The Discovery of Intelligent Life Somewhere Else

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in This Will Change Everything on 22 December 2009

We’re talking about changing everything–not just our abilities, relationships, politics, economy, religion, biology, language, mathematics, history, or future but all of these things at once. The only single event I can see shifting pretty much everything at once is our first encounter with intelligent extraterrestrial life.

The development of any of our current capabilities–genetics, computing, language, even compassion–all feel like incremental advances in existing abilities. As we’ve seen before, the culmination of one branch of inquiry always just opens the door to a new branch and never yields the wholesale change of state we anticipated. Nothing we’ve done in the past couple of hundred thousand years has truly changed everything, so I don’t see us doing anything in the future that would change everything, either.

No, the only way to change everything is for something to be done to us instead. The encounter between humanity and an “other” entails a shift beyond the solipsism that has characterized our civilization since our civilization was born. It augurs a reversal as big as the encounter between an individual and its offspring or a creature and its creator. Even if this were to be the result of something we’d done, it would now be independent of us and our efforts.

To meet a neighbor, whether outer, inner, cyber-, or hyperspatial, finally turns us into an “us.” To encounter an other–whether god, ghost, biological sibling, independently evolved life-form, or emergent intelligence of our own creation–changes what it means to be human.

Our computers may never inform us that they are self-aware; extraterrestrials may never broadcast a signal to our SETI dishes; interdimensional creatures may never appear to those who aren’t taking psychedelics at the time–but if any of these things happened, that would change everything.