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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Tuesday


The “technium” is a term coined by Kevin Kelly in his book What Technology Wants. The author writes that he dislikes inventing words, but felt he needed to coin a term in the context of his exposition of technology; I, on the contrary, don’t mind in the least inventing words. I invent words all the time. When we formulate a new concept we ought to give it a new name, because we are not only expanding our linguistic vocabulary, we are also extending out conceptual vocabulary. So I will without hesitation take up the term “technium” and attempt to employ it as the author intended, though I will extend the concept even further by applying some of my own terminology to the idea.

In What Technology Wants the technium is defined as follows:

“I dislike inventing new words that no one else uses, but in this case all known alternatives fail to convey the required scope. So I’ve somewhat reluctantly coined a word to designate the greater, global, massively interconnected system of technology vibrating around us. I call it the technium. The technium extends beyond shiny hardware to include culture, art, social institutions, and intellectual creations of all types. It includes intangibles like software, law, and philosophical concepts. And most important, it includes the generative impulses of our inventions to encourage more tool making, more technology invention, and more self-enhancing connections. For the rest of this book I will use the term technium where others might use technology as a plural, and to mean a whole system (as in “technology accelerates”). I reserve the term technology to mean a specific technology, such as radar or plastic polymers.”

Some time ago, in some earlier posts here, I started using the term “social technology” to indicate those artifacts of human invention that are not particular pieces of hardware. In making that distinction I did not think to further subdivide and extrapolate all possible kinds of technology, nor to unify them all together into one over-arching term (at least, I don’t remember having the idea). This is what, as far as I understand it, the technium means: the most comprehensive conception of technology, including social technologies and electromechanical technologies and biological technologies and so forth.

Neolithic flint mining at Grimes Graves.

Although we usually don’t think of it like this, technology is older than civilization. Lord Broers led off his 2005 Reith Lectures with an account of the “Grimes Graves” flint mining site, which virtually constituted an entire Neolithic industrial complex. While Grimes Graves is contemporaneous with agriculture, and therefore with a broad conception of agricultural civilization, there were probably other such industries dating to the Paleolithic that are lost to us now.

Lithic technology: older than civilization.

With the emergence of human cognitive modernity sometime about fifty to sixty thousand years ago, human beings began making tools in a big way. Of course, earlier hominids before homo sapiens made tools also, although their toolkits were pretty rudimentary and showed little or no development over hundred of thousands of years. Still, it should be observed that tools and technology are not only older that civilization, they are even older than human beings, in so far as we understand human beings narrowly as homo sapiens only (though it would be just as legitimate to extend the honorific “human being” to all hominids). What this means is that the technium is older than civilization.

What hominids are we going to call human beings, and to what hominids will we deny the honorific? All hominids have been tool users, but so are otters.

If we take the technium as an historical phenomenon and study it separately from the history of human beings or the history of civilization, we see that it is legitimate to identify the technium as an independent object of inquiry since it has a life of its own. At some points in history the technium has coincided fully with civilization; at other points in time, the technium has not precisely coincided with civilization. As I have just noted above, the technium preceded the advent of civilization, and therefore in its earliest stages did not coincide with civilization.

The technium already extends significantly beyond the technosphere of the Earth.

At the present moment in history, with our technological artifacts spread across the solar system and crowding the orbit of the earth, the technium again, in extending beyond the strict range of human civilization, does not precisely correspond with the extent of civilization. The possibility of a solarnet (this term of due to Heath Rezabek, and the idea is given an exposition in my Cyberspace and Outer Space) that would constitute an internet for a human civilization throughout our native solar system, would be an expansion of the technium throughout our solar system, and it is likely that this will proceed human spacesteading (or, at least, will be at the leading edge of human spacesteading) so that the technium has a greater spatial extent than civilization for some time.

If, at some future time, human beings were to build and launch BracewellVon Neuman probes — self-replicating robotic probes sent to other solar systems, at which point the self-replicating probes employ the resources of the other solar system to build more BracewellVon Neuman probes which are then sent on to other solar systems in turn — when, in the fullness of time, these probes had spread through the entire Milky Way galaxy (which would take less than four million years), the technium would then include the entire Milky Way, even if we couldn’t properly say that human civilization covered the same extent.

It is an interesting feature of a lot of futurism that focuses on technology — and here I am thinking of Kevin Kelly’s book here under consideration as well as the extensive contemporary discussion of the technological singularity — that such accounts tend to remain primarily terrestrially-focused, while it is another party of futurists who focus on scenarios in which human space travel plays a significant role in the future. Both visions are inadequate, because both technological advances and space travel that projects civilization beyond the Earth will play significant roles in the future, and in fact the two will not be distinguishable. As I have noted above, the technium already extends well beyond the Earth to the other planets of our solar system, and, if we count the Voyager probes now in deep space, beyond the solar system.

