Monday


space landscape

What happens when invariant civilizational properties are subjected to variation due to adaptation?

If the extraterrestrialization of human civilization is consistent with all previous human civilization, then human extraterrestrial civilization will exhibit the civilizational invariants of warfare, social hierarchy, and geographically settled communities (which I recently identified as civilizational invariants in Invariant Properties of Civilization). That is to say, there will be some form of warfare, some form of social hierarchy, and some form of geographically settled communities.

Certainly it would be remarkable if any of these norms of civilization were seriously called into question; it would be, by definition, an unprecedented circumstance, and unprecedented circumstances are historically unique upon their occurrence (even if they should become common later, after their first appearance in history). As extraordinary historical claims demand extraordinary evidence, so unprecedented historical claims demand unprecedented evidence. In order to show that civilization has assumed an unprecedented form, our evidence would need to pass a high bar.

If the necessary transition and adaptation of earth-originating human institutions to a future extraterrestrial context results in an absence (or suspension) or warfare, an absence of social hierarchy, or the absence of settled communities (or any combination of these three), then the processes of extraterrestrialization could be said to precipitate a post-civilizational successor institution, and upon the realization of such an institution humanity could be said to have entered upon a fundamentally novel form of development (and a new macro-historical period). This would be remarkable, but it is within the realm of possibility.

I have employed the example above of an extraterrestrial human civilization, but similar considerations hold for any strategic trend that might come to dominate the shape of the human future over the coming centuries. What are these possible shapes of the human future?

In earlier posts I have outlined five possible scenarios for the future, all of which involve extrapolation of known strategic trends occurring in the present (and therefore my futurism represents a kind of uniformitarianism):

Extraterrestrialization is the expansion of human civilization beyond the surface of the earth, so that humanity ultimately becomes a majority extraterrestrial species.

Pastoralization is the growth of conurbations and the parallel continuing depopulation of the rural countryside, in which agriculture has also been urbanized.

Singularization is the now-familiar scenario of the technological singularity, in which humanity is either superseded by its superintelligent mechanical progeny or itself merges with these machines.

Neo-Agriculturalism is the return to an agrarian civilization, albeit with our technology (mostly) intact, in part as an environmentalist reaction against industrial-technological civilization.

Neo-Marxism is the familiar future of communism, which I have argued in many posts has not been historically falsified as usually believed, most recently in The Re-Proletarianization of the Workforce.

In regard to extraterrestrialization, the idiom of “space settlement” is already becoming current (in the attempt to avoid the use of the term “space colonization” because of the desire to disassociate an exciting human future from the dismal history of colonialism), but these settlements would not be located at a geographical location on the earth’s surface, which already marks a radical departure. However, the basic properties of settlement would likely be realized in any permanent human community off the surface of the earth. There is no reason at present to suppose that we will not bring our social hierarchies into space with us, and we already have nascent warfighting technologies for space under development, despite the efforts of the international community to de-militarize space.

In regard to Pastoralization, settlement is focused on cities, cities are likely to retain their entrenched social hierarchies, as well as their tendency to go to war with other cities, so this macro-historical development does not greatly challenge the existing paradigm of human civilization.

In regard to Singularization, human institutions disappear in the most radical scenario (a “hard landing”), which means the disappearance of human warfare, human social hierarchies, and human settlement. This represents a radical departure from the received paradigm of civilization, but we must ask next if the machines that supersede us will replicate our tendency to warfare, social hierarchy, and settlement. We cannot know this, and for this reason we cannot say that it is impossible. If post-humans or machines reconstruct the familiar institutions of human civilization without human beings, should this be accounted a continuation of human civilization?

In regard to Neo-Agriculturalism, here settlement remains a strong force, while I imagine those who might imagine such a future would conceive an utopian future free of warfare and social hierarchy, however unlikely it is that this dream would be attained. If an attempt were made to put such conceptions into practice it would more or less guarantee a dystopian result of horrifically magnified warfare and hierarchy.

In regard to Neo-Marxism, we have a conception of the future that is ideologically committed to the elimination of human social hierarchies, and in this sense neo-Marxism represents a strong challenge to a civilizational invariant, but we know that all attempts at constituting Marxist societies resulted in no change to social hierarchy, only the fungibility of the individuals within that hierarchy. Marxism also represents a view of the future in which, at totality, warfare would be eliminated because all reasons for war would be eliminated through just allocation of goods and services. Again, no actually existing experiment in Marxist society was free from war, so the tension between ideal and realization remains strong. Neither Marxism nor neo-Marxism calls settled society into question.

In each case of these potential macro-historical revolutions, the developments are consistent with either the retention of civilizational invariants or their abolition. In so far, then, as these macro-historical revolutions issue in specifically human civilizations (even if it is an essentially human civilization replicated by machines in our absence), the weight of history suggests that the civilizational invariants will remain largely invariant — perhaps producing a few problematic cases that represent qualifications, exceptions, or conditions that must be introduced into any exposition of civilizational invariants.

