I’ll be the fire escape that’s bolted to the ancient brick

Charles Stross, author of Accelerando and other sci-fi books, wrote a fascinating post two weeks ago (thanks to Ari for linking it). He talked about the challenge of designing society for posterity: how to make a social order that could run a “generation ship” without falling apart.

Generation starships: they’re not fast.

If you can crank yourself up to 1% of light-speed, alpha centauri is more than four and a half centuries away at cruising speed. To put it in perspective, that’s the same span of time that separates us from the Conquistadores and the Reformation; it’s twice the lifespan of the United States of America.

We humans are really bad at designing institutions that outlast the life expectancy of a single human being. The average democratically elected administration lasts 3-8 years; public corporations last 30 years; the Leninist project lasted 70 years (and went off the rails after a decade). The Catholic Church, the Japanese monarchy, and a few other institutions have lasted more than a millennium, but they’re all almost unrecognizably different.


I’ve been (inconclusively) batting around some ideas with Karl Schroeder — how do you design a society for the really long term? There are a couple of levels to consider: notably, decision-making and economics. And it doesn’t look as if we’ve got any good solutions to either.

You should read the whole post; it’s fascinating stuff. And if you think about it, there’s a hidden question in there. A society that could remain stable aboard a generation ship – an enclosed biosphere hurtling through space – is, of course, a society that could remain stable aboard Spaceship Earth.

Too bad the question itself makes no sense.

Don’t get me wrong: “how do you design a society for the really long term?” makes perfect grammatical sense. You can even start imagining along those lines, as Stross and his friend Schroeder evidently did, for several ‘grafs worth of thought. But if you consider what those actual words mean – specifically, design, society and long term – the question becomes impossible. There is no way to answer it.

Let’s say Stross, or NASA, or even you, come up with a way to answer the question. And let’s say a generation ship – a vessel capable of interstellar travel along a lifespan of hundreds of years – gets built. Here’s what it’ll look like on Day One.

NASA Project Director: Okay, guys, remember what we told you …
Generation Ship Crew: Right, right, we remember.
NASA Project Director: … you’re an oligarchical commune with rotating leadership roles and multiple redundant judiciaries …
Generation Ship Crew: Mm-hmm, got it.
NASA Project Director: … lower the radiation shields every 400 days to prevent genetic drift …
Generation Ship Crew: It’s all in the three-ring binder. We’ve got it.
NASA Project Director: Okay. Just checking. Good luck, people!
(ship door seals; generation ship takes off)
Generation Ship Crew: SPRING BREAK! WHOOOO!

Okay, maybe things won’t fall apart that fast.

But the entire premise of Stross’s question ignores an obvious hurdle: if some social scientist theorizes the Perfect Society for a generation ship, who’s to say anyone inside the generation ship is going to follow it? Especially once they’re light years away from the home world? NASA can tell the crew, “The engineers are in charge; if what they say isn’t law, the ship stops spinning and O2 stops filtering and you all die in six weeks.” But that doesn’t matter, unless every non-engineer aboard the ship also agrees.

To be fair, Stross isn’t suggesting that the Perfect Society be dictated from on high. He closes the post with the question, “What sort of governance and society do you think would be most comfortable, not to mention likely to survive the trip without civil war, famine, and reigns of terror?”

But the question is still irrelevant. Stross can prove, using all the equations social science has to offer, that (say) an anarcho-syndicalist state where the Chief Engineer, the Head Gardener and the Captain of the Dodgeball Team act as a non-legislative judiciary is the only stable state for a closed, high-maintenance biosphere that has to have a population greater than x in 450 years. But that proof is irrelevant to the people inside that biosphere unless they believe it. If I scrub the oxygen filters, I might be convinced after a few years that I’m the most important person aboard the ship. After all, without me, everyone dies.

And even if NASA somehow indoctrinates every member of the first generation of the crew in their Perfect Social Theory, there’s a reason this sci-fi construct is called a generation ship. It will take more than one generation to get where it’s going. Four and a half centuries from here to Alpha Centauri at 0.1c; that’s eighteen generations. Who’s to say your kids will hold to the anarcho-syndicalist ideal with the same fervor you did? Or their kids? It only takes one generation to decide the reactor only needs sixteen control rods instead of twenty for the entire project to fail.

Far more important than the question of what should happen is the question of what will happen.

So let’s say we lock 250,000 engineers, biologists, chemists, physicists and janitors inside an asteroid and slap it toward Alpha Centauri. We tell them, in the strictest language we know, what they have to do in order to stay alive. But once they get airborne, it’s anarchy – not in the “jungle savagery” sense, but in the “no recognized law” sense. What form of social order will evolve?

My guess: the same ones we’ve seen throughout history. The human race evolved in an open biosphere with no set instructions on how best to live. A generation ship changes two of those variables, closing the biosphere off from mutation and leaving a three-ring binder of Best Practices. But otherwise, we’ll probably see what we’ve seen throughout history: warring tribes, dueling factions, a period of disorder that leads to a strong preference for law and a powerful state that arises as a result. A quarter of a million of Earth’s best and brightest go in; forty-five decades later, Augustus Caesar steps out.

# # #

I am going to read a little into Stross’s post now.

I suspect that implicit in the definition of “Perfect Society” is stability. Stross hopes that the Perfect Society will in fact be so utopian that it will not change, because no one will ever have a reason to change it. Not only will it fulfill everyone’s needs, but everyone within it will recognize that it will fulfill everyone’s needs. It’s a perpetual motion machine, requiring only its own input to keep going.

(The first question – if you discover this perfectly stable social order, why do you even have to leave Earth? – might merit another post)

This implicit premise – if I’m right in ascribing it to Stross – highlights a regrettable belief in technocracy. Technocracy is the belief that if we only put the right experts or the right rules in place, the social order will run itself. Our current problems, like poverty, corruption, ignorance and violence, do not well up from human nature. They’re artifacts of an outdated culture. If we pass the right laws, we can get rid of anything we don’t like.

Both conservatives and liberals are guilty of this.

Conservatives follow it in the form of “legislating morality.” Outlawing abortion springs to mind. “If abortions are outlawed, then no one will have any abortions!”, conservatives believe, contra all sense and experience. In reality, outlawing abortions means that women will terminate their pregnancies in dangerous, illegal ways. You cannot change the desire of a woman to own her own body by passing a law.

Liberals follow it in the form of “managerial liberalism.” A recent example: the stimulus package! The federal government passes a $787,000,000,000 “recovery package” to distribute money to local agencies and companies. Shockingly, some of this money has gone to waste. The most recent example: four Congressional districts in Hawaii that don’t exist received over $40,000,000 in stimulus money. Similar bookkeeping problems exist in Arizona, where the fictitious 86th Congressional District has already received $34,000,000. “That’s not what we intended to happen,” say liberal economists like Paul Krugman (who argue that there wasn’t enough stimulus) and Dean Baker. Of course it isn’t. But your intentions are irrelevant. You cannot change the desire of people to scheme for a little extra once the money faucet gets turned on.

Whether on the Left or the Right, technocracy supposes that human nature and cultural trends can be changed by top-down legislation. Draft the right rules, put the right people in charge, and the generation ship that is our world can sail on, untouched and unchanging, until we all turn into Star Children and join the galactic Overmind. In the real world, though, unintended consequences always crop up.

We’re all trapped in this biosphere together, hurtling through the galaxy far below the speed of light. And if we don’t learn a willingness to rule ourselves, throw out the systems that don’t work and take responsibility for our own screw-ups, we’re not going to reach Alpha Centauri alive.


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