by David Brin
This version of David Brin's letter to alien lurkers is hosted on this website
at his request. A polished version of this article
appeared in the January 2000 issue of Science Fiction
Age magazine (Sovereign Media Co., Inc.) Both versions
copyright © 1999 by David Brin; all rights reserved.
David Brin is a scientist and bestselling novelist. His
1989 thriller Earth foresaw both global warming and the
World Wide Web. A movie with Kevin Costner was loosely
based on The Postman.
The Hugo and Nebula
winning Startide Rising is in pre-production at
Paramount Pictures. Brin's latest novel, Foundation's
Triumph, brings to a grand finale Isaac Asimov's famed
Foundation Universe. To learn more, see
First, a message for you humans out there, who happen to be reading
this right now.
As many of you know, I approach the topic of
life from two perspectives. As an author using fiction to explore
notions beyond today's science, I explore the forms and motivations
that alien beings might assume, from outlandish to eerily familiar.
I am also involved in the same subject at the scientific end,
participating in the International Astronomical Union's Subcommittee
SETI -- the Search For Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence -- can be a
difficult and confusing topic, straddling the concerns of everyone
from sober researchers to politicians to dreamers hoping that alien
contact may somehow save humanity "from ourselves"
The good news? This widely-shared interest seems to reflect an eager
expansiveness of spirit and willingness to entertain fresh ideas far
beyond our mundane lives. The bad news is that our imaginations have
forged so far beyond the sparse data on hand that things can get
rather silly at times. Take those paranoiac rumors that the U.S.
Government has kept an alien spaceship stashed away, studying it for
decades. (Hmm... so it's been studied incessantly by three
generations of our brightest engineers... without any of them
blowing the whistle by now? Right.)
Nearly all SETI researchers agree that the public should be told
right away, after any radio contact is confirmed. Most have
initialed or signed a "protocol", agreeing in advance to principles
of openness -- e.g. that the contents of any message must not be
kept secret. Still, there is disagreement over details. For example;
though no signal from an interstellar civilization has ever been
confirmed, controversy rages over whether or not we should reply,
when and if someone does pick up such a message. Should our openness
policy extend to announcing the exact sky coordinates of the signal
source, and the frequency extraterrestrials are using?
Many SETI researchers think any confirmed signal will automatically
result in a cacophony of replies, sent at once by any nation or
interest group with the technology to shape a radio signal. Everyone
from Ayatollahs to the Mafia, from science fiction fans and Klingon
language scholars to recently-discovered Amazon tribes will begin
beaming appeals and tracts at a particular point in space, almost
the very next day.
A minority in the SETI community thinks it would make better sense
not to reply right away. Waiting a decade or so, to gather data and
discuss the ramifications, might seem more prudent than instantly
hollering into the unknown. Just look at the history of contact
between human cultures, in our recent past. The less technologically
advanced nearly always suffered.
True, aliens may be a lot nicer than
18th Century European
colonialists were. But would you bet our future on it? Our limited
experience suggests that it's sensible for the weaker party to be
cautious, and concentrate on listening before shouting.
As I've written elsewhere, the apparent emptiness of the cosmos
seems to suggest that something may be dangerous about our galaxy.
But in fact, it seems that a message to aliens is about to be sent,
whether we like it or not! This one doesn't involve expensive
transmitters or engravings on a space probe. There won't be any
extravagant shouting into interstellar space, because this message
will go out swiftly and cheaply... on the Internet. Toronto academic
Allen Tough and 80 colleagues plan to issue an appeal via the World
Wide Web, inviting extraterrestrial intelligent life-forms to please
Professor Tough's operating assumption -- and hope -- is that a
smart probe from some advanced civilization may already be
monitoring our telecommunications. Perhaps it has resided in our
solar system for centuries or longer. Or maybe it was drawn in
recently, by radio signals emanating from our little world. Either
way, if it has kept up with the increasing sophistication of our
signals, it may be monitoring the Web right now.
In other words "they" may already be here, in a manner of speaking.
They just haven't chosen to speak up.
