Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Remembrance of SETI’s Past

(I participated in a workshop organized by two anthropologists studying SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence): Claire Webb and Michael Oman-Reagan.  The topic called for us to think broadly about the future in relation to SETI.  My own contribution revolves around the SETI/METI divide and the question of time.)

As Pioneer crafts hurtle off into interstellar space with their plaques celebrating Eurocentric, heteronormative humanity atop a school-child’s depiction of the solar system, people have inevitably thought of better things they could have sent to the stars.  These have been the subject of numerous discussions and Kickstarter campaigns.  But all of these concerns and alternative plans reflect on one of the chief obstacles to communication with ETI—coevalness.  SETI doesn’t take place in coeval timespace; even signals to (or from) nearby systems (e.g., Proxima Centauri) take a few light years to reach there.  Their past is our present; our past is their present.  Whether we are listening for “their” signal, communicating “ours” or some combination, we do so through a time machine that denies the coevalness of the encounter.  SF writers have utilized a variety of devices to surmount these temporal obstacles, e.g., Le Guin’s ansible (first appearing in her 1966 Rocannon’s World), but the problem of communication (rather than just signal detection) remains.  More recently, SF fiction and film have gravitated back to the question of coevalness, notably in the 2016 film Arrival (based on Ted Chiang’s 1998 “Story of Your Life”) and the 2014 film Interstellar.  And even though these mark a departure from the ansible-like plot devices, they ultimately revolve around questions of coevalness. In Arrival, Louise Banks learns an alien language that is premised on strikingly different temporalities—past, present and future circle back on one another in a non-linear way.  And with her language acquisition, Banks becomes aware of the future (remembered as her past), in such a way that allows her to intervene in the present.  With Interstellar, it’s the protagonist, Cooper, who falls into a tesseract which allows him to manipulate the past in order to allow his daughter to develop the technologies that will liberate humanity from a dying Earth.  Strictly speaking, the alien is ancillary to both of these films.  In Arrival, we see aliens through a translucent screen and, in Interstellar, Cooper’s daughter misrecognizes the dust patterns as a ghostly, alien-like communication.  Really, it’s the humans that matter.  In Arrival, the plot hinges on very human problems of war, aggression and cooperation—with the aliens remaining enigmatic and part of the film’s mise en scène rather than active agents.  In Interstellar, of course, the dust patterns and the watch-face manipulations come from Cooper himself.  However: the importance of these films is not their novel approach to communication with ETI; it is, simply, the importance of communicating with ourselves across temporalities.  In other words, finding a coeval timespace to communicate with the alien is a symptom of our own problems communicating between human futures and human pasts and, in the process, coming to terms with a present in which both the past is interpolated into the future, and the future in the past. 

With Pioneer and Voyager, our future contact is premised on our past assumptions about science, philosophy, aesthetics and political economy.  They are—strictly speaking—communications with our past that lie in our future, with an “us” that is already alien(ated) to us.  Is this inevitable?  Or is it (pace Arrival) an artifact of Western temporalities that position past, present and future along a line like the solar system in the Pioneer plaques?  How can we think about that in a way that doesn’t reproduce “the future” as superannuated past?

Why would this matter?  Here, the Other we encounter is our past--the assumptions we make about ourselves and the assumptions we make about extraterrestrial intelligence.  Even if we concede that others whose signals we might detect labor under the same time machine conditions that we do, there is no certainty that the face the same problem of coevalness.  Ours is a product of Western ethnocentrism, modernity and, perhaps, the duration of the human.  But even Earthly species experience markedly different temporalities than the scientists who search signals from other places and other times.  It seems likely that the problem of coeval timescapes doesn’t look the same elsewhere.