Saturday


Recently in The Space Age turns 60! I wrote, “We are still in the very early stages of the Space Age; the inflection point of this developmental sequence has not yet arrived, so we are today still in the same shallow end of the exponential growth curve that was initiated sixty years ago.” What do I mean by an inflection point, and what is (or what would be) the inflection point for spacefaring civilization?

In a curve, an inflection point (according to Wolfram Mathworld) is, “…a point on a curve at which the sign of the curvature (i.e., the concavity) changes.” In this technical sense, then, I have misused “inflection point,” but it has become commonplace to speak of the inflection point of an exponential (or sigmoid) curve as the point at which the transition occurs from the long, shallow part of the curve, only incrementally growing over time, to the exponential growth part of the curve. In this sense, the inflection point is the transition from slow (sometimes very slow), incremental development to rapid, exponential development.

We have some good examples of inflection points from human history. The industrial revolution is a nearly perfect example of an inflection point. Human beings have been developing technologies since long before civilization. Pre-human ancestors were using stone tools more than two million years ago. However, technological development began to accelerate with the industrial revolution, and continues to develop at an expanding and increasing rate. Technological growth — both in terms of technological complexity and large-scale industrial application — has been exponential since the industrial revolution. Is something like this possible with spacefaring?

In Late-Adopter Spacefaring Civilization: the Preemption that Didn’t Happen and Stagnant Supercivilizations and Interstellar Travel I discussed one of my favorite themes, namely, that spacefaring civilization might have experienced its inflection point in the wake of the Apollo program, which latter demonstrated what was possible when significant resources are expended on a difficult goal. More recently, on The Unseen Podcast Episode We, Martians? I said that if we had gone to Mars as NASA once planned, building immediately following Apollo, it would have been a different mission than any mission to Mars undertaken at the present time. It would have been, in short, a mission much like the Apollo mission, meaning a transient presence on Mars sufficient to plant the flag of the sponsoring nation-state and to collect some samples to bring back to Earth. Paul Carr called this a “Flags and Footprints” mission, which is a good way to phrase this, and I subsequently heard this from others, so apparently it’s a thing.

These counterfactuals did not occur, so that they represent a permanently lost opportunity for human civilization. The door has closed on this particular shape for human history, but the door remains open for different shapes for human history if spacefaring technologies are eventually adopted, and when they are adopted (if they are adopted), will decisively and definitively alter the shape of human history — or the history of any intelligent species able to build spacefaring technologies. To consider this a little more carefully I am going to delineate three generic scenarios for the breakout to spacefaring civilization that might be experienced by a civilization that develops spacefaring technology. These three scenarios are as follows:

● Early Inflection Point when spacefaring is pursued with exponential frequency immediately upon the technology being available.

● Middling Inflection Point when spacefaring is pursued with exponential frequency only after it has been available for a substantial period of time, but within the longue durée in which the technology became available.

● Late Inflection Point when spacefaring is pursued with exponential frequency after the technology has been available throughout a longue durée period of history.

No great store need be placed on the time frames I have implied above; sufficient to our purposes is that spacefaring may become routine immediately upon, sometime after, or long after the technology is available. Each of these spacefaring inflection points can be taken separately, since each represents a different civilization as defined by the relationship between the civilizations of planetary endemism and spacefaring civilization. Moreover, we can justify the significance of the position of the spacefaring inflection point in the overall history of civilization by reference to the infinitistic possibilities available to a spacefaring civilization

Early Inflection Point

On several occasions I have written about the possibility of a spacefaring civilization emerging immediately upon the technology of the Space Race being available, specifically in Late-Adopter Spacefaring Civilization: the Preemption that Didn’t Happen. In this post I suggested that industrial-technological civilization as it has been known from the industrial revolution up to the advent of the Space Age might have been suddenly “preempted” by the emergence of a new kind of civilization — a spacefaring civilization — that changed the conditions of human life as radically as the industrial revolution changed the conditions of human life. This is what did, in fact, happen with the industrial revolution: as soon as the technology to drive machinery by fossil fuels became available, it was rapidly exploited, and western societies passed through a series of rapid social changes driven by industrialization.

