Monthly Archives: November 2018

A Difference in Space

Whether I like it or not, it seems to me that the world is presented to me a certain way. In general, this ‘way’ is of a world extending far out in space and time beyond my own immediate experience. It includes stars, planets, dust, galaxies containing them, clusters containing galaxies, voids between clusters, and possibly even other physical spaces (alternative physical universes).

It seems to me that my own society’s cosmology, the predominantly English- and other-European-language- speaking West, has a history of successive theories, each one proposing a larger universe than the last.

An early picture of the universe is as a region of space that surrounds but is predominated by the Earth. The world is a ball in space and everything else spins around it; the earth is the centre.
Bartolomeu Velho 1568
Strictly speaking, it is not obvious how large the rest of this universe needs to be. It could be mountain-high or infinite but a little thinking makes it reasonable to assume it is on the scale of the world. The world, in these imaginings, is not a speck of dust in a infinite void thronged with other, larger things. In this picture, every individual celestial thing is smaller than the world itself. Parsimony makes the question of space beyond its occupants as metaphysical as the question is now (as interesting as that is for metaphysicians, of course).

And this world is a human-traversable one; given the technologies at the time, people can get around it. Given the celestial things in this universe are visible, these things and the space between the world and them is on a similar worldly scale. Perhaps, even, in some mythologies, heaven and hell, and all the other strange worlds, can be travelled to.

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Bosch High Resolution.jpg
By Hieronymus Bosch – The Prado in Google Earth: Home – scaled down from 8 level of zoom, JPEG compression quality: Photoshop 10., Public Domain, Link

They can be travelled to, except … they are dangerous, deluding, or a person can only enter them with sufficient faith, wit, or luck. The afterlives accessible to you are determined by your character (usually); entering other worlds (such as faery realms) can also be limited this way — or not (again, faery realms are often accidentally entered, or due to hidden folk mischief). You get to heaven or Nirvana in a state of grace; you get to the faery realms by magic or misteps. If you leave, you may be cursed or lost.

The modern physical world is not accessible this way. It is not human-traversible; one cannot simply walk into the Andromeda Galaxy.
Andromeda Galaxy (with h-alpha)

Instead, to get to physical places, we need barely imaginable amounts of energy, time, or both. The best example in this Universe Today article, a laser sail of about 1000 km diameter would get us to Proxima Centauri, the nearest star, in 9 years.

In the modern physicalist world, instead of faith, there is fuel. The boundaries of the physical world are not drawn along psychological lines. All we need to do to get to Mars — or possibly even travel through time — is have power.

I think this is the fundamental difference between ourselves now and many — if not all — pre-industrial cultures. When we look out at the world, we don’t see something bound or grounded in the psychological or moral. The boundaries are physical. There isn’t something or -one we must negotiate with, prove ourselves to, or trick so that we can reach the limits of this gigantic universe.

Perhaps AI and similar things might change this difference between our physically-traversible world and the previously psychologically-traversible one. One psychological boundary implied by large physical boundaries is the level of cognitive sophistication — of wit — needed to cross them. Generating sufficient energy and negotiating a vast physical landscape requires a significant amount of careful, thorough, and inspired thought. Most of us humans don’t have the capacity for that kind of thought as individuals; those that do seem rare, unpredictable and, depending on the society they find themselves, not necessarily positioned to do they thinking (e.g., they have to mind the kids).

If we humans are to think sufficiently that we can more fully explore the universe, we need to work together. However, I’m not sure we can easily work together anymore; such careful, thorough, and inspired collaborative thought needs from each collaborator generosity, sincerity, transparency, and a willingness to engage with anyone and everyone. Yet, the current culture of human-human competition encourages tribalism and individual-level self-protection; human-human competition undermines a thorough human-human collaboration.

There can be a secondary collaboration on a project, of course. By secondary collaboration, I mean individuals work together on a project’s goals but not because they ultimately want those goals to be met. Two people may work together to get a report done because one of them promises the other they’ll help them with another report next week; one of them, a primary collaborator, just wants the report to be done; the other, a secondary collaborator, wants the report done because they want help on their own work.

Lots of work in the world is done by secondary collaboration. And you can encourage secondary collaboration even amongst the competitive, self-interested, and (let’s call it) other-wary by promising personal rewards (‘free lobster lunch!’) and protection from exploitation (‘we won’t let Reznick horde your lunch vouchers for himself!’).

One thought: that will only work so long as they trust you. Given they’re working in a competitive environment, where everyone is out for themselves, why would they trust you?  Are you outside the system, like a referee? Perhaps that is possible in an artificially competitive environment such as a sport or game. But this is not a sport or game I’m talking about here.

