Adaptive economics

Humans : correct in making the leap from wealth as currency to wealth as energy. But logic failure : wealth ultimately is extension of desire, fluctuating with emotions and state of mind. Desires : when all are supported in purely adaptable system, true wealth is achieved.

— Usurper Judaa Marr, “Human : Nature”

The introduction of alien factions in the Alien Crossfire expansion brings with it a host of questions, most of which relate to their modes of social organization. There is, by virtue of them being alien, bound to be quite a few and quite radical differences between how these aliens go about doing things and the more familiar human ways we’ve seen so far. They wouldn’t be alien if they simply conformed to the economic theory of this or that human thinker of centuries past.

This, however, points to an inherent contradiction of science fiction. Science fiction is by necessity written by humans, for humans, from a human point of view. No matter how elaborate, extrapolated or extraordinary the aliens depicted in sci fi writing become, they are still limited in scope to the point of view of a single species on a single planet. When authors seek inspiration for their strange and amazing extraterrestrial entities, this inspiration will by necessity come from somewhere close to home. Alien is as human does.

This is something of a drawback when it comes to empirical correctness and science-based science fiction. It does not, however, invalidate the notion of writing about aliens in the first place. They are not meant to be depictions of actually existing little (or, in the case of the progenitors, quite large) green men, but rather to perturb and upturn our habitual conceptions of what it means to be human. By confronting the Other, we mirror ourselves.

We can see this at play in the quote above. Marr comments on the limitations of human economic thinking, and points out that there is a better, more logical way of going about things. Wealth seen as merely the fulfillment of flimsy and temporary impulses is short-sighted, and tends to lead to the accumulation of ever more useless trinkets as one momentary fad gives way to another; wealth becomes the ability to give in to desire yet one more time, as the mood shifts. Marr’s alternative, then, is to move the ability to satisfy desires from the individual to societal institutions, in such a way that everyone can do it, whilst also contributing to the overall economy. An adaptive economy does not consist of wealthy individuals, but rather of a set of economic institutions which allow for the wealth to be realized where it needs to be, regardless of the size or nature of said need.

It should come as no surprise that Marr has Planned as his preferred societal choice; what has been said so far resonates with the old adage “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”. Perhaps it is only fitting that Marr’s ambition to become the supreme overmind of the galaxy is built on the backs of well-cared for citizens. Indeed, it might be the only way. If this is how he treats his minions before achieving godhood, the thinking might be, then imagine what manner of wealth he might bestow once the Transcendence is completed. It would, all things considered, be a very human thing to believe.

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Industrial automation

In the borehole pressure mines 100km beneath Planetsurface, at the Mohorovicic Discontinuity where crust gives way to mantle, temperatures often reach levels well in excess of 1000°C. Exploitation of Planet’s resources under such brutal conditions has required quantum advances in robotic and teleoperational technology.

— Morgan Industries, Ltd., “Annual Report”

In 14th century Europe, the Black Death killed off a third to a half of the population. This, to make an understatement, meant that there were less people around. An indirect effect of this is that economic activities that previously depended on a ready supply of abundant, cheap labor simply could not be performed at scale any more. While by no means impossible, the combination of having survived the plague years with a new reality of scarce, expensive labor meant that it became imperative to automate (as best things could be automated in the 14th century) as much as possible. This lead to a significant stride forwards in adoption of various mechanical tools for getting things done. While the technologies might not seem much to our future-enhanced eyes, it was a step up from doing things by hand.

The same situation faces the colonists on Chiron, albeit without the context of mass death by inexplicable diseases. The infrastructure, mental and physical, brought over from (the ever-fading from living memory) Earth had the built-in assumption that there would always be cheap, abundant labor involved somewhere in the process. Individual work sites might be staffed by a relatively small number of people, but they could always be resupplied from more numerous locations. This assumption does not hold on the early days of habitation on Chiron, where the makeshift industrial base was all there was. In the long run, automation had to become the explicit norm.

The same goes for the kinds of work being performed; a non-trivial portion of it no longer happens in environments suitable for human habitation. On a planet mostly unsuitable to human habitation, this is not news by any means, but as the above quote suggests, humanity is always prone to find new and uncomfortable regions to stick their noses into. The borehole, a massive hole beginning on the surface and proceeding straight down for kilometers on end, is just such an uncomfortable region. The further down one gets, the hotter and less accommodating to life things become. Thus, the correct move for increasing productivity is to abandon the notion of live participation altogether. When encountering certain death, humanity has traditionally opted for the machine.

