I will try not to make this long. I also want to make it clear that there is more to life than what is on the thin layer of this rocky planet. So, this post is not about dismissing the possibility of life on other worlds and in other galaxies. That's another writer's racket. In my case, the concern is with the idea of technologically advanced life forms. Now, again, I must make one other thing clear. It is possible there are aliens with advanced forms of technology but, in my understanding, it's unlikely we will ever encounter them, if they exist. There are several important reasons for this. The main, and I think decisive, of which being drawn from the actual (rather than ideological) course of technological development on Earth. But before going into all of that, I must share some news that is almost new.
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ABC reports that astronomers in Canada "recently stumbled upon ultra-brief repeating waves from deep space." This is only the second time such a discovery has been made in history. Repeating waves? Aliens? This finding was actually dropped during the January conference of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle (it was not as busy as it should have been because 300 to 400 scientists could not attend due to Trump's shutdown). This new repeating radio wave has a name: FRB 180814.J0422+73. It came from the same place in deep space, which is 1.5 billion light-years away, and is tiny (it was recorded just six times). But there it is. This event. And the alien-mad people at SETI are reinvigorated. Have we finally made contact?
A team in Canada found ultra-brief repeating waves in deep space for the second time in history. Astronomers do not eliminate the possibility that this exciting new discovery could be aliens. #2019ES2232 https://t.co/ySomUC1tYA
— Faye Ounkham (@fayeounkhamuwo) January 31, 2019
Now, I want to put it out there that before pulsars were understood, it was thought, because they emitted regular radio waves, they were signals from... aliens. Eventually, scientists discovered the signals were actually a rapidly rotating celestial object. However, the mystery of an alien transmission was so powerful on the popular imagination that even the post-punk band Joy Division could not resist it. The pattern of the star's transmissions became the cover of the their debut album, Unknown Pleasures. Now, back to my line of thinking: If anything happens to break with the noise of the universe, it's source is more likely to be accidental than purposeful. And it is here I can begin the point of this post. I want to present something totally novel to the debate about aliens, and particularly the kinds of aliens that humans really want to meet, technologically advanced beings from the stars. (Most humans would be wrongfully disappointed if the only aliens we ever encounter during the entire time of our species' existence are microscopic.)
My question is this: Why should aliens be technologically advanced? This is something, when thought is applied to it, that should seem less likely and more bizarre—a life form that is, like us, technologically advanced. This has never been properly considered. We have, for sure, made attempts to make aliens interesting. For example, in 2017's Arrival, the aliens are clearly not apes or monkey-like. Human scientists would easily classify them not with their order, primates, but with Earth's cephalopods. And yet, they still have serious technology. They made spaceships that can travel across the vast emptiness of space. These ships can land without actually touching on the ground. That's impressive. But how in their world did they achieve such a high degree of technological complexity?
And here, I must make it clear that technology is easy to define. It consists of instruments that enhance some aspect or function of an animal. The smartphone, for example (the human example), enhances human communication; or, the frying pan (another human example) is an extension of teeth (breaking down food); and so on. That said, why did Arrival aliens build spaceships? Many will say: Because of progress. Those aliens were the most advanced life-forms on their planet, and eventually hit upon similar technological productions that have transformed the culture of the "third chimpanzee" on ours. I will call this argument 'the deep structure of technological advancement' ('deep structure' in the sense of convergence theory—again, I will elaborate on this in another post).
But technological advancement is not a given (or a convergence), unless we assume that capitalism is a given. Without capitalism, and its form historical development, which is specific to it (meaning it's not universal), you would not have technological advancement as we understand it. Now, I know this claim is funny-sounding to many. But that is because many of us are not familiar with one of the most important thinkers of the past 50 years, Moishe Postone (more on him in a moment). Also, it is likely you have been pumped from day one with the idea that European civilization is the highest stage of a long road to where we are now. But in fact, without the cultural dominance of the market system, there wouldn't be the linear mass formation of a historical movement that appears to be progressive. We mistake universal development for developments that are specific to capitalism.
