Aliens may be far more sensitive to the geographical locus of dialogue -- following the kinds of preference of those who consider that only meetings in spiritual or 'powerful' locations are effective or meaningful. What assumptions might aliens make about effective configurations and locations?

H: Different historical socio-technical eras

Challenge between:

  • 20th century western -- 15th century western
  • 20th century western -- 10th century western
  • 20th century western -- 5th century western
  • 20th century western -- 0th century western

Many studies have explored the changes in mindsets over the centuries and the nature of the challenge of communicating with a person from centuries past, whether a genius like Leonardo da Vinci, or with the less educated or cultured.

I: Different species

Challenges of communication between:

  • Average Westerner -- Other primates (chimpanzees, etc)
  • Average Westerner -- Other mammals (dolphins, whales, horses, dogs, etc)
  • Average Westerner -- Spiders, snakes, snails, scorpions
  • Average Westerner -- Plants

The first two are the subject of extensive research. Many have experience of the nature of communication with pets -- and even with plants. The challenge of communication with aliens is that humans may have the same status for them as pets -- and judged like other mammals (lacking some quality analogous to a soul) as being essentially challenged in their ability to communicate. It is also possible that the prime galactic criterion determining the basis for any communication is that the species in question be able to demonstrate its unambigious recognition of intelligence in species other than its own -- totally in contrast to the speciesism implict in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Why is it assumed that aliens would be of a single distinct species, when they may come as symbionts or an ecosystem -- a cluster of mutually dependent species. For humans this can be best understood by those who have a strong bond with pets and cannot travel without them. Some may travel on them -- like parrots -- but whether the rider or the ridden is the intelligent partner may be an initial challenge in any dialogue. As with guide dogs, animals may be essential to the ability of the aliens to interact with their surroundings -- or perhaps they may ride them like horses. The human-alien dialogue process may be conditioned by the possibility of interaction via such 'pets'. Aliens may wonder why human conferences only allow decorative plants as companion species, and fail to benefit from the communication processes catalyzed by animal species. After all as 'working dogs', a team of Labradors could well have a role as dialogue facilitators in any conference -- following recent experiments in such use in convalescent homes. Presumably, unlike Hindu temples, the only animals tolerated in United Nations conferences on environmental issues are guide-dogs for the visually handicapped. Aliens may well see the need for animals as an essential aid to the emotionally handicapped. In this respect it is worth reflecting on current human use of animal mascots by the military, and in Christmas or harvest celebrations in churches (cf use of donkeys, sheep and cows).

There is also the possibility that aliens may perceive humans themselves as belonging to a variety of co-dependent species -- if they define 'species' in terms of function in society (qualities that humans associate with academic disciplines, occupations, inter-personal roles, class, belief systems, ideologies, etc). For them, dialogue may require inter-action with a healthy ecosystem of such human species -- a real challenge to an interdisciplinarily challenged academic community.

J: Different modes of communication

Challenges between:

  • Verbal conversation -- Song (bird song, etc)
  • Verbal conversation -- Touch (bird grooming, etc)
  • Verbal conversation -- Smell (pheromones, etc)
  • Verbal conversation -- Taste (kissing, licking, etc)
  • Verbal conversation -- Movement, gesture, etc
  • Verbal conversation -- Empathy, telepathy, etc

The procedure of verbal negotiation may be considered as a very narrow band mode of communication, as it is in many human cultures and relationships. The contrast has long been made between the vital use of gestures by Latin cultures and its disparagement by non-Latin cultures as an indicator of inadequate education (see especially the paper by Bernard J Hibbitts on performance cultures). Some human subcultures even attach great importance to intuitive communication, whether it is interpreted as sympathy, empathy, or telepathy. Alien aesthetics may well-perceive the preferred modes of humans as totally uncouth.

Even amongst humans, the total impact of a message is reported to down like this: 7 percent verbal (words); 38 percent vocal (volume, pitch, rhythm, etc); 55 percent body movements (mostly facial expressions, eye contact). However these percentages may vary with cultures, as is indicated by Japanese preferences for avoidance of eye contact, and for the challenges of eye contact between the sexes, notably in Islamic cultures. The discomfort that many feel with videoconferencing as a communication medium may be indicative of another challenge. What would the situation be with aliens?

