21 November 2013
When Frank Drake first formulated the eponymously-named Drake equation the number of planetary systems in the universe (the second term in the Drake equation, fp) was an unknown among other unknowns. Now we are rapidly approaching a scientifically-based quantification of this once unknown number. We now know that planetary systems are common, and moreover that planetary systems with smallish, rocky planets in the habitable zones of stars are relatively common. (Cf., e.g., Earth-Like Worlds “Very Common”)
As soon as we reached a level of technological and scientific expertise that made the search for exoplanets practical, we began to find them. The most recent exoplanet discoveries, and the recent announcement that planets and planetary system are common, are primarily due to the NASA Kepler mission. According to the NASA website, the Kepler mission was…
“…specifically designed to survey a portion of our region of the Milky Way galaxy to discover dozens of Earth-size planets in or near the habitable zone and determine how many of the billions of stars in our galaxy have such planets.”
In this, the Kepler mission has been wildly successful. But in order to get to the point at which our civilization could conceive, design, build, and operate the Kepler mission we had to pass through thousands of years of development, and before our civilization developed to its current state of technological prowess, it took terrestrial biology billions of years of development to arrive at organisms capable of creating a civilization that could develop to this level.
Contrast the experience of Kepler’s exoplanet search with the experience of SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. What did not happen as soon as we began searching for SETI signals? We did not immediately begin hearing a whole range of intelligent extraterrestrial signals, which would have been a result parallel to the immediate successes of the exoplanet search (immediate, that is, in the technological zone of proximal development). Both Kepler and SETI are searches of the sky. The Kepler mission gave nearly immediate results; Frank Drake conducted the first SETI study in 1960. Drake found only an eerie silence, and ever since we have only heard an eerie silence. Once the technological threshold of exoplanet search was reached, the search immediately discovered its object, but once the technological threshold of SETI was reached, the search revealed nothing.
Please understand that, in making this observation, I am in no sense criticizing SETI efforts; I am not saying that SETI is a waste of effort, or a waste of money; I am not saying that SETI is wrongheaded or that it is not a science. On the contrary, I think SETI is interesting and important, and that includes the fact that SETI has found only an eerie silence — this is in itself important and interesting. We have discovered radio silence, except for natural sources. This tells us something about the universe. If there were a truly predatory peer civilization in our region of the Milky Way, it would be expected that they would go to the trouble to broadcast their presence to the universe, in hope of luring unsuspecting peer civilizations. Like Odysseus having himself strapped to the mast of his ship so that he could hear the song of the Sirens while his crew rowed on oblivious, their ears stopped with wax, we would have to listen to such signals restraining ourselves from rushing toward that fatal lure.
What we now know, as a result of SETI’s discovery of the eerie silence, is that METI (messaging extraterrestrial intelligence) beacons are not common. If METI beacons were common in the Milky Way, we would have heard them by now. There may yet be METI beacons, but they are not the first thing that you hear when you begin a SETI program (unlike looking for exoplanets and finding them as soon as you have the capability of looking). If METI beacons exist, they are rare and difficult to find. I think we can go further than this, and assert with some degree of confidence that there is no alien “super-civilization” in our galactic neighborhood constructing vast mega-engineering projects and pumping out high-power EM spectrum emissions that would be easily detectable by any technological civilization that suddenly had the idea to begin listening for such signals.
I wrote above that SETI and exoplanet searches are sensitive to a technological threshold. We passed the SETI threshold in the 1960s, and we have passed the exoplanet search threshold in the first decade of the twenty-first century. There is a further technological threshold, which is also an economic threshold — the ability to detect the unintentional EM spectrum radiation “leakage” from technological civilizations that have not had the interest or the resources to establish a METI beacon, but which, like us, are radiating EM spectrum signals as an epiphenomenal expression of our industrial-technological civilization. I say that this is also an economic threshold, as James Benford and colleagues have taken pains to point out the expense associated with establishing a METI beacon. (This is something I discussed in my Centauri Dreams post SETI, METI, and Existential Risk; James Benford responded on Centauri Dreams with James Benford: Comments on METI; my post on Centauri Dreams, along with responses from Benford and from David Brin, received quite a few comments, so if the reader is interested, it is worthwhile to follow the links and read the ensuing discussion.)
If METI is “shouting to the galaxy” (as James Benford put it), then the unintentional leakage of EM spectrum radiation of industrial-technological civilization is not shouting to the galaxy but rather whispering to the cosmos, and in order to be able to hear a whisper we must listen intently — holding our breath and putting a hand to our ear. Whether or not we choose to listen intently for whispers from the cosmos, we have not yet reached the developmental stage of civilization in which this is practical, though we seem to be moving in that direction. If we should continue the trajectory of our technological development — which, as I see it, entails both increasing automation and routine travel between Earth and space — such an effort will be within our grasp within the coming century.
Advanced industrial-technological civilizations will, by definition, know much more than we know. Their science will be commensurate with their technology and their engineering, since their civilization, if it is an industrial-technological peer civilization (and in so far as industrial-technological civilization is defined by the STEM cycle, which I believe to be the case), will experience the advance of science joined inseparably to the advance of technology and engineering. What would they do with this epistemic advantage? Such an epistemic advantage presents the possibility of SETI and METI asymmetry. We have an asymmetrical advantage over civilizations at an earlier stage of development, as older industrial-technological civilizations would have an asymmetrical advantage over us, with the ability to find us while concealing themselves.
The developmental direction of industrial-technological civilization as defined by the STEM cycle means that any advanced industrial-technological civilization will be “backward compatible” with earlier forms of technological communication. We might not (yet) be able to build a quantum entanglement transmitter in order to communicate instantaneously over cosmic distances (even though we can conceive the possibility), but an advanced peer civilization will be able to listen for our EM spectrum radiation leakage, in the same way that we today could continue to look for signs of ETI compatible with earlier stages of industrial-technological civilization. Karl Friedrich Gauss suggested geometrical shapes laid out in wheat in the wastes of Siberia to get the attention of extraterrestrials, while Joseph von Littrow suggested trenches filled with burning oil in the Sahara. Interesting in this context, although our civilization had the technology to pursue these methods, no one undertook them on a large scale.
When, in the future, we have the ability to image the surface of exoplanets with large extraterrestrial telescopes, we could look for such attempted signals within the capability of less developed civilizations to produce, such as those suggested by Gauss and Littrow. But when it comes to advanced peer civilizations, we don’t have the knowledge to know what to look for. The more advanced the civilization, the farther it lies beyond our civilizational zone of proximal development (ZPD), but the more advanced a civilization the earlier it would have to have its origins in the history of the universe, and at some point in the development of the universe (going backward in time to the origins of the universe) it would not be possible for an industrial-technological civilization to emerge because if we go far enough back in time, the elements necessary to an industrial-technological civilization do not yet exist. So there seems to be a window of development in the history of the universe for the emergence of industrial-technological civilizations. This strikes me as a non-anthropocentric way of expressing one formulation of the anthropic cosmological principle (and an idea worth developing further, since I have been searching for a formulation of the anthropic cosmological principle worthy of the name).
In an optimistic assessment of our place in the universe, we could hope that any substantially more advanced civilization could serve as the “more knowledgeable other” (MKO) that would facilitate our progress through the civilizational zone of proximal development.
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18 September 2013
In my previous post on The Epistemic Overview Effect I now realize that I failed to make an obvious connection with some earlier threads of my thought. Specifically, I failed to see or to develop the connection between the overview effect and what some developmental psychologists call “perspective taking.”
In The Hierarchy of Perspective Taking I discussed the developmental psychology of Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, and Lev Vygotsky. In this post I attempted to show how perspective taking transcends the life of the individual and applies as well to entire civilizations — which distinction might be called that between ontogenetic perspective taking and phylogenetic perspective taking. In this post I wrote:
“Piagetian cognitive development in terms of perspective taking can easily be extended throughout the human lifespan (and beyond) by the observation that there are always new perspectives to take. As civilization develops and grows, becoming ever more comprehensive as it does so, the human beings who constitute this civilization are forced to formulate always more comprehensive conceptions in order to take the measure of the world being progressively revealed to us. Each new idea that takes the measure of the world at a greater order of magnitude presents the possibility of a new perspective on the world, and therefore the possibility of a new achievement in terms of perspective taking.”
Re-reading this passage in light of the overview effect — the view of the earth entire experienced by astronauts and cosmonauts, as well as the change in perspective that a few of these observers have had as a result of seeing the earth whole with their own eyes — I would now add to my exposition of a hierarchy of perspective taking that the expansion and extension of civilization not only produces new ideas and conceptions, but also new experiences. Technology makes it possible to experience aspects of the world directly that were impossible to experience prior to the advent of industrial-technological civilization.
The overview effect is a paradigmatic case of technologically-facilitated experience. While I could say that those who have, so far, been fortunate enough to experience the overview effect, are “forced” as a result of their experience to formulate new conceptions of the world as a consequence of their experience (as I used this idiom of being “forced” previously), it would be better to say as I put it more recently in The Epistemic Overview Effect that the experience is a trigger that inspires an effort to formulate a conception of the world adequate to the experience.
