Thursday, April 14, 2016

Nature versus Technological Determinism

This blog is based on several precepts, and technological determinism is one of them. In concise form, technological determinism says that many features of a civilization are determined by the level and details of the technology it has achieved. It was invented by a economist-philosopher, Thorstein Veblen, after he observed how society changed with the changing of technology.

It makes things ever so much simpler. If you want to try and predict something about an alien civilization, instead of having to do projections of a hundred different things, all tied together, you simply project the technology, and then see how the civilization would have to be formed in order to utilize it. There are some difficult hurdles here, but having technological determinism around chops the puzzle up into less difficult pieces, each of which is more amenable to cogent discussion than the whole package together.

One of those hurdles is figuring out the technology. It would be a wonderful thing to use technology to predict what the civilization has to be like, except you have to project the technology to do that. Projecting technology is made a bit easier by the realization that technology is asymptotic. You can only carry it so far, and then you have it all. It isn't a unending series like the digits of pi. It's like the gas gauge on a car. You can only fill it to the top. OK, after you fill it, you can top it off. That's what asymptotic means. You don't quite ever get to the very, very end, but you get so close it doesn't matter any more. You could take an eyedropper and get a few more drops of gasoline into the the tank, but so what. No operations of the car are going to be any different in any significant way.

Asymptotic technology has another rabbit up its sleeve. If the aliens on Planet X work very hard and figure out all of technology, and the aliens on Planet Y do the same, they will have exactly the same technology. Their civilization will be exactly the same, as far as technological determinism can indicate. Yes, the names of their streets will be different, but the important things will not be. So when you are figuring out the future of Planet X and its inhabitants, and Planet Y and its inhabitants, there is a lot you can say about them. You don't have to do a complete separate projection of the future of each of them. They are heading to the same end.

While this all sounds wonderful and impressive and charming and revolutionary and so on, blah-blah-blah, after the initial surprise wears off, it becomes clear that there is something left out. All alien civilizations get to the same technology, but what is it? It's nice it's the same, but if we don't know what it is, there isn't much point. So how is it possible to project technology?

When you are building a bridge over a river, say with a deep chasm, you start on both sides and build toward the middle. It's the same with technology, you can project today's Earth technology, and try and use some logical, physical principles and figure out the results. This sometimes produces an order of magnitude answer. Things are within a range, that might be a factor of ten. Not very accurate, but enough to be useful. What about the other end?

Here's where nature comes in, or rather Nature with a capital N. The basic principle is that if Nature can do something, alien civilizations can figure out how it was done, and duplicate it. Nature works better than projections for fields that are not far progressed on Earth, where we might have some difficulty projecting far enough. Biology is a good example. Anything that Nature can do, aliens can do, in the area of biology.

This means making new species or designing attributes of living organisms and figuring out how to write the genetic code to make them happen. It means doing anything that a biological organism is known to do or have done ever in history. Someone with a lot of free time who tried to make a catalog of all the things organisms can do would find him/herself with a very long list. And then combinations would get even more unimaginable.

It also means that understanding the constraints that living organisms must abide by and recognizing that many of those constraints fall away in a freely designed organism. Evolutionary organisms have to fill a place in some ecology, and that produces multiple restrictions, such as size, ability to gather its own food, mobility requirements, and so on. These don't have to hold for freely designed organisms, so the post on 'biological factories' took genetic adventurism a step further.

The bag of areas we don't really know much concrete about isn't restricted to biology, but includes neurology, medicine, and psychology. Again, the idea is that anything that Nature can do, aliens will learn how to do, in precise detail, including the constraints and how to lift them.

If we try to make the two sides of a river chasm idea work for physics, we see something quite different. Nature isn't doing much that we don't at least have a fair idea about. The constraints in physics, like the conservation of mass-energy, momentum, and angular momentum don't seem to have any violations, and therefore assuming that there are some would be fraught with disappointment. Same with the speed of light: No magic FTL. It might be possible to build a worm-hole, but you need masses of large stars to bend space a little, and it comes out rather spherically symmetric when you do. Incredible amounts of mass would be necessary to have a worm-hole, and then the force gradients would be so humongous that any structural matter would be condensed to neutron matter or quark matter only by coming near it. So, FTL is simply not something that makes sense for asymptotic technology.

Thus, using nature, nature's constraints, and current Earth science projections gives us a pretty good start at figuring out the basic outlines or overview of asymptotic technology.

The next hurdle is figuring out how to translate what can be deduced or surmised about asymptotic technology into the form of alien civilizations. This seems to be a case-by-case thing, meaning that explorations of various social arrangements need to be thought through to see how they interact with technology. This seems to have been productive so far, so let's just continue with it.

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