Field Modulation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Doctrine: Loyalty

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

– Niccolò Machiavelli, “The Prince”, Datalinks

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Planetary Networks

Why do you insist that the human genetic code is “sacred” or “taboo”? It is a chemical process and nothing more. For that matter we are chemical processes and nothing more. If you deny yourself a useful tool simply because it reminds you uncomfortably of your mortality, you have uselessly and pointlessly crippled yourself.

– Chairman Sheng-ji Yang, “Looking God in the Eye”

The transition from the first technological tier to the second is most pronounced in the transition from Information Networks to Planetary Networks. The former is all about getting things to work in the first place – to ensure that there are computers that can work under the conditions of the new planet, and that they can talk to each other in a rudimentary fashion. In a sense, it’s like setting up a home network: immensely useful once done, but ultimately local in scale. It is a requirement to setting up a planetary network, but the work ahead requires a very different set of steps than those already taken. If the home router stops working, you can just restart it. The same can not be said for a global network connecting everyone and – if there are aliens – everything.

Framing this as a technology rather than a secret project forces us to make a number of assumptions about the world of Alpha Centauri. One is that research projects necessarily entail some manner of physical implementation of the things researched. In this case, the physical infrastructure necessary to get the planetary network in question up and running: cables, relays, comm towers, routers, TCP/IP protocols of the future, whatever it takes to get information flowing from here to there to everywhere. The network node facilities are part of this, but they have a sense of being particularly good instances of infrastructure, rather than being the infrastructure itself. Not having a local node does not mean not being connected to the emergent network; it just means the connection might not always be top notch.

A second assumption is that all factions, despite potentially being at war with each other, agree on the fundamental necessity of building this network. There are no gameplay mechanics related to opting out of the global datalinks, nor are the difficulties of setting them up ever mentioned (outside of the cost of researching this technology). The network, it is assumed, is taken for granted in the future. One way or another, it will come to pass.

Perhaps it is in this sense we are meant to read Yang’s quote. Not just in the light of his enlightened nihilism, but in the relentless usefulness of technologies and the way they impose themselves on us. Opting out of the planetary network is not an alternative on the table, nor is it considered at any length whatsoever. The fact that the network connects everyone to everyone – be they friend or foe, researcher or hacker, trade caravan or probe team – is of secondary importance to the fact that those who are not connected are crippled. The network is a technological process and nothing more. The reference to genetic code simply underscores just how integrated technology is in the human condition on Chiron; without it, we are nothing. It foreshadows what is to come.

Polymorphic Software

Technological advance is an inherently iterative process. One does not simply take sand from the beach and produce a Dataprobe. We use crude tools to fashion better tools, and then our better tools to fashion more precise tools, and so on. Each minor refinement is a step in the process, and all of the steps must be taken.

– Chairman Sheng-ji Yang, “Looking God in the Eye”

As with the Secrets of the Human Brain, this is a technology which does not spring out of immediate necessity. There is no void that yearns to be filled, no critical infrastructure that ceases to function should no polymorphic software be available for immediate use. Rather, it fills a more peculiar role. While its uses are not instantly apparent, they loom down the line, once the technology has matured. As Yang notes, all of the steps must be taken, and this is but one of many such steps.

The in-game text hints at this technology being the development of artificial neural networks. As we have seen from contemporary uses of this same concept, the results are not always as impressive as its proponents claim they would be. We were promised a new age of deep learning and computer who could come up with non-obvious solutions to complex problems, but so far the most well-known instance is twitter user horse_ebooks. Given that the Horse turned out to be a human project after all, the promises are more akin to vaporware than anything else.

Again, science fiction has the advantage of being able to rely on its fictional aspect. The challenges that face us today have been overcome, by feat of future advances we (for obvious reasons) have not made yet, but probably/hopefully/maybe will in times ahead. It is a grammatical move to the tense of future perfect. By virtue of being fiction, all the steps necessary to arrive at the starting point must have been taken; the narrative universe would break down otherwise.

An interesting proposition would be to let loose a large number of neural networks at attempting to write such technologies. They can not see the future, obviously, but they just might be able to read fast enough to produce descriptions of possible futures that compare favorably with what we come up with on our own. If technological advance is an iterative process, the fiction of and about technological advance should reasonably follow suit. While I do not doubt that most of the automagically written futures will be half garbled, half genre, the sheer number of them has the potential to spark potential iterations all by itself. Quantity has a quality all of its own, after all.

Secrets of the Human Brain

There are only two ways in which we can account for a necessary agreement of experience with the concepts of its objects: either experience makes these concepts possible or these concepts make experience possible.

– Immanuel Kant, “Critique of Pure Reason”, Datalinks

If we pooled everything we know and understand about the brain, consciousness and related topics, we would still come up short in attempting to explain the simple feat of someone raising their hand, keeping it raised for a short period of time, then lowering it again. To be sure, there would be plenty to say about nerve impulses and the muscular mechanics of motion, but the link between the decision to raise the hand and the actual lifting is still a mystery. It makes sense to assume such a link exists – if nothing else, it conforms to our experience – but the specifics elude us.

The fact that the colonists endeavor to figure this out at such an early stage in the process signifies two things. First, it implies that Kant is still a force to be reckoned with, and that philosophy of mind has become a much more applied undertaking than at present. Second, it marks a distinct move away from merely making do, in the direction of transforming the human being into something more suitable. In the equation of a healthy mind in a healthy body, this technology falls down hard in the former category.

Figuring out how the brain works is not automatically a project undertaken in the same manner as Kant proposed in his definition of the Enlightenment. It could very well also take place in the same way digital advertising and dark design occur today: finding the triggers that cause us to keep clicking and consuming even when we’d really rather not. This is the difference between introspection and manipulation. Introspection assumes a self capable of observing how it goes about things, modifying its behavior in accordance with what it sees and wishes to understand. Manipulation also assumes a self being seen, but from without, being poked and prodded so as to achieve predictable results. Lal would advocate the former, while Yang would ruthlessly implement the latter.

In all this, the specter of determinism looms. It is implied that by understanding what makes the brain tick, it will become possible to control human beings, perhaps even in a way envisioned by behaviorists. From any given set of initial conditions, a small range of predictable outcomes are guaranteed. I posit that this is less of a philosophical (or even scientific) question, and more of an ideological choice. It is equally possible to infuse humans with radical self-knowledge as it is to use this knowledge to steer them unawares. Figuring out how to do it does not automatically determine the choice of the one over the other, but merely makes it that much more important to realize that there is a choice to be made in the first place.