These are all major, important stories, stories that lives and futures depend upon. And yet they’re almost irrelevant compared to the question that isn’t anywhere in my Twitter feed right now: Are we being watched by alien technology?
We are now getting previews of the latest government investigation into that question, a declassified version of which is scheduled to be released soon. Sifting through scores of incidents of UFOs that seemed to move in ways that exceed current technology, the investigators reportedly found no evidence that they were looking at extraterrestrial technology — but also no way to rule it out. Apparently, all they could say for sure was that most of the reported sightings did not involve involve secret U.S. government advanced technology.
Which leaves three possibilities. First, these could be some sort of optical illusions that made normal objects look like physics-defying technology too advanced for any known human civilization. Second, another country — likely Russia or China — has developed some unknown technology, potentially leaving the United States disastrously far behind our strategic rivals. Or, third, it’s the little green men — though, of course, they might be neither green nor little.
The first possibility is the status quo, and we know what it looks like, so leave it aside for the nonce. The second possibility is bad for both the United States and the world, given how repressive those governments are. But even that worst-case scenario — a strategic rival getting some hyper-potent new military technology — is a comprehensible kind of bad. We understand how other humans think; that whatever bad ends they might seek, they would not will the death of our entire species.
They could also, of course, have benevolent intentions. Or they might not be interested in us at all; perhaps we don’t even look like the alien definition of “intelligent life” — if, that is, the aliens have definitions. Or language.
Whether we’re being visited, and what they might be up to, is the most important question of anyone’s lifetime, because, if so, everything that currently obsesses us, including the pandemic, will retreat to a historical footnote. It might well be the most important question for our species since Homo erectus debated whether to play with fire.
So I’ve been surprised to find that the story of unexplained sightings, which has now been percolating for years, has been mostly a subplot to more ordinary human politics and folly. It has attracted intense interest from people who debate whether to organize their science fiction collection alphabetically or by subgenre. But for everyone else, it seems to be mostly fodder for jokes.
In one sense this is perfectly rational; after all, we can’t reliably guess at what aliens might want from us, so if they really are visiting Earth, all we can do is wait to see whether they show up in force with a death ray or an ultra-advanced physics textbook. Why debate the unknowable?
Yet my Twitter feed is full of people arguing about things they don’t understand (well, if at all) and worrying about things they probably can’t change, like the human rights record of the Chinese government. Why is this particular unknowable getting such short shrift?
One possibility is that UFOs have a social status problem; historically, they are associated with cranks or, well, people who debate whether to organize their science fiction collection alphabetically or by subgenre. Thus, most other people reflexively refuse to take the topic seriously.
But the third option is that we understand at some level that aliens would be a Very Big Deal — and that most of the possibilities for alien contact are pretty unpleasant. Sure, one would rather be judged “cute but helpless” than “too boring to care about,” and “boring” is preferable to being deemed “lunch.” But historically, low-technology groups have almost universally fared badly when coming into contact with higher-technology cultures, even when that contact was made with the best of intentions. Perhaps the aliens, if they exist, are advanced enough to have solved that problem. But the alternative is so horrible that I suspect for many of us, it simply doesn’t bear thinking about.