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March 8, 2012 6:31 PM   Subscribe


 
Really enjoying this read, so far. Thanks Brandon!
posted by broadway bill at 6:33 PM on March 8, 2012


Wow, North Korea must be really advanced....
posted by Confess, Fletch at 6:38 PM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wow, North Korea must be really advanced....

I do not understand this comment.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:48 PM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


this totally happened in an episode of stargate
posted by jepler at 6:53 PM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


One thing to keep in mind is that even if any sufficiently advanced civilization is indistinguishable from nature, this does not necessarily mean that anything that's indistinguishable from nature is a sufficiently advanced civilization.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 6:54 PM on March 8, 2012 [11 favorites]


I always thought this was the only way Avatar made sense. They didn't evolve that way; they were engineered.
posted by gerryblog at 7:00 PM on March 8, 2012 [7 favorites]


Avatar.
posted by polymodus at 7:00 PM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


What the ever-loving fuck is going on with that background image?
posted by odinsdream at 7:16 PM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wow, North Korea must be really advanced....

I do not understand this comment.


Look at them from space at night.

this totally happened in an episode of stargate

Yup. They were called the Nox.
posted by codswallop at 7:16 PM on March 8, 2012


I would love to read some sci-fi that investigated the workings of such a society in the same depth as Iain M Banks explores the Culture. I've been looking for my next book to read — I think I'll have to give The Universe of Things a try.
posted by duien at 7:17 PM on March 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


It seems plausible that at a distance you wouldn't be able to tell a long-lived high tech society from a pre-technical society or pre-intelligence biosphere. But up close, it seems like you will, at least if there's not a concerted effort by the society not only to have a low ecological impact but to actually conceal their identity as a high-tech society from outsiders.

Aside from all the tools (and their side effects) we use to maintain our society that you could detect from a distance—I'm thinking of things like systems of roads, radio waves, CO₂ emissions, and so on—visit Earth and try to decide what species, if any, is high technology.

You'll notice that humans have low infant mortality rates (for instance, human infant mortality rates are <1% while non-human primate infant mortality rates are <20% but significantly higher than 1%, see here for one hit I turned up early), no populations of natural predators, and so on.

You can see that kind of thing even if you didn't see or understand the social and technological systems that let humans do that, or even if it all "looked natural".

And I'd still lay good odds of encountering obviously "high entropy" artifacts (i.e., iphones) among this same high-tech but low-impact species.
posted by jepler at 7:19 PM on March 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


Look at them from space at night.

The lighted cities look like nature and those huge black spots look alien.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:23 PM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Look at them from space at night.

Ah, yes, got it. That's about the only perspective from which North Korea looks unspoiled, though. Thus my confusion.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 7:23 PM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Advanced civilization" is truly a subjective definition. This quote really struck me because, in my opinion, the best, epitome of our civilization is to become completely connected to nature.
posted by rebent at 7:24 PM on March 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


The insistence that what people do/make is different from Nature I've always found pretty silly... What's the point of the distinction? Surely it's more distracting than accurate, i.e. an ipod might not grow on a tree but all of its components originate from the same place. Even our actions are inherently natural - just a bunch of monkeys/mammals/multicells/bagsofwater/fancyacids banging rocks together... seems to me if you think about it from that perspective all the weight of man's accomplishments/failures seems a little lighter & changing behaviours a little easier... the distinction between big N Nature and humans/civilization always seem so false/arrogant to me. Leftfield?
posted by RollingGreens at 7:31 PM on March 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


In honor of Int’l women’s day, a shout out to Janine Benyus, author of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature , and her co-founder of The Biomimicry Institute, Dayna Baumeister. Through courses you can become certified in the applications. Or, you might AskNature, herself . Biomimicry is the examination of nature, its models, systems, processes, and elements to (humbly) emulate or take inspiration from in order to solve human problems. Naturally, ;) there are cities, companies, and organizations who have worked to distinguish this.
posted by iiniisfree at 7:39 PM on March 8, 2012 [6 favorites]


While I agree, I think it's important to realize at the same time that "natural" does not necessarily mean "good" or "sustainable."

It's quite natural for creatures to extinct themselves for lack of resources, for example.

