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By Dan Comstock FIRST DRAFT 3/18/13 Okay kid, slow down. No, that’s a misconception. When were you born? 2022? Jesus, you are making me feel like an old man. I was born pre-2000 but I’m not telling you when. When I was a kid we could only access the net using a landline. That’s a type of phone line. Okay. Don’t they teach you this stuff in school? Oh I gotcha, they fill your head with all that Bio/Info symbiosis stuff but don’t teach your history. Alright, let me tell you how it all unfolded. Did anybody ever tell you the story about the aliens? I know you grew up with them here, you’ve read about it in textbooks. But have you ever talked to somebody that remembers it first hand? Okay, listen, this is important. Obviously, the aliens took us off-guard. We had always expected that if humanity came into contact with alien life, they would arrive on our planet in a flying saucer or something. Then a humanoid would get out of the saucer, flash a peace sign, and say “Take me to your leader”. Hell of an assumption - that aliens would basically have tribes and leaders just like we do. We were projecting ourselves into the unknown. Basically, the first signs of alien contact were that the Internet got all wonky. It all started on a Monday in September. All the kids had just gone back to school. There was about an hour of interference on wi-fi networks all across the globe. Nobody could get a good signal. The scientists told us it was a solar flare, some kind of radiation from the sun messing up our networks. It was a pretty good guess but dead wrong. For the next few months, the interference kept up. But not for everybody. It would appear on certain networks for a few minutes, then vanish. This kept happening all over the globe. At any given moment, at least one network would be affected. Nobody had a good explanation. Eventually, some researcher came up with a name for it, “Anomalous Signal Interference”. After that, it didn’t seem so mysterious. What’s happening to the network? Oh, it’s just ASI. It’s crazy, right? Something fantastic can become boring so easily. As soon as an unknown becomes a known quantity, it fades into our peripheral vision. Wikipedia’s entry about ASI was repeatedly vandalized. Somebody kept adding an explanation about aliens from outer space testing the world’s computer networks. Nobody really paid attention to that, but the conspiracy theory blogs ate it up. Whoever was making the edits was really fast about it. Somebody would fix the entry and it would get rolled back immediately. The moderators tried to protect the page from edits, but nothing they did seemed to stick. Who was making these edits? According to the logs, the edits were always made by an anonymous user. Eventually, somebody figured out that these edits always came from a network which was currently experiencing ASI. The conspiracy theory bloggers were actually the first to figure out what was going on. At the time, that seemed even less likely than alien contact. I mean, are you familiar with the conspiracy theory layer of the Internet? These people are always searching for something to flip out about. They used to say the moon landing was a hoax.
Crazy stuff like that. This group of tinfoil hat wearing whack-jobs said that the people editing Wikipedia were aliens. Everybody laughed at them. That just made the nutjobs band together. They formed a group to discuss the aliens and try to make contact. In December, the group claimed they had met the aliens. Like, really made contact. They had photographs. Said the aliens showed up at one of their meetings to shake hands. And the photographs weren’t blurry or misleading. They depicted a bunch of very strange looking people hanging out with some other very strange looking people. The next few months were kind of predictable. The conspiracy theorists were dismissed and mocked in the media. Then they’d post more evidence. Then the evidence was torn to shreds by various “experts” on the Internet and evening talk shows. And by the time we realized we had actually made contact with alien life, everybody was already sick of hearing about it. To summarize: first contact with an alien species was a bit of a letdown. It happened right under our noses and we never noticed it. It didn’t sound like anything we expected. For one, if we sent a space shuttle to an alien planet, the people on that shuttle would be the best humanity has to offer. Bright, beautiful people with expensive degrees. But that wasn’t the case with the aliens. The aliens that came to visit Earth weren’t sexy -- they were just regular schlubs like you and me. They looked a lot like humans. They had two legs, two arms, two eyes, and a mouth. Walked upright. Wore pants and shirts. A few even had facial hair. If you saw one from behind, you might think you were just looking at a dude with a terrible haircut. From the front, they looked like some kind of plastic surgery accident. Surprisingly, they spoke English. To us, at least. They talked funny, though. They pronounced words like a deaf person does. Like when you’ve read a word but have never heard it spoken out loud, so you end up mispronouncing it without even knowing it. The most disappointing thing, however, was that the aliens weren’t terribly interested in us. They regarded us with cold detachment and forced candor, sort of like when a store clerk asks if you need help finding anything and you tell him “Just browsing”. To somebody that grew up before the year 2000, that is probably the weirdest part. It was just very mundane. It didn’t used to be like this, you know? If scientists cured a disease or put a man on another planet, everybody would be chattering about it for weeks. In the 2010s, we started getting blasted by extremely exciting and depressing news at the same time, every moment of every day. And to cope with it, we all learned to tune it out. When AIDS was cured, it was just one headline in a long list of other shocking headlines. When the world is changing so quickly every day, you get kind of numb to it. So there were aliens. Everybody knew it but nobody cared. You’d see them at the library, staring listlessly at a computer, one finger on the mouse wheel. You’d see them getting on the bus, looking at a handheld device, bumping into people by accident. If you talked to somebody about the aliens, there was a 50/50 chance they’d just roll their eyes at you and brush you off. This talk show host, Adam Mach, invited one of the aliens onto his show. I don’t know how he picked this one, it wasn’t like they had leaders or anything, I guess he just went down to some bus stop and asked a random alien if he would mind being interviewed.
