Centuari empathy

Observe the Razorbeak as it tends so carefully to the fungal blooms; just the right bit from the yellow, then a swatch from the pink. Follow the Glow Mites as they gather and organize the fallen spores. What higher order guides their work? Mark my words: someone or something is managing the ecology of this planet.

— Lady Deirdre Skye, “Planet Dreams”

Living on a planet that is verging on becoming conscious is, in a word, weird. Not only do you have to contend with everything that goes with being on a brand new planet that works in mysterious ways – these very same ways are bound to become even more mysterious as the sentience of Planet grows. Ecological systems are complex even at the simplest of times, and adding will and intent to the mix does nothing to reduce said complexity. Indeed, the increased complexity is more than likely a manifestation of the increased sentience, the figurative and/or literal neural pathways growing into shape. In short, it is time to let go of the ecological intuitions of Earth.

Humans, being both emotional and pattern seeking animals, tend to imbue inanimate objects with feelings and sentiments. This is due to our highly developed sense of empathy and social sensitivity – millions of years of social interaction have honed these senses into finely tuned tools. When confronting a new object, our first instinct is to seek out its emotional implications. Both to understand the reaction in ourselves, and the reaction in our peers; the latter arguably more important to our everyday dealings than the former.

Extending this sense of empathy to an ecosystem is not an easy thing to do. As we have seen over the course of this chapter, these research projects do not represent easy accomplishments that happened as side-effects of doing something else. Each and every one of them took conscious efforts to achieve, and so it stands to reason that this project, too, is an important step for the factions to have undertaken during the course of settling in. For the Gaians and the Cultists (and, indeed, the Caretakers), the process is more intuitive than for other factions. For the Morgans, in particular, this whole empathy business is a sideways thing to pursue. However, somehow, at some point, they too managed to get a feel for Planet.

Knowing others to know yourself is a tale as old as time. On Chiron, it is not just a recognition of the inescapable situatedness of human beings in a social context not entirely of their own choosing; it is a recognition that the shape of the future might very well come down to how well humanity comes to grip emotionally with the fact that Planet is alive, feeling, and kicking out mindworms towards those insensitive to these feelings. Centauri empathy is not just a scientific advance in ecological sensitivity; it is a necessary step in humanity growing up.


Intellectual integrity

Man’s unfailing capacity to believe what he prefers to be true rather than what the evidence shows to be likely and possible has always astounded me. We long for a caring Universe which will save us from our childish mistakes, and in the face of mountains of evidence to the contrary we will pin all our hopes on the slimmest of doubts. God has not been proven not to exist, therefore he must exist.

— Academician Prokhor Zakharov, “For I Have Tasted The Fruit”

When arriving on Chiron, everything that made colonial society go was brought from Earth. This is true in a material sense – all the generators, oxygen plants, tools and other necessities of life were Earth-made – but also in an ideological sense. The first years of habitation consisted of Earthers trying to make their way on an alien world using earthen tools and mindsets. As time went by and the number of Chiron-born began to outpace the rapidly aging ancients, however, this changed by necessity. In a thousand subtle and not so subtle ways, the old modes of thinking began to show their cracks and flaws, all the ways they were meant to explain and justify the order of things on another planet. In short, a time of reckoning was fast approaching.

The quest for intellectual integrity is both a philosophical and an ideological endeavor. In philosophical terms, it is an attempt to find a solid and rigorous basis for future modes of thinking, free of implicit biases carried over from the history of past generations. To clear out the abstract intellectual deadwood, as it were. In ideological terms, this seemingly dry and remote pursuit is a confrontation with the very concrete fact that we are not those people any more, and have to come to grips with the reality of the here and now before it comes to grips with us. Those born on Chiron are not bound by Earth traditions by mere force of continuity and habit – these has to be better reasons for holding on to the past than that. The future is now.

In a sense, what this amounts to is a faction-wide attempt to build its own ancient traditions. By necessity, this takes different forms in different factions. The Peacekeepers have to come to terms with the fact that it can not operate as if they were an organization meant to facilitate dialogue between some 200-odd countries on a socially overdetermined planet; in lieu of the old-style UN, something new is required. Likewise, the University has to untangle the Humboldtian ideal from the actually existing institutions carried over from Earth, and their innumerable ties to defunct powers that be. Pointedly, the Believers have to let go of thousands of years of religious turmoil in order to come up with one final, robust true faith. Zakharov’s jab that there ate mountains of evidence to overcome is not merely theological, but encompasses everything worth thinking about. Some ideas will be cast aside during the process of overcoming, but the end result is not nihilism; the end result is a more refined, robust version of the factions as they really are or want to be. The end product of intellectual integrity is, paradoxically, ideological purity.

