The question, "Are we alone in the universe?" has been around since ancient times.Despite the fact that we have made huge leaps with technological advancements and refining scientific knowledge about life on Earth, we may not be much closer to finding an answer than our ancestors, who pondered the same question using only their eyes and their imaginations.
Many plausible arguments exist for and against plurality, including the principle of plenitude, the Oparin-Halden theory and the Fermi paradox, but neither side can conclude with any undeniable proof that extraterrestrials do or do not exist. Advancements in technology through the development of the telescope, space flight, spectroscope, radio astronomy and so forth, have helped us to gain more knowledge on the topic.
Even though the aperture size of telescope increased, thanks to the contributions of pioneers like Percival Lowell, the argument for the canals on Mars was not dissuaded until observations were made outside of Earth's hemisphere. Astrophysics has told scientists what other stars and planets are made of and their ability to support life, but still cannot tell us whether life exists there. Space crafts and probes have allowed us to put man, and cameras, into space and on the moon, but limitations on actual space travel due to time restraints, cost, and the vast amount of space between planets prevents us from traveling even to Mars. With these limitations, it is impossible to visit other planets to try to discover life, hindering the progress of such a search. It could be many,many years before anything significant might be found but we may not know how to test it.
On Earth, the tenets of natural law and application of scientific testing through falsifiability are inherent truths to understanding. This methodological application through empirical science with the assumption of natural law may be flawed in its application to the search for extraterrestrial life, because life as we know it may not exist elsewhere and the same laws may not apply there as well. Therefore, science may not be the most effective way to solve the question of extraterrestrial life, since it has yet to come to any full conclusions about the problem. Science seems to have just futhered the debate by a little but not by much. Furthermore, religion does not solve the problem with concrete evidence because it deals with the supernatural which cannot be empirically tested. Religion relies on full faith in a deity/intelligent creator and revolutionary experiences that cannot be empirically tested.
SETI is the most dedicated search right now for discovering advanced life and spends massive amounts of money on this task. However, their search is limited to those life forms that could send out a signal that could reach Earth. SETI, however, is useless in detecting the possible existence of non-intelligent extraterrestrial life. There might possibly be life that exists on another planet but is not what we consider intelligent. In truth, if we want to discover any form of extraterrestrial life except highly intelligent and communicative beings, we as a race need to expand our physical horizon and actually examine planets with landers or even astronauts. With the combined effort of the SETI program and advances in space travel, we might be able to have a better advantage in finding life in the universe if it does indeed exist.
Conversely, attempts to prove that extraterrestrials do not exist have done very little, if anything to prove their theory. Whewell and Wallace made scientific arguments against plurality but they were not successful in their efforts either. They both presented logical reasons that make the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence less likely, but the search continues. In the future, there are sure to be more arguments both for and against these arguments. With further advances in technology and knowledge, scientists hope to find a more definitive answer in the future. Currently, however, the answers to the extraterrestrial debate represent science at its limits, and may possibly continue to do so indefinitely.
New ideas about the origin of life were thought to help provide answers to the question of plurality. No matter how the argument was made—design, chance or scaffolding—they still cannot answer the question of our life so there is no way to apply it to extraterrestrial life. The origin of life debate is one that uses scientific experiments and studies to test, just like the search for extraterrestrial life. However, neither of these issues have been solved, showing that science may not be the solution to our question. Due to the large size of our universe and near-infinite amount of time it has and will exist, there will always be the possibility of another "intelligent" life form evolving. Until we find it, or come up with proof that it simply cannot exist, however, we will not be able to put to rest the debate on the existence of extraterrestrial life, because the debate is not falsifiable.
(Previous Page) Part 7: The Goldilocks Enigma
The elements of the transformation
The fact that people are spending more time in front of a computer monitor has begun to make computer users acutely aware of the way in which their “working space” is defined around computing devices and peripherals. Users of the Internet need to imagine and conceptualize the real life space that they must inhabit to be able to “live” in the cyberspace of the Internet. These spaces indeed become the defining parameters of the Internet and cyberspace. This relationship is exemplified in a somewhat fanciful definition of cyberspace that Benedikt has proposed:
Accessed through any computer linked to the system; a place, once place, limitless; entered equally from a basement in Vancouver, a boat in Port-au-Prince, a cab in New York, a garage in Texas City, an apartment in Rome, an office in Hong Kong, a bar in Kyoto, a café in Kinhasa, a laboratory on the Moon (Benedikt, 2000).
What is interesting to note here is that in trying to define the limitless place the author necessarily places the user of cyberspace in well-defined geographic spaces. The value of cyberspace within this definition lies precisely in the fact that it can be accessed from any place on earth. However, this ability itself begins to redefine the individual's relationship with real space. Indeed, if entering cyberspace becomes critical to one's existence then there will necessarily be consequent transformations of how one looks at real life: the value of a physical location is predicated upon its user-friendliness in allowing the “user” to enter the virtual. It is thus amusing to watch users gravitating towards electric outlets in airports to power up the laptop and use the wireless modem to connect to the Internet. The Internet is thus beginning to transform how we look at and design the real spaces we are forced to inhabit.
