The Virtual World

What do I care for your suffering? Pain, even agony, is no more than information before the senses, data fed to the computer of the mind. The lesson is simple: you have received the information, now act on it. Take control of the input and you shall become master of the output.

– Chairman Sheng-ji Yang, “Essays on Mind and Matter”

The juxtaposition of this secret project with this Yang quote is very reflective of Alpha Centauri’s origin in the 90s. As we saw in the post on the Data Angels, cyberspace was different back then: it was a place where everything was possible, and thus you could throw anything at it to see if it sticks. If virtual reality, then why not real virtuality? There might be something to it, after all.

Hindsight does not help in this particular regard, given that this kind of cybernihilism tends to flower in seedy parts of the web where toxic masculinity is cultivated as a virtue. Twenty years on, as real and virtual have collapsed into one another and become post-digital, the whole notion of a (let alone the) virtual world is rather disingenuous. Sure, disappearing into a virtual world was a tempting proposition back in the days (and it featured prominently in the Alpha Centauri lore books), but we all know someone who’ve disappeared into World of Warcraft, and all that this entails. There was something to it, and it bore unpleasant fruits.

For all this, we have not realized the dream of the Virtual World: a place wherein you fully immerse yourself to the detriment of everything else. The Matrix has yet to materialize (pun intended), but the idea that it inevitably will, or even should, has faded to such a degree that you need a certain cultural sensibility to remember its intensity. As with those who were enthusiastic about 70s music in the 90s, there is a certain remove which marks is as a different experience than actually being there, in time and space. If the Virtual World is a decontextualization device, then it ironically needs to be recontextualized.

Anything is possible in the virtual world. You can be anyone you want, anything you want; Sherry Turkle can write extended passages psychoanalyzing the significance of online avatars. On the internet, no one knows you are a dog. Radical freedom is around the corner, when the bonds of the physical world are shattered and we become free to pursue who we really want to be, given our newfound access to all the great works of art and literature ever created in human history –

It would be dystopic to a fault to posit a virtual world consisting entirely of middling youtube celebs being their personal brands, but it would not be too far off. As a cyberculture, we have received vast quantities of information about what it means to live in a hyperconnected world where phrases such as “surfing on the digital superhighway” makes sense. It turns out that Yang’s phrasing in terms of input and output does not hold. It all becomes a feedback loop where a select few bits of data becomes iterated upon until it ceases to be recognizable from without.

Twenty years later, we have lost all ability to can. Which, considering, might be a good thing.

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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.

Recycling tanks

It is every citizen’s final duty to go into the tanks and become one with all the people.

– Chairman Sheng-ji Yang, “Ethics for Tomorrow”

Using every part of an animal is a human practice that goes way back into history. Particularly in remote, hostile environment where survival is a group effort with non-optional participation. After something has been killed for food, the non-food parts are used for whatever they can be used for: skins for clothing, bones for tools, the various inside parts for whatever use have been discovered for them over the ages. It is not a new concept, and great insights into the past of human cultures can be gleaned from knowing the different parts of the animals in their surrounding environment.

Thing is. The carbon, calcium and other materials that make up a human body are as much carbon, calcium and so on as anything else made of these things. It is therefore not a big leap Yang makes in asserting that going into the tanks is an obvious thing to do; under conditions of scarcity, every little thing helps. While Chiron is anything but resource scarce, the early colonists cannot get at those resources yet. The colonists still have to survive long enough for large infrastructure projects to kick in, and thus recycling becomes a virtue.

To be sure, it is likely that other factions will not go as far as Yang in his ruthless, utterly materialistic approach to these matters. There are still plenty of other areas wherein recycling can provide useful benefits: farms produce biomass, mining produces various waste byproducts, and as unseemly as it might be to think about, live humans do produce non-trivial amounts of fertilizer as they go about their business. Every little bit counts.

Given that the colonists arrived on a spaceship, where recycling is paramount when traversing the vast, resource-empty voids, it is likely that the importance of making everything count is deeply ingrained during the early days. Granted, most colonists were cryogenically frozen for most of the ride, but the physical and digital remnants of the Unity ought to carry some weight in the daily experience of getting things going. Chiron is not the Spaceship Earth Buckminster Fuller wrote about, but it is close enough for the similarities to apply.

Biogenetics

We hold life to be sacred, but we also know the foundation of life consists in a stream of codes not so different from the successive frames of a watchvid. Why then cannot we cut one code short here, and start another there? Is life so fragile that it can withstand no tampering? Does the sacred brook no improvement?

– Chairman Sheng-ji Yang, “Dynamics of Mind”

Being on an alien planet surrounded by alien life in an alien ecology sooner or later results in encountering alien diseases. Most of these diseases will be unable to interact with human biology, given the widely differing evolutionary pasts and trajectories, but there will inevitably be something that manages to wreak havoc. Besides the value of knowing things just in case something good comes of it, knowing enough to be able to act preemptively will prevent a lot of grief down the line. The study of Biogenetics is the study of what makes human tick, both in archival terms (e.g. reconstructing the information brought from the Unity) and in terms of the actually existing humans of the colony.

