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Having re-watched Contact recently, I’m struck by two things regarding the machine’s construction and usage by Ellie.

Firstly, Ellie stresses that the designs make no mention of a seat or harness when introduced to the Japanese-built sister machine, but is assured that all modifications are within tolerances. The seat assembly itself rips itself away from the support structure during the machine’s travel, only seconds after Ellie disengages her harness, noticing that the compass gift she was given is floating, weightless.

Secondly, the video camera is infamously blanked for Ellie’s entire trip, recording only static.

Is the destruction of both of these modifications a coincidence, or are they a conscious effort by the aliens to ensure that their designs are followed exactly?

The implication being that humanity is “not ready” to be introduced to alien civilisations while we are insecure enough to add failsafes and our own elements into the machine’s plans and not blindly trust (in “faith”) the designer.

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    There are two distinct questions here. You need to pick one.
    – Valorum
    Mar 18, 2023 at 10:05
  • Appreciate that they’re two distinct questions, but they share a common base subject. How would you like me to ask both questions? By pasting the same preamble before each question under multiple posts? Mar 18, 2023 at 10:11
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    My suggestion would be to delete one entirely. Maybe the answers you get will answer both, and you can always post a new question if they don't
    – Valorum
    Mar 18, 2023 at 10:12
  • "Why did the chair shake so much and was that a near-fatal flaw in the design?" and "Why was humanity judged not ready to be introduced into the galactic civilisation?"
    – Valorum
    Mar 18, 2023 at 10:14
  • Thanks for the comments, I’ve reworded both questions along the same lines as the second was more of a statement anyway. Hopefully that clarifies things! Mar 18, 2023 at 11:14

2 Answers 2

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I don't think we are given enough information in the film to answer this question. It is possible that the effect on the chair is deliberate; it's also possible that the design simply cannot accommodate the addition of the chair. The project engineers believe that the addition of the chair isn't relevant to the operation of the device - but they might simply be wrong. They are merely copying the design from plans without any real comprehension of the underlying technology or theory, so they really have no grounds to have any confidence that they know what is and what is not important.

The camera static also might be intentional - but it might also be a function of the physical environment to which the ship was transported. Again, we don't know enough about the technology humanity had been gifted here to judge. If I put a man holding a candle on a roller coaster, the candle will blow out. Did I "intentionally" design the roller coaster to blow out candles?

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Interesting question.

I'd like to focus my answer on the implications of the recorded static and its meaning for the future of the world being presented in the film.

Lets start with what is known, and some easy assumptions

  1. Known: The recorder is actually not destroyed.
  2. Known: The recorder effectively records 18 hours of static
  3. Assumed: The alien civilization / community of civilizations who meet with potential incomers into the galactic community would have had experiences beyond counting of orienting new civilizations to the wider community of the galaxy / universe.
  4. Known: Dr Ellie Arroway is extremely competent as a scientist.
  5. Assumed: Dr Ellie Arroway is emotionally, stable, and trusted by the Earth community as an emissary for all humanity. Even if there are those who doubt her, she will be believed by at least billions of people.
  6. Assumed: In timescales that measure beyond human lifetimes it is only a matter of time until the news that the recording included 18 hours of static will be released to humanity and that is powerful evidence beyond the point of reasonable denial that will drive human advancement for hundreds of years.
  7. Known: The alien entities have demonstrated ability to "read minds" by creating a virutal experience of comfort for our protagonist traveller. The aliens meet Dr Ellie Arroway as embodied versions of her own father. The technology is such that these entities are able to distinguish language, read and understand the complexity of language and human relationships from a single brain sample.
  8. Assumed: The alien entities will have a full understanding of the sum total of Dr Ellie Arroway's memories and intelligence. They will know about Galileo, World War 2, Hope, Love, and everything else in-between.

So... with these assumptions...

The alien entities will know that leaving 18 hours of static will inevitably be scientifically observed. Eventually, perhaps in a generational shift as human-mindsets grow and shift humanity will become more ready to join the universe-community.

