Friday, August 08, 2008

Doritos in Space

(I wrote a first draft of this a while back and then promptly forgot about it. I was reminded of it by a BBC news item of something similar. I'll get to that in a later entry.)

The notion of using space for advertising isn't a new one. The Last Action Hero was briefly featured on the side of a NASA rocket launch, Pepsi was launched to Mir and Pizza Hut was on A Proton launch vehicle, amongst others. But with the latest ad effort, one has lurched into the entirely sinister.

Soon after NASA broadcast a Beatles song deep into space with a radio telescope, an advert for Doritos was broadcast in the same way. As far as any potential inhabitants of 47 Ursa Majoris are concerned, the first contact with humanity will be spam. Not content to merely pollute our own airwaves, we're exporting our pollution as far as we can possibly throw it across the universe. How noble.

Spamming would be grounds for an invasion all by itself, by any presumed civilisation. But then that is not the larger point that is being made. The very basic fact is that we have been making ourselves visible for some time now, but now we are doing it deliberately. As has been pointed out elsewhere on the net, were exposing ourselves to a something whose capabilities and intentions are unknown.

This is an extraordinarily dangerous thing to do. Even if the chances of the broadcast actually being picked up are vanishingly small, the potential consequences are immense. For example an event, such as a large asteroid hitting us, is unlikely but the result is catastrophic. Our Doritos advert has an even smaller chance of any consequences, but those consequences could be vastly greater.

We're conditioned by fiction to think of aliens as spanning the whole range of possible psychologies. Klingons are warriors who hold honour above all else, for a well-known example. But almost the entirety of alien depictions are variations of humans in one way or another. A truly alien psychology may act in ways we could barely comprehend. List all the SF battles between humans and aliens and the two sides are essentially pretty well matched. Any real encounter would have no such luxury.

In Stranger in a Strange Land, the Martians debate the artistic necessity of destroying Earth. Extraordinary. Yet in real human culture we have behaviours which are far stranger. Draw a cartoon with a particular subject matter and a sizeable section of humanity will call for your execution. And it hardly need be pointed out that after only a hundred years of technological progress we can destroy ourselves quite thoroughly. What can another civilisation do with a thousand years head start? Or ten thousand?

To reiterate; we are making ourselves known to possible aliens who may react in ways which cannot be known in advance. Whose intentions perhaps can't be known even in principle. Truly, we have no idea what we might be messing with.

They may think an interstellar Doritos advert to be funny. They may think it is the sign of an appallingly immature civilisation. Or they may merely see that a new technological culture has arisen – and move to eliminate it before it can become a threat. Or - and how humiliating this would be - we join the greater galactic community but are forever after treated as a joke, a third rate culture, because our first detectable broadcast was not about art or science or any of the things we supposedly hold to be important, but about crisps.

We can't know. And given the limitations of the speed of light, we won't know, though future generations may. Carl Sagan once asked who speaks for Earth. Well now we know the answer: a marketing executive.

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