Getting Real About First Contact: The Ferengi Hypothesis
Recently, the human race has taken a step forward by beginning to treat first contact with an alien life form as a matter of when, rather than as a matter of if. NASA, the European Space Agency, and hopefully the Russians and Chinese have even devoted some consideration to the contingencies of what should or must happen if we happen to be the visiting life form, rather than the visited; in popular culture, the film Avatar has taken a similar path. However, consideration of the obverse possibility, that we should be the visited, has not received enough attention, though for the time being it is the most probable of the two possibilities. In official terms, contingency planning seems to have been limited to a worst case scenario of the Battlefield Earth variety, namely that the visiting race should have exploitative plans for Earth and humans that are overtly and immediately hostile to our interests. Scenarios of a human guerilla campaign successfully fighting off a concerted attempt by space-capable beings to destroy us are infinitesimally low in probability of success. Some of the proposals (like the one recently aired on television on National Geographic Channel’s 2011 special When Aliens Invade, where human survivors use helium balloons to ascend and “frag” spaceships) are patently ludicrous and undeserving of attention. The rare book-length texts on human survival, such as An Introduction to Planetary Defense: A Study of Modern Warfare Applied to Extra-Terrestrial Invasion, by Travis S. Taylor, Bob Boan, Bob Boan (Author)
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Even speculations by one of the most eminent astrophysical minds in the world seem to place overtly hostile first contact in the foreground. Stephen Hawking, in the first episode of his 2010 series The Universe With Stephen Hawking, concludes his examination of the alien question with a scenario of migrating aliens descending on an unsuspecting Earth in order to make it their new home. He compares the fate of humans to that of Native Americans upon the arrival of Europeans in the New World. It is true that Hawking’s scenario shows a certain understanding of cultural patterns in addition to its vast technical acumen. Not only is the comparison with pre-Columbian America pertinent, but exodus examples from our own human history are not uncommon, from the Biblical relocation of the Jews to the Völkerwanderung to the settling of the Polynesians in Hawaii. However, such mass migrations are not the most widespread motive for cultural first contact.
In order to prepare for the eventuality of a first contact encounter, we need to better consider the most frequent models provided by our more recent human history. The human Age of Discovery, evoked in the video introduction to the television series Enterprise, shows that long distance contacts on our own planet have mainly been motivated almost entirely by commercial interests. Though there was some difference in implementation of the Portuguese, Spanish, French, Dutch, and British empires, economics was always the driving force. Of course, it is possible that an alien economy might want full-scale and direct exploitation of the Earth itself, as did the British colonists in North America, in which case we would soon find ourselves in the unhappy position of the Pequots — doomed. The Spanish American model of enslavement for exploitative purposes is another unfortunate possibility, and perhaps a more likely one, but is best reserved for separate consideration in another piece. In this essay, I propose to look mainly at the model provided by the most successful of all colonial ventures, British India. In this case, the visitors’ motive would be a widely based commercial exploitation based not only on imports of valuable materials, but on maximizing export potential as well. I call this the Ferengi hypothesis, not only because the plutocratic imperatives of the Ferengi in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine provide a certain structure for development, but also because the very name of the Ferengi, a deformation of “French,” according to some, comes from the term natives of India used for all foreigners in the early colonial period.
The Ferengi Hypothesis figures in part among some seventeen first contact possibilities listed by a controversial recent article in the 2011 volume of Acta Astronautica. “Would Contact with Extraterrestrials Benefit or Harm Humanity? A Scenario Analysis,” by Seth D. Baum, Jacob D. Haqq-Misra, and Shawn D. Domagal-Goldman, three researchers from Pennsylvania State University, which classifies different first contact scenarios under the anthropocentric headings of Beneficial, Neutral, or Harmful. Though this system has the disadvantage of foregrounding humanity in a situation where we would probably not be the primary consideration, it does admit the possibility of commercial exploitation under two of the Harmful sub-headings, a universalist ETI (Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) wishing to make more efficient use of our resources or an “act of incompetence!” Several rather lurid reviews followed publication of the article just mentioned, including one in The Guardian that mistakenly attributed consultant Baum’s views to official NASA policy. However, in their hysteria over whether or not aliens would land with the intention of eating us up, most of these reviews missed the more useful implications of the study. The three authors are in the process of following up that article with another outlining the possible reasons not to try contacting ETI’s first, through interspatial broadcasts. As will become clear in our conclusion, this sort of thinking is probably along the right track.