In the light of the traditional interest of human elites in communication with the supernatural (whether framed in religious terms or otherwise), it is possible that the aliens may be more dependent on 'channelling' than humans -- to the considerable annoyance of natural scientists. This dimension is regularly explored in the popular series Star Trek -- which has a telepathic empath as a regular crew member.

Aside from the challenge of infectious disease during the dialogue process, there is a subtler challenge of non-physical consequences of the dialogue process. The exchange may result in humans being memetically modified, and it may result in some form of communicable mental or affective disturbance. Just as encountering some humans can be experienced as inherently depressing, negative, and an energy drain, much more severe consequences may result from alien contact. Science fiction has explored scenarios in which contact might send people mad. Of course many are optimistic that the reverse may be the case. This too could be a challenge if humans become effectively enchanted or entranced by aliens whose behaviour holds them spellbound -- as media stars can affect human teeny-boppers. The overwhelming impact of such future development of public relations techniques on human susceptibilities might be imagined in the light of the effects of present day techniques on isolated peoples of the world.

Earlier, reference was made to the possibility that aliens might consider normal in dialogue a degree of intimacy (whether physical or psychological) that humans would experience as extremely challenging -- although the reverse might also be the case if it was the aliens who required high degrees of distance during social intercourse. Just as some people engage in social intercourse in a manner which can be perceived as very 'forward' -- 'coming on strong' -- it may be that aliens would have a degree of engagement in such intercourse that was more reminiscent of an intense courtship initiative. This might be expected to engender some form of inter-cultural progeny through inter-cultural analogues to the reproductive process. They might perceive encounters between species and cultures as having more in common, in psycho-behavioural terms, with 'making love' than with the rigidities of diplomatic protocol and conventional dialogue. This would be an ironic inter-cultural echo of the 1960s slogan: 'make love, not war'. Their manual of inter-cultural intercourse might bear more resemblance to the Kama Sutra than to convcentional manuals on negotiation and dialogue.

Do these possibilities raise the need for some form of conceptual contraceptive to ensure 'safe dialogue'? Or maybe it will be aliens who are more concerned at being memetically contaminated -- like members of some sects who strongly discourage contact with non-believers.

K: Different modes of confirming trust and confidence bonds

  • Giving one's word
  • Sharing blood (blood-bonds)
  • Signing documents
  • Drinking / Breaking bread together
  • Sharing (bed) partners
  • Making a sacrifice

It would be a mistake to believe that signifiers of agreement with aliens can be focussed on some variant of document signing. A useful contrast to average Western engagement is with the Japanese understanding of giri. Use of forms of contractual bondage could also be explored. It is worth recalling the treaties cynically made by the Europeans with indigenous peoples in colonial lands, and how their commitments were skillfully avoided or ignored by arrogant authorities. Humanity might well find itself in the position of the indigenous peoples in dealing with the equivalent of galactic law and the loopholes through which treaty commitments could later be manipulated to the disadvantage of humans. But it may be into conceptual, rather than territorial, 'reservations' that humans are effectively encouraged to move.

Again, in the not too distant past, both dialogues and agreements could be given special significance by sacrifice. After all sacrifice of animals is still considered appropriate by some major religions at religious feasts (even in Brussels, special containers have to be provided annually to collect the remains) or to celebrate the opening of new building complexes. So why assume that aliens would not consider this appropriate before a dialogue?

It should not be forgotten that our civilization effectively requires human sacrifice prior to adopting any new health and safety legislation -- no deaths, no legislation. It is just a question of how many bodies are required to gain passage of the legislation, just as cultures of the past have made greater sacrifices in response to greater need. The aliens may see our approach as we see that of the Aztecs. In this respect, it is worth rememberng that in the USA in 1996, about forty-five million turkeys were slaughtered for Thanksgiving (and twenty-two million for Christmas, and nineteen million for Easter). In what respect should this not be considered a sacrifice? The same may be asked about Christmas trees. The question is especially pertinent to dialogue with aliens if they resemble turkeys or pine trees.