So while I think it's good (and sound) to recognize the essential "falseness" of the distinction, it's also important to recognize its occasional utility as a conventional way of providing a baseline against which we compare/consider the effects of our own activity in the world against the (hypothetical) case in which we aren't on the scene, being part of nature and mucking around with things we don't always fully understand.

It is also true, for example, that our activities can create chemical compounds that, while made of constituent elements that are all naturally occurring, would never have been found in the world before we created them. That means the potential consequences of their being introduced into the world are unknown and may be poorly understood.

Don't let the realization that natural/unnatural is ultimately an empty distinction fool you into thinking that artificial distinction doesn't sometimes serve an important purpose in how we frame our understanding of our actions and their consequences. I only mention this because at an earlier, less thoughtful stage in my own life, I made this mistake and went around on the basis of this error glibly dismissing very real concerns about very real environmental issues.

That said, the ideas in the FPP are right up my alley--I love the idea of using technology in ways that work in concert with (rather than seeking to control or subvert) natural processes and systems. In fact, I think those kinds of approaches offer the best chance for any real possibility of making the best features of modern life more sustainable and humane.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:53 PM on March 8, 2012 [7 favorites]


I think I've said this a few times before on the blue, but I've always thought the best answer to the Fermi Paradox was something along these lines.

But it's not about mimicking nature, or looking at your garbage more philosophically. It's about efficiency.

The simple fact is that our artificial constructs aren't very good at what they do. Compare the energy used by a powerboat, next to a comparably sized whale. The whale does a much better job, because evolution has built into a model of hydrodynamics we can barely understand, much less exploit.

Not that an arbitrarily advanced civilization would ride around in artificial whales. But they would do something more elegant and, well, organic, than our approach of basically just throwing more power at the problem.
posted by bjrubble at 8:00 PM on March 8, 2012 [15 favorites]


Any sufficiently advanced civilization will realize that it does not have divine dispensation to exploit nature for it's own narrow purposes.
posted by islander at 8:07 PM on March 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


"Advanced civilization" is truly a subjective definition.

Indeed. I think the ways we think of humanity's far future tend to be uncannily similar to how a 5 year old imagines adulthood: exactly like now, only cooler and with more stuff! But of course it's just a static analysis, a simple extrapolation of the present mind state with no regard for a change of paradigms.

In the words of Dick Alpert, speaking about how we are willfully blind to change: "As a child, I couldn't believe there would ever come a time when baseball cards wouldn't be important." Perhaps a ten thousand year old civilisation feels the same way about technology?
posted by Kandarp Von Bontee at 8:12 PM on March 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


[quote]
...technology is the real skin of our species. Humanity, correctly seen in the context of the last five hundred years, is an extruder of technological material. We take in matter that has a low degree of organization; we put it through mental filters, and we extrude jewelry, gospels, space shuttles. This is what we do. We are like coral animals embedded in a technological reef of extruded psychic objects.[/quote]


As the species technology and understanding evolve, the subtlety of that reef will approach that of the pre-existing matrix?
posted by bert2368 at 8:15 PM on March 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


We're all going to need to eat more psilocybin mushrooms to get this going.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:33 PM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Any Sufficiently Advanced Civilization is Indistinguishable from Nature.
posted by klanawa at 8:44 PM on March 8, 2012 [7 favorites]


But with right angles and stuff.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:47 PM on March 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


But it's not about mimicking nature, or looking at your garbage more philosophically. It's about efficiency.

True to a point, but nature is also about inefficiency/redundancy to provide greater adaptability and robustness. It's something of a trendy topic in complex systems analysis circles these days that human's preoccupation with efficiency often leads us to develop systems that are error-prone and inflexible relative to natural systems, which often feature a lot of seemingly unnecessary inefficiency and redundancy.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:01 PM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


People like Duien who are interested in SF that examines this idea should read Ken Schroeder's earlier stuff: Ventus and Lady of Mazes are about this exact thing. Ventus is available online in its entirety and explores this theme (among others).
posted by Fraxas at 10:33 PM on March 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


Alan Turing noted in his essay on morphogenesis that mathematical abstraction couldn’t capture the richness of the natural world [6]. Life is a complex system that is governed by a variety of unique processes that machines simply do not possess.