While the overview effect itself is likely a powerful experience, merely the idea that others are experiencing an overview can itself be a powerful experience. This involves the most fundamental of all ethical thought experiments: the attempt to place ourselves in the position of the other, and so to experience the otherness of the other and the otherness of ourselves. When we believe that we have understood the other’s point of view, it is not unusual to say, “I can see your perspective.”
Perspective taking in the form of taking the perspective of the other is a key achievement in the development of an ethical perspective of the individual life. Some never achieve this level of insight, and some come to an adequate appreciation of the perspective of the other only late in life.
In the Swedish film My Life as a Dog there is an beautiful evocation of such ethical perspective taking in the life of a young boy, by way of the theme of the Russian space dog Laika, which recurs as a motif to which the young protagonist returns time and again as an example of perspective. Here are some of the voiceovers from the protagonist’s narration:
“And what about Laika, the space dog? They put her in the Sputnik and sent her into space. They attached wires to her heart and brain to see how she felt. I don’t think she felt too good. She spun around up there for five months until her doggy bag was empty. She starved to death. It’s important to have something like that to compare things to.”
“It’s strange how I can’t stop thinking about Laika. People shouldn’t think so much. ‘Time heals all wounds,’ Mrs. Arvidsson says. Mrs. Arvidsson says some wise things. You have to try to forget.”
“…I’ve been kinda lucky. I mean, compared to others. You have to compare, so you can get a little distance from things. Like Laika. She really must have seen things in perspective.”
Laika did indeed see things in perspective, and may well have experienced the overview effect before any human being. The young boy in My Life as a Dog understands this, intuiting the Laika’s perspective, and is able to better judge his own station in life by comparing his situation to that of Laika.
As long as our industrial-technological civilization continues in its development (i.e., as long as it does not succumb to the existential risks of flawed realization or permanent stagnation), we individuals contextualized within this civilization can continue our development, and this development will be facilitated by the technologies produced by this civilization that will give us new experiences, and these new experiences will afford us with new perspectives on the world.
Recently there have been many new stories about Voyager-1 being the first human artifact to leave the solar system (cf. Voyager probe ‘leaves Solar System’ by Jonathan Amos, Science correspondent, BBC News). Meditations upon the achievement of Voyager-1 have taken the form of a perspective taking on our solar system entire. We are inspired to contemplate our perspective on the world by imaginatively taking the point of view of Voyager-1. Some day, a human being will travel as far or farther than Voyager-1, and will look back and see our sun at a distance, as we once looked back and saw the earth for the first time at a distance.
Our technologically-facilitated perspective taking will not end there. There are grander views yet to contemplate, and grander conceptions of nature that will follow from a direct, visceral experience of these grander views. As wonderful as the Earth must appear from space, and as transformative as seeing this must be, further in the future there will be the possibility of flying far enough beyond the Milky Way that we will be able to turn around and look back at our home galaxy. Knowing it to be our home (and by that time having come to a kind of astronautical familiarity with the Earth, our solar system, and the Orion Spur of the Milky Way), we will be moved by the sight of our entire galaxy seen whole, in one glance of the eye, hanging suspended and seemingly motionless against the blackness of space unrelieved by stars — for the only companions to our galaxy from this extra-galactic point of view will be other galaxies, and this astonishing perspective may well spur us toward a yet more comprehensive, therefore more adequate, conception of the universe.
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14 September 2013
The Overview Effect
The “overview effect” is so named for the view of the earth entire — an “overview” of the earth — enjoyed by astronauts and cosmonauts, as well as the change in perspective that a few of these privileged observers have had as a result of seeing the earth whole with their own eyes.
One of these astronauts, Edgar Mitchell, who was on the 1971 Apollo mission and was the sixth human being to walk on the moon, has been instrumental to bringing attention to the overview effect, and has written a book about his experiences as an astronaut and how it affected his perception and perspective, The Way of the Explorer: An Apollo Astronaut’s Journey Through the Material and Mystical Worlds. A short film has been made about the overview effect, and an institution has been established to study and to promote the overview effect, The Overview Institute.
Here is an extract from the declaration of The Overview Institute:
For more than four decades, astronauts from many cultures and backgrounds have been telling us that, from the perspective of Earth orbit and the Moon, they have gained such a vision. There is even a common term for this experience: “The Overview Effect”, a phrase coined in the book of the same name by space philosopher and writer Frank White. It refers to the experience of seeing firsthand the reality of the Earth in space, which is immediately understood to be a tiny, fragile ball of life, hanging in the void, shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere. From space, the astronauts tell us, national boundaries vanish, the conflicts that divide us become less important and the need to create a planetary society with the united will to protect this “pale blue dot” becomes both obvious and imperative. Even more so, many of them tell us that from the Overview perspective, all of this seems imminently achievable, if only more people could have the experience!
We have a hint of the overview effect when we see pictures of the Earth as a “blue marble” and as a “pale blue dot”; those who have had the opportunity to see the Earth as a blue marble with their own eyes have been affected by this vision to a greater extent than we can presumably understand from seeing the photographs. Here is another description of the overview effect:
When people leave the surface of the Earth and travel into Low Earth Orbit, to a space station, or the moon, they see the planet differently. My colleague at the Overview Institute, David Beaver, likes to emphasize that they not only see the Earth from space but also in space. He has also been a strong proponent that we describe what then happens as a change in world view.
Deep Space: The Philosophy of the Overview Effect, Frank White
In the same essay White then quotes himself from his book, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, on the same theme:
“Mental processes and views of life cannot be separated from physical location. Our “world view” as a conceptual framework depends quite literally on our view of the world from a physical place in the universe.”
Frank White has sought to give a systematic exposition of the overview effect in his book, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, which seeks to develop a philosophy of space travel derived from the personal experience of space by space travelers.
The Spatial Overview
There is no question in my mind that sometimes you have to see things for yourself. I have invoked this argument numerous times in writing about travel — no amount of eloquent description or stunning photographs can substitute for the experience of seeing a place for yourself with your own eyes. This is largely a matter of context: being in a place, experiencing a place as a presence, requires one’s own presence, and one’s own presence can be realized only as the result of a journey. A journey contextualizes an experience within the experiences required the reach the object of the journey. The very fact that one must travel in order to each a destination alters the experience of the destination itself.
To be present in a landscape means that all of one’s senses are engaged: one not only sees, but one sees with the whole of one’s peripheral vision, and when one turns one’s body in order to take in more of the landscape, one not only sees more of the landscape, but one feels one’s body turn; one smells the air; one hears the distinctive reverberations of the most casual sounds — all of the things that remind us that this is not an illusion but possesses all the chance qualities that mark a real, concrete experience.
I have remarked in other posts that one of the distinctive trends in contemporary philosophy of mind is that of emphasizing the embodiedness of the mind, and in this context the embodied mind is a mind that is inseparable from its sensory apparatus and its sensory apparatus is inseparable from the world with which it is engaged. When our eyes hurt as we look at the sun we are reminded by this visceral experience of sight — one might say overwhelming sight — that we experience the world in virtue of a sensory apparatus that is made of essentially the same materials as the world — that there is an ontological reciprocity of eye that sees and sun that shines, and it is only because the two share the same world and are made of the same materials that they stand in a relation of cause and effect to each other. We are part of the world, of the world, and in the world.
Presumably, then, to the present in space and feel oneself kineasthetically in space — most obviously, the feeling of a micro-gravity environment once off the surface of the earth — is part of the experience of the overview effect, as is the dramatic journey into orbit, which must remind the viewer of the difficulty of attaining the perspective of seeing the world whole. This is the overview effect in space.
The Temporal Overview
There is also the possibility of an overview effect in time. For the same reason that we might insist that some experiences must be had for oneself, and that one must be present spatially in a spatial landscape in order to appreciate that landscape for what it is, we might also insist that a person who has lived a long life and who has experienced many things has a certain kind of understanding of the temporal landscape of life, and it is only through a conscious knowledge of the experience of time and history that we can attain an overview of time.
The movement in contemporary historiography called Big History (which I have written about several times, e.g., in The Science of Time and Addendum on Big History as the Science of Time) is an attempt to achieve an overview experience of time and history.
I have observed elsewhere that we find ourselves swimming in the ocean of history, but this very immersion in history often prevents us from seeing history whole — which is an interesting contrast to the spatial overview experience, which which contextualization in a particular space is necessary to its appreciation and understanding. But contextualization in a particular time — which we would otherwise call parochialism — tends to limit our historical perspective, and we must actively make an effort to free ourselves from our temporal and historical contextualization in order to see time and history whole.
It is the effort to free ourselves from temporal parochialism, and the particularities and peculiarities of our own time, that give as a perspective on history that is not tied to any one history but embraces the whole of time as the context of many different histories. This is the overview effect in time.
The Epistemic Overview
I would like to suggest that there is also an epistemic overview effect. It is not enough to be told about knowledge in the way that newspaper and magazine articles might tell a popular audience about a new scientific discovery, or in the way that textbooks tell students about the wider world. While in some cases this may be sufficient, and we must rely upon the reports of others because we cannot construct the whole of knowledge on our own, in many cases knowledge must be gained firsthand in order for its proper significance to be appreciated.
Elsewhere (in P or not-P) I have illustrated the distinction between a constructive and a non-constructive point of view being something like the difference between climbing up a mountain, clambering over every rock until one achieves the summit (constructive) versus taking a helicopter and being set down on the summit from above (non-constructive). (I have taken this example over from French mathematician Alain Connes.) With this image in mind, being blasted off into space and seeing the mountain from orbit is a paradigmatically non-constructive experience, and it is difficult to imagine how it could be made a constructive experience.
