By Peter Waring

Entry 100 / 01 March 2095

I am proud to say that this is my 100th entry. An achievement that I would have scarcely thought possible when Dr. Samuels recommended it all those months ago. The irony struck me immediately, that after decades of learning to have “unconventional” conversations I would now need to learn to have a conversation with myself. The results thus far are patchy, I admit. But it’s a start. I no longer feel the wrenching grab of Jane’s absence. I no longer look up from my book expecting her to be seated across from me. But I still dream of her. And them.

My head feels clearer too, and my lungs seem almost able to take in their full allotment of air. I’m beginning to believe that the “damp, drizzly November in my soul” is finally lifting. It may not yet be spring, but the worst of winter has passed.

There is, however, no escaping the fact that my consuming guilt was the reason for Dr. Samuels’s suggestion. Sadly, I feel less progress has been made on this front. As is my habit, I have been throwing myself into work as a distraction, knowing full well that it was this tendency—to prioritize work above all else—that I now regret so intensely.

My latest bout of self-recrimination has not been helped by the invitation to deliver the commencement address at my alma mater later this month. The audience will want to hear the same story (it’s always the same): an insider’s account of first contact; what I felt at the moment of mutual comprehension, what were the first words, phrases, sentences exchanged. It’s a formula I know well from dozens of similar events. And although I generally stick tightly to a script, it happens to be the 50th anniversary, an occasion that seems to require something more than the boilerplate platitudes I usually offer.

But it all seems so distant now. A source of pain rather than pride.

Thoughts of Jane are now irretrievably entangled with thoughts of my work. Whenever I venture to look back upon my so-called achievements and their wider significance I feel a tightening of my diaphragm, leading to the now familiar shortness of breath. I want to fill my lungs again, but anything other than overwhelming regret seems like a betrayal of her memory.

Despite all that they have given humanity—and myself—I admit to feeling something close to resentment, perhaps even a grudge.

I want to rewrite my history, with fewer days spent writing code, compiling datasets, conversing with our new friends and more time spent with her—a meandering walk, perhaps a few more vacations together. Just one more morning waking up with her lying beside me. Anything.

Forgiveness is never easy, but it becomes doubly difficult when you seek it from yourself.

Entry 101 / 15 March 2095

I felt hollow after the last entry, as though a part of my innards had been vacuumed out. Perhaps a break from the journal was needed. Dr. Samuels agrees, and our session yesterday seemed productive. We spoke again about my feelings of guilt and regret, and she asked what I might say to a friend or colleague faced with a similar situation. I replied that I would encourage them to be less critical of themselves, to accept their choices. To be more forgiving.

Wise words, of course. And it was a useful thought experiment that seems to have adjusted—however minutely—my own patterns of thought.

Dr. Samuels views the forthcoming speech as an opportunity to engage more constructively with my past. I’m happy to report that some progress has been made.

I’ve not had much reason in recent years to reminisce about those days, and about the sense of excitement and adventure that accompanied our work. I say “our work” because it is too often overlooked just how much of a collective undertaking it really was. We were certainly not a team of like-minded experts drawn from within a single field—no, ours was a truly multidisciplinary endeavor. There were linguists and computer scientists, of course, but also biologists, roboticists, neurologists, anthropologists, engineers, cryptographers, and geologists. We even employed a team of theologians and philosophers to plot our discoveries upon the map of human morality. I fondly recall the fulfillment I felt at being surrounded by such a diverse group, all with different ways of making sense of the world.

People often forget just how specialized the pursuit of knowledge once was. And it’s not, I think, immodest to claim that the success of our project was the inspiration for the polymath movement that has swept the academy in recent decades. Narrow expertise is nowadays viewed as an eccentricity, but it was once the norm.

It has become an oft repeated cliché in recent times to claim that our new friends provided humanity with a completely novel way of seeing the world. A new form of consciousness. But it was always possible to have such experiences, to step outside our inner worlds, beyond the tribal boundaries we draw around ourselves. Yet we typically took the path of least resistance, refusing to see the benefits of moving past our narrow fields of expertise, or our linguistic, national, or geographic identities. It took contact with another species before such communal empathy was possible—before we could really know the human animal.

It’s a point that brings to mind Alexander Pope’s injunction to:

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;

The proper study of mankind is man.

A lovely rhyming couplet but it was nothing more than an ardent desire. We could never fully see ourselves—that is, until we had others to hold up the mirror.

