Friday, November 30, 2012

Advanced Civilizations in Decline - part 1


If something can't go on forever, it won't.  Simple, right?  And yet, the notion that things will always continue to trend as they are is a common fallacy, and leads to real estate bubbles and the collapse of monetary systems.

Moore's Law
In our times, we tend to think of technological progress as something that only accelerates forward.  First we master materials, then energy (thanks to our improved materials), then information (thanks to cheap, abundant, widely distributed energy), and then, possibly something beyond information. We now casually toss around references to Moore's Law, which isn't a law at all, but simply an observation of how our technology continues to improve by some fairly simple metrics: the number of transistors on a chip, the cost of a gigabyte of data storage, and so on. We expect these trends to continue until we have reached a point beyond which no prediction is even theoretically possible.

However, this is a relatively recent trend, and we forget how many ancient civilizations had sophisticated capabilities that have been lost to us, or that we have had to recreate from scratch. They rose, they fell, they lost the recipe. Historians continue to analyze why the great civilizations declined, but once large, complex internal structures form, they begin to differentiate into interest groups that no longer have it as their principal goal to perform their greater function, but rather to maintain or grow their share of the resources flowing through the machinery. When a system fails this way, we call this "collapsing under its own weight."




The best case scenario?
Now something new may be afoot, and we already seeing signs of it. Technology that does not need people to operate and maintain itself.  Soon, even, technology that can reinvent itself - not unlike biology, but on much shorter timescales, without so much of the blood-soaked random search of natural selection.  This is technology that may or may or may not serve its biological progenitors, but doesn't need them to perform its purposes, whatever they may be. The incentive for the descendants of the machines' creators to study and understand the highly specialized knowledge required to advance the technology they have inherited is lost, and it won't be long until the knowledge has faded into the archives.  They may continue to benefit from it, but they no longer have a hand in shaping it and can not hope to manufacture or maintain its artifacts.

Now imagine that this technology is sufficiently far advanced from our own that it facilitates almost anything we can imagine and much that we can't.  Those who have access and some measure of control of it may appear to us to be masters of time, space and matter, when in fact they are less sophisticated than we are, and are experiencing the breakdown and decay of their inherited civilization.  We don't know how old such a civilization could be, but if it reaches a point of long term stability, I know of no inherent reason that it can't be millions of years old.

Such a decline could take a complex trajectory. There could be successful efforts to recover some of the lost infrastructural knowledge.  These will, after all, be descendants of the clever beings who cut the technology loose in the first place, and they may still be partially or entirely biological.  However, countless generations with every need catered to and all selective pressures removed could result in beings that can no longer properly fend for themselves in an unsheltered environment.  They will need to cobble together whatever is left of their infrastructure in order to survive.

So, what this series of posts is about is: what might the observables of a once Superior Community in decline be, and would they be more or less inclined to reach out to a younger civilization like us? We'll go over some candidate observables in Part 2.

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Dream of the Open Channel by Paul Carr is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.