Thursday, December 30, 2010

Our Fate in Whose Hands?

A technologically advanced alien race, long liberated from its ancient, terrestrial existence, now travels through the galaxy, encountering less developed races as it goes. Whenever it comes across a planet inhabited with intelligent life, it challenges the inhabitants of that planet to justify their own continued existence, by assembling representatives from all over the planet, and questioning them on matters regarding their specie’s most salient shortcomings. If the delegates cannot convince the aliens that they are worth sparing – that their existence is not a detriment to the universe – the encountered species is eliminated, and the aliens move on.

On their travels, the voyaging aliens come across inhabitants on a relatively small, blue planet lying half way along the length of the Orion-Cygnus Arm of the Milky Way; and, as it has done countless times before, challenges the leaders of the planet to argue for their ongoing existence.

“Your species,” begin the aliens, “Have a tendency, what looks almost like a compulsion, to make use of the physical resources around you: water, minerals, wood, land area, even the air itself: as rapidly as possible, with no apparent regard for the finiteness of what is available, or with any consideration for what your fate will be when the things you rely on so heavily – reliance that are sometimes natural and sometimes borne of your own actions – expire. How can you justify the continuation of a species that lacks the foresight to consider the consequences that will be suffered by its own children?”

“In all the tens of thousands of years of our history,” responds one, “There was never a need to consider the expiration of resources in an absolute sense. In the past 100 years, our population has increased from 1.75 billion to almost 7 billion. Before then, there was never any need to consider the ‘end of resources’, because there was always somewhere else we could move or expand to, and the idea that there were enough of us to have a measurable impact on the world as a whole would have been bizarre and egocentric. A 4-fold jump in our population in less than 1 percent of our history as a species demands an enormous paradigm shift, and one that we are making far more quickly than it might immediately appear.”

“Yours is a species,” the aliens move on, “That, on the surface, seems to strive for inequality. Nearly half of your planet’s wealth is in the hands of 1 percent of your population, and, with perverse symmetry, 1 percent of the world’s wealth is spread among half of the world’s population. You cannot argue that this is due to a relatively sudden change in the way things are, because you have always had an inequality of wealth distribution within almost any given society in your history. Alarmingly, though, this system has developed into one that delivers money and power as direct rewards, not for contribution or responsibility, but simply to those with a talent for acquiring money and power.”

“You are right and wrong,” says another delegate. “We do not strive for inequality, per se. But it is in our nature to strive to excel. And what is excellence without relativity? That is, we, collectively, move forward on the backs of people who aspire to superseded their peers and predecessors – be that in science, art, or leadership. And, with excellence comes reward. You say that we have failed to develop a system that equates reward with contribution, and, as things stand, that is the case. But this is a result of the same paradigm shift as we discussed before – it is an misappropriation of something intrinsically human. We will always reward those individuals who stand out, as we have always done. The preceding century was marked by developments in technology, and capitalism, and those who most successfully reflected that development were duly rewarded. The problem is therefore what we consider marks an excellent individual: one who can accumulate wealth and power. But views will swing and change in time, as they always have done.”

“And, on the back of one paradigm shift comes another.” A new delegate pipes in. “As a century that was marked by an explosion of population and technology – and an associated exponential schism of inequality – has ended; so we have entered an age of information. Not information technology, in the sense of technological progress for its own sake, but, rather, diffusion of information as has never been available before. And, as we say, knowledge is power. Come and talk to us again in a generation’s time. I believe that our increasing dissemination of information will bring with it a greater equality of power, and, by proxy, wealth, in the coming decades.”

The aliens are silent for a moment. Then:

Paris Hilton’s My New BFF.”

After a pause, a member of the delegation says “excuse us. What did you say?”

Paris Hilton’s My New BFF,” repeats the alien. “The BFF stands for Best Friend Forever. It’s a reality television show on MTV, in which Paris Hilton issues challenges to a group of young men and women, and then eliminates one at the end of each episode. In addition to being insufferably derivative, the contestants are competing not for money, or a glamorous job, or the chance to see the world, but to become Paris Hilton’s friend – they are on the show in the hopes of winning the right to spend all of their time with Miss Hilton.”

“Now, it’s hardly fair...” one delegate begins.

“Of course, we would never base a judgement of a species on one individual,” interrupts the alien, “But when that individual is popular enough to have her own television show in which she is her own prize, we cannot help but harbour concerns regarding the viability and, frankly, worthiness of the species that allows her to be famous. Ongoingly famous, we might add; a flash-in-the-pan celebrity of this nature we could overlook, but the persistence of a starlet whose fame stems from nothing, as far as we can tell, gives us cause for concern.”

The room is silent for a moment, before the alien speaks again. “So, how can you justify that your species deserves to live, in light of Paris Hilton’s My New BFF, its second season, and two spin-off series?”

the room returns to silence.