A new paper (PDF) submitted to the journal Space Policy lays out a framework for constructing better messages. For example, the authors suggest sending proposed messages to different cultures, in order to weed out culturally specific information. The approach outlined in the paper may or may not have merit, but the underlying assumption is fundamentally flawed.
We are in a very small technological window where we can send and receive information encoded in electromagnetic waves, but cannot build atomically precise machines. If we could, then sending radio or laser messages would be far less efficient than sending tiny, self-replicating probes at near-lightspeed. Packed with information at atomic density, such probes could carry with them a significant portion of our cultural identity. More importantly, they could carry intelligences to act as ambassadors. The advantage of sending out actual emissaries as opposed to pure information is huge on astronomical scales, where even light takes years to travel between the closest stars.
It's probable that our small technological window exists for other civilizations as well. So, even if we assume a benevolent, communicative alien civilization exists close to Earth (close in astronomical terms, <100 light years); it's still unlikely our messages will do any good. We must further assume that the alien civilization is in the same 100 to 200 year technological window as we. For us, that's hundreds of years out of the millions of years it's taken to evolve modern human beings.
Should we send messages to hypothetical alien civilizations? If we just want to signal our far values, then sure. But if we value the act of communication itself, we should only send messages if they stand a reasonable chance of facilitating understanding between us and another civilization.
Sending messages to the stars is like buying a lottery ticket. We expend some small quantity of resources to make token attempts at winning an unknown (but presumably large) jackpot at very long odds. The resources we expend are wasted. And like lotteries, our efforts are also a waste of hope.
HT: George Dvorsky
HT: George Dvorsky