Well, there are ways. Once space technology becomes widely distributed and accessible, if a person were to build their own SSTO from off-the-shelf parts and then pilot themselves into orbit, that would be something like a constructive experience of the overview effect. And if we go on to create a vibrant and vigorous spacefaring civilization, making it into orbit will only be the first of many steps, so that a constructive experience of space travel will be to “climb” one’s way from the surface of the earth through the solar system and beyond, touching every transitional point in between. It has been said that the journey of the thousand miles begins with a single step — this is very much a constructivist perspective. And it holds true that a journey of a million miles or a billion miles begins with a single step, and that first step of a cosmic voyage is the step that takes us beyond the surface of the earth.
Despite the importance and value of the constructivist perspective, it has its limitations, just as the oft-derided non-constructive point of view has its particular virtues and its significance. Non-constructive methods can reveal to us knowledge that is disruptive because it is forced upon us suddenly, in one fell swoop. Such an experience is memorable; it leaves an impression, and quite possibly it leaves much more of an impression that a painstakingly gradual revelation of exactly the same perspective.
This is the antithesis of the often-cited example of a frog placed in a pot of water and which doesn’t jump out as the water is slowly brought to a boil. The frog in this scenario is a victim of constructivist gradualism; if the frog had had a non-constructive perspective on the hot water in which he was being boiled to death, he might have jumped out and saved himself. And perhaps this is exactly what we need as human beings: a non-constructive (and therefore disruptive) perspective on a the familiar life that has crept over us day-by-day, step-by-step, and bit-by-bit.
An epistemic overview of knowledge can give us a disruptive conception of the totality of knowledge that is not unlike the disruptive experience of the overview effect in space, which allows us to see the earth whole, and the disruptive experience of time that allows us to see history whole. Moreover, I would argue that the epistemic overview is the ultimate category — the summum genus — that must contextualize the overview effect in space and in time. However, it is important to point out that the immediate visceral experience of the overview effect may be the trigger that is required for an individual to begin to seek the epistemic overview that will give meaning to his experiences.
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18 August 2013
Day 4 – Congress Summary | Sunday August 18th, 2013
Day 4 of the Icarus Interstellar Starship Congress began with a presentation by science-fiction artist Stephan Martiniere and, because Monsieur Martiniere is an artist the audience was treated to a wide variety of his work. He told the story of his life in pictures, and linked it throughout to developments of the Space Age, which was an artful touch. …
After this Andreas Hein launched into a sober assessment of technologies necessary to interstellar flight in “Project Hyperion: Disruptive Technologies for Manned Interstellar Travel”. Much of what Mr. Hein presented were ideas that I had independently worked out for myself, describing the S-curve of technological maturity and how technological succession can extend this S-curve upward. Using these analytical tools, Hein assessed which technologies would be necessary to any interstellar mission, and which technologies might prove to be disruptive breakthroughs that rendered other technologies obsolete, ending with the suggestion that investments in technologies must be balanced across a spectrum of low risk/high probability of use and high risk/high gain technologies.
Next came Aaron Cardon, a doctor, with “Ideal Biological Characteristics for Long-Duration Manned Space Travel.” This presentation was much more interesting to me than I expected it to be, and suggested to me that designs of a long term interstellar mission would not be uniformly good or bad for human health, but rather that some starship design parameters may compromise human physiology while others may actually optimize human physiology. For example, Dr. Cardon stated that the circadian rhythm of the human body, if taken out of the context of our 24 hour rotation of the Earth may be closer to 26 or 28 hours, which an artificial environment could easily accommodate. Dr. Cardon also spoke about some of the psychological and sociological consequences of long-term missions — something covered in yesterday’s Odyssey presentation — including the dramatic shift that would need to take place in making the transition from an open frontier to prioritizing social cohesion, and how human intuitive heuristics may pose a risk in artificial environments. This talk gave me much to think about.
Rob Swinney gave an update of Project Icarus, which was the seed from which Icarus Interstellar originally grew, and discussed a number of design parameters of the starship project that is, essentially, the successor to the Daedalus project. This was followed by a presentation that was not on the program, Robert Kennedy on “Dyson Dots: Geoengineering is the Killer App.” Mr. Kennedy demonstrated how the interests of those seeking to mitigate anthropogenic climate change coincide with those seeking space industry, since space-based geoengineering could both address climate change and result in space industry. Specifically, we could construct a “Dyson dot” between the Earth and sun that would cast ever so slight a shadow on the Earth, marginally lowering terrestrial insolation. Moreover, the sun side of this Dyson dot could be covered in photovoltaic cells, which could generate a significant amount of electricity. Mr. Kennedy rightly noted that this approach is both scalable and reversible, which are real virtues in this context.
Jim Benford then presented, “Shouting to the Cosmos: The METI Debate” — METI being Messaging Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, in contradistinction to SETI or the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence. Benford represented that school of thought that feels messaging ought to be discussed before it is undertaken on any great scale, and he contrasted this to the views of some in the field who support vigorous efforts to create a “beacon” and to attempt to send messages out into the cosmos. Benford rightly noted that today a wealthy individual could sponsor such a beacon and engage in METI without anyone to stop such activity. He suggested that international consensus, peer-reviewed publication of messaging details, consultation, and perhaps also an enforcement mechanism were in order.
Benford laid out the case both for and against METI, which was quite interesting to me. There were several stated assumptions and derivations from this assumptions, but each assumed something fundamental that was formative to the given position. Those in favor of METI believe that interstellar travel is impossible, while those opposed to unregulated METI assert that EM leakage cannot be detected. As it happens, I can’t belong to either camp because I disagree with both assumptions. I think that interstellar travel is possible, and I think that it is pretty clear that the EM radiation leakage (unintended signals) of a peer industrial-technological civilization can be detected.
Benford took the trouble to point out contradictions in the position of those advocating unregulated METI, but it seems to me that the glaring contradition in Benford’s position was that he asserted that EM leakage could not be detected, but he openly admitted that an advanced ETI could pretty easily build an antenna large enough and sensitive enough to hear us. The way he gets around this contradiction is something that I have thought about a bit, and I wrote about it last year in The Visibility Presumption. I want to go into this in a little more detail because it is so interesting.
Benford asked the rhetorical question of why ETI would be looking in our direction, in all the vastness of the cosmos. This is a rhetorical question so long as one maintains an unproblematic conception of the cosmological principle, but it becomes a live question and not merely rhetorical once the classical cosmological principle is called into question. Benford’s position perfectly exemplified the cosmological principle, i.e., that we occupy no privileged place in the cosmos, therefore there is no reason for ETI to point their antenna in our direction. I will not here dispute the idea of our not occupying a privileged cosmological position (advocates of the anthropic cosmological principle have spent enough time doing this), but there is a very different way to think about this that undermines the assumption of there being no reason for ETI to look in our direction.
Any peer civilization (i.e., any civilization like us) is going to be looking for peer civilizations because this intrinsic curiosity, at least in part, defines our civilization. In looking for peer civilizations, any advanced ETI will show at least as much ingenuity as we have shown in the search for ETI, since ingenuity of this kind is another quality that, at least in part, defines our civilization. We are now, at the present level of our technology, less than twenty years from the spectroscopy of exoplanet atmospheres, which could reveal markers of life and civilization. Any advanced peer civilization would have already done this (spectroscopy of exoplanet atmospheres), and they would have done this for the kind of planets that can host peer civilizations — small, rocky planets in the habitable zones of main sequence stars. In other words, ETI would have already by now done the spectroscopy of Earth’s atmosphere, and in so doing they would have focused in on the Earth as a place of great interest, in the exact same way that we would focus on an “Earth twin.” This would mean that they would focus all their best radio antennas on us, just as we could focus intensively on a planet that would likely host life and civilization.
It would be relatively easy for an advanced ETI of a peer civilization to build a custom antenna for nothing other than the possibility of detecting our EM leakage, since they had already identified us as a promising target for SETI and perhaps also METI.
In the question and answer session following Benford’s talk a new wrinkle in all this appeared. My co-presenter from Day 2, Heath Rezabek, suggested that someone opposed to unregulated METI could broadcast a counter-signal to a METI signal and essentially silence that signal.
The possibility of a counter-signal is an idea that can be scaled up, so that it is possible that what Paul Davies calls the “eerie silence” and David Brin has called the “Great Silence” is not something natural, but could be imposed or generated.
One metaphor that has been used to explain the eerie or great silence is that no one shouts in a jungle. This is plausible. If the universe is a dangerous place filled with predators, you don’t want to call attention to yourself. But it is just as plausible that everyone is “shushed” in a library as that everyone keeps quiet in a jungle, and therefore it is just as plausible to think of our universe as a library as to think of it as a jungle.
And with that discussion I had to leave the 2013 Icarus Interstellar Starship Congress at noon in order to catch my flight back to Portland.
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Here is an incomplete schedule for the day’s events (incomplete because Robert Kennedy’s presentation is not mentioned below.
