Industrial automation

In the borehole pressure mines 100km beneath Planetsurface, at the Mohorovicic Discontinuity where crust gives way to mantle, temperatures often reach levels well in excess of 1000°C. Exploitation of Planet’s resources under such brutal conditions has required quantum advances in robotic and teleoperational technology.

— Morgan Industries, Ltd., “Annual Report”

In 14th century Europe, the Black Death killed off a third to a half of the population. This, to make an understatement, meant that there were less people around. An indirect effect of this is that economic activities that previously depended on a ready supply of abundant, cheap labor simply could not be performed at scale any more. While by no means impossible, the combination of having survived the plague years with a new reality of scarce, expensive labor meant that it became imperative to automate (as best things could be automated in the 14th century) as much as possible. This lead to a significant stride forwards in adoption of various mechanical tools for getting things done. While the technologies might not seem much to our future-enhanced eyes, it was a step up from doing things by hand.

The same situation faces the colonists on Chiron, albeit without the context of mass death by inexplicable diseases. The infrastructure, mental and physical, brought over from (the ever-fading from living memory) Earth had the built-in assumption that there would always be cheap, abundant labor involved somewhere in the process. Individual work sites might be staffed by a relatively small number of people, but they could always be resupplied from more numerous locations. This assumption does not hold on the early days of habitation on Chiron, where the makeshift industrial base was all there was. In the long run, automation had to become the explicit norm.

The same goes for the kinds of work being performed; a non-trivial portion of it no longer happens in environments suitable for human habitation. On a planet mostly unsuitable to human habitation, this is not news by any means, but as the above quote suggests, humanity is always prone to find new and uncomfortable regions to stick their noses into. The borehole, a massive hole beginning on the surface and proceeding straight down for kilometers on end, is just such an uncomfortable region. The further down one gets, the hotter and less accommodating to life things become. Thus, the correct move for increasing productivity is to abandon the notion of live participation altogether. When encountering certain death, humanity has traditionally opted for the machine.

The process of automation is not limited to remote inhospitable regions, however. As ever more activities become automated, the colonists find themselves in an ambivalent situation. On the one hand, they are freed from doing the mundane tasks of keeping the pumps running, and can pursue more spiritually fulfilling work. On the other hand, whole professions find themselves wiped out, with mass unemployment as a result. In-game, this is represented by the Hab Dome lifting the population limits on bases – it can either be a boon to productivity, or an inevitable descent into drone discontent and revolt. When the necessities of life are taken care of, the teeming masses require some other reason for sticking around. Being left to one’s own devices with nothing to do – all dressed up with nowhere to go – is not a pleasant place to be.

Research hospital

Some civilian workers got in among the research patients today and became so hysterical I felt compelled to have them nerve stapled. The consequence, of course, will be another public relations nightmare, but I was severely shaken by the extent of their revulsion towards a project so vital to our survival.

— CEO Nwabudike Morgan, The Personal Diaries

This quote is a showcase for how much a single word can alter the meaning of an entire passage. For years, I thought it said “the consequence, of course, would be”, implying that Morgan momentarily considered nerve stapling the perturbed civilian workers, but then thought better of it in light of the inevitable PR blowback from such a move. The “would” indicates a potential path not taken, a course of events within the realms of possibility, but not this particular time. The fact that the quote says “will”, however, indicates that this very thing actually happened, and that Morgan at the time of writing is both dreading the upcoming PR debacle, as well as not too bothered by the fact that he had people nerve stapled. One gets the impression the former will weigh more heavily on his mind over the coming days than the latter.

The quote also indicates what kind of research takes place at this kind of hospital. An initial impression upon reading the words “research hospital” might be that it is a standard hospital which, above and beyond its routine treatments of common medical conditions, also has a special unit engaged in data gathering and research (common in cities featuring universities). The reaction of these unfortunate civilian workers, however, suggests it might be a facility more along the lines of the one used in the Vipeholm experiments. These experiments consisted of feeding mentally ill patients nothing but candy, sugar and more candy in order to study how fast their teeth would rot. One “treatment” consisted in leaving a big ball of sugar inside the patient’s mouth for extended periods of time, to speed up the process. At no point had anyone involved agreed to participate.