How the author drew such a conclusion from a paper which is all about explaining rich biological processes using mathematical abstractions — and which was famously ahead of its time in doing so — is beyond me. If I may quote from Turing's abstract:

"It is suggested that a system of chemical substances, called morphogens, reacting together and diffusing through a tissue, is adequate to account for the main phenomena of morphogenesis. [...] The theory does not make any new hypotheses; it merely suggests that certain well-known physical laws are sufficient to account for many of the facts."

It's such an astonishing mischaracterization of Turing's work that it's impossible for me to take the rest of the article seriously.
posted by teraflop at 12:25 AM on March 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


But with right angles and stuff.

How do you like them right angles?
posted by karathrace at 12:48 AM on March 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

I like to think
(right now,please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.

I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.

-Richard Brautigan

posted by louche mustachio at 1:01 AM on March 9, 2012 [9 favorites]


The idea of existing in a vibrant, organic habitat is an increasingly realistic prospect as living technologies are now being designed to counter the ravages of global industrialization... For example, Arup’s Songdo International Business District, in South Korea, is being built on 1,500 acres of land reclaimed from the Yellow Sea. Incorporating rainwater irrigation and a seawater canal... The Korean artist Do Ho Suh had proposed to build a bridge that connects his homes in Seoul and New York by harnessing natural forces and using synthetic biologies to literally ‘grow’ a trans-Pacific bridge.

Hang on, THOSE are the two examples that constitute an "increasingly realistic prospect"?

for a sufficiently advanced desperate blogger, an anecdote is indistinguishable from proof.
posted by dubold at 1:19 AM on March 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


No.

Also, inserting any two "presumed opposite" into a variation of Clark's Law is guaranteed to sound superficially profound and is almost certain to be incorrect. "Any sufficiently advanced civility is indistinguishable from rudeness." How very Zen.

Also, any sufficiently elaborate bullshit is indistinguishable from scholarship.

Also, no.
posted by belarius at 1:22 AM on March 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


See also : Adam Curtis' All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (vimeo, wiki, mefi)
posted by jeffburdges at 3:23 AM on March 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


TL;DR: Avatar.
posted by delmoi at 3:30 AM on March 9, 2012


Dude, what if in the Avatar sequel it was discovered that the world had actually been created by an industrialized proto-race, through genetic engineering, and that the tree thing was a computer that they had uploaded their consciousness into?

And then it turns out that a dissident faction of this species still lives underground, in a parallel with the morlocks / eloi, except they have been in hiding since the the creations of the powerful faction have taken over the world. And then it turns out that these guys have been in communication with the humans in hopes of re-taking their world. And they're, like, 30-foot tall borg-like cyberpunk aliens!?

(okay, I'm kind of joking -- but it does seem odd to imagine that every animal on that planet would naturally evolve Ethernet jacks...)
posted by delmoi at 3:37 AM on March 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


That's about the only perspective from which North Korea looks unspoiled, though.

Don't forget Dear Leader being able to control the weather but making it do exactly what the weather was going to do anyway. That's pretty advanced right there.
posted by XMLicious at 3:37 AM on March 9, 2012


Also, inserting any two "presumed opposite" into a variation of Clark's Law is guaranteed to sound superficially profound and is almost certain to be incorrect. "Any sufficiently advanced civility is indistinguishable from rudeness." How very Zen.

Have you seriously never seen a kind of civility which uses the rules of civil discourse to perpetuate inequalities and privilege an intolerable status quo? Civility/rudeness is actually one of the worst examples you could've chosen.
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:38 AM on March 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Any sufficiently cliche'd X is the new black.
posted by delmoi at 3:40 AM on March 9, 2012


I think I've said this a few times before on the blue, but I've always thought the best answer to the Fermi Paradox was something along these lines.

Is the Fermi paradox really that paradoxical? The "natural life" of life on earth is almost over, in something like 1.5 billion years, the sun will be so bright that that the oceans will boil and natural life will become impossible (at least in it's current form)

Life on earth is 3.5 billion years old, and the planet is 4.5 billion years old total. So it may be that so far not many planets have come about that have had time for life to develop during the period that life would have been possible. Remember, it seems like, if the earth could have gone 3.5 billion years without intelligent life evolving, it could have gone another 1.5 billion, in which case intelligent life would never have evolved at all.

