This August a bunch of scientists gathered on the Big Island of Hawaii to talk about Bioastronomy. They do it every three years, usually someplace fabulous. In 1996 they met on the island of Capri. This time they chose the Kohala Coast, and a magnificent resort hotel so stricken by the Asian economic crisis that it had slashed the room rates. In the darkened lecture hall, scientists showed their viewgraphs and offered their theories and calculations. The sane observer could not avoid thinking of the sandy, sun-splashed beach just outside -- the Mai Tais at the pool bar -- the possibilities for snorkeling among the sea turtles that loaf around the coral that grows along the lava flows.
I missed a few of the lectures.
Intriguingly, the conference had a pre-game event, a mini-conference sponsored by a fairly obscure, intentionally low-profile organization called the Foundation for the Future. (The foundation can be glimpsed on the Web at www.futurefoundation.com.) If you could sum it up in a phrase, the foundation is concerned with the Y3K problem.
The year 2000 is no longer functional as a metaphor for the future. For decades, people would say things like, "By the year 2000 we'll all have personal jetpacks and zoom to work like Jonny Quest.` Now we need a new year to represent the future. Some people like 2020. Some like 2100. Some like the year 3000 (the Foundation for the Future has a program called "Humanity 3000`) and of course the Deep Time people are talking about Y10K.
The Hawaii mini-conference addressed one question in particular, consistent with the Bioastronomy theme: What would happen if the Earth received a message from an advanced civilization in space?
The premise was that the message would be "high-content,` not just a salutation or a "dial tone`' To judge from the comments of the participants (no press was allowed), there wasn't any consensus on whether Contact would be good or bad for the human race.
One possibility is that the alien message would never be decoded. Steve Dick of the U.S. Naval Observatory, author of a wonderful book called "The Biological Universe,` suggested that the aliens might perceive the universe completely differently than we do. There may be no overlap at all between their senses and our own. (Such aliens may even now be considering a run for the Reform Party nomination.)
Would the aliens be friendly? Presumably. Al Harrison, author of the book "After Contact,` said, "They're going to be an old civilization, so that means they haven't been bumped off, haven't committed suicide.`
One suggestion was that the aliens will contact us through the Internet. They'll just post an announcement that they're here.
The man behind this notion, Allen Tough, has gone so far as to invite the extraterrestrials to speak up. At members.aol.com/WelcomeETI/index.html, he writes: "Greetings to extraterrestrial intelligence! If you have come from some other place in the universe, we welcome you here -- [W]e realize that you could be present here in the form of an extraordinarily advanced computer within an interstellar probe or robot. Or you could be a biological flesh-and-blood being, perhaps combined with a machine and perhaps traveling on a spacecraft. You could even be an energy field, a point of consciousness capable of astral travel -- `
As we read this, we might be forgiven the thought that the worst place for the aliens to attempt to contact the human race would be the Internet, where they will be lost in the crowd. But it's probably a good exercise to contemplate Y3K in general. Besides the alien contact scenario, there are more plausible possibilities for disruptive change in civilization, such as radical increases in human lifespans due to biotechnology.
We live in a world that looks pretty much the same year to year but changes drastically over the course of many decades and centuries. Consider this: Tomorrow we will reach a rather terrifying milestone in the history of the planet Earth -- what the United Nations calls "D6B.` That's the day that, according to the U.N., the world's population reaches 6 billion people. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan will symbolically welcome the 6 billionth child at a hospital in Sarajevo tonight. It'll be the first baby born after midnight, Sarajevo time.
The Earth has seen a net increase of a billion people since 1987.
A millennium ago there were only about 300 million people on the planet, and they literally didn't know where they were -- they didn't have a grasp of the geography of the world, didn't know the Earth went around the sun, didn't have any way of knowing the true size of the universe. They didn't even know that their blood circulates -- much less that the reason kids look like their parents is the existence of an information-bearing molecule in each of their cells.
No one knows how the chaotic, global experiment in human proliferation is going to turn out. Usually we make unimaginative predictions. Someone invents the atom bomb and we declare that this is the way the world ends, in a terrible war. Someone invents computers and you hear that eventually people will become more like machines, that we'll download our thoughts into immortal silicon networks -- that we'll join a collective consciousness and, in a sense, merge with the Internet.
Undoubtedly the future will hold something else for us, an existence that we cannot quite imagine. Let us extravagantly take as inspiration the Kurt Warner situation. This guy Warner, a total nobody, came out of the Arena Football League and suddenly is the best quarterback in football. Yesterday he threw five touchdowns and completed 20 of 23 passes to lead St. Louis over San Francisco in, as the Los Angeles Times put it, "the kind of performance that made him a household name in Des Moines for the Iowa Barnstormers.`
The lesson - in addition to the fact that we will use any conceivable factoid to make our point - is that we can't possibly know what the world will be like in the year 3000. Never mind Y3K: We can't possibly understand the Y2.05K situation. In the meantime we should stick with the current operating system, our poor old human selves, and make sure we take time to go snorkeling with the turtles.
Rough Draft will appear Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 1 p.m. until approximately the year 3000.