Field Modulation

The Progenitor race appears to sense, and possibly even manipulate, local fields an untrained human cannot perceive without mechanical aid, including at the very least electricity and magnetism. This sensitivity creates entirely new worlds of artistic endeavors for the race-or it may be developed into a powerful combat awareness that can foil any attempt at surprise.

– Prime Function Aki Zeta-Five, “Alien Analysis”

The world is bigger than we think it is. Not only in a physical sense – we can only ever visit a very limited number of places, and thus there is ever more world out there which we’ve never seen or will ever see. But this bigness also applies in a more subtle way – there are things we can not perceive because we quite literally lack the sensory apparatus necessary for apprehending it. Ultraviolet and infrared light, for instance, are imperceptible to the human eye, but it is nevertheless there as a thing in the universe. Some animals can see and react to it, and their visual experience of the world is greater than ours.

The fact that we can not see these things does not diminish their reality. It does, however, mean that the process of exploring the universe becomes ever so gradually detached from our sense of vision. We have to develop tools and technologies for perceiving what we can not see. Since we are blind without these tools, we become dependent on them to tell whether what we know to be there is actually there or not. Over time, we develop machine vision – a technological means to glimpse into what would otherwise be beyond our ken.

This means we have to put a non-trivial amount of trust into these machines. Not only do we have to trust that they are in full working order, we also have to trust that they work as we intend them to do. Given that these machines are our only source of information about these invisible phenomena, a flaw in the design specs might have disastrous consequences. Likewise, a faulty air traffic control radar monitor is a security risk for everyone involved.

Of course, a prudent course of action would be to seek multiple sources of confirmation before making a decision one way or the other. Science is nothing if not the art of corroborating data. But the sheer intimacy of these machines has a built-in tendency to make them invisible, as it were. They become extensions of the human body, as close as shoes or eyeglasses. To paraphrase Sean Cubitt: machine vision is implicit, immediate and imminent. In a very intimate way, the machines are us.

The Progenitors have the advantage over humans in that they can see more than we can without aid. Not only does this confer the immediate advantage of being able to navigate the world faster (due to having more information about it) – it also confers the long-term advantage of being used to making sense of it all. Even if given goggles that levels the visual playing field, a human would still be confused by all the additional input. A red blob over in the distance might not mean anything to the untrained eye, but a progenitor might instantly recognize it and move in to seize the tactical advantage. Merely having access to new planes of reality does not mean these are fully understood. Humans know how to build machines that can perceive field modulations; the Progenitors know how to make the fields sing.


Doctrine: Loyalty

Therefore a wise prince will seek means by which his subjects will always and in every possible condition of things have need of his government, and then they will always be faithful to him.

– Niccolò Machiavelli, “The Prince”, Datalinks

Machiavelli is funny, in that if you only ever read the Prince, you get a very specific impression of what his project was. If you read another book of his – it almost doesn’t matter which one, but the Discourses on Livy have the advantage of being available online – this impression shatters and becomes a source of amusement and confusion. Machiavelli extols the republican values of past eras and discusses ways of bringing them to life in the present – which is about the furthest away from the whole spirit of the Prince it is possible to be. A lot can be learnt by trying to figure out whether the Prince was merely a work written to keep his patron happy, or if it is actually a genuine treatise on political philosophy. My advice is to not settle on either position too soon.

Turning from the past to the future, this technology represents a turn to realpolitik in colonial development. Merely having ideals is one thing, but being able to enforce them coherently across an entire faction is quite another. Even without a political agenda, it still has to be done to keep factions cohering as a single political unit. Some unifying legal framework has to be adopted and enforced, and there has to be a routine in place for how to obey commands from faction headquarters. Disciplined obedience has to be maintained, less the whole situation deteriorates into a series of quarreling city states who all have their own rules, regulations and customs. The centralized state apparatus, as envisioned in this game, requires an extensive and far-reaching sense of loyalty to even be possible on a logistical level.

Of course, there are no politically neutral forms of political organization. Not even anarchy is apolitical, it is merely another form of governance, which is why the Data Angels can only exist in the form of a faction. On Chiron, survival as a politically relevant entity is inextricably linked to statehood, and thus some version of Doctrine: Loyalty becomes inevitable. The situation of humanity as a whole – succeed or die – is fractally mirrored in the political survival of ideologies. Mobilize enough survivors with sufficient ideological fervor and technical prowess to make your vision of what it means to be human manifest in the world, or go extinct. Loyalty is the name of the game.

The question is where on the spectrum between the Prince and the Discourses any given faction ends up. The Usurpers would destroy the universe in their blind loyalty to their leader, should it become necessary. The Pirates, on the other hand, are very likely to see breaches of the Code of the Sea as an offense worse than outsiders would initially suspect. Both are aspects of loyalty with a social order, and despite the vast gulf between these positions, the key role of a centralized command structure unites them. Even as it divides them and drives them to war with each other.

