Today’s Golden Record

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Shortly before I dropped my son off at Caltech for his freshman year, Voyager 1 left our solar system and entered interstellar space. Interstellar space is where scientists in 1977 hoped that aliens would someday discover the Golden Record they attached to the side of the spacecraft. I had the opportunity to visit Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory where Voyager was assembled. On display was a replica of the spacecraft and the Golden Record.

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The Golden Record contains information that a team of scientists thought aliens should know about our world. They spent six weeks deciding what was most significant about life on Earth in 1977. President Jimmy Carter contributed a message: “This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.” The team was limited to selecting around 100 pictures that depicted our civilization, including various shots of landscapes and people. They included the sounds of a humpback whale and of Carl Sagan’s laughter. In 55 different languages, they recorded greetings from our planet. Chuck Berry’s song, Johnny B. Goode, represented popular music from Earth.

Once Voyager 1 can no longer send information about interstellar space back to Earth, its sole mission will be to have alien life intercept the Golden Record. The metal composition of the record is designed to last at least two billion years. But even if aliens intercepted the Golden Record in 2019, successfully deciphered it, and followed the included map to Earth, I’m concerned that, upon arrival, they would ask an Earthling for directions to get to the kinder and gentler planet of 1977 portrayed on the record.

Even though I was a kid, I have a good memory and recall that life wasn’t anywhere near perfect in 1977. People like Archie Bunker were all around me. Children rode around in the back of pick-ups and played with a toy called “Klackers” that were used as nunchucks without adults showing much concern. But I still wish I could follow a map back to the people of the 1970s. Earthlings of that era seemed united by the question of whether or not there was alien life “out there,” instead of being divided over preventing human aliens from penetrating political borders like they are today. I want to go back to when people saw the value in investing in space exploration, instead of investing in walls that do nothing to advance our civilization.

If we ever have a government again that views investing in space exploration as a priority, instead of preserving power for men who resemble Archie Bunker, I hope that we could send an additional Golden Record to interstellar space to represent the world as I see it in 2019. Then aliens could choose whether or not it would be in their best interest to interact with today’s people of Earth.

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If I were part of a team constructing a current Golden Record, I would be very honest in my portrayal of Earth. When I travel to new places I know I appreciate honest assessments from people who have been there. I want to be made aware of filth and bed bugs before I stay somewhere, and I bet aliens do too.  I would make sure the record contained the music of R. Kelly. It would include photos of: people staring at their phones instead of looking at one another; all the plastic that permanently vacations in South Point on Hawaii’s Big Island; metal detectors on American school grounds; the children that Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad gasses to hold onto power; blood-stained robes of Buddhist monks in Mogadishu. I would devote the majority of the record to sounds because I’ve heard a lot of new ones over the last couple years: cracking ice shelves on our warming globe; the sound of Al Franken groaning as Kirsten Gillibrand steps on him under the guise of the Me Too movement to elevate herself; British Parliament fighting with Theresa May over a Brexit she is promoting but never wanted in the first place; children crying as they sit in cages near America’s southern political border; the sound of Brett Kavanaugh crying during his confirmation hearings; hackers in China, North Korea, and Russia shouting Yes! as they successfully penetrate vulnerable systems; Hillary Clinton’s scream as the American electoral process was hijacked; and Vladimir Putin chuckling because he knows he is the true leader/puppet master of this planet.

If this circa 2019 Golden Record was intercepted by aliens how would they react to our world today?  Personally, I’m embarrassed for our world. I’m ashamed that humankind has devolved in so many ways. It seems that the more information we have access to, the more ignorant some of us have become. I don’t feel I can trust fellow humankind to interact with aliens respectfully if contact is made.

I think if a Golden Record was sent today, it might be appropriate to include this message: “We Earthlings have looked to the United States of America and its democracy for world leadership. Somewhere along the way the compass of human decency changed its tilt. Now we are all slipping and are simply attempting to hang on and survive. Most of us are so self-absorbed and unable to consider the global impact of our actions that you can expect that we have completely annihilated one another long before you intercept this message.”

On the original Golden Record, the team included: “Through hardships to the stars” in Morse code. I think that really sums up the attitude of the 1970s. Despite the problems of the era, for the most part, leaders, scientists, and artists remained focused on loftier matters, instead of focusing on who they could keep from sharing in the comfort and safety that they experienced. People of the past remained hopeful that the world could become a better place as technological advancements were being made. I’m having difficulty seeing where the focal point of this world is in 2019—or the hope—because there’s so much chaos and devastation.

I used to look at the stars in the night sky a lot as a child, and I would feel happy as I dreamed about the future. As I try to survive our time, that’s where my focus is going to be in 2019 and beyond. And my mind will be on Voyager 1 as I hope that aliens do intercept the Golden Record and find their way to Earth. We could use some better creatures on this planet.

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