Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Little More on those Aliens

"Sometimes I think we are alone, sometimes I don't. Either way the the thought is staggering"
Buckminster Fuller

The presence of extraterrestrials in the popular imagination is a testament to the plasticity of the human imagination. One could argue that fictional ETs are simply reworking myths of angels and demons. Alternatively one can say they are essentially new myth - one that is elementally modern (similar, perhaps, to narratives of Artificial Intelligence battling their human creators). Either way stories of civilizations in space composed of human looking creatures (with prosthetic foreheads to make them look a tad different) or bags of protoplasm form a staple of our culture's stable of possible futures. All this without a single shred of evidence that they exist.

Stories matter. Stories are how we understand ourselves and set our individual and collective life into context, creating meaning, establishing purpose and building relationship. At the highest level our collective narratives rise to the level Myth. As Joesph Campbell, Mirce Eliade and others have stressed our dependence on Myth have never gone away in our march to modernism. It just went underground reappearing in "that fantasy factory" (as Eliade called it) of movies and novels. In this sense it is important to pay close attention to both the science and fiction of SETI as well as astrobiology. And, in this sense, the introduction of sustainability issues into astrobiological thinking marks a turning point, a maturation perhaps, in our thinking.

Beyond the infinite futures of Star Trek, beyond the dystopia of the Terminator, beyond the easy optimism or quick despair we awaken to what might be universal for technological societies - limits and their consequences. We still don't know what sustainability means. We have no examples of technological societies that are sustainable over long timescales (is it even possible?). All of these questions however will be solved first in the imagination for that is where all creativity begins. Our first steps into thinking about sustainability, SETI and astrobiology represent an opening of the imagination.


  1. Maybe the question at hand, when it comes to sustainability, technology and our ultimate success as a species is, how far can we push technology as a means to overcome the problems that we generate from our collective character? (By character, I mean the matrix of beliefs, values, passions goals and the like- the "invisibles").

    If the life, visible, is generated from the life, invisible, then how can we intelligently and credibly engage in a serious dialog about the invisibles involved? Until we can do this, I don't know that keeping our conversations at the level of visibles will ever amount to anything more than rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

    I think we'd all agree that our American character thrives on progress; "sustainability" feels like watching a soccer game without any time limits; we consider a business that grows, sexy and one that merely keeps pace, stodgy. How do we develop a collective character that feels sustainability in the way we've felt progress?

  2. Mike - your analogy about soccer is great and it hits the fundemental point that our entire culture is based on the notion of "growth". Its built into the fabric of our economics. In the end I think sustainability will be just as much a matter of values (what we hold sacred) as it will be about technology. There will be many technologies to choose from (orbiting sunshields vs. local solar energy generation). What we choose will be a matter of a new "collective character" as you say.

  3. Adam,

    "Stories matter." This is an interesting sentence to me. First, it speaks of our prejudice for the "visible" in our lives: 'matter', the building block of things is used to give credence to 'stories' which are "invisible". It seems to me that we could distinguish our modern culture from primitive culture by our emphasis on matter, and theirs on story.

    Second, you could also derive a sense that stories 'materialize' when you say "stories matter". Here, matter remains formless until a story is conjured up to form matter into something, re-cognize-able.

    One of the things that you seem to be getting at is that we don't just suffer a lack of myth, we suffer a lack of sophistication around myth. In this context, the power of "Branding" becomes interesting: what does it say about modern people who will engage in transcendence through the symbolic power of a label?

    I like Piet Hut's thinking when he says that we should consider "experience" to be as fundamental time and space; doing this would give us the context to see story on a par with matter and energy.

  4. Interesting musings, as usual. But in light of my recent trip to Russia, I can’t help but take your words in a hypercontextualized sense; that is, as coming from a concerned Western scientist. But here’s something as alien as little grey men and as dangerous as Wal Mart. In Russia, many people, like my grandmother, pay a fixed monthly price for utilities such as water. No matter how much they use, they still pay the same price. So, a lot of times they just let water run even when they don’t need it. When I make a remark about how that’s not a very sustainable thing to do, I usually get a blank stare and the retort “well….I mean, we don’t pay any more for it…”. And paying more for eco-friendly products? Forget about it! The only type of sustainability I see in Russia is when it’s economically necessitated. For example, people use and reuse and reuse plastic bags and have been going to store with their own bags for decades. This is because stores either don’t have bags at all or they charge for them.

