Jul 262020
Silicone Shuttle Orbiter – Just like the Space Shuttle Orbiter but designed for universes where space is full of silicone instead of nothing.

So the Fermi Paradox sort of asks “where the hell is everybody”? It’s a paradox because the fact that humans exist creates the assumption that something else comparable exists, and if it does probably a lot of them do, but if that’s the case why isn’t the universe a busier place?

I don’t really accept there’s a paradox there because humans haven’t really proven to my satisfaction that we’re proof of intelligent life in the universe. We’re proof that life can do some intelligent things, but we’ve proven we can be at least as stupid as we are smart, but we do stupid more often, and break more stuff with it.

Also I don’t think our history of broadcast or reception of signals capable of interstellar distances suggests that signals would be that common in the universe. Even with only a century or so of use we’re already moving away from strong broadcasts to more directed transmissions, and incorporating encryption that could make detection by an eavesdropping species more difficult. Also we don’t put a huge amount of resources into listening for potential alien communications. Drake equation is a formula to estimate the likelihood of communicating with an alien species, the final variable is L- “the mean length of time that civilizations can communicate”. I don’t think we’ve proven that variable can be high enough to call the Fermi question a paradox. 

But paradox or not, the reference to the Fermi Paradox is just shorthand for the general question of where are all the alien spaceships, probes, or at least transmissions?

There’s an array of proposed solutions to the supposed ‘paradox’. Maybe it’s a prime directive first contact thing and regulations prevent contact, or more likely we’re just not interesting enough to contact. The dark forest idea is that every species would assume everyone wants to kill everyone else so everyone hides as soon as they realize there is other intelligent life. I’m not sure that every species would default to assuming existing in the universe is a zero sum game, but it makes great sci-fi.

A broad proposition is that though intelligent life may be common enough, doing anything interesting with intelligence at a large scale is very rare due to some ‘great filter’. The filter could be something universal, or just the statistical difficulty of maintaining an technologically capable civilization. Great filters only make good sci-fi premises when they represent civilizations ending with bangs rather than whimpers, but in general when the universe presents a range of possibilities- the most depressing one is likely right.

The Fermi Paradox becomes less paradoxical if you think of it’s only relevant example species, humans, as shockingly inept in general, and their scale of civilization as unsustainable and precarious. Hopefully humans will prove me wrong and make the question of “where is everybody” very relevant, but I’m not seeing it. Not saying we’ll collapse back to the stone age, humans may continue to generate detectable signals for another 1000 years, but that may be all we do, and weak radio blips may not be enough to attract much attention, especially if the other civilizations are doing to themselves what we do to ourselves. The Fermi paradox seems to assume an accelerating curve of technology or at least a steep linear curve with some exponential bumps. But we’ve only proven that leads us towards unsustainable, planetary locked growth. I really want to believe in interplanetary expansion, but we can’t assume other aliens do stuff until we actually do it. So far I think the most likely future of humanity is doing a lot of what we’re doing now with upgraded toys. As awesome as smart phones and GPS are, they really don’t say much about how we might deal with the challenges of becoming an interplanetary species.

I am a pretty hardcore misanthrope and I’m tempted to say humans are uniquely shitty and a civilization of naked mole rats might be cooperative enough to become an interstellar species, but I’m thinking the problem is structural to civilization itself. Because as civilization’s power grows, the forces that make a civilization powerful in their environment cannot be sustainably focused towards the benefit of the civilization.

I’m assuming human and alien civilizations share the property that they consist of separate, individual beings who are born ignorant, must be taught their culture and technology, teach others, and then die. With that common property we can assume their technology and power is shared in similar ways as ours across time and generations.

I’m also assuming alien civilization is like human civilization in that its cultural pressures become more dominant in selection than environmental pressures, effectively ending natural selection. I don’t think that’s the biggest problem, but it does establish that they’re not going to evolve their way out of whatever problems civilization got them into, because the cultural selection pressures are going to be just as dumb as the culture.

Technology is the distillation of the power of knowledge. Individuals and groups of humans can make great intellectual and technological leaps based on a lifetime of gaining knowledge and understanding. However sophisticated their understanding of the world had to be to grant their insight, its final form is distilled to grant the power of that insight to other humans, without the need for them to go through the same challenges that led to the insight, or even fully grasp it.

It takes clear, pensive, brilliant minds to collate the available knowledge of physics and chemistry into the functional knowledge required to make an effective weapon. But it may only take a year to use that knowledge to design an easily reproducible weapon. Then a month to teach someone to make that weapon, and a day to teach them to use it. And I don’t want to suggest a hierarchy of goodness in humans with this based on intelligence. Sometimes the same people are willing to fill all those roles. But the point is once the technology exists, it is forever untethered from the people and efforts it took to develop it. 

Each individual in a civilization is born a new, fresh slate that needs to be taught to exist productively within the systems of the civilization, and training becomes ever more complex. It becomes hard to agree on even the goals of socialization. But regardless how well or poorly socialized a creature is, it has varying degrees of access to an ever more powerful body of refined knowledge and technology. So idiots are born every day, everyone is born an idiot, but every new idiot has access to more power than the one before.

As civilization and power grows, stupidity remains pretty constant, but it’s reach and potential for devastation become greater. I don’t think there’s a proportional countereffect. The ever increasing complexity makes it so even beings with benevolent intentions are capable of doing great harm to a civilization, so increasing the power of even well socialized people cannot balance the increased power of destructive instincts, or even just oblivious misuse of tremendous technological power.

So that’s my solution to the ‘paradox’, it isn’t one, and it probably never will be, because civilizations are inherently self-limiting because the power of technology is untamable even by the species that creates it.

Though the more optimistic view is that space itself provides some means to overcome the inevitability of civilization becoming its own great filter. The pressures of living and reproducing in space, or any environment where technology is necessary for instantaneous survival, might be intractable enough to never allow a culture to define its own priorities, or at least not without being grounded in more realistic necessity. I could be wrong, but I think a superstitious cult would have a much harder time growing and taking power in a place where engineers and scientists have to constantly monitor and maintain the environment just to keep everyone alive.

Or again, maybe not, maybe once space travel becomes more mundane, then the stupidity takes over that too, though I think if stupidity is that universal, then species don’t usually get that far. So I do think there’s a decent chance that even if civilization itself is its own great filter, maybe surviving in space provides a path through it. But to me it implies only species that can conjure a united will to survive as a species have much of a chance of passing the test. But fortunately and as usual, it really doesn’t matter what I think about any of this, this is just an excuse for me to talk about space stuff.

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