Tuesday


There’s a lot of room in our solar system. The intrastellar or intersolar neighborhood is vastly beyond the scope of the ambition of most mortals. (The Thomas Digges chart of a Copernican solar system from 1576.)

The Advent of Intersolar Civilization

Before human civilization has achieved a robust interstellar presence, and has conquered, or begun to conquer, those nearly insuperable problems associated with the vast distances between the stars — which are as much temporal distances as spatial distances, because of the limiting velocity of the speed of light — it is likely the there will be a robust human presence within our native solar system. That is to say, it is likely that we will have an extraterrestrial civilization within out solar system before we have an interstellar civilization.

As I said, there’s a lot of room in our solar system. More importantly, there are more resources and more energy available than even a greatly expanded human civilization could consume in the foreseeable future.

Elsewhere I have identified this stage of industrial technological civilization as a Stage II civilization, but since no one is familiar with my terminology, it would be more straightforward to refer to interplanetary civilization. However, “interplanetary civilization” implies human spacesteading on naturally occurring celestial bodies, which is an arbitrary limitation. It is to be expected that spacesteading will involve as much or more settlement in artificial environments orbiting celestial bodies or in low- or micro-gravity environments of the asteroid belt. I will use the more comprehensive term “intersolar” to refer to all possible forms of human habitation and travel in the vicinity of our native sun and within our native solar system, but exclusive of other stars and their solar systems. (This could just as well be called “intrasteller” as “intersolar” but I suspect that the former term might be confusing, so I will prefer the latter.)

There’s really no need to hoist up one’s resources from the bottom of a gravity well like the surface of the Earth. The moons of our solar system have plenty of resources and much lower gravity.

One of the distinctive features of human extraterrestrial civilization within our native solar system (i.e., intersolar civilization, as defined above) is that it will not be a one way trip. There will be an expectation that those who go into space will be able to return to the Earth if they so desire, and to do so on a timetable of days, weeks, or months, and only at the outside would travel times be reckoned in years.

Even better than the low gravity environments of the solar system’s moons are the micro-gravity environments of the asteroid belt.

This contrasts dramatically to interstellar voyages that we might contemplate in the next hundred years or so, which, given our contemporary understanding of science and our expectations for technology based upon that science, would be one-way journeys, or, if return was contemplated, the round trip would require years or decades, and optimally would involve some sort of induced hibernation or other biological stasis technology.

Even if early spacesteaders choose not to return to the Earth, they would want to maintain their connections and communications with the Earth and its inhabitants, unless they had purposefully chosen to isolate themselves for ideological or ethical reasons. While we cannot rule out the possibility of self-imposed isolation from Earth, this is likely to be the exception rather than the rule.

Given these assumptions, how would the members of an intersolar civilization communicate with each other? How would the Earth communicate with spacesteads, and how would spacesteads communicate with each other and with the earth?

An Internet for Intersolar Civilization

The internet is becoming the de facto planetary brain of human civilization, the central clearing house for all information, and therefore also, in a sense, the blueprint for the construction and maintenance of industrial-technological civilization. It is also a universal communications network that can not only carry familiar forms of communications traffic such as email, but is increasingly used for voice and visual communications. It is to be expected that these developments will continue and that internet-enabled communications devices will be the norm and the standard for future communication.

Moreover, the internet is not a closed and finished system, but is growing and changing every day. This means that the blueprint for industrial-technological civilization is growing and changing every day, and if any community wishes to be a part of this tradition, it must have access to the internet in real time.

Real time” is the rub. The limiting velocity of the speed of light is not only a physical limit but also a social limit, because the speed of light marks the limits of the possibility of communication. Within the sphere of intersolar civilization, this limit would be felt, but it would not be felt so keenly as to abandon communication as pointless.

While interstellar distances would involve delays of years or centuries in communication between humanity’s home planet and any representatives of our species having found their way to other stars and their solar systems, interplanetary distances involve delays of seconds, minutes, hours or days. This is a problem, but it is possibly a problem that we can deal with in creative ways, and perhaps with some unavoidable compromises, and not an insuperable problem.

We will here assume that the limitation of the speed of light is observed. There has been significant discussion of the possibility of communication based on quantum entanglement, and while this possibility cannot be ruled out, it also cannot be counted upon. If this possibility materializes, our communications difficulties will be addressed on the basis of instantaneous universal communication, and some (but not all) of the problems discussed here will become irrelevant.