On one level, this is an ethical abomination whose mere mention should force a thorough bout of self-examination in anyone even remotely associated with medical practice. On another level, the data gathered from these experiments have been instrumental in treating dental patients for decades, making for robust practices worldwide. Dentistry textbooks may or may not mention the source of the data gathered there, but it would be a step down from best practices to not include said data. Medical science progresses on the suffering of these innocent people.

What Morgan seems to have in mind is a utilitarian line of reasoning where this is an acceptable tradeoff. Moreover, the fact that the research hospital facility reduces the drone count of a base raises the question of just where said drones go. One interpretation is that the overall increased level of healthcare allows these individuals to live happy and productive lives. Another is that their lives are indeed productive, just not in the way envisioned by those happy to use such phrasing. Perhaps, when the victims are long forgotten, humanity will be better off for it.

Energy bank

Life is merely an orderly decay of energy states, and survival requires the continual discovery of new energy to pump into the system. He who controls the sources of energy controls the means of survival.

– CEO Nwabudike Morgan, “The Centauri Monopoly”

There is an old saying that you can’t take it with you. ‘It’ refers to money, and the implied destination is the afterlife, whatever it might turn out to be. With money being what we are used to seeing – currency and bank accounts – this is an eminent truth, rooted deeply within the material conditions of our situation. On Chiron, things are ever so slightly more metaphysical. If life is energy (and energy is life), then you can indeed take it with you, either through an orderly unleashing of the accumulated power into the general environment (presumably to the same state of entropy you went to), or through some sort of symbolic outburst which causes some big event to fire which ultimately culminate in – nothing.

A big hurdle in power generation is what to do with it. To be sure, being able to produce monumental amounts of energy during peak performance is impressive, but it is not necessary to do so at all times, and it would cause the machinery to degrade at too fast a pace to be sustainable. It would also burn fuel for no particular gain. Most of the time, what is needed is a moderate output, with a little extra on top to prevent brownouts. Producing at maximum capacity would thus be both wasteful (seeing as no one uses the power generated), and counterproductive. You can’t take it with you, as it were.

An economy based on accumulated energy turns this on its head, however. Not only is cranking up the generator to the max profitable – it is the very definition of profit. It still runs into the same hurdle of having to go somewhere. The surplus that is not pumped into the energy grid for consumption has to be put into some sort of storage – a big honking battery, to use a technical term. By calling this facility an energy bank, the game is ever so slightly making a pun out of the situation – it is both an accumulation of batteries (a bank) and a financial institution. It would have been sufficient to simply call it a bank, but it would not have conveyed just how intertwined power and wealth are.

An interesting question arises with regards to just who is put in charge of these institutions. On the one hand, ensuring a steady supply of power is crucial to life on Chiron. On the other hand, as we have seen here in our own timeline, there is profit to be made by being able to direct the flows of currency. It is possible that these banks are merely big backend batteries that hum along with only occasional maintenance. It is also possible that they become a reincarnation of the power companies of yore, who were none too discreet about how power can mean both energy and political influence. As with the recreation commons, I suspect it differs from faction to faction.

Industrial Economics

Our first challenge is to create an entire economic infrastructure, from top to bottom, out of whole cloth. No gradual evolution from previous economic systems is possible, because there IS no previous economic system. Each interdependent piece must be materialized simultaneously and in perfect working order; otherwise the system will crash out before it ever gets off the ground.

– CEO Nwabudike Morgan, “The Centauri Monopoly”

A very distinct feature of modern societies is that everything is dependent on everything else. Not by design, but by necessity. Should one part of the system suffer a critical failure, everything else would follow suit. The most dramatic example of this is if the production of electricity were to suddenly not happen – whatever you were up to before the interruption, you are no longer doing it now. The same goes, albeit perhaps not as dramatically, for every other critical system. If the water stops, then agriculture stops. If agriculture stops, then food stops. And so on, in ever more complex and interdependent chains of supply and demand.