Much can be learnt by comparing the various modes of political organization with each other. My advice is to not proclaim any one position as the correct one too soon in your reading.

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.

Nonlinear Mathematics

There are two kinds of scientific progress: the methodical experimentation and categorization which gradually extend the boundaries of knowledge, and the revolutionary leap of genius which redefines and transcends those boundaries. Acknowledging our debt to the former, we yearn nonetheless for the latter.

– Academician Prokhor Zakharov, “Address to the Faculty”

For those who learn English as a second or third language, there are certain words that are bound to cause confusion. One of them is “math”, or, as it is also known, “maths”. Depending on who you ask, you are likely to get different responses as to which one of these variants is correct. The key to understanding the issue is not to see it as a matter of correct or incorrect, but rather as regional variations, where one is applicable in some places and the other in others. As an outsider, taking a stance one way or another is not as important as understanding where each variant applies, and being flexible when encountering them in the wild. If one author talks about math and another about maths, they are most likely talking about the same thing – unless either of them is very technical, and talks about different kinds of math.

Nonlinear mathematics is a very specific kind of math. It is not an algebraic assertion along the lines that 2+2=5 due to a sudden nonlinear state of numbers. Rather, it is a specialized kind of math that has been developed for specific uses in specific circumstances. This type of math makes assumptions that do not apply in other kinds of math, but which nevertheless brings forth useful results. In this case, a particle impactor, or (as it referred to in non-technical terms) a big honking laser gun.

The nonlinearity refers to the fact that what is being calculated is chaotic, and thus behaves in ways that are difficult to predict. Not impossible to predict, mind, just difficult enough that simply relating one variable to another is insufficient to do the trick. Predicting the weather is an example of such nonlinearity: there are many variables which are relevant to the prediction, but there is no single equation (e.g. this plus that times this over that) which, once solved, will give you tomorrow’s weather forecast. This does not mean that math is useless in the predictive effort, but it does mean it will take more work than mere algebraic number-crunching to get it done.

The exact nature of this additional work differs from problem to problem, as you might imagine, and the details are bound to be plentiful and complicated. One of the implicit assertions of researching something in a video game is that all the things necessary for completing it have been smoothed out, mastered and put to use. It does not have to provide information about the steps involved, just proclaim it to be done – whatever is necessary is also what you just did, by virtue of completing the research project. The fact that Nonlinear Mathematics is part of a linear tech tree is ever so slightly ironic, and Zakharov’s quote is a very non-subtle nod towards that. Non-linear mathematics is all about many variables acting chaotically together towards complex outcomes; researching Nonlinear Mathematics is a binary proposition, where you have either done it or not. There are, indeed, two kinds of scientific progress.

Applied Physics

Scientific theories are judged by the coherence they lend to our natural experience and the simplicity with which they do so. The grand principle of the heavens balances on the razor’s edge of truth.

– Commissioner Pravin Lal, “A History of Science”

In gameplay terms, Applied Physics gives the player a better weapon than the default starting component. While this is one use of physics, there are other applications as well. Most theoretical physics from old Earth are probably still available in the colony databanks somewhere, ready to be perused. As any engineer is likely to tell you, however, theory is only ever translated into practice through effort. This technology represents that effort – figuring out what works and what does not, which numbers apply, how to get things done. Emphasis being on the applied in physics.

Lal’s quote speaks to this, albeit indirectly. The natural experience of the early colonists is one of having to get things done on the quick so as to ensure survival; the applicability of any given scientific theory is non-optional. However, it is also difficult to say what works and what does not until it has been tested. Things that should work in theory have a tendency to quickly turn into approximations once put into the field, the world always ever slightly larger and more complex than initially thought. There is bound to be tensions between those who want to do more of what has already been proven to work, and those who want to prove further things, for future and/or immediate reference. Under early colonial conditions, more things now has a distinct advantage over slightly more things later. Scientific theories are indeed judged.

There is a parallel to be drawn here to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. During an episode on the aforementioned motorcycle, the protagonist notices that the engine does not work as well as it should. After some investigation into the matter, it is determined that the cause of this is the high altitude messing with the fuel system; the air pressure is different than what the manufacturing specs assumed they would be. Knowing this, the protagonist is able to make the necessary adjustments to the engine, and continue on without further complications. The early life on Planet is all about these small adjustments and finding out where they need to be made. The specs are still good, but not necessarily 100% correct for the current circumstances. Effort has to be made.

This technology also represents a reclaiming of the institutional knowledge of Earth. In order to have applied physics, you have to have physicists and engineers who can do the physics and the application, respectively. Pure knowledge does very little without the social institutions which have access to enough resources to put it into use; knowing how to build a space laser in abstract is not as good as having a specialized factory with which to build them. What the early colonists have is a lot of knowledge in the abstract and very few institutions with which to apply it. Until now.