This is a worrying prospect from the point of view of ecumenical dialogue and the cosmopolitan exchange of ideas. Especially if we take into account that this is a technology that can be fully mastered and implemented in-game. The implication being that this is something that can be done away with once and for all, taken off the agenda and relegated to the past. We fought the past, overcame it and began thinking true and proper thoughts – and have philosophically unassailable reasons for proclaiming it to be so. When all sources of error are removed, only correct thought remains. Which raises an ever relevant question: what does being objectively right mean for those who, eyes open, insist on being wrong?

Doctrine: Flexibility

He held his arm too stiffly, and so was thrown back repeatedly, until at last I seized his forearm and snapped it back against itself. His training suffered while the arm healed, of course, but I felt this was a lesson he must learn early, and well.

– Spartan Kel, “Honing the Ki”

Doctrine: Mobility emphasized the capacity of moving around at speed. With the addition of boats to the mix, speed is no longer the only consideration. Rather, it becomes a question of integrating different types of motion on different types of terrain under different types of conditions. A stiff breeze has different implications on land than at sea, which complicates matters when it comes to coordination. Both modes of movement have to be understood on their own terms and then made compatible to each other.

On Earth, this process was facilitated through the process of containerization. During the Vietnam War, the US military faced the logistical challenge of moving troops and immense amounts of stuff across the ocean. While the act of putting stuff on boats and moving it to far-away lands was by no means a new phenomenon, the scale and speed of it was novel enough to warrant innovation. Thus, the shipping industry (in its military and civilian guises) took it upon itself to standardize the process of moving stuff to a single, unified, uniform unit: the container.

A container is nothing fancy. A hundred million of them, however, constitute a system for global logistics. Their main feature is that they are all the same size and shape, and that they can be moved from one mode of transportation to another without much in the way of effort. Once something is in a container, the only thing that matters is moving the container around. It can be put on trains, boats or trucks with equal ease, as many times as it takes to reach the destination. Only upon reaching where it needs to go is it necessary to open the container; for the whole duration, it is merely a unit amongst other. All along the way, the infrastructural links are specifically designed to move, house and send these standardized units where they need to go next.

Before containerization, stuff was moved around more or less manually. Sometimes by hand, but more often than not by using cranes and other tools. Every shipment was different and had to be treated individually. Sometimes there were a lot of crates, and that had to be dealt with accordingly. At other times, it was a shipment of furniture, which required a different set of skills for getting off the boat. And so on for every kind of item that needed to move across the world. Now, however, the only thing moved are containers, regardless of what they might contain.

On Chiron, this process might very well repeat itself. Being on a new planet does not end the need to move stuff around, it only alters the gravitational constant. Doctrine: Flexibility represents the capacity to field naval units suited to the new environment, but it also represents a societal adaptation to the new realities of global logistics. It is, indeed, a lesson best learnt early and well.

Ethical Calculus

Some vices miss what is right because they are deficient, others because they are excessive, in feelings or in actions, while virtue finds and chooses the mean.

– Aristotle, “Nichomachean Ethics”, Datalinks

This is, in many ways, the defining research project for this chapter. It deals with the age old questions of how we should live and how we should organize the societies we live in, which we have encountered in different ways in other parts thus far (particularly with regard to social policies). What course of action is prudent, moving forward? And how much is it prudent to sacrifice in order to get it all done?

The ‘ethical’ part of Ethical Calculus is straightforward enough, but what about the ‘calculus’? What gives? To gain clarity on this, it might be prudent to consult the other, lesser known line of in-game paratext about this technology:

Throughout the history of mankind, philosophers have grappled with the question: ‘How shall we then live?’ Ethical Calculus lays down mathematical principles uncovered by Social Psych to address this question, essentially providing calculations and functions that determine appropriate behavior.

This is a trope familiar from Asimov’s Foundation series. The main plot point is that it is possible to mathematically predict the future, and that one man does so with such accuracy that he is able to leave helpful messages regarding current events to Foundation members hundreds of years down the line. Math has been used to great effect in the past, and will do so again in the future. By unleashing the powers of quantification upon the world, great new leaps in science and ethics will be accomplished.

Readers with long memories are wont to point out that Asimov nuances this trope in two ways. First, it is made abundantly clear that the math is only able to predict the overall development of society in the aggregate, with the understanding that a smaller sample size means a greater amount of noise in the predictions. This is a macro theory. Second, a wholly unforeseen individual arrives at one point in the story and throws every prediction out of whack. Everything eventually muddles back to baseline, meaning that things go on as predicted anyway, albeit with a few new quirks and kinks. The math-based prediction paradigm both works and does not work.