While an early inflection point did not occur on Earth with the initial availability of spacefaring technology, we must consider the possibility that this is could occur with any civilization that passes the spacefaring technology threshold. I explored some of these possibilities in my Centauri Dreams post, Stagnant Supercivilizations and Interstellar Travel. In so far as an early spacefaring breakout would encourage a focus on spacefaring technologies (the relative neglect of other technologies being an opportunity cost of this alternative focus), the developmental trajectory of such a civilization might involve continual and rapid development of spacefaring technologies even while other technologies (say, for example, computing technologies) remain relatively undeveloped. Thus the technological profile of a given civilization is going to reflect the existential opportunities it has pursued, and when it pursues them.

We may also observe that, along with early-adoption spacefaring scenarios that did not occur with human civilization, it is also the case that a variety of counterfactual existential risk scenarios also did not occur. What I mean by this is that, once nuclear weapons were invented (shortly before the advent of the Space Age), human beings immediately realized that this gave us the power to destroy our own civilization. A number of novels were written and films were made in which human beings or human civilization went extinct shortly after the technology was available for this. These scenarios did not occur, just as the scenarios of early spacefaring adoption did not occur.

Middling Inflection Point

It has become a commonplace to speak of the recent development of space industries as “NewSpace.” If the technologies of NewSpace come to maturity in the coming decades and results in the following decades in a spacefaring breakout and the establishment of a truly spacefaring civilization, this would constitute an instance of a mediocre spacefaring inflection point. Given that the Space Age is now sixty years old, a few more decades of development would mean that spacefaring technologies will have been available for a century before they come to be fully exploited for a spacefaring breakout and a spacefaring civilization. In other words, the spacefaring inflection point did not occur immediately after spacefaring technology was available, but it also did not have to wait for an entirely new epoch of human history to come to pass for the spacefaring breakout to occur. (In terms of human civilization, we might identify a period of 100-300 years from advent to breakout as a mediocre spacefaring inflection point.)

As implied above, the current nominal spacefaring capacity of our civilization today is consistent with a middling spacefaring inflection point, if spacfaring expands rapidly in the wake of the maturity of NewSpace industries and technologies. Among these technologies we may count reusable spacecraft (Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser), including the booster stages of multi-stage rockets (SpaceX and Blue Origin), hybrid rocket engines (Reaction Engines LTD), and ion and plasma rockets (Ad Astra’s VASIMR), inter alia. These are the actual technologies of spacefaring; many industries that seek to exploit space for commercial and industrial uses are focused on technologies to be employed in space, but which are not necessarily technologies of spacefaring that will result in a spacefaring breakout.

Late Inflection Point

Say that the NewSpace technologies noted above come to maturity, but they prove to be impractical, or too expensive, or simply uninteresting to the better part of humanity. If this opportunity arises and then is passed over without a spacefaring breakout, like the initial existential opportunity presented by spacefaring technologies, the middling spacefaring inflection point will pass and humanity will remain with its nominal spacefaring capacity but no spacefaring breakout and no spacefaring civilization. In this case, if there is to be an eventual spacefaring breakout for human civilization, it will be a late spacefaring inflection point, and human civilization will change considerably in the period of time that passes between the initial availability of spacefaring technology and its eventual exploitation for a spacefaring breakout.

Just as in the meantime from initial availability of spacefaring technology to the present day, computer technology exponentially improved, a late spacefaring inflection point would mean that many technologies would emerge and come to maturity and industrial exploitation even as spacefaring technologies are neglected and experience little development (perhaps as an opportunity cost of the development of alternative technologies). Thus a late-adopter spacefaring civilization may develop a variety of fusion technologies, alternative energy technologies, genetic engineering technologies, quantum computing, human-machine interface technologies (or xenomorph-machine interface, as the case may be), artificial consciousness, and so on. Once a civilization possesses something akin to technological maturity on its homeworld, its historical experience will be radically different from the historical experience of a species that pursues an early spacefaring inflection point.

