The Manifold Caretakers

Tau Ceti Flowering: Horrors visited upon neighboring systems must never be repeated. Therefore: if it means the end of our evolution as a species, so be it.

– Caretaker Lular H’minee, “Sacrifice : Life”

Thus speaks Caretaker Lular H’minee, setting the stage for why the Usurpers have to be stopped. The Tau Ceti Flowering can be read as another Planet – not Chiron, but a planet built on the same specs – achieving sentience, and the consequences following that event. We know from the fact that neither the Usurpers nor Caretakers are gods (albeit both mechanically overpowered) that the Flowering happened without anyone at the helm. The exact nature of the horrors inflicted upon the neighboring systems is not known, but it is safe to assume from the two alien leader quotes that it would be bad even if it only happened to one singular system. The fact that it can reach across the stars only adds to the horror.

To say that the Caretakers are dedicated towards stopping transcendence from happening is – just as with the Usurpers – a massive understatement. It is their entire reason for being, both on and off Planet, and thus everything that stands in their way has to be removed. The most immediate concern is of course their Usurper counterpart, but given that humanity too seeks to transcend (albeit without quite knowing it yet, busy as they are trying to survive), the prospects of peace are slim. History is in the making, and it has to be stopped at all costs. The source of the leader quote – Sacrifice: Life – speaks to this.

This state of things explains one of the most misunderstood mechanical aspects of the expansion. The Caretakers, alone among all factions, cannot complete the secret project Ascent to Transcendence. Mechanically, this simply means that they cannot win a transcendence victory, which many have read as a bug in the game. It is however not a bug, but very much a narrative feature: it would make very little sense for a faction to dedicate itself to stopping something from happening, only to then be the ones to see it through to completion. Quite unlike the Cultists, the Caretakers are not willing to backpedal themselves to victory.

The name “Caretakers” carries with it benevolent connotations, especially when contrasted with its Usurper counterpart. To take care of and preserve something is inherently to ensure that it is given an opportunity to grow and prosper; there is an element of Heideggerian sorge to it. To care is to be involved, and to be willing to take action to ensure a positive outcome. However, it also carries with it the connotation inherent in the phrase “take care of the problem”, that is to do whatever is necessary to see that the problem goes away. In the case of humanity, the problem is not seen as a diplomatic issue to be resolved through reason and arguments, but rather akin to weeds having intruded into a garden. As Zygmunt Bauman wrote: there is no inherent difference between weeds and flowers, other than the decision that a particular plant belongs to either category. The care shown for flowers is fully compatible and complementary to the violence inflicted on the weeds; in order for the flowers to live, the weeds have to be purged and removed.

It is left unsaid whether the Caretakers have taken this role upon itself with regards to Planet only, or if it is something they do with regards to all members of the Manifold. The fact that the Usurpers were on their way to Chiron in particular lends more urgency to this part of the universe, given that failure here means failure everywhere. It is not unthinkable, however, that the same role extends to every other planet with similar characteristics, and that it was mere cosmic coincidence that the conflict happened to occur right when humanity made their appearance. Given that space is big and that it is impossible to be everywhere at once, the Caretakers might have taken turns gardening each planet for some hundreds of years before moving on to the next one, ensuring that everything goes according to plan. It is quite possible that the base game was simply a slightly alternate universe where circumstances dictated that the alien civil war emerged on Chiron a mere half millennium later than in the expansion; just in time to be befuddled by a transcended humanity figuring out what to do with a planetary frame of reference.

There is one last unanswered question, and that is whether the aliens build the Manifold or not. There are cases to be made either way. The fact that the Usurpers knew in the first place where to go to make their attempt at godhood suggests that the aliens possess some sort of advanced knowledge of Planet and its siblings; it is possible that they built the Manifold long ago and now simply take care of it. However, it is equally possible that the aliens found the Manifold and harnessed its power to become what they are today, much like the humans on Planet. The sudden Flowering on Tau Ceti thus presented itself as a new opportunity on other Manifold planets, one that could be usurped (pun very much intended) for new and untold purposes. Speaking to this second possibility is the fact that the aliens, too, discover the in-game technologies of Secrets of Alpha Centauri and Secrets of the Manifold. It is unlikely that the aliens went through all the trouble of building the Manifold for some grand purpose, only to forget it a while later; it would be inscribed into the very cultural core of the civilization.