L: Different degrees of personal enhancement (cosmetic, bodily modification, genetic, memetic)

  • Cosmetics (including fragrances)
  • Minor modifications (cosmetic surgery)
  • Piercing, tattooing
  • Mechanical implants (breasts, etc)
  • Electronic implants (interfaces, etc)
  • Biological implants (symbionts)
  • Psychological implants (cognitive systems, personalities, etc)

These may be vital signifiers of status (or lack of it), as they have been in human societies. Strong judgements may be attached to their use, as has been the case with human attitudes to cosmetics (eg Protestant purists). Some humans already envisage implants of various kinds to enhance their interface with data networks -- as well as the many possibilities of nanotechnology for personal enhancement. There has been speculation that aliens may have a closer integration with machines. Others are already focused on the possibilities of genetic modification which aliens may have taken to what humans would consider unacceptable extremes.

More intriguing is the possibility that the differences between humans and aliens may be undertsood in terms of memetic, rather than genetic, modification. Focused education is effectively a process of memetic engineering to implant new meme patterns -- especially in the case of indoctrination as practiced in some military, religious, political, or business education programs. Aliens may understand this in terms of memetic implants and again may have taken the process to extremes beyond that achieved by academic specialization and religious schism formation. This would be specially relevant if aliens assumed the appropriateness of 'corrective memetic surgery' to remove unwanted patterns -- as effectively practiced in cruder forms in human 're-education programs'. Given the recognized need to change behaviour to meet environmental challenges, the aliens may see it as appropriate for them to facilitate this corrective process -- with a benevolent interventionist policy analogous to that of the World Health Organization vaccination programs. Objectors to such vaccination, as with Jehovah's Witness opposition to vaccination, would need to be dealt with.

M: Different value systems

Challenge of non-conformity with galactic equivalent of:

  • Trade law standards
  • Human rights standards
  • Health and safety standards
  • Military security standards
  • Environmental standards
  • Cultural development standards
  • Indecent information (privacy, obscenity, pornography, etc)
  • Species rights standards
  • Child rights standards

Human standards may be viewed with repugnance, notably when they signal underlying attitudes to alien species -- still challenged by issues of colour and ethnicity amongst human species. As noted earlier, the conformity of Earth's 'universal' values to galactic standards may be a real challenge to human society. An ironic example might be galactic concern with radio emissions from Earth as a noisy neighbour (especially at $14.95 a message) -- an analogue to the challenge of pollution by carbon emissions.

Unlike the emphasis on the accumulation of wealth, it is possible that aliens may be preoccupied with the accumulation of some other value. Buddhists, for example, seek to accumulate merit. Some traditional societies have sought to accumulate honour. Urban gangs may be primarily concerned with accumulation of respect or reputation.

Aliens may value life quite differently. As with some human soceities of the past (and some military leaders of the present), lives may be quite expendable in pursuit of some larger cause. The case of fanatical suicide bombers and kamikaze pilots should be borne in mind. As with certain religions, reincarantion may be a fundamental reality. The consequence of this might be dialogue situations in which participants are deliberately placed at extreme risk merely to test out communication hypotheses. The lack of reluctance of governments in this respect has been recently remarked in the case of experimentation on prisoners, military personnel and hospital patients in connection with radioactivity and biological warfare.

N: Different understanding of the nature of agreement, disagreement and unity

  • Meaning of universal (with the contrasts of uniformity, unity-within-diversity, and unity-through-diversity)
  • Meaning of global
  • Meaning of agree versus disagree (with the extremes of physical opposition and musical harmony as possibilities)

Aliens may have a richer or much narrower understanding of these concepts. An agreement may brook no disagreement and may imply subservience to some distant power (as with the colonial relationship to the British monarch). Alternatively emphasis may be placed on the interplay between agreement and disagreement; as with the musical interplay between consonance and dissonance through which coherence or incoherence is judged. Concern may be far more with the quality of the interplay than any statistical measure of agreement. As with the Chinese concepts of wa, wei and shih, the aliens may seek above all to maximize an insightful, elegant kind of knowledge -- a special quality of knowing.

