Chapter three – at the base of the tower

I want to dig a subterranean passage. Some progress must be made. My station up there is much too high. We are digging the pit of Babel.

– Franz Kafka, “Parables and paradoxes”, Datalinks

In the previous two chapters, we saw the laying of the foundations for what is to come. Chapter one answered the question (or solved the problem) of magnets and how they even work on this new planet. The premade ideas and tools brought from Earth were, by definition, initially not wholly adapted to the unique new circumstances the colonists found themselves in, and had to be adjusted accordingly. A new way of life requires a new way of thinking, and the only way to get into a new way of thinking is to learn by doing.

Chapter two, subsequently, answered the question of what happened when these immediate problems were solved and slightly more indirect issues had to be faced – issues such as how to organize a society, how to allocate limited resources, and how to cope with the exigencies imposed by a hostile environment and/or hostile factions. No longer were the colonists primarily responding to the immediate threats of survival, and the time to take a good long sit down to think things through had arrived. Building an ad hoc systems of wires to power the first fledgling outpost is one thing, but designing an entire infrastructural grid for a new base built to operate from the word go – that’s a taller order.

This chapter answers a third question: what comes next? What comes after ensuring the initial survival on a new planet (as players of colony building simulators know all too well, not a guaranteed outcome), and after the establishment of societal institutions designed to carry the bulk of human activities on their incorporeal shoulders? In other words – what happens after the immediate problems have been solved to such an extent that they can be delegated to specialists? Where does a society go after this?

The Kafka quote adorning the top of this page gives us an indication. The foremen and administrators, looking at the impossibility of building the Tower of Babel, conclude that admitting said impossibility would look very bad indeed on their performance reviews. They therefore swiftly proceed to reclassify their efforts to something more doable. Some progress must be made, and they are the ones who have to make it. Thus, rather than aspiring upwards, towards what we intuitively understand to be the conclusion of the project of building a tower, each specific branch of human activity digs in and becomes more of itself. Biologists become better at biology, engineers better at engineering, soldiers better at soldiering – and so on. The essence of specialization is to become good at a limited number of activities, a process which does not end merely because the initial problems that caused the specialization to appear have been – at least temporarily – solved. Progress will be made, even if it has to be invented.

Humans are territorial animals, which applies in equal measure to physical terrain as to societal divisions of labor. When urban theorist Jane Jacobs wrote of “turfs”, she pointed both to the literal interpretation of gangs claiming sections of urban territory as their own, and to the tendency of administrators and specialists to claim certain realms of human activity as their exclusive domain. Depending on where you are in the hierarchy of colonial society on Chiron, you may find yourself targeted by either or both of these claims to power. Drones are more likely to be caught up in the criminal undercurrents arising in all advanced societies, while talents are more likely to engage in the often inscrutable competition for promotion to the higher ranks of specialized fields. In either case, the olden days of taking things one day at a time are irrevocably over. You are either part of a specialization (formal or informal), or you get left behind.

The same tendency has been described in more terrestrial terms as well. Ulrich Beck called it the second modernity, to differentiate it from the first one (which we glimpsed in the last chapter). Late Bauman called it a liquid modernity, after having called it postmodernity for many years. Castells wrote of an information society, emerging wholly anew from the old order. There are a number authors making similar claims, but the overall trajectory is clear: something new is happening, which can not be explained fully in terms of the past. In our world, this means the dissolution of the expectation stable worklifes and the placement of everything under permanent precarity until further notice. Everything solid melts into air, as Marx phrased it. On Chiron, it means that the training wheels are off and that things are starting to become really science fiction-y real fast. Thus we return to Kafka’s introductory statement:

Some progress must be made. We are digging the Pit of Babel. From here on out, things will only ever become more of themselves. Dig in.


[A brief note to new readers popping in after the hiatus: it is highly recommended to read this text from the beginning. You can get there by going to the main page, enabling javascript and holding page down until the infinite scroll stops scrolling. There are two bibliographies, one listing all works cited and one listing per chapter. The sidebar, which can be found by clicking the menu button at the top right of the screen, will help you find posts by category (chapter, faction or in-game classification).]


Chapter two – foundations and fundamentals

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?