Unless, of course, the civil war had been going on for so long that those ancestral builders have become akin to aliens themselves, possessing vastly greater knowledge and resources than the war-torn descendants remaining today. Not, come to think of it, unlike how the human survivors setting up that first base on Chiron relate to Earth: small remnants remembering the outlines of their home cultures, but not having access to it in their immediate physical proximity.

The Progenitor backstory does leave room for speculation, and I suspect a transcended humanity (from base game and expansion both) would be eager to find out the specifics.

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The Manifold Usurpers

There are different ways to look at Planet. One is to view it as a pristine place, akin to a temple, to be left alone to the gods, or preserved into some distant future for purposes yet unknown. A sacred place which hold many secrets, which shall remain secret for the good of the galaxy.

Or

You can view it as a big, fat, juicy battery filled with enough raw power to catapult yourself and your closest millions of friends directly into manifest godhood, just waiting for you to come around to push the metaphysical button. After that, the galaxy is your playground, to conquer at your leisure.

To say that the Usurpers are dedicated towards achieving transcendence would be a monumental understatement. It is the reason they arrived on Planet in the first place, and after the crash landing it is just about the only way off of this rock. The stakes are godhood or death; everything else is either a step towards the former, or a step away from the latter. To quote a famous rock group: nothing else matters.

This fanatical dedication to transcendence defines everything about the Usurper faction, as you might imagine. This includes its relationship to humanity. The fact that they in many ways share a common predicament with the humans – humanity, even though it does not know it yet, is also caught between transcendence and death – only serves to underscore just why peace is an impossibility. The very similarity makes it so: if humans are allowed to live, they will inevitably progress towards their own transcendence, potentially beating the Usurpers to it. The relative backwardness of humanity and their ignorance of what is truly at stake, only makes it more imperative to get a head start while the getting is good. In a race where there can only be one winner, fairness and even playing fields are to be avoided at all costs.

In mechanical terms, this translates into the Usurpers (and the Caretakers, too) being manifestly overpowered from the word go. A player who chooses the Usurper faction will have no difficulty steamrolling their opponents (very much including the Caretakers), and given the nature of the faction advantage, it only grows larger as the game progresses. While this is understandable from a narrative perspective – high-powered scientifically advanced aliens rebuilding their material foundation after a violent crash landing – it does highlight how perspectives on game balance (however asymmetrical) has changed over the decades. There are no “humans are weaker in the early game but stronger later on” considerations; the aliens are just stronger, full stop.

This does make for some interesting gameplay considerations, however. Playing with the seven expansion factions means being permanently at war with two of them (the aliens), and having diplomatic options with the other five. Or, if playing as either of the aliens, being permanently at war with the other alien faction, and ever so gradually finding yourself at war with everyone else. Whether this was intended, or an artifact of the Civ 2 era diplomacy system, where you could be at peace for years and years until you clicked on the communication button, thus reminding the other faction that a) you exist, b) that they hate you and c) this is a sufficient reason for an immediate declaration of war, – is an open question. Either way, playing without the aliens makes for somewhat more peaceful runs.

Speaking of unfair advantages, the aliens have an additional victory condition: they can construct subspace generators. Upon building six of these, a portal is opened to the home world, wherefrom untold legions can be summoned. While the game ends after their construction, it is heavily implied that the sheer quantity of troops, weapons and advanced tech brought forth through the gate overruns everyone else on Planet combined, and that resistance after that point is symbolic and utterly futile.

The question, then, is what the Usurpers intend to do once they have achieved their goal, either through local or external means. While the question, like for the other factions, largely remains unanswered, we do glean two things from the leader quotes of the respective alien factions. From the Caretakers, we learn that something like this has happened before, with terrible consequences. And from the Usurpers, we learn that despite all that, it is still worth it:

Risks of Flowering: considerable. But rewards of godhood: who can measure?

– Usurper Judaa Marr, “Courage : To Question”

Protagoras once said that man is the measure of all things. The Usurpers, utterly alien as they are, beg to differ.

The Free Drones

Socialists in space.