8:45am Introduction to Day 4
9:00am Keynote: Stephan Martiniere, “FarMaker Speed Sketch Awards”
9:45am Presentation 1: Andreas Hein, “Project Hyperion: Disruptive Technologies for Manned Interstellar Travel”
10:10am Presentation 2: Aaron Cardon, “Ideal Biological Characteristics for Long-Duration Manned Space Travel”
10:40am Presentation 3: Rob Swinney, “Project Icarus”
11:25am Presentation 4: Jim Benford, “Shouting to the Galaxy: The METI Debate”
12:00am Session Chair Panel, “Discussion of Tracks”
12:45pm Icarus Project Lead Panel, “Progress Report and Future Objectives”
1:30pm Mike Mongo, “Build a Starship”
1:45pm Richard Obousy, “Building an Interstellar Community”
2:00pm Icarus Starship Congress Ends
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17 August 2013
Day 3 – Interstellar Future (50 years +) | Saturday August 17th, 2013
Day 3 of the Icarus Interstellar Starship Congress began with Harold “Sonny” White discussing recent attempts to scientifically test the ideas behind the Alcubierre drive, which would be a form of spacecraft mobility (one can’t quite call it propulsion) that would have the effect of superluminal velocity. The proposed drive does not violate general relativity because space itself can expand or contract faster than the speed of light, even if no physical body can travel at the speed of light. The Alcubierre drive, and other concepts that have followed, involve distorting space around a spacecraft while the spacecraft itself, and its occupants, never exceed the speed of light. White also discussed Q-thrusters (quantum vacuum plasma thruster), which would thrust against quantum vacuum fluctuations. This would not yield the kind of science fiction-like travel of the Alcubierre drive, but it sounded closer to being in reach. On his last slide he showed a figure of 29.9 years to make it to Proxima Centauri with Q-thrusters, which require a lot of energy but don’t require fuel. With this in mind, I note that we can pretty readily (today) manufacture a nuclear reactor that can be fueled upon construction and run continuously for 30 years without refueling (as with the compact nuclear reactors on submarines and aircraft carriers). If we could build Q-thrusters, we could also supply them for long enough to get to the nearest star, and that is an impressive thought.
This was followed by Eric Davis presenting “Faster-Than-Light Space Warps: What’s It All About?” which was a wonderfully clear and intuitive presentation of faster than light possibilities. Mr. Davis suggested that one may someday, “design spacetime to your specifications,” and returned to this theme of engineering spacetime. Next was Hal Puthoff with “Engineering the Spacetime Metric for Interstellar Flight,” which the speaker characterized as “general relativity for engineers.” The speaker presented an alternative formulation of general relativity in terms of the dielectric constant, which should make many problems in general relativity more tractable for engineers. Marc Millis presented “From Sci-Fi to Sci-Method — Space Drives,” which, continuing the exposition of interstellar flight in relation to general relativity, emphasized the remaining theoretical ellipses of general relativity, specifically, that general relativity did not decisively resolve the problem of inertial frames of reference. He had some interesting things to say about Mach’s principle (a topic of some interest to me, which I have been intending to study more closely). Next were two quite technical talks, Jeff Lee on “Singularity Propulsion — Acceleration of a Schwarzschild Kugelblitz Starship” and Gerald Cleaver on “The Quirks of Quark Engines.”
Then came Lance Williams on the “Rise of the Scalar Field, and its Implications for Interstellar Travel.” Williams offered, “the promise of gravitational control,” and ended with the statement that, “Electromagnetic control of gravity is necessary for human control of gravity.” This was very much in the same spirit of the earlier lectures today which emphasized the human ability to engineer spacetime itself. And, certainly, if Alcubierre drives or artificial gravity become a reality we will have a world that is everything that science fiction authors have imagined, and more besides. In the question and answer session following Williams’ talk, in response to a question Williams emphasized that his use of a 5-manifold in his exposition (following Kaluza of Kaluza-Klein fame) was of a fifth macroscopic dimension, and he drew a clear distinction between the compactified dimensions of string theory and macroscopic dimensions in physical theory (which, I might add, warmed my heart). A string theorist in attendance had earlier assured him that string theory had all the dimensional resources his approach could need, but Williams ended by saying that physics had been “locked in” to string theory and QED gravitation for the past century, with the clear implication that this had gone on long enough.
After this the Congress broke for lunch, but instead of eating I went back to my room for a nap. I overslept and returned only for the last few minutes of Rachel Armstrong’s presentation, which was a disappointment for me since I had recently written on my other blog about some of Armstrong’s ideas on urbanism.
Ken Roy then presented “Shell Worlds: an Approach to Terraforming Small Rocky Worlds,” which proposed that smaller worlds (like about the size of Mars) could be completely contained within a structure holding in the atmosphere built somewhere between 2 and 20 kilometers up from the surface. This he contrasted to “traditional” terraforming, and he maintained that shell worlds had certain advantages, as, for example, the ability to construct “designer biospheres,” to have the same time zone all around a planet (since all lighting would have to be artificial, and so forth. Roy also mentioned “paraterraforming,” which term I had not previously heard, and said that it also involved a contained atmosphere, but he didn’t go into much detail on what exactly constitutes paraterraforming.
Next was a joint presentation by a filmmaker and a social scientist, “Odyssey: Global Personality Test for Crewing a Generation-Starship,” which is both a social science project and a film project. Odyssey takes as its presupposition a generational starship and asks how a crew would be selected for this mission. Starship crew questions can be a lot like “lifeboat” exercises in asking who one would include and who one would leave to die, and this exercise in starship crewing certainly had this feel for me. The robust assumptions made by those who designed the project, and the forcefulness with which they asserted these assumptions — Are you prepared to leave everything and everyone you have ever known forever? — were a good splash of cold water for those contemplating generational starships. I think that they must have chosen quite intentionally to tightly constrain the exercise in order to inject some sense of discipline into this question, often raised among interstellar advocates. For me personally, this presentation of a generational starship in which the individual is systematically subordinated to the good of the mission was a kind of dystopian vision of regulation that constitutes the antithesis of the vision of freedom through space travel that attracts me.
There were a couple presentations on SETI efforts, Thomas Hair on “Radio Transients and Base Rate Bias: Bayesian Argument for Conservatism” and Al Jackson on “Extreme SETI.” Hair proposed “the long stare” as a thought experiment in SETI, and gave a Bayesian analysis of the kind of data that would be collected from a concentrated SETI focus on a small part of the sky (think of it something like the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, but for SETI instead of observational astronomy). Hair also suggested that SETI was shifting to a search for “ephemeral leakage,” by which I believe he meant picking up unintended signals from alien civilizations — like what an alien civilization might hear from us at a distance of many lightyears. Al Jackson was difficult to hear, as his speaking voice wasn’t very loud, but he focused on SETI efforts to find mega-engineering projects of highly advanced civilizations, such as detecting starships, gravitational machines, and “surfing” black holes.
The final presentation for this session was Giorgio Gaviraghi, “Code of Ethics for Alien Encounters.” Gaviraghi’s talk yesterday was the most far-reaching and speculative, and he once again put himself out on a limb with a series of hypothetical inmperatives contingent upon the level of development achieved by civilizations potentially in contact. If I had had the chance to ask a question I would have asked if these various hypothetical imperatives could be traced back to any one categorical imperative that was the motivation for the code of ethics he proposed. I had a chance later to speak very briefly to Gaviraghi, but didn’t have enough time to raise this question.
Another panel discussion, like yesterday’s, considered another three questions. This wasn’t as interesting to me as yesterday’s discussion, but in the final question on extraterrestrial contact Kelvin Long said, “ideas can do as much damage as war,” which was a good comment, and Gaviraghi (who replaced Armen Papazian) made a statement that I particularly liked. I didn’t take down his words verbatim, and I may have misunderstood his intent, but what it sounded like to me was that what we can learn about civilization as a result of extraterrestrial contact may tell us something about our own civilization. If this is what Gaviraghi meant, I enthusiastically agree, and it shows another parallelism between biology and civilization, because exactly the same thing is true in biology. As Carl Sagan noted, a single instance of extraterrestrial life would de-provincialize biology.
After the Congress broke for dinner for a couple of hours we assembled again and heard Peter Garretson speak on “Space – A Billion Year Plan for Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” I agreed with pretty nearly everything that was said here, and I really wanted to ask a question, but there was no question and answer period following his talk. Garretson gave a presentation very indebted tot he vision of Gerard K. O’Neill, involving solar power satellites and O’Neill colonies, and this was much appreciated, as he rightly noted that any space capacity you could want to have would be in place by the time you had built a system of solar power satellites.
After the Congress was over for the day I realized that I often learned more from the question and answer sessions than from the presentations, and it occurred to me that a lot of this material might be better suited to a seminar format rather than a lecture format. A lecture format could be modified to accommodate more questions and answers, but not all talks generate the same level of interest. I think if I were to organize a congress of some sort I might consider making a rule that all presentations had to be made extemporaneously in order to keep them spontaneous, and encourage the audience to raise their hands with a question in the midst of a lecture to keep the exchange going throughout. Slides could be limited to images, graphics, or charts only (in order to generate discussion without being read), and speakers could be asked to finish with a one-sentence “take away” message, perhaps purposefully provocative, once again, to generate discussion.
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Here is the complete program of today’s events:
8:45am Introduction to Day 3
9:00am Keynote: Sonny White, “Warp Field Physics: an Update”
9:45am Presentation 1: Eric Davis, “Faster-Than-Light Space Warps: What’s It All About?”
