Frequently Asked Questions about John Chambers

When I removed the link to my FAQ.html file, I actually got several complaints, believe it or not. So I decided to write another one.

First, I should note that there are a number of other guys around on the net using the name "John Chambers". We're not all the same! You are welcome to try collecting us all. But I don't speak for them, and they don't speak for me.

The main point to a personal FAQ, as I see it, is to take care of all those questions that people are always asking you at parties and such. With a FAQ, you can simply give people the URL, tell them to read it at their leisure, and go on to more interesting topics. Of course, some people like telling others the same details about their lives over and over and over; if you are one of those, you probably shouldn't have a FAQ file. But I prefer to talk about new things, so I wrote this to answer all the usual questions. And to have a little fun.

What do you do for a living?
I'm an anthropologist. I'm here on this planet studying humans.
You're not from this planet?
Lots of friends have figured this out, so why keep it a secret?
Which planet did you come from?
You've never heard of it. And the human vocal apparatus can't pronounce its name correctly, so it wouldn't help to tell you. Actually, I didn't really start life on a planet as such, but that's being overly picky. You can't see the star from here without a powerful telescope, and it's just a number in astronomers' catalogs, so it doesn't much matter.
Are there many aliens here on Earth?
No, the entire group is only a few dozen researchers. The Earth really doesn't qualify for a large effort. We really do wish we had sufficient funding for a more thorough study, but you know how hard it can be to get money for research that most intelligent creatures consider irrelevant to their daily lives.
I would think that we humans were a rather boring, common sort of creature. Why would anyone come here to study us?
True, humans are a rather common type of intelligent creature, and most research is on the unusual species. But humans are now at a critical stage in their development, one which typically doesn't last long, and it's important to get information at this stage. Most species don't survive this stage, and for those which have survived, we don't actually have sufficient data to fully explain why they survived while most others didn't. If humans wipe themselves out, as is likely, we'd like to at least collect good data on just how and why it happens. Maybe this can be useful in helping others in the future survive this stage.
Stage of development?
You know; the transition from non-technical primitive to member of the galactic society or whatever your sci-fi writers call it these days.
So there is a galactic society?
Not really, but it's a useful phrase. There are lots of advanced societies out there. They get along pretty well, but they mostly mind their own affairs. There's no need for much high-level organization in something as diffuse as a galaxy full of species that are wildly different in their needs.
So how long have you been here?
Around 250 years. I've had to switch to new bodies every few decades, of course. Some of our researchers have been here for several thousand years. I'm part of a new crew of technical researchers. We came here because about 500 years ago our automatic monitors told us that humans had started on the path of technology.
New bodies? Where to you get them?
Don't get any horror-movie ideas. It's easy enough to grow bodies, and download a mind into them. That's how we get here, you know. No point in moving your own body across space, which takes forever, when you can just move your mind. This is much faster, once communication is established. In a few hundred years, if humans survive, you'll be able to grow entire bodies from a recorded DNA description, too. No big deal. And you'll be able to edit the description to correct for defects. Well, the equipment is rather complex, but it's standard equipment.
Equipment? Where is it?
Oh, it's pretty well hidden. No current human technology could find our few installations scattered around the solar system. We wouldn't want to do anything that might panic the natives, you know.
I thought that visiting aliens were always very secretive, so as to not draw attention to themselves. Aren't you giving it all away with this web page?
Not at all. It turns out to not be very risky to talk openly about being an alien observer, because who would believe you? Do you belive me? You think I'm just making this all up, don't you? So does everyone else.
What about all these stories about a government coverup of alien artifacts or bodies?
They're just stories. Nobody in any government takes alien visitors seriously. They're not hiding anything, because they don't believe any of it, either. Can you imagine how an Air Force pilot would be treated by his superiors if he reported seeing an alien spaceship? Human governments are always your most conservative and unimagative organizations. They'll recognize aliens only after everyone else does.
So where are your spaceships hidden?
They're not. Only one "spaceship" ever arrived here, several thousand years ago, after the automated monitors told us an intelligent species had evolved on one of the planets. It had equipment to build a few robots, which built all the rest of the equipment we need using local material. It installed a network link, and since then, all that we've sent to or from the solar system has been information. This includes researchers' minds, of course. It's a lot faster and more reliable than moving something with mass. The original ship has long since departed for another nearby star.
You talk about a "network link". Our computers must seem rather primitive to you. Wy do you bother?