Under the Ferengi Hypothesis, there would be no motive for the visitors to eradicate the native race, except in distinctly limited instances of direct military resistance, and even such a campaign of disarmament could easily be disguised, as the Romans did in Gaul and the British in India, as an aid mission on behalf of some of the local rulers. Once the minimal conditions for successful trade were established, the visitors could turn their attention to the maximal recovery of desirable local resources at a minimal price and the maximal marketing of surplus visitor materials at the highest possible price. This coincides with the Ferengi preoccupation with profit in the Star Trek scenarios. As long as the visitors enjoyed a monopolistic position, as the British did in India after the near-elimination of the Portuguese, Dutch, and French in the mid-eighteenth century, they would not even have to worry much about development of indigenous commercial networks for interplanetary products, since the structures and terms of exchange could be entirely controlled by a single alien entity roughly akin to the British East India Company. Local commerce, that is earthly commerce, would simply become a subsidiary of that single interplanetary enterprise. In fact, it would be desirable for the visitors to tolerate and even abet the survival of indigenous cultural institutions as long as they did not interfere with trade, so as to deflect attention by the indigenous population to the structural level of exploitation achieved.
As far as the mechanics of such an interplanetary trade, the details would depend a lot on questions of scientific, cultural, and motivational factors that we, in our present state of inexperience with interplanetary travel, are ill equipped to determine with any accuracy. Nevertheless, some preliminary assumptions are possible. First of all, the items exported to Earth would probably be fairly inexpensive in terms of the visitors’ own economy – the equivalent of trinkets traded with North American native cultures in exchange for items with an intrinsic value unknown to the occupied culture. Ideally, they would be items or services that would be of ordinary use to humans and would quickly become indispensable, the way metal hatchets became in colonial New York or European cloth in India. Such items might even come to assume a cargo cult status or to replace perfectly viable alternatives already available to humans, as with canned French foods, which were preferred by elites in French Africa over equivalent locally produced foods because they were believed to confer cultural and sometimes even biological or mystical advantages. Thus, a tin of beans worth a few centimes in Paris could be sold in Africa for the equivalent of an elephant tusk infinitely more valuable in the big scheme of things. Exactly what commodities might be hawked to us is too vague to imagine at this point. Historically, such products have surprised or even astounded the consumer. But there are many possibilities, some of them quite sinister, since the ideal commodity would be one that would be addictive to human beings. This was the case with British colonialism in China, where dirt-cheap opium became the medium of financial fortunes. Assuming the visitors’ technology was able to adapt quickly to understand human physiology, there might not have to be a commodity at all, since neural impulses might be delivered for a price directly to human brains: for example, a remote activation of parts of the cerebral cortex involved with pleasure many times more powerful than that provided by cocaine or heroin. A colony of addicts would be in financial terms the ideal colony, ensuring perpetual, flexible, and unchallenged demand.
Having reached that grim prospect, it is perhaps time to move on to the other side of the commercial exchange and to examine what the visitors might desire in return. We cannot exclude entirely the possibility of human slaves, since that scenario operated successfully for centuries in Africa. It would depend, though, on the visitors’ having access to other Earth-type planets in need of some sort of exploitation that they themselves found unreasonable or impossible to provide, as well as a primary commodity, like eighteenth-century tobacco or sugar, that was valuable enough to justify the added expense of transport. Ultimately such an operation would appear intuitively to be unstable, as it proved on Earth. Another possibility is one that we on our planet are just beginning to realize: researching the biosphere. The most valuable thing on a life-sustaining planet may not be a mineral or even a commodity like a given form of protein, but the evolutionary treasury of the entire biosystem that can generate organic compounds in profusion. What if our rain forests furnish the cure to cancer for an alien race or even some otherworldly equivalent to Viagra? Such a visitor motivation is hinted at in the film ET. This would bode relatively well for our race because a certain amount of local complicity in production and trade might very well be necessary and give us a bargaining position vis-à-vis the visitors.