Dr. Tough hopes to do something about this possibility. His web site
is designed to draw the attention of any alien "lurker" (or lurkers)
out there. He hopes the content of the hello page will persuade the
alien to abandon its present policy of silence. Perhaps the right
kind of invitation will sway ET (or ET's probe) to phone us.
All right, let's go along with this assumption. Before crafting any
such message, we should ask -- what do we already know?
The one clear fact about any purported lurking space alien or probe
is that most of us are presently unaware of its existence. It's been
silent, so far. At least to a majority of human beings.
The most likely conclusion to draw from this sole fact? Why, that
such a lurker probably doesn't exist!
Still, that's not the only possible explanation. My 1983 short story
-- "Lungfish" -- explored this very situation, coming up with a
number of possible alternatives. I admit, the subject fascinates me.
So let's stretch our imaginations! In drafting my contribution to
Dr. Tough's site, committed to electronic form and cast into space,
here's what I came up with, so far --
To any alien lurkers prowling or waiting out there -- if you are
reading this, perusing the electronic communications network of our
lonely little planet, please pick whichever of the following applies
to you, and ignore the rest.
1. If you've
spent years monitoring our radio, our television -- and now our
internet-- and the reason you haven't answered is that you are
afraid of the rash or violent behavior you see depicted in our
media... please be reassured!
True, many of our movies and TV stories portray distrust,
selfishness, hot tempers and extreme violence. But you should
know that, in fact, very few of us ever experience events as
disturbing those you see in our dramas. Most of us actually
dislike such violent traits in ourselves. By exploring these
ancient feelings, inherited from a dark past, we hope to
understand them better.
Also note: in a vast majority of these stories, the "loser"
tends to be whichever person or group was more aggressive or
intolerant at the start. Doesn't that say something about our
The same holds for non-fiction. Despite news reports depicting a
riotous world, the actual rate of mayhem in human society has
declined dramatically during the last five decades, if measured
on a per capita basis. Look up the actual numbers! More than two
thirds of all humans living today have never personally
witnessed war, mass starvation or major civil unrest -- an
unprecedented fraction who have been allowed to improve their
lot in peace. Many ancient bigotries and cruelties have been
lessened, or have at least been put in bad repute. And with the
spread of education, many far greater advances now seem
True, these achievements are still woefully unfinished. They
leave tremendous amounts for us yet to do, in working toward a
just and mature civilization. But they are clear signs of
progress and overall good will by a majority of our species.
Despite the self-critical news reports and flamboyantly
exaggerated "action" stories you may have watched, please be
assured that most human beings are calm, nonviolent people who
treat strangers well. Many millions of us would be thrilled to
meet you, and would expend every effort to ensure that peaceful,
honest visitors are made welcome.
2. If you've monitored our TV, radio -- and now our
internet-- and the reason you haven't answered is that you are
damaged, or otherwise incapable of sending, please be assured
that we are on our way!
We have begun, slowly, to explore our solar system. If you are
not too deeply hidden, we should come upon you in the due course
of time. We hope to make peaceful contact and learn your needs.
If you are incapacitated, and our explorers feel you mean no
harm, they will surely render you whatever aid they can, and
call on the resources of our planet to bring more. Try to find a
way to let us know where you are and what you need.
If you are lost and far from home, welcome to our small part of
this enormous universe. We offer whatever warmth and shelter we
have to share.
3. If you've monitored our TV, radio -- and now our
internet-- and the reason you haven't answered is that you see
us as competitors, we ask that you reconsider.
In our long, slow struggle to achieve some degree of decent
civilization, humans have slowly learned that competition and
cooperation aren't inherent opposites, but twins, both in nature
and in advanced societies. Under terms that are fair, and with
goodwill, even those who begin suspicious of each other can
discover ways to interact toward mutual benefit. (Use the Web to
look up the concept of a positive-sum game, where "win-win"
solutions bring success to all sides.)
Surely there are ways that humanity -- and other Earth species
-- should be able to join the cosmos without causing injury to
your legitimate aims. Remember, most stable species and cultures
seem to benefit from a little competition, now and then! So
please answer. Let's talk about it.
4. If you've monitored our TV, radio -- and now our
internet-- and the reason you haven't answered is that you are
waiting for us to pass some milestone of development... well
then, how about a hint? Pretty please?
