Monday, April 11, 2005

Misc matters: Beaming Spam at the Stars

I am sorry to have been absent for some time. Been on a family vacation (with three kids!) to Vegas and the Grand Canyon. Talk about the most natural... and unnatural... wonders! I highly recommend Blue Man Group, by the way, and the Penn & Teller show (Penn is a true modernist. Any other society would have burned him alive (my biggest compliment). He'd make a large fire.

Another truly classic modernist is Stewart Brand, one of Ken Kesey's old Pranksters and a Jerry Brown guru, Brand is one of the truly eclectic thinkers of our time. See his latest on "Environmental Heresies"  wherein he suggests that nuclear power and several other notions badly need re-examining by those who genuinely want to solve problems on this planet.

Also for Cory Doctorow's inimitable insights into the phenomenon we have been discussing, drop by: A very colorful perspective on both the "singularity" and how even techno types can dive into romantic transcendentalism. Doctorow's blog  is also worth following. He and I share a stage Tuesday night at the Sci Fi Museum in Seattle.


Okay.... before going back to my episodic paper on Modernism and its enemies, I gotta catch up some bits of miscellany. Things just keep getting weirder. For example, look at a recent phenomenon that absolutely typifies the romanticization of serious modern issues:

Quoting one of the news reports - "Earth’s popular Internet classifieds site became the first commercial company to transmit into outer space this month. Extra-terrestrial civilizations now have the opportunity to search for apartments in Rome, look for a date in Seoul, or buy a used laptop in Denver amongst a huge variety of craigslist classifieds that anyone with internet access can view or post for free. Craigslist’s space transmissions are a reminder that “space efforts are a big deal to everyone living on Earth,” said Craig Newmark founder of

"Humor may have been the driver behind the nearly 139,000 craigslist
users who chose to beam their ads during the site’s first space transmission on March 11. When asked why they decided to post to outer
space several users felt like they had nothing to lose. “Most of our employees appear to be from outer space anyway,” said a human resources representative who posted a job ad for a Washington
D.C. coffee shop."

"While craigslist’s space transmissions seems to have a ‘why not, it’s fun’ rationale, there are questions about whether craigslist’s ads are appropriate messages to send to extra-terrestrial civilizations. Dr. H. Paul Shuch, executive director of the SETI League urges craigslist to join international discussion on protocols for CETI or communication with extra-terrestrial intelligence."

I mean, dang. There are so many levels. But as this is informal, let me just share with you a letter that I sent to these people.

Without ever getting a response.


Hello. My name is David Brin. I am an astronomer who is better known as an author of books such as The Postman (filmed by Kevin Costner in 1998) and The Transparent Society.

I am also a member of the SETI Permanent Study Group of the International Academy of Astronautics (, the advisory body that has been charged with working out protocols and conventions having to do with the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI. This subcommittee has drafted and circulated the main internationally accepted documents concerning recommended standards for researchers and others who might receive or initiate contact by radio or other means with extrasolar civilizations.

I am writing to inform you that this subcommittee exists. A Protocol exists. And since you have announced an intention to beam messages from Earth into interstellar space, you may wish to familiarize yourself with these matters. What you propose to do comes under the category of "active SETI" and it has implications of which you may not be aware.

A number of members of the subcommittee have called for a moratorium when it comes to deliberate beaming of messages from Earth at detection levels significantly above background. The matter - controversial both inside the committee and outside - is still being debated. In any event, enough prestigious scholars and scientists have expressed concern that it might seem reasonable to ask that you pause a little and consider.

At present there is a limited range of ways that Earth civilization has become detectable. A common belief holds that TV broadcasts have already screeched loudly enough for all to hear, but this fable has been disproved. Beyond a few light years, these signals fade into background.

It is narrowly targeted beams that will far more likely call attention to our planet. Should we transmit such beams while knowing absolutely nothing about the situation out there?

Everybody has a favorite opinion about what interstellar civilizations will be like. Hollywood portrays bizarre threats. Many others feel that advanced societies will naturally be benign. These unproved opinions are not at issue.

What is at issue is the presumption that a few people may commit our world down a no-return road, without taking any time to discuss the matter with others who have pondered deeply on this subject, and who might shed light on the possibilities, both good and bad.

