Friday, January 30, 2015

Closed-Loop Meme


                                                "Closed-Loop Meme"
                                                 by John Gaines
               A closed-loop meme is a concept used as a form of cultural shorthand between a select group to express a concept or emotion as a form of shorthand.  Although all memes function as a form of “cultural compression” in terms of abbrievating a concept to those “in the know”, closed-loop memes are unique in that the symbolic language they use is almost impenetrable to outsiders.

                One of the most famous uses of closed-loop meme in science fiction occurs in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Darmok”, in which Picard must communicate with an alien being who communicates only in narratives from his species’ mythic cycle. Picard ultimately solves the problem of communication by understanding the common features of the alien’s narrative descriptions and the Epic of Gilgamesh.  The episode details the difficulties of cross cultural communication and the necessity to finding a common thread between cultures to connect them; without an understanding of the Gilgamesh legend, Picard could not have solved the puzzle of understanding the alien’s speech, which was entirely a form of closed-loop meme referencing its own legends.

                The concept of a closed-loop meme is often used as an intentional safeguard of knowledge between members of a subgroup to prevent infiltration from outsiders. In Life Sentence, the first book of the Domremy cycle, the religious group of Dissenters use a symbolic language called Crop Talk to communicate with each other to prevent their messages to each other from being decoded by the authorities. The main character, Klein, is introduced to the language of Crop Talk through a friend, and his communications in Crop Talk with the Dissenters form a major part of the novel’s plot.
                Although closed-loop meme can be used to safeguard minority groups for benevolent purposes, it can also be used to nefarious ends.  Our as yet untitled second book in the Domremy cycle portrays the flip side of closed-loop meme; a society where it functions as a tool for oppression and ignorance rather than the preservation of knowledge and group identity.  The Garanian species is ruled by a monolithic “Unity” government that preserves order and its own existence at the expense of individual joy and choice, and much of this is accomplished by eliminating knowledge of the planet’s history from all but a select ruling echelon.  Within this echlelon, concepts from the planet’s past, before its Unity government had arisen, are illustrated through a series of symbolic historical references that make no sense to the vast majority of the planet’s population, who are only taught a distorted version of history through “Approved” historical texts.  As the main Garanian character, Tashto, is deployed to a peace conference, he uses the rare opportunity to interact with other cultures to try to understand his planet’s history and how the Unity government came to be—and what truly came before.