 

Well, that was a short chapter. Let’s move on to the next facti-

Hold on. This would be a perfect opportunity to talk about drones and talents, in both mechanical and conceptual terms. Mechanically, drones are the same as discontent citizens in earlier and later Civ games: after a base has reached a certain size (depending on difficulty, number of bases and other factors), new citizens will become drones. If there are at any point more drones than talents, a drone riot will occur, during which no production, research or economic activity will take place. If there are no drones and more than half the population are talents, however, the base will experience a golden age, during which growth and economy are stimulated.

More recent civ games have moved away from these kinds of per-base mechanics in favor of more overall and centralized elements, such as health in Beyond Earth, happiness in Civ 5, and the more nebulous notion of amenities in Civ 6. The purpose of mechanics of this kind is to limit the eternally popular strategy of infinite city sprawl, where you plop down cities everywhere and gain massive bonuses from having cities all over the place. (As the old saying goes: having one base that can churn out tanks in three turns is nice, but having thirty that can churn them out in ten is nicer.) By making it so that new bases require more drone-preventative measures, the city sprawl can be kept somewhat finite.

With this mechanical understanding in mind, we can confront the notion of drones on a conceptual level. However, as soon as we begin to ponder the matter, we immediately run smack dab into the age old debate between nature and nurture. Drones are the outcasts, the poor, the misfits, those who for whatever reason are not included in what we might call polite society. The plebeians, precariats, proletarians, problematic people. The question is not whether they exist – the question is why.

Surprisingly, the mechanics of Alpha Centauri steers towards the nurture side of this debate. The game allows players to devote portions of the economy towards what it calls psych, which I have always read as investments in health and welfare. The easiest way to visualize psych is to think of talents as +1, workers as 0 and drones as -1. Every 2 points of psych adds 1 to this situation. At low levels of investment, psych will convert drones into workers; at higher levels of investment, it will convert workers (or even drones) into talents. This heavily implies that no one is born into dronehood, and that it has more to do with social conditions than anything else. Anyone can become a talent, given enough support, and thus accepting the presence of drones becomes a political choice rather than an economic inevitability.

The Free Drones, as you might imagine, are a reaction to the choice of other factions to accept dronehood as part of their society. Much like the Gaians, the Free Drones see humanity’s new presence on Planet as a chance to get things right from the very start. It is possible to build a society where everyone is healthy and have decent living conditions, and this is what they set out to do. And build it they will, given their massive bonus to industrial production; content and happy workers are productive workers. Especially when the fruits of their labor are readily apparent and distributed all around them.

Attentive readers will no doubt remember the discussion about the Peacekeepers a few posts back, and notice that there are certain similarities here. However, there are important differences that pose as mechanical similarities, and it would be illuminating to delve into these differences. The Peacekeepers gain an additional talent every fourth population point, while the Drones have one less drone per base. Mechanically, this can at times be identical – an additional talent cancels out a drone, turning it into a worker. Ideologically, however, these are expressions of different tendencies. The Peacekeepers wish to give every individual the opportunity to flourish in their uniqueness, while the Drones wish to provide for the material well-being for all of its citizens collectively. The difference, in short, is that between liberalism and socialism.

Depending on whether you are American or European, that last sentence is either going to be perfectly obvious or utterly incomprehensible. So will the statement that the liberal Peacekeepers are right-wing and the Free Drones left-wing. If you find yourself scratching your head at this, know that there are books on history and political theory to read, and that one of the hidden goals of this blog is to get you to read more books, rather than rely on things you half-remember from playing old computer games.

In our discussion on the Believers, we mentioned the inscription on the Statue of Liberty: “give me your tired, your poor / your huddled masses yearning to be free.” It might be tempting to connect this to the Drones as well, particularly in relation to the faction bonus of having bases from other factions which experience drone riots convert and become Free Drone bases. However, there is another quote from another tradition which fit the Drones even better, which I suspect you might have heard once or twice in your life:

Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!

The difference is not subtle, especially not when it comes to who is the active subject. Underprivileged individuals seizing the means of production through collective action is a very different thing from uprooting yourself and moving to someplace else because of a vague promise of freedom. While there are bound to be individuals who migrate to the Free Drones spurred by such sentiments, the faction as a whole is a revolutionary project. The fact that they were not included in the base game implies that Earth – or at least the parts that funded the UN mission which built Unity – were predominantly liberal in their predisposition. These sentiments were carried over to Chiron, and thus again arose the need for workers to unite.