Especially intriguing is that aliens may attach far greater importance to understandings of transdisciplinarity, conceptual integration and coherence than is characteristic of human society with its plethora of academic and other disciplines dedicated to fragmentation, specialization, turfism and mutual hostility. Aliens may have a quite different understanding of 'global conversation' than exchanging emails and photographs with people on the other side of the globe -- a theme explored in an earlier paper (Judge, 1997). In this respect, as noted earlier, and to the extent that aliens attach importance to mathematics, there is the possibility that they may assess the value of communicating with humanity more in terms of the integrative order which humanity has been able to give to mathematics as a whole (rather than to a specialized 'branch' concerned with number theory). This is tentatively explored in a separate paper (Judge, 2000).

There is an assumption that, however aliens signify whatever meaning they attach to agreement, that it would be to some conventional text -- structured into a laundry list of articles as with human legislation and treaties. Amazingly there has been no innovation whatsoever in the structure of such documents since they were first used. However aliens may expect that the structure of an agreement should be, to the extent possible, isomorphous with the system of preoccupations that is the subject of the agreement. Minimally this suggests (hyper)links between parts of the text defining the feedback loops of checks and balances -- as is done with some modelling techniques. The ability to develop such 'behavioural flowcharts' may for them be a criterion for meaningful dialogue. Laundry lists may signify that humanity falls below a threshold of ability to enter into dialogue capable of operational agreement -- a form of incompetence which human societies associate with those judged legally incompetent to act. Aliens may also deliberately structure agreements and declarations to embody polarizing dimensions that tend in practice to tear apart human agreements (as tentatively explored in a Structure of concluding declarations ).

Aliens may have developed ways to reflect the content of complex agreements in visual, or other patterns, as humans may come to do in the light of their use of system flow charts. But their aesthetic qualities may be considered a vital attribute -- making them resemble carpets or tapestries perhaps. In this respect it is worth reflecting on the encounter between the Spanish conquistadores and the Inca who used quipu instead of written records -- complex networks of coloured, knotted strings, some weighing up to 20 kilos and composed of tens of thousands of knots. These allowed them to organize information (including their agreements) in a non-linear manner. These media were systematically destroyed by the 'aliens' from Europe. What might human texts contain that would cause aliens to destroy them all?

O: Different sense of content and modality

Different understanding of:

  • Questions
  • Answers
  • Facts
  • Opinions

It is readily assumed that aliens will be as interested in responses to a barrage of questions and answers as are western tourists in exotic locations. Aliens may reframe any question/answer focus within an unexpected context. An earlier paper (Judge, 1982) explored the challenges of questionable answers, the 'answer economy', and possibilities of shifting into a more complex pattern of strategic dialogue.

The Web provides an interesting metaphor in that it is through the universal use of 'browsers' that the process of question and answer is sustained. But in nature there are predators who feed on browsers, just as there are those who are designing Web usage to exploit browser users in various ways. The human question-and-answer process may be encouraged ('cultivated') by aliens in a similar manner.

However, even amongst existing cultures of the world there are many who do not give priority to questions and answers in their encounters, nor to the facts and opinions which arise from such interactions. Greater priority may be attached to patterns of behaviour, courtesy and attentiveness, for example. The assumption that aliens will have any motivation to engage in the kind of structured discourse that would satisfy scientists, is indeed an assumption of the 20th century. Like the tourists, their motivations may be cultural, philosophic, religious, or otherwise. Alternatively, as with military agents, they may only be willing to disclose the equivalent of 'name, rank, and serial number' -- possibly disguised within a pattern of disinformation. Would western military agencies require of their agents to do otherwise under such circumstances -- especially when some equivalent of 'national security' was considered to be at stake?

There is another well-documented challenge exemplified by Japanese avoidance of negative answers -- the use of 'no'. Aliens may have a range of linguistic sensitivities of this kind -- possibly including reluctance to discuss numbers for 'religious' reasons (as was the case at the time of some early Christian heresies regarding the trinity). Edward de Bono (1972) has explored ways of moving beyond 'yes' or 'no' in a dialogue -- namely through the use of 'po'. He maintains that most of us are trapped within the rigid confines of traditional thinking, limited by concepts which have developed simply for the purpose of arriving at the 'right' answer. While humanity has advanced technologically, in the realm of ideas and thought processes we are, he says, still using the restricted and the restricting concepts that have always been used. Po is a device for changing our ways of thinking: a method for approaching problems in a new and more creative way. The basis of logical thinking is the word "no". By enabling you to reject what is wrong, it allows you to be right at each step. The new word, Po, is a new thinking tool - but with a completely different function. Po lets you step outside the harsh rigidity of the Yes/No system and change from the present thought pattern to creating new ideas.

