Hostility toward outsiders reached a breaking point this year in the United States, with the Donald Trump administration seeking to bar entry to people from predominantly Muslim countries, and threatening to severely curtail the number of refugees the country shelters from conflicts and crises around the globe. Similar tensions have played out elsewhere too, as more countries close their doors to refugees, and the U.K. prepares to separate from the European Union under the leadership of an isolationist administration.
If our planet is this inhospitable to its own inhabitants, says the experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats, just think about the message we must be sending to extraterrestrial life.
Keats, an artist and thinker whose work–like this “car of the future” that functions almost like an extension of the human body–aims to challenge our preconceived notions about the way the world works, and the possibilities contained within it, has spent quite a bit of time pondering the Fermi paradox. First posed in 1950 by the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, the paradox asks: Given the likelihood of other intelligent life forms scattered throughout the galaxy, where are they? And why haven’t they paid Earth a visit?
Various theories have abounded to try to solve the paradox–one, put forth by Stephen Hawking, supposes that other civilizations haven’t advertised their presence because to do so would put them at risk for attack. Keats thinks otherwise. “To me, this is really more a reflection on our own society,” Keats tells Fast Company. “That is to say, if I were an alien, I wouldn’t feel all that welcome here.”
To send the signal that extraterrestrial life is welcome on Earth, Keats has created, for his latest project, a series of cosmic welcome mats. One will be displayed at the Adelaide Convention Centre during the International Astronautical Congress, beginning September 26; smaller versions of all four mats will rest at various entrances to the nearby Flinders University.
“Welcome mats are the universal technology for extending a sense of welcome,” Keats says. They’re a departure from the scant other attempts to send a message to extraterrestrial life, which, like the Voyager Golden Records, were meant to communicate the essence of humankind and life on Earth. They were not, Keats says, an invitation, which is what he’s aiming for. But to ensure that a sense of openness and belonging could be conveyed to life forms whose language and customs and physicality are entirely unknown, Keats had to abandon our cultural iconography and devise a more universal message. “A true universality is probably unattainable,” Keats says, “but you can approach it.”
The underlying of the mats is: You are welcome here. “You,” in this case, appears as an amorphous red blob, meant to represent the extraterrestrial visitor. Here, Keats was careful to avoid our stereotypes of “little green men” and instead gravitated toward something that was “as far from anything identifiable on our planet as possible” to leave open the potential for interpretation. “Welcome” is communicated by the blob’s ability to fit into its surroundings—the four mat designs represent, in turn, the concepts of fitting, stretching, growing, and shifting, to convey different permutations of how our Earth can accommodate new life forms.
On the mats, the point of entry into Earth’s atmosphere is depicted as a sky-blue shape that mirrors the red blob, and the background gradates from a similar sky-blue to violet, to symbolizes the blob’s journey from the atmosphere to the interior of the building where the mat is housed. The border of the mat is black, to evoke the space the alien traveled through.
For this project, Keats has partnered with Alice Gorman, a professor at Flinders University who specializes in the emerging field of space archaeology. Gorman studies material deposits from satellites and other celestial bodies to understand the history of the cosmos. Over the course of the weeklong Astronautical Congress, Gorman and her students will analyze material deposits on the mats to be able to see who and what crosses the mats, and if any of the sediment can be assigned cosmic origins.
Keats eventually hopes to install mats at other significant junctures, like the International Space Station and the entrance to the United Nations in New York City; a version of the map will also be on display at the STATE Festival in Los Angeles in October, which focuses on the intersection of science, technology, and culture. But he also has begun to visualize a world in which one of these mats exists in front of every door, as a force against the xenophobia developing within humanity. The mats’ abstract designs, he says, acknowledge the limits of our ability to communicate adequately with each other, and reinforce a sense of hospitality and welcome that, even if we feel we are offering, does not always come clearly across. “Essentially, we’re all aliens, and we’re all alienating each other,” Keats says. “This can be a message to overcome that.”