The leader quote, ironically, alludes to the reverse of the words found on the Statue of Liberty. It is taken from a song about Jim Jones, a criminal who was sentenced to a prison colony in Australia, the furthest away from human civilization it was possible to go at the time.

Now it’s day and night the irons clang, and like poor galley slaves
We toil and toil, and when we die, must fill dishonored graves
But some dark night, when everything is silent in the town
I’ll shoot those tyrants one and all, I’ll gun the flogger down
I’ll give the land a little shock, remember what I say,
And they’ll yet regret they’ve sent Jim Jones in chains to Botany Bay.

– “Jim Jones”, Traditional

To be sure, there is something to be said for not turning Planet into a penal colony. As the game progresses and humanity ever so gradually begins its preparations towards transcendence, this sentiment is expanded to new domains. As post-humanity become more and more similar to the ecology around it, so too will the egalitarian notion grow to encompass ever more aspects of it: plants, animals, ecosystems. The goal of not accepting dronehood in human societies is transformed into not accepting dronehood on a planetary scale; post-humanity will not be the dominant part of whatever planetary consciousness that is to come, but neither will it be dominated by it either.

The Data Angels

The Data Angels are an artifact of the late 90s. The dotcom bubble was still in effect, and it was possible to make stupendous amounts of money by simply having a web site consisting of properly formatted HTML. Cyberoptimism loomed large in the public imagination – information technology would solve a great many problems and transform huge swathes of society in ways we did not even know yet. The movie Hackers had just come out (relatively speaking), and if only one thing was certain, it was that information technologies and the Net (not to be confused with the movie) was novahot. Psychoanalyzing avatars used on primitive visual online forums was a real thing. Computers and hackers were in.

Then, things changed. The attack on the World Trade Centers meant hackers went from being wiz kids to being terrorists (a perception which, as the case of Aaron Schwartz shows, is still in effect), and as the bubble unequivocally popped, all the money went out of information tech. if the early 00s did anything, it was to curb the relentless cyberoptimism that had led up to it. Things went from postmodern to hyperreal, and the ambitions of all things cyber had to become dramatically more realistic.

After that, information technologies solved an untold number of problems and transformed huge swathes of society in ways we do not even know yet. If the stupendous nineteen billion dollar acquisition of WhatsApp by Facebook something to go by, the money does seem to have come back to the cyber – or at least the corporate structures which manage it. But it is not the same kind of beast as the one we saw twenty years ago, and thus it would be a mistake to read the Data Angels as an extension of the state of the online world of today. These were times before Facebook, YouTube, Twitter; Google lived in someone’s basement, barely more than an idea. These were also the time before Anonymous, 4chan and everything related to that. If a phone was in any way ‘smart’, it was probably a bad thing; ‘apps’ were known as programs. We can not use these contemporary (but somehow also real) things as our baseline reference points. Instead, we have to read them in the light of the late 90s hacker ethos. An ethos that is visible in this leader quote:

What’s more important, the data or the jazz? Sure, sure, ‘Information should be free’ and all that – but anyone can set information free. The jazz is in how you do it, what you do it to, and in almost getting caught without getting caught. The data is 1’s and 0’s. Life is the jazz.

– Datatech Sinder Roze, “Infobop”

This is not hacking in the sense of Uber ‘disrupting’ local labor laws using an application, or Facebook creating a distortion in the economic space-time continuum through sheer monetary weight. This is hacking on an individual level, where amazing feats are performed through sheer force of personal intelligence, dexterity and extensive knowledge of complex systems. Sometimes for personal gain, but more often than not for the prestige, the thrill or – as Sinder Roze puts it – the jazz. It was an intensely personal thing, something to be bragged about to the closely knitted communities one happened to belong to, offline and offline. It was hacking as a performance, in the many senses of the word.

Basically, it’s the movie Hackers, but with less rollerskating. And the Data Angels are a whole faction of these people.