But if you look back in history, you will find, not progress, but periods when new and important things were discovered and when excellent things were simply lost. This happened in Tasmania. A whole culture of "tool complexity" was dropped (and literally buried—a discovery made in the 1970s) because it made no sense for human culture/life on that island. To use the words of anthropologists Peter J. Richerson and Robert Boyd in their book Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution, when Europeans arrived in Tasmania, they discovered "the simplest tool set found for any living people." (Richerson and Boyd also make an important point that must be considered when looking for advanced life forms in space. The human transition to agriculture—the foundation of cities—was made possible by a dramatic change in the climate: from Pleistocene to Holocene. The former was turbulent; the latter has been stable and mostly uneventful. It began a little over 10,000 years ago. But, regrettably, we're now leaving this nice period of geo-physical time for the unknown horrors of what some call the Anthropocene, but is in fact, the Capitalocene.)
And so, until very recently, we have a history that is not linear, but erratic. Sustained progress simply does not exist for almost all of this planet's history. There are also periods when one civilization was stuck for hundreds of years on ideas that were formulated in its deep past. For example, up until very recently, European intellectual thinking was completely dominated by the ideas of a philosopher who died over 2,000 years ago. That philosopher is Aristotle. Also, you can find philosophers before him (the pre-Socratics as they are known in the Western tradition) who constructed and promoted ideas that were, according to our understanding, ahead of their times.
Now, what did Moishe Postone claim in his book, Time, Labor, and Social Domination? Exactly this:
Capitalism... involves ongoing changes in the nature of work, production, technology, and the accumulation of related forms of knowledge. More generally, the historical movement of the social totality entails ongoing, massive transformations in the mode of social life of the majority of the population—in social patterns of work and living, in the structure and distribution of classes, the nature of the state and politics, the form of the family, the nature of learning and education, the modes of transportation and communication, and so on. More over, the dialectical process at the heart of capitalism's immanent dynamic entails the constitution, spread, and ongoing transformation of historically determinate forms of subjectivity, interactions, and social values.... Historical time in capitalism, then, can be considered as a form of concrete time that is socially constituted and expresses an ongoing qualitative transformation of work and production, of social life more generally, and of forms of consciousness, values, and needs.
What many of us have done is to mistake this historically specific dynamism for universal (or, to use Postone's langauge: transhistorical) dynamism. Postone even goes as far as to claim that Hegel's theory of universal spirit (roughly: world history begins in the East with despotism, and is completed in the West with democracy) is meaningless if applied to history as a whole, but makes sense if applied to capitalism. The geist (spirit of the world), in Postone's thinking, is nothing but capital itself. But the point is, you will not find progress in history. History is a mess. Another example: Until very recently, Europe had a less advanced form of long-distance communication than a number of societies in Africa, which used drumming. (This fact is pointed out in James Gleick's book, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood.)
And now the big question: Is technological progress, as it is understood and experienced today, possible without an economic system that has the excessive pressure to increase a form of reward that defines the system? If you happen to be liberated from the ideology (if not theology) of that system, it will only take a moment's reflection to arrive at "no" as the answer. It is difficult to imagine a cosmic capitalist convergence. Or Bill Gates in space. J.P. Morgans on other moons. Did the aliens in The Arrival come from a oceanic market economy? If not, how did they achieve such an impressive degree of technological sophistication? One that resulted in spaceships that can cross, within biological time, vast interstellar spaces?
Those signals in space? Are we to believe that they are accidental or sent from some squid-like stock broker on Planet X? This is really, if one assesses the actual nature of technological development on Earth, the way one should think about the problem.
And here, we can really understand Cecil Rhodes' tragedy when he looked at the sky thought:
“To think of these stars that you see overhead at night, these vast worlds which we can never reach. I would annex the planets if I could; I often think of that. It makes me sad to see them so clear and yet so far.”