The planetary transit system

As distances vanish and the people can flow freely from place to place, society will cross a psychological specific heat boundary and enter a new state. No longer a solid or liquid, we have become as a vapor and will expand to fill all available space. And like a gas, we shall not be easily contained.

– Sister Miriam Godwinson, “But for the Grace of God”

Most secret projects are solutions to recurring problems on Chiron. The Planetary transit system solves the problem of how to get from one base to another. Indeed, how to get from any base to any other base. In the early days, taking five steps outside of the perimeter of a base meant a high likelihood of a mind worm having you for breakfast. This is not conducive to planetary-wide commerce or the free exchange of ideas between factions. What it meant was that for most colonists, the base and its immediate surrounding was the entirety of their lifeworld; like an ancient Greek city state, the polis was where it was at.

In the earliest of early days, the impact of this local focus was a function of necessity rather than anything else. When every day is a new all hands on deck situation, there is little time to think of taking a leisurely trip to the next base over. As the colonists settled things down (in all senses of the word), inter-base travel gradually changed from a hazardous anabasis to a routine commute. Ever so slowly, the hardy pioneers were replaced by conference attendees and motivational speakers going to and fro. The grim realities of survival of an alien world were pushed aside for the more intricate problem of how to survive in a highly specialized industrial economy.

We might compare this project to the expansion of railway systems on Earth. The completed construction of a train station meant not only that trains could arrive, but also that the imperatives of places far away could make themselves felt on a very immediate basis. Local goods could be transported and sold to far-off places, which meant that it became profitable to produce more of them, more than the local population could ever use. If prices went up, this meant good times; if prices went down, the company town faced hard times. In both cases, the fate of a local city was determined by factors far away. What arrived on the train was not only goods and people, but a new social order, where the immediate felt experience could not be relied upon to predict how the future would shape up. The arrival of the railway meant an abstraction of reality.

The same goes for the Planetary transit system. The heat boundary that Miriam mentions marks the transition from a precarious colony barely scraping by to a society where everyone can go everywhere. This means that ‘everywhere’ goes from being a set of very particular places (a city), to becoming possible destinations with varying degrees of sameness (a global village). The thing that separates place a from place b is that it takes slightly longer to get to the one than the other, which in the grand scheme of things is not much of a difference at all. Whether this heralds a new golden age of cosmopolitan exchange (as envisioned by Kant) or the nivellation of difference under the indifferent brutality of sameness (as per Kunstler), remains to be seen.

High-energy Chemistry

At atrociously high energy states, the properties of matter change subtly and new miracles become possible. The Plasma Accretion process is now dangerous and difficult to control, but its products will soon become commonplace in our society.

– Sister Miriam Godwinson, “The Lord Works”

Technological advances are in many ways determined by the logic of the arms race. Either your opponents have a bigger gun, which you need to defend yourself against, or you have discovered a better way of defending yourself, necessitating bigger guns. Things being equal means that an advancement is an immediate advantage; conversely, things being unequal means the disadvantage has to be addressed before it can be exploited. There is no equilibrium in this process, only temporary states of varying strategic significance.

There is, however, a side-effect to all of this jockeying for comparative advantages. As Miriam states, once the process has been routinized to such an extent that it can be used for non-military use, it will be. What began as a search for better armor – in gameplay terms, the only advantage of researching this technology – soon transitions into new consumer products. Some of these will be novelty items – new and improved lava lamps spring to mind – while other will be more subtle and indirect. Being able to make harder materials has a wide range of applications, particularly in manufacturing; if nothing else, components lasting longer will be a benefit in and of itself.

It is interesting to note that the processes involved with high-energy chemistry are not something a colony can pull off five minutes after being founded. These processes require a substantial industrial infrastructure and a non-trivial amount of fine-tuned tools. We have entered into a realm of industrial processing that assumes both that there is a society which can sustain it, and which has the capacity to put its results to use once the manufacturing process cools down. No longer are the colonists trying to make things work as best they can in order to make do – they are actively redefining what is possible to do in order to get ahead.

