Is there anybody out there? Do we care?

My column for the print mag this week takes a break from Tory-baiting and looks at the biological  assumptions that underly the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence.  I take issue with Stephen Hawking’s specific worry that aliens we encounter will be too much like us (greedy, rapacious, violent), because I think the real worry is that they’ll be nothing like us at all.

As it turns out, my column has a news peg I didn’t know about: the first annual convention of the SETI institute, in Santa Clara. Via Boing Boing I found this interview with Seth Shostack, an astronomer in the SETI field, but it’s pretty useless to be honest.

It is pretty interesting though to see how much of the SETI focus is on radio transmissions. This is a staple of sci-fi — aliens come here and everything they know about Earth is from f I Love Lucy reruns — and is one that Shostack seems to endorse:

Look, if we’re doing this only 100 years after Marconi, only 100 years after the invention of radio, it’s hard to imagine that a society that was thousands or millions of years more advanced than ours wouldn’t have this technology.

But why is radio seen as the mark of an advanced civilization? It seems that, more than likely, it’s a sign of backwardness, an early and higly transitory technology whose lifespan will be an eyeblink of an eyeblink in the history of the galaxy.

At any rate, as much as would love it if we managed to get off this planet and do some serious exploring, I don’t see it happening any time this century. As for any aliens who might want to visit, it that something we really want? I’m conflicted. On the one hand, I’d love to see what sort of gear they might have. But at the same time, it really is worth asking, what’s in it for us? The Prime Directive dictates that there can be no interference with the development of civilizations with a pre-warp level of technology. But isn’t the flip side of the Prime Directive something we could call the Garbo Directive? Dear Aliens: Please Leave us alone.

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