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Thread by @OmanReagan: "This has a lot of replies asking for more information, specifically in the context of SETI. I'll share some papers in this thread. How did w […]"

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This has a lot of replies asking for more information, specifically in the context of SETI. I'll share some papers in this thread.
How did we end up talking about civilizations through these ideas of "primitive" up to "advanced"? There's a lot of history behind the construction of the ideas, but I trace the current popular use of these ideas through the history of anthropology to European colonialism.
SETI has historically drawn on analogies from anthropology to explain cultural change, technological change, and first contact scenarios, however these analogies often rely on outdated theories and ideas instead of the most recent scholarship.
I write about this a lot, and I'll share most of those papers as well as papers by others that are relevant. Starting with the most recent that I wrote for a workshop at the SETI Institute: "Conceptualizing Difference in SETI"…
"SETI has sometimes used the idea of “primitive” vs. “advanced” civilizations, and considered such models of development as inevitable or natural (toward increased energy use, or expansion, for example)." These ideas have actually become 'common sense' for a lot of people.
"However, these unilinear and hierarchical models of change are holdovers from 19th century anthropology." They're "unilinear" because the idea is that they develop over time along a single path. They're "hierarchical" because they place those 'further along' above others.
"As the study of human 'progress' encountered emerging biological theories intended to explain diversity of life in terms of evolution, a progressivist social evolutionism arose which considered differentiation in human societies as equivalent to variation seen in organisms."
Here's one illustration I made of what these hierarchies of 'progress' looked like in US and British victorian anthropology and biology. You can see how the idea of cultural change was mirroring the idea of progressive, increasing, complexity in biology.
"Within a hierarchy of all biological life, human beings were positioned as the highest form and Europeans developed a parallel hierarchy of cultures in which their own society was considered the highest form of civilization."
The hierarchy that we're referencing when we say "advanced civilization" are explicitly colonial and racist 19th century ideologies that Europeans used to place themselves at the top.
European colonizers believed they were the ideal, the pinnacle of humanity and that by "civilizing" the other people of the world, they could help them to "advance" enough to become just like Europeans. That's what "advanced civilization" really refers to.
Not only are these ideas about primitive vs advanced civilizations remnants of victorian colonial racism, they're totally unscientific, with no basis in historical, biological, archaeological, or other data. It's bad science and was abandoned by the same fields that created them.
In our paper "Visions of Human Futures in Space and SETI", @Astro_Wright and I address colonialism in SETI in terms of this history of placing "species, civilizations, and worlds" on a "continuum from 'primitive' and violent to 'advanced' and enlightened."
In addition to the obvious issues of using racist, colonialist, unscientific victorian concepts without realizing where they came from, those ideas and their assumptions can interfere with doing good SETI work today.
One of the common assumptions that has been made historically in SETI is that if there were spacefaring extraterrestrial life they would obviously have "colonized" the galaxy by now. More on this follows from the above paper which is also here:…
"astrophysicist Michael H. Hart calculated the time it would take a civilization to settle the Galaxy and found that even for conservative assumptions of space travel technology, a spacefaring community could have crossed the Galaxy many times by now."
"This is the essence of the so-called Fermi Paradox: if it’s so “easy” to travel across interstellar space, then 'where is everybody?'" But the picture is more complicated than that, as we describe in a later section.
"Michael H. Hart’s original calculation for the timescale of the settlement of the galaxy is usually discussed in terms of the 'colonization' of the Galaxy."
"A central assumption in his argument is that if alien civilizations exist, 'they would eventually have achieved space travel and would have eventually explored and colonized the Galaxy, as we have explored and colonized the Earth.' (Hart, 1975)"
Hart is writing "we" as a member of "Euro-American civilization that has explored and colonized Earth and imagines it has bestowed comfort, culture, science, and technology on the rest of the planet’s inhabitants over the past few centuries..."
But all humans are "members of a planetary human species that explored and settled nearly every habitable corner of the planet thousands of years ago."
When Hart expects extraterrestrials to have "colonized" the galaxy, he is projecting a few things: the idea of European colonizers as the most "advanced" civilization on Earth, and the idea that ET would want to "colonize" because "advanced" life must be like human colonizers.
In 2011, Kathryn Denning published two articles that address important aspects of this tendency to imagine aliens as having technology and desires like European colonizers. Both are relevant to this question of "advanced civilizations."
In "Ten thousand revolutions: conjectures about civilizations" Denning discusses how "general assumptions about the development and functioning of Earth’s societies shape conjectures about alien societies."…
Denning: "Just as we breathe in 'master narratives' describing our historical journeys, we absorb and exude ideas about why those journeys unfolded as they did. And, of course, we bring those ideas with us when we consider other worlds and alien civilizations."
"It is often noted by astrobiology optimists that life emerged on Earth nearly as soon as it was remotely possible for it to do so, and by extension, the same will be true on other worlds. Life, in this view, is both immanent and imminent wherever there is suitable chemistry."
"There is a parallel sense of inevitability in some writings on SETI concerning technology, i.e., that technology arises and evolves as soon as intelligence provides the necessary ingredients."