The alien entities, we must conclude have had millions, or billions or possibly even quatrillions of attempts to join the universe-community. We know this because the aliens existence shows that life is, at least relatively common in the universe. Given there are 100 billion stars in the Milky Way, and between 100 billion up to as many as 2 trillion Galaxies. The number of opportunities for intelligence is clearly immeasurably large.

Comparatively, human experience of trying to join the universe-community, as pictured in Contact is currently n=1. This is our first try, and we have no idea what is needed / the process to join the universe-community. The aliens will know virtually infinitely more than we for what is the best pathway for connecting with the universe-community.

So to return to the question, do the aliens take steps to assure no modifications to the machine.

The aliens have had quatrillions of experiences, with a 100% mind read on each successful traveller and the understanding of why, how, and if any modifications have been made.

The aliens will even know about modifications that caused failure of the device, and had eons pass since any change has been made. The aliens would discover this information, logically, in this way. In these quatrillions of experiences the aliens have interacting with travellers. Some of those travellers will be "second time travellers" where one device was built with modifications that caused failure, and then that civilization built a second attempt without modifications, and they were able to travel. These second time travellers would have significant knowledge of the first failed attempt. That knowledge would then be telepathically known to the current operating entities that interacted with Dr. Arroway.

In the time scales / and scopes of galactic time, even the alien entities claim ignorance as to the identity of the architects of the universe's travel infrastructure. (This is quoted in the film - said by the aliens). As such we must assume that the design and intake process is timeless in ways beyond imagination.

The structure of the construction, and person-pod as well as its blueprints. Every factor that comes up, will have been scrutinized at time scales trivializing our distance from the dinosaurs.

Such simple modifications as, recording technologies, or a chair and harness are so mundane to the universe-community that built the designs Earth receives. Such simple modifications will have been seen and observed trillions or more times. One can imagine the alien whose day job it is to receive todays new batch of "first contact arrivals" saying did you get 5 chair adders today? Yep same today as the last, had two more fish tanks as well from some intelligent cephalopods.

As to the second question, and to answer with a simple yes/no. Humanity receiving the information / evidence of alien existence that is 18 hours of static means that humanity is ready. Also the alien entity actually talked to Dr. Arroway. That is two pieces of evidence we are ready now. What ready looks like is the next question.

In the Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula Le Guin shows Genly Ai, and the concept of first contact. What is the best way to make first contact. Providing two pieces of information (the ones I just shared), her experience, and the 18 hours of static - shows that yes we are ready to begin the next step, whatever and more importantly, however long that step takes.

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    This seems like total guesswork mixed in with fan-fiction
    – Valorum
    Mar 18, 2023 at 21:06
  • Its not fan faction. How is it fan fiction. The assumptions are all listed there. The aliens will have had unimaginable counts of experience as a universe wide thriving societies over countless eons, millions, billions of years. The aliens know everything about her life and read her mind with crystal accuracy. The question asks do the aliens take active steps to make sure not mods are made. Any degradation or limitation to the conscious capacity of the aliens in their unimaginably large experience is a mistake. This answer is the only logical sense-making answer. Mar 18, 2023 at 21:15
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    Humans are allowed incredible proof, the 18 hours of static, which is just that proof of existence. Its not Dr. Who saying "I'm a timelord, hi there". In the scope of things, we can see that the human experience of first contact is statistically likely to be similar to many other first contacts -- and we must assume that if this evidence were not allowed to be had by humans - then the designs of the aliens would be able to prevent it. I brought a recorder isn't exactly hard for an alien with the ability to read minds to anticipate. To them, super easy, barely an inconvenience. Mar 18, 2023 at 21:17
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    It might be worth noting that the ending of the book is quite different. See also: scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/153911/… and kasmana.people.cofc.edu/MATHFICT/mf55-spoiler.html Mar 21, 2023 at 13:52

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