10:10am Presentation 2: Hal Puthoff, “Engineering the Spacetime Metric for Interstellar Flight”
10:45am Presentation 3: Marc Millis, “Transgalactic Travel Guide” & “From Sci-Fi to Sci-Method – Space Drives”
11:10am Presentation 4: Jeff Lee, “Singularity Propulsion – Acceleration of a Schwarzschild Kugelblitz Starship”
11:35am Presentation 5: Gerald Cleaver, “The Quirks of Quark Engines”
12:00am Presentation 6: Lance Williams, “Rise of the Scalar Field, and its Implications for Interstellar Travel”
1:15pm Keynote: Rachel Armstrong, “Project Persephone”
2:00pm Presentation 7: Ken Roy, “Shell Worlds: an Approach to Terraforming Small Rocky Worlds”
2:25pm Presentation 8: Sheryl Bishop, “Odyssey: Global Personality Test for Crewing a Generation-Starship”
3:00pm Presentation 9: Thomas Hair, “Radio Transients & Base Rate Bias: Bayesian Argument for Conservatism”
3:25pm Presentation 10: Al Jackson, “Extreme SETI”
3:50pm Presentation 11: A. Caminoa & G. Gaviraghi, “Code of Ethics for Alien Encounters”
4:15pm Break | Description of Evening Event
4:30pm STARSHIP CONGRESS: Long-Term Questions
6:00pm Dinner (Individual)
8:00pm Event 3a | Peter Garretson: “Space – A Billion Year Plan for Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”
8:45pm Event 3b | “Dream of Starships” with Hailey Bright
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16 August 2013
Day 2 – Interstellar This Lifetime (20 – 50 years) | Friday August 16th, 2013
Today I was present for the whole of Day 2 of the Icarus Interstellar Starship Congress, which included by own stint of giving a co-presentation with Heath Rezabek on “Existential Risk for Interstellar Advocates.”
The day began with Michael Minovitch giving an updated perspective on the Bussard ramjet, which by his calculations could obtain 0.7 G acceleration, which puts it in the class of what I have elsewhere called the “game changer” of a 1 G starship. A 1 G starship would allow human beings to travel very long distances within the cosmos in ordinary life spans, which is a point that Carl Sagan also made in his Cosmos television series. Moreover, Mr. Minovitch was quite serious about the possibility of building a Bussard ramjet with contemporary technology, or what we might call nearly contemproary technology. He even suggested that the space shuttle could be take out of math balls to ferry the required parts into orbit for building a Bussard ramjet in the near future.
Many of the day’s talks involved ongoing work on familiar starship designs. It might sound a bit odd that I should say, “familiar starship designs,” because we haven’t yet built any starships, but anyone familiar with the literature can name off a short list of designs that have currency in the community of those who think about such things. For example, Srikanth Reddy gave a detailed structural analysis of the Daedalus starship design, while Friedwardt Winterberg gave a review of several different familiar starship designs, as did Kelvin Long in his talk, “Rise of the Starships.” Winterberg presented one idea that was unfamiliar to me, which was a way to approach the problem of collisions of a starship with micrometeorites, which would impact with devastating force at relativistic velocities. Winterberg suggested that a matter-anti-matter drive could be occasionally turned around and blasted forward to clear a trail for the starship.
Winterberg prefaced his talk with a wonderful quote from Wernher von Braun:
“The importance of the space program is to build a bridge to the stars, so that when the Sun dies, humanity will not die. The Sun is a star that’s burning up, and when it finally burns up, there will be no Earth… no Mars… no Jupiter.”
This is, of course, the essence of existential risk consciousness, and I think that many of those involved with spaceflight are involved because they see the crucial role that spaceflight plays in existential risk mitigation, even if they have never heard the term, “existential risk.” My co-presentation with Heath Rezabek was focused on existential Risk. Heath started with the outline of the idea and some of his proposals, and I followed with a sketch a existential risk in the context of a growing interstellar civilization.
There were many excellent presentations among the above that I have not mentioned here: Robert Freeland on the use of a magsail to slow down a starship, Gwyn Rosaire on nuclear rockets, who clearly presented nuclear rocket technology as part of a developmental process of starship drives, and Armen Papazian on post-scarcity economics for the space age.
The most widely-ranging talk was that of Georgio Gaviraghi on “A Kardashev III Approach to Extra-Solar Colonization.” Gaviraghi gave his own interpretation of Kardeshev which seems to have become commonplace, but he went much further, speaking of singularities in the plural and suggesting that exponential technological growth may result in a K2 and oK3 civilization much earlier than we usually suppose.
After the individual talks there was a panel discussion during which three questions were asked, the panel discussed them, and audience members commented on them. The questions where whether human beings should wait to go to the stars until we have “fixed” things on earth, whether interstellar exploration should be by AI or should be a strictly human undertaking, and whether some policy needs to be adopted in light of the possibility of encountering alien forms of life. These questions generated a lot of interesting comments.
The discussion of the last of the three questions ranged widely over proposed rules for contact with alien life and the unlikelihood that any policy would be impossible to enforce. Kevin Long asked, “Who speaks for alien life?” Several people suggested that if we encounter alien life we should sample it and leave it alone. Someone asked the equivalent of whether human beings want to be an invasive species. Joe Ritter implied his sympathy for directed panspermia. Many seemed to suggest something like the precautionary principle in any exchanges with alien life, and that we should never bring it back to Earth.
My co-presenter, Heath Rezabek, stood up and gave his perspective on this debate, which I thought was quite interesting. Heath suggested that after human beings have spent some time traveling around the cosmos, and had seen a great many barren rocks, that if, after this, we were to find another beautiful blue-green planet like our own, covered in complex life, by that time we may have realized that such things are rare and ought to be treated with respect. I think there is a lot of merit in this observation, and it also incorporates a developmental perspective on human engagement with the cosmos. While we may not learn out lessons reliably, we do sometimes learn our lessons, so that the possibility can’t simply be dismissed.
There is more to say, and I took lots of notes, but I am tired now and must content myself for the moment with this inadequate sketch of the day.
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Here is the complete program of today’s events:
8:45am Introduction to Day 2
9:00am Keynote: Michael Minovitch, “Interstellar Space Travel with Reasonable Round-trip Travel Times”
9:45am Presentation 1: Jason Cassibry, “Vehicle Requirements for an Alpha Centauri Flyby in 50 Years”
10:10am Presentation 2: Srikanth Reddy, “Structural Analysis of the Daedalus Reaction Chamber & Thrust Structure”
10:45am Presentation 4: F. Winterberg, “Cheating the Death of the Sun by Relativistic Interstellar Spaceflight”
11:30am Presentation 3: Robert Freeland, “Trading a Mag-Sail vs. Fusion for Full Deceleration”
11:55am Presentation 6: Gwyn Rosaire, “The Nuclear Thermal Rocket’s Role in Promoting Interstellar Exploration”
1:15pm Keynote: Kelvin Long, “Rise of the Starships”
2:00pm Presentation 7: Armen Papazian, “Money Mechanics for Space”
2:25pm Presentation 8: Chris Wimer, “Using Game Mechanics to Increase Funding and Improve Public Knowledge”
3:00pm Presentation 9: Heath Rezabek & Nick Nielsen, “(Xrisk 101) Existential Risk for Interstellar Advocates”
3:25pm Presentation 10: A. Caminoa & G. Gaviraghi, “Critical Path and Interstellar Routes”
3:50pm Presentation 11: A. Caminoa & G. Gaviraghi, “A Kardashev III Approach to Extra-Solar Colonization”
4:15pm Break | Description of Evening Event
4:30pm STARSHIP CONGRESS: Mid-Term Questions
6:00pm Dinner (Individual)
8:00pm Event 2 | “Starship Congress Cocktail Evening with Sarah Jane Pell”
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6 November 2012
A curious case of selective stagnation:
A whole new way to think about Weltschmerz
Among those who think about human space exploration, the relatively modest (i.e., less than ambitious) human space program since the end of the Apollo program that took human beings to the moon is a problem that requires an explanation. There have always been futurist speculations that have taken particular trends out of context and extrapolated them in isolation. Such narrowly focused futurism almost always gets things wrong. But when we think of all that might have been accomplished in terms of space exploration in the past forty years, and how far we might have gone in terms of existential risk mitigation as a result of a robust space program, one inevitably asks why more has not been done.
Putting the space program in the context of existential risk shifts our understanding a bit, since the space program is usually understood as science or exploration or adventure, but I am coming more to the view that it must be understood in terms of mitigating existential risk, that is to say, establishing self-sustaining, self-sufficient settlements off the surface of the Earth so that life and civilization can go on whatever the vulnerabilities of our home world. From this perspective, from the perspective of existential risk, the space program, and in fact all of human civilization, has been stagnant. We have had the power to leave the Earth and to create a second home for ourselves elsewhere, and we have failed to do so.
The idea of existential risk is due to Nick Bostrum, whom I have mentioned several times recently. His papers Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards and Existential Risk Reduction as Global Priority lay out the basic architecture of the concept, introducing several qualitative risk categories and their classification in terms of existential risk. Bostrum distinguishes four classes of existential risk: human extinction, permanent stagnation, flawed realization, and subsequent ruination.