Around the same time, Popper wrote The Poverty of Historicism, where he outlines the problem of prediction the future of social systems. The problem, to put it bluntly, is that social systems consist of humans, and that humans tend to react to having their futures predicted. It is possible that a prediction actively causes the thing predicted to happen, which makes it a self-fulfilling prophecy (i.e. because a certain outcome was predicted, efforts are made to ensure that it indeed comes to pass).  Conversely, it is equally possible that efforts in the reverse direction are made, meaning that a prediction might be the very thing that causes the thing predicted to not happen. Any model of predicting the future would therefore have to include the effects of the model itself on the future predicted, which could become very convoluted very fast.

We can close this section by returning to Aristotle and his definition of rhetoric. Rhetoric primarily concerns things that could be different. A mountain is unlikely to be swayed by a powerful display of rhetorical prowess – it will continue to exist like a vast, silent counterargument. A group of people might be persuaded to climb a mountain, rather than doing anything else. The same goes for any other activity or policy – where things can be done differently, rhetoric comes into play with regards to which specific outcome comes to pass. Given the established habits and virtues established by a colony in its early days (as we saw in the last chapter), the space of things that could be different gradually becomes smaller as time goes on. Ethical Calculus thus runs the risk of becoming a tool for reinforcing the trajectory a given faction is already headed, by providing a numerical framework within which the desired outcome is presented as inevitable. There is, after all, no greater argument than a mountain of numbers all pointing towards the same conclusion. The future is coming; the only ethical move is to prepare for it. To quote the famous ethical theorist Margaret Thatcher: there is no alternative.

Progenitor Psych

And I stood before him, and I sang unto her, and it appeared to listen. His very countenance rippled like the sea, and the sound of my own voice came back to me, distorted. For a moment I thought she was mocking me, or it was non-sapient and mimicking me. Then I understood: the sounds were not important; it was how I affected his sounds and how she affected mine that transmitted the message.

 – Prime Function Aki Zeta-Five, “One Future”

Progenitor Psych is the first technology added by Alien Crossfire, and appropriately it centers on the titular aliens. In gameplay terms, a faction needs this technology in order to communicate with the Progenitors; it is akin to the process in first contact movies wherein understanding is gradually achieved through trial and error and misunderstandings and mutual acknowledgement of these misunderstandings and so on. Equally in gameplay terms, what happens after establishing communications with the aliens is that they immediately declare war on you, rendering the whole process rather counterproductive.

In literary terms, communication with alien life forms has a rich and complex history. To mention but a few, there is Stanislav Lem’s Solaris, China Miéville’s Embassytown, or, for good measure, Philip K. Dick’s Human Is. To say that there are hundreds of instances where the main plot element is awkward first encounters with alien intelligences would be an understatement; just about every science fiction television series there is has at least one episode containing such an encounter. Listing them all would be a massive undertaking, and I suspect it would glean some insight into contemporary social psych.

Aki’s quote highlights a specific aspect of the encounter between humans and progenitors, and that is what Levinas calls face. When humans interact, they face each other, and they also read each other’s faces. Levinas uses the face as a metonymy for the immediacy of interpersonal communication: when humans are physically close to each other, they are mediated not through language but through subtle cues, facial expressions being the least subtle of them. The other person is present, and your actions have an immediate effect upon their being in the world. Conversely, how they act affect you, and so the interaction flows. If you enter into a situation with a genuinely smiling face and a gentle demeanor, the situation unfolds differently than if you adopt a frown and a gruff demeanor. Again, the same goes in reverse too. The progenitors apparently do a very similar thing, albeit in the form of resonance: subtle shifts in energy wavelengths and sound frequencies. The interface is different, but the underlying principle is the same.

These initial moments of inter-species communication are particularly fragile, as everything is contingent and can go this way or that depending on the smallest of changes. Every gesture is under intense scrutiny, and what might appear to one part as an indifferent, non-communicative action is given immense significance by the other party. There is no neutral way of being in front of someone else’s face, and acting naturally is by definition an alien concept. It places Lögstrup’s conception of responsibility front and center: every time you are in the presence of another being, you are responsible for the ways in which you affect them. When encountering aliens this is extremely accentuated, but it is no less relevant when encountering other humans.