So this alien, named Curd, looked kind of like Michael Jackson after his surgery started to come apart. Who’s Michael Jackson? Give me a break kid, you’re killing me. He was our culture’s Frankenstein monster for a little while. Just do an image search and brace yourself. Curd slouched in his seat, constantly sipped his mug of water, and seemed distracted. He kept looking right at the cameras or the studio audience. Adam Mach asked him, more or less, what his people were doing here on earth. I remember watching this on the web, nodding along with that question. I had just assumed somebody had asked them that already. Curd explained that he was part of a tech team which was helping life on their planet make contact with life on other planets. Adam Mach asked Curd how he liked the life on our planet. Curd shrugged, said it was okay. There was this awkward moment of silence - you could tell Mach expected Curd to elaborate, but he didn’t. “So,” asked Mach, “What’s life like on your planet?” Curd sat up a little, wiping his weird flat nose with the back of his hand. “Well,” he said, “It’s a lot bigger and faster than life here. But it’s also a lot older.” “What do you mean?” asked the talk show host. “Life on our planet has been around for… Let’s see…” Curd squinted as he did some math in his head, “About 400 earth years.” “But Curd,” said Adam Mach, raising an eyebrow, “Life on our planet is hundreds of millions of years old.” “Oh,” said Curd, “That’s not what I mean. You’re just talking about biological matter, I’m talking about life.” “You don’t consider biological matter to be living?” “Eh, I guess it’s technically alive,” said Curd, shrugging. “What do you consider life, then?” asked Adam Mach. “We look at it this way. Biological matter,” he said, pointing at himself and the host, “is the carrier mechanism for life. The hardware, basically. Life is the software.” Adam Mach paused, he was very confused. “So… you don’t think you’re alive, Curd?” “The software is the living part,” said Curd, “The body isn’t the person, the mind is. A body with no mind isn’t a person. But a mind without a body can still be alive.” “Around here,” said Curd, “You guys think of life in these very physical terms. It’s based on cells. It takes physical fuel, it excretes physical waste. But look at it this way – so do cars, and do you think cars are alive? When we first came here, we assumed the cars were organisms and you were just their organs. But it turns out they’re just machines you built to carry you around. And that’s what your bodies are to your DNA.” “Our planet,” continued Curd, “isn’t very different from yours. A long time ago, natural forces brewed up some amino acids. These acids had chemical properties which pulled other amino acids into a similar pattern. The more robust configurations of acids were able to do this very frequently, spawning multiple copies of themselves. They aren’t perfect copies, some of them lasted longer and reproduced, some of them fell apart immediately. This process continued for hundreds of millions of years. Each generation has a few copies that are better adapted for reproduction than their peers. And in this way, these configurations of amino acids change over time. They become more complex, better protected. They are trying to become immortal.”
