A Galactic Contradiction?
Michael Ubaldi, April 27, 2010.
Stephen Hawking made his name talking cosmology to laymen. This weekend he made headlines with a pronouncement on xeno-sociology, which is on the order of Roger Ebert musing over technical details of digital film 50 years from now. In an episode of the upcoming Discovery Channel series Stephen Hawking's Universe, the theoretical physicist claims that Earth is best left blissfully ignorant of extra-terrestrials.
"We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet," says Hawking. "I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach."
What articles on Hawking don't say — perhaps discussed in the documentary — is that an unfriendly civilization would almost certainly be authoritarian.
Democratic post-industrial cultures unanimously lose interest in conquest. Where are the empires of Elizabeth and Napoleon? Divided and divested, turned over to the natives for better or worse. American manifest destiny stopped at the West Coast, and the United States' territories are welcome any day to set off on their own.
If we extend political constants to little green men several thousand light years away — and we may as well, already presuming expansionism — then the battleships swooping into orbit will only bear flags of a tyrant. One problem: we've watched the scientific potential of dictatorial societies level off. The old Second World hasn't beaten the First World to a significant invention since the middle of the Cold War. Beyond heavy machinery, information is the currency of progress, and in closed societies . . . well. Today's "developing countries" are relatively unstable, poor, squabbling states riding the technological coattails of the West. Sure, they manufacture and export a lot. But who taught them how to mass-produce?
What seems more plausible is that democratic powers — let alone dominant ones — are miraculous. If that is the case, then the majority of worlds inhabited by sentient beings wouldn't be Coruscants but instead far-flung, alien Africas — abject, stagnant and isolated sites of endless conflict. Terrible places to visit, but hardly a threat to us.
Could a liberal republic or federation of the stars succumb to rule by force? Possibly, although according to this line of thought, not by action of an external threat; and the deterioration resulting in a decline, not to mention the resources necessary to regulate an iron order, might lead to the abandonment of starflight and the same isolation of destitute worlds. Just how plausible is a galactic evil empire? We ought to be careful not to run away with the imagination of science fiction.
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