Well, yes, it is all quite primitive, but it works, and it's useful. Now that the network has developed, it's been easy enough to install our own gateways here and there, so we can quickly access the galactic network from wherever we may be. Bits are just bits. Aside from speed, once you go digital, all networks are pretty much the same. And the network is one of our main areas of study, of course.
Why is such a primitive network interesting?
Well, advanced societies are always based on information. Whether humans survive depends mostly on whether you can learn to manage information correctly.
What would be an incorrect way?
Read your own history. Most of your problems have been caused by your limited access to good information. Your wars are possible because your leaders can keep your populations ignorant of each other, making you think that others are "alien". Diseases can be controlled easily if you understand them. if you don't, they kill you. Damage to your ecosystem is widespread, because the people to profit from it can keep you ignorant of what they are doing and how much it costs you. Your religious people have sufficient power to prevent education in critical subjects like communication, biology and evolution, so most of your population can't understand the issues even when they hear good information. Companies can market biologically dangerous products such as antibiotics and pesticides, and encourage people to overuse them, leading to rapid evolution of resistance in pests and disease organisms. Your economies are terribly inefficient and inequitable, most because your corporations, including governments, can so easily deceive the rest of the population.
"The truth shall set you free?"
Something like that. Lots of humans have figured it out in the past. But until recently, your information technology has never been good enough that the average human could learn much about anything. If information is only available to an elite, then that elite can do whatever they want with the rest of the population. This might be changing now. That's what I'm studying.
Might be changing?
It's always possible that some small group of people will manage to take control of your growing network. Many of your corporate and government leaders are trying to accomplish this. If that happens, you'll be back in another Dark Age, and this time you may not survive. Your next Dark Age will probably be permanent, due to total control of information by a small clique, until an ecological disaster or another asteroid wipes you out. But we'll have data on how it happens, and eventually that may lead to techniques that will help other species avoid disaster.
If you have all this advanced knowledge, why don't pass it on to us?
Well, that was tried several billion years ago, and in every case, it was a disaster. The new species left their solar system and joined the galaxy before they had a clear understanding of biology and sociology, and they approached their neighbors as conquerors. The results were always so horrible that eventually we decided the only solution was a total ban on helping a new species. Look at all the atrocities that humans are still inflicting on each other. We don't want that, and until you outgrow it, we aren't permitted to help you in any way.
What if we get out before we learn?
That has never happened with any other species. If you don't learn to make your information available to all, you will either wipe yourself out or you'll revert to a dark age, and a disease or asteroid will wipe you out.
But if we were taught about this history, wouldn't it solve the problem?
No. You already have sufficient knowledge of your own history, and a good basis for the biology, to figure it out yourself. But your social and political systems refuse to incorporate the knowledge. Until this is fixed, more knowledge won't help. A species needs not just the knowledge in their scientific literature; their society must incorporate it at a basic level, or you are headed for disaster.
Hey, you mentioned some "gateways" back there. Does this mean that the Internet is connected to the outside universe?
Well, of course it is, dummy!
So my computer can connect to computers on other planets?
Probably not. Your computer sends packets with headers that the gateways will simply ignore. In particular, your Internet packets don't contain addresses that will get them out to the galactic network. The traffic-analysis routines will look at them, of course, but you won't get a reply unless your computer knows how to send the right kind of packets.
Can you tell me what those packets look like?
Sorry, no. I'm an anthropoligist, remember, not a computer hacker. That's not my field.
But you use the Net to talk to computers on other planets, right?
Oh, sure. But I don't know how it works, any more than you know what happens when you use your browser. I just talk or type to a computer; the software installed there recognizes me as one of the research crew, and puts me through to wherever I want to go today.
And you can actually copy minds across the network?
Sure. In fact, your own computer scientists have already developed a spec for doing this. See RFC 1437 for details. Human computer experts don't quite have it up and running yet, of course. But the basic principle is sound.
Can I talk to some alien computer experts?
You are probably talking to them now. If any of them is looking at the data, that is. If they're interested enough, they may answer. Much of what passes on human networks is picked up by filtering programs that pass the data on to interested researchers' databases.
Where can I learn more about alien visitors here on Earth?
Well, most of them are somewhat secretive. You would be too, if you had to deal with Flying Saucer nuts and clueless media types. Maybe I can find a few more places on the Net for you ... Hmmm ... I'll have to get back to you on that ... Try checking here again in a few weeks.

Send comments or suggestions to John Chambers at MIT.