Worlds Wide Web

by Sean Vivier

An extraterrestrial takeover of human civilization seems like a simple enough situation, right? Easy for the invaders. Well, not exactly, according to author Sean Vivier. In this blog post, Vivier discusses how aliens might react to human technology, which is a scenario he explores further in his new story “Web Accessibility for Aliens.” Read it in [September/October issue, on sale now!]

We’ve all seen the movie.  The aliens arrive with their advanced technology, but a small band of humans is brave enough and smart enough to corrupt their machines with a computer virus.

Stop and ask, why would alien tech run on the same platform as human tech? Assume they’d also use binary code and logic gates to move electrons, even if that’s not certain. They’d never use the same coding language to compile into that binary code. I somehow doubt C# or Java would arise on another planet by convergent evolution.

It gets even weirder when you realize that they’d have different biologies and different cultures.  For all the stories of aliens learning about humans from the internet, we can’t even be sure they’d know how to read the internet. There are humans who have trouble with its defaults, let alone extraterrestrials.

Take standard icons alone. Many human users don’t have an intrinsic understanding of the symbols on the page the same way that programmers do. No alien lifeform is going to have any concept of a floppy disk, or why it means Save. Likewise a trash can for Delete, or a gear for Settings. So many defaults are based on the unexamined assumptions of those of us who program our web sites.  We’ll have to reconsider those, too, if we want to include cultures from other worlds.

Andy Weir (he of The Martian fame) has a better answer in his book Project Hail Mary.  The protagonist needs to communicate with an alien from 40 Eridani.  But the Eridian has no sensory organs for sight, only echolocation. He has to use a machine to scan the topography of the wavelengths of light coming from the screen, then use his echolocation to sense the letters of an unfamiliar language and translate into his own. It works, but only just.

I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to consider the web accessibility needs of other fictional alien races.  What kind of internet do the Heptapods from Arrival need?  Pilot from Farscape?  Doctor Who’s Weeping Angels?  The Vorlons of Babylon 5?  The Ten-C on Discovery?  Klingons?  Predators?  Ewoks?

Web accessibility is an important tenet in web development, but also a fraught one.  We don’t always take the necessary time to think about those who will use it with different abilities, with different cultural expectations, with different devices and different bandwidths.  And yet we must, if we are to keep the promise of an internet for everyone.

We have several tools to help already.  Screen readers explain the site’s information to the blind – if we do the site architecture right. We make print bigger for the sake of those with weaker vision or we can allow users to choose their own font size, as online genre magazines like Strange Horizons and Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Apex do, not to mention browser settings that can change the zoom. We can make sure text and background contrast well, and they aren’t colors that the color-blind can’t distinguish.  We can make sure that video and audio don’t autoplay, for the sake of the blind and the deaf and anyone with lower bandwidth or limited data plans.  We can translate and internationalize. We can even make the site reshape itself based on the size of any given screen.

Web accessibility is an important tenet in web development, but also a fraught one.  We don’t always take the necessary time to think about those who will use it with different abilities, with different cultural expectations, with different devices and different bandwidths. 

It will only grow in complexity if we ever meet intelligent alien life, and they wish to partake.  In my story, “Web Accessibility for Aliens”, I imagined a few possibilities of different reactions to web sites by different imaginary aliens.  Scavenger races and hunter races and animal life that trades genes with plant life.  That only scratches the surface.

What if we meet an alien race that doesn’t see in the same spectrum as sighted humans do?  Will we need to learn how to design color schemes that include infrared, at least when they choose a language from that planet in the dropdown?  Will we need user tests to determine which colors contrast best with ultraviolet?  If we want them to use the internet with the same ease as us, we do.

What if we meet a race that only communicates with sound, never written language? Might we need web sites that produce sound, that note potential actions such as clicks and drags with sounds, that allow a chance to rehear part of the site with back and up buttons?

What if we meet a culture that sees purple as a color associated with death threats? Surely we’ll need web sites that have no purple anywhere, or at least a browser option to replace purple with some other color. Maybe even an avoid-specific-color feature, with a parameter for the color in question, that the CSS can exploit.

What if we meet a species that communicates with pheromones alone? Might manufacturers need to produce emitters on their laptops and tablets and phones?

If we meet a species that saves data in the DNA of bacterial cultures, will we need save icons shaped like bacterial cultures?

What of a species that only communicates by touch? A species that can’t interpret two-dimensional representations as three-dimensional? A species where most can hear higher frequencies, but some can’t? A species from a darker world that is photosensitive in the extreme?

We can’t know anything ahead of time. We can only know that it’s going to be wonderful strange.

If we ever do make contact, we will need to find ways to communicate that work for all sides. It will require trial and error. It will take user tests. It will demand we listen to their needs. It will need patience. But it will all be worth it, to share ideas so fast and so well.

Sean Vivier is a writer who has previously worked as a high school Spanish teacher, a Renaissance Faire gaming booth attendant, a line dance instructor, among other jobs. He is currently a web app developer who writes in his spare time, and his stories have previously appeared in Analog, Daily Science Fiction, and Flash Fiction Online.

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