Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Small Catastrophes and Minefields

Minefield is a term using in this blog with a specific meaning. It is an event or incident or side effect, or multiple repetitions of the same type of thing, which causes the alien civilization experiencing them to stop their march toward asymptotic technology. It derails progress through a specific mechanism. It might be common among alien civilizations and be the reason we do not have alien commerce dropping in here to set up their chains of warehouse stores.

The mechanism is that something happens and injures the civilization, for example by causing significant damage or death, and creates an antipathy toward more science. Science and technology must bear the blame for a catastrophe in order for it to qualify as a minefield. Other types of catastrophes, which are typically larger in scale, such as a large asteroid hitting the planet and obliterating part of it, are referred to as perils. These perils have nothing to do with technology, and can be said to be natural events. Perhaps technology is a savior for perils, in that it predicts them and allows the civilization to take measures to ameliorate the damage. The asteroid peril might be met by deflecting or destroying the asteroid, shielding some of the population, or evacuating a quorum of them to another planet in the solar system to avoid extinction. Technology is the hero here.

In a minefield, technology is the villain. In the previous post on minefields, weapons of mass destruction which are able to be obtained or even created by individuals or small groups, composed of errant, psychopathic individual, serve as a minefield. These weapons were the result of technology, and when they are stolen and used, the civilization’s reaction can be to stop the development of technology in some areas, or even across the board. If this is extensive enough and lasts long enough, the momentum of technology can be lost, knowledge can be forgotten or rejected, and the civilization descends into a more primitive, meaning less technological, state. The term plateau planet is used for a planet which starts out on the trajectory to asymptotic technology and stops somewhere, anywhere from chemotrophs to cyclotron-building, for some reason. One reason is a minefield.

The examples used in that earlier post were the result of deliberate actions on the part of individuals. Since asymptotic technology is not achieved in all fields at once, but rather there is a very different rate for different fields of science and technology, something like the neurology needed to detect early pathologies in individuals and prevent them from growing worse, there might be a development of weapons of mass destruction before the alien society becomes more calm and the citizens become more reasonable and free from psychotic tendencies. This pattern of development is inverse to what an intelligent individual might plan on, but the development of technology is not done according to an intelligent plan, but according to the individual goals of groups and factions on the planet. As noted in a different post, factionalism can result in many ways of slowing or stopping technology development, and this is one of them.

A minefield does not have to be the result of deliberate actions on the part of psychopathic individuals or warring factions. It does have to involve the actions of some aliens in the civilization, as these citizens are the ones who develop and deploy technology and a minefield has to involve technology. It can be the result of error, oversight, carelessness, calculational mistakes, laziness, inappropriate assumptions, failure to consider some aspects or threats or combinations of events or anything else, lack of attention arising from too few citizens involved or not enough funding or too short deadlines, or any of a whole host of ways that alien technologies might screw up something.

Typically, this type of technology-generated catastrophe would occur in novel areas of technology, before years, decades or centuries of experience had led to a total understanding of all pitfalls and ways to avoid them. There are certainly possibilities for a catastrophe to occur after there has been a long period of time to gain experience, and they involve not using it, via the same failure mechanisms of too short deadlines, cost cutting and so on.

When something sudden and threatening happens, the responses are often spoken of as being ‘fight or flight’. This phrase arose is the discussion of how early humans might respond to the appearance of a predator. An instantaneous choice had to be made, based on an assessment of the best chance for survival. For a technology catastrophe, the alien civilization has the same choice to make. It can ‘fight’ or work to eliminate the root cause of the catastrophe from any future use of that technololgy, so that the particular event will not recur. Alternately, it can choose ‘flight’. It can abandon the technology, and revert to something earlier. In the worst of all situations, it can choose ‘flight’ not from a specific technology, but from technology in general, or from technology of more varieties than just those which were responsible for the catastrophe.

If that technology is a key one for the advance of technology in general, perhaps being required for some reason for the improvement of living standards of the civilization, or enabling some resource to be produced or transported, or somehow else creating a large loss for the civilization, the flight from the single technology could be disruptive enough that the civilization falls into one or more traps. Scarcity is one trap that will block technology development, and the loss of a productive technology owing to the flight response might lead to scarcity. When scarcity hits an alien civilization, their response might be to contract non-sustenance activities, which includes those activities which promote the advance of technology.

Here on Earth we have not experienced the catastrophes of the first sort, where psychopathic individuals gain the ability to inflict damage on the society using some easily identifiable technology, but we have experienced some small catastrophes of the second sort. The nuclear accident at Fukushima has caused some repercussions on the development of technology. There has been the very sane and sensible response of examining existing and future designs and safety measures to ensure it does not happen again, but there has also been a ‘flight’ response to a degree, where the technology is abandoned by some factions here. It remains to be seen if this will be a debilitating phenomenon for us, but either way, it provides an example to help us understand what might happen in alien civilizations. A sufficiently debilitating response to a technical accident, perhaps worse than ones we have seen, might completely take an alien civilization out of the running in the race to the stars.

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