27 November 2005

The Very Long Journey

For a couple of decades, one of the defining themes in science fiction has been the post-apocalyptic world. Recent incarnations include the movie series based on the video game "Resident Evil", and the movie "Serenity", based on the Firefly TV series, but from "Mad Max" to "Judge Dread" to "The Postman" to "The Handmaid's Tale" to "The Matrix" trilogy, to "On The Beach" and on and on and on, it has been a recurring theme. A good part of that has been motivated by the emergence of weapons of mass destruction. And stories like these have helped focus our collective consciousness on preventing these tragedies. But, I think that it is about time for science fiction, hard science fiction anyway, to consider another major theme, which I call the Very Long Journey.

Real interstellar travel, when it happens, if ever, is going to be a very slow affair. There are basically two ways to approach it. Either put everyone in suspended animation, or make the trip multigenerational. The appeal of the latter approach is that it lets us explore one of the major developing philosophical debates our society is facing right now -- the clash between traditional free market oriented approaches to policy making and communitarian thinking.

Free market economics is in its essence transactional and open system oriented. It cares about individual purchases or decisions, sometimes lots of them, but stuggles at a philosophical level to even have a sense of the common good. The common good is no more than trying to increase average happiness. There is no room to think about the aspirations of a community, per se. Free market economics looks at the world like a landlord evicting a tenant does. "My job is to make sure that this relationship is fair to me, what happens after the eviction is over isn't my responsibility." Allowing people to be thrown away by their employers, by their landlords, by the banks that hold their mortgages, by parents who no longer want to deal with their children's problems now that they are adults, by a society that no longer wants to deal with someone who won't obey the law or for some reason stops looking for work, is a standard free market system solution.

But, from a communitarian view, an eviction isn't simply about relieving the landlord of a tenant who hogs the landlord's resource without paying for it. It recognizes that the tenant has to live somewhere and that society has to find some place for everyone to live, even if the status quo must be addressed because it isn't fair to the landlord. The person who is laid off needs to find work somewhere else Somebody has to deal with everyone's problems. The free market mostly puts that responsibility on the people who are victims of social change. But, leaving those individuals to simply fend for themselves only works when disappearing opportunities are closely matched with new ones.

Indeed, the entire contract law system, as well as our system of corporate law, is based on the idea that everyone is in the black, which in turn makes transactional approachs possible. If people refuse to pay their debts because they are unjustifably stubborn, rather than because they can't afford to pay, our system of contract lawsuits, where creditors are paid on a first come, first paid basis out of the debtor's assets works fine, because everyone will get paid in the end. Likewise, excluding a corporation's creditors from a say in decision making in the entity in which they have invested works fine when there are enough assets to pay those creditors in full, and allowing a corporation to issue new stock without consulting existing shareholders works fine when the new shareholders pay a fair market price for their new shares, increasing the size of the pie in direct proportion to the amount of stake they have after the new shares are issued.

But, when individuals and entities encounter scarcity, because someone has more debts than assets, or when a building project goes bad and mechanic's lien holders must fight over the value left in the partially completed project to get paid, the law goes from a transactional approach to a wholistic one. These proceedings go beyond the scope of traditional free market economic theory, where there is a zero sum game. In a zero sum game fairness requires a centralized allocation of the remaining resources according to well defined rules and negotiation, and requires involving far more people in decision making than one sees in a transactional system.

A space ship bound to colonize a distant world, a century away perhaps, in contrast, is the classic closed system, as is the colony formed when they arrive. Equipping the next generation to be able to take care of itself is a matter of life of death, and people are scarce. If it incarcerates someone, for example, that person's efforts are denied to the community. Lost skills can't be replaced, so education is crucial. Immigration, emmigration and trade can't buffer and mitigate the community's failings. The community must live sustainably. The community has needs as a whole to which individual may have a duty to put in front of their own needs and desires. If only a handful of people in the community are qualified to be neurosurgeons, someone must step up to the plate to do it, even if none of them particularly wants to do so, or the intellectual resource will be lost. Even if no one wants to grow the community's food, the task needs to be done. The degree to which we impact each other's lives is far more stark in this context than it is on spaceship Earth, even though it is just as real in our own world if you think big enough.

On one hand, this may call for a certain degree of compulsion, something which is the anethema of a free market system. The early American colonies had to adopt a no work, no eat system, because they didn't have resources to support people who didn't contribute. On the other hand, this calls for a greater recognition of the need to be compassionate towards and rehabilitate people. If someone's job is obsolete, you can't simply jettison them into space because they can no longer justify taking up space. If the only neurosurgeon in the community gets in a fight an breaks someone's arm, imprisoning him as punishment could cost all of his patients their lives, but simply ignoring the infraction could lead to anarchy.

Earth is going to start looking more and more like the space ship. Western economies based on cheap goods made possible with cheap foreign labor (through outsourcing and the exploitation of immigrant labor drawn from poor countries) can last only until the other countries develop and their own labor costs rise as a result. Rising demand and decreasing supplies of fossil fuels are going to require us to be far more parsimonious in how we use energy to meet our needs.

Trade won't end. But, trade between equals will replace trade cross the barriers between rich countries and poor ones. Mexico used to see itself as a low cost alternative to expensive American labor, but now, is increasingly looking over its shoulder at China. The Chinese standard of living is growing so fast, that China's supply of cheap labor will soon dwindle, sending international capitalists to places like Africa and New Guinea to build their next round of sweatshops to provide cheap labor for the rest of the world. But, that itself will only last so long. Poor countries inherently develop more rapidly than wealthy countries in the long run, because poor countries can develop simply by copying proven methods for being more productive, while developed nations must invent new ones, many of which fail (as events like the Dot.com bust remind us).

Scientific advances won't end either, but that doesn't mean that technological advances can continue unabated indefinately at the same pace. Computer technology isn't that far away from natural limits imposed by fundamental physical laws of the universe. Decoding the human genome is a massive undertaking, but it is also a one time deal. Once you have mastered it, you've completed that project. The future of science may not consist of simply refining the final digits of physical constants, as they thought at the end of the 19th century, but our understanding of the universe is sufficiently complete that we can be pretty confident that freshman physics and chemistry students are going to be studying pretty much the same stuff in 2105 as they are now, even if the texts that the seniors and graduate students are working with, while recognizable, are significantly different.

Over the course of the 21st century, our society is going to have little choice but to slowly shift from one focused on using scientific advances, population growth, cheap labor and cheap energy to fuel growth, to one focused on creating a sustainable society in a world where energy is more scarce, the physical world is well understood, the world population is stable, and almost everyone's labor has considerable value. This doesn't mean that we are looking at an egalitarian future. If anything, the tendency in stable societies is for rigid aristocracies to emerge. But, it does mean that the sloppy carelessness about the consequences of our actions that our current society built on excess makes possible will have to be replaced by a more wholistic approach that acts delicately to maintain a fragile societal balance in a time when our economy has far less slack in it.


Sotosoroto said...

I guess every space colony will need at least two neurosurgeons. Competition will keep them both in line.

I agree that incarceration is a waste of precious resources on a space colony. I have a feeling that punishments would either be a slap on the wrist or death and conversion to compost. For the good of the community, of course.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

FWIW, you might be interested in knowing how I happened to single out neurosurgeons. It turns out that you need about 100,000 people to replicate all of the main professional specialtities necessary to keep a community going at a modern level of technology (manufacturing issues aside). The limiting factors are primarily the medical specialties and neurology is the most scarce.