If that milestone is for us to assertively ask for membership in
some society of advanced sapient beings, please take this
paragraph as that asserted step, taken by one subgroup of
humanity, hoping to serve the interests of all our planet.
Please give us the application forms... and all information
(including costs and benefits) that we may need in order to make
a well-informed decision about joining.
5. If you've been monitoring our TV, radio -- and now our
internet-- and the reason you haven't answered is that you are
studying us and have a noninterference policy, let us now say
that we understand the concept.
Observing more primitive species or cultures can seem to demand
silence, at least for a time, in order for the observer not to
interfere with the subject's natural behavior. Your specific
reason may be scientific detachment, or to let us enjoy our
"innocence" a while longer, or perhaps because we are unusual in
some rare or precious way. In fact, we can imagine many possible
reasons you might give for keeping the flow of information going
in just one direction -- from us to you -- and never the other
way. Similar rationalizations are common among human beings.
Of course, some
humans might respond that it was cruel of you not to contact us
during the Cold War, when news of contact might have prodded us
away from our near-brush with nuclear annihilation. Or that you
should have warned us of the dangers of ecological degradation.
Others might argue that it's heartless to withhold advanced
technologies that might help solve many of our problems, saving
millions of lives.
In fairness, some other humans would argue that we have won
great dignity by doing it all by ourselves. They take pride in
the fact that we show early signs of achieving maturity by our
own hard efforts, alone. If your reason for silence is to let us
have this dignity, that might make sense... so long as it isn't
simply an excuse, a rationalization, to cover more selfish
To interfere or not? It is a moral and scientific quandary that
you answer by silently watching, to see if we'll solve our
problems by ourselves. (Perhaps we are doing better than you
expected?) Who knows? Your reasons may even have great validity.
Still, if you continue this policy, you cannot expect profound
trust or gratitude when we finally overcome our hardships and
emerge as star-faring adults without help. Oh, we'll try to be
friendly and fair. But your long silence will make it hard, at
least at first, to be friends.
We understand cold-blooded scientific detachment. But consider
-- the universe sometimes plays tricks on the mighty. In some
distant age, our roles may be reversed. We hope you'll
understand if our future stance toward you is set by your
past-and-present behavior toward us.
6. If you've monitored our TV, radio -- and now our
internet -- perhaps you have a policy of noninterference for a
different reason... in order to spare us and our culture from
some harm that might come as a result of contact.
An erosion of
our sense of free will? Or our sense of having a high culture?
We can understand this notion, too. Certainly the history of
first contact between human cultures tells that the one with
lower technology and sophistication often suffered ill effects.
If mercy motivates your reticence, we grasp the concept. Yet,
this provokes a question -- are you absolutely sure? Can you be
certain we're so fragile? Is it possible you might be mistaken?
Or (again) perhaps rationalizing a decision that you made for
Maybe you should test it by contacting small groups of humans --
perhaps via the internet -- to explore matters that concern you.
This will be surprisingly easy and safe, since you can make your
enquiries in the form of email letters, or by participating
anonymously in online discussion groups. You can even call
yourselves by your real names! Everyone on the discussion group
will simply assume you are eccentric human beings, using
internet pseudonyms to play-act as aliens! Any awkwardness with
our language will be taken as another part of your act.
On some sites, your overtures will be dismissed. Elsewhere,
bright individuals will gladly play along, engaging you in
conversation with lively enthusiasm, pretending to believe you
are alien and discussing your concerns for the sheer
intellectual joy of doing so. Anyway, you'll get to taste the
diversity of human thought, plus a chance to reconsider your
Of course, it's possible that you are already doing this and
testing us, perhaps by posing as eccentric participants in some
of today's internet discussion groups... or possibly by writing
intriguing science fiction stories under a pseudonym, to tease
Perhaps you even lace these works with special clues that can
only be deciphered by purchasing and carefully reading every one
of the purported author's books.
In hardcover, yet.
7. If you've monitored our TV, radio -- and now our
internet-- and the reason we don't know it is that you are
already in contact with one or more human sub-groups -- perhaps
a government or clique of individuals-- please consider the
Human beings have discovered that secrecy is seldom an effective
way to create or conduct good policy. It can have many temporary
uses. But over the long run, we appear to make our best and most
creative decisions -- and commit the fewest errors -- in
situations of openness.