How are we to construe the relative stagnation of the space program over the past forty years, which could provide a degree of existential risk mitigation, but which has not been widely viewed in this light. Space science has had many spectacular successes in recent decades, which have substantially increased our knowledge of the universe in which we live, but all of this is for naught if our exclusively-terrestrially dwelling species is wiped out by a natural catastrophe beyond the power of our technology to stop or to tame. There is a sense, then, no matter how valuable our scientific knowledge from unmanned missions, that the past forty years have been a wasted opportunity to secure against existential risk. We had the knowledge to go into space, the ability, the economic foundation — all the elements were present, but the will to secure the survival of our own species has been lacking. How do we explain this?
We cannot say that civilization has been exactly stagnant over the past forty years. How can human civilization be said to be stagnant when we have been experiencing exponential technological growth? We have experienced an explosion in the development of telecommunications and computing that was unpredicted and unprecedented. This has profoundly changed our personal lives and the structure of the overall economy and society. It has also increased the rate of technological change, since computerized engineering and design makes it possible to build other technologies in a much more sophisticated fashion than previously was the case. When we think of technological triumphs like the SR-71, the Apollo project, and the Concorde, we must remember that most of this was accomplished by engineers with slide rules writing calculations in pencil on paper. And yet today we have no sophisticated supersonic aerospace industry and nothing on the scale of the Apollo program, though we could presumably do both better now than we did before.
With all this technological progress, there remains a feeling of unfulfilled potential in the past half century. No one can say — as it was in fact said before the space program — that it is simply impossible to travel in space, or for human beings to live in space, or to travel to the moon. We’ve all seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, and even this modest human future in space, with a rotating space station and a base on the moon, didn’t happen. Did people lose interest? Did they turn inward, preferring personal comfort to what Theodore Roosevelt called “the strenuous life”? Was the human spirit broken by the Cold War and the haunting threat of nuclear annihilation?
In German there is a word that we lack in English: Weltschmerz, sometimes translated as “world-weariness.” Americans have never had much use for either the term or the idea, and it sounds a bit too much like post-War French existentialism with its systematic exposition of guilt, despair, alienation, and absurdity. Nevertheless, it is difficult to look at the past half century without thinking of it in terms not unlike Weltschmerz.
Stagnation can take the form of a civilization being shot through with ellipses. We could called this condition selective stagnation. Because there are so many possible explanations for the selective stagnation of the past forty years, and because it is unlikely that any one single social, economic, political, or ideological explanation could explain our selective stagnation, the only way we can embrace the complex social phenomenon of selective stagnation is to cover it with a term specifically intended to indicate many historical causes coming together into a trend that constitutes a whole greater than any of its individual parts. Once upon a time this was called “decadence,” as in Thomas Coulture’s famous painting “Romans of the Decadence.” We could also call it Weltschmerz (although it this case it should be Raumshmerz rather than Weltschmerz), or we could call it terrestrial malaise or even planetary torpor.
Since the advent of civilization, there have been several periods of extended stagnation, which historians formerly called “dark ages” but which term is avoided today because of its disparaging connotations. I have previously written about the Greek Dark Ages, and I still occasionally refer to the early middle ages in Western Europe as the “dark ages” because there are senses in which the term remains apt. When we compare the selective stagnation of the past half century to these comprehensive periods during which Western civilization stumbled, and it was a real question whether or not it would recover its footing, our selective stagnation is so minor it scarcely bears mentioning.
But there is a crucial difference: the Greek Dark Age and the Dark Age following the collapse of Roman power in the western empire took place long before the scientific revolution. Since the scientific revolution we have continuously learned more about our place in the universe, and since the industrial revolution we have had the power to modify our place within nature with increasing scope and efficacy. Now we understand better than at any time in the past the existential risks we are facing, and for the past fifty years we have had the power to do something about that existential risk: to establish a human presence in extraterrestrial space that would not be vulnerable to disasters specific to the Earth. This is not absolute risk mitigation — the idea of absolute risk mitigation is illusory — but it is incrementally much better, perhaps even or order of magnitude of distancing ourselves from manifest vulnerability. .
It may be the case that when civilization reaches a certain stage of development at which a minimum level of creature comforts are available for the bulk of the world’s population, that this relative prosperity undermines the springs to action. Because we have only our own terrestrial civilization by which to judge, we don’t have a sufficiently big picture conception of civilization that would allow us to generalize at this level of the idea of civilization.
Singulatarians and transhumanists will tell you that we are poised on the verge of transformative change that will make all previous transitions in human history pale by comparison, and which will launch human beings — or, rather, the post-human, post-biological beings who will be the successors of specifically human being — on a course of development that will make these considerations either irrelevant, or so trivial that it will be a small matter to execute the required solution. But even as these wonders are coming about, we remain vulnerable. We might be on the very verge of the technological singularity when we are wiped out by a stray asteroid. This scenario would constitute what Nick Bostrum called “ephemeral realization.”
For these reasons, as well as many other that the reader will immediately see, I think that the idea of selective stagnation bears further study in its own right.
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29 October 2012
Parochialism, ironically, knows no bounds. Our habit of blinkering ourselves — what visionary poet William Blake called “mind-forged manacles” — is nearly universal. Sometimes even the most sophisticated minds miss the simple things that are staring them in the face. Usually, I think this is a function of the absence of a theoretical context that would make it possible to understand the simple truth staring us in the face.
I have elsewhere written that one of the things that makes Marx a truly visionary thinker is that he saw the industrial revolution for what it was — a revolution — even while many who lived through this profound series of events where unaware that they were living through a revolution. So even if one’s theoretical context is almost completely wrong, or seriously flawed, the mere fact of having the more comprehensive perspective bequeathed by a theoretical understanding of contemporary events can be enough to make it possible for one to see the forest for the trees.
Darwin wrote somewhere (I can’t recall where as I write this, but will add the reference later when I run across it) that from his conversations with biologists prior to publishing The Origin of Species he knew how few were willing to thing in terms of the mutability of species, but once he had made his theory public it was rapidly adopted as a research program by biologists, and Darwin suggested that countless facts familiar to biologists but hitherto not systematically incorporated into theory suddenly found a framework in which they could be expressed. Obviously, these are my words rather than Darwin’s, and when I can find the actual quote I will include it here, but I think I have remembered the gist of the passage to which I refer.
It would be comical, if it were not so pathetic, that one of the first responses to Darwin’s systematic exposition of evolution was for people to look around for “transitional” evolutionary forms, and, strange to say, they didn’t find any. This failure to find transitional forms was interpreted as a problem for evolution, and expeditions were mounted in order to search for the so-called “missing link.”
The idea that the present consists entirely of life forms having attained a completed and perfected form, and that all previous natural history culminates in these finished forms of the present, therefore placing all transitional forms in the past, is a relic of teleological and equilibrium thinking. Once we dispense the unnecessary and mistaken idea that the present is the aim of the past and exemplifies a kind of equilibrium in the history of life that can henceforth be iterated to infinity, it becomes immediately obvious that every life form is a transitional form, including ourselves.
A few radical thinkers understood this. Nietzsche, for example, understood this all-too-clearly, and wrote that, “Man is a rope stretched between the beasts and the Superman — a rope over an abyss. A dangerous crossing, a dangerous wayfaring, a dangerous looking-back, a dangerous trembling and halting. What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal..” But assertions as bold as that of Nietzsche were rare. Darwin himself didn’t even mention human evolution in The Origin of Species (though he later came back to human origins in The Descent of Man): Darwin first offered a modest formulation of a radical theory.
So what has all this in regard to Marx and Darwin to do with the great filter, mentioned in the title of this post? I have written many posts about the Fermi paradox recently without ever mentioning the great filter, which is an important part of the way that the Fermi paradox is formulated today. If we ask, if the universe is supposedly teaming with alien life, and possibly also with alien civilizations, why we haven’t met any of them, we have to draw that conclusion that, among all the contingencies that must hold in order for an industrial-technological civilization to arise within our cosmos, at least one of these contingencies has tripped up all previous advanced civilizations, or else they would be here already (and we would probably be their slaves).
The contingency that has prevented any other advanced civilization in the cosmos from beating us to the punch is called the great filter. Many who write on the Fermi paradox, then, ask whether the great filter is in our past or in our future. If it is in our past, we have good reason to hope that our civilization can be an ongoing concern. If it is in our future, we have a very real reason to be concerned, since if no other advanced civilization has made it through the great filter in their development, it would seem unlikely that we would prove the exception to that rule. So a neat way to divide the optimists and the pessimists in regard to the future of human civilization is whether someone places the great filter in the past (optimists) or in the future (pessimists).
Human beings are the only species (on the only biosphere known to us) known to have created industrial-technological civilization. This is our special claim to intelligence. But before us there were numerous precursor species, and many hominid species that have since gone extinct. Many of these hominids (who cannot all be called human “ancestors” since many of them were dead ends on the evolutionary tree) were tool users, and it is for this reason that I noted in Civilization and the Technium that the technium is older than civilization (and more widely distributed than civilization). But now we are only only remaining hominid species on the planet. So in the past, we can already see a filter that has narrowed down the human experience to a single sentient and intelligent species.