In any case, we humans would have to be cautious. Modern postcolonial commerce shows that native peoples do not have very much say in the exploitation of their resources, except in limited situations. Can the Katangans in the Congo profit from their metals or the Sri Lankans from their tea plantations? A few commercial ground rules would definitely be in order to ensure that humans as a whole benefit from any first contact with a Ferengi-type civilization. The most important is unfortunately one quite onerous to Earth’s own present economic arrangements: any kind of free trade with the visitors must be absolutely forbidden. History of such disparate colonial environments as New Amsterdam, Mysore, Dahomey, and Borneo proves that visiting traders never hesitate to use the strategy of divide and conquer, offering substantial bonuses to some existing groups or institutions to pit them against one another until the visitors can simply dominate the last one standing and establish a monopoly. There are no grounds to assume that modern corporations would behave any differently than pre-colonial entities or that they would forgo immediate profits to preserve the long-term welfare or bargaining stance of the race as a whole. All existing human example and experimentation tends to deny such an eventuality.
The second prerequisite of such exchange would be a thorough researching of its consequences on the human population before it is permitted to operate openly. This would seem reasonably easy to do until one looks at the likely possibilities. If the visitors offered an immediate cancer cure as a trade commodity, for example, could humans really refrain from gobbling it up immediately, without regard for possible costs or dangers? Those currently afflicted with the disease would not very willingly defer a cure in order to preserve the lives of others, even their own unborn. There might be tremendous mass outrage that a few would be given access to such a benefit, while large segments of the population were denied. Our own structures of social organization might be stretched to the breaking point, since unscrupulous visitors, perhaps even with good intentions, might give rise to a black market in desirable commodities. By comparison, such a black market might make today’s drug cartels look like the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. This in turn raises the issue that a first contact along the lines of the Ferengi Hypothesis might in itself necessitate a fundamental rethinking and perhaps reorganizing of our current societal structures. Might not Gene Roddenberry’s vision of an Earth without money and provided with universal education and health care be a desirable and perhaps necessary prequel to first contact, on a purely defensive front? As militaries around the world conduct research on particle accelerator beams and other expensive, but probably ineffective deterrents, is not such a question worthy of debate and reflection?
These observations show how little we can afford to take for granted when dealing with the model of an increasingly probable visit from a more technically advanced group of life forms. Blasting flying saucers out of the air may not be the most important objective. When we meet the enemy, they may well be ourselves. So far, those colonized humans who have lived to survive a visit on the Ferengi model – and they are a tiny slice indeed of their third world ancestors – have not had much success dealing with their own problems. Adaptation to human visitors has taken generations in all cases. Furthermore, rare have been the examples of effective human leadership in the process of commercial decolonialization, whether it be Gandhi’s peaceful boycott on British woolens or Mao Tse-Tung’s forced eradication of opium addiction. It seems imperative to pursue the establishment of a new branch of philosophy and ethics dealing with the eventuality of first contact, as theologian Ted Peters suggests in his article, “Cutting the Ethical Pie for Engaging ETI: An Adventure in Astro-Ethics,” which was posted on the site CounterBalance. If anyone would scoff at the idea of taking up this question in a perspective that includes theology, it is worth noting that the unsuccessful response of Native Americans to Europeans in their Columbian and post-Columbian contacts was due in large part to their theological misinterpretations of the visitors. We as a race, should we enter the interplanetary realm actively or passively, will probably not have the luxury of time in order to respond. In fact, right now is the only time we can be assured of being capable of addressing the question.