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23 January 2000

Communicating with Aliens

the Psychological Dimension of Dialogue

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Part I: Test challenges for alien counter
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


Most of the academic initiatives to reflect on the challenge of communicating with extraterrestrials seem to focus on the technical problems of receiving a signal from them, or sending a signal to them. These questions are extensively explored in the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) literature and even in the lesser-known CETI variant, namely Communicating with Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Such preoccupations then extend into the challenge of teaching aliens a language through which communication can be developed.

This paper is concerned with the psycho-social issues of communicating with extraterrestrials intelligently -- other than by making assumptions about the universality of coding based on prime number theory and mathematics as exemplified by the special language Lincos (developed by Hans Freudenthal in 1960) designed for such communication. Almost no serious study seems to have been made of the psychology of extraterrestrial communication -- presumably on the basis that xenopsychology, xenoanthropology or xenolinguistics (terms seemingly used only by science fiction enthusiasts and game designers) need some cases to work on before anything useful can be written. Although it might be argued that the theoretical challenges for communication are clear enough to commence such work. The possibility that aliens 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 particular 'branch' concerned with number theory) is tentatively explored in a separate paper (Judge, 2000)

Some of the interest in these topics on the Web tends to be confusingly associated with other agendas relating to UFOs, abductions, and the paranormal (including channelling), which are not the concern of what follows -- nor are the claims of some to be in communication with them already. However, given the American origins of the long-marginalized UFO preoccupation, it is ironic that the locus may now have shifted to China -- both in terms of recorded sightings and the main stream scientistis for whom they are a preoccupation (IHT, 12 January 2000). Just as the USSR was first into space, maybe China will be the first to have official contact with aliens.

The concrete challenge however is that when extraterrestrials are contacted (SETI), or land (UFOs), somebody is presumably going to be considered as appropriately briefed to communicate with them. The media, and science fiction, have explored many possible scenarios. The two most typical are:

And how have such people been prepared for this encounter? Is there a manual (on the Web) to assist in this process, or at least to indicate the possible traps? Does this emergency website offer links to sources of guidance? Does it offer interactive facilities -- like some health sites -- to enable those faced with such a challenge to clarify their options in the light of any information that emerges at different stages of the early interaction with the aliens? It could be argued that the best exploration of communication scenarios and options is that of science fiction. That is where most thinking on the matter has been invested. Indeed, establishing an interactive database of possible variants from that source might be a good place to start -- in the absence of anything better.

This paper explores a range of ways of thinking about communication with 'aliens' that might be a basis for enhancing such a database -- starting with the challenge of dealing with those 'aliens' readily to hand on this planet. Specifically it addresses the concern that a common language, according to the assumption made above, can in no way be assumed to ensure the kinds of communication that may be vital to mutual comprehension.

In a global society torn by savagely violent regional conflicts of various kinds, no one would dispute that the participants are especially challenged by lack of a 'common language' in the sense implied above. In a society in which there is continuing concern about 'alienation' amongst those considered to be speaking the same language, notably urban youth, the possibility of relationship building for 'sustainable community' is clearly important -- as it would be with aliens. Unfortunately the approach to building community tends to be little more than a radical revision of strategies employed by religious groups anxious to promote fellowship and brotherhood. Aided and abetted by facilitators with a variety of proprietary skills, these are adapted to team-building in educational, corporate, sporting and military situations where the dynamics of gender are avoided or stigmatized. But despite their claims to the contrary, the ability of religions to engage in consequential inter-faith dialogue is clearly somewhat suspect given the many ongoing religiously inspired wars. Religion might even be said to be sustained by its opposition to 'unbelievers' -- as it must necessarily define 'aliens' when they are contacted.

As the escalating level of communal violence indicates, many have already been radicalized into alienhood -- especially immigrant workers and their families. The resources for befriending or bonding them back into community are increasingly inadequate. The challenge of communicating with such 'aliens' may be as dramatic as that of communicating with extraterrestrials -- as many parents discover (and children too!). To use a theatrical metaphor, rather than 'extraterrestrials', many are becoming 'terrestrial extras' through various processes of marginalization.

Maybe there is a case for recognizing the extent to which everyone is an alien. Modern civilization, and globalization, may be an essentially alienating process -- evoking alien ways of being to compensate for its dehumanizing effects. As aliens, people need to discover other ways of inhabiting the same space-time continuum -- and other ways of communicating.

It is ironic that the sense of alienation encourages many to think of 'escape'. Where to, and how to, are a real challenge. To employ a space travel metaphor, how is anyone to build up an adequate 'escape velocity'? The Web, for example, offers a form of escape into a kind of 'orbit', unattached to any particular physical location. It encourages other approaches to sustainable community (through hyperlinks), more meaningful in practice to many than those promoted in international or community building programs. Already those 'on the Web' have disparaging terms for the unlinked -- those who are not linked in this way. They are seen as the real 'aliens' (Remember that the French word for hyperlink is hyperlien).

What follows in Part I is therefore a kind of thought experiment to test dialogue assumptions and prepare for situations in which we may be trapped by them. In Part II some strategic clues to the possible need for enhanced dialogue are explored. Part III is an exercise in structuring patterns of enhanced dialogue in anticipation of the levels into which it might become locked and the need to shift between them. In Part IV the insights of the previous two parts are used to explore the challenges of designing a flexible dialogue team for an encounter with aliens.

Next: Part I: Test challenges

Extract from an overview from 16 years later
by Finn Brunton,
especially significant due its publication in extenso in
Le Monde Diplomatique (Aout 2016) as Petit guide de conversation avec les extraterrestres
All these perspectives are characterized both by their creativity in physical terms and by their intellectual laziness ... Intellectually their weakness is obvious: they postulate a universe inhabited by people resembling ourselves more or less, and who, informed by us of our existence, would reciprocate in order to initiate a friendly exchange of views... Even if this schema proves to be correct, how to share things a little more sophisticated than phatic gestures -- an "I am here" -- by means of a tumulus, a woodshed or a right angle triangle? .... What could be the substance of communications and contacts with unknown strangers impossible to know? ... Most messages addressed to another world are humbly preoccupied with their own structure and its own decoding -- the only protection against revealing the overwhelming extent of our own ignorance. [extract translated from French, although an original version may exist in English]
Subsequent consideration of this theme in: Sensing Epiterrestrial Intelligence (SETI): embedding of "extraterrestrials" in episystemic dynamics? (2013); Self-reflective Embodiment of Transdisciplinary Integration (SETI): the universal criterion of species maturity? (2008)

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