Entry 102 / 19 March 2095

Another positive session with Dr. Samuels and another successful few days of speech writing. It’s proving to be a much needed distraction. But in keeping with my newfound anxiety I’ve begun to worry about what will fill the void once the speech is delivered. Just another example of how little control I have over my thoughts following Jane’s death. They seem to enter my mind only half formed, like a coastline without the sea. Or a mountain without the sky.

I find myself pausing as I write, reflecting for the first time in many years on the incredible impact of our work. On the way it seemed to change everything.

Perhaps the best measure of that change is how I now consider myself an earthling, first and foremost. My Glaswegian and Scottish identities have been subordinated, diminished. Freud’s “narcissism of minor differences” has finally been contained, though not entirely conquered. It’s easy to forget that our current age of planetary awareness would have seemed hopelessly utopian at any moment before first contact. Yet here we are. And we have them to thank for it.

Despite the recent fogginess of my thoughts, I never fail to see them clearly: their oversized heads, their bizarrely narrow mouths and pewter complexion. Their abyssal eyes.

Entry 103 / 20 March 2095

The speech is tomorrow. I admit to feeling a little nervous.

Today I wrote about the research underlying first contact, along with the tools and techniques we employed. There was so much science and technology behind our conversations. Machines able to learn, to record, to recognize and decipher what they were saying, which to the human ear was utterly incomprehensible. Our progress was slow until we recognized that their language was not just something you needed to listen to, but also something you had to feel pass through your body.

None of their insights advanced our horizons in any technological sense. What we got from them, rather, was a new world. One that included utterly alien forms of knowledge and perception—new senses, new ways of grasping time and space, a new appreciation of our relationships to each other and the planet. It opened our eyes to an alternative version of reality, one that could not be easily corralled by human science.

I remember being surprised by how many emotions and behaviors we shared. But also the complete and utter bafflement I felt upon discovering their “group mind,” or the psychic blueprint shared between members of their species. It allows them to pass knowledge from one generation to the next in the way humans might pass along a physical feature like the shape of a nose. It means that any one individual holds within its mind the history and accumulated knowledge of its entire species. It was an incredible, paradigm wrecking discovery—one made even more spectacular when considering that they have existed for 20 million Earth years.

How could anything remain the same after such discoveries? How could we remain the same?

And so it seems entirely appropriate to be delivering an anniversary address to a cohort of graduates who were not alive when first contact was made. In many ways these young people are completely different creatures than their ancestors. This new world of ours—this posthuman age—is the only one they’ve ever known.

Entry 104 / 21 March 2095

I was approached after the ceremony yesterday by a young woman. I watched as she walked toward me through the throng of robed graduates and proud parents, assuming she’d be just one of many students hoping for a photograph or a chance to ask a question. But to my surprise she enquired about Jane. My body convulsed, invisibly, at the mention of her name. And I felt my torso suddenly compress, as though squeezed by a giant hand. The young woman introduced herself and said she was writing a thesis on Jane’s advocacy work. A wave of shame washed over me—how could I have forgotten.

But it was also comforting to know that she lives on in the mind of this young graduate student. A reminder that she was never mine alone.

Jane was a leading figure in the social movement that was born soon after first contact. “Movement” might not be the right word, in truth it was more like a great awakening—as much spiritual, as political. Jane wrote pamphlets, led demonstrations, and spoke at hundreds of community centers, schools, and universities across the country and the world. I met her at one of these gatherings. She had unruly dark hair that framed a face so full of expression—so unimpeded by self-consciousness—that her emotions and innermost thoughts were exposed for all to see. Happiness, sadness, anger, love, fear; it was all engraved right there in the topography of that beautiful face. She was brilliant. Passionate. And there was never any doubt I would fall in love with her.

In one of the earliest exchanges after first contact our new interlocutors asked for the noise to stop. They knew it was us—humans. And we knew right away what they were referring to.

There was already substantial evidence of the harm caused to cetaceans by the sonars once employed by militaries to track submarines. Governments, particularly those relying on submarines for nuclear deterrence, at first hoped to cover up the request. Then they tried to ignore it. And some even wanted to weaponize the sperm whales, to use our newfound ability to communicate with them as a way of tracking enemy vessels or gathering intelligence. The absurdity of such thinking was quickly exposed. The project had been too multinational, too widely reported, and, of course, was funded not by any government but by philanthropic grants and private donations. By the time first contact was made in 2045, Project CETI (Cetacean Translation Initiative) had been underway for over two decades. There was no way a government could commandeer our work.