One of the features of the internet throughout its development has been that of striving after ever higher speeds, requiring ever higher bandwidth, and enabling technologies that rely upon very high speeds and very large bandwidth, such as watching streaming video, whether of a live conference or of a film. Instantaneous access to ever more data-rich environments and instantaneous communication has become the norm and the expectation.

How can we make this planetary brain of the internet into an interplanetary brain, or an intersolar brain, so that the blueprint of industrial-technological civilization is universally and nearly instantaneously available?

When the Earth and Mars are on opposite sides of the sun it takes much longer to exchange a radio signal than when the planets are at their closest approach to each other.

If an individual is using their internet-enabled device on Mars, between 3 and 22 light minutes from Earth (depending upon the relative positions of the Earth and Mars), and is accessing the most recent scholarship on farming techniques in iron-rich soils, they will not want to wait for 6-44 minutes for the turn-around time between each query and response.

An obvious first step would be to build internet “repeater” stations in Earth orbit, or perhaps on the moon or at the Lagrange points. An internet repeater station could continuously access internet content from the Earth, updating everything much as search engines are continuously seeking new content to index. Such a repeater would be a “mirror” of the entire internet, or as much of the internet as a given facility could store and update.

Individuals at a distance from the Earth would have to restrict their chatting and their webcam sessions to others nearby, where the delay was short enough so that it was not too obvious, but the content of the internet other than streaming live content could be made available to everyone at speeds approximating those of the present, depending upon one’s position in the solar system and the nearest internet mirror station.

Popular social media such as Facebook and Twitter would be delayed by minutes between the farther reaches of intersolar civilization, but this would not seriously impact any but the most dedicated followers of their friend’s status updates. Those for whom such matters loom large may choose to remain on the Earth, although by doing this they would still experience delays in status updates from extraterrestrial friends. Still, lives and careers have been decided on slimmer grounds, and such considerations could have a cumulative selective effect over time.

Ramifications for SETI of an Intersolar Internet

The future of intersolar civilization may involve a network of internet mirrors throughout the solar system, much as we now have a network of satellites surrounding the Earth that give as immediate information on our position on the surface of the Earth (and which in doing so must take account of relativistic effects like frame-dragging).

In so far as this network must be based on some kind of radio technology (as we are excluding advanced communication possibilities such as quantum entanglement communications, as noted above) — since we cannot string wires or fiber optic cables in space; our intersolar network of internet mirrors must be a wifi network — such an interplanetary network would be highly “visible” to any electromagnetic spectrum observation of our solar system. This apparently innocuous fact has interesting ramifications.

One response to the “Eerie silence” of SETI research has been the suggestion that, after a certain stage of technological development, an industrial-technological civilization “goes quiet” by resorting to fiber optic communications or related terrestrial technologies that no longer involve our radiating significant radio signals into space.

We can now see that this way of accounting for the Fermi paradox — if the universe is rich in alien technological civilizations, where are they? — involves an additional assumption: that an alien industrial-technological civilization will remain planet-bound. While we cannot exclude this possibility, we ought rightly to explicitly recognize it, and as soon as we do explicitly recognize it we can immediately see that this is highly unlikely.

Any industrial-technological civilization, located anywhere in the universe, that was capable of and interested in establishing radio communications with other peer civilizations, is extremely likely to be at least an intersolar civilization, if not an interstellar civilization, and they are equally likely to have created a communications and data storage network like the internet, and for their intersolar civilization to be fully viable this network would need to be available over the distances of a solar system, which means that another peer civilization would be radiating radio signals as aggressively as a human intersolar civilization would be radiating radio signals.

An Encyclopedia Solaria for a Growing Civilization

Carl Sagan (in his Cosmos), Timothy Ferris (in his Coming of Age in the Milky Way), and others have speculated on the possibility of an Encyclopedia Galactica that would be the repository of one or several industrial-technological civilizations, and which might survive that brief life of particular civilizations to transmit its content to later civilizations or successor civilizations within the universe. This was touched upon several times at the 100YSS 2011 symposium.

What I have described here constitutes something like an abridged version of an Encyclopedia Galactica, Which might be called an Encyclopedia Solaria, for our coming intersolar civilization. A growing intersolar civilization would entail a growing Encyclopedia Solaria that would encompass and connect our native solar system in one vast interconnected network.