This presents us with the interesting question of what such a society would look like if confronted with the task of building a state. It is one thing to 1337 h4xx0r pwn into someone else’s digital ecosystem and peruse whatever secrets might be contained within; it is quite another to build working infrastructure, put in place resilient societal institutions and – a notion which seems somewhat anathema to the whole basic idea – field effective armies. It is not altogether clear how the hyperindividualistic anarchistic old style hacker ethos transforms into any kind of collective governance, or how it would manage to sustain any kind of legitimacy if it through some miracle achieved it.

It is possible that there might emerge some sort of cutthroat meritocracy where the most leet haxxor calls the shots, where the definition of just who is the top hacker is always open for debate and – more importantly – being challenged. There is always a better hack, a better way of going about things, and “the best” is always only ever thus until someone else comes around doing something better. This might be in terms of a spectacular hack of someone else – the Planetside equivalent of hacking the FBI – or hacking each other to such a degree that any degree of respect evaporates on the part of the hackee. The result being an ever changing cast of characters being in charge (for any given definition of ‘in charge’), and any policy put in place provisional pending upcoming potentates.

This would, to say the least, make for a very volatile workspace environment. On the one hand, it would mean that continuity of governance becomes something of a fluid concept, akin to the sentiment expressed in the statement “the king is dead, long live the king!”. On the other hand, it would ensure that those in charge were those best equipped and prepared to hack and be hacked; a meritocracy of computer enthusiasts, with or without rollerskates. Or, to quote the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace:

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather. [/] We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.

Given what we now know, twenty years of actual history later, this vision of society takes on a slightly different tone. The notion of someone having a boring office job by day and being an elite hacker alter ego at night – Matrix style – only ever works if there is an ordinary boring world to blend in with. When computers became mainstream – economically and culturally – this fell apart, as you could simply get a job as an official hacker. This strips the proposition of some of its glory, where hacking becomes the boring ordinary job of keeping capitalism alive. To be sure, the process could reinvent itself as yet another layer of 1337 taking place in the shadows of this new normal, but this presents a new and rather uncomfortable question: why would you build an ideal society and then hide away from it?

Perhaps this is a flaw in the writing of the Data Angels as a faction, or a flaw inherent in the 90s conception of hackers as seen through contemporary eyes. Either way, there is more to unpack here than can reasonably be covered in a readable number of words. What happened to 90s cyberoptimism and how we ended up where we are now is, I maintain, one of the bigger questions of our time.

The thought of a transcended humanity using the Manifold as a computer network does have its appeal. Given that Planet is not unique of its kind, and that there seems to be some sort of communication (albeit interstellarly slow) going on between Manifold planets, it is not unthinkable that the Data Angels would try to establish more formalized (and hackable) connections with the rest of the network. They would, quite literally, hack the planet. While the details of how such a network-building would be a massive feat of posthuman engineering, I suspect it would quickly fade into a new status quo. As the leader quote suggested, it is not the data that is important. What is important is the jazz.

The Nautilus Pirates

The Pirates represent the biggest break between narrative and mechanics of all the expansion factions. One the one hand, it makes perfect mechanical sense to have a faction that focuses on building water bases – those are a part of the game, and players have probably built one or two of those during their playthroughs. It makes for interesting (and ever so slightly overpowered) gameplay. On the other hand, it can take decades for other factions to build even the smallest of rafts, and the Pirates start out with not only a boat but also an entire aquatic base capable of surviving everything the ocean has to throw at it. On day one.

This is a strangeness that all expansion factions share. All of them (except the aliens) emerged out the already existing factions, and presume that the human presence on Planet has developed to such a degree that they can do their thing. In Arrival, the University transports an alien artifact by boat, and are surprised to find that there are pirates on the high seas coming seemingly out of nowhere (both in terms of a successfully executed ambush, and in terms of not knowing to look out for Pirate ships from experience of earlier attacks); the backstory is ever so sketchy, but it is suggested the faction formed long enough after Planetfall to be able to be a surprise.