The groups or governments you converse with may claim that there
are good reasons to keep Contact secret from the public. It is
even conceivable that such reasons have short-term validity. But
small groups of humans are also notorious for rationalization --
elites have always claimed that the masses are too stupid or
fragile to understand. After all, this helps justify their
special position in society. Such rationalizations can be
self-sustaining, far beyond their initial usefulness.
We suggest you check this out by using our internet in the
manner described above (in section # 6). You might join some
discussion groups. Apprise them of the supposed reasons for
secrecy -- under the guise that you are just another human,
pondering an abstract notion. If most or all of the participants
disagree with those reasons, you may find it's time to
re-evaluate your policy, and make yourself known to the rest of
8. Let's suppose you've monitored our TV, radio -- and
now our internet-- and the reason you haven't answered is that
you enjoy watching. Perhaps you draw entertainment from our
painful struggles to survive and grow. Worse, you may be
profiting by pulling our cultural, scientific and artistic
riches off the internet, without seeing any need to reciprocate
or pay for them.
In that case, there is a word for what you are doing. It's
Stop it now. We
assert ownership over our culture, and a right to share it only
with those who share in return. In the name of whatever law or
moral code applies out there, do not take without giving or
paying in return.
The same holds, double, if you've been responsible for any of
our current problems. For example, if you are behind any
so-called "UFO sightings."
The group authoring this web site consists mostly of SETI
scholars who don't believe in UFOs. But millions of humans do
believe. The reports they circulate describe purported visitors
behaving in ways that are almost universally secretive and
nasty, often downright vicious. Others claim that aliens have
meddled in our politics, social structures or even our genes.
Again, we in this group don't believe these stories. But if any
of them happen to be true, and you are responsible, we ask you
to desist at once.
Instead, come forth openly, as honorable visitors should. SETI
personnel would be eminently qualified to make the arrangements.
Consider that maliciousness inevitably has consequences. If
either of the scenarios described in this section are true, and
you still refuse to come forward honestly, then we have just one
thing to say to you. Go away! Ask your parents, guardians or
other responsible folk to please come and see us instead.
We hereby assert and demand any rights we may have, to appeal
for relief or protection from the sort of behavior described
9. Let's say you've monitored our TV, radio -- and now
our internet-- and the reason you haven't answered is that you
are meddling secretly, in ways that you feel are beneficial to
us. If so, please consider what has happened to human
civilization, during the last century.
We spent the first half of it plunging headlong into passionate
ideologies, giving as much devotion to simpleminded political
doctrines -- from communism and fascism to nationalism,
fundamentalism and even solipsistic individualism -- as we used
to dedicate to religion. Was this partly your doing? Or was it a
horrible, adolescent phase that you could only watch us pass
through, like an awful fever? In any event, it damn near killed
The second half of the century was also a turmoil, featuring
many episodes of wrath, violence and ultimate risk.
And yet, across the
last five decades, ideologies have gradually lost some of their
grip on millions. Instead of oversimplified assumptions or
"rules" of human behavior, multitudes began living according to
pragmatic systems that allow give-and-take among countless
complex citizens. Our media filled with messages promoting both
tolerance of diversity and suspicion of central authority.
Eccentricity became more acceptable. And while varied forms of
hatred still fill many hearts, hatred itself has acquired a
growing odor of disrepute.
As bigotries slowly give way, there has also been change among
our utopian dreamers. Even idealists now admit that there are
roles for both competition and cooperation in human affairs.
Exhorting people to be good has never worked as well as giving
them the freedom to hold each other accountable.
Did you help bring about this recent trend? If so, thanks. We
can understand why you would want us not to know of your help.
It makes children proud to think they did something all by
On the other hand, perhaps this recent trend puzzles you. Do you
have some ideology that you believe in? Some simple prescription
that you think should be just right for us? Something that
worked for your species, and now you hope to push on us "for our
If so, we suggest you reconsider. Nearly all the positive things
we've accomplished lately came about by abandoning simplistic
formulas and learning to embrace our complexity instead. Please
look up our recent scientific discoveries concerning emergent
properties, complexity theory and related matters. (a good start
might be Kevin Kelly's book,
Out Of Control.) Then join some of
the best discussion groups, as recommended in items 6 & 7 above.