This Encyclopedia Solaria would be an intermediate step between our contemporary terrestrial internet and an Encyclopedia Galactica of interstellar scope and reach. It is to be expected that solving — or, at least, dealing with — the problems of an Encyclopedia Solaria would teach us valuable lessons for a future Encyclopedia Galactica. One could think of the Encyclopedia Solaria as a trial run of an Encyclopedia Galactica, allowing us time to experiment and to work out some of the inevitable bugs that would likely plague earlier iterations.

While an Encyclopedia Solaria would ideally be an open and growing entity, receiving continuous updates to its content from all corners of the solar system, if our coming intersolar civilization should stumble, that same Encyclopedia Solaria could serve another function. An Encyclopedia Solaria would be a first step in mitigating human existential risk, at least in so far as this risk touches upon the preservation and expansion of the cultural legacy of human civilization.

This observation suggests the next step, which would be a conscious and systematic effort to safeguard the cultural legacy of human civilization from existential risk.

Existential Risk Mitigation for a Declining Civilization

I have been influenced in this present suggestion by the presentation of Heath Rezabek at the 100YSS 2012 conference about the possibility of archives to mitigate existential risk to human civilization.

A server farm or internet mirror set up on the moon, for instance, and designed according to principles that guide projects like the clock of the long now, i.e., designed for the long term, powered by solar power and perhaps with a nuclear backup power supply, and with plenty of shielding against the harsh environment of space, might well outlast terrestrial human civilization if that civilization succumbs to the existential risks of extinction, permanent stagnation, or flawed realization.

From the perspective of an active backup and repeater for the internet for a human presence in intersolar space, an orbiting artificial environment would probably be preferable to a moon-based installation, but if we are thinking in terms of existential risk, the moon’s bulk itself could provide a certain security, as well as providing plenty of material for shielding and plenty of space for the facility — space on firm ground, as it were. A facility in space, as opposed to an installation on a naturally-occurring celestial body, would need to be heavily shielded and even with shielding would be vulnerable to collisions. Even if such a facility experienced no major catastrophic collisions, it would be steadily bombarded by small particles and dust, which would take their toll over time.

Since the moon is phase-locked with the Earth, always presenting one side to our planet and a back side — the “dark” side of the moon — to extraterrestrial space beyond the Earth, a moon-based installation would have a certain security from immediate threats issuing form the Earth’s surface.

Other possibilities would present themselves in connection with an installation on the far side of the moon. Radio and optical telescopes based on the far side of the moon could peer much deeper and much farther into the universe that Earth-based telescopes (due to the lack of an atmosphere and the bulk of the moon shielding both light and EM radiation from the Earth), and, being built on the moon, such astronomical assets could be much larger than our current orbital telescopes. A significant scientific installation along with the internet mirror and universal information backup would continuously add new knowledge to our Encyclopedia Solaria, and much of this would be knowledge inaccessible to terrestrial observers, which would add an element of novelty to the science and might therefore mitigate some of the risk of stagnation.

The risk that such an installation would entail would be its visibility to nefarious and hostile alien powers. However, this would not be nearly as visible, and therefore not nearly as risky, as an internet and an Encyclopedia Solaria for a growing intersolar civilization as described above, which would be radiating more powerfully than a mere lunar installation.

Stephen Hawking as recently warned of the existential risk entailed by contacting, or being visible to, hostile aliens. Others have suggested that the risks are minimal or non-existent because the economics of interstellar invasion are insuperable. I do not agree with this latter analysis, but I will not attempt to argue the point here; I will only note that the point has been made.

What I have said here of the moon applies, mutatis mutandis, to Mars. At an even greater distance from the Earth than the moon, Mars would be that much more secure from Earth-based threats (such threats presumably being a consequence of succumbing to the existential risk of flawed realization). Mars, like the moon, is geologically inert, or nearly so. Any installation here could count on geological stability. Since Mars has an atmosphere, it has another layer of protection for its surface. For any residents, Mars would feel more like home, and less artificial, than an installation on the moon. However, the fact of an atmosphere means that the view of the cosmos from Mars would be compromised for any ground-based telescopes, unlike the moon’s clear view into space.

Ideally, existential risk mitigation for the cultural legacy of human civilization would be redundant, involving facilities on the moon, on Mars, and on orbiting platforms.

