“the proudest products of our little world”

Ah, the “who speaks for Earth?” parlour game. It’s up there with “which historical figure would you like to have for dinner” and “if you could be a fictional character for a day” for entertaining displays of merrily frivolous erudition. Who—drawing, if we like, from all human history—should be our representatives to an alien civilization? What, in our fantasy, would the aliens appreciate, and who embodies those qualities? Danny Inouye? Lyudmila Pavlichenko? Honinbo Sansa? Sappho? Eratosthenes? Josephine Baker? Emmy Noether? Malcolm X? Alan Turing? Ahmes? Yoko Kanno? Srinivasa Ramanujan?

And what do our choices say about ourselves, about the way we codify canons and build cultural capital?

Per this entertaining development, I’m reminded of something the science writer Timothy Ferris once wrote:

Imagine that we here on Earth have made contact with an interstellar network and have downloaded thousands of simulations from its memory banks. All over the planet people are putting on VR helmets and immersing themselves in the art, culture, and science of alien worlds. We in turn have uplinked whole libraries’ worth of Bach, Beethoven, Shakespeare, Lao Tzu, Homer, Van Gogh and Rembrandt, Newton and Einstein, Darwin and Watson and Crick, the proudest products of our little world. Yet we appreciate that our wisdom and science are limited, our art to some degree provincial. There may be an audience somewhere among the stars for Virgil and Dante and Kubrick and Kurosawa, just as there may be some humans who genuinely enjoy the poetry of the crystalline inhabitants of Ursa Major AC+ 79 3888, but it is apt to be a limited audience. Our movies and plays are not likely to find a wide popular following in the Milky Way galaxy—any more than many humans settling down on the sofa after dinner are likely to watch an infrasonic opera that lasts ten years, the cast of which are alien invertebrates who dine on live spiders.

And the solution?

The answer, I suggest, is nature itself, the raw reality of our unique world. Here, in the sands and waves and wind, the incomparable birds and bears and snakes in the grass, lies the bedrock of our common ground with all other living beings in the universe. […] There are is almost certainly no willow tree in the galaxy exactly like the willow I see outside my window, no field of wildflowers identical to those on the distant hillside, no sky just like the skies over Montana or Montenegro.

Ferris goes on to suggest that the primary use of interstellar bandwidth would be interactive simulations based on broad-spectrum recordings of planets’ natural environments.

Who speaks for Earth? If it must be a singular intelligence, perhaps we’d better go with a tour guide.

[Quotations from The Mind’s Sky (1992).]