I can imagine a civilization that becomes so advanced that spacefaring technologies become cheap and easily available simply because the technological infrastructure of the civilization is so advanced. Thus even if there is no large-scale social interest in spacefaring, small groups of interested individuals can have spacefaring technologies for the asking, and these individuals and small groups will leave the planet one or two at a time, a dozen at a time, and so on. The homeworld civilization would be unaffected by this small scale spacefaring diaspora, since the technological and financial investment will have become so marginal as to be negligible, but these individuals and groups will take with them an advanced technology that will allow them to survive and prosper even at this small scale.

The worlds these small groups pioneer will grow slowly, but they will grow, regardless of whether the homeworld notices. Under these conditions, an ongoing nominal spacefaring capacity could develop over longer scales of time into a spacefaring capacity that is no longer nominal, though we would never be able to say exactly when this changeover occurred; this would be an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary transition. However, once these other worlds began to grow in population, eventually these populations would exceed the population of Earth, and at this point we could say with confidence that the late spacefaring inflection point had been reached, without spacefaring per se ever becoming a great civilizational-scale undertaking.

The Null Case

In addition to these three scenarios, there is also the null case, i.e., spacefaring technology is initially developed, but it is not further pursued, so that it is either forgotten or regarded with disinterest. A civilization that develops spacefaring technology and then either fails to pursue the development, or loses the capacity due to other factors (such as civilizational collapse), never achieves a spacefaring breakout and never becomes a spacefaring civilization. As I make a distinction between the nominal spacefaring capacity we now possess, and a spacefaring civilization proper, our contemporary civilization remains consistent with the null case scenario unless or until it experiences a spacefaring breakout.

The null case is the trajectory of a civilization toward permanent stagnation. Even if many technologies are developed and come to maturity and industrial exploitation, nothing essential will have changed in the human relationship to the cosmos (or the relation of any intelligent species that develops spacefaring technology but which does not exploit these technology for a spacefaring breakout). Spacefaring technologies, if exploited for a spacefaring breakout that results in a spacefaring civilization, would change the relationship of a species to the cosmos, as the species in question then has the opportunity to develop separately from its homeworld, and is therefore no longer tightly-coupled to the natural history of its homeworld. Without a spacefaring breakout, an intelligent species remains tightly-coupled to the natural history of its homeworld, and necessarily goes extinct when its homeworld biosphere is rendered uninhabitable.

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Addendum added Wednesday 25 October 2017: Further to the above discussion of early spacefaring inflection points, I happened upon Space That Never Was is one artist’s vision of a never-ending space race: Where else might we have gone? by Andrew Liptak, which led me to the work of Mac Rebisz, Space That Never Was, who writes of his artistic vision, “Imagine a world where Space Race has not ended. Where space agencies were funded a lot better than military. Where private space companies emerged and accelerated development of space industry. Where people never stopped dreaming big and aiming high.” Rebisz’s images might be understood as illustrations of early-adopter spacefaring civilization.

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Decadent Technologies

4 June 2012

Monday


In several previous posts I have discussed how novel technologies will often display a sigmoid growth curve, starting with a gradual development, suddenly experiencing an exponential increase in complexity, sophistication, and efficacy, followed by a long plateau of little or no development after that technology has achieved maturity. The posts in which I described this development include:

The Law of Stalled Technologies

More on Stalled Technologies

Blindsided by History

Technological Succession

In Blindsided by History I wrote:

“Present technologies will stall, and they will eventually be superseded by unpredicted and unpredictable technologies that will emerge to surpass them. Those who remain fixated on existing technologies will be blindsided by the new technologies, and indeed may simply fail to recognize new technologies for what they are when they do in fact appear.”

The phenomena of one technology superseding another results in Technological Succession. In my post on technological succession I wrote the following:

The overtaking of a stalled technology that remains at a given plateau by another technology that fulfills a similar need (although by way of a distinct method) is an extension of a society with stable institutions that was able to bring to fruition a mature technology. With a mature technology in place, and stable economic and social institutions built upon this technology, there emerges an incentive to continue or to expand these institutions to a greater extent, at a cheaper cost, more efficiently, more effectively, and with less effort. This attempt to do previous technology one better is, in turn, a spur to social changes that will call forth further innovations. It could be argued that the Industrial Revolution emerged from just such an escalation of social and technology coevolution.

