Adaptive economics

Humans : correct in making the leap from wealth as currency to wealth as energy. But logic failure : wealth ultimately is extension of desire, fluctuating with emotions and state of mind. Desires : when all are supported in purely adaptable system, true wealth is achieved.

— Usurper Judaa Marr, “Human : Nature”

The introduction of alien factions in the Alien Crossfire expansion brings with it a host of questions, most of which relate to their modes of social organization. There is, by virtue of them being alien, bound to be quite a few and quite radical differences between how these aliens go about doing things and the more familiar human ways we’ve seen so far. They wouldn’t be alien if they simply conformed to the economic theory of this or that human thinker of centuries past.

This, however, points to an inherent contradiction of science fiction. Science fiction is by necessity written by humans, for humans, from a human point of view. No matter how elaborate, extrapolated or extraordinary the aliens depicted in sci fi writing become, they are still limited in scope to the point of view of a single species on a single planet. When authors seek inspiration for their strange and amazing extraterrestrial entities, this inspiration will by necessity come from somewhere close to home. Alien is as human does.

This is something of a drawback when it comes to empirical correctness and science-based science fiction. It does not, however, invalidate the notion of writing about aliens in the first place. They are not meant to be depictions of actually existing little (or, in the case of the progenitors, quite large) green men, but rather to perturb and upturn our habitual conceptions of what it means to be human. By confronting the Other, we mirror ourselves.

We can see this at play in the quote above. Marr comments on the limitations of human economic thinking, and points out that there is a better, more logical way of going about things. Wealth seen as merely the fulfillment of flimsy and temporary impulses is short-sighted, and tends to lead to the accumulation of ever more useless trinkets as one momentary fad gives way to another; wealth becomes the ability to give in to desire yet one more time, as the mood shifts. Marr’s alternative, then, is to move the ability to satisfy desires from the individual to societal institutions, in such a way that everyone can do it, whilst also contributing to the overall economy. An adaptive economy does not consist of wealthy individuals, but rather of a set of economic institutions which allow for the wealth to be realized where it needs to be, regardless of the size or nature of said need.

It should come as no surprise that Marr has Planned as his preferred societal choice; what has been said so far resonates with the old adage “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”. Perhaps it is only fitting that Marr’s ambition to become the supreme overmind of the galaxy is built on the backs of well-cared for citizens. Indeed, it might be the only way. If this is how he treats his minions before achieving godhood, the thinking might be, then imagine what manner of wealth he might bestow once the Transcendence is completed. It would, all things considered, be a very human thing to believe.

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?

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.

Gene splicing

The genetic code does not, and cannot, specify the nature and position of every capillary in the body or every neuron in the brain. What it can do is describe the underlying fractal pattern which creates them.

— Academician Prokhor Zakharov, “Nonlinear Genetics”

Genes punch way above their weight class when it comes to having a material impact on the world. For such tiny things to have such a dramatic effect on the material world is nothing short of remarkable. Being able to affect change on a genetic level thus becomes a very powerful tool; seemingly small edits can end up producing very large differences. The outcome is not proportionate to the input, as it were.

As Zakharov indicates, however, the outcome is not a linear process corresponding 1:1 with the alterations made. It is not possible to look upon a genetic code and immediately be able to visualize the fully formed organism; too many things come down to the biographical history of the organism in question, and the specific circumstances within which it lives. For plants, it might be as simple as gaining different colorations depending on the soil; for humans, far more factors play in.

This makes the prospect of gene editing a very indirect proposition. Unlike computer programs, organisms can not be written from scratch. There is simply too much going on, at too far a remove. For the same reason, it is not clear where to begin making alterations; where, amongst the myriad of genes, is the one thing which controls the desired aspect? It has to be somewhere in there, but where?

Like teenagers of the early internet years learning HTML, the key is to copy what works on other pages and splice it into your own. There is a process through which the incomprehensible series of letters and numbers is turned into a web page, and while this process is not entirely known (yet), the various small changes that can be made are predictable and immediately applicable. The same goes, mutatis mutandis, for genes. Take the genes which seem to correspond to the desired trait in one genome, splice it into the genome which you want to exhibit the same trait, and see what happens.