Aliens may well be more 'politically correct' in their own terms than the most extreme in human society. It is worth remembering the tendency of some very active religious groups today to suspect the demonic in discourse alien to their own -- even after past centuries of witch-hunts. However, it is virtually certain that some religious groups will perceive aliens as necessarily demonic since their origins will call into question (or reinforce) some interpretations of sacred scriptures. To many the arrival of aliens may be symbolically heralded by 'luciferian' phenomena (recalling biblical predictions) resulting from the operations of their spacecraft. Such factors will make it extremely problematic to initiate and maintain fruitful dialogue.

There is also the possibility that the aliens may be primarily intrigued by the curiosity or entertainment value of contact with humans -- just as many tourists visit exotic locations, from within protective environments (buses, hotels), to take away photographs and other memories, leaving little of meaning in exchange. Aliens may be the ultimate 'couch potatoes' such that media communications from the Earth are avidly watched within a radius of 100 light years -- with FTL relays to other parts of the galaxy. Earth may be seen as the Hollywood of the sector -- observed liked Dynasty or Dallas as the ultimate soap opera. Like Western tourists, there may be little impulse for more meaningful contact. Worse still, as explored in the Truman Show, civilization on Earth may have been set up and maintained as an entertainment show or experiment.

P: Different sense of aesthetics

Implicit in a number of the points above are the ways in which aliens may have a radically different sense of aesthetics that they may consider vital to appropriate dialogue. Some sense of the importance of this can be seen in the attention given on the occasion of carefully orchestrated ceremonies and celebrations -- where care is taken not to offend invited notables from foreign cultures. It is possible that aesthetics may be woven by them into their dialogue and decision-making processes in ways that humans would find quite challenging (as explored in an earlier paper Judge, 1990)

There is now widespread use of music in public spaces, offices and conference environments -- often carefully selected to enhance preferred dynamics. The early experience of such use to promote sales in shopping complexes is bening enhanced by the use of fragrances in air conditioning for similar purposes. Such preferences may be experienced as offensive by aliens, who may on the other hand favour alternatives which humans would experience as undermining any possibility of dialogue. This challenge is easily experienced by a person favouring low noise levels when encountering a group that prefers to meet with loud music.

It is also possible that certain forms of design or decor would be considered inauspicious by the aliens -- as with the Chinese attitude to feng shui in certain buildings considered unlucky and totally inappropriate for successful business. Colour schemes for colour sensitive aliens may also be a challenge -- as with different appreciations of black, white, red, green between human cultures. Also of possible concern is the sexual symbolism associated with conference room podia and proscenium design and their confusion with altars for religious celebrations.

Q: Different dependence on stimulants

Just as some human cultures and sub-cultures favour the use of stimulants as a catalysis for effective dialogue, aliens may have unforeseen requirements in this respect. The challenge may be seen in efforts to dialogue with human business partners who favour alcohol or drugs, or are effectively chain smokers -- or need women. American Indians traditionally attached great importance to participative smoking of a peace pipe in support of dialogue. Analogous behaviour is involved in modern use in sub-cultures of marihuana (notably in the case of the Rastafarians) and harder drugs. It is difficult to imagine effective communication with some sub-cultures in the absence of such stimulants.

The issue of allergy during alien contact should not be forgotten given its determining effect on contact between humans, and with pets. Beyond smoking, alcohol and drug sensitivities, the city of Halifax (Canada), for example, now has an ordinance restricting use of fragrances (perfumes and other odiferous cosmetic substances) in public places.

R: Different understanding of team work

The contrast between Western and Asian approaches to team work has been widely explored in the light of the individualism of the former and the collective preoccupation of the latter. Aliens in a dialogue may be either more individualistic, or more collective in their approach -- or stress some other dimension quite unfamiliar to humans. The challenge to comprehension is illustrated by the problem for westerners to understand some of the dimensions of dialogue important to Japanese (cf nemawashi) .