It would be tempting to see this as a progression from doing what is necessary to doing what is useful and beneficial. However, this would be letting optimism get the better of us. Technological advancement is still determined by the logic of the arms race, where keeping apace is an unequivocal necessity. The environmental constraints have shifted from things immediately visible (i.e. one singular division attacking from its position up on that ridge) to geopolitically understandable (the cold calculus of material and mental attrition over time). Being able to make harder materials has many potential benefits, but it also means that the iron cage can be upgraded to something more difficult to break out of.

Information networks

The righteous need not cower before the drumbeat of human progress. Though the song of yesterday fades into the challenge of tomorrow, God still watches and judges us. Evil lurks in the datalinks as it lurked in the streets of yesteryear. But it was never the streets that were evil.

 – Sister Miriam Godwinson, “The Blessed Struggle”

The most science fiction part of any story set in the future is the implication that computers work now. There are no hassles, no software incompatibilities, no hardware hickups, no opaque interfaces. You just tell the computer to do something, and it does that specific thing, without accidentally doing something completely different which could also be parsed from the command given. Printers – let praise be unto the Lord as he has mercy upon us all – work.

Most of this utopian aspect of science fiction comes from dramatic convenience. As in real life, a three hour debugging session to find out why two pieces of hardware which, according to all the specs should talk to each other, do not in fact talk to each other – is not conducive to the romantic ups and downs of an emerging relationship. In fact, it tends to be rather orthogonal to such cinematic endeavors, in as much as two persons have to do something when not dreamily (and/or awkwardly) losing themselves in each other’s eyes. And, once the problem has been identified and resolved, the hardware in question tends to be put into the most pedestrian uses imaginable.

The fact that one of the first technologies available in the game is in essence a many-year debugging and networking session speaks to the implied critique inherent in Miriam’s quote. Technology does not implement itself, and there is always a choice to do things differently. Especially on a new planet, where the standards of old Earth (be they social or code) are suggestions rather than rules ruthlessly enforced by indifferent inertia. The datalinks do not have to be built according to specs that facilitate evil – there is always an option to leave Google behind.

That said, the benefits of getting a local internet up and running as quickly as possible are obvious and difficult to quantify. Not only in terms of being able to share information about new scientific discoveries (very much an applied everyday matter on Chiron), but also in terms of being able to get hold of a plumber when the makeshift piping breaks again. There are innumerable problems facing the early colonists, and most of them are solved that much faster when people know where to go and what to do. Even if the lines of communication at first are limited to the most basic of walkie-talkies, those are better than not having them at all.

This raises the question of what kind of early-day memetics will emerge on these hastily built up and gradually more solidified information networks. As more and more people get access to the net, the same social dynamics will arise as here on Earth: kids will find new ways to express themselves, new trends will arise, a non-zero number of colonists will hook up with someone else. If the medium is the message, as McLuhan maintained, then the shape of these early information systems will form the messages sent through them. Most of these messages will be forgotten as their quotidian purpose is completed, but some words and phrases will remain for years to come, artifacts of communication protocols past. Moshi moshi.

Or, to quote Roger Wilco from the Space Quest series: “Hello”.

The Lord’s Believers

It is easy to make fun of the Believers. Especially in these days, when atheism has gained something of a cult following. Even more so when we take into account the general advance of modernity, which at all points has seen tradition and religion as something to overcome in the name of reason and progress. I suspect many of you who read this see religion in general (and thus the Believers in particular) as wrongheaded, and thus not worthy of consideration. While this point of view is understandable in a contemporary context, it is not conducive to a nuanced understanding of the Believers as a faction. Given that this is a blog about a computer game, rather than a theological assertion this way or that, the best course of action would be to suspend disbelief.