Chapter one: New beginnings on a new planet

We were expelled from Paradise, but Paradise was not destroyed. In a sense our expulsion from Paradise was a stroke of luck, for had we not been expelled, Paradise would have had to be destroyed.

– Franz Kafka, Paradise, Datalinks

As humanity crashed onto the mysterious space rock officially known as Chiron, it was in a state of disarray. No one knew much of anything about their new world – not even the Gaians, who could only make educated ecological guesses – and everything had to be rebuilt from scratch. How to grow food, where to get water, what manner of human architecture could survive the toxic atmosphere? The questions facing the colonists in the early days were ruthlessly immediate and immensely pragmatic. Food, water, air, survival – how could these things be accomplished?

To be sure, there were supplies on the Unity meant to be used to address these very problems. Though they were meant to be used by a united humanity, rather than divided up among seven different factions, the Earth-built tools the first colonists brought with they would have to make do. Everything had to make due; it was either that or death.

It is tempting to compare this situation to Robinson Crusoe, another famous work about being shipwrecked far away from home, with an abundance of tools available for use, where the main limiting factor is the knowhow of how to use them. Given that the previous chapter outlined the various dispositions of the different factions, and the kinds of societies they would build, however, this would be less than inspired. We know the ins and outs of our Crusoe; this comparison was written even before it was conceived.

Instead, another comparison: that of moving house and getting started in a new home. There are a limited number of things that simply have to be done – getting everything through the door, setting up the beds, finding out how the kitchen works, figuring out which part of the new place that do not work like in the ole one – but after that, everything depends on how you go about things. Traditions are built starting from day one, and things you only ever did because it was convenient at the time tend to settle into habit. That one piece of furniture you placed in that particular out-of-the-way spot because you had to move boxes and boxes before the day ended – stayed there, and will still be there years later. Accidents of tired convenience as much as anything else determine the fates of things.

The same goes for our early colonists in this chapter. The practical problems facing the colonies take up all available time and energy, and there is little else to do but to see to it that it all got done. There was at no point however a moment where all these things were done, where the factions could sit down and consider what to do next. What to do next grew ever so imperceptibly from what they were already doing, and from the traditions already built by process of necessity. Life is a series of events where one happens after the other, and there is always some new development needing attention. Continuity is both contingent and assured.

The tools brought from Earth would soon break from use, or have to be repurposed to solve problems that could not have been foreseen at launch. Ever so gradually, the colonists would have to build new tools as solutions to new problems. During the course of this process, Earth would fade from being the only thing they knew, to being a clear memory separated from the present problems at hand. Remembering the beforetimes is all well and good, but it is immeasurably better to fix the leaky pipes of the here and now. Paradise can wait.

This chapter is all about fixing leaky pipes. And building them. And the entire plumbing infrastructure which gets water to where it needs to be. And all the other systems which have to be built before they can fade into the taken-for-granted assumptions about the world. One problem at a time, until each faction discovers who they always-already were.

Planet (and victory conditions)

On the one hand, it might be counterintuitive to talk of Planet as a faction. On the other hand, once the thought has been processed, it becomes even more counterintuitive not to talk about Planet as a faction. At all stages of the game, Planet is present, albeit in different ways. In the early stages, it is what it sounds like: Chiron, a planet, with rocks and minerals and plants and weather and ecology. In the later stages, it becomes much more than that. The changing nature of Planet is a theme that runs through many of the paratextual quotes, and in the very names of the technologies researched. No matter which faction ends up victorious, they will have done so in relation to Planet, and will have to contend with it in the implied future narrative.

Interestingly, different future scenarios are implied after each kind of victory. There are four kinds of victory: military, economic, diplomatic and transcendence. To put these in perspective, a look at the very first quote of the game is helpful:

Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden. He drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.

– The Conclave Bible, Datalinks

Chiron is not the Garden of Eden. To be sure, Earth was not paradise either. But the symbol of the tree of life resonates throughout the game. Not merely as immortality – that is but a stepping stone – but as the only true way forward. If a faction wins by any other means than transcendence, there are still obstacles they have to overcome. The story does not end just because victory was achieved; the end of history has yet to come.