The dialogue process may not 'work' if it is assumed that it is based on one principal 'representative' of the aliens speaking to a human counterpart -- according to the model favoured by western diplomats. The aliens may have the practice of speaking simultaneously as a group, interacting with one another and their dialogue counterparts. Elements of this may be seen in television talk shows that do not follow the northern model of one speaker at a time. As a richer means of communicating, they may have developed what humans only practice in complex multi-part songs A single voice may be considered primitive and inadequate to the needs of multi-channel communication in highly uncertain situations of which such a dialogue would be typical.

Ironically it might also be team ball players who would have the best insight into some of the complexities of moving a point of dialogue focus (the 'ball') around between dialogue team members 'marked' by members of an opposing team. But then the aliens may have worked out how two teams can do this in a way that is more meaningful than the competitive desire to score against the opponent. Some sense of this may be gained from present understanding of what constitutes a 'good game' rather than one in which one side simply seeks to 'beat' the other.

S: Different understanding of privacy and confidentiality

Modern civilization has moved towards media-dependence and invasiveness. Aliens may be hypersensitive to privacy or even more preoccupied with media coverage for galactic audiences. Efforts to have confidential discussions and negotiations may be undermined by their media needs. To the extent that this capacity is lacking, any response is inhibited or focused on superficial detail. Humans may find themselves in the same situation as the representatives from British colonies in the 1960s negotiating their independence in Lancaster House (London) -- whose every word amongst themselves was subject to electronic eavesdropping by the government from whom they were seeking freedom. Aliens might legitimately see such invasiveness as a total breach of faith.

A variant of some possible concern is the kind of personal privacy needs which evoke the need for veils, screens or some equivalent. This remains an issue in dealing with women in purdah or in Islamic societies, or with Touaregs. New variants are emerging with the need to silver vehicle windows. It is still the case that direct eye contact may be considered offensive in some cultures.

T: Different sense of personal hygiene

The period of colonial exploration was characterized by expressions of astonishment at the total lack of personal hygiene exhibited by indigenous peoples. Ironically those same explorers would now be seen to quite offensive for the same reasons (infrequent bathing, unwashed clothing, etc). Westerners are still experienced as having an unwelcome level of transpiration in a number of Eastern (tropical) countries. These differences were not assisted by the preference of some indigenous peoples for nudity -- ensuring them a higher degree of cleanliness than that of their clothed invaders. The situation in any dialogue is further complicated by food preferences -- as exposure to Mediterranean garlic eaters quickly makes clear.

If aliens have a quite different relationship to other species, as suggested earlier, it is possible that they may appreciate a much higher degree of personal 'infestation' than humans -- although it is only in recent years that humans have become obsessed with ridding themselves of lice and fleas to some degree. Like the primates, they may provide an opportunity for grooming rituals or the equivalent of cocktail snacks. The tendency of humans to repress any insight into the millions of microrganisums for which they provide a personal environment may be considered barberous by aliens with a preference for being 'inhabited'. Or perhaps they will have a dynamic relationship to such species -- as with the necessarily 'dynamic' realtionship to flies in the Australian Outback. The reverse may of course be the case, especially for a space travelling species.

But aliens may be far more focused on what might be termed emotional, conceptual, or even spiritual hygiene. A sense of this is evident in the increasing use of the expression that someone in perfect physical health 'needs help'. Group and personal psychotherapy is very clear on the extent to which attention needs to be given to this dimension in order not to undermine personal relations -- including dialogue situations. What probability is there that an encounter with aliens would be undermined by experience of what would be described as emotional, conceptual, or spiritual 'halitosis' -- by either or both parties?

U: Different understanding of maturity

It was noted above that aliens may assess worthiness in dialogue in terms of age (as in Japanese culture), youth (as in Western high tech culture), or lineage (as in aristocratic systems). There is also the possibility that aliens may be most sensitive to some understanding of spiritual maturity (as in Buddhist culture). Western New Age cultures have on the other hand developed criteria based on some understanding of number of initiations (and in what context they were given or received). Some schools of psychotherapy focus very seriously on the number of years of analysis (and with whom). Alternatively personal charisma, as evidenced by evangelical preachers or Eastern gurus, may be valued.

Next: Part II: Strategic clues


Creative Commons License
This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence.