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Virtual Reality Over a Galactic Network

“The prospect of distributing realistic simulations of alien environments throughout the galaxy sheds light on ‘Fermi’s question,’ named after the physicist Enrico Fermi, who is said to have inquired of intelligent extraterrestrials, ‘Where are they?’ The point of Fermi’s question, much elaborated by later thinkers, is that a technically advanced civilization could set up colonies on the planets of nearby stars, which in turn could colonize other star systems, until their race had populated the entire galaxy. Since they are not here, the argument concludes, perforce they are not anywhere, and we are alone in the galaxy.

“Interstellar colonization, however, is arduous and expensive by just about any imaginable standard. It can hardly be justified in terms of population pressure or a need for raw materials: Our Sun, for instance, has enough energy, and the solar system enough space, to accomodate the most vigorous forseeable expansion of our species for many millions of years into the future, and money spent on development within the solar system would reap us many times more rewards than would money spent ferrying people to another star. Unless the sun were about to explode and we had to get out, the only
evident rationale for interstellar colonization by us or anybody else would be curiosity — to give some members of a species the experience of standing on the soil of a nonsolar planet. But VR does much the same thing, and does it more democratically. An automated probe, dispatched by a living species or by an interstellar network to an uninhabited planet, could send back simulations that let everybody ‘be there.’

“The reason aliens are not here, then, need not be because they do not exist. It may simply be that they are content with sims, and feel no more compulsion to travel to distant planets in person than a viewer watching a television documentary about Borneo feels compelled to pack a bag and fly to Borneo. A few might make the long trek to another star, just as a few New Englanders may elect to visit Borneo, but their occasional voyages need not add up to anything like a wave of colonists flooding the galaxy.”

— Timothy Ferris, from The Mind’s Sky: Human Intelligence in a Cosmic Context (New York: Bantam Books, 1992), pp. 52-53.