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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

If technology is so great, then where are all the E.T.'s?

This may not seem like the kind of question you would expect discussed here at Phoenix Insurgent, but bear with me for a moment. Why is it that despite the self-confident promises of the techno-philiac transhumanists, the constant reassuring of better things to come from our technology-loving elite and their scientist cadres, not to mention the treated-as-inevitable prognostications of the wizened researchers and science fiction writers alike -- why is it that despite all this so-called common sense about the benevolent and promising nature of technology we don't see any evidence of other high technology or space-faring civilizations anywhere in the universe?

This might be a just a thought experiment, but it sure does make you wonder doesn't it? I mean, the universe has had somewhere on the order of nearly 14 billion years to produce all the millions of space shuttling races that we see portrayed in our science fiction classics. Certainly the universe, given the myth of technology, must at least be populated with hundreds of iPod wearing slime, gas, carbon or silicon-cased creatures by now. Yet where are they? In all the years we've been listening to the skies, we haven't detected so much as a stray podcast from them.

Isn't this a bit surprising? After all, doesn't the ideology of technology as we are force fed it from day one in this society instill in us a religious-like faith in progress as manifested through our many microchips and machines? Like Jesus returning to pluck us from our Earthly hell and deliver us to paradise, we all take for granted that humanity will someday get its planetary shit together and, thanks to its technology, head off-world towards the heavens and paradise, where we'll all somehow finally manage to build an egalitarian world of mono-color jumpsuits and prime directives (and all without ever having to overthrow the bloody capitalists and politicians that have kept us from doing so up to that point - if that doesn't reveal this faith in technology as a tool of the elite than I don't know what does!). Yet despite scientists' allegedly strictly adhered to method of evidence-based research, we are left to assume that the very same science and technology which, so far, has yet to solve even the most basic problems of distribution of wealth and power, and both of which in fact adhere themselves quite willingly to existing power structures like the military and the university-corporate system, will somehow develop a heretofore undiscovered mechanism for solving all our problems in an egalitarian way - all while ceasing to cause new problems and eschewing the accountability of all except their capitalist and government masters. In other words, we're supposed to ignore all the evidence to the contrary and trust the scientists that it'll all come out all right in the end, even though there is no process for ensuring it will do so. In fact quite the opposite.

So, if it's so true (and ignoring Dennis Kucinich's midnight close encounters), how do we explain the strange absence of our celestial brothers? Said another way, where is ET?

Well, let's set aside for a moment whether there could even be something called an egalitarian technological society and consider instead what other forces might conspire to keep the universe barren of galactic civilizations and what that might mean for us. Indeed, some may be familiar with the Drake Equation, which Dr. Frank Drake developed in 1960 in an attempt to figure out just what was the likelihood of the universe spawning intelligent life that could reach out to the stars. It attempted to get a handle on a variety of variables, some quite mundane like how many stars will have planets that could support life and how many civilizations will develop the technology to communicate with us (so we can become aware of them). Interesting stuff, for sure. Alluded to, but not spoken outright, however, is perhaps the most important part of the equation: how many technological civilizations actually survive technological civilization itself? The equation doesn't get too specific on that point, opting to couch things in general terms: "L is the length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space." In other words, how long a civilization can avoid destroying itself (or, less likely, I suppose, dodge comet impacts). That such formulations are left to euphemism and the abstract says a lot about the miasma of self-denial afflicting scientists living in the midst of the Cold War and under the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation at the hands of, well, scientists (who created the bombs to begin with, of course). Such investigations are at their heart, speculation, for sure. However, as the equation suggests, there are some knowables, and they may more broad-ranging in scope than mere atomic destruction or a meteor impact.

For instance, recent news suggests that it's not just the bullet of nuclear holocaust that we must dodge if we are to make it to the stars. Technological existence has slower but no less lethal weapons in its arsenal, too. Consider the UN's recent report on climate change, which frames itself as a last warning to humanity else we face the catastrophic collision of total ecological collapse and the steadily building crisis of over-population. As reported in the International Herald Tribune recently,
The human population is living far beyond its means and inflicting damage on the environment that could pass points of no return, according to a major report issued Thursday by the United Nations.

Climate change, the rate of extinction of species and the challenge of feeding a growing population are among the threats putting humanity at risk, the UN Environment Program said in its fourth Global Environmental Outlook since 1997.