Writers on the technological singularity and on the post-human and even post-biological future have speculated on a wide variety of possible scenarios in which post-human beings, industrial-technological civilization, and the technium will expand throughout the cosmos. If these events come to past, the narrowing of the human experience to a single biological species will eventually be followed by a great blossoming of sentient and intelligent agents who may not be precisely human in the narrow sense, but in a wider sense will all be our descendants and our progeny. In this eventuality, the narrow bottleneck of humanity will expand exponentially from its present condition.
Looking at the present human condition from the perspective of multiple predecessor species and multiple future species, we see that the history of sentient and intelligent life on earth has narrowed in the present to a single hominid species. The natural history of intelligence on the Earth has all its eggs in one basket. Our existence as the sole sentient and intelligent species means that we are the great filter.
If we survive ourselves, we will have a right to be optimistic about the future of intelligent life in the universe — but not until then. Not until we have been superseded, not until the human era has ended, ought we to be optimistic.
Man is a narrow strand stretched between pre-human diversity and post-human diversity.
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20 October 2012
Three Little Words: “Where are they?”
In The Visibility Presumption I examined some issues in relation to the response to the Fermi paradox by those who claim that a technological singularity would likely overtake any technologically advanced civilization. I don’t see how the technological singularity visited upon an alien species makes them any less visible (in the sense of “visible” relevant to SETI) nor any less likely to be interested in exploration, adventure, or the quest for scientific knowledge — and finding us would constitute a major scientific discovery for some xenobiological species that had matured into a peer industrial-technological civilization.
The more I think about the Fermi paradox — and I have been thinking a lot about it lately — and the more I contextualize the Fermi paradox in my own emerging theory of civilization — which is a theory I am attempting to formulate in the purest tradition of Russellian generality so that it is equally applicable to human civilization and to any non-human civilization — the more I have come to think that our civilization is relatively isolated in the cosmos, being perhaps one of the few civilizations, or the only civilization, in the Milky Way, and one among only a handful of civilizations in the local cluster of galaxies or our supercluster.
Having an opinion on the Fermi paradox, and even making an attempt to argue for a particular position, does not however relieve one of the intellectual responsibility of exploring all aspects of the paradox. I have also come to think, while reflecting on the Fermi paradox, that the paradox itself has been fruitful in pushing those who care to think about it toward better formulations of the nature and consequences of industrial-technological civilization and of interstellar civilization — whether that of a supposed xenocivilization, or that of ourselves now and in the future.
The human experience of economic and technological growth in the wake of the industrial revolution has made us aware that if there are other peer species in the universe, and if these peer species undergo a process of the development of civilization anything like our own, then these peer species may also have experienced or will experience the escalating exponential growth of economic organization and technological complexity that we have experienced. Looking at our own civilization, again, it seems that the natural telos of continued economic and technological development — for we see no natural or obvious impediment to such continued development — is for human civilization to extend itself beyond the confines of the Earth and the establish itself throughout the solar system and eventually throughout the galaxy and beyond. This natural teleology has been called “The Expansion Hypothesis” by John M. Smart. Smart credits the expansion hypothesis to Kardashev, and while it is implicit in Kardashev, Kardashev himself does not formulate the idea explicitly and does not use the term “expansion hypothesis.”
The natural teleology of civilization
I have taken the term “natural teleology” from contemporary philosophical expositions of Aristotle’s distinction between final causes and efficient causes. We can get something of a flavor of Aristotle’s idea of natural teleology (without going too deep into the controversy over final causes) from this paragraph from the second book of Aristotle’s Physics:
We also speak of a thing’s nature as being exhibited in the process of growth by which its nature is attained. The ‘nature’ in this sense is not like ‘doctoring’, which leads not to the art of doctoring but to health. Doctoring must start from the art, not lead to it. But it is not in this way that nature (in the one sense) is related to nature (in the other). What grows qua growing grows from something into something. Into what then does it grow? Not into that from which it arose but into that to which it tends. The shape then is nature.
Aristotle is a systematic philosopher, in which any one doctrine is related to many other doctrines, so that an excerpt really doesn’t do him justice; if the reader cares to, he or she can can look into this more deeply by reading Aristotle and his commentators. But I must say this much in elaboration: the idea of natural teleology is problematic because it suggests a teleological conception of the whole of nature and all of its parts, and ever since Darwin we have understood that many claims to natural teleology are simply the expression of anthropic bias.
Still, kittens grow into cats and puppies grow into dogs (if they live to maturity), and it is pointless to deny this. What is important here is to tightly circumscribe the idea of natural teleology so that we don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. The difficulty comes in distinguishing the baby from the bathwater in which the baby is immersed. Unless we want to end up with the idea of a natural teleology for human beings and the lives they live — this was the “human nature” that Sartre emphatically denied — we must deny final causes to agents, or find some other principle of distinction.
Are civilizations a natural kind for which we can posit a natural teleology, i.e., a form or a nature toward which they naturally tend as they grow and develop? My answer to this is ambiguous, but it is a principled ambiguity: yes and no. Yes, because some aspects of civilization are clearly developmental, when an institution is growing toward its fulfillment, while other aspects of civilization are clearly non-developmental. But civilization is so complex a whole that there is no simple way to separate the developmental and the non-developmental aspects of any one given civilization.
When we examine high points of civilization like Athens under Pericles or Florence during the Renaissance, we can recognize after the fact the slow build up to these cultural heights, which cannot clearly be distinguished from economic, civil, urban, and military development. The natural teleology of a civilization is the attainment of excellence in its particular mode of being, just as Aristotle said that the great-souled man aims at excellence in his life, but the path to that excellence is as varied as the different lives of individuals and the difference histories of civilizations.
Now, I don’t regard this brief exposition of the natural teleology of civilization as anything like a definitive formulation, but a definitive formulation of something so complex and subtle would require years of work. I will save this for another time, rather, counting on the reader’s charity (if not indulgence) to grant me the idea that at least in some respects civilizations tend toward fulfilling an apparent telos implicit in its developmental history.
The Preemption Hypothesis
What I am going to suggest here as another response to the Fermi paradox will sound to some like just another version of the technological singularity response, but I want to try to show that what I am suggesting is a more general conception than that — a potential structural failure of civilization, as it were — and as a more comprehensive concept the technological singularity response to the Fermi paradox can be subsumed under it as a particular instance of civilizational preemption.
The more general conception of a response to the silentium universi I call the preemption hypothesis. According to the preemption hypothesis, the ordinary course of development of industrial-technological civilization — which, if extrapolated, would seem to point to a nearly inevitable expansion of that civilization beyond its home planet and eventually across interstellar space as its natural teleology — is preempted by the emergence of a completely different kind of civilization, a radically different kind of civilization, or by post-civilization, so that the expected natural teleology of the preempted civilization is interrupted and never comes to fruition.
Thus “the lights go out” for a given alien civilization not because that civilization destroys itself (the Doomsday argument, Solution no. 27 in Webb’s book) and not because it collapses into permanent stagnation or even catastrophic civilizational failure (existential risks outlined by Nick Bostrum), and not because it completes a natural cycle of growth, maturity, decay, and death, but rather because it moves on to the next stage of social institution that lies beyond civilization. In simplest terms, the preemption hypothesis is that industrial-technological civilization, for which the expansion hypothesis holds, is preempted by post-civilization, for which the expansion hypothesis no longer holds. Post-civilization is a social institution derived from civilization but no longer recognizably civilization.
The idea of a technological singularity is one kind of potential preemption of industrial-technological civilization, but certainly not the only possible kind of preemption. There are many possible forms of civilizational preemption, and any attempted list of possible preemptions is limited only by our imagination and our parochial conception of civilization, the latter being informed exclusively by human civilization. It is entirely possible, as another example of preemption, that once a civilization attains a certain degree of technological development, everyone recognizes the pointlessness of the the whole endeavor, all the machines are shut down, and the entire population turns to philosophical contemplation as the only worthy undertaking in life.
Acceleration and Preemption
I have previously argued that civilizations come to maturity in an Axial Age. The Axial Age is a conception due to Karl Jaspers, but I have suggested a generalization that holds for any society that achieves a sufficient degree of development and maturity. What Jaspers postulated for agricultural civilizations, and understood to be a turning point for the world entire, I believe holds for most civilizations, and that each stage in the overall development of civilization may have such a turning point.
Also, the history of human civilization reveals an acceleration. Nomadic hunter-gatherer society required hundreds of thousands of years before it matured into a condition capable of producing the great cave paintings of the upper Paleolithic (which I call the Axialization of the Nomadic Paradigm). The agricultural civilizations that superseded Paleolithic societies with the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution required thousands of years to mature to the point of producing what Jaspers called an Axial Age (The Axial Age for Jaspers).
Industrial civilization has not yet produced an industrialized axialization (though we may look back someday and understand one to have been achieved in retrospect), but the early modern civilization that seemed to be producing a decisively different way of life than the medieval period that preceded it experienced a catastrophic preemption: it did not come to fulfillment on its own terms. In Modernism without Industrialism I argued that modern civilization was effectively overtaken by the sudden and catastrophic emergence of industrialization, which set civilization on an entirely new course.