All this just goes to show that writing stories for games is hard, as you have to take into account both the things that would make sense in a narrative, and what would make sense in terms of what a player sees on the screen. The two may or may not be the same, which only adds to the difficulty. (Neal Stephenson readers might recall from Reamde the prolific writer for an in-universe online game – which was definitely not World of Warcraft – who wrote extensive books on the lore of the game, but who, as it turns out, had not played it even once during his many years of authoring.) In the case of the Pirates, what we have is a strange disconnect between what we know and what we do. Especially when we consider that the Pirates do not actually do very much in the ways of pirating (other than being at sea), and that in any event the Data Angels are mechanically better at it.

Most of the incongruity surrounding the new factions comes from the fact that they are social rather than ideological. By this, I mean that they are premised on the existence of other factions to justify (and make possible) their ways of being. In order to pirate the shipping lanes of others, there has to be shipping lanes to pirate; in order to establish global datalink superiority, there has to be a global datalink; in order to be a human born on Planet creating a cult to wipe all the other humans out, these other humans need to exist. There are ideological components to these factions, to be sure, but if we took away these external factors, these factions would either fall apart or turn on themselves. If your whole reason for being is pirating – what do you do when you run out of targets to pirate?

The other-directedness of Pirate ideology can be seen in the leader quote:

The sea… vast, mysterious… and full of wealth! And the nations of Planet send their trade across it without a thought. Well, the sea doesn’t care about them, so it lets them pass. But we can give the sea a little hand in teaching the landlubbers a lesson in humility.

– Captain Ulrik Svensgaard, “The Ripple and the Wave”

The use of the word “landlubbers” in the defining quote – one of the few pieces of text afforded to the faction – is significant, in that it immediately establishes the Pirates as, well, pirates. There is us, the sea people, and there is them, the landlubbers. Out of all the possible ideological stances the faction could have assumed, this is the one they ended up with. And this is the biggest flaw of this whole arrangement. Why, after travelling the great interstellar void and by all accounts representing a seventh (or fifth) of everything that remains of humanity – would you settle on being a watered down third-hand caricature of Moby Dick?

Ultimately, it comes down to one single, unescapable thing: the Pirates do not fit in to Alpha Centauri. Not just because all the quotes they should have been given were already written for the Spartans (see especially Doctrine: Initiative), but also because they simply do not make sense. They relate more to Earthly literature than to the ecological realities of Planet, and in the final analysis all they end up being is one great missed opportunity. They could have been ruthlessly pragmatic marine biologists waxing poetic about the nature of Planet and its hidden depths (oceanic and metaphysical), but, alas – landlubbers.

Instead of speculating where a Pirate transcendence would lead us, I will end this section with an exchange from chapter 36 of Moby Dick. Not just because it is thematic for the Pirate faction, but also because it fits all the other factions as well: just how far are you willing to go to follow your convictions? Given that Alpha Centauri is all about ideological convictions, it is a question worth keeping in mind at all times:

“But what’s this long face about, Mr. Starbuck; wilt thou not chase the white whale! art not game for Moby Dick?”

“I am game for his crooked jaw, and for the jaws of Death too, Captain Ahab, if it fairly comes in the way of the business we follow; but I came here to hunt whales, not my commander’s vengeance. How many barrels will thy vengeance yield thee even if thou gettest it, Captain Ahab? it will not fetch thee much in our Nantucket market.”

The Cybernetic Consciousness

At the core of the Cybernetic faction, we find methodological individualism. This might seem a counterintuitive statement, but if we look closer at this faction, we find that its basic premise is this: if we implant each and every individual with cybernetic implants, the sum of this change as a whole will be greater than the sum of its parts. Yet it is still the parts that are important, rather than the aggregate; change stems from the individuals, rather than from anything above or beyond them. We see this right from the get go in the leader quote:

Those who join us need give up only half of their humanity–the illogical, ill-tempered, and disordered half, commonly thought of as ‘right-brain’ functioning. In exchange, the ‘left-brain’ capacities are increased to undreamed potential. The tendency of Biologicals to cling instead to their individual personalities can only be attributed to archaic evolutionary tendencies.

– Prime Function Aki Zeta-5, “Convergence”

Leaving aside that the sharp distinction between left/right brain functions is overly simplistic and not supported by modern medical science, the vehicle for change in this quote are, ironically, individuals. Those who join the Cybernetic faction undergo a surgical procedure which enhances their capacity to perform computer-like tasks, for the small small price of their capabilities as emotional and intuitive beings in the world. By becoming a certain kind of human being, new initiates are brought into the efficient and rational Cybernetic fold. After the surgery, you are a better kind of human, and from this all societal changes follow.

