The longest conversation

Posted on Thursday, February 28th, 02008 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
link Categories: Long Term Thinking, Seminars   chat 0 Comments


I was reminded yesterday when speaking with one of the SETI board members of the very interesting conundrum we might find ourselves in if we in fact did receive a message from space.  Above is some imagery from the first seriously high powered transmission from earth, dubbed the Arecibo message:

The [01974] transmission consisted of a simple, pictorial message, aimed at our putative cosmic companions in the globular star cluster M13. This cluster is roughly 21,000 light-years from us, near the edge of the Milky Way galaxy, and contains approximately a third of a million stars.

So the best case scenario is that this data reaches a civilization in 21,000 years.  Which means they think up some brilliant response, and then beam it back.  Even if we found life much closer, it is most likely that the conversation delay would be at least a thousand years or more.  So what does one say in a multi-millennial conversation?  At least on the terrestrial end, each response would be made by wildly different civilizations.

  • What does one say? The first thing that comes to mind is “Back in a minute. — Godot”

    Seriously, though, I don’t know whether a “conversation” has much meaning over that kind of time span. It’s far more likely to be a conversation among answering machines, with large messages using something along the lines of digital fountain techniques. What goes in the message is difficult–it’s hard to come up with something more important than “we were here.”

    Maybe with the inevitable response: “sorry we’re not here to take your message personally, but if you’ll leave your name, frequency, and star system at the sound of the tone, we’ll get back to you just as soon as we re-develop the technological capability to do so.”

  • I don’t think it’s really going to be a “conversation” in the sense we usually think of them… even if we somehow came to be immortal, so much would happen and change in the interim that what had been said a few thousand years ago would likely no longer be relevant at all. I suspect that, if we do ever establish communication, it will be more of a multilateral broadcast. We, and they, choosing a stream of information to send out to all listeners. Eventually the listeners are affected by this stream, and their own stream is altered as a consequence. Not exactly a “response”, but an influence. Instead of an email-like correspondence, I imagine it being more along the lines of a bunch of bloggers that read each others feeds, but never comment directly on each others content, while still obviously being influenced by what they’re reading.

    If the content is “progressive”, that is, if it represents some kind of objective progress (as in technology), then your own content stream will be most strongly influenced by the most advanced stream you have access to (i.e. if we were listening to a content stream on computational hardware today, we’d be altered by knowledge of how to build and utilize quantum computers, but not by someone else’s development of vacuum tubes). If it’s more aesthetic, or historical, or cultural content, then you’ll be influenced by the particular combination of other streams you have access to (i.e. If you’ve never heard of Lao Tzu, you’ll never have your thoughts on Buddhism or Shakespeare influenced by him).

  • bryan campen

    There is a great short story by Italo Calvino on this very idea called “A Sign in Space”, about a guy who accidentally notices signs from someone in space, and starts to send out messages to this new and distant friend over thousands of years. It’s in *Cosmicomics*:

  • patrick dugan

    there is an interesting parallel, of sorts, in the dune series by frank herbert. a computer ai space ship ends up in a vast orbit, that brings it into the reach of civilization only once in a great while, i can’t remember the precise number of years. since it has so much “time on its hands” while in the far away parts of its orbit, when it returns, it gives civilization great technical or theoretical advances. unfortunately, during its absence on one of its orbits, there is a revolution against computers and they are basically banned (after an ai decides to abort a fetus-the butlerian jihad, if you have read the books). the people try to destroy the ai on its next pass.

    such a long, slow relationship would have many such pitfalls to avoid. i even see this in relationships with people i have known but correspond with only sparingly, say once a year, or in bursts every few years. you find them saying things, and saying them in ways, that seem totally out of character. for example, i found a punker/biker friend of mine (or she was 20 years ago), saying something like, “yeah i still have my racing bike, but maybe i should sell it and buy some curtains or a couch or something.” (now being married of course)

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