Much like the techs discussed above, most of these early efforts would consist of setting up shop and assessing the data brought over in the databanks. While biology is an inherited trait, biotech facilities are not, and thus they have to be built. It is one of the inherent ironies of biology that despite being it, we do not gain any particular insight about it from our nature. Instead, we have to construct things that are utterly non-biological – the more clinically sterile a medicinal lab is, the better – in order to come to grips with ourselves. Biogenetics as a colonial effort consists of building the labs, doctor’s offices and medical training facilities necessary to keep medical science alive and kicking. The fact that some of the patients and/or subjects are infected by organisms of alien origin only gives this endeavor more urgency.

Yang, in this quote, is more concerned with the long term implications of understanding human biology in depth. If it is possible to add and remove DNA at will, why not do it? What’s stopping us? Biology is a resilient thing, capable of surviving just about anything. With a sufficiently deep understanding of how biological systems manage to overcome obstacles, similar traits can be transferred to humanity, regardless of where they originated. Letting such notions as purity and sacredness stand in the way is, in the long term, a hindrance. Of all the human leaders, Yang is the earliest to confront the notion of transcendence and think: let’s go there.

Granted, at this point it is still early days, and the construction dust has barely settled around the first rudimentary rinky-dink biotech clinic. But things do not have to be actually doable in the immediate present to be thinkable; indeed, this is a core premise of science fiction.

The Human Hive

There are no opposite factions in Alpha Centauri (not even the aliens), but the Hive manages to be counter to just about everyone. The Hive is also a manifestation of a tendency found within all modern societies (be they on Earth or in space): the relentless materiality placed as a telos above all else. In a sense, the Hive is the logical (all-too logical) conclusion to the self-help books proclaiming that you can do anything you set your mind to. Or, in the wordings of the leader quote:

Learn to overcome the crass demands of flesh and bone, for they warp the matrix through which we perceive the world. Extend your awareness outwards, beyond the self of body, to embrace the self of group and the self of humanity. The goals of the group and the greater race are transcendent, and to embrace them is to achieve enlightenment.

– Chairman Sheng-ji Yang, “Essays on Mind and Matter”

This is a ruthlessly materialistic view of things, despite the idealistic connotations of words like ‘transcendent’ and ‘enlightenment’. At the heart of this philosophy we find a core tenet of instrumental rationality, which asks only one question: how can we go about solving the problems before us, using the means available to us?

The reason the Hive runs counter to just about every other faction – despite not being the opposite of any one of them in particular – is that it does not adhere to the limitations of other factions. Yang would most likely describe these limitations as self-imposed. The Peacekeeper’s insistence on democracy and individual flourishing, for instance, is a distraction from getting things done – a lot of thought and energy is spent on securing such things as institutional democratic continuity that would be better spent building a factory, another military unit, or a secret project. Immaterial values such as freedom are just that, immaterial, and thus not worth wasting effort on. Especially when seen in the light of a simple material fact: those who command a bigger army and a bigger industrial capacity can simply overrun their weaker neighbors, at which point any ideas these neighbors harbor become moot.

To say that the Hive is the opposite of some other faction would be a very simplistic thing to do, given that all factions exist in the material world and have to make do with their material resources. All factions build factories, bases and other infrastructural features to accomplish the goal of surviving on Planet. What makes the Hive different is that these things have no goals above and beyond the material functions they perform. A factory does not produce profits; it produces things. A base is not a place where people live their lives; it is a storehouse and maintenance site of bodies. Infrastructure does not exist to further an agenda, but rather to put that which was previously out of reach within reach. Whatever ideas other factions have about these things, the Hive has done away with, and thus they are able to do it with ruthless efficiency.

This might all seem a very alien (pun intended) way of thinking, but it is very much present in the world we live in today. One example of this is workplace alienation. Most jobs have the characteristic of being rather incomprehensible, where the things a person does during a workday do not make intuitive sense. The paradigmatic example being a factory worker tightening a widget all day, without ever actually knowing what a widget is or why it needs to be tightened. A more contemporary example is telemarketing, where it is unclear how or why the activity is improving anything for anybody. The individual participating in the work activity does not have to understand what it is they are doing or why – all they have to do is go through the motions. And the Hive has specialized in making sure that its many minions are going through the motions as efficiently as possible.

As you might expect, the faction gains bonuses to its growth and industry ratings, with a correspondingly massive penalty to its economy. Interestingly enough, the economy penalty is not too crippling in and of itself; its main drawback is that the late stage power builds that are based on high economy ratings are unavailable to the Hive. In terms of gameplay, the faction penalty is more than made up for by the fact that the Hive is immune to negative efficiency ratings, meaning they can enact both the Planned economy and Police State policies without suffering any negative consequences. The iron cage of modernity works best without people getting any ideas about individual freedom or other such immaterial things.

If the Hive were to lead humanity’s transcendence, it would be a very different kind of transcendence. The ruthless instrumentality on display during the human era would be greatly amplified and expanded, and post-humans would quite possibly become akin to xenofungus: every single individual encountered would be part of a large unified whole, but would also share all the characteristics of every other individual. Humanity, having merged with Planet to become a Hive mind, would not seek to become more than it is. But it would also not seek to become less than what it is, or different. Post-humanity would take a frank, crass, materialistic look upon itself and radically accept that this is who we are now, for better or worse. Any future problems will have to be solved on the basis of that material truth – nothing more, nothing less.