Furthermore, everyone in that kind of personal-reward/protection collaborative project is not primarily interested in the project’s purpose; they are not primary collaborators. That’s a secondary interest; they are secondary collaborators; their primary interest is in the project’s personal rewards for them. Or, if someone is primarily interested, they are not in a position to commit to it, to treat it as a primary collaboration. The success of the project requires everyone committed to it. These projects need primary collaboration, not merely help. It isn’t that one person can be careful, thorough, inspired. Everyone must. If one person is — given no-one else has the same committment, they’ll be helped until the other’s primary interests are met (“I’m off – Time for lobster”). As such, so long as what motivates collaborators is something selfish, the care, thoroughness, and inspiration required for such a project is a by-product of other attitudes. It’s not what keeps it going. It’ll fail once the lobster runs out.

Why do we need primary collaboration on such activities? We need it because what we’re engsging with, what we’re trying to overcome, has no interest in our social structures. It is not human, does not understand typical or personal human motivation or, even if it does, it isn’t interested. It doesn’t reward you with personal gain. It doesn’t adjust its timescale or (let’s call them) revelatory opportunities to suit your daily schedule

A physical and non-human world is this isn’t a group of your emotionally distant relatives. It isn’t going to reward you for showing you’ve learned something. It also isn’t your boss. It isn’t going to promote you, respect you, or soften over time. It also isn’t your university or your university’s examination process. Whatever challenges it throws at you aren’t separated by a calendar year and don’t fit neatly into targets for a quarterly report. They also won’t be designed to make you money or encourage innovation.

It is absurd to timeline actual research (it is not student projects or promotion-worthy training). It is also why survival-level science – such as climate change solutions – needs to be done early and unchained (and why incidentally I find its subject terrifying). Discovery and basic invention has no timescale or growth projection. If you’re serious about, say, getting to another planet or, maybe a better example, preserving this one, the only thing to do is to clear away space and time for it and keep at it until it’s done (if it can be done). If someone wants to encourage that activity, they have to give anyone doing it time and space, then — don’t even wait for results. Because nothing  may come of it.

The problem with serious research is researchers have to be trusted. These days, it seems, researchers are not trusted, especially for big funds. Public funders don’t trust them, I think, because they need to tell the public what they’re doing with money and they don’t understand what researchers are doing. Private funders of big projects are inevitably profit-driven companies; this is fine — there are markets and people should make money. But they don’t trust researchers because researchers like thjs are not driven by PR or profit; these are not the primary interests of researchers on such projects; they are the primary interests of companies (this is why I find ‘working with’ misleading when companies say it of basic research). Whatever a company rep says to the researchers, their target as a company is profitability.

If companies do it for PR, the results have to fit the PR (inevitable silence and muttering doesn’t seem to be good PR). If it’s for money, then, what’s funded is an investment; again, that is fine — people with lots of money should be encouraged to give money to people with ideas. The problem is that difficult research isn’t necessarily profitable, especially not for anyone in particular who invests. What if the discovery allows anyone at all to do something, such as personal teleportation in Bester’s The Stars My Destination? Or to come up with solutions that undermine the investor’s basic business? Or come up with tiny bits of results promising an outcome that will take several hundred years.

Such private funding imposes a timeline where the funding ends, and so the research stops, that is at odds with the actual timeline of the research. It pressures researchers to alter their goals, making the actual research a secondary interest.

It seems as if the vastness of the physical universe only presents a physical boundary. However, because of what people are like, there is a psychologyical boundary: it is the boundary caused by our own relationships.

Instead of turning to other people, we might turn to AI and AI processes. These will commit to a project, be thorough and careful and, who knows? be inspired.

In doing so, we may get something that can generate the right energy and make the right moves to make this universe accessible again. But it isn’t clear, yet, that doing so won’t create a new challenge: in creating entities that do this kind of work, we can’t be sure we won’t create new psychological and moral entities in the world. These entities may decide to prevent us reaching out into the world unless we demonstrate some kind of psychological or moral character. Future AI’s active role in society may return us to the days of praying or tricking faeries.

Maybe we could restart the humanistic project. We could try to treat each other compassionately and carefully, pursue non-competitive projects, and work together on something to which we all willingly commit our care, thought, and inspiration. Maybe we can fund basic research with trust in researchersl. Perhaps we can proactively draw in people into such research. Maybe we could risk over-spending to allow researchers time and space to figure things out. If they get nowhere, take that as a feature, not a bug. It’s what happens a lot when trying to figure out things that are not at all obvious, not even in their intrinisc worth; all that’s obvious is that these things are worth investigating.

Anyway, if we don’t do this, and remain clawing at each other — sorry, “being competitive” amongst ourselves, I don’t know if I give a damn about us going anywhere. What unites us is only our hunger, our ‘what’s in it for me’, and our willingness to turn this hunger on each other. There’s no ‘us’, really.

Who cares about filling the universe with that horrible nonsense?

Better the Borg. Better unfeeling viruses, feeding on each other. Better the unlived silence of vinegar and stars.

I guess if I were some creature, a faery or a demon, with the power to grant access to this universe, I wouldn’t grant it to this current competitive society. I’d put a big wall across the sky, to keep out these things yearning to spread out for their own personal gain.

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