We’ve been sending radio and television signals into space for decades without giving it much thought.
Maybe we should.
For a while, I was on the same bandwagon with a lot of other scientists and a few hopeful romantics thinking that any contact we make with another advanced species would be a good one. We’d reach out to them, and they would reach back, like two lovers touching hands across a cafe table in Paris. Ahhhh.
My rosy view of our first contact darkened considerably in 2012. That year, a group attending a symposium on electronic art sent a slew of twitter discussions toward GJ667Cc – an exoplanet 22 light years away from Earth. The tweets mostly contained simple greetings, wishes for peace, fears about our own planet, and questions about extraterrestrial social and economic systems. Overall, pretty harmless stuff. But the idea got me thinking about all the other stuff we’re sending into space, and the realization was chilling.
The nightly news alone gives a pretty sour picture of our species. So does the incessant whine of social media, powered by legions of self-important humans all elbowing each other aside to enjoy their 15 minutes of fame. Reality TV shows might be interpreted as real by unsuspecting extraterrestrials. Science fiction movies give the impression that the only acceptable response when meeting a life form from beyond Earth is to punch it in the face and blast it to smithereens.
When I think about it, I’m left red-faced with embarrassment for our species. Sure, we’re responsible for some really high points in civilization. Mozart, Isaac Newton, Einstein, the Buddha, Martin Luther King. But once the galaxy gets a load of the rest of our output, we’ll be as welcome as a turd in a swimming pool.
As a species, we come across as toxic and dangerous. The last thing you’d want to do is make contact with us—a prospect that I find depressing. These life forms might have miraculous cures for cancer, sure-fire plans for world peace, and ingenious ways of producing unlimited, clean energy. But if I were them, I’d think to myself, “Why give it to a bunch of maniacs who seem to spend all their time killing each other or posting selfies on every available pixel of the Internet?”
Make no mistake—I’m convinced that advanced life forms are out there, but the problem is that they’ve already heard us loud and clear. And now we’re like an uninvited guest showing up at a party, ringing the doorbell but wondering why no one is answering the door.
Maybe the extraterrestrials are waiting silently in the dark, hoping we’ll just go away.