Technological succession, then, develops in parallel with the social succession of institutions capable of fostering further technological development by different means once a given technology stalls. In this post I made a distinction between mature technologies (another name for stalled technologies), which are technologies that have passed through their exponential growth phase and have plateaued at a stable level, and perennial technologies, which are technologies that do not experience exponential growth curves in their development — things like knives that have always been a part of the human “toolkit” and always will be. This distinction between mature and perennial technologies I then developed according to a biological analogy:

By analogy with microevolution (evolution within a species) and macroevolution (evolution from one species into another) in biology, we can see the microevolution and macroevolution of technologies. Perennial technologies exhibit micorevolution. No new technological “species” emerge from the incremental changes in perennial technologies. Technological macroevolution is the succession of a stalled technology by a new, immature technology, which latter still possesses the possibility of development. Mature technologies experience adaptive radiation under coevolutionary pressures, and this macroevolution can result in new technological species.

The coevolutionary pressures are those social institutions that make demands upon a technology to continue its development in the face of advancing social developments, which latter might include expanding populations, higher standards of living, raised expectations and soaring ambitions.

Even if another technology does not come along to further extend the social functions served by the mature and now stalled technology, the incentives to continue to go one better with technology remains, and this incentive drives the attempt to try to squeeze more performance out of mature technologies that would, if surpassed in the process of technological succession, remain stalled at a stable plateau of development. The result of pushing for more performance from a stalled technology is what I will call decadent technology (though I could just as well call this baroque technology).

The obvious examples that come to mind of decadent technologies are either of a humorous or theatrical character (or both). Steampunk and tubepunk are obvious examples of the intentional elaboration of a decadent technology for aesthetic and theatrical effect. As genres of art and literature, steampunk and tubepunk aren’t seeking to supply the wants of mass society (except for aesthetic wants, which respond to a different class of coevolutionary pressures).

Another example of decadent technology is that of race car engines. If you want to go really fast, it would make more sense to strap a jet engine onto set of wheels (which would look like a steampunk contraption), but racing mostly means specialized internal combustion engines — engines pushed about as far as the technology of the internal combustion engine can be pushed. It is obvious, from the thousands of photographs in car magazines, that the builders of racing engines can an aesthetic pleasure in their creations. However, these engines are not merely aesthetic exercises like steampunk, because by pushing the technology of the internal combustion engine to its limits, much more horsepower can be obtained. Thus a decadent technology can be effective, though it quickly begins to reach a level of diminishing returns, and further investment yields progressively less of a return. That is why these engines are not models of efficiency that the mass producers of automobiles look to for technological developments (though this is often used as an excuse for car manufacturers to sponsor drag racing) but rather they are expressions of mechanical ambition. Like I wrote above, if you want to go really fast, you can build a jet; the challenge is to build an internal combustion engine with the power of a jet, and this is a challenge in which both builders of racing engines and race spectators enjoy.

Most examples of decadent technology are not as theatrical and not as much fun as steampunk and race cars, but the principles are essentially the same. Microchip technology, following the social coevolutionary pressure of fulfilling the prophecy of Moore’s Law, is close to becoming a decadent technology. If some other technology for computing fundamentally different from silicone wafer technology does not emerge soon (like quantum computing, which still seems to be some way off), the producers of microchips will come under considerable economic pressure to drive silicone technology beyond its natural (i.e., physical) limits and transform it into a decadent technology.

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Technological Succession

25 January 2011

Tuesday


Knives constitute a perennial technology

Reflecting on what I wrote some time ago about mature technologies, stalled technologies, and perennial technologies — whether hardware technologies or social technologies, i.e., whether a structural innovation or a functional innovation — I realized the inadequacy of throwing together these categories of technological institutions. For particular technologies have their distinctive institutions no less than particular peoples have their distinctive institutions.

Bicycle technology has improved significantly, but the basic design has not changed in more than a hundred years. Bicycles, then, would seem to be a perennial technology, though they emerged much later in history than knives.

An appropriately fine-grained account of technological institutions would recognize that while mature and perennial technologies are both robust and durable technologies, they nevertheless represent robustness and durability for different reasons. Indeed, there is a sense in which perennial and mature technologies are opposed, and that sense is rooted in the natural history of both technologies. A perennial technology derives from the first stages of the succession of technological institutions, while a mature technology derives from the latest stages of the succession of technological institutions.