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Note added later the same day: Heath Rezabek, whom I have cited above, and who has commented below, has drawn my attention to two items that are closely related to what I wrote above, Why We Need a Supercomputer on the Moon by Robert McMillan writing in Wired and NASA Mulls Deep-Space Station on Moon’s Far Side by Leonard David, space.com Space Insider Columnist.

I also happened to find that there is an entry on an “Interplanetary Internet” in Space Sciences: Macmillan Science Library. This volume is aimed at a young adult audience, but there is still much of interest here.

Obviously, many people are thinking about the issues I have outlined above. If enough people converge on a similar solution, something might get done. One can at least hope.

None of the other treatments I have found mention the potential science payoff of a big telescope on the far side of the moon linked into a supercomputer and internet node. If we think of how dramatically the Hubble Space Telescope has transformed our understanding of cosmology, this is no small matter. While the technocrats will always focus on particular problems, we who take the larger view know that industrial-technological civilization continues its relentless technological transformation of life only because it is systematically driven by science. New basic science of the kind that would be enabled by a major telescope (preferably both visible spectrum and radio telescopes) — imaging exoplanets and their atmospheres would be just the start — would offer an order-of-magnitude increase in observational cosmology.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Friday


Whither the Web?

A Warning for the New Year


One of the most disturbing things about dictatorship and political manipulation during the twentieth century was the skill and sophistication that the power-hungry brought to novel forms of mass media. The German experience of Nazism, which ought to be a lesson that no Westerner ever forgets, would have been impossible without the skillful use of mass media for nefarious ends. The newsreel and the radio broadcast were as central to Nazi control as mass party rallies. More recently, the simplified and streamlined genocide in Rwanda (in contrast to the technological sophistication of the Nazi genocide) made extensive use of radio broadcasts to target victims. Newspapers, magazines, radio, film, and television created a new mass media climate, and this media climate was mastered with with surprising rapidity by the most brutal elements of society, making it possible for a violent minorities to seize control of nation-states, to intimidate and terrorize their rivals, and to dictate their ideological fantasies to the masses.

The telecommunications revolution of the twentieth century (getting its start in the nineteenth century with the telegraph and transoceanic cables) seemed to realize its implicit promise in the emergence of the internet in the late twentieth century. I got my first laptop and my first e-mail address in 1996. At this time, the internet was like the Wild West: wide open, competing standards, no consensus on what would happen next. It was a riot of activity and innovation in a newly created world that simply did not exist ten years previously. It was messy and unpredictable, and it was fascinating.

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the still new and still innovative internet began to change even faster as interactive web applications became more common. We now typically refer to this mutation as Web 2.0, and if the initial emergence of the internet seemed to promise universal access and communication without the intervention of the state, Web 2.0 seemed to be an acceleration of this development, with mass collaboration on social networking and information websites. This development suggested a level of democratization that was unprecedented in the history of the world.

But all is not well in the wide, wonderful world of Web 2.0. China has walled its citizens off from the rest of the world by its Great Firewall of China, and the growing market power of China, now the second largest economy in the world, has made the large industries associated with the internet willing to compromise themselves in order to do business with the regime: they receive their thirty pieces of silver, and the people of China are imprisoned by an information network that seems to promise universal and free expression, but which in fact represents only a censored fragment of what is common knowledge elsewhere in the world.

Recent events have demonstrated that the advanced industrialized democracies, which have prided themselves on their openness, and have attributed their social stability and economic success to this same openness, are little better than China when they perceive their interests to be threatened. It has been a shock to me personally to see how quickly and how easily media outlets and internet industries have been willing to abandon WikiLeaks because they made a few powerful people angry. This ought to be a lesson to us all. As long as you discuss film and fashion, download pornography or gamble online, you are no threat to the established order, but if you cross the line into political activity, and you reach a worldwide audience, you will find yourself without friends and without protectors. You may even find yourself with the most powerful nation-state in the world pursuing you, and seeking to charge you with espionage though you are not a citizen, not a resident, none of your activities occurred within the territory of said nation-state, and you are not subject to the laws of that nation-state.

We have come to the point where there is a difference in degree between the political control exercised by the advanced industrialized democracies and one-party states like China, Burma, and North Korea, but there is not a difference in kind. That is to say, we have more freedom of expression and more openness than rogue states and dictatorships, but we don’t have freedom and openness simpliciter.

