By Laura Welcher.
Laura Welcher is the director of Operations and the Long Now Library at the Long Now Foundation. She is also a member of the board of METI International.
Language, whether spoken or signed or written, is a natural way for humans to communicate with each other. But is it a good way to send information to beings who are likely to be very different from us? Whose bodies, sensory capabilities, cognition, environment and experiences may be very different from our own? Then if we send out a message in human language form, which language? Whose language? Who gets to speak for humanity (and the rest of the planet)? What do we say? How do we even begin to try to have a conversation? Can we even call it a conversation if we are conversing with the void, with no assurance that our message will ever be received by a potential interlocutor? How do we create a message that, even with the best intentions, will not generate misunderstandings?
For all of these reasons and complexities, our efforts at constructing METI signals with human language have lagged behind the sending out of other kinds of signals. Most of the best attempts have been of the “greetings” or Hello Universe!” type, often in a variety of languages—banal as far as conversation starters go, but perhaps the most diplomatic way to start. The Voyager Disk is probably the best example of this, and is one of our best attempts so far at being communicative using human languages. Even so, the Voyager Disk content contained greetings in only 55 languages (a small percentage of the nearly 7,000 languages in use in the world today) and five of these were ancient languages. None were signed languages, which are also in very common use around the world.
It may be that information that can be depicted with shapes, or graphics, or numbers, is the most important to send first. Any signal that contains information can communicate at the minimum “we are here, we exist, we are trying to interact.” At some point, however, beyond these basic signals, we will want to communicate—we will want to have a conversation. And then, we will need to use our most natural communication system, human language. It is worth thinking about this now, and practicing by sending real messages, that have a real chance of reaching an interlocutor. We stand to learn a great deal in the process, likely about ourselves as well.