While it might be tempting to proclaim that some aspect is more important than the others, the crux of the matter is that they are all critical. If any one component breaks down, everything stops – the only difference is the particulars. If you’ve ever played a town management survival game, you know it really does not matter whether everyone died from lack of food or from a preventable disease. In both cases, everyone died, and your next playthrough will be informed by the need to make every aspect function in good working order.

This does, however, highlight an inherent contradiction of for-profit economics. The drive to maximize profits tends to manifest as a wish to maximize efficiency. In a tautological fashion, efficiency is defined as the reduction of expenditure whilst also maintaining profitability. You gotta spend money to make money, but preferably only the minimum amount of it. There is a tendency to skimp on the things that are not quite necessary when everything goes according to plan, but become very, very necessary once disaster strikes.  On Earth, this manifested itself in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, where the lack of preparedness caused over a hundred workers to die as the fire raged. On Chiron, it might manifest as not implementing the double and triple redundancy layers that prevent things from critically falling apart, but which do not generate profit in any immediate sense.

The challenge for Morgan – and indeed every other faction – is to create a situation where it is sustainable to focus exclusively on the profitability of an activity. There is a vast range of infrastructure that has to be constructed within a long term time frame in order to enable short term profit as a social mode of organization. If you want to build capitalism from scratch, you must first construct a social universe.

Hologram theatre

Richard Baxton piloted his Recon Rover into a fungal vortex and held off four waves of mind worms, saving an entire colony. We immediately purchased his identity manifests and repackaged him into the Recon Rover Rick character with a multi-tiered media campaign: televids, touchbooks, holos, psi-tours—the works. People need heroes. They don’t need to know how he died clawing his eyes out, screaming for mercy. The real story would just hurt sales, and dampen the spirits of our customers.

– “Mythology for Profit”, Morgan Stellartots Keynote Speech

The quote you just read does us the service of doubling down on the bread and circuses aspect of drone management facilities. The difference between a how a hologram theatre and a recreation commons is presented is stark and telling. The latter are different, unique, an expression of the values and virtues of the different factions that build them. The former, however, are sites of standardized marketization and products ruthlessly focus-tested so as to generate maximum output per energy input. In short, here too we see the difference between the fledgling outposts of the last chapter, and the emerging rapidly advancing civilization we see here. It takes a village to raise a child, but a keynote speech requires a lot more infrastructure than that.

This is not to dismiss the Morganite market cynicism as pure ideology. There is a grain of truth in their assessment that simply telling it like it is will not produce the desired outcome. People do not go to the movies to revisit the traumas and troubles of daily life; quite the opposite, they go there to escape. This is true both for those seeking to maximize profit and those who merely wish to keep the populace complacent. Bringing forth the full frontal mind worm fury in full-resolution hyperrealism is counterproductive. Distraction is the name of the game of popular culture. But, to quote George Lipsitz:

For all their triviality and frivolity, the messages of popular culture circulate in a network of production and reception that is quite serious. At their worst, they perform the dirty work of the economy and the state. At their best, they retain memories of the past and contain hopes for the future that rebuke the injustices and inequities of the present.

We can not postulate that popular culture is an accurate representation of the world as it is, in some sort of true form. We can not, however, go all in and claim it to be all lies. The most useful way to think about it is somewhere in between: there are some true things shown in the theatre, some false, but social reality is constituted by the things people see and talk about. Most of the images and topics of discussion have, throughout the centuries, tended to come from the theatre – be it stage, screen or hologram.

It is tempting to speculate about what kinds of cultural artifacts the different factions create. The Spartans might reimagine 300 in about as many versions; the Believers would make at least one vid about the one pair of footsteps; the University would simply upscale the old Carl Sagan classics. What the Cybernetics or the Cultists are up to is anyone’s guess, though I imagine there’d be quite an underground market for a very specific kind of vids wherein the two different factions meet and greet.

The Merchant Exchange

Human behavior is economic behavior. The particulars may vary, but competition for limited resources remains a constant. Need as well as greed have followed us to the stars, and the rewards of wealth still await those wise enough to recognize this deep thrumming of our common pulse.

