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Interstellar Communication



I’ve said this before: While it’s not the only reason for my interest in “weird politics”engaging earnestly with more uncommon frames allows for some helpful recalibration on common issues (or, if you’re the trolling type, a new set of arcane rhetorical weapons). I’ve scratched similar itches by reading conspiracy theory sites, reading Weird Fiction, and trying to slog through religious apologetic. Sometimes, the best way to see your world “for what it is” is to go to the moon first, and then look back. Visiting alien worlds could give you a bit more context about what is interesting about your own world.

I started reading Archaeology, Anthropology, and Interstellar Communication and found myself thinking a lot more about terrestrial communication and culture. [Full PDF courtesy of, here]. I’m about a quarter-way through.

Here’s a fun primer to the Fermi Paradox and the Great Filter. If life is even the tiniest bit likely to spawn elsewhere, and if recognizably intelligent life is even the tiniest bit likely to develop, and if interplanetary colonialism is even plausibly an effective civilizational lifestyle, we ought to remember that the universe is pretty big and pretty old. We ought to be confused by the Great Silence. One of my favorite Aeon articles meditated on this Great Filter as well.

Like [as in, “because of”] many others, I don’t find many of the Great Filter candidates likely, primarily because they’d have to be insanely, terrifically effective in order to answer the question of “why isn’t anyone talking?”

If you can’t hear anything, maybe there’s nothing to hear, or maybe you’re deaf. If our priors suggest that there should be plenty of life, but we haven’t stumbled onto anything in our limited screenings over a civilizational blink-of-an-eye, it is possible that our prior is wrong, but we ought to think about our methods a bit.

Those riffs aside, I’m enjoying the book’s meditations on what would happen assuming that we are actually bombarded with signals from alien intelligence. 



In standard SETI scenarios, where humans and extraterrestrials are separated by trillions of miles, even a signal traveling at the speed of light may take centuries or millennia to reach its recipients. Thus, interstellar communication may be a one-way transmission of information, rather than a back-and-forth exchange. As we search for analogies to contact at interstellar distances, archaeology provides some intriguing parallels, given that its practitioners—like successful SETI scientists—are charged with reconstructing long-lost civilizations from potentially fragmentary evidence.

Information that SETI might receive will be coming from what may be a long-dead civilization. Some of my earliest posts on this blog were about the alien intelligence of long-lost civilizations: even Greece, a civilization we tie ourselves to narratively, often actually whispered to us through the efforts of civilizations we generally don’t draw lines through (the Islamic empires during the European Dark ages). Egyptian hieroglyphics were mostly a mystery to us until we found the Rosetta’s Stone that gave us enough clues through language comparison. Before that, we weren’t even sure that the Egyptian hieroglyphs represented verbal sounds- they could well have been symbols for broad sweeping ideas with no literal translation.

Unfortunately, we can’t count on Space Muslims to archive messages that we missed due to our own illiteracy. We can’t count on interstellar Rosetta’s Stones, and if we did find one it might not be all that useful (or even identifiable as more than one language…). In encountering extraterrestrial communication, would we recognize it? Would we recognize it as intentional communication? Would we share enough priors with the intelligence to hope to gleam anything from it? Europeans spent centuries mistaking ancient tools for “naturally formed rocks” until they encountered and studied contemporary Native American societies. Suddenly, European archaeologists realized that they had been stepping on stones and grounds rich with alien intentionality even at home.

Are we doing the same with sky?

The difficulty of recognizing the unanticipated, [Archaeologist Paul] Wason suggests, may provide a solution to the Fermi paradox, which asks, “If extraterrestrial intelligence exists, why haven’t we found it?” Wason answers this question by noting that we have been unable to free ourselves sufficiently from our preconceptions of extraterrestrial intelligence to recognize its existence.

Of course, it would be enough to determine that “someone” is saying “something” to be a huge breakthrough. Arguments are also made that a “gist” or an appreciation of the form might be determined- and be highly informational- without actually being able to work out the content of an alien message.

What does their form suggest about how extraterrestrials communicate? And what do the forms of human messages say about us? Might extraterrestrials read the surplus radiation leaking into space from radio and TV transmitters on Earth as an indication that visual and auditory signals figure prominently in human communication? Such a recognition could help message recipients to prepare more intelligible replies, even lacking a comprehension of the specific content of the messages per se. Similarly, the intentional signals already sent from Earth to other civilizations as streams of ones and zeros may highlight the human capacity to think in terms of dualisms. Given that these implicit messages may be more informative than the explicit content, Traphagan encourages additional research on how we might better communicate such tacit meanings to another intelligence

The book is fascinating but it’s hard to shake the pessimistic vibe so far, between the lack of seriousness the public affords the endeavor, the mysterious silence from the sky, and the horrifying challenge we’d be faced with if ever the silence should end.

I may or may not write more on this book later, as I complete it.


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