The other thing to remember is that the universe itself is only 13.7 billion years old. There had to have been time for galaxies and supernova nebula to form with all the elements. So actually we are really really early into the galaxies history. The Stelliferous era, in which new stars are going to be created is expected to last about 100 trillion years. So we are 0.132% of the way through so far.

There is also the power level issue. It would take a pretty massive amount of energy to send a signal through the galaxy.
posted by delmoi at 4:05 AM on March 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


If the problem of human connectedness to the natural world is to be resolved, then science itself needs to change. Modern science relies on ‘natural laws’ that use mathematical proofs and the metaphor of machines to convey its universal truths.

The idea that we're divorced from our world specifically by the language we use to understand it is both prevalent and dumb. It's just a sophisticated version of the problem of other minds: "How can I know what you are thinking when all I see is your outside and all I hear is the mediating speech which must translate your uniqueness into a common parlance?"

Forget technology: language is the skin of the human, and mathematics is the language of the universe.
posted by anotherpanacea at 4:10 AM on March 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


I always thought this was the only way Avatar made sense. They didn't evolve that way; they were engineered.

I amused myself through the movie by developing a backstory that would save the premise of the film and make it watchable. It's clear the Navi are genetically engineered tests developed by the larger, planetary-scale colonial organism to interact with humans - and the humans, at the top level of leadership, are such complete dicks because they know they're in an open war with a conquest-thirsty civilization of millions of these world-organisms, an existential crisis for humanity. Unless the humans can mine the anti-gravity metal from enemy-controlled territory, unless the humans can learn to bring captured enemy planets to terms, they die as a species. The Navi are designed to appeal to humans, to use their own social instincts and cultural history against them... psychological warfare, tools of genocide. The truly evil part is that the Navi have no idea this is so, and the military's cult of secrecy means the sociologists don't, either.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:32 AM on March 9, 2012 [6 favorites]


Not that an arbitrarily advanced civilization would ride around in artificial whales. But they would do something more elegant and, well, organic, than our approach of basically just throwing more power at the problem.

Actually, I think this is backwards. "Primitive" societies are the ones that have elegant, organic solutions to difficult engineering problems. "Advanced" societies throw away that knowledge because they have simple brute force available in the form of non-renewable resources. Basically, the "advanced" societies start spending their capital (energy and other resources) and "primitive" societies increase their capital (tips and tricks to get by without that stuff).

I guess the real lesson is that the "primitive" and "advanced" labels are reversed.
posted by DU at 5:53 AM on March 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Also, any sufficiently advanced milk is indistinguishable from cheese.
posted by Naberius at 5:55 AM on March 9, 2012 [6 favorites]


Is the Fermi paradox really that paradoxical?

Yeah, how often do we stop to talk and communicate with ants. Would an advanced civilization really want to talk to us? What would be in for them? Nothing but headaches.

"One of the Earth creatures has murdered the a scientist again. Something about a warp drive?"

"Idiots, they haven't realized time is just an illusion yet?! Jesus, just download the latest backup of the scientist and move on."

"Well, they mangled with the backup computer, so there will be a few hours missing."

"Jesus, just fill it from the memories of everyone else and teleport him to a different location! Do I have to think of everything around here?!"
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:50 AM on March 9, 2012


Lord, save us from the nerds.

The formulation "sufficiently advanced civilization" in nearly all discussions of this type actually means "culture that employs lots of complex technologies".

Technology is not what makes a civilization advanced.

And just going back to -- or 'advancing' to -- making the stuff out of cellulose and flesh and neurons instead of steel and plastic and nanotubes wouldn't make a civilization any more advanced as a civilization if you don't address what's going on between all the little blue people and inside their little blue skulls.

Otherwise, all you've built is Bedrock, USA.

An oft repeated story* has M. Gandhi being asked his opinion of 'western civilization' and responding "I think it would be worth a try".