One way in which we see technologically-based futurism focusing on terrestrial scenarios is the terminology and concepts employed. While the term isn’t used much today, there is the idea of a “technosphere” which is the technological analogue of those spheres recognized by the earth sciences such as the geosphere, the hydrosphere, the biosphere, the lithosphere, and so forth — essentially geocentric or Ptolemaic conceptions, which remain eminently valid in regard to Earth-specific earth sciences, but which when applied to technology, which has already slipped the surly bonds of earth, it is misleading.

More contemporary conceptions — which, of course, have a history of their own — would be that of a planetary civilization or, on a larger scale, the idea of a matrioshka brain, which latter could be understood as part of a human scenario of the future or part of a singularity scenario.

Michio Kaku has many times referenced the idea of a planetary civilization, and he often does so citing Kardashev’s classifications of civilization types based on energy uses. Here is Kaku’s exposition of what he calls a Type I civilization:

Type I civilizations: those that harvest planetary power, utilizing all the sunlight that strikes their planet. They can, perhaps, harness the power of volcanoes, manipulate the weather, control earthquakes, and build cities on the ocean. All planetary power is within their control.

Michio Kaku, Physics of the Impossible, Chapter 8, “Extraterrestrials and UFOs”

Of course, anyone is free to define types of civilization however they like, and Kaku has been consistent in which characterization of civilization across his own works, but this does have much of a relationship to the schema of Type I, II, and III civilizations as originally laid out by Kardashev. Kardashev was quite explicit in his original paper, “Transmission of Information by Extraterrestrial Civilizations” (1964), that a type I civilization was a, “technological level close to the level presently attained on the earth.” The earth’s energy use has increased significantly since Kardashev wrote this, so according to Kardashev’s original idea, we are today firmly within the territory of a Type I civilization. But Kardashev’s conception is not what Kaku has in mind as a planetary civilization:

“As I’ve discussed in my previous books, our own civilization qualifies a Type 0 civilization (i.e., we use dead plants, oil and coal, to fuel our machines). We utilize only a tiny fraction of the sun’s energy that falls on our planet. But already we can see the beginnings of a Type I civilization emerging on the Earth. The Internet is the beginning of a Type I telephone system connecting the entire planet. The beginning of a Type I economy can be seen in the rise of the European Union, which in turn was created to compete with NAFTA.”

Michio Kaku, Physics of the Impossible, loc. cit.

In his Physics of the Future, Kaku devotes Chapter 8, “Future of Humanity,” to the idea of a planetary civilization, in which he elaborates in more detail on the above themes:

The culmination of all these upheavals is the formation of a planetary civilization, what physicists call a Type I civilization. This transition is perhaps the greatest transition in history, marking a sharp departure from all civilizations of the past. Every headline that dominates the news reflects, in some way, the birth pangs of this planetary civilization. Commerce, trade, culture, language, entertainment, leisure activities, and even war are all being revolutionized by the emergence of this planetary civilization. Calculating the energy output of the planet, we can estimate that we will attain Type I status within 100 years. Unless we succumb to the forces of chaos and folly, the transition to a planetary civilization is inevitable, the end product of the enormous, inexorable forces of history and technology beyond anyone’s control.

Michio Kaku, Physics of the Future, p. 11

And to put it in a more explicitly moral (and bifurcated, i.e., Manichean) context:

There are two competing trends in the world today: one is to create a planetary civilization that is tolerant, scientific, and prosperous, but the other glorifies anarchy and ignorance that could rip the fabric of our society. We still have the same sectarian, fundamentalist, irrational passions of our ancestors, but the difference is that now we have nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.

Michio Kaku, Physics of the Future, p. 16

For Kaku, the telos of civilization’s immediate future is the achievement of a planetary technium. The roots of this idea go back at least to the Greek architect and city planner Constantinos Doxiadis, who was quite famous in the middle of the twentieth century, authored many books, formulated a theory of urbanism that I personally find more interesting than anything written today (although he called his theory “ekistics” which is not an attractive name), and drew up the plans for Islamabad. Doxiadis forecast an entire hierachy of settlements (which he called ekistic units), from the individual to the ecumenopolis, the world-city.

Here is how Doxiadis defined ecumenopolis in his treatise on urbanism:

Ecumenopolis: the coming city that will, together with the corresponding open land which is indispensable for Man, cover the entire Earth as a continuous system forming a universal settlement. Term coined by the author and first used in the October 1961 issue of Ekistics.