"This is not strongly supported by the archaeological and anthropological record of our own species, however. Human beings have always been technological... but it seems equally clear that humans do not always use as much technology as they can."
"If we compare all human cultures, we must conclude that there has been no uniform endogenous trend towards greater technological complexity."
"As a whole, Homo sapiens sapiens is now a highly technological species. However, the data we have about ourselves do not indicate that we became this way because technological prowess is an inevitable result of technology-capable intelligence."
In "Being Technological" Denning addresses "our habits of projecting terracentric assumptions onto hypothetical worlds" and examines "dominant narratives about technological development" and "theories about the nature of technology."…
Denning: "As human beings, we often tend to regard our species as the necessary, inevitable outcome of biological evolution. We often regard our technology in a similar way."
"...the overall story tends to be that one invention led to another, which led to another, in a logical trajectory of progress." We are "encouraged to believe that technologies are created and adopted in rational, logical, scientifically progressive and economically useful ways."
"The larger cultural context is left out" along with "incidents of technological stasis or retrogression," the "inventions which have no descendants today," and "technology that might just as easily have been developed or widely adopted, but never was."
Denning asks: "But why do some forms of technology disappear, while others thrive? Why are some kinds of technology never developed at all? Why did things turn out this way and not that way?"
"We cannot assume that it is simply because the surviving form of technology is superior, because history includes many instances where one form of a technology has triumphed in the market over other forms which were just as good or better."
"It is clear that our technology obsession is intertwined with our belief systems—with our ideas about what is good and what humanity is meant to do. Many associate technological innovation with progress itself, i.e. with the improvement of humanity."
"Novelty is seen as good in itself. Now connect that to the notion that we are journeying towards a future golden age, and to the idea that nature is here for us to use: this triad is a reasonable summary of the Renaissance beliefs which spawned modern technological culture."
In both articles, a key point Denning makes is that our relationship with ideas, knowledge, and technology are specific to particular history, context. There is a "necessary intersection of multiple cultural elements necessary to bring an object into the world and keep it here."
"Not one of those three beliefs [above] has been universal in human civilizations and so their intersection was certainly not preordained or inevitable. Nor were the subsequent imperialisms, wars and military sponsorship of technological development."
"Technological determinism says that technological development follows a progressive course, from less to more complex, through a series of necessary stages, and that societies must adapt to their technology."
"Constructivism, on the other hand, says that it is not that simple; there are always multiple technological options, technology is flexible and social contingencies determine which paths technology takes."
There is a relationship here between the determinist view of technological development and the hierarchies of civilization discussed earlier. The Victorian view that civilizations progress through stages, becoming increasingly more like Europeans, is intertwined with determinism.
So, Denning asks: "If the technology of an extraterrestrial civilization is detected via SETI, what could we assume about that civilization?"
"...instead of making a list of hypotheticals which cannot yet be empirically evaluated, I propose to probe what we can say about ourselves, as the bearers of radio transmission and detection technology."
"...early twentieth-century eccentricities in radio wave detection underscores the diversity of technological forms which once existed, but never achieved widespread use."
"Electrostatic detectors had a receiver with fine wires or needles, which, when connected to an aerial, moved slightly due to electrostatic attraction when a signal was present."
"Gas flame detectors had a sensitive flame, which became disturbed by minor fluctuations in the gas flow, which in turn were induced by the presence of a signal. This produced enough variation in flame size and sound to convey Morse signals to an audience."
"Another variant made Morse code audible in another way, by using the signal to 'open and close a valve in an air pipe,' which in turn activated a whistle. There were also systems using fluid jet relays and mechanical relays."
There was a "method for receiving Morse code by mouth" using "two silver electrodes positioned in the mouth. When an amplified audio-frequency signal was picked up by the electrodes, it produced a rather nasty taste... toothache and effects upon the user’s eyes."
There was "the brain coherer of Collins... Using a standard spark transmitter and receiver, he added a brain into the apparatus... The dead cat brain did not work very well, but the anaesthetized cat worked rather better."
"Ultimately, Collins was pleased to find that a fresh human brain (provenance unspecified) worked very well indeed, even picking up signals from an approaching thunderstorm."
" is easy enough to imagine that if social conditions were different, or our bodies were different, surprising forms of radio wave detector could have become dominant, in turn founding quite different trajectories for radio technology as a whole."
Denning also describes the contingent history of radio astronomy and the military - a history that could have been different, resulting in different technologies, and practices.
"Radioastronomy itself is arguably the progeny of ionospheric physics, which as a whole was constantly supported by commercial labs such as Bell Telephone Laboratories (Jansky’s home base) and by the military, because of its applications to communications."
"Most postwar radioastronomers had backgrounds in ionosphere studies and wartime radar... Arecibo was proposed... primarily as a radar system for studying the Earth’s ionosphere." Initially "funded by the US Advanced Research Projects Agency and administered by the US Air Force"
"Arecibo was also designed to be capable of planetary radar and passive radioastronomy, but these were secondary to Gordon’s main interest in communica- tions and scatter propagation—the idea was to make it a multi-purpose facility, more attractive for funders."
