More on interstellar autarky
Posted by aogWednesday, 22 February 2006 at 14:55 TrackBack Ping URL

Get sick for a couple of days and you miss all the fun.

Natalie Solent has a couple of posts (here and here) one of which has a link to this interesting rebuttal of Drexlerian nano-technology1.

I will say that in the main, I agree with that critique but it doesn’t constitute a counter-argument to my view on stellar autarky. I agree that very fine scale (i.e. individual family) autarky is unstable. The real question is, at what scale is autarky possible? As one of Natalie’s correspondents noted, we currenty have planetary scale autarky. I expect that as nanotech and robotics mature, the scale at which autarky is possible will shrink, not grow, and all my thesis requires is for the scale to not grow. Regardless of how one feels the possibility of a Drexlerian nanotech utopia, it is difficult to see how such technology will make autarky more difficult2.

My ulterior complaint was with science fiction authors who vastly underestimated the level of diversity possible in a technologically advanced planetary society. They treat entire planets as, effectively, small nations writ large and that just seems terribly unrealistic to me.


1 The rebuttal has some flaws, however. The main one is that it fails to account for the increasing “meta-ness” of the interfaces. One need only look at the evolution of weblog technology to see how increasing complex things can be expressed with the same level of effort. It does not strike me as inconceivable that at some point, one could (for instance) design your own car via a “wizard” interface where various parameters are provided by the end user. It will not be that we can dispense with design, but that only the first instance of a new device will take significant design effort. Variants will be cheap and easy for everyone else to design.

2 In fact, one of the real concerns for international relations is the increasing ability for sub-planetary autarky, where large chunks of the planet (such as Africa) are “written off” because they are no longer economically necessary to the rest of the planet. To relate back to Natalie’s posts, one reason the genocide in Darfur attracts such little attention is that, should Darfur disappear tomorrow, it would not matter a bit to the economies and lives of the West. Such things should matter anyway, but that’s frequently not how the world works.

Comments — Formatting by Textile
cjm Thursday, 23 February 2006 at 12:28

i have been meaning to comment on the original autarky thread for a few days, and now ther is a second thread! oh well. anyway, autarky is currently possible on a state level , as in california is capable of total self-sufficiency in all things including energy. if nanotechnology and direct molecular assembly makes production a non-human endeavor, then entertainment becomes the primary area of human endeavor. sounds silly but once the bread situation is resolved, then circuses remain. alien races would no doubt find humans entertaining and refrain from incinerating us. hand crafts and craftsmanship also become more valuable, as a way to differentiate the well off from the hoi polli.

maybe the masses can get jobs recreating historical periods and the like. in any event, human nature being what it is, things wouldn’t change too much other than to reduce the number of wars and so forth.

Annoying Old Guy Thursday, 23 February 2006 at 15:48

I don’t think we’ll ever get to the stage where production is completely non-human, but like agriculture it will occupy an increasingly smaller percentage of the population.

The probability of aliens incinerating us, IMHO, depends much more on the percentage of biologically active star systems. If only a tiny percentage have life, then it’s just not worth hassling with conquest / war, because the only thing you would be fighting over is mass & energy. If you can get that cheaper in dead star system, why go with the less efficient approach of fighting for it with some native species?

I am not so sure aliens would find us entertaining. I think that the long term cultural diversity of an entire star system would make “media content” from aliens superfluous.

Boy One was just watching Star Wars V, with the “ice world Hoth”. As if an entire planet would be a single climatic zone! It’s a perfect illustration of the “small nations writ large” phenomenon that got this whole thread started.

toe Friday, 24 February 2006 at 10:46

primates are built for fun, especially humans :) so i have to believe we are the ultimate entertainment.

the point you raise about simplistic models for planets and systems is a good one. it is most prevalent in movies due to the lower quality of writing there (and the higher cost of presenting material visually). an amazing variety of customs and practices will always be present in amazingly small areas (i am thinking the uk here). of course geographic discontinuity is pretty much a pre-requisite to maintain these distinctions.

so maybe once travel around a planet is sufficiently fast and cheap most differences in cultures will merge eventually. that is certainly the case here in socal, where the level of inter-marriage is very high.

it’s fun to watch movies with kids, and see them through fresh eyes. waiting until they are old enough to watch a personal favorite is kind of a pain though “hmmm, Terminator ? not this year; Commando ? seems like a video game so lets give that a try; oops forgot the part where the guy catches a skilsaw blade with his head”

Annoying Old Guy Friday, 24 February 2006 at 12:36

Heh. When I watch movies with Boy One, I use them to pose tactical problems to him.

Dad: Ok, what is Luke doing wrong here?

B1: He should have stayed in the cave instead of wandering out in to a blizzard to get more lost and frozen?

Dad: Bingo!

John H. Costello Sunday, 26 February 2006 at 16:31

Let me propose that, the more advanced the technology (even Nanotech, if it ever really becomes possible) the less untenable Autarky becomes. The idea of Autarky has been dealt with in SF for decades (it forms one of the segments in Lawrence Manning’s The Man Who Awoke where society was reduced to superpowerful individuals.) Consider the situation in the STar Trek Next Gen episode “The Masterpiece Society.” The Enterprise finds an isolated dome on a desolate planet about to be destroyed by a passing white dwarf or whatever. The colonists really don’t want contact, even to be saved. They are genetically perfect human beings bred to occupy certain positions within their perfect society. They are, of course, more than a century behind the rest of the galaxy. They have no transporters. The chief enginner of the colony quickly realizes how backward they are when working with Georgie LaForge (who would have been terminated before birth, or after, in thier perfect world.) She proceeds to try and prevent the salvation of the dome so her people will be forced to return to the universe. In the end, a third ofthe population decides to leave, including the enginner. Pickard (ever the santimonious idiot) laments their inadverdant violation of the (totally idiotic) Prime Directive… In a society where information is a major trade item, the more other sources of information you trade with, the better; Culture is the human species’ principal means of adapting to the enviornent (including other human beings, or whatever else is out there) and culture requires information sharing. In terms of ‘interstellar autarky,’ I seriously doubt the US will ever be selling Fords to the inhabitants of Tau Ceti III (I doubt the Japanese will be shipping them Daihatsus either.) But we might find ourselves exchanging information with them, and reading their murder mysteries and Space Operas. Personally, I hope the universe is more surprising than the physicists think at a present and that Australian beaches are someday filled with green skinned, tentacled cephalominoids from Procyon IV (even though Procyon is too young to have habitable planets) who answered the call “Where the bloody ‘ell are ya?” with “’ere, Mate!”

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