Factions which manage to militarily conquer all other factions still have to face fact that Planet is awakening, and that the process of awakening may or may not take humans into account. Guns will not work against it, nor military tactics. The kinds of weapons technology that would make a dent on a planet-wide entity would also destroy the very world humanity lives on; it would only serve as a scorched earth measure, leaving little room left to survive. The victorious faction would have to find some other means of coming to terms with Planet, lest it settles for unilaterally assured destruction.

An economic victory is similarly constrained by the fact that all the energy and all the stuff comes from Chiron itself. Having cornered the human economies to such an extent that there is only a single meaningful player on the stage, the question of Planet still remains. Planet does not care about prices or supply chains or the free flow of goods; it has and is all it needs to be. In fact, all the stuff that fuels a human economy comes from the planet itself, and a humanity that has been united by brute force of economics still has to contend with the fact that this very same economy is based on a sentient – and possibly hostile – ecology.

A diplomatic victory, finally, would mean that the remaining factions of humanity unite in the face of the awakening planetary entity and try to tackle it best they collectively can. A possible line of development would be that a populous (or diplomatically savvy) faction uses the looming presence of Planet as an external threat to unite the others in a shared (possibly defensive) pact. Given that guns do not work against a planet, and are moreover not needed to defend against other humans, other means are required.

All these three victory conditions point the way towards the fourth victory condition: transcendence. A military victory would ensure that there is only one faction around to pursue it; the other two victories would ensure that one faction in particular calls the shots when the time to transcend comes. The specifics of exactly what the transcendence is or how it would be accomplished are left to the (scientific) imagination, but one thing is made abundantly clear: it has very much to do with the awakening of Planet. If humans are to have any part of it, they have to transcend the limits of the human form and become part of the emerging planetary consciousness.

This raises the question of why it would matter who is doing the work of leading humanity into this post-human condition. If humanity as we know it is subsumed into the awakened Planet, then isn’t it more important that humans reach this point at all, rather than the specifics of just who manages to make it happen?

In one sense, the answer is that it does not matter. Survival is survival, and from a pragmatic point of view it is better to establish humanity as a continued presence (whatever form this might take) than to go extinct. In another sense, who is at the helm is of paramount importance. Their philosophies will determine which values are communicated to Planet, and the way in which transcendence is conducted. Humanity as defined by the Hive will be radically different than a humanity defined by Morganite values, and different yet again when defined through a Gaian or Cybernetic perspective. The differences are stark even before transcendence, and it would only be prudent to assume that these differences would influence both process and outcome. The tree of life bears different fruits depending on who sows it.

It is interesting to note that the character of Planet changes between the base game and its expansion. In the base game, it is hinted at that there are aliens afoot, and that they have something to do with Planet being the way it is. The only concrete evidence of who they were consists of ruins and artifacts; the operative words are conjecture and speculation. They were here once, but they are not here anymore. (I gather that this sense of mystery is one of the main reasons the Paean focuses solely on the base game.) In the expansion, these very same aliens show up, and they have definite plans for Planet – none of which involve humanity.

One of the alien factions see Planet as a means to the end of elevating itself in general (and its leader in particular) to godhood. The other alien faction wants nothing more than to stop this from happening. These are different kinds of relationship to Planet: one is ruthlessly instrumental, and the other conservative (in the many meanings of that word). It is clear that a Usurper transcendence would not be in the interest of humanity. It is also equally clear that the Caretakers can and will not allow humanity to transcend, for the same reason they can and will not allow the Usurpers to transcend. It is unspecified just exactly for what purpose the Caretakers are preserving Planet, but it is clear that if they manage to build a gateway to their home world, the sheer mass of military might brought to bear would spell doom for humanity.

The main difference between humans and aliens is not the fact that the aliens are, well, alien. The main difference is that the aliens have another world to draw upon, should they but manage to build a large enough interstellar telephone. Earth, on the other hand, is dead. Only those who managed to get onboard the Unity are left, the last remnants of a dead world. These last ragtag bands of refugees are everyone; after them, there are no one. For humanity, it is transcendence or extinction; for the aliens, it is but the periphery of a civil war. A very important periphery with galactic implications, to be sure, but it is implied that the bulk of the Progenitor population reside elsewhere. While the aliens would probably not recognize themselves as a flaming sword guarding the tree of life (assuming they grok the general notions of fiction and allegory), they are more than willing to act the part.

In all of this, one question remains unanswered: what does Planet want?