From the dawn of time human beings have gazed into the starry skies and wondered, ‘Are we being watched?’ The ancient Greeks, in their classically infinite wisdom answered: ‘Yes! And by a Bear! Just there, can’t you see it?’ A sentiment that endured through the centuries until Copernicus’ infamous rejoinder: ‘No. Wha- A bear??’ In the years following this Copernican Revolution, we were informed quite conclusively by eminent men such as Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and John Lennon that we were not in fact under the observation of ursine astrological powers. And that, despite the briefly popular pro-bear resurgence led by Timothy Leary, was, until very recently, the final word on the matter.
Early this year, respected astrophysicist, and onetime lauded Antibearian, Stephen Hawking announced on the basis of a total lack of new and compelling evidence, that the nightly intuition felt for eons by humans under this great firmament was not amiss. We are being watched, and not by bears. Nor scorpions, nor anthro-equines, no: we are being watched by extraterrestrial intelligences of a totally new and unknown type.
Scientists immediately after (which is to say a half-century prior to) the momentous announcement began speculating on the characteristics and qualities of these hitherto (and as yet) unknown beings. The first conclusion reached was that, obviously, they would know nothing about us. The second conclusion reached, more obvious yet, was that surely they would want to. And the third conclusion – but what could be more obvious? – was that action must be taken to rectify this intergalactic oversight, and just the body to take such action was the New Mexico based group NASA (Not Affiliated with Scientists At all).
With admirable fervour NASA sprang into action; collecting, collating and broadcasting to the stars what was thought to be a representative collection of the gems of human culture, drawn primarily from network television.
To this Stephen Hawking objected that he had explicitly warned against contact with alien cultures as they would undoubtedly rape and pillage our planet once having joined the ever-growing ranks of those un-amused by Friends.
But a second, far more serious objection, voiced by the search for extraterrestrial intelligence union known colloquially as SETI (Single Emaciated Teen losing Interest), was that even assuming an alien civilisations could receive and understand our messages, would this truly give them an accurate picture of human life? And shouldn’t we really show more Star Trek on channel 7?
It is in answer to this crucially important question: ‘Does network television accurately represent the human condition?’ that I write this article.
In addition to inventing the obscene joke, the renowned psychologist Sigmund Freud is known to have remarked: ‘Work and Love are the cornerstones of our humanness.’ Founding our credibility, somewhat arbitrarily, on this great man’s legacy we begin this investigation of our humanity and its entertainment value with these two innately human categories, the first of which is Work.
For thousands of years the great human labour has been farming. From Odysseus and his plough-oar to the infamous Enclosure Act or Okonkwo and his yam fetish, humanity was born and raised in the soil. Thankfully we’ve left this behind us. We have, finally and with every bit of the expected relief, scorn and muted indignation, crawled out from this proverbial basement bedroom of our parents, left the business of planting etc. to industrial machines and illegal immigrants, and gotten, in the parlance of the time, real jobs. In pursuit of this elusive work, we turn to the eponymous NBC spin-off of the BBC’s The Office.
An alien spectator to the Office would immediately deduce three things about humanity: 1. ‘Work’ is not so much an activity as a place. 2. Insofar as ‘Work’ is an activity it must take place only off camera. And 3. Whereas sex, sleep and defecation also only take place off camera, logically ‘Work’ must be something somewhat discreet, and unlike sex and sleep, must be too obscene even to be mentioned in polite company.
Extraterrestrials would supplement their theories with references to Seinfeld, Arrested Development, the movies Office Space, and Monty Python’s the Meaning of Life, and pirated footage form airport security cameras. The evidence will overwhelmingly bear out the thesis that: Work, like sex and defecation, is necessary to human life and yet socially problematic, with the one caveat that it can be done in public if everyone in the vicinity resolutely pretends not to notice.
A semi-popular bumper sticker, presumably visible from space, reads: ‘Do not live to work, work to live.’ Following the preceding logic, an alien intelligence would translate this epigram thus: ‘Do not live to [expletive deleted], [expletive deleted] to live.’ After making allowances for the paradoxical nature of the human organism, the extraterrestrial would undoubtedly conclude that everything of consequence in the human reproductive cycle occurs in the work place, and alien anthropologists would return to archival footage of the Office with renewed scrutiny.
As luck would have it for our over-worked, under-appreciated alien equivalent of Jeff Goldblum’s character in Independence Day, the human race is even more simply summed up on this score than on the last. Indeed, evidence is hardly necessary, everything points in only one direction.
Human reality operates upon stringently hierarchical class principles, the only indication of rank and distinction being ‘Love’. ‘Love’ is a relationship [otherwise unspecified] between primarily one man and one woman, but also between two men, or occasionally between one man and a room full of victims. The hierarchy of being is established as follows
Those mutually loving but for reasons uncontrollable by them unable to enact love are fully Human, they are developed individuals experiencing the full range of human emotion and they carry on extensive dialogic relationships with their surroundings.
Below these are those humans who love an abstract ideal or group of people, these are semi-human, they experience only caricatured emotions and typically develop superficial bonds and relationships. They exist primarily to fill specific pre-defined roles, or for humourous purposes.
And the lowest on the scale are those who love nothing, these are subhuman to the point of inhumanity, they have undeveloped often entirely undifferentiated characters, experience no obvious emotion and form few if any relationships. They exist as plot devices, for dramatic purposes, and to be killed or ‘fired’ in order to induce feelings of tension in the Humans.
They will supplement their findings with evidence from the television show Lost, and competing interpretations will be considered academic.
[Appendix to Love: It has recently come to the author’s attention that a group rivalling NASA, the Human Initiative for the Preservation and Protection of Intelligent Extraterrestrials, has launched a competing project. In order to give alien peoples a fully representative picture of, not just the human race, but our planet earth, HIPPIE is projecting into space pre-recorded animal, plant and environmental noises. Among these noises: whale song, rain on the leaves, and the savannah at night. The author wonders if HIPPIE will include in their broadcasts sounds from the human world, in the interest of providing as accurate and unbiased a picture as possible. Recommended noises include: sporting games, traffic accidents and human lovemaking, despite concerns on the part of marine biologists that the latter may cause confusion vis-à-vis whale song.]
Not since William Shatner left Star Trek has Humanity had such compelling reason to turn skyward in search of new television audiences, and it is the belief of this writer that they will not go unsatisfied. The Nation’s top experts in fields as diverse as Ufology and Scientology have carefully selected the treasures of human civilisation and are even now beaming them into space for undoubtedly rapt extraterrestrial audiences, and as I hope has been demonstrated here, close attention is obviously being paid to crafting our first impression.
If Stephen Hawking’s calculations are correct (he promises to let us know when he finds the figures) centuries of astrological, cosmological, mythological and even theological shameless attention seeking may soon come to an end.
Justin Rogers is a travel-weary Existentialist, and anachronistic cultural commentator, educated in fragments, everywhere from the North East through the Middle East to the Far East and back again, with interludes in places west of things, where he has studied everything from Anthropology and Journalism to Religion and Philosophy. He divides his time evenly between his home in Claremont, California and Elsewhere.