Centauri Ecology

Planet’s atmosphere, though a gasping death to humans and most animals, is paradise for Earth plants. The high nitrate content of the soil and the rich yellow sunlight bring an abundant harvest wherever adjustments can be made for the unusual soil conditions.

 – Lady Deirdre Skye, “A Comparative Biology of Planet”

Chiron is, as we established in the introduction to this chapter, not paradise. Rather, it is an ecological system, and can be understood as such through ecological science. Understanding Earth ecology gives the Gaians a head start in this regard, despite the differences between Earth and Chiron. Indeed, knowing the ecological makeup of the planet left behind means knowing what to look for on the planet that is now their new home, and finding out that things do not correspond 1:1 means having more information to work with.

Most of the early days of ecological reconnaissance will likely consist of getting used to the idea that this is how things are now. Ecological systems do not work on the principle that they have to be intuitively recognizable or understandable by human beings, and do not mind being utterly alien to human cognition. Especially when the ecology in question is found in another solar system, where humans themselves are the aliens. Getting around to this way of thinking takes a non-trivial amount of time, and for the time being the best course of action is just to accept the realities of ecology as they present themselves.

Once these metaphysical hurdles have been acknowledged, a more physical approach can be applied. Ecologies consist mainly of flows (primarily of energy and minerals), and understanding these flows means understanding what’s what. The reportedly high levels of nitrate in the soil means Earth plants will find it agreeable, which is both fortunate and useful information. It cuts down on the need to mine minerals for fertilizer (as is standard procedure here on Earth), and more importantly it means plants will simply grow once a good spot has been found for them. These spots can be found either through trial and error (ecology being a system that works whether humans know how or not), or through systematic mapping of what flows where.

Centauri ecology is something of a reversal of Earth ecology. Here, ecology is seen as an almost mystical practice which reveres life in is multiplicity and complexity, which acknowledges the vastness of the systems in which we find ourselves. On Planet, the opposite is happening: a rigorous, scientific understanding of ecology demystifies and disenchants the world until it becomes a known quantity. The awesome and sublime fact of an alien ecology, reduced to the flow of nitrates and chemicals. It is an open question who remains in a state of awe the longest: the Gaians, who land with the expectation that this is what they are going to find, or everyone else, who are only just now finding these things out.

Doctrine: Mobility

Once a man has changed the relationship between himself and his environment, he cannot return to the blissful ignorance he left. Motion, of necessity, involves a change in perspective.

– Commissioner Pravin Lal, “A Social History of Planet”

Readiness is a strange concept, being at once both intuitive and hard to grasp. The intuitive part is that for whatever you are trying to do, there are different levels of being ready for it. A simple example is going out for a walk. It might so happen that you are ready to go right this instant, and all you need to do is put those legs into motion. That is a high state of readiness. It might also be the case that you need to make some preparations before heading out – putting on clothes, eating something to keep up blood sugar levels, tell someone where you are going, etc. The act of going for a walk is still possible, but not without preparations. Readiness is a measure of how many (or, more precisely, few) such preparations need to be made between right now and being out the door, walking.

Being fast, as in able to move at great speed, is a tremendous advantage in this regard. Not only because less time is spent moving, but because it makes it possible to attack whilst the enemy is unprepared. If the attack is fast enough, the enemy is busy getting prepared to fight rather than actually fighting; it takes a while to put on boots, grab a gun and get into formation, and during that time, great damage can be caused. For this reason, speed is of the essence.

These military considerations tie in to Lal’s quote in a simple yet important way: you are always someone, somewhere, doing something. Regardless of whether you are planning a sneak attack or a lengthy walk across the landscape, you have to take into account all the steps necessary to get to where you want to go, and the preparations associated with that. Mobility means changing your relationship to where you are, just as it changes where you are. Depending on whether you plan on being in one single spot forever, or on being in multiple places at different times, your ways of thinking differ radically.

The same goes for mental places. Those who have never been somewhere only have access to the information they have been told about this place, true or false. This information morphs into mental images and representations of that place, which can then further solidify into stereotypes or misconceptions. The act of simply going to these other physical places changes the mental landscape significantly; suddenly, there is a wealth of new information available, rendering those previous ways of thinking obsolete. Upon discovering that things are pretty much the same here as there, better communication and understanding can take place between groups of people. Conversely, discovering that things are done differently elsewhere can put things taken for granted into perspective.

Like Matthew Arnold said: the likelihood of the best possible knowledge in the world happening to exist right here, right now, is rather slim, considering the vast amounts of world out there. The only way to find out is to go there, and the readiness to get moving (physically as well as mentally) is a virtue not to be underestimated.