Tuesday, March 5, 2013

What Aliens Taught Me About Technology

Yesterday my astronomy II class was talking about life in the universe. Usually, this end-of-the-semester topic revolved around how aliens are going to kill us or how stupid Jar Jar Binks is. Yesterday surprised me.

I was going through the math on something called the Drake Equation. Dr. Frank Drake created a set of variables that allows a person to estimate how many alien civilizations there are in our galaxy. It starts with how many stars there are in the Milky Way, then has you estimate how many of those stars have planets, then how many habitable planets, etc. In the end you are supposed to come up with a number for how many alien species are out there that utilize technology great enough for us to have contact with them. (My class came up with 180,000,000 and we were pretty conservative).

Anyway, one of these variables is the percentage of intelligent species that use technology. The students had already narrowed their search down to planets with intelligent life. Now I asked them what percentage of intelligent species would develop technology. My surprise came when all 17 of these juniors and seniors emphatically said 100%. Intelligent species can not avoid the use of technology. How telling is that?

Technology permeates our student's lives so fully that they could not even fathom it not evolving. They are so in tune with the advancements in technology, that they take it as second nature. To them technology is not a set of things, but a fluid, ever-changing, and evolving part of their culture. They get it! Why are we so worried about teaching them what they already know.

Our conversation then revolved around how technology arose on our planet. After apes began banging nuts on rocks, they found out sharper rocks worked better, and then tools made it even easier. We talked about the rise of culture. Looking around the globe, different cultures developed their technology completely independently of each other. The Egyptians developed their hieroglyphics completely separated from the Chinese or the Mayans of South America. All of these cultures developed a written language, farming, engineering, and religious structures.

After about ten minutes of discussion, they had me convinced that technology is inevitable with an intelligent species. Carl Sagan, a hero of mine, once spoke of our age as a technological adolescence. He worried that we were playing with technology like kids playing with toys. He worries about us blowing ourselves up, which incidentally is the last variable in the Drake Equation.

Our schools are probably in the pre-pubescent stage. We have just been given these tools with little instruction on how to integrate them. We know that just like an alien culture, we can not avoid its use, but will we blow ourselves up before the culture of our school can cope. Changes in school culture is a slow, grinding process that takes years to develop. Technology will not wait for us.