If it works, it works. If it does not – well, the search continues. Sooner or later, something has to work, given enough monkeys with enough genetic typewriters.

Advanced subatomic theory

The substructure of the universe regresses infinitely towards smaller and smaller components. Behind atoms we find electrons, and behind electrons quarks. Each layer unraveled reveals new secrets, but also new mysteries.

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

The universal state of things expressed in this quote is not only applicable to the natural world at large (or small, as the case might be), but also to the lifeworlds of humans in general. The discovery of ever smaller components is equally a function of how the universe is structured, and of how knowledge is built upon previously accumulated knowledge. In order to find a smaller component, it is necessary to have discovered what said component is smaller than. It is, as Yang said, an iterative process.

Secrets and mysteries depend fully on the point of view adopted at a given point in time. On the one hand, it is necessary to know enough about something to know there are things not yet known; on the other hand, secrets unravel and mysteries unfold as soon as they become knowable enough to be subjected to systematic study. There is at all times a finite range of conceptually available objects that are not yet fully understood, but also not completely unknown. As Gadamer would have it, there are always things just beyond the horizon, and as we move towards it, new horizons come into view. The specific secrets and mysteries of the day tend to be discovered and explored, but there will always be new ones lurking just slightly further into the future.

This parallel between physical and mental universes can – it is assumed – only be pushed so far. Eventually, we will run out of physical universe; at some point, we will have found the smallest component there could possibly be, where venturing into smaller scales simply would not be a meaningful thing to do. Zakharov’s infinity is not quite as infinite as it is made out to be. It is, however, infinite enough to last for the rest of our lives, and possibly the lives of many generations to come. Which, for all intents and purposes we might have, is infinite enough to suffice, and to warrant the active seeking out of new mysteries and secrets to uncover. We are not done with the small secrets of the universe just quite yet.

Adaptive doctrive

War is war; destruction is destruction. You think this is obvious. But war is not destruction, it is victory. To achieve victory, simply appear to give the opponent what he wants and he will go away, or join you in your quest for additional power.

 – Datatech Sinder Roze, “Information burns”

This is a surprisingly militaristic statement, especially when we consider Roze’s cyberanarchistic disposition. When considering the possibility of a faction based on Barlow’s Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace, the immediate association is not to this sentiment inspired in equal measure by Sun Tzu, Clausewitz and the Machiavellian Prince. As usual when things do not immediately add up, we must conclude that something interesting is going on.

Clausewitz defined the overall aim of a clash of military forces as the disabling of the opponents capacity to continue fighting. The aim is not to kill or destroy them, but to render them ineffective (caught in an untenable situation, starved of supplies or perhaps even just severely outnumbered). Once this is done, the outcome becomes a foregone conclusion, and the rational thing to do for the defeated party is to surrender. Conversely, the rational thing to do for the victorious party is to accept this surrender, and then move on to do whatever it was that motivated the clash in the first place. War is not destruction, it is victory; if victory can be achieved without destruction, then this is the preferred outcome.

Sun Tzu, similarly, did not define victory as merely the military defeat of an opponent on a given battlefield. Famously, he quipped that the general that can win without a single battle is a great leader indeed. Destruction is beside the point, and moreover tends to be a net negative after victory is achieved. Throwing more and more resources into the meat grinder of war to achieve progressively less profitable battlefield success is, in the long run, a losing proposition. When faced with a choice between victory and destruction, choose the former.

This sentiment is at the heart of the Data Angel faction. In order to remain a politically independent entity, they have to successfully (and successively) stave of destruction at the hands of other factions. Much like a Machiavellian prince of a small state, they have to navigate the realpolitik of factions vying for dominance and control. Other factions constantly want things, and Roze’s preferred way to stave them off is to appear to give them what they want. If this can be done by means of a peace treaty, then that would be the best possible continuation of the Angels’ perpetual war against servitude.

Attentive readers will at this point have picked up on the Miltonian sentiment that it is better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven. The hell, in this case, is the inherent contradiction of a politically coherent entity built on the opposition to politically coherent projects as such; the risk, as always, being that the final words of Roze’s quote becomes the overall aim of the faction as it moves into the future. Survival requires power, and the more of it you have, they better you become at surviving. The interesting contradiction here is how the Angels will manage to win without accidentally also losing themselves.