Friday, January 23, 2015


First Contact: the Quarantine Hypothesis

By James and John Gaines

                Back in the 1950’s, the noted physicist Enrico Fermi developed a line of thinking now called the Fermi Paradox, which stated, roughly, given the mathematically good possibility of intelligent life on other planets in the galaxy or the known universe, why had none of them made contact with humans or left something to demonstrate their existence?   He might well have looked across the lunch table when he developed these thoughts, since he was at Los Alamos, New Mexico, in the middle of a nuclear lab complex, talking with a group of scientists that included Edward Teller, the godfather of the hydrogen bomb.  Let’s keep this context in mind as we develop the discussion.
                For all his off-the-cuff brilliance, Fermi’s paradox does leave considerable room for doubt.  His mathematical calculation of Intelligent Life probability fails to take a few important things into consideration, most notably the factor of universal entropy.  In figuring the tens of billions of years that “early” galactic civilization(s) may have had to spread across space, he did not recognize that life develops on planets and that planets, and the stars that enable them, also have a lifespan.  In fact, many are developing or disappearing right now, within our own, so far short, human window of IL.  Thus, geologically and astrophysically, a civilization does not have forever to get its message across.  
                Moreover, we have to consider that there may be such a thing as a Species Threshold that applies to the situation.  By that, we mean that each species has an evolutionary “window” between the time that it emerges from a determined existence (i. e. homo erectus) and the time when it is capable of ending its existence through overpopulation, conflict, or perhaps other processes of degeneration.  Humans have had only 10,000 years or so of anything we deem civilization.  We still have only a partial idea of how life and intelligence develop, much less of how they may become extinct.  In Fermi fashion, we can consider that we are probably typical in this respect and that other forms of IL would be subject to the same phenomenon of a Species Threshold, possibly absolute, possibly not.  The concept that an interplanetary IL civilization would arise and simply stay the same, continually able to initiate first contact with another IL, therefore seems counter-intuitive. 
                We can conclude that even under a best-conditions scenario, IL first contact chances may be less than Fermi optimistically calculated.  Assume, though, that Fermi is not far off the mark and that there is now at least one IL form in the galaxy that might be capable of contacting us but hasn’t.  This apparently willful neglect in turn suggests that something like the Star Trek version of Prime Directive is at play: interstellar civilizations may have an avoidance policy in effect regarding life forms that have failed to achieve a given level of achievement.  Science fiction has posited this situation many times, beginning perhaps with Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker.  Contemporary variations are too numerous to list.  It is worth mentioning, in addition, that we humans have not proven so far to be a very encouraging study group in some ways.  Other than a few exceptions like the Great Wall and the Pyramids, humans spent long centuries without producing progress observable from space.  Even as late as the nineteenth century, the energy footprint of a great city like London, Beijing, or Baghdad would have been miniscule compared to purely natural phenomena like major volcanic eruptions.  Our first radio broadcasts, arguably the best long-range testimony to our technology, would have been gibberish to a passing IL presence.  They may have been completely ignored, since they were merely analog forms of audio tracks (and who says other ILs even use the same bands and conventions of audio communication that we do?) in a plethora of different languages, not even sensibly digitalized.  The same holds true for television, keeping in mind that the first broadcast capable of reaching even the nearby space of our solar system was of a speech by a fellow named Adolf Hitler.  Of course, the next major observable event would have been the first explosions of the atomic bomb, which accelerated with mind-numbing speed to ever larger, more powerful, and obviously aggressive bombs. 
                We arrive more or less inevitably at the realization that IL life forms in our vicinity may not want to hasten a first contact.  If you heard that a boy from a house way down the street had just murdered part of his family, would you invite him into your yard to play?  Not bloody likely.  Better to make sure that you did not attract his attention in any way.  A Stellar Quarantine might in this case seem to be a scenario that reduces the risk for an IL form in our spatial neighborhood, whether or not the neighbor decided that we were worthy of further observation at all (this will be treated in a late post). 
                At this point, we are tempted to argue, as cock-eyed optimists, that surely the human race had proven that it is capable of better things than World War II or Mutually Assured Destruction.  We have the UN, the Internet, Neil Armstrong on the Moon, the Hubble Telescope.  Doesn’t that prove that we have a worthy side to our existence?  The trouble is that all of our advances, especially in the direction of space, have been driven by a military motive that may not seem like acceptably civil behavior to the neighbors.  Our first satellites were launched on rockets designed originally to destroy London and Moscow, if not New York.  Sputnik caused a virtual panic in military applications that quickly spread into the outer reaches of our atmosphere.  For one Hubble, we have scores, perhaps hundreds, of active spy satellites pointing the wrong way, back down toward Earth, sending drones with explosive payloads to the eradicate the villain-du-jour.  The Space Shuttle was designed primarily not for the inoffensive International Space Station, but to deliver unspecified military machines into orbit.  Now that the Space Shuttle is mothballed, it has been replaced by the secret X-37B vehicle.  No one is supposed to know what it’s doing on its long robotic missions, but we think we can be sure it’s not surveying crops or tracking bird migrations.  All this astro-military activity could not help but send a message to an IL observer that we humans may not be ready to learn how to pop up unannounced in other planetary systems. 
                When immigrants came to the booming USA in the early 20th century, they had to pass through Ellis Island.  Not because Americans wished to embarrass them or keep better track of them or help them adjust to a new environment, but to quarantine disease carriers before they could set foot on Manhattan Island.  Whether our physical microbes are damaging to extraterrestrial IL forms, we cannot know yet, but we can reasonably surmise that our mental microbes are probably strictly undesirable.  We may be in the Ellis Island Infirmary of interstellar relations at this very moment.  Our future will be judged by one factor, and only one: whether we can cure ourselves of our undesirability.

Friday, January 9, 2015

“Getting Real About First Contact – The Conquistador Hypothesis”
By James and John Gaines