The process of automation is not limited to remote inhospitable regions, however. As ever more activities become automated, the colonists find themselves in an ambivalent situation. On the one hand, they are freed from doing the mundane tasks of keeping the pumps running, and can pursue more spiritually fulfilling work. On the other hand, whole professions find themselves wiped out, with mass unemployment as a result. In-game, this is represented by the Hab Dome lifting the population limits on bases – it can either be a boon to productivity, or an inevitable descent into drone discontent and revolt. When the necessities of life are taken care of, the teeming masses require some other reason for sticking around. Being left to one’s own devices with nothing to do – all dressed up with nowhere to go – is not a pleasant place to be.

Gene splicing

The genetic code does not, and cannot, specify the nature and position of every capillary in the body or every neuron in the brain. What it can do is describe the underlying fractal pattern which creates them.

— Academician Prokhor Zakharov, “Nonlinear Genetics”

Genes punch way above their weight class when it comes to having a material impact on the world. For such tiny things to have such a dramatic effect on the material world is nothing short of remarkable. Being able to affect change on a genetic level thus becomes a very powerful tool; seemingly small edits can end up producing very large differences. The outcome is not proportionate to the input, as it were.

As Zakharov indicates, however, the outcome is not a linear process corresponding 1:1 with the alterations made. It is not possible to look upon a genetic code and immediately be able to visualize the fully formed organism; too many things come down to the biographical history of the organism in question, and the specific circumstances within which it lives. For plants, it might be as simple as gaining different colorations depending on the soil; for humans, far more factors play in.

This makes the prospect of gene editing a very indirect proposition. Unlike computer programs, organisms can not be written from scratch. There is simply too much going on, at too far a remove. For the same reason, it is not clear where to begin making alterations; where, amongst the myriad of genes, is the one thing which controls the desired aspect? It has to be somewhere in there, but where?

Like teenagers of the early internet years learning HTML, the key is to copy what works on other pages and splice it into your own. There is a process through which the incomprehensible series of letters and numbers is turned into a web page, and while this process is not entirely known (yet), the various small changes that can be made are predictable and immediately applicable. The same goes, mutatis mutandis, for genes. Take the genes which seem to correspond to the desired trait in one genome, splice it into the genome which you want to exhibit the same trait, and see what happens.

If it works, it works. If it does not – well, the search continues. Sooner or later, something has to work, given enough monkeys with enough genetic typewriters.

Industrial Economics

Our first challenge is to create an entire economic infrastructure, from top to bottom, out of whole cloth. No gradual evolution from previous economic systems is possible, because there IS no previous economic system. Each interdependent piece must be materialized simultaneously and in perfect working order; otherwise the system will crash out before it ever gets off the ground.

– CEO Nwabudike Morgan, “The Centauri Monopoly”

A very distinct feature of modern societies is that everything is dependent on everything else. Not by design, but by necessity. Should one part of the system suffer a critical failure, everything else would follow suit. The most dramatic example of this is if the production of electricity were to suddenly not happen – whatever you were up to before the interruption, you are no longer doing it now. The same goes, albeit perhaps not as dramatically, for every other critical system. If the water stops, then agriculture stops. If agriculture stops, then food stops. And so on, in ever more complex and interdependent chains of supply and demand.

While it might be tempting to proclaim that some aspect is more important than the others, the crux of the matter is that they are all critical. If any one component breaks down, everything stops – the only difference is the particulars. If you’ve ever played a town management survival game, you know it really does not matter whether everyone died from lack of food or from a preventable disease. In both cases, everyone died, and your next playthrough will be informed by the need to make every aspect function in good working order.

This does, however, highlight an inherent contradiction of for-profit economics. The drive to maximize profits tends to manifest as a wish to maximize efficiency. In a tautological fashion, efficiency is defined as the reduction of expenditure whilst also maintaining profitability. You gotta spend money to make money, but preferably only the minimum amount of it. There is a tendency to skimp on the things that are not quite necessary when everything goes according to plan, but become very, very necessary once disaster strikes.  On Earth, this manifested itself in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, where the lack of preparedness caused over a hundred workers to die as the fire raged. On Chiron, it might manifest as not implementing the double and triple redundancy layers that prevent things from critically falling apart, but which do not generate profit in any immediate sense.

The challenge for Morgan – and indeed every other faction – is to create a situation where it is sustainable to focus exclusively on the profitability of an activity. There is a vast range of infrastructure that has to be constructed within a long term time frame in order to enable short term profit as a social mode of organization. If you want to build capitalism from scratch, you must first construct a social universe.

