Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Are Any Great Filters Timing Issues?

The general drift of this post is that there is a momentum to how things can be changing in a society, and there are minimum times necessary to accomplish tasks. Let’s consider some examples. Suppose you have an alien civilization which is proceeding through the various changes that lead to asymptotic technology and a permanent, largely unchanging, civilization. One of the changes is the transition of the civilization from short-term thinking to long-term thinking. The decisions that the civilization would make to achieve some optimum in the short-term are not necessarily the ones that the civilization would make if it were planning for the long term.

A primitive civilization thinks short-term. In constant climate worlds, it might be of the order of a day, however long that might be. In seasonal climate worlds, it might be of the order of a year. Consider food supplies. In a constant climate world, having food for a few days, when it takes only a day or so to gather more, is enough planning for the civilization. In a seasonal climate world, having a few years of food storage is enough to tolerate a bad year or two. Planning is inherently short term.

Other time periods might create planning horizons which are somewhat, but not much, longer than the food cycles. If the reproductive cycle, involving perhaps various stages of metamorphosis or some type of adolescence, lasts several years, planning for the replacement of one generation with the next might be done. If adults live longer than an extra generational cycle, the planning horizon might be an average lifetime for a citizen.

In contrast, civilization changes of some sorts can take place over many times the longest of these short-term cycles. One time scale is the time from the Baconian transition to reaching asymptotic technology. This can be tens or hundreds of shorter time-scales, or even thousands. Civilization and the activities that take place are determined by the technology which is available, and this time scale is of the order of the timescale for asymptotic technology, more specifically, a fraction of it. There are certain grand transitions which can be foreseen, and there is also a time-scale for the adoption of the transition.

Just to make up some numbers, let’s consider a planet with an alien civilization that has adults with a hundred year lifespan, and the duration of science, from the Baconian transition to asymptotic technology being five thousand years, or fifty lifespans. The different grand transitions will not happen overnight, or even over the lifetime of a citizen. They will take several lifetimes, or in this alien world, several centuries. Thus, to go from a non-recycling world to a recycling world will take centuries. To go from a uncontrolled population growth situation to a regulated gestation situation will take centuries. To go from a citizen employment situation to a robots and intellos production situation will take centuries. To go from a haphazard genetic situation to an optimized genetics situation will take centuries. To go from a fractious planet to a unified planet will take centuries. And so on. All these transitions can be predicted by assuming that the civilization will reach star travel capability, and each of them is a step on the way.

It is possible to think of the previous situation in each of these transitions as having a certain momentum, meaning that the citizens are carrying on their lives, making daily decisions according to what is best for them in the existing situation, and not planning to undergo the transition. Each of these transitions represents a major upheaval of society and how it organized some aspects of citizen life. Each citizen is hatched, or born, or whatever, and trained as to what is expected of a successful contributor to the society depending on the existing situation, not the dynamically changing one that will take place. So, each citizen has short-term goals and objectives, which they are trying to accomplish, while society seems to be shifting under their hooves, or feet, or pods, or whatever. This creates a resistance to change. Citizens want to accomplish their plans, and a societal transition is disruptive.

It is possible to think of each citizen having a certain intellectual or mental capital invested in the current arrangement of society, which was accumulated by him/her/it learning the ropes of the society, so to speak? If there is a grand transition brewing, this capital might be squandered and become less useful. Those citizens who have been successful, or who are about to become more successful, might see the transition as thwarting their aspirations. This is on top of it clashing with the understanding of how society should operate that they have developed.

This is why it can be expected that grand transitions will take multiple lifetimes to complete. The momentum embodied in individual citizen’s plans simply pushes forward, and blocks or slows down the changes that the citizens will have to make in order to make the transition. But this delay can have other effects.

Consider the first listed transition, from a non-recycling civilization to an intensively recycling situation. This is motivated by the finite amount of resources available on the planet for a given extraction cost. At the beginning of this transition, citizens are used to using up resources and disposing of waste in a typically non-recoverable way. They have arranged the way they live their lives, and comport themselves in their interactions with each other and with any organizations that exist. There is a momentum here, a resistance to change of direction, and if the resistance is too strong, the momentum of resource use without recycling will continue, driving down the amount of remaining resources. This can drive the civilization into scarcity, when it cannot afford to make the change, and the civilization falls off the track to star travel, and descends to an earlier level of civilization. Their planet, if the failure is irremediable, becomes a plateau planet, an example of a civilization that has failed to achieve asymptotic technology and engage in star travel.

Each of the transitions has a momentum attached to it, and often a cliff over which the momentum can thrust the civilization. Consider the last example in the previous paragraph. If the civilization remains divided into warring and battling sections, other transitions will be blocked, technology development outside of that used in the battling will be slowed in development or even totally ignored, and the civilization will find itself on a plateau planet, unable to progress.

The point of these comments is that Great Filters do not have to be sudden events or incidents but they can be normal processes which last longer than can be tolerated. The transition to a recycling society can last for a certain number of lifetimes, which depends on the population level, the standard of living, and the residual amount of resources when the transition begins, and it will be successful. If it runs for two or three times this number of lifetimes, exhaustion may overtake the civilization. In other words, slowness of the transitions, which is engendered by the reluctance of the citizens to change or their inability to appreciate the need for change, can amount to a Great Filter. If the average alien civilization never accomplishes a particular one of these transitions, for example, unification or robotification of production or population limitation or genetic intelligence improvement, then this qualifies as a Great Filter and answer the question of why aliens are not flying around in our solar system.

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