What does all of this talk of neoliberalism have to do with aliens? As it turns out, the story of SETI and the SETI Institute is really a story of economics, specifically of neoliberalism. For not only is the search for E.T. in private hands, but those who believe in its mission, and those who seek aliens, have bestowed them with strange properties that reflect more the era we live in than they do reflect any “universal,” cosmic principles of sociology.
Take a look around Silicon Valley, and you’ll find all kinds technologists who are convinced they have a pretty good idea of what aliens will be like once we meet them. In 2015, a group of scientists and CEOs, including Elon Musk, signed a warning letter against theoretical attempts to message extraterrestrials; in it, they wrote of their worry that “because we have just recently (in cosmic terms) attained an interstellar communications capability, it is likely that other communicative civilizations we encounter will be millions of years more advanced than us.” Projections as to aliens’ intentions appear in the pages of prestigious scientific journals, too, including Nature, which published an editorial in 2006 regarding their fear that an alien receiving a human message might “reveal some peculiar flaw in our psychological make-up that alien ‘black-ops’ specialists might start working out ways to exploit.” Hey, that sounds kind of like the plot of “Half-Life.”
George Basalla, an historian who has written extensively about the history of SETI, believes that SETI’s die-hard believers are more akin to religious adherents than scientists. He cites the ways in which SETI scientists are unable to avoid transposing human civilization, culture and mores onto theoretical aliens, a sin that clouds their ability to search for E.T. in the first place. “Despite the efforts of SETI scientists to avoid the pitfalls of anthropomorphism, they duplicate terrestrial life and civilization on distant planets, creating a succession of alien worlds that mirror their own,” Basalla writes. He continues: “SETI investigators tend to transfer terrestrial life and culture to the rest of the universe because they operate beyond the limits of their knowledge and competence when they discuss the universality of science and mathematics, biological and cultural evolution, the idea of progress, the nature of technology, and the meaning of civilization.”