– CEO Nwabudike Morgan, “The Centauri Monopoly”

The Merchant Exchange is one step above the developmental levels of the Industrial Base required to build it. Where the base is concerned with getting things moving in a figurative sense, the Exchange is all about getting things moving in a literal sense. Logistics and finance are the name of the game, and the base that builds the Exchange are the London, Singapore or Hong Kong of the new world. It would be the place to go for commencing commerce, international or domestic. Which is to say, it would be a competitive advantage of note for the faction building it.

Most of this advantage would come from being first. A planet with only one site of commerce and exchange makes very little sense, and it is only natural to find other such hubs across the geography. Being unique would be the mark of a small planetary economy, but being first also means being able to set the rules for further transactions. Furthermore, the second and third such hub would have to establish connections with the first hub, thus increasing its connectivity. While they would functionally do the same things as the Exchange, they would differ in that they do not have the institutional gravity coming from being the prime mover. Once something becomes a habit, it becomes hard to shake it; once a sufficient number of sufficiently wealthy merchants makes a point of being at the Exchange at all times, it becomes a profitable habit to boot.

Mechanically, this secret project adds one energy production to all base tiles that are not xenofungus. Given that most tiles produce no energy at all, this is a substantial improvement. Ironically, despite Morgan being quoted (with their leader quote to boot), the Morganites initially stand least to gain from this advantage. The extra income is tied to the number of citizens per base, and with the population limit of four per base, the additional energy is less than expected. It does, however, speak to this being an early project: it facilitates commerce between people, and it can only facilitate to the extent that there are people to be facilitated.

As time passes, the Exchange becomes less of a crucial financial nexus and more of a prestige operation. A profitable prestige operation, to be sure, but nowhere near the monopoly envisioned in the quote. Nevertheless, staying attuned to the energetic pulse of the economy is a very Morganite thing to do; energy, after all, is life.

Industrial Base

Resources exist to be consumed. And consumed they will be, if not by this generation then by some future. By what right does this forgotten future seek to deny us our birthright? None I say! Let us take what is ours, chew and eat our fill.

– CEO Nwabudike Morgan, “The Ethics of Greed”

As the name implies, the Industrial Base technology represents setting up the first basic components of an industrial society. This means simple things like conveyor belts and assembly lines, but also more subtle things like supply chains and distribution channels. A factory is not the sum of its parts – it is a node in a complex network of moving parts, where each component has to work in order for the next component down the line to work. Building an industrial base means laying the groundwork for such a network, in such a way that miners know where to send ore, ore processing facilities know where to send its output, and factories knowing what to do with the goods. Neither of these things on their own is as useful as all of them together. In fact, there is something dystopic about a factory producing things which only ever pile up outside of it with nowhere to go; there was supposed to be more to the process.

Setting these things up is not a straightforward process, however. Especially not when on a new planet, where the local conditions are not yet extensively known. A factory has to be built specifically to process a particular kind of materials, and in order to do that it must be determined which materials are around in sufficient quantities to be useful on industrial scales. In order to determine which materials are at hand, the local area has to be surveyed and analyzed. Furthermore, these same materials have to be investigated so as to determine their usefulness. This process takes time and effort, and the results are not given beforehand. The only way to find out what can be used and what cannot is – as extensive as the libraries on Earth materials might be – trial and error.

Conversely, this opens up for new discoveries. Finding out that a new material (such as synthmetal) can do something unexpected means it can (and will) be used for that purpose. This can either be direct consumption, or as a component somewhere in the industrial chain of production. Once plugged into the system, new properties will emerge about this material, which can then be used in additional ways, generating more knowledge, and so on. Setting up an industrial base is not only building a factory; it is in many ways jumpstarting the process of industrial knowledge gathering and generating.

It is likely that Morgan makes some reference to this process further into his Ethics. Even more likely is that this quote is placed in a context of arguing that having more now is better than having slightly more later. What you have now can be used to create more things, which in turn can be used to create more things, and so on. Getting this exponential chain of events rolling as early as possible thus becomes an ethical imperative; what good reason could there be to deny ourselves the definite benefits down the line of getting a head start?