Saturday, September 19, 2015

Is Collective Ennui Possible in an Alien Civilization?

Consider another point of view of alien civilizations: the individual citizens might feel ennui. There are many factors involved. First off, the activities that the citizens originally evolved to do have been industrialized, and are done by robots or intellos principally. Gathering food or hunting animals or raising crops or catching fish are now just voluntary activities, which the aliens can do when they want to, and ignore whenever they want to. There is just no need for them to do it. Consider rearing young aliens. Any intelligent creatures need a remarkable amount of rearing, meaning learning how to live in the society, how to interact with others, what activities can be done and how to do them well, communications skills, artistic skills, literacy and numeracy, and on and on. These would be done most efficiently by robotic instructors. Gestation is industrial, so there would be no specific young aliens to bond with, although some arrangements to that effect can be imagined. Even advanced activities such as recycling are largely done by industrial processes, and the only interaction the aliens would have would be to ensure that what they used was returned to the recycling stream. What this means is that there are almost no necessities to drive their activities, that almost everything would be voluntary. A particular alien who wanted to do nothing but mope could do it with no repercussions.

Secondly, there is no way to affect society. Everything has been figured out centuries ago, and optimized. Any bright suggestion would have been thought of over and over during the past centuries, and if it were good, used. The same goes for other aliens. Their problems are solvable by the infrastructure of the city, and there is no need for one alien to help another with their health, their psychological problems, any addictions, grooming, appearance, clothing, appliances, living conditions, financial considerations, or anything else. It is done by the city, and done perfectly well, as all problems have been seen before, and there are no new things that would appear that would need any attention of another alien citizen. There is no need to run for office, as the city will run just like it has for centuries without any intervention. It doesn’t significantly change, so there is no need for a citizens’ committee to review proposals, nor for any protests against changes that impact the lives of the citizens. Things which break are replaced by the city, most likely before they have any impact on the lives of the citizens.

Thirdly, differences between alien citizens are largely superficial. Every alien who is gestated has the best genes and receives the best upbringing. They would participate in different voluntary activities, and so their experiences would be different, but there is no subset of individuals, the geniuses, or the charismatic, or the avaricious, or anything else, who are special and who have some activities that they are driven to do or that society needs them to do. All aliens are optimal. So there is little reason for an individual alien to regard themselves as unique or special. This has a serious implication. Any alien would realize that they are dispensible to the city, and if they left or expired, there are ten million more aliens just about the same, and they would not have created any loss by disappearing. There is no special contribution they can make which might change that. It is almost like aliens are ants in a colony or cows on a farm. The loss of one is hardly noticeable.

Fourth, during most of the duration of the civilization, there are no great goals to participate in. If their meme supports star travel, there would be some time when they are establishing the first colonies, or when they are migrating out of the world they inhabit. But the civilization lasts millennia after millennia, maybe even millions of years, and this adventure would last a time scale of the order of centuries, or even less. There might be a peril that arose, a galactic peril, a stellar peril, or a planetary peril, and the civilization would have to deal with it, by migrating or perhaps relocating some cities. Again, this is a task to last centuries at the most.

There are certainly grounds here for us to think that the aliens would suffer from serious cases of ennui, in which they wake up every day with a feeling of uselessness or hopelessness, of complete boredom with the world, of frustration at not being able to matter, of despair, or other very negative emotions. The key here is ‘us’. We would feel this way if thrust into such a society, carrying with ourselves the patterns with which we have been raised, and the background of a society which was totally different. It is not ‘them’. To understand an alien civilization, it is not always a good idea to translate current-day Earth attitudes over to an exo-planet 1000 light years away with different creatures inhabiting it, and many more centuries of experience in dealing with their own situation.

Aliens on their home world or a colony do not grow up with the same attitudes towards their life that we would feel if thrust suddenly into it. We imagine reactions according to our background. Alien life would be based on different principles, and would have activities that would consume the time of alien citizens in a wholly enveloping way. Because there is no need for productive work, productive work of all kinds becomes an avocation, to do for the joy of it, rather than for the necessity of it. Almost all humans work because they have to in order to obtain what they need for survival of themselves and those they support. When that evaporates or disappears, there is a psychological hole to be filled. Loss of income creates a negative pressure, which can lead to despondency. Even if there is income from some sort, there can be a psychological hole. Someone on Earth who has worked for decades and then suddenly is unemployed initially feels like a part of their lives is missing, and it is. This is not how aliens would view work.

A better analogy for aliens’ concept of work is a well-prepared for retirement here on Earth. A retiree on a pension might for a period feel the loss of the ritual of work, but after that, work is voluntary, and there are plenty of activities that can be done to replace it, and which can become as interesting or more so. Earthlings sometimes talk about what they would do if they could retire. Aliens in an advanced civilization already have that option.

We now know of a few forms of artistic creation. From ancient times we have sculpture. Then paint was invented, and we had landscapes and portraits. When metal became available, jewelry and ornaments became available, too. More recently, animated cartoons were invented, and then film and video. There is no doubt that art will continue to expand its boundaries, and all manner of things not considered art now will become art. One that has been mentioned in this blog has been the creation of unique creatures wholly from genetic design, and even more, ecosystems comprising them. Clothing became an art form a century or more ago, even if it is not included in any modern lists of art. Tattoos and other forms of body decoration are a recent invention. Masks have been an independently invented art form in many cultures on Earth. Parades are an art form, or at least can be. Now the individual contributions to a parade are artistic, but there is nothing to stop an entire parade from being orchestrated.

In an alien civilization, there would not necessarily be anything corresponding to a family, but other forms of interaction and bonding between individuals could take its place. There is deep friendship here on Earth, which sometimes creates stronger bonds than a family. Over centuries, aliens would certainly have developed something which becomes embedded in the culture.

Thus, the imagination of ennui upon hearing about how an alien civilization lacks some things Earth has by necessity creates a feeling of loss, but that feeling of loss would not be present on an advanced alien world. Instead, there would be a cornucopia of possible activities and relationships, which would be more than enough to fill the lives of the alien citizens. Do not forget that, very likely, they would all be intelligent to a level beyond what humans have ever achieved, and this alone can open the door to new activities we cannot imagine. So, ennui is not a recipe for an alien planet to voluntarily expire, and particularly never seek space travel. The explanation must be sought elsewhere.

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