Communicating with Aliens:

the Psychological Dimension of Dialogue




14 March 2000

In the light of the above, how might interested parties envisage the design of a human team to prepare for an encounter with aliens -- and improve the operational guidelines for that eventuality?

It is intriguing that fundamental requirements for such an encounter bear a strong relationship to the emerging understanding of the strategic requirements of corporations to meet the future. A prime factor is what has been termed strategic nimbleness and the ability to "turn on a dime". Rigidity is fatal, although vigilance is essential.

Unlike science fiction scenarios, it is questionable whether the team would simply be a selection from a narrow range of university faculties and academic disciplines. The focus needs to be primarily on psychological and behavioral skills and attributes in an environment of high uncertainty -- in the best sense of a dialogue variant of "streetwise".

A predilection for explaining new phenomena to confirm favorite theories would be less than helpful -- as with a preoccupation with the opportunity offered for career advancement. Naturally the team should be able to recognize the need for additional skills, and be able to call upon them. But this does not mean that people with those skills should be physically present at the encounter interface.

Approached from this angle it is clear that designing the team would call on the kinds of skills developed for management and operational teams, rather than teams of scientists. However it needs to be far more subtle in scope because of the variety of challenges that may have to be prepared for -- in contrast with the precise objectives that simplify the design of many conventional teams. It may call upon the skills involved in designing an intentional community.

The unproductive dynamic most likely to undermine effective team-building is that associated with ensuring politically correctness at all cost. Considerable thought is therefore required to work out how many constituencies (ethnic groups, religions, disciplines, etc) would want to see themselves represented in any such process and how this number (say 1000) could be present virtually, if not actually -- if the practical number was no greater than say 12, or less.

This might be described as the challenge of "access management". And through what institutional process is the team to be designed in the light of these constraints -- bearing in mind the chaotic diplomatic and military dynamics around prolonged negotiations in connection with recent crises (cf Yugoslavia).

One experimental approach to the design problem is to consider the following sequence of options:

  1. If only one person could be appointed as representative for the dialogue process, what qualities should that person have? Here it is worth remembering that the most logical candidates (whose voices have been recorded on a succession of satellites sent into deep space) have been deeply flawed individuals (a former Nazi and a person intimately associated with the largest massacres since the Holocaust).

  2. If only two people could be selected, presumably it would be important to reflect gender differences in addition to other important kinds of complementarity

  3. If only three people could be selected....

  4. If only four people....etc

This experiment links back to the pattern structuring exercise of Part III. For each number, there is a different pattern of complementarity between the strategic functions that emerge at that level of articulation and different types of uncertainty in the selection. At each number level, a corresponding number of functions would be explicitly and associated with a given team member -- at Level 7, there would therefore be seven people in the team.

Thus at the first level, for example, the choice is necessarily unsatisfactory, with its requirement for the archetypal "man for all seasons" to effectively assume all functions. At the second, the challenge of identifying the "ideal couple" emerges; at the third and beyond emerge the various levels of tream dynamics more frequently explored in management situations.

The different kinds of intelligence associated with these roles might be explored in the light of Howard Gardner's classic study Frames of Mind : The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (1983) or Magoroh Maruyama's work on mindscapes.

It is also intriguing how, according to the number selected, different values become explicit in a person/role or else are spread implicitly across the set of active roles. This merits reflection to the extent that the dialogue team is supposed to represent, and protect, the set of values of humanity. There has been little research into values from this perspective, namely how a comprehensive et of values is to be understood if only a limited number can be articulated within the set (see Judge, 1979)

For example, it may therefore be useful to see a team of 12 as composed of archetypal behavioral styles such as the following (very tentative -- work in progress but see reflections on the necessary self-organizing process in Enabling creative response to extraordinary crises,

Given the range of such behavioral skills, how are the people to work together as a team? What dynamic should be cultivated between them? Here the challenge is the enthusiasm of various (Western) facilitators to use their particular model and understanding of teams in preference to all alternative models.

Of course such a team might develop its operational effectiveness by endeavoring to engage with human "aliens" in environments in which combinations of the Test Challenges of Part I are of particular significance. This might have the additional benefit of providing some new responses to the dilemmas of human alienation.

There is also an ironic resemblance between the SETI program and the search for the super-gifted within human societies -- and the challenge of communicating meaningfully with them. Through what process are communications from the wise detected -- beyond those practiced by Tibetan Buddhists?

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