Who will be our ambassadors to the stars? Who will commune with the extraterrestrial beings that anyone with even a modicum of logic feels certain exist somewhere out there? The altruists, lunatics and (probably) tax-sheltering capitalists behind Lone Signal know who: YOU.
Lone Signal is a new website (they're calling it a social network, but it's really a website) where you puny Earthlings will be able to pay to have your 140 character messages zapped off into space. You'll also be able to see other contributors' messages, vote on them, discuss, make friends, fall in love, make babies and maybe those babies will one day be conquered by the aliens that you troubled with your brilliant insights when you were high as a kite watching Gov't Mule at Bonnaroo. This is their cult-lookin' logo and I swear none of this is made-up.
As a freelance writer I'm on the receiving end of a great deal of PR blasts. Many of them are for video games, which is funny if you know me, because I am very much not a gamer. Not because I dislike games – believe me, I'm envious, to a degree, of a gamer culture. It's because I am, in the words of the ten year olds who mocked me as a youth, a “palsy” or “total spaz.” I simply cannot play anything more advanced than Galaga – the things on the screen do not do what they are supposed to do. Play opposite me sometime if you ever get the jones to hang out with your grandfather. I own no Xbox, no PS3, I dig the Wii out of storage when my nephew comes over.
So zipping through my email, I see a press release about the former head of Rockstar Games and some new game that has something to do with the acquisition of a giant radio dish and crowdsourcing “METI” (Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence). I'm juuuuuust about to hit delete when I realize that this is not a game. Or, wait, maybe it is.
The email comes off far-fetched enough that it has to be a would-be viral head-fake for the start of some new science fiction game or movie, or show, or transmedia bullshit. Right? All I know is that a few days later I'm in a very small conference room with some extremely well-dressed men and a small collection of journalists from genuine outlets (The Verge, Fast Company, Huffington Post, Space.com), and everyone seems to be taking these jokers seriously.
The office was a loft deep in SoHo – go watch Martin Scorsese's After Hours only now, 25+ years later, those old cast-iron buildings aren't scary clubs like Club Berlin, but are giant Old Navys and Sephoras. Lone Signal shares space with the highly regarded fashion photographer Greg Kadel, who, it turns out, is the principal investor (that explains the nice digs). It also explains why the promotional film for a project that should be rooted in nerd-ass science looks like this.
After receiving a number of baffling handouts with flowcharts and galactic maps and broken down bullet points saying, and I directly quote, “Next Steps for Revitalization: Remove the wavelength and connectors on the support beam in the Vertex room in order to reduce the +/- 30 degree azimuth limitations,” we finally got to find out what was going on.
Lone Signal has an exclusive 30 year lease on the Jamesburg Earth Station, a gigantic satellite dish built in the late 1960s by COMSAT and AT&T in Carmel Valley, California. It was involved in sending and receiving images during the Apollo program but has been pretty much collecting dust for quite some time. In 2005 some dude bought it, stripped the interior and planned to build a weekend house inside.
Enter Pierre Fabre. Despite the stylish name, Fabre is one of us. He is Lone Signal's resident nerd. Whereas the other members of Lone Signal's top brass are extremely “mediable,” as the phrase goes, Fabre just wants to talk to aliens.
Fabre's been working as an editor for Greg Kedel for some time and somehow, God knows how, he was able to convince Kedel to plunk down a gigantic chunk of change to get the Jamesberg dish. They then teamed up with Dr. Jacob Haqq-Misra, a bona fide (and quite dashing) astrobiologist affiliated with something called the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science. (Yeah, I mean, he may as well have introduced himself as Dr. Leo Quintum from P.R.O.J.E.C.T.) So Fabre has the money, he's got the science and he's also got the Face.
Former Rockstar Games founder Jamie King did the most talking at the presentation I attended. This extremely charming, handsome British man did a good job of convincing me that Lone Signal was the only company that was ever going to matter in the grand scheme of human endeavor. They were the only ones making any real effort to contact aliens.
The deal is this. Dr. Haqq-Misra, working off of an encoding method devised by one Dr. Michael Busch (the Jansky Fellow of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, not that I know what that is, but it sure sounds impressive) is going to get the Jamesberg facility to make targeted, repeated radio blasts at the nearby Gliese 526 System. These blasts will contain basic “this is who we are” information not too dissimilar from the “Aricebo Message” that Dr. Frank Drake devised with (among others) Carl Sagan. The new delivery method, however, is much more intuitive, and any society (maybe even silicon-based Horta) will be able to figure it out. These signals sent to “unknown watchers” (Haqq-Misra's term) will take 19 hours to travel farther than the Voyager Golden Record launched in 1977 has gone.
So far, all of this sounds awesome. There are times in which I feel that every dime not spent on the search for alien intelligence is a waste. Then reality comes crashing in, much as it must have done to the Lone Signal team. Eventually they are gonna run out of fashion photographers to bilk and someone is going to have to pay to keep sending this message to the stars.
Lone Signal is hoping that the capital will come from all of us. In addition to this socially responsible salutation, they are going to open up a “second channel” to basically anyone who wants to say anything. And why wouldn't we want to Tweet to space? Eventually, our Earthbound attention span for narcissism is going to tap out. When everyone on Earth is sick of our Tweets, we'll have to look to the heavens. The little green men will probably want to hear about that bitchy girl at the office that stole our orange juice from the fridge, right? Or, at least, we'll feel the need to tell them.
After a free sample Tweet to space, Lone Signal will then charge. A buck gets you four credits. A hundred bucks gets you 4000 credits. I'm guessing picture attachments cost more. And maybe they'll charge more on New Years Eve, or during the Super Bowl. Either way, those of you who want to be able to say “speaking into a black hole” and be literal about it now have an opportunity.
If this sounds cool to you, be sure to do it soon. Because I can't imagine this company lasting longer than six months.
I don't know about you, but I can't think of a single person who would spend any money so they can say they Tweeted to space. For free, sure. Clicking that PayPal button? What kind of putz is going to do that? And I love space! I want to talk to the aliens more than anyone! But. . .how does Tweeting to space feel any different than tweeting in general? I'd rather just give Lone Signal a donation . . .but their dopey plan for monetization is so fundamentally annoying that it makes me just want to slam my laptop shut.
The Lone Signal website will let you “track” your Tweet. In other words, you can return to it six months later and gauge how many light years away it is. But is there any real proof? How do we know these guys actually blasted it out to the stars? “Oh, yeah – that message about how Cersei Lannister is a QILF is totally past Pluto by now. . .sure thing, boss!”
If a Tweet falls in the woods but no one is there to Fav, does it happen? Here we are, we've got all this momentum toward sending messaging to space, and these guys figure “eh. . .the kids . . . they love to Tweet. We'll charge them to Tweet!” Here's my message in only four characters: Lame.
It will take 17.6 years for these messages to get to Gliese 526 system. (Proxima Centauri, of course, is a mere 4.24 light years away, but Lone Signal would need a dish in the southern hemisphere for that.) So any sort of response is likely to take 35.2 years. (Though, if they have faster-than-light capability, maybe that's not the case – they could blast a tape cassette through a worm hole that would land right on President Chelsea Clinton's desk 17.600000001 years from now, theoretically.) Forgive me for seeming cynical, but I have a hunch the company Lone Signal will have long since folded by then.
LoneSignal.com launches on Monday June 17. Because I went to the press event I have an account. I haven't used it yet. I'm open to suggestions on what to Tweet to space.