From the perspective of long-term futurism — what one might also call futurism in the context of big history — the really interesting question here would be to identify the developments of human civilization that might force a change in one or more civilization invariants, and to do so in an unambiguous way, so that what follows must be understood as a post-civilization social institution.

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The Visibility Presumption

19 October 2012

Friday


SETI visibility

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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Monday


In Three Futures I considered a trio of possible developments based upon the extrapolation of certain strategic trends already present in the present. These three futures included:

Extraterrestrialization, in which the greater part of humanity eventually resides off the surface of the earth.

Pastoralization, in which urbanization and rural depopulation continue their trends with the greater part of humanity residing in cities (already technically true, in so far as more than half of all human populations today are urban populations, but the disproportion is not yet overwhelming) and the countryside is returned to something like pastoralism.

Singularization, in which escalating computer technology transforms the life of the greater part of humanity, or simply displaces it. This scenario is based on Ray Kurzweil’s technological singularity, though treated as a process rather than an event (we are, after all, talking about history and not about divine fiat).

Recently in Marxist Eschatology I acknowledged that an old favorite must be added to our list of possible futures:

Communism, in which, following the totality of globalization and there being under this global (crony) capitalist regime no alternatives to proletarianism, the workers really do throw the bums out and take over for themselves.

All three of these potential futures were treated in the spirit of developing strategic trends that could conceivably become the dominant strategic trend of the future, and in so doing define a new division of macro-temporality. In other words, the strategic trend in question is treated as possessing the possibility of becoming a macro-historical trend. I say here “developing” and “possibility” in order to stress that these strategic trends, even if they do become the dominant trend, will not come about with catastrophic suddenness, as the result of a revolutionary upheaval.

Central to my understanding not only of current affairs but also of history, and especially history understand on the grandest scale, is the idea of a strategic trend. A strategic trend is any historical phenomenon that takes on a life of its own. There are major strategic trends that shape macro-history and there are small strategic trends that are little more than fads. The decline of printed newspapers in the wake of the growing importance of the internet is a strategic trend. The refinement of precision munitions is a strategic trend. The collapse of the horse-drawn buggy industry in the wake of automobiles was a strategic trend in the past, but now is irrelevant.

Thinking in terms of strategic trends is a kind of extension and extrapolation of uniformitarianism. If the past is to be interpreted in terms of processes known to be acting in the present (which is uniformitarianism), so too the future can be interpreted in terms of processes known to be acting in the present, or to have acted in the past. The use of uniformitarianism in the physical sciences focuses on physical laws discoverable in the present and applicable to natural events in the past. The use of uniformitarianism in the philosophy of history focuses on patterns of human behavior discoverable in the present or the past, and possible applicable to distinct human societies at any time in history, past, present, or future.

It was never my intention to present these Three Futures as exhaustive or as mutually exclusive, and I guess I really ought not to worry too much about it, since no one has commented on this post and suggested that my intention had been misconstrued. In any case, my recent addition of a (revised and reinterpreted) communism should make the non-exclusive character of my original list obvious. In this spirit of identifying strategic trends in the present that may become dominant strategic trends in the future, and in no way committed to an exclusive or closed list, I want to propose another possibility for the long term human future.

Human beings being what they are, there is always the possibility of returning to a past mode of life that proved robust and sustainable. Our long prehistory dominated, as it was, by a cyclical conception of time has deeply inculcated the idea of a “return to roots” in almost all human societies. A “return” to the agricultural paradigm, following on the experience of industrialization, and therefore transformed by this experience, could constitute a new division of macro-temporality, and this possibility I will call post-industrial agriculturalism, or neo-agriculturalism, or neo-agriculturalization when speaking of an historical process.

I have written quite a number of posts touching on the nature of settled agricultural civilization. The most significant of these posts include:

Civilizations Settled and Unsettled

The Agricultural Paradigm

Some Rough Notes on Agricultural Civilization

Pure Agriculturalism

The Telos of Agriculturalism

Many other posts of mine have touched upon agricultural civilization, but these are the ones with the most meat in them.

The strategic trend of agriculturalism as it reveals itself in the present dates at least to the “back to the land” movement of the late twentieth century, especially in its counter-culture iteration, and continues to crop up now and again in the popular media. For example, Japan’s youth turn to rural areas seeking a slower life by Roland Buerk of BBC News, Tokyo, is a typical expression of this.

In contemporary society we can identify strategic trends that are both a “pull” toward agriculturalism and a “push” away from industrialism. I have written on many occasions about the dehumanization and depersonalization of industrial-technological civilization, and escape from this regime is a recurring theme of popular culture. That is the “push” toward the supposedly simpler life of agriculturalism. On the “pull” side of the historical equation there is the long tradition of a kind of mysticism of the soil, such that in the event of neo-agriculturalism it might be possible to speak of the re-enchantment of the world (since the disenchantment of the world — die Entzauberung der Welt — has been one of the discontents of industrial-technological civilization).