"Arecibo proved to be an extraordinary instrument for pure research in radio- astronomy, but it could easily have been otherwise. It was designed and built at least partly for military purposes..."
"Did any of this have to be so?... did radar and radioastronomy have to be associated with the military machine, or cotemporal with the development of weapons of mass destruction? Perhaps on Earth... But there is nothing inherent in the technology itself that made it so..."
"If there had not been extensive warfare during the 20th century, radio technologies might have been developed for other remote sensing purposes... there are many good reasons to study the troposphere and ionosphere that have nothing to do with the activities of enemy nation..."
"Green Bank’s first telescope, the Howard Tatel 85-Foot Telescope/Tatel 1, was used in Project Ozma shortly after it was built, but it was built for other reasons... many other telescopes just like it have never been used for SETI."
Many "technologies end up being used for purposes which were neither imagined nor imaginable when they were first designed and built... the telescope’s existence made SETI possible, but it did not entail it. It was necessary to the birth of modern SETI, but not sufficient."
"What else was needed? Of course, the Ozma receiver had to be built and the physics worked out by Frank Drake, like the contemporary speculations of Cocconi and Morrison, was also necessary. But even that was not enough."
"The other key ingredient was the idea of alien beings dwelling among the stars... a cultural constant for millennia... Without this tendency and this cultural history, would anyone ever have thought to use a radio telescope to look for extraterrestrials?"
"Dominant forms of radio technology on Earth need not have developed as they did. Their histories are full of contingencies, twists and turns and conditions which were necessary but not sufficient for subsequent stages to develop. Cultural factors were constantly in play."
"If we ask what we could assume about a society which SETI could detect, there are few simple answers. Substantive assumptions about a civilization’s structure or history are difficult to justify, for the necessary cultural correlates of radio technology seem to be few."
"To think about technology on other worlds, we must go beyond the simple superficial analogue of Earth, by resisting the easy assumptions in our tales about our own technological progress."
When we "go deeper into our own human world... we see that technology does not follow simple paths, that its development is influenced by contingency as well as necessity, that it is intertwined with culture and that it is embroiled in history."
In order to "go deeper into our own human world" as Denning says, we need to confront, critique, and dismantle the tendency in SETI and space science to uncritically repeat Victorian ideologies about civilization, technology, progress, intelligence, nature, culture, and more.
In "The Space NDN’s Star Map" I think Lou Cornum does this by expanding understandings of indigeneity beyond fixed locations and times, offering an alternative for thinking about the civilizations of earth in history, in space, and in the future.…
Cornum: "the space NDN is also in a long tradition of NDN interstellar exploration, using technologies such as creation stories and ceremony as her means of travel. For some, she is a startling and unsettling figure."
"As Philip Deloria argues in 'Indians in Unexpected Places,' settlers are upset and confused when the seemingly contrasting symbolic systems of indigeneity and high-tech modernity are put in dialogue..."
For example the "shocked reactions to a 1904 photograph of Geronimo in a Cadillac. This estrangement arises from 'a long tradition that has tended to separate Indian people from the contemporary world and from recognition of the possibility of Indian autonomy in the world.'"
Cornum: "In the colonial imaginary, indigenous life is not only separate from the present time but also out of place in the future, a time defined by the progress of distinctively western technology."
"The Indian in space seeks to feel at home, to undo her perceived strangeness by asking: why can’t indigenous peoples also project ourselves among the stars?"
"Might our collective visions of the cosmos forge better relationships here on earth and in the present than colonial visions of a final frontier?"
"Many of the ideas deemed strange or new-fangled in Western sci-fi come naturally to the space NDN. The all-pervasive 'force' or similarly the super brain connecting all beings..."
"The animism and agency of cyborgs, AI systems, and other non-human people. Alternate dimensions and understandings of non-linear time. These are things the space NDN knows intuitively."
Cornum: "This is not the future but historical knowledge. The future is reclaiming these technologies not for domination but for new organizations aimed at better worlds."
"Instead of a future in bleak cities" of "steel & glass teeming with alienated white masses shuffling under an inescapable electronic glow, indigenous futurists think of earthen space crafts helmed by black & brown women with advanced knowledge of land, plants, and language."
Cornum: "Indigenous futurism seeks to challenge notions of what constitutes advanced technology and consequently advanced civilizations." (And so we return to the key idea that we started with 'advanced civilization,' disrupting that hierarchy through indigenous futurism.)
"Extractive & exploitative endeavors are just one mark of the settler death drive, which indigenous futurism" overcomes "by imagining different ways of relating to notions of progress & civilization. Advanced technologies are not finely tuned mechanisms of endless destruction."
"Advanced technologies should foster and improve human relationships with the non-human world. In many indigenous science fiction tales of the futures, technology is presented as in dialogue with the long traditions of the past, rather than representing the past’s overcoming."
Find all of the above articles and more reading on social science of SETI in my new syllabus under active development: "Social Science in the Search for Extraterrestrial Life and Intelligence." PDF of Version 1.0 is up now in an @OSFramework project here:
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