                In the first installment of this series, “The Ferengi Hypothesis,” we promised to return to the possibility that aliens contacting the Earth may do so, not to eradicate or consume humanity, but to enslave them.  This topic already has a very large science fiction footprint, ranging from movie classics such as “This Island Earth,” where humans are to be a subservient race to the more advanced Metalunans on a colonized Earth, to the laughable “Future War,” where humans have been abducted to serve silly cyborgs on a distant world.  Popular culture has further explored the prospects of various kinds of alien abduction, often with the goal of “high-jacking” the human race through the introduction of alien DNA, a long-running theme in the television series, “The X Files.”  Such widespread interest shows that this contact hypothesis, though in many aspects not the most likely, does deserve a deeper scientific and anthropological investigation.
                Science would suggest that the usefulness of humans as off-planet slaves would be pretty limited.  Preparations for a trip to Mars have shown that even for such a short journey, in cosmic terms, our species is not well-suited.  We require rather large amounts of food, moisture, breathable air, and waste treatment facilities that make interplanetary travel – at least with our present imaginable technology – very difficult.  “2001, A Space Odyssey,” which had the advantage of Arthur C. Clarke’s probing mind, proposed to solve these problems by keeping the larger part of an interplanetary crew in some form of suspended animation.  NASA’s plans for a Mars mission do not include this scenario, but it is still unclear how our physiology would stand up to the everyday effects of space travel.  Much of the experimentation on the International Space Station and other orbital missions has concerned the deleterious influence of prolonged weightlessness, but this problem is probably less serious than that of prolonged exposure to cosmic rays.  Recent prospects of enveloping a manned Mars vehicle in layers of common plastics may prove useful, but their overall efficacy has yet to be proven.  Furthermore, these short-run considerations are only part of the problem, because as the film “Avatar” postulates, mankind’s abilities to function even on “earthlike” planets may be limited by all sorts of toxicities in alien ecosystems.  In addition, humans on an alien world would be subject to attack by alien micro-organisms and could easily suffer the fate of the Martian invaders in Wells’s War of the Worlds, felled by the most humble of unfamiliar life forms.  It would appear that, all in all, the value of human beings as space slaves would probably be rather low.
                More plausible is the possibility that aliens may desire to exploit the human race in situ, keeping them on Earth to perform various tasks the aliens judge unsuitable for themselves.  This is the key to what we call “The Conquistador Hypothesis.”  As with “The Ferengi Hypothesis,” we believe that useful speculation in this direction can take place in consideration of previous examples on our own planet, especially first contacts made during the Age of Discovery, when Europeans began exploiting native cultures.  While noteworthy comparisons can be made with some parts of Asia, Africa, and the Pacific, the most massive examples come from the New World, where Spanish and Portuguese colonies sought to set up slavery-based economies for the benefit of the “mother countries” across the oceans. 
                The large-scale enslavement of Native Americans became a priority concern of the Spanish as soon as Christopher Columbus’s second journey to the Indies.  He longed to enslave the hostile Carib tribes, despite initial opposition from the Crowns, but also took over a thousand Arawak slaves and sent several hundred to Spain.  The fate of these transported slaves was similar to what is described in previous paragraphs about humans transported to other planets: they died in huge numbers during and immediately after shipment.  In fact, they proved less movable than African slaves who were already being imported as house servants and luxury court servants by the Portuguese.  However, in the meantime, Columbus was pioneering another sort of in situ slavery to collect the newfound gold on the island of Hispaniola.  His scheme deserves close attention because it is fiendishly systematic and applicable on a large scale.  After corrupting or intimidating all the leadership of the Native American tribes, Columbus established a gold quota that each individual had to render to the Spanish, in exchange for which they obtained a metal token to be worn for identification.  Any natives without a token were subject to cruel and immediate execution.  As administered by Columbus, this system failed, inasmuch as it provoked often violent resistance from the enslaved, rapidly destroyed the very infrastructure that made implementation possible in the first place, and produced very little profit.  Within a generation, most of the Native American population of Hispaniola was eradicated.  On the other hand, this failure was due to cluelessness and stupidity on the part of Columbus and his minions.  An alien power contacting Earth could easily avoid the pitfalls by carefully maintaining human elites to administer an exploitative system, sweetening the pot for them by distributing a fraction of the profits, and managing terror in a more selective process to ensure the compliance of human slaves.  As we suggested in “The Ferengi Hypothesis,”  the mere possibility of such an approach makes it absolutely essential in the case of first contact that tight cooperation be maintained among human leaders and that protocols to avoid corruption be in place before contact occurs.
Columbus was only the first of the Conquistadores, and tactics changed as the Spanish Empire moved onto the American continents.  In Mexico, Cortes raised the divide-and-conquer strategy Columbus had dabbled with among native tribes to a fine art.  Recent historians such as Peter Koch, in The Aztecs, the conquistadors, and the Making of Mexican Culture, have shown how Cortes would pretend to befriend one tribe, offering military and economic assistance in order to obtain information and logistical support, then move on to an adjoining area where the process would be repeated.  His most brilliant coup was to inveigle the Totonacs, Cempoallans, and even the originally hostile Tlaxcalans into aiding his advance against the Aztecs, since these harassed peoples had bitter scores to settle with their oppressors on the other side of the sierra.  The Aztecs, prey to political and spiritual confusion, allowed the Spanish and the allied horde to approach until it was too late.  Aztecs had maintained their dominance over surrounding tribes through a combination of bloody terror through human sacrifice, combined with a strangely benign