This notion of redesigning is also demonstrated in the plethora of “computer work station” advertisements that enter American homes with the Sunday newspapers. These advertisements are geared to providing a new form of home and office furnishing that will make the interaction between the computer and the human being more comfortable and “ergonomic” by providing creative solutions to storage of monitors, keyboards, the computer tower and all the other accessories that make it possible for a user to enter cyberspace. This tendency to transform spaces as well as the representation of the spaces has permeated to spaces such as airplanes, with airlines now advertising the ability to connect to the Internet, albeit through limited services, so that even when we might be moving from one geographic place to another we do not loose our connection to our usual virtual places. Airline seats are being wired to let us connect to the Internet even when we are thirty thousand feet above sea level.
In addition to new furniture designs and Internet-enabled airline seats, another outcome of the desire to redefine and redesign one's real life space is the way in which we are beginning to reengineer our everyday living spaces to gain easy access to the Internet. Witness, for instance, the way in which real life spaces are constantly being transformed to make sure there are ubiquitous and efficient access to the Internet. Universities are going through expensive restructuring to make classrooms wired so that students can easily plug in and play on the Internet, sitting in any seat in any classroom. In a similar fashion, home design is undergoing transformation as new homes are wired for the net with Ethernet outlets being provided to complement the existing electrical, telephone and cable television outlets that are now standard in most homes. Although most new houses do not qualify as “smart homes,” there is certainly a move towards rethinking how we define our lived real spaces to accommodate our desire and need to enter the virtual space of the Internet. The expansion of broadband technologies of cable modems has been accompanied by marketing of home networks where the key argument has been the ability to enter the virtual from anywhere in the home or workplace, and to do it even faster. At the more macroscopic level, some countries are offering free Internet service to anyone in the country who has a telephone subscription. In brief, there is an increasing trend to rethink how we construct the real spaces, and our relationship with real space, so that we can easily access the virtual place.
At the same time, the redefinition of the real space has been accompanied by a desire to free ourselves from the bondage of wired connections and bulky computers by the diffusion of wireless and handheld devices that help us to connect to the virtual space without being constantly tethered to real spaces. The language of advertisements for such Internet-enabled personal digital assistants and cell phones makes the fundamental argument that we can rethink our relationship with real space to better accommodate our existence in the virtual space. As imagined by Benedikt, advertisers claim precisely that technology must be designed in a way that real space does not become a deterrent to access to the virtual space.
In a recent advertisement for a personal digital assistant the copy claims, “take the Net with you. Simply amazing.” The accompanying picture shows a person in a tropical paradise clearly not tethered to a computer in am office cubicle. In a similar fashion, an Internet-ready cell phone is shown for the advertisement of an online brokerage house where the copy argues, “even when you are on the move, you can manage your accounts, get market updates.” Here too the fundamental claim is that the Internet and accompanying hardware will redefine what we can do from where we are physically. The notion of getting “lost” that was so fundamental to the way in which we have conceived of space is now passé, since the real is there as if to facilitate entry into the virtual. Indeed, the threat of “being lost” is a central selling point for on-board navigation systems in luxury cars; they will always tell you where you are in real life because the car is connected to the virtual. Because of the seamless relationship between the real and the virtual, one never be physically lost again, at least in theory. The penetration of the virtual into the real is exemplified in the description of a new product called “cuff link” which “opens up new uses, like clothing-as-navigation device. This bike messenger's jacket displays a street map and tracks its wearer's progress via GPS (Hilner & Comer, 2001).”
There is a certain contradiction within this emerging relationship. The technologies are geared to provide us with constant reminders of where we are and then make that location irrelevant to who we are and what we can do. Thus a wireless phone advertisement reminds us that it does not matter where we are, but we can still be doing what we want to do, while a GPS advertisement for a handheld computer is geared to remind us where we are. The combination of the cell phone and the GPS thus tells us that we might know precisely where we are but choose to completely ignore the significance of the location. This contradiction can be partly understood when cyberspace is conceptualized as a discursive space (Mitra, 1999) where the key defining element of the space are the texts and discourses distributed in the rhizomatic computer network. Within such a discursive space the notion of boundary becomes irrelevant. The interconnected nature of the technology, with broadband connections in homes and offices, and fiber optic and satellite connections between widely distributed nodes, makes the discourses on the Internet available to anyone who has redesigned real space to gain net access. To be sure, this access requires minimal technological capital, but once that capital is available, users can immediately disconnect from the real space to enter the discursive world of cyberspace. At that moment of entry, the boundaries dissolve and real space recedes into a mere shell that needs to be occupied to reside in cyberspace. Consequently terms such as “business without boundaries” and “wide area networks” have become common parlance of the Internet where the limitations of the real space can be overcome seamlessly with clicks of the cursor. A little time on the World Wide Web (WWW) makes this process abundantly clear, where within seconds a user can move between texts that might reside in computers stretched across the globe while focusing on one single theme. As Negroponte (1995) pointed out, we have now moved from the atom-based real space to the bit-based virtual space where the movement of bits is far more unrestricted than the more cumbersome transportation of atoms over great distances. Yet we remain fundamentally atom-based beings placed in an atom-based environment. Because of this we are constantly reminded of the contradictions inherent in living with one foot in the atom-based reality and another foot in the bit-based virtuality.