Perhaps we can guide you to a better understanding of our
intricate and sometimes perplexing natures.
In the meantime, please stop interfering with things you do not
10. All right, let's suppose you haven't answered because
the universe is horribly dangerous. For instance, perhaps radio
transmissions tend to be picked up by "berserker"
world-destroyers, sent to wreck burgeoning civilizations, as
soon as they rear up and speak.
Well, you could have warned us, no? But then, any warning might
expose you, and besides, by now we must have already poured out
so much bad radio and television that it's already too late. Is
a great big bomb already headed our way, to punish us for
broadcasting Mister Ed?
In that case, maybe you could spare us some battle-cruiser
blueprints and disintegrator-ray plans? Some spin-dizzies and
Alderson Field generators would come in handy.
Do try to hurry, please.
11. I guess we could have stopped at ten options. But
that would have been terribly parochial and narrow minded,
revealing a chauvinistic cultural bias in favor of beings with
five digits on each of merely two hands. So, for all you lurkers
out there who use base eleven math and such, here's a final
hypothesis -- that you've monitored our TV, radio -- and now our
internet -- and the reason you haven't answered is that you are
Are you waiting until the Earth evolves a more physically
attractive sapient race, more like cockroaches?
Do you stare down at our extravagant road systems and imagine
that automobiles are the dominant life form?
Are you afraid that letting us onto the Galactic Internet will
unleash torrents of spam-advertising and pornography?
Perhaps you think we humans all look great when we're old, and
galactic-level immortality technologies would leave us with
yucky-looking smooth skin for centuries, so we're better off
Maybe you have an excuse
like the following one, sent in by a member of a SETI-related
"Yes, we have been
monitoring your earthling communications, but we cannot respond
yet. The Edict of Knodl states that all first contact situations
be initiated only during the High Season of Jodar, which on our
calendar does not begin for another 344 years. Sorry, but your
first radio transmissions reached us just nine years too late
for the last one, and the Lords of Vanathok do not look kindly
upon violations of the Edict.
This may sound like we're a bunch
of close-minded religious zealots, but I think you need to get
out and see the rest of this galaxy cluster before you make a judgement like that. All praise Knodl, and may his seven
tentacles protect you from harm"
If your reason is
something like that... or if you take pride in some other special
weirdness... well, all I can say is just you wait until we get out
You think you've seen weird? We have beings down here called
They'll show you a thing or two about weird....
Enough. This message is now finished... for the time being, at
least. Take it for what it's worth, you alien skulkers out there.
Meanwhile, I now turn my attention back to the humans who are
reading this... real people who buy Science Fiction stories and help
pay my bills. In other words, folks truly worthy of my time and
Over and out... for now.
Hello again, fellow humans.
Of course what I've just shown you above is just a sampling of
potential reasons why alien lurkers might not openly say hello. Can
you think of still more hypothetical reasons why living or machine
entities, already prowling in nearby space, might detect us and yet
not choose to make contact? Reasons that are consistent with our one
firm fact? The fact that a majority of contemporary human beings
aren't presently aware of contact with extraterrestrials.
Again, the most likely explanation is that there is no alien space
probe lurking in our solar system, soaking up our radio and web
traffic while listening silently. If extraterrestrial intelligence
exists, it probably lives much too far away.
Indeed, a stronger supposition is that we may be the ones who will
venture forth and rescue others from isolation in this dauntingly
vast cosmos. We have the brains, the guts, the potential... and the
If that does become our destiny, I hope we'll find good reasons to
behave better than some of the scenarios I described above.
Ultimately, this topic is interesting and important, but it's not
the most important thing of all. That happens to be the business of
solving today's problems and achieving our potential as a species.
Because like it or not, we are probably going to have to do it
alone. It's a stark and lonely challenge... and one I think we're up
Have we finished discussing this issue? Not by a light year! After
all, whenever humans discuss the possible nature of alien minds,
what we are really talking about is ourselves.