I would gladly trade all the flying machines, i-junk, and artificial longevity for a civilization so advanced that -- regardless of what kind of tools we use-- we actually work together to avoid violence, feed, care for, and educate everyone, and try to understand each other and the world.

That would be a "sufficiently advanced civilization". The rest is just toys.

If the problem of human connectedness to the natural world is to be resolved, then science itself needs to change.

Science is doing just dandy, thank you. Now you stop using it for things it's not designed to do.

Modern science relies on ‘natural laws’ that use mathematical proofs and the metaphor of machines to convey its universal truths.

Well, no, actually. No.

In the 1950s Robert Rosen observed that when physics is used to describe biology, a generalization occurs that distorts reality.

Doctor, it hurts when I do this.





*Although no one seems to be able to source it. But even if not true, it ought to be.
posted by Herodios at 8:03 AM on March 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


There isn't so much meaningful distinction between the "toys" and "advanced culture" because said toys are integral to reducing violence, producing food, health care, education, etc.  You need statistics for the Kinsey report, sane drug policy, preventative care, etc.  You must conceptualize violence through epidemiology before you can address it constructively. You need worldwide communication before embarrassment permits Gandhi, the civil rights movement, etc. etc.  iJunk was never "advanced". Air travel is a couple years shy of 100 years old. etc.
posted by jeffburdges at 11:04 AM on March 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Please talk about Lem, please talk about Lem...

Oh.

Mimicking biological systems is a pretty well established sci-fi element. Tiptree did it (using plants to recycle air appears in several of her short stories), Lem did it (specifically evolutionary development of machines, in both The Invincible, and Peace on Earth), Vandermeer does it (Venus Underground is full of genetic engineering and in Finch the Greycap's technology is almost all spore based), Watts (Blindsight), etc. etc. etc.
posted by Gygesringtone at 1:13 PM on March 9, 2012


Apparently someone in the comments thinks they've been intellectually ripped off.
posted by HumanComplex at 1:47 PM on March 9, 2012


Poor Hughes. Didn't anyone tell him that any sufficiently derivative turn of phrase has been invented a hundred times over already?
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 4:32 PM on March 9, 2012


We take in matter that has a low degree of organization; we put it through mental filters, and we extrude jewelry, gospels, space shuttles.

I think I've found one source of your confusion. Maybe I'm a throwback or something, but I'm sure we're still dependent on Nature to provide food and oxygen, and likely a series of other factors that are essential to human existence. We live in a complex and poorly understood microbial environment, for example, which is turning to to be far more important to our health than was imagined even 20 years ago. I worry that simplistic statements like the above have convinced our society that we don't need to worry about Nature - after all, we're above the natural world, and we can provide for ourselves, right?

I'd actually like to hear from some advanced/5000-year-old cultures what they think about this stuff. Are there any left?
posted by sneebler at 7:54 AM on March 10, 2012


I read this article before it was on the blue, and I can not for the life of me, make out what this guy is trying to say. Is he saying that we won't be able to detect other sapient life if it doesn't produce detectable technology? Then what is all that stuff about math and physics not being up to the task of describing biology?

I think our current search for life on other planets is extremely naive (we make radio, so we look for radio, we make lasers, so we look for laser sources), but we're quickly moving closer to being able to detect the actual signs of life, if not "intelligent" life, on extrasolar planets. Any life that's based on a recognizable biology will leave traces in its planet's atmosphere.

In the meantime we have to base our search for civilizations on the previous sample we have: us. It's a small sample size, but it's the only one we have.

Also, if its true that the solution to the Fermi Paradox is that all the other civilizations have technology indistinguishable from the rest of their ecological system, that still leaves us with the question of why humanity is so unique.

My personal view is that life of some kind is common in the universe as it tenaciously holds on anywhere on this planet and may have developed from scratch more than once. What might be called intelligent life is another story.

As a side note, if a fully ecologically integrated civilization is possible then isn't a civilization that uses natural resources to build extremely obvious bits of tech, like Dyson spheres equally possible?

(I've always thought that even though we have good models for the formation of pulsars now, that they're somehow the remnants of alien civilizations that had learned to harness the power of their sun turning them into neutron stars.)
posted by runcibleshaw at 6:00 PM on March 10, 2012


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