Despite what the textbooks might have us believe, our current understanding of the universe is a small island in a vast ocean of ignorance. The scientific enterprise has to do with the extent of the island’s land mass.

And it is pleasant to indulge in the activity of collecting knowledge; learning anything ahead of time would have been much more tedious. Even knowing suddenly the discoveries of an alien world that has been scientifically and technologically researching billions of years, unlike our few decades, would be surprising.

This concept was codified by the eminent science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke in the third of his three laws: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” In other words, the representatives of such a society would appear to us to be a close approximation of God.

An encounter with a piece of sophisticated technical equipment created by an extraterrestrial civilization can be compared to an imaginary encounter between ancient cave dwellers and a modern mobile phone. They would initially misunderstand it as a glowing rock, failing to recognize it as a communication device.

The same may have occurred in response to the first sighting of an extraterrestrial visitor to the solar system, ‘Oumuamua, which displayed six unusual properties but was nevertheless seen as a rock by conventional astronomers.

Since most advanced equipment is likely to be small, it will only be recognized in the darkness of space when it gets close enough to our nearest streetlight, the sun. We may be looking for electronic “keys” under this lamppost, but most of them will go unnoticed if you pass by too quickly.

More fundamentally, one might wonder if we are capable of recognizing technologies that we did not create. After all, these technologies can serve subtle functions, such as mobile phone contact signals, that a cave dweller would not see.

Is there something we’re missing right now?


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