Sunday, October 2, 2016

Another Aspect of Technological Determinism

Technological determinism says that the structure of society follows the existing technology. This is demonstrated to us here on Earth with many examples, including the one of how interconnectedness via the internet is changing our personal relationships from face-to-face ones to remote, almost virtual ones, and indeed ones which are more ephemeral than the older style. Technological determinism has some step changes in it, when one of the grand transitions happens, as from a gathering culture to one based on hunting large animals or from a hunting culture to an agricultural one.

Mixed together with the other guiding principle, that of asymptotic technology, which says that technology doesn’t depend on the civilization, but instead depends on the nature of the universe, the laws of physics and chemistry and microbiology and all the others, and all of them will be eventually figured out by every alien civilization which lasts long enough. They will all have the same technology, as they will have knowledge of all of it, and can make the same decisions on one planet as on another.

The other side of asymptotic technology is that an alien civilization gets to the asymptote, where just about everything is known, and there is no more use doing any research as there is nothing left unknown. This is not the same as omniscience, which is knowing where all the grains of sand are on all the beaches, but practical omniscience, where anything worth knowing is known, and all the rest are largely inconsequential data, like beach sand or a trillion, trillion other data sets.

Once an alien civilization is at the asymptote, technology or science if you wish as well as engineering, is all known, and every function in society has already been figured out and optimized. So, if technology becomes constant, what does technological determinism add to that? It adds that the society becomes unchanging, from century to century and millennia to millennia. It isn’t that just scientists become readers of the past discoveries, but that science pervades every aspect of society and makes it just as well known and well-optimized as science itself. Music will be totally understood, both in how in can be made and how it can interact with individual aliens. No new instruments will be invented, as they all have been done already. No new musical forms will be possible, as all conceivable ones are already known and recorded for posterity. Nothing new under the sun.

Art, food, health, communication, puzzles, sports, in short, everything, will be examined and understood by the time asymptotic technology gets finished. Genetics will be an open book, and anything can be done with it that can be done. What can be known about the genetics of long extinct species, is known. Things that cannot be discovered are not discovered, but what can be discovered has been and the exact limits of what can be found out have been found out.

What is life like in a society where there are no new cars, no new phones, no new computers, no new foods, no new scientific results, no new art types, no new music types, no new appliance types, no new energy sources, no new revelations of psychology, and on and on? Our culture is addicted to novelty, and at this point in our history, the rate of novelty is very high. Perhaps it is so high, that it is hard to imagine, hard to conceive, hard to understand and hard to interpret what life in such an alien civilization would be like. Yet the rise of technology only occupies a few millennia; after that constancy. We can assume that things that bother us have become extinct, like war and conquest. There are no deranged individuals as health, psychological as well as physical, is completely understood and incorporated in society. The sources and causes of ill-health are understood and mitigated. Because aliens are like us, and like any species that rises up to high intelligence, are problem-solvers, once asymptotic technology gives us the means to solve problems, they are solved. They are all solved. If a tool wears out in such a society, it is because there is no other way to make the tool such that it wears out slower, given all the conditions that surround it.

Yet, if we want to try and deduce why aliens might or might not want to travel in space, to uninhabited or inhabited planets, and how they might do it, we need to understand as much as possible their society and how they live. The decisions they make, especially about something as monumental as dispersing their society to another solar system, are a product of the society they live in. What exactly is that society like?

Maybe we can come to a better understanding of what life in an alien civilization would be like if we try to imagine what life was like in previous eras, perhaps the middle ages, where change was remarkably slow compared to the industrial grand transformation. An ordinary typical person might be born in a location, have their life set up for them, perhaps by following in the footsteps of the parents, and then live out their whole life in an unchanged environment. The cottage they lived in might get a new thatch roof, maybe every twenty years, but it has been happening for generations. The individuals who come to the market every week or month might be different as the years pass, but they are all about the same. The same things are grown, and some years are better than others. As generations pass, the cemeteries get a little fuller, but only slowly. The officials from the manor house might have a bit different personalities, but they still make the same demands. There is never any news from far away. Some people have accidents, others never do. Some times there are environmental problems, such as a bad year for a kind of insect invasion, and other times are fairly quiet. In general, there is nothing besides personal interactions and environmental fluctuations that change the society, except over a long time compared to a generation. So, this type of person in those periods of time might have experienced the same dearth of innovation and news that a citizen of an alien civilization might experience.

As far as we know, medieval peasants did not go raving mad or all become too depressed to function. They simply lived. Imagine being born in the same village that you died in, and maybe even the same house. There were changes in life that correspond to the different ages of a person, infancy, youth, middle age, elderliness, but nothing from the outside that interacts with such a person.

Once we have this picture in our minds, we have to translate it to one of abundance, rather than penury. Perhaps we should think of a low-level member of the elite classes, and ask if they experience the absence of novelty, and then use them as an archetype for an alien citizen. It does not work as well, as a elite person would get news from travelers and be aware of events that a peasant would not. Clearly more thinking about what life is like in an alien society is needed; some different examples perhaps.

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