If it had been possible to build the tower of Babel without ascending it, the work would have been permitted.
– Franz Kafka, The Tower of Babel, Datalinks
The second technological tier marks a new stage of colonial development. Not only because of the immediate fact that they require the first level to be researched (though that is part of it), but also because they represent a qualitatively different approach to societal organization. The difference is best expressed through Michel de Certeau’s notions of tactics and strategies. Up until now, the colonists have mainly been concerned with tactical issues: how to survive, how to get things going, how to make sense of the immediate situation. Slowly but surely, however, the gaze shifts over onto strategic issues: city planning, infrastructure projects, institutional foundations. The immediate question of survival has been solved to such a degree that it can be delegated to lower level functionaries, and bigger issues can be discussed and – with enough political cunning and a sufficiently large pile of resources – solved.
This shift in perspective is both subtle and dramatic. Subtle, in that it sneaks up unawares on the colonists, a side-effect of being immersed in the work of keeping the base alive and well. Dramatic, in that the focus shifts from making things work to making things scale. Ever so gradually, the emphasis shifts from community to demographics, from plumbing to terraforming, from village to society. Consider the transition from Information Networks to Planetary Networks – suddenly, it is no longer a question of connecting the various parts of a base together, but rather different parts of a planet. There is no one point where the one flips to the other (in terms of lived experience they are probably continuous), but they are nevertheless two different places to be. Slowly but surely, things go from “making do” to “making progress”.
This shift also marks a difference for individual citizens. In the earliest of days, when everyone was needed to make do, there were no question as to what to do. “All hands on deck” includes everyone, even long after having left the Unity. Now, institutionalization and specialization have progressed so far that most activities are the domain of professionals: the network nodes are staffed by IT folk, the command centers by military personnel, the recycling tanks by chemical engineers, and so on. For those citizens who fit into these categories, every day is just another day at work. For those who do not fit in, however, this presents a problem. Where do you go when you, in particular, are no longer needed?
There are two sides to this coin. One is the ever increasing possibility of dronehood – of being left out of the strategic calculations of the powers that be. The other is that life becomes an ever more complex series of navigations between emerged institutions. When survival is no longer an immediate mad scramble of problem-solving activity (albeit not yet a non-issue), attention is shifted to other concerns. The exact nature of these concerns differs from faction to faction, but somewhere in the transition between chapters one and two, what individuals do and what society does parts ways. Where society is concerned with making process (for any given definition of ‘progress’), individuals are left to make fend for themselves in the social situation they are in. As the colonies build ever larger structures, so too are they accidentally creating structural problems for themselves (dronehood and ecological disruption being prominent examples). Society lays out strategies (the large-scale projects which moves things forward), and individuals are left to device tactics within the frameworks built (by accident or design) through the efforts of previous strategies. Whether these tactics work are questions of biography, whereas the question of whether the strategies of the various factions work is a matter of history.
This chapter is all about delving deeper into history, and also about the ever increasing strategic capabilities of human societies. If the highest achievement of mankind is to build the Tower of Babel, then these are the fundamental building blocks. But at all stages of construction, one question looms in the ideological background: just who should be permitted to ascend, were all the pieces to be put in place?