Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Social Network, Sharing, Privacy and Strategy

According to Carl Sagan, in his essay “The Quest for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence”, in 1974 the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, run by Cornell University for the National Science Foundation, in a ceremony marking the resurfacing of the largest radio/radar telescope on Earth, sent a message to the globular cluster M13; it is 24,000 light-years away. The message, Sagan goes on to say, wasn’t intended for interstellar communication, but as an indication of advances in terrestrial radio technology. Regardless, the decoded message goes something like this (in Sagan’s words):

Here is how we count to ten. Here are the atomic numbers of fine chemical elements – hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and phosphorus – that we think are interesting or important. Here are some ways to put these atoms together: the molecules adenine, thymine, guanine and cytosine, and a chain composed of alternating sugars and phosphates. These molecular building blocks are in turn put together to form a long molecule of DNA comprising about four billion links in the chain. The molecule is a double helix. In some way the molecule is important from the clumsy-looking creature at the center of the message. That creature is about 14 radio wavelengths, or about 176n centimeters, high. There are about 4 billion of these creatures on the third planet from our star. There are 9 planets altogether – four little ones on the inside, four big ones toward the outside, and one little one at the extremity. This message is brought to you from a radio telescope 2,430 wavelengths, or 306 meters, in diameter. Yours truly.

Broca’s Brain, Carl Sagan, 1974-1979, Ch.22, “The Quest for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence”, pp320-321

Years, perhaps centuries or millennia from now, these scientists may be considered traitors of Earth, communicating such information so freely.

In this current era where the very notion of privacy is eroding within a single generation, there should be no surprise. As the scientific body of Earth decided to transmit – to a far away somewhere out in the universe, with no intention of actual communication – crucial information regarding life on our planet, so we too, given the appropriate technology, would do the same. It is a natural human tendency to share information. How much? As much as possible, that’s how much. With whom? Whoever is listening.

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