While smiling at the ingenuity and entertainment value of this public relations gambit, I am also hoping that you will consider dipping a little deeper into the subject. There may be ways to get the effect you desire, while still behaving as responsible citizens of a tiny planet, all alone in a dark and unknown wilderness.

With cordial regards,

David Brin

SEE more discussion on SETI vs Messaging to Aliens.

Now of course there is a possible range of disagreement on this subject, even more than most, since SETI has long been known as a field in which one bandies around speculations that range across dozens of orders of magnitude, without a single data point (known instance of extraterrestrial life) to serve as a reality-anchor or boundary condition.

Take the following riposte to complaints about this recent beaming of trite ego messages into space:

“A community website like provides a good cross section of our society and therefore probably provides a fairly accurate representation of Earth today,” said Jim Lewis, vice president of Deep Space Communication Network, the company who transmitted’s messages into space. was DSCN’s first customer when the site won its services through an on-line eBay auction in February. Commenting on the potential harm of CETI transmission, Lewis quotes Seth Shostak from the SETI Institute who said, “if you really feel that way, then you should be campaigning to have all transmissions from Earth shut down." Shostak points out that military radar installations broadcasts much stronger signals than TV antennas do, and they're on all the time. "If you're going to be paranoid, then you should be consistently paranoid," said Lewis.

Of course this is utterly specious. Seth Shostak, alas, obfuscates the distinction between detectable wide-beam leakage from a solar system like ours - of TV and radar broadcasts - vs the detectability at far greater ranges and lower sensitivities of the kind of narrow beams we are talking about here. It has been repeatedly demonstrated in recent years that 1950s broadcasts of "I Love Lucy" are probably NOT readily detectable by happenstance, at ranges beyond a few light years. But narrow beams like those sent recently by DSCN almost certainly are.

Thus, these people are peremptorily thrusting humanity into a new domain of visibility, without consultation or asking even a polite "what d'you think?" from the wide and diverse international community of people who have thought hard about this subject. A lot harder than they have.

Instead, DSCN and Craigslist behave in the typical contemporary fashion. They rationalize doing whatever they like. Typically, they quote the most radical of SETI participants and make assumptions about the nature and motivations of aliens that are not supported or justified by a single data point.

There ARE some simple ways that Craigslist and DSCN could try to address the worries of prudent people, while having their cake and doing a little harmless "Yoohoo!" beaming of adverts at the stars. If they were reasonable people, they would admit that we know little about the universe right now. They can get their publicity AND take basic precautions that our descendants (who will know the universe far better than we do now) might someday thank them for.

Craigslist –
Deep Space Communication – –


Sorry I've been disorganized. More soon.


Anonymous said...

Hey, I never got the letter, please send.

It was good having lunch with you at Minicon, I think it was with Lisa (?).



Anonymous said...

I'm sorry for being such a cynic about this, but the root of the problem is this: You were asking someone to place the common good above his own profits.

The result was perfectly foreseeable - obfuscation and transferrence (the military does it, so it's OK - never mind the fact that what the military does isn't the kind of shouting that they are doing).

It's the same behavior you will observe in corporate (and even private) polluters, even as health issues arise in their employees and communities.

I'm just happy that the *likelihood* of a response to their sort of silliness is much smaller than that of a polluter.

Rob said...

One of the consequences of pursuing an Enlightenment philosophy is, if you're going to make all the tools and products of science available to everyone, there's a chance they'll get used in possibly dangerous ways. So do you compromise your ethics and restrict access to alien-contacting technology to those who "know what's best for mankind"? Or do you admit the possibility that someone might use something without taking the same care and thought that good philosopher-kings would?

As was said, it's pretty unlikely that craigslist's transmission would be picked up by anyone (or anything). Even if it was, if that anything was malevolent towards us and had the ability to do anything to us, we would be unable to stop them in any case. And any civilization advanced enough to mount an interstellar assault against us would most likely be advanced enough to detect us on their own without our assistance. I know if we had the ability to engage in such adventures, we'd already be out there exploring the galaxy.

Anonymous said...

RE: Penn and Teller

I highly recommend checking out both seasons of their Showtime show Bullshit. They are both highly entertaining and fairly educational ;).

chadeo gmail

Tony Fisk said...

...and meanwhile, in some far off Oort cloud, the massive shapes of Berserker vikings begin to twitch and respond to the alluring whiff of ... spam!

(Just don't let anyone tell them about the rat tart! ;-)

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