A comparison to the University will serve to illustrate this point. The research advantages of the University stem from the fact that its academicians do not have to bother with explaining themselves to arbitrary external forces which demand their work to be immediately useful and applicable to contemporary problems. The cultural norms support the search for knowledge for its own sake, and thus allow researchers to do their thing rather than to endlessly apply for grant money from corporations or entities which could not care less about such things. It is not the human beings who have gotten smarter (although the University ethos would probably not frown upon performance-enhancing drugs or even cybernetic implants), but rather the institutional makeup that allows humans to devote more time and resources to scientific endeavors.

Contrasted with the Cybernetic proposition – you get the implants and then you are smart – we notice a stark difference. There is something of a missed opportunity here. The thought is not brought as far as it needs to go in order to be interesting, and we are left with the mere suggestion of a possibility rather than an exploration of it. (For an exploration of cyborghood, see the impossible Cyborg Handbook edited by Chris Gray.)

This stems in no small part from the fact that the Cybernetics as a faction were introduced in the expansion, and thus have less narrative screen time than the older factions. The way each technology, building or secret project have exactly one quote to accompany them, means that there are only so many opportunities to give voice to each new faction. Where the old factions are given pages and pages upon which to develop character, encounter new situations or just expound exposition in general, the textual totality of any given new faction can fit neatly onto one or two pages, depending on line spacing and font size. There is, in short, not much to work with.

The flip side of this is, of course, that the things we do have to work with gain that much more significance. We can use it to ask all manner of questions. What does “consciousness” in the faction name Cybernetic Consciousness stand for? The fact that this is their chosen name implies that it is more than the mere act of being conscious in general; it implies that this is some sort of defining communal aspect. Is it telepathy through means of computer telecommunication? Or is it more akin to Weber’s notion of rational behavior, where different individuals who have never talked to each other nevertheless converge upon similar courses of action, by virtue of those being the rational ways to go about things? Or is it simply that each and every implant contain the same algorithm, and thus each individual programmatically respond in similar ways to similar stimuli?

If we make another comparison, we can ask what differentiates the Cybernetic concept of rationality from the Hive’s. Yang’s imperative to “overcome the crass demands of flesh and bone” rings eerily similar to shedding the “illogical, ill-tempered, and disordered” parts of oneself, albeit through means of implants rather than social engineering. By getting rid of distractions, the opportunity arises to focus more on what is important, and to get things done. The question of what is important and what is to be done – the telos – is in one case decided by Yang, but who decides for the Cybernetics? Is it Aki Zeta-5, managing her minions through very literal biopower? Or is she a captive of a runaway process of modernity, where the internal logic of each subsystem (internal and external) inexorably leads towards the next step, without much input from individual (post)human beings? Are the implants iron joists of a better-ordered society, or bars in an iron cage? Where do human agency fit into the Cybernetic Consciousness? Is it rational to think for yourself when the alternative is so much more efficient?

All of these questions point back to a single thing: the tension between humans and their tools. Humans are not their tools (implants notwithstanding), but at the same time humans are also shaped by their tool usage to a considerable degree. When McLuhan called tools “the extensions of man”, this is very much what he had in mind. Conversely, when Haraway included an extensive critique of capitalism, the military-industrial complex and patriarchy in her Cyborg Manifesto, she did it to highlight just how much technology is shaped by these forces; the cyborg embodies these things through its coming into being, be it as terminator or gendered neutrum. Whether the Cybernetic ambition to part ways with the metaphorical “right-brain” portions of humanity is a resigned acceptance of the fact that this is the tendency of technology as it currently exists, or a conscious decision to go for it and make every effort to see it through to its logical conclusion – is the question that defines the Cybernetic Consciousness.

These answers to these questions greatly affect how a transcendent humanity under Cybernetic leadership would take shape. One possibility is that the faction simply autopilots itself to godhood, much like the player advancing through the tech tree, each next step determined by the steps already taken. Another possibility is that the accumulated cognitive brainpower is used to reorganize Planet into the most efficient entity it could be, where the question of just exactly what it is efficient at is left unanswered. A third possibility – one that I imagine you might have kept in mind since the first word of this entry – is the Borg.