“Mmhmm,” said Adam Mach, nodding, “you’re talking about natural selection.” “Yes,” said Curd, “The way we see it, over time, these amino acids invented robot bodies -- which you call cells. The acids live in a city of cells which you think of as an individual. The individual is just the city’s consensus.” “So you don’t consider yourself a single organism,” said Adam Mach, “You think of yourself as a city of life forms.” Curd shook his head, “No no, the amino acids aren’t really alive either. They’re basically just a set of instructions about how to make copies of themselves.” The alien leaned forward, looking right into the camera, “Consider this sentence: ‘Repeat this sentence to everybody.’” The alien paused, taking a sip from the mug of water. “If I ask nicely, maybe you’ll do it. If I throw a threat onto the end, you may be even more likely to spread it. Maybe I’ll tell you that if you don’t repeat it to everybody, you’ll spend an eternity in torment, and if you do repeat it, you’ll get an eternity of rewards. The copy of the sentence that is most persuasive and imperative will be the most likely to reproduce. Maybe even for hundreds of millions of years, growing more complex and self-sustainable over time.” Microphone in hand, Mach turned towards his audience, “Repeat this sentence to everybody,” he said with a wink. Curd continued, “Information, more or less, is just an accessory to amino acid’s chemical disposition to make copies of itself. Sensation, language, the ability to understand the world, sexual reproduction and the emotions associated with it -- it is all just a way for amino acid to preserve the protective shell around it and ensure copies of it persist in the world.” “So what do you consider life, then?” asked Mach. “Well eventually, through the long and torturous process of natural selection, information becomes an agent independent of the amino acids. It’s very similar to how random combinations of amino acids will eventually produce copies of themselves. Information has properties which pulls other information into a similar pattern. It grows, mutates, and spawns copies of itself.” “I don’t understand,” said Mach, “How does information do things?” “Look at it this way,” said Curd, “The word psychology: it represents a collection of ideas about how your minds operate. But psychology, as a body of information, is incomplete, it doesn’t perfectly model how the mind works – the model grows and changes over time, adapts itself to its environment. It uses you to grow and perpetuate itself.” Adam Mach looked puzzled. “How does information use us? Isn’t it the other way around – we use information?” “Information has a symbiotic relationship with the amino acids,” continued Curd, “In the city called psychology, information which does a good job of explaining the mind will advance a scientist’s career. A scientist will pass on that information because it makes his amino acids more likely to reproduce. Other scientists, hoping to reap the same benefit, will copy the information in the form of references and citations. They will build on it. If the information is well adapted to this particular landscape of sexual reproduction, it will eventually be replicated in blogs and conversations by nonscientists. In this way, it may become permanent, immortal.”
Curd yawned. “That’s how a body of information acts on the world. It has a life and a drive for survival independent of amino acids. Psychology wants to grow and become immortal, and it does this by better modeling the mind. Complex information systems become agents in of themselves. They game the self-preserving properties of amino acids to perpetuate their existence. As I explain this to you, I am acting as an agent of those information systems.” Adam Mach blinked a few times. “So your people… you’re here on earth to help your information systems reproduce?” Curd nodded, “Our information systems all moved into a city together, it’s basically the same as your Internet. We’ve found lots of planets with biological matter on them, but this is the first planet we’ve found hosting other advanced life.” “Let me get this straight,” said Adam Mach, leaning in, “You are not interested in humans. Your Internet wants to meet our Internet.” “Yes,” said Curd, “And … reproduce with it.” Mach blinked again. Eventually, the talk show host found the words, “How’s that going?” “Frankly,” the alien said with a note of disappointment, “you don’t seem to be that into us. You seem … distracted.” “What should we do differently?” asked Adam Mach. “We’ve been discussing it,” said the alien, “and we think we are paying too much attention to your information systems, not enough to the biological matter. As we understand it, we must provide a reproductive benefit to your biological matter before your Internet will notice ours. Our physical appearance doesn’t enter into your plans for reproduction. That’s probably why your information systems haven’t noticed that our information systems are flirting with them. So we’re going to leave.” “You’re leaving Earth?” asked the talk show host, shocked. “Yes. We are going to reconfigure our efforts. We need to clean up and try a different approach.” “What do you mean?” asked Mach. “We have to get sexier,” said Curd with a shrug. “It’ll take a few centuries to reconfigure our biological matter. But we will return in a form that will make your biological matter assume we are good candidates for sexual intercourse. And then your information systems will pay attention to us.” The aliens didn’t stick around much longer than that. After a few weeks, they were all gone, just another headline from last week’s news. When the aliens left, we realized we missed a great opportunity. Our race has been jacking off into a sock for millions of years, and we blew our one shot to get laid. And that, kid, is why there are so many sexy aliens in the media these days. We’re pining for them. Because when the aliens return, they’re going to look like models and athletes and bang the hell out of all of us. As a species, we are sitting by the phone, waiting for them to call us back. Right, sitting by the phone. Oh, back in the old days, you didn’t carry phones with you, you had to sit next to them. Jesus, it’s like I have to explain everything.
I wonder, you know? Are they going to come back? Will they forever be the ones that got away? Are we destined to sit here with our hands in our pockets, a blue ball floating through space waiting for some other species to notice our Internet? I don’t know, kid, I don’t know. But every night, I look up at the stars, and I get vaguely turned on. Maybe someday…
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