    Anyhoo, I’m enjoying your writing, and I also have been copiously documenting my experiences and interviews from the latest trip back to the homeland. Check it out when you have a moment!

  5. Maya, I must agree wholeheartedly with your sentiments. Here in the African townships taps are routinely left open to let the water run regardless. Discarded plastic bags festoon averything. This brings home the fact that third world and developing communities see the earth as a limitless resource. The biggest challenge we face is to inculcate a mindset of frugality, careful use and re-use in communities that are so deprived that their own survival trumps any other more abstract consideration. How can we possibly get them to accept the scaling down of their aspirations when we have attained our own aspirations and were so impossibly profligate at the same time?

  6. @Maya and Occasional. You guys have a killer point and my western-affluent-scientific o-centricism is certainly on display here. BUT does this change the argument? If we are thinking about this in the context of other civilizations developing on other worlds do we expect that they will have developed uniform economic conditions as a precondition for developing a sustainable culture? If that is true then it may be that we are, indeed, in deep trouble because we have little enough time to work out sustainability issues.

    What, however, if the two go together? What if the developing pressures which FORCE a move to a sustainable culture also FORCE move to a more equitable culture. Not some kind of eco-topia with no poverty (wishful thinking) but a change in material modalities that make, for example, mega-slums impossible by shifting migration patterns away from cities.

  7. @Mike - I love your point about Branding. There is a way in which global brands and their ubquity have taken on a kind of mythic dimension in which the symbol (Nike, Starbucks, Virgin, Sony ...) becomes more than its particulars. (Maya and Occasional I wonder if you see this even in the domains your write about above. I certainly see it in the US inner cities and in the Latin American countries I have traveled in). This has been a theme in some of William Gibson (the original cyberpunk author) more recent novels set in the present.

  8. Adam, you touch on such large themes here that long essays would be needed in reply! You say "force move to a sustainable culture also force move to a more equitable culture".
    Our present affluence began with the industrial revolution in Britain when two things happened. We developed the technology to harness the energy that multiplied our output; so one manpower(or horse power) was no longer the limit to production. Secondly we learnt the social skills for effective organisation of production. The industrial revolution spread quickly to Europe and North America because the populations there were already primed with the social skills needed by production. It spread later but effectively to South East Asia as their populations proved adept at acquiring the new social skills. But a lot of the third world, especially Africa, is relatively impermeable to the spread of these social skills and it is this that condemns them to backwardness and poverty. In the meantime we (the western world) are step by step acquiring additional social skills that will lead to improved organisation, efficiency, frugality and stewardship of resources. Our challenge is to transmit the basic social skills for the organisation of production and additionally the newer skills of efficient, frugal stewardship. We have to do this otherwise the western world will be overwhelmed by vast migratory waves of desperate, impoverished and violent people. (Witness a foretaste of this on your Mexican border). But our policies today are a complete and utter failure. I see this first hand. Foreign aid is a deadly dependency trap that fuels a vast industry of corruption that feeds anger and violence. And it is in principle entirely the wrong thing to do. We need to be transferring skills, not money. It is fashionable to talk about the evils of apartheid South Africa. But the blunt truth of the matter is that it is the presence of four mio whites in that country, infusing their skills into the general population, that is responsible for the social order and wealth of that country. Now other third world countries will, in time, learn these new skills. Our problem is that, owing to the relative impermeability of their societies, this process will take far too long. So what is the answer? Well I experienced that in some small measure. For three years I worked in Shanghai as a so called 'Foreign Expert' where my job was to transfer skills to my local colleagues. Being a highly intelligent people, they learnt quickly and then kicked me out once I was no longer necessary. The many thousands of 'Foreign Experts' greatly speeded the industrial revolution in China. In the same vein, we need to find a mechanism where the affluent west seeds the third world with large numbers of 'foreign experts'. Their presence will infuse new skills, attract investment,build infrastructure, stablilise society and infuse new values.
    This is a political challenge, how do we persuade them to accept guests? This is a social challenge, how do we persuade the able amongst us to dedicate their lives to bettering other societies?