Groups advocating for an end to anthropogenic marine noise formed across the world, and across all mediums. People took to the streets in the millions, they took to their simulated realities and their online spaces. They boycotted, they sat-in and walked out, occupied and de-occupied. They told stories, they listened. It was neither top-down nor bottom-up, it was everywhere at once; spontaneous, inescapable. At first we wanted an end to submarines and sonar. But as time wore on these demands merged with other aims such as conservation, decarbonization, social justice, disarmament.

The whales had given voice to something—both literally and figuratively. Perhaps it was nothing more than a widespread yet barely discernible disquiet. Or a shared knowledge that something was rotten at the core of things. I remember it feeling as though there was a knot in our collective stomach that only they could untie.

There were some setbacks in those early years but the victories soon outpaced the defeats. The whales were granted legal personhood by most nations in 2048. Thereafter they could speak for themselves in domestic and international courts, and even at the UN where they were awarded associate membership in 2049.

From these beginnings came a whirlwind of creativity that swept across various domains, from institutional design and economics to cognitive science and nanotechnology. The prevailing mood was one of experimentation and improvisation—it still is. And though it was by no means the end of conflict it certainly shook loose the status quo and the varieties of common sense that had dictated what was possible and what was not. Humanity returned to a state of infancy, stripped of all our world-knowing pretensions, infused with a rediscovered sense of childlike wonderment.

Creative new uses were found for the gadgetry built to manage conflict and interstate competition. My favorite example was repurposing the global network of hydroacoustic sensors designed to monitor the oceans for nuclear tests. Decades of archived recordings provided a store of whale-speak, offering new insights into their diverse culture and how it evolved through time and space. Not once during these pre-contact recordings had the whales expressed any anger or hatred toward humanity, despite our frenzied efforts to destroy their ecosystems. The whales remained devoted to humans for the simple reason that we too belong to the earth. How could we ever deserve such love, such unfathomable forgiveness. Such grace.

While it might appear in hindsight that all these world-altering developments were the inevitable consequence of first contact, in truth it took the activism and imagination of Jane and her colleagues to transform our breakthrough into a broader movement for change. Science and rationality are never enough, despite what so many of us believe—despite what I once believed. They can only give shape to our problems, but they fail to make us care enough to solve them.

There’s a passage I often think about from that great epic novel of the sperm whale, Moby Dick, in which the character Starbuck, upon hearing of his captain’s blood feud with the white whale, exclaims: “Vengeance on a dumb brute!…Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.”

It turns out, of course, that sperm whales are neither dumb nor brutish; and that perhaps certain types of madness and blasphemy are useful things.

Entry 105 / 22 March 2095

I awoke this morning from a vivid dream:

I remember a density in my lungs, a heaviness. My breathing is labored. Pressure surrounds me as I drift in the clutches of a formless mass—perhaps a cloud, perhaps the inside of a moving vessel. There are figures passing through my periphery. Large yet indistinct. I feel a vibrating warmth building to a heat in my upper abdomen. It spreads outward to the rest of my body as I start to sink. Gravity takes hold. And I wake, not with a jolt, but calmly—my eyes flicker gently open. My clothing drenched.

I swallow what feels like my first ever gulp of air.

Copyright © 2024, Peter Waring. This work is made available under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).

Artist Statement

How can we possibly, as a species, observe ourselves? What unknown, unseen habits of thought and consciousness lie between us and alternate versions of reality? These questions form the fulcrum around which my little story pivots. As does a belief in the promise of conversation as our surest path to change. To deeply know another person requires attentive dialogue, and perhaps the same is true for humanity as a whole. To properly understand ourselves may require the intervention of others—of non-humans.

In many ways my story is a kind of parable; a short morality tale illustrating a universal truth. In this case the truth I hope to highlight is the ubiquity of different perspectives. There exists an entire cosmology of unfathomable complexity lying within easy reach, yet we seem so oblivious to it. The problem seems not to be one of diversity but one of seeing and listening. Future-making is an act of remembering, as much as it is an act of imagining.

About Peter Waring

Peter Waring (he/him) is a research consultant for the United Nations Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs and the co-host and co-creator of the multi-award winning Audible Original podcast, Deepest Dive: The Search for MH370. As a core contributor to Horizon 2045, Peter explored the future of nuclear policy, global governance, and the Anthropocene and co-authored The Seven Shifts, a set of stories about how humanity could move through the tumult of the present to get to a better future. He has also managed nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament projects for Ridgeway Information, a London-based research consultancy. Previously, he spent 11 years in the Australian Navy, during which he led a science mission to Antarctica, served as part of the search team for missing Malaysian jetliner MH370, and deployed to the Middle East as the personal aide to Australia’s regional commander.

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