The Cult of Planet

The Cultists are a contradiction. Much like the Gaians, they value not disturbing the native ecological processes of Planet. Unlike the Gaians, however, they do not value humanity having a presence on Planet. They revere Planet with fanatical devotion – the name ‘Cultists’ is more description than slur – and believe their leader to be born of Planet. While there are many who are born on Planet, there is only one person born of Planet, and his goal is to undo humanity. To quote the description of one of the civilizations in the Civ 4 mod Fall from Heaven 2: “some believe they will receive an eternal reward for destroying creation, while a few just want the world to end”.

The contradiction lies in that to succeed in the goal of cleansing humanity from this new paradise, the Cultists will have to go on being very much a human presence. They will have to build bases, factories, units – and lots of them. It is one thing to be a conscientious objector to the traditions of indiscriminate ecological ravaging inherited from Earth; it is quite another to mobilize meaningful resistance to their implementation by the other factions. The other factions are unlikely to stop their survival efforts simply because they are asked nicely to do it, and the only way to ensure success is to bury their cold dead bodies under a patch of xenofungus. For that, you need guns. Lots and lots of guns. And shovels.

For this reason alone, every Cultist attempt to achieve their stated goal is simultaneously a step away from actually succeeding. While it is necessary from a tactical and strategic point of view to expand production, grow the population and dot the landscape with ever more infrastructure, these very things are explicitly against the ultimate aim of the faction as a whole. It is a cognitive dissonance of the highest order, and it is probably not a far reach to assume that this is a contributing factor to the Cult of Planet being a, well, cult.

Another layer to this is that even if the Cultists were to succeed in convincing members of other factions that humanity is a blight on Planet, this would only accomplish a general malaise rather than radical societal change. Much like extreme radical environmentalists are utterly marginalized on the Earth we know, so too would they be on Planet; the ruthless inertia of status quo keeping at it would ensure that the pollution practices continued. The result would be an alienated despair at the state of things – another inherited tradition from Earth.

Nevertheless, for all these contradictions, the Cultists do possess the theoretical means to achieve their goal with swift efficiency. Mechanically, this takes the form of a high innate chance of capturing Mind Worms. These Mind Worms can then be let loose upon the world to capture more of their kind, essentially snowballing the process until the Cultists control sufficient raw biomass to simply overrun all other factions. This approach runs into the same cognitive dissonance as utilizing a more gun-based route (domesticating the natives is fundamentally the opposite of letting them roam free as nature intended), but here too the end will justify the means. As to these ends, ponder the leader quote:

Mankind has been blind for thousands of years – for all of its history. We have come to a place whose wonders are a hundred-fold more amazing than anything on Earth. Around us is clear evidence of the will of a higher power. I bring the Vision to the blind eyes of men. I bring the Word to the deaf ears of men. I will make them see it. I will make them hear it.

– Prophet Cha Dawn, “Planet Rising”

In terms of religiosity, this is a far cry from Miriam’s more considered stance on the place of humanity in the grand scheme of things. Where the Believers hold Planet in disdain for being alien, the Cultists hold humanity in contempt for pretty much the same reason. A casual glance would suggest that this implies an affinity towards the alien factions, given their shared view of humanity. However, the Usurpers seek to coopt Planet for their own ends, which is very much not in line with restoring Planet to its pristine state. Ironically, the Caretakers agree whole-heartedly with the Cultist assessment that humanity has to be removed from Planet, and see no compunction to beginning with the Cultists themselves.

This leaves us with the question of whether or not the Cultists would lead humanity into transcendence. If successful with their original aim, there would not be a humanity left to transcend. If unsuccessful, it would more likely be the result of a metaphysical arms race than anything else; as the Cultists become ever more post-human, the aim shifts from physically removing the other factions to beating them to the punch. By being the first to transcend, the Cultists can use their newfound godlike capabilities to downsize the human presence on Planet, or remove it altogether. This back-pedaling into victory would be the logical conclusion of the contradiction inherent in the Cultist faction. In order to prevent humanity from irrevocably changing Planet forever, they would have to be the ones to make it happen. Even ultimate victory would be self-defeating.