The handful of people who run the world’s governments are not stupid. They have proved by their deeds that they know how to seize power, how to retain power, and how to use power to their own ends. They will not willingly forgo the opportunity to use the potential power of the internet in order to consolidate their grip on power. It would be contrary to their nature to do so, and it would therefore be foolish of us to expect anything different.

All over the world, among individuals of all races and persuasions, East and West, rich and poor, influential and anonymous, privileged and underprivileged, there are persons who believe that they know better than you know what is in your own best interest. While the poor and anonymous and underprivileged are rarely a direct threat to us because of their lack of resources, they constitute the power base of those who are rich and influential and privileged. Without the Lumpenproletariat of the technological age, those who would arrogate to themselves the status of deciding the fates of others would have no power. Even in nation-states with advanced political and social institutions which seem to have supplanted the ancient institutions of pre-modern societies, we find implicit within the social milieu of our time the client-patron networks that have been the backbone of societies as diverse as the Persian Empire, the Roman Empire, the Mogul Empire, the Spanish Empire, and the British Empire. These client-patron networks connect diverse individuals and social classes into a unified social system in which each serves the interests of the other.

The new telecommunications technologies of the twentieth century seemed to promise the empowerment of individuals; the age of the dictatorial social milieu seemed to be coming to an end. It has been argued, and still is argued, that telephones, photocopiers, fax machines, and other media of “first wave” of the telecommunications revolution, make it impossible to silence the individual who is determined to speak out. But the institutionalized state was not far behind. Telephones can be tapped. Photocopiers can be monitored. Faxes can be intercepted. Typewriters can be licensed. And so it is with the internet. China has shown how even something as large, as amorphous, and as buzzing with activity as the internet can be managed, within limits, and now the Western powers are learning from this police state how it can police its own internet traffic. And the institutionalized industries of the internet, who have refined their techniques of information control in East Asia at the behest of one-party states, can bring their expertise in stifling dissent back to the West.

We all know the mythology of the large computer and internet companies of today: how they began in garages, were run by people who were passionate and enthusiastic about what they were doing, how they were contemptuous of the institutions of polite society, and how they proved the skeptics wrong. Now these companies have grown up. They are no longer housed in garages. They have plush office suites, boards of directors, stock tenders, and a great many people earning high salaries, who, after proving their success to a skeptical world, would not now want to come down in the world, having won their battle for recognition, prestige, and wealth. These industries now have vested interests, and they no more want to upset the status quo than the record industry wanted to stop selling cassettes and CDs. And this is why they cooperate with government authorities.

We need to recognize that the internet is a mass media, and that the collaborative applications of Web 2.0 are the full flowering of a truly mass media in which the masses participate as masses in the production of their own media. It requires but little political imagination to see that the mass media of Web 2.0 could be as quickly and as cleverly manipulated by institutionalized powers as newspapers, magazines, radio, film, and television. Web 2.0 is, in fact, all of these things and more. There are streaming radio broadcasts and endless videos on Youtube and Hulu, and endless media outlets. None of these things are beyond the control of the state.

As against the mindless happy talk that persists in portraying internet technologies as empowering the masses, there is the warning from history — many warnings from history, in fact, but the twentieth century lesson of dictatorships that have consolidated and extended their powers through mass media manipulation is the lesson most germane to our experience today — that tells us that every technological innovation inevitably will be exapted by institutionalized powers to serve their ends.

There are a handful of people today who are not merely talking the talk — which, all too often, is mere “happy talk” about freedom and democracy — but who are walking the walk at great risk of personal sacrifice. Among them we may count Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, Ai Weiwei and Liu Xiaobo in China, and Julian Assange, wherever he is being held at the moment. While these figures are a diverse lot, and we may admire some even while detesting others, we owe it to ourselves, to the possibility of self-determination for ourselves and for others in the future, to defend them all in whatever capacity we are able to do so. Julian Assange has a rape charge pending against him. Who wants to be associated with a rapist? No one. The institutionalized powers know this, and they play upon it.

The fight for WikiLeaks to make documents public in the Western democracies and the fight for activists like Ai Weiwei and Liu Xiaobo to speak out publicly in China are intimately related. One cannot avoid noticing that these struggles are taking place in the two largest economies in the world at present. Today, these are the fights worth fighting. This is the good fight. It is not a fight of nation-state against nation-state, nor class against class, but of individuals against institutions that seek to regiment the life of the individual for the convenience of those institutions and those who control and benefit from the institutions.

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