The contemporary strategic trends of environmentalism and anti-globalization, while they garner a great deal of press, have not ultimately accomplished much. Environmentalism has changed the way some things are done, but a radical interpretation of environmentalism, the success of which would involve the abandonment of industrial-technological civilization, has made no headway at all. Only the most mild and inoffensive initiatives of environmentalism have had any traction, and certainly nothing that makes the ordinary person uncomfortable or even mildly inconvenienced is countenanced. That being said, the anti-globalization movement, in so far as it is a “movement” at all, has accomplished absolutely nothing except furnishing a pretext for protests and vandalism, which is great fun for a certain segment of society. However, in so far as “venting” is important, these protests have served a certain social function.

Despite this dismal record, and the likelihood that environmentalism and anti-globalization as strategic trends are likely to wither away in time as they become either irrelevant (anti-globalization) or completely co-opted by the status quo (environmentalism), these strategic trends might gain a new lease on a longer life if they feed into some larger movement that has a chance to fundamentally alter the way in which people live. Such opportunities come along only rarely in history, as I have attempted to argue on many occasions. Neo-agriculturalism would serve this functional quite competently, since environmentalism and anti-globalization could be given content (anti-globalization) and direction (environmentalism) by becoming associated with social change driven by a neo-agriculturist agenda.

When we think of a post-industrial agriculturalism in these terms, it becomes obvious that those strategic trends that ultimately become dominant trends that shape the next stage of macro-history are those trends that can be fed by the largest number of minor and middling strategic trend. In this way, a dominant strategic trend that comes to define a division of macro-history. Perhaps in the final analysis, the biggest tent wins. In other words, that strategic trend that can subsume under itself the greatest number of other strategic trend while retaining its essential coherency, may be that strategic trend that comes to dominate all other trends.

With this in mind we can identify a number of strategic trends that implicitly feed (or would feed) into neo-agriculturalism: being a locavore, and in fact the whole local food movement (and, to a lesser extent, the “slow food” movement), bioregionalism, eco-communalism, and radical environmental philosophies like deep ecology.

As I noted above, I don’t intend my identification of possible futures to be exclusive or exhaustive. Thus what I have previously identified as pastoralization could well coexist with neo-agriculturalization. Furthermore, pastoralization could be subsumed under neo-agriculturalization, or vice versa. A little more attention to detail would be needed to order to determine which strategic trend represented that of the greatest generality, therefore likely to subsume other strategic trends under it. However, this being history we are discussing, a certain degree of this determination is left to chance, circumstance, and contingency.

It should also be noted that these future scenarios I have been attempting to sketch do, at least to a limited degree, involve a reconsideration of, “the basic principles underlying our social order,” and constitute, “a systematic idea of political and social justice that claimed to supersede liberalism” — two conditions that Francis Fukuyama named as necessary to refute his “end of history” hypothesis:

“At the core of my argument is the observation that a remarkable consensus has developed in the world concerning the legitimacy and viability of liberal democracy. This ideological consensus is neither fully universal nor automatic, but exists to an arguably higher degree than at any time in the past century.”

“In order to refute my hypothesis, then, it is not sufficient to suggest that the future holds in store large and momentous events. One would have to show that these events were driven by a systematic idea of political and social justice that claimed to supersede liberalism. A nuclear war between India and Pakistan – horrible as that would be for those countries – does not qualify, unless it somehow forced us to reconsider the basic principles underlying our social order.”

Francis Fukuyama, “A Reply to My Critics,” Fall 1989, The National Interest

For the record, I am interested neither in refuting or defending Fukuyama’s thesis, but his formulation does provide a certain clarification for what it takes to account for a genuinely novel historical development. I would be willing to state that, “a systematic idea of political and social justice that claimed to supersede liberalism,” would be a sufficient condition for the definition of a new division of macro-history, and I would further hold that no such condition has presented itself since Fukuyama’s essay.

Again, however, we can identify strategic trends in the present that could well constitute a systematic idea of political and social justice that could displace that systematic idea of political and social justice that prevails today. For example, if we consider the idea of environmental justice we have a conception which if elaborated, extended, and expanded into the future could become an alternative paradigm of political and social justice. Such changes take time and cannot be seen in a single lifetime. Changes of an intellectual order I call metaphysical history, and metaphysical history is the summum genus of historical categories, subsuming even the macro-historical concerns I have been writing about here.

Notwithstanding the fact that, if humanity fails to transcend its planet-bound civilization its future will be necessarily finite (or we can also say that any successor species of homo sapiens will necessarily have a finite future), even given a finite future there would be time enough for many macro-historical divisions yet to be determined. One of these macro-historical divisions could well be a post-industrial agriculturalism.

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