  9. Adam, as to your comment about branding and mythic comment. Yes it is ubiquitous throughout Africa. Rappers from Cape Town clubs sound remarkably like rappers from the US south. But we need to be careful about the meaning we assign to it. Wherever groups form they adopt symbols to reference their identity. And identity symbols can be extraordinary powerful, flags, medals etc, etc. The groups tended in the past to be local, regional or national, in other words geographic. But commercial branding is creating symbols and therefore identity groups that transcend geographic groupings. Over time I suspect that this will dilute the sense of identity derived from geographic groupings allowing broader aggregate groupings to form. The Internet is contributing hugely to this process. In this I see a lot of hope for the future. Groupings based on broad commonality of interest and not geography will reduce the potential for armed conflict. Ultimately this process of group aggregation will grow until we have a planetary identity. And when that happens we will have the consensus and will to mobilise to save our planet.

  10. @Everyone-

    I think that we have to consider the state of our human story when our most compelling story is about being a powerful consumer; the more we consume, the bigger we are. The irony is that the dictionary definition of a consumer is "something that burns up resources".

    Part of the problem, as I see it, is that we are so locked into the "objectivist" story that we don't have a sense of story's place in the formation of a human world. We lack the imaginal framework, to borrow Unger's phrase, in which to examine and evaluate ourselves in terms of story that is as credible to "experts" as GDP- an example of a story that isn't realized as such.

    Any Ideas?

  11. Mike, I agree with you that a critical issue is that of consumerism. I think it is useful to look at its origins. For 100,000 years we were highly territorial hunter/gatherers. This behaviour is imprinted in our genes. Todays consumerism is the expression of the gatherer instinct in us. It is impossible for us to deny it or suppress it. But we can redirect it. Our aggressive territorialism is being channeled and contained by institutions such as sport and the adversary systems in law and politics. This is a work in progress but much progress has been made.
    In a similar way we need to find a way to channel and contain our gatherers instinct since it is this that lies at the heart of our excessive consumerism. We cannot deny this instinct, it is too powerful for that so we must find a way to channel it to some more benign use. I consider this as one of the defining issues we must confront. The question though is how?

  12. @mike and occasional - consumerism for sure. I was talking with my boy about Thoreau today who he is just starting to read. The thing that Thoreau, I think, saw before anyone was what consumerism would do to culture. How it would rob us of our connection to the world and our place in society taking us from citizens to constomers. As Occasional says - its "gathering" run amok. And as Mike points out the focus in consumerist culture is on the "objective" world. The possession of things along with the worth they are supposed to convey.

    As to the question of how our evolutionary impulses can be channeled I raise the question again of our facing evolutionary pressures now that are new. We will have to change or see drastic reductions in population. What may be different in the history of life on the planet is the fact that this evolution now takes place with a conscious context. We make choices.

  13. Adam, the gathering instinct is especially powerful because it is in a self reinforcing loop with our dominance and territorial drives. This is something quite recent in our evolutionary history, taking effect with the advent of agriculture and the formation of permanent settlements.
    As to the channeling of our evolutionary impulses it is interesting to note that we are in the midst of a unique experiment. The people we call violent criminals today would in all probability have been rather successful in our tribal hunter/gatherer days when physical aggression was a valuable trait. Today we are reducing their reproductive success by incarcerating them during their reproductive years. Perhaps over a course of five thousand years or so we will have culled their genes from our genetic pool and violent criminal aggression will be a thing of the past. It is interesting to speculate that perhaps we are already seeing this effect. For example the homicide rate in South Africa is 55 per 100,000 while it is 1.6 per 100,000 in the UK. OK, I know there are a lot of other confounding influences and I really doubt the effect would show up so soon.
    But I mention this in support of your contention that evolution has acquired a conscious directionality.
    The wild card is the co-evolution that Mike mentioned. Is this cultural evolution powerful enough to cancel out our deeply embedded gatherer instincts which are so powerfully reinforced by our territorial and dominance drives?

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