Social Psych

If you can discover a better way of life than office-holding for your future rulers, a well-governed city becomes a possibility. For only in such a state will those rule who are truly rich, not in gold, but in the wealth that makes happiness—a good and wise life.

– Plato, the Republic, Datalinks

In the annals of surviving a traumatic crash onto unknown shores, the first episode of Lost stands out as one of the most traumatic. Everything is loud, fast, blurry, in every way impossible to make sense of. Things have happened, things are happening, and there is an overwhelming sense that things will happen again, with the quickness. In short, it is something of a predicament. The same predicament as the early colonists find themselves, albeit with angrier polar bears.

A question that has to be answered is how to transition from the moment of traumatic impact to an ordered, well-maintained and functional society. It is not obvious how to get from crash site to city hall, but it has to be done. And it has to be done in such a way that the trauma becomes livable: visions of what happened will haunt your nightmares forever, but unless you help salvage the wreckage into an airtight place to live, there will not be a future within which to have nightmares. The trauma is real, but the time to process it has yet to come.

Plato is very far from this situation. His deconstruction of what a state needs in order to function, piece by piece, is useful as an analytic tool for looking at one’s own circumstance (although probably not as a blueprint for an utopian society). But unless there is time to sit down to ponder these things, or the pondering has already happened in the past, more immediate concerns will take precedence: survival first, philosophy later.

The revenge of philosophy is that there will always come a time when its questions have to be answered. How shall we live? What is to be done? Where are we going? Now that we have survived, how shall we live with ourselves?

The concept of psych brings together many disciplines we consider disparate today: medicine, philosophy, psychology, political science, sociology, education and so on. What these have in common is the endeavor to create a good life, each in different ways. The common core is what Aaron Antonovsky called a sense of coherence – the feeling of being part of a whole which makes sense and confers meaning upon one’s actions. Establishing such a sense on a societal level is something that takes time and effort, but which is also necessary for its long-term survival. Plato will not help you build a hermetically sealed dome within which an oxygenated atmosphere can be maintained, but he will help you figure out what to do once the noise dies down and you have to confront your continued existence in the world.

Industrial Base

Resources exist to be consumed. And consumed they will be, if not by this generation then by some future. By what right does this forgotten future seek to deny us our birthright? None I say! Let us take what is ours, chew and eat our fill.

– CEO Nwabudike Morgan, “The Ethics of Greed”

As the name implies, the Industrial Base technology represents setting up the first basic components of an industrial society. This means simple things like conveyor belts and assembly lines, but also more subtle things like supply chains and distribution channels. A factory is not the sum of its parts – it is a node in a complex network of moving parts, where each component has to work in order for the next component down the line to work. Building an industrial base means laying the groundwork for such a network, in such a way that miners know where to send ore, ore processing facilities know where to send its output, and factories knowing what to do with the goods. Neither of these things on their own is as useful as all of them together. In fact, there is something dystopic about a factory producing things which only ever pile up outside of it with nowhere to go; there was supposed to be more to the process.

Setting these things up is not a straightforward process, however. Especially not when on a new planet, where the local conditions are not yet extensively known. A factory has to be built specifically to process a particular kind of materials, and in order to do that it must be determined which materials are around in sufficient quantities to be useful on industrial scales. In order to determine which materials are at hand, the local area has to be surveyed and analyzed. Furthermore, these same materials have to be investigated so as to determine their usefulness. This process takes time and effort, and the results are not given beforehand. The only way to find out what can be used and what cannot is – as extensive as the libraries on Earth materials might be – trial and error.

Conversely, this opens up for new discoveries. Finding out that a new material (such as synthmetal) can do something unexpected means it can (and will) be used for that purpose. This can either be direct consumption, or as a component somewhere in the industrial chain of production. Once plugged into the system, new properties will emerge about this material, which can then be used in additional ways, generating more knowledge, and so on. Setting up an industrial base is not only building a factory; it is in many ways jumpstarting the process of industrial knowledge gathering and generating.

It is likely that Morgan makes some reference to this process further into his Ethics. Even more likely is that this quote is placed in a context of arguing that having more now is better than having slightly more later. What you have now can be used to create more things, which in turn can be used to create more things, and so on. Getting this exponential chain of events rolling as early as possible thus becomes an ethical imperative; what good reason could there be to deny ourselves the definite benefits down the line of getting a head start?