At each stage of the development of human society the maturation of that society, measured by the ability of that society to give a coherent account of itself in a comprehensive cosmological context (also known as mythology), has come sooner than the last, with the abortive civilization of modernism, Enlightenment, and the scientific revolution derailed and suddenly superseded by a novel and unprecedented development from within civilization. Modernism was preempted by accelerating events, and, specifically, by accelerating technology. It is possible that there are other forms of accelerating development that could derail or preempt that course of development that at present appears to be the natural teleology of industrial-technological civilization.
The Dystopian Hypothesis
Because the most obvious forms of the preemption hypothesis, in terms of the prospects for civilization most widely discussed today, would include the technological singularity, transhumanism, and The Transcension Hypothesis, and also because of the human ability (probably reinforced by the survival value of optimism) to look on the bright side of things, we may lose sight of equally obvious sub-optimal forms of preemption. Sub-optimal forms of civilizational preemption, in which civilization does not pass on to developments of greater complexity more technically difficult achievement, could be separately identified as the dystopian hypothesis.
In Miserable and Unhappy Civilizations I suggested that the distinction Freud made between neurotic misery and ordinary human unhappiness can be extended to encompass a distinction between a civilization in the grip of neurotic misery as distinct from a civilization experiencing ordinary civilizational unhappiness. I cited the example of the religious wars of early modern Europe as an example of civilization experiencing neurotic misery. It is possible that neurotic misery at the civilizational level could be perpetuated across time and space so that neurotic misery became the enduring condition of civilization. (This might be considered an instance of what Nick Bostrum called “flawed realization” in his analysis of existential risk.)
It would likely be the case that neurotically miserable civilization — which we might also call dystopian civilization — would be incapable of anything beyond perpetuating its miserable existence from one day to the next. The dystopian hypothesis could be assimilated to solution no. 23 in Webb’s book, “They have no desire to communicate,” but there many be many reasons that a civilization lacks a desire to communicate over interstellar distances with other civilizations, so I think that the dystopian lack of motivation deserves its own category as a response to the Fermi paradox.
Whether or not chronic and severe dystopianism could be considered a post-civilization institution and therefore a preemption of industrial-technological civilization is open to question. I will think about this.
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19 October 2012
How “visible” is any given industrial-technological civilization from the perspective of interstellar distances? In this context, “visible” means some technological sign that can be detected by technological means. Most obviously this includes any electromagnetic spectrum emissions, but might also include large scale engineering and industrial projects that could be discerned at interstellar distances.
SETI is based upon what we will here call the visibility presumption. SETI can’t really operate in any other way; if you’re going to conduct a search at the present, there are only so many things you can do with current technology at interstellar distances.
In the future (and not all that long from now — in the next ten to twenty years), as I have mentioned in other posts, we will be able to take the spectrum of the atmospheres of exoplanets and from this information we will be able to conduct a genuine Search for Extra-Terrestrial Life (SETL, presumably) by identifying biochemistry in exoplanet atmospheres. Such techniques might also reveal the activities of a civilization prior to the kind of electromechanical technologies that typify industrial-technological civilization and imply the mastery of electromagnetic spectrum emissions.
For the time being, such investigations are just beyond present technology and, as a result, extraterrestrial life that falls below the threshold of industrial-technological civilization with a mastery of electromagnetic technologies is “invisible” to us. In other words, such sub-technological civilizations, or life without civilization, lacks SETI visibility.
Many have commented that, in light of SETI visibility, what we call the search for extraterrestrial intelligence ought to be called something like the search for extraterrestrial technology or the search for advanced extraterrestrial civilizations — but we can keep the familiar SETI acronym by thinking of it as the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Industrialization.
Employing our technology to search for signs of an alien technology is essentially to search for a peer civilization, i.e., another industrial-technological civilization: we are staring into the heavens and trying to find ourselves in the mirror. Not exactly ourselves, but something that would identifiable as life, as intelligence, as rationality, as civilization, and as technology. The visibility presumption implicitly incorporates all of these variables and assumes that the parameters of each variable will be just enough to challenge our assumptions without being so profoundly alien as to be unidentifiable by us as species of a familiar genus.
Recent thought concerning the emergence of a post-human future in the wake of a technological singularity has given a great impetus to the discussion of beings or institutions so changed by rapidly evolving technology that either we would not be able to recognize them, or they would not find us sufficiently interesting to communicate with us. In other words, the technological singularity could make xenocivilization invisible to us or make us essentially invisible (in the sense of being beneath notice) to a xenocivilization, thus posing a challenge to the assumptions of the visibility presumption that another industrial-technological civilization in the galaxy would be a peer civilization and visible to us.
Since I have posted quite a bit recently about the Fermi paradox, I have taken the trouble to look up one of the more thorough books on the topic, If the universe is teeming with aliens… where is everybody?: fifty solutions to the Fermi paradox and the problem of extraterrestrial life by Stephen Webb. The author divides up the solutions according to three broad categories, “They Are Here,” “They Exist But Have Not Yet Communicated,” and “They Do Not Exist.” The Wikipedia entry on the Fermi paradox also incorporates a long list of possible responses to the silentium universi.
Solution No. 28 in Webb’s book, and also mentioned on Wikipedia entry, is that xenocivilizations experience a technological singularity and therefore engage in the cosmic equivalent of Tune in, Turn on, Drop out. Here is what Webb writes:
“Vinge argues that if the Singularity is possible, then it will happen. It has something of the character of a universal law: it will occur whenever intelligent computers learn how to produce even more intelligent computers. If ETCs develop computers — since we routinely assume they will develop radio telescopes, we should assume they will develop computers — then the Singularity will happen to them, too. This, then, is Vinge’s explanation of the Fermi paradox: alien civilizations hit the Singularity and become super-intelligent, transcendent, unknowable beings.”
Stephen Webb, If the universe is teeming with aliens… where is everybody?: fifty solutions to the Fermi paradox and the problem of extraterrestrial life, New York: Praxis Publishing Ltd, 2002, p. 135
This is in itself a complex response to the Fermi paradox, because different people understand different things by the “technological singularity,” and it could just as plausibly be argued that a species experiencing a technological singularity would have its ability to communicate within the known universe exponentially increased and improved, which in turn poses the Fermi paradox in an even stronger form: if alien technological intelligence is so advanced, and has so many technological and intellectual resources at its command, why is it still unable to communicate across interstellar distances? (The protean character of the singularity thesis — anyone seems to be able to make of it what they will — is one reason that I have characterized it as a quasi-theological belief.)
Once the Fermi paradox is posed again in a stronger form, we must have recourse to other familiar responses, such as the singularity makes them lose interest in the outside world, or the technological singularity destroys the civilization in question, and so forth.
Does the idea of a technological singularity or a post-biological future (for ourselves or for some other xenobiological species) fundamentally challenge the visibility presumption?
Recently in Cyberspace and Outer Space I suggested that any civilization expanding beyond its native planet (or other naturally occurring celestial body that is the home of life elsewhere) would almost certainly have some kind of pervasively present radio or EM spectrum communication system — an internet for the solar system, which Heath Rezabek has called a solarnet — and such a network would be highly visible, and perhaps even unintentionally visible, even at interstellar distances.
This can be formulated in even a stronger form: because civilizations that remain exclusively based on their native planets are highly vulnerable to natural disasters, and therefore potentially vulnerable to natural disasters of sufficient scope and scale to result in extinction, such civilizations could be expected to have shorter lifespans and to therefore be less represented in the universe. In other words, exclusively planetary civilizations would be disproportionately selected for extinction.
What we would expect to find in our survey of the cosmos are those long-lived civilizations with the most robust survival mechanisms — redundancy, dispersion, diversity — and robust survival mechanisms of redundancy and dispersion will mean communication between dispersed centers of the civilization in question, and this communication would likely have a high visibility profile — although it could be argued that one survival mechanism would be to go to ground and remain silent so as not to be exterminated by hostile civilizations.
The same considerations of survivability would apply to any civilization that experienced a technological singularity and had subsequently made the transition to post-biological being. While it is fun to imagine mega-engineering projects like a matrioshka brain, a ringworld, an Alderson disk or a Dyson sphere, such massive projects would be very vulnerable, even for an advanced civilization. Horace said that you can drive out Nature with a pitchfork, but she keeps on coming back, and this remains true even at cosmological scales.
One of the arguments made for the Matrioshka brain scenario is that of keeping the whole structure of a massive super-intelligent entity compact in order to reduce communication times between its parts (the speed of light would be where the shoe pinches for a Matrioshka brain), but no super-intelligent entity, biological, post-biological, or non-biological, would put all its eggs in one basket unless its technological hubris had reached the point of considering itself invulnerable. Such hubris would eventually be punished and the brain would go extinct in one fell swoop. Natural selection does not and would not spare technological entities, though it would operate on a cosmological scale rather than at the familiar scale of planetary niches.
It would make much more sense to make the same effort to construct many different megastructures that remain structurally independent but in continuous communication with each other. Since electrical or fiber optic cables strung in space would be even more vulnerable than structures, these independent megastructures would be hard-pressed to find any more robust and survivable form of communication than good old EM spectrum communications, and if multiple megastructures employing massive energy levels were in continuously in communication with each other by way of EM spectrum communication, such a xenocivilization would have a very high visibility profile unless it made a conscious effort to suppress its visibility — which latter is a distinct response to the Fermi paradox.
The technological singularity or post-biological beings do not, in and of themselves, apart from distinct assumptions, argue against the visibility presumption.
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