The Believers have one core principle that they put above all others: the most important thing humans have are each other. This goes figuratively, as in the famous sonnet by Emma Lazarus found on the Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me

While the Believers are by no means the land of the free, as envisioned in the dream of America, they do emphasize the value of humans by virtue of being humans. This intrinsic value of human beings may or may not be acknowledged by other factions, but the Believers hold it as sacrosanct.

The flipside of this is the more literal understanding of human social bonds as an active force in the world. Humans build communities, and these communities have the potential to be very kind to insiders and ruthlessly unkind to outsiders. The Believers not only acknowledge that this is a powerful force that needs to be understood in order to grok humans; they are also very effective at harnessing these same social forces and processes for their own ends. Human social dynamics are not a bug to be rectified, but a feature to be used.

It is crucial to understand this duality in order to understand the Believers as a faction in general, and Miriam’s point of view in particular. On the one hand there is an explicit valuation of humans as humans; on the other hand, there is also an acknowledgement that humans are flawed and quirky and do strange things when put in strange circumstances. We can see this play out in in the leader quote:

The righteous need not cower before the drumbeat of human progress. Though the song of yesterday fades into the challenge of tomorrow, God still watches and judges us. Evil lurks in the datalinks as it lurked in the streets of yesteryear. But it was never the streets that were evil.

– Sister Miriam Godwinson, “The Blessed Struggle”

A quick reading would hone in on the evil lurking in the datalinks: of course a religious fanatic would say something like that. The mere use of the word ‘evil’ would be enough to trigger such an immediate dismissal in a skeptic. But a more careful reading would notice the last sentence, in particular the emphasis on where the evil is located. It was not the streets that were evil, but rather those who dwelled there. By analogy, the datalinks are not evil, but there are those who would use them for purposes that can only be described as evil. The datalinks can – and are – used for good, but we have to acknowledge that its users are still human, and thus capable of all the things humans are capable of. Accepting that humans are as humans do means to accept that new technologies will, inexorably, be human too.

There is a case to be made that technologies are more about organization than application. True, inventing a laser that can cut faster than previous lasers is an advancement, but the real improvement comes not with the laser itself, but is rather realized as a result of its application. One new invention doing one thing once is an event; applying it hundreds of thousands of times is a societal foundation. Knowing how humans work and how they tend to apply new inventions thus becomes a fundamentally technological question, and vice versa. Working through the implications of such lines of thinking takes a non-trivial amount of time, but it also avoids the rapid creation of drones as seen in the University. Being human is not merely having been born; being human is what you do with what you have.

Here, we can invoke Virilio’s notion of an ‘accident’. As soon as a technology is put in place – such as a railway – it also creates the potential for accidents. In this case, train crashes. This is not a side effect or unintended consequence, but rather an inherent potential of the technology as such. As long as there are railways, there will be train wrecks. Not because of faulty implementation (though that ups the probabilities), but because trains in motion are a precondition for trains coming to a sudden, violent stop. This goes analogous for every technology, at every level of society, and thinking through the accidents is a continuous effort requiring input from scientists, engineers and cultural critics alike. Neither the streets nor the datalinks are evil, but they do seem prone to accidents, mechanical and human.

Given that the premise of Alpha Centauri is that humanity becomes less and less human as the game progresses, valuing humanity as an end in itself is inherently problematic – and thus interesting. In gameplay terms, it translates into a massive penalty to research and a moderate penalty to planet ratings, respectively. The emphasis on humanity means that understanding the radically alien nature of the world becomes counterintuitive; it is not who they are. The strong community spirit does, however, allow the faction to attack its enemies with intense fervor, and support large armies in defense of the cause.

A transcendent Believer faction would have much in common with the Peacekeeper endgame, in that the very question of what a human is, is central to the project. They differ in that the Believers would take a radically conservative approach – in the political sense of conservative, Burke rather than Locke. It would be a very gradual process, taking one step at a time to ensure that no dramatic and irreversible changes are made. At every point an effort would be made to preserve that which is human, and only eventually deciding to fully merge with Planet; a contradiction forced onward by necessity.