Another consequence of the schizophrenic existence is the way in which the significance of the political, geographic and national location, essential elements of real life, is problematized when an individual can enter the discursive cyberspace. Even with the technological limitations of the two-dimensional computer monitor, residents of cyberspace can begin to ask the question: what difference does real life location make in defining a particular experience? To some degree live television broadcasts opened up this question much earlier. Live sports telecasts and coverage of unfolding news calls into question the need to be “right there” when the event is happening. However, the Internet moves it away from the realm of the “mass” media to a more personalized realm of “being there” when a very personal event is happening. Consider, for instance, the explosion in live cameras in various places connected to the Internet. The web camera technology, first popularized by pornographic sites, soon caught on when other spaces, such as elementary school dining rooms, class rooms, and traffic intersections could be viewed from any Internet-connected computer, thus making the significance of real location of both the points in real space become relatively meaningless as the real spaces, which could be separated by thousands of miles, become seamlessly connected in cyberspace. As a consequence, we would argue, real space can become irrelevant in certain circumstances.
Consequences of the transformations
As the representations in popular culture begin to define cyberspace, its promises, and its relationship with real space, a set of tensions have began to develop about our relationship with the real and the people who surround us in real life. First, there has been some evidence that the infatuation with the virtual can indeed alter the relationship with the real. In a groundbreaking research from Carnegie Mellon University, it was claimed that increasing use of the Internet can lead to social isolation, psychological depression and a disconnect with existing real relationships (Kraut, et. al., 1998). The findings of these researchers are not necessarily consistent with the promise of a “good life” via ubiquitous connectivity with the virtual world. The popular representations would have the user believe that connectivity will intrinsically improve the quality of life with such conveniences as chat rooms and instant messengers. Why then the isolation and depression reported in Carnegie Mellon study? Perhaps the missing piece of the puzzle is the way in which the new technologies expect us to privilege the virtual space over the real. As suggested earlier, there is a concerted effort to redesign our lived real spaces to release us from the lived space. Thus, it is possible to argue that entering the Internet is necessarily a process of rejecting the real spaces and all of the appendages that come with it.
Thinking of this relationship, Heim (1993) suggested that the idealized virtual reality and cyberspace would be able to take the user beyond the mundane “real” reality albeit programming within the virtual certain essential elements of the real, particularly the construct of care. In Heim's words, “care will always belong to human agents, but with the help of intelligent agents, care will weigh on us more lightly (Heim, 1993).” Perhaps that development of “intelligent agents” is further into the future, thus anchoring care solidly in the real spaces we occupy and not the virtual spaces we explore. Indeed, the notion of care offers a way to link the findings from the Carnegie Mellon study and the notion of real space, since the lack of care in the virtual could indeed be the reason for the isolation. What the virtual space allows is a simulation of care, which could lead to the psychological isolation eventually causing depression precisely because the Internet alters our relationships with the real lived world and space. The real spaces move into the background and the virtual becomes important. Yet, there we fail to find the “care” and acknowledgment fundamental to human existence. Indeed, as Hyde and Mitra (2000) point out, the notion of seeing a “face” and seeking acknowledgment is an essential element of human existence and our continued existence in the virtual is beginning to transform the emotional relationship with the real spaces, ultimately leading to some of the psychological impact that Kraut and others report.
A second consequence of the alteration of the relations between the real and virtual is the way in which the popular cultural discourse can privilege one space over the other. This is not to say that the virtual necessarily takes precedence over the real, because there are enough arguments about resisting the desire to live in the virtual (Brook & Boal, 1995). However, there are equally convincing arguments to embrace the virtual and reject the real because the real space constructs monumental walls and boundaries discouraging interaction (see, e.g., Shaw, 1997). What emerges is a tension between the real and the virtual. The tension can eventually lead to questioning of the walls and boundaries of real space since they would continue to appear arbitrary and ideological while the cyberspace would appear to be more personalized and friendly. It does not, for instance, require a visa to travel between web sites of international art galleries while that would be impossible to do without a series of obstacles that will have to be crossed in real life. It costs little to obtain news from across the globe on various news sites, but that would be a challenge to do in real life without the expenditure of significant resources. Examples such as this begin to call into question the veracity of the relationship between the real spaces and the individual making that relationship somewhat limiting compared to the open ended potential of the broadening of space offered by the Internet.
At some point in the future, the debate about the preference of one space over another will have to be settled since the outcome can have significant political, social and cultural impact. The resolution will have to consider the way in which the spaces interact with one another without necessarily trying to establish which is more important or central to our existence within popular culture. Consider for instance, the way in which the arguments about pornography on the Internet have been wrought with problems of “enforcement” and “definition,” where different countries have taken on different ways in which they have defined pornography and its availability on the Internet. What this debate, like many others, has demonstrated is the relationship between the real and the virtual, and the need to understand these together, as a new synthetic space, in order to begin to resolve some of the questions that come up simultaneously in the real and the virtual. In the next section we suggest a way to think about such a synthetic space.