[p2p-research] Designing society for posterity

Ryan rlanham1963 at gmail.com
Fri Nov 13 02:38:42 CET 2009

  Sent to you by Ryan via Google Reader: Designing society for posterity
via Charlie's Diary by Charlie Stross on 11/12/09

(Continuing from the comments/discussion following an earlier post ...)

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.

Consumer capitalism along our current model simply won't work as a way
of running a long-duration generation ship (the failure modes are
lethal and non-recoverable). Communism (or rather, Leninism) has a
slightly better prospect, but is still a long way from optimal.
Monarchism is just a pretty word for "hereditary dictatorship supported
by military caste". What are the alternatives? And what do we need to
consider when designing a society that can survive for a 500-1000 year
voyage in a bottle without exploding? (I'm assuming, for the sake of
argument, that suspended animation or life extension technologies don't
change the picture out of all recognition; after all, even if you can
expect to be alive in a thousand year's time when you reach Barnard's
Star, you're not going to get on the ship in the first place if the
living conditions are intolerable.)

Designing a space habitat/generation ship with the implicit parameter
that the crew are expected to work 40-60 hours a week is a really bad
idea; efficiency is the enemy of redundancy, and multiple redundancy
(in life support and propulsion) is absolutely vital to any such
project (because it provides resiliency that is essential to have any
hope of recovering from a disaster). What if the population crashes? If
you've designed your ship to require a 40-hour work week by 1000
maintenance crew and you're down to 250 crew, you're going to die. A
10-hour work week, in contrast, gives them a fighting chance of
survival in event of a major die-off.

A sensibly designed long-duration hab would require the crew to do just
enough work to maintain the necessary skill set (you don't want them to
go rusty), but leave lots of time available for education, recreation,
and socialisation. You can't build a stable hab culture on material
acquisition because it has to function in a resource-bounded
environment (although soft goods/intellectual property is another
matter, if you want to provide an escape valve for acquisitive urges,
or a "training wheels" environment for the market-mediated culture that
you might need to revive after arriving in another solar system).

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

Administration first: Democracy is prone to mutation into some other
form (kakistocracy, oligarchy, populist dictatorship). Monarchy has a
single point of failure and historically only worked when there was a
draconian enforcement regime backed up by Malthusian pressure (whenever
the lid came off — e.g. with the opening of a new frontier for
emigration — the oppressed tended to vote with their feet: aboard a
generation ship, their only option would be to vote with the knife). We
were somewhat intrigued by the idea of a society with multiple
designed-in local attractors, so that over time it can oscillate
between different modes of governance (but returning eventually to
previous patterns); but nobody's tried it yet.

Another issue to consider is the need for designed-in escape valves.
The social pressure on a generation ship is going to be fierce; but if
there's a designed-in expectation that, say, 20-50% of the inhabitants
at any given time will be preoccupied by non-functional distractions
such as the arts or sports, that might go some way to defusing social
stresses. Arts and sports can act as vectors for social competition and
status-seeking, while being channeled easily in directions that don't
consume excessive physical resources.

One thing I'm pretty certain of is that the protestant work ethic
underlying American-style capitalism, with its added dog-eat-dog ethos,
would be a recipe for disaster aboard a generation ship — regardless of
whether it's run as a democracy or a dictatorship. American (or
British) working hours are a bizarre cultural aberration — and a very
local one. More to the point, competitive capitalism tends to reward
increases in operational efficiency, but efficiency is most easily
optimized by paring away at the margins — a long-term lethal threat to
life in this situation. The "tragedy of the commons" has got to be
engineered out aboard a generation ship, otherwise the residents will
wake up one [virtual] morning to discover someone's acquired a monopoly
on the oxygen supply. And that's just for starters.

(Finally, don't get me started on libertarianism. Economic
libertarianism -- in the contemporary American sense -- aboard a
generation ship would be just plain suicidal. It's dog-eat-dog
capitalism with the brakes off; I'm of the opinion that libertarian
ideology is based on a falacious theory of mind, and would in practice
degenerate rapidly into a rather nasty form of industrial feudalism.
The end point of which is monarchism, and bloody handed revolution. Not
the kind of metastable multiple-attractor society I have in mind at
all ...!)

So. You, and a quarter of a million other folks, have embarked on a
1000-year voyage aboard a hollowed-out asteroid. 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? (NB: communication with the home world is assumed, as
is the ability to implement any innovations they come up with that
don't require a work force greater than 10% of your people.)

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