Constantinos A. Doxiadis, Ekistics: An Introduction to the Science of Human Settlements, New York: Oxford University Press, 1968, p. 516 (Doxiadis, like me, had no compunctions about inventing his own terminology)

In What Technology Wants Kelly explicitly invoked ecumenopolis as both unsettling and possibly inevitable:

The technium is a global force beyond human control that appears to have no boundaries. Popular wisdom perceives no counterforce to prevent technology from usurping all available surfaces of the planet, creating an extreme ecumenopolis — planet-sized city — like the fictional Trantor in Isaac Asimov’s sci-fi stories or the planet Coruscant in Lucas’s Star Wars. Pragmatic ecologists would argue that long before an ecumenopolis could form, the technium would outstrip the capacity of Earth’s natural systems and thus would either stall or collapse. The cornucopians, who believe the technium capable of infinite substitutions, see no hurdle to endless growth of civilization’s imprint and welcome the ecumenopolis. Either prospect is unsettling.

Kevin Kelly, What Technology Wants, First published in 2010 by Viking Penguin, p. 197

Now, I am not saying that the scenarios of Kevin Kelly and Michio Kaku avoid the human future in space, but it doesn’t seem to be a particular interest of either author, so it doesn’t really receive systematic development or exposition. So I would like to place the technium in Copernican context, i.e., in the context of a Copernican civilization — although it should be obvious from what I wrote above that a Copernican technium will not always coincide with a Copernican civilization.

Some of this will be familiar to those who have read my other posts on Copernican civilization and astrobiology. In A Copernican Conception of Civilization (later refined in my formulations in Eo-, Eso-, Exo-, Astro-, based on Joshua Lederberg’s concepts of eobiology, esobiology, and exobiology) I formulated the following definitions of civilization:

● Eocivilization the origins of civilization, wherever and whenever it occurs, terrestrial or otherwise

● Esocivilization our terrestrial civilization

● Exocivilization extraterrestrial civilization exclusive of terrestrial civilization

● Astrocivilization the totality of civilization in the universe, terrestrial and extraterrestrial civilization taken together in their cosmological context

Now it should be obvious how we can further adapt these same definitions to the technium:

● Eotechnium the origins of the technium, wherever and whenever it occurs, terrestrial or otherwise

● Esotechnium our terrestrial technium

● Exotechnium any extraterrestrial technium exclusive of the terrestrial technium

● Astrotechnium the totality of technology in the universe, our terrestrial and any extraterrestrial technium taken together in their cosmological context

The esotechnium corresponds to what has been called the technosphere, mentioned above. I have pointed out that the concept of the technosphere (like other -spheres such as the hydrosphere and the sociosphere, etc.) is essentially Ptolemaic in conception, and that to make the transition to fully Copernican conceptions of science and the world we need to transcend our Ptolemaic ideas and begin to employ Copernican ideas. Thus to recognize that the technosphere corresponds to the esotechnium constitutes conceptual progress, because on this basis we can immediately posit the exotechnium, and beyond both the esotechnium and the exotechnium we can posit the astrotechnium.

A strict interpretation of technosphere or esotechnium would be limited to the surface of the earth, so that all the technology that is flying around in low earth orbit, and which is so closely tied in with planetary technological systems, constitutes an exotechnium. If we define the boundary of the earth as the Kármán line, 100 km above sea level, this would include within the technosphere or esotechnium all of the highest flying aircraft and the weather balloons, but would exclude all of the lowest orbiting satellites. Even if we were to include the near earth orbit so saturated with satellites as part of the esotechnium, there would still be our technological artifacts on the moon, Mars, Venus, and orbiting around distant bodies of the solar system. farthest out of all, already passing out of the heliosphere of the solar system, into the heliopause, and therefore into interstellar space, are the spacecraft Voyager 1 and Voyager 2.

One question that Kelly left unanswered in his exposition of the technium is whether or not it is to be understood as human-specific, i.e., as the totality of technology generated and employed by human beings. In the nearer-term future there may be a question of distinguishing between human-produced technology and machine-produced technology; in the longer-term future there may be a question of distinguishing between human-generated technology and exocivilization-produced technology. In so far as the idea of the technological singularity involves the ability of machines to augment their own technology, the distinction between human industrial-technological civilization and the post-human technological singularity is precisely that between human-generated technology and machine-generated technology.

There is a perfect parallel between the Terrestrial Eocivilization Thesis and, what is implied in the above, the Terrestrial Eotechnium Thesis, which latter would constitute the claim that all technology begins on the Earth and expands into the universe from this single point of origin.

At this point we might want to distinguish between an endogenous technium, having its origins on the Earth, and any exogenous technium, having its origins in an alien civilization. Another way to formulate this would be to identify any alien technium as a xenotechnium, but I haven’t thought about this systematically yet, so I will leave any attempted exposition for a later time.

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