"The human population is now so large that the amount of resources needed to sustain it exceeds what is available at current consumption patterns," Achim Steiner, the executive director of the program, said in a telephone interview. Efficient use of resources and reducing waste now are "among the greatest challenges at the beginning of 21st century," he said.
What if all civilizations faced similar inevitable crises, not despite but precisely because of their technological nature. Consider that experts have increasingly been forecasting disastrous wars over shrinking access to resources in our near future (perhaps, some contend, we are already witnessing such conflicts in Darfur and the Middle East). Indeed, a recent military think tank report suggests an increasingly willingness of reactionary elements to take these threats seriously and are already preparing for the war of the technological world against the planet of slums. Seen Children of Men? That's one vision of what we could be facing.

Then, of course, we have peak oil, which is also in the news today, as several oil-producing regimes (perhaps not to be trusted) have declared that they cannot guarantee increased production as global supplies shrink and demand rises. Likewise, China announced this week that it will reach peak oil production by 2015. Throw in increasingly virulent diseases or mutated old ones, and you have a good idea of the kind of dangers that technological society creates for itself, ironically limiting its own ability to make good on its promises and deliver us safely into the celestial bosom.

Quite impressive, really, when you consider that of 100,000 years of human history, industrialism has only really been at it in a serious way for a hundred or so. And there remain large sections of the planet's population and land that are not yet incorporated into the industrial system of production! Just wait until the entire planet is under industrial domination - if we ever get there. What would that success mean for our survivability?

All this talk is a round-about way of pointing you to Dr. Michael Byron's quite interesting recent article entitled Peak Oil and the Fermi Paradox. In it, Byron explores these very factors as they relate to the Drake equation and the likelihood of there existing any ETs out there at all. He asks,
If other civilizations exist, then it would seem reasonable that at least some would be more advanced than ours, and would presumably be able to travel to nearby star systems. After a few millions of years they ought to have colonized the entire Milky Way Galaxy. Radio astronomers have been searching ever since Frank Drake undertook the first scientific search for extraterrestrial civilizations with Project Ozma back in 1960. Yet there is no sign of extraterrestrial civilization anywhere in our galaxy. The silence across the galaxy has been deafening. So where are they?!
To which he responds that perhaps the conditions necessary for a civilization to reach interstellar heights are rare indeed - and self-limiting. Maybe developing a galactic civilization is more of a window of opportunity, not a guarantee that comes merely from avoiding immediate self-destruction. Perhaps, he wonders, in our case we had our chance to escape our Earthly bondage and have now let it slip by, distracted as we were by the Cold War and other misadventures.
The bottom line is clear: our civilization could have expanded off planet and established itself among the moons, asteroids, and in the case of Mars, even planets of our solar system. Except that we didn’t. Instead we had the Cold War, we had the Vietnam War, while Soviet Russia had its Afghan War, etc. In just the past half decade, a fraction of the monies that will ultimately be squandered on the futile Iraq war (trillions of dollars) could have, if directed by a pragmatic visionary such as Robert Zubrin, bootstrapped our species out into the solar system.

Without our realizing it, the window of opportunity for humans to expand into our solar system is rapidly closing. With all of the multiple crises which are bearing down upon our civilization—peak oil, climate change, capture of our government and our economy by rapacious, undemocratic corporate elites, etc., I do not believe that we will (pun intended) rise to the occasion.

Across our galaxy this story has likely played out multiple times during the last two billion years or so in which intelligent life might plausibly have evolved. The core problem is that the window of opportunity for solar system expansion is so very brief, that of the small number of planetary civilizations which have probably emerged in our galaxy thus far in its history, none have succeeded in taking advantage of it before the window slammed shut forever.
Interesting indeed.

Of course, I would hasten to add that in all likelihood, even a society that would successfully navigate through this window of opportunity to the stars would suffer the great tragedy of creating a civilization overwhelmed by high technology to such an extent that, if it did support human life, it would be highly unlikely to support freedom in any form that we would find recognizable. After all, as I pointed out above, the assumption that a high tech society that made it to space would be a free one is just that - an assumption. And one that flies in the face of the available evidence at that. Further, who's to say that we wouldn't just do to the universe what we have done to the Earth. As Byron puts it:
At a deeper level I have come to the conclusion that perhaps even the vast resources of our solar system are themselves ultimately limited. If a solar system wide civilization were to emerge, it would likely grow to a population of hundreds of billions. If such a civilization were to merely be an expanded version of our present day civilization, it seems likely that we would just end up consuming or destroying utterly irreplaceable resources on not just a planetary scale, but rather upon a solar system wide scale. This is not good as these resources could be put to effective use by a more culturally evolved civilization—unless they had already been senselessly trashed by cultural primitives such as ourselves.
In that case, then, perhaps it's better that we missed the window.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

An alternative take is that there have been, and are, practically countless phenomena that show an "alien" presence of some form or another. But everyone, especially UFO fans, has a reality box that prevents seeing things as they are.

Fri Nov 09, 06:18:00 PM 2007  

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