Nuclear warhead design is now a mature technology that reflects a period of rapid development followed by a plateau of incremental development.

Perennial technologies are those which perennially emerge even under adverse conditions. These are the hardiest, and their appearance in the historical record is a response to perennial needs. Mature technologies emerge from stable societies with stable institutions that allow for continued and continuous development of a given technology over time. Such mature technologies do no necessarily correspond to a perennial social need, although changed social conditions that make use of available technologies create needs previously unanticipated.

Most of our strategic weapons systems are mature technologies.

A perennial technology matures early and remains useful despite having attained a plateau. It is useful precisely because it cannot be improved upon in any essential way. A perennial technology may change in inessential ways, and later iterations may make use of indirect technological innovations, but direct technological innovations to essentials are not possible for a truly perennial technology. Perennial technology could be defined in terms of its imperviousness to essential improvement.

I have argued previously that tire chains are a perennial technology, although I will allow that they are a little more problematic since they are contingent upon automobile technology, which is now a mature technology. However, tire chain design is not likely to change any more significantly than bicycle design.

Sometimes it is quite difficult to improve upon a perennial technology, even if it has direct origins in the earliest stages of technological succession. A knife, for example, is a perennial technology, and knives date back to the earliest human technological innovations. While the construction and composition of knives have changed as technology has changed, this is just an improvement in the way to produce essentially the same thing. It should also be noted that there is a great diversity of knives, some of them highly specialized for a particular purpose, and some of them useful precisely because they are not specialized. (It is interesting to observe that a tool or technology produced without a specific use in mind cannot properly said to be exapted by any unanticipated use in the future.)

A mature technology, on the other hand, derives from the later stages of technological succession. A mature technology has achieved a plateau in its development, with most of its aspects having been explored for their possibilities to further extend and exploit the technology. The technology of nuclear weapons is a mature technology. There are many designs for many different varieties of nuclear weapons, most designs have been tested repeatedly, and most of the possibilities of the technology have been explored. The technology of automobiles is also a mature technology.

Some technologies are more difficult to classify, and perhaps deserve a category of their own. It is to be expected that there will be problematic cases, which is not a counter-example to the clear cases that are easy to classify. (And this latter observation is a clear example of what I have called an unnamed principle and an unnamed fallacy and later called the truncation principle.)

It can now be seen that what I previously formulated in terms of the Law of Stalled Technologies has an alternate formulation in terms of technological succession. That is to say, we could formulate a law of technological succession, and it would look a lot like the law of stalled technologies.

The overtaking of a stalled technology that remains at a given plateau by another technology that fulfills a similar need but by way of a distinct method is an extension of a society with stable institutions that was able to bring to fruition a mature technology. With a mature technology in place, and stable economic and social institutions built upon this technology, there emerges an incentive to continue or to expand these institutions to a greater extent, at a cheaper cost, more efficiently, more effectively, and with less effort. This attempt to do previous technology one better is, in turn, a spur to social changes that will call forth further innovations. It could be argued that the Industrial Revolution emerged from just such an escalation of social and technological coevolution.

By analogy with microevolution (evolution within a species) and macroevolution (evolution from one species into another) in biology, we can see the microevolution and macroevolution of technologies. Perennial technologies exhibit micorevolution. No new technological “species” emerge from the incremental changes in perennial technologies. Technological macroevolution is the succession of a stalled technology by a new, immature technology, which latter still possesses the possibility of development. Mature technologies experience adaptive radiation under coevolutionary pressures, and this macroevolution can result in new technological species.

In Political Constraints on Weapons Systems I attempted to demonstrate some ways in which weapons systems, presumably constructed on a pure “form follows function” principle, with the function understood as winning battles, in fact are deeply embedded in a social context that dictate what tactical imperatives will be embodied in weapons systems. The idea of technological succession tied to coevolution with evolving social institutions gives us an alternative formulation of the same basic idea. Social institutions that govern the fighting of battles and the waging of wars spur particular developments of tactics and weapons systems, and these tactics and weapons systems, once employed in the battlespace, constitute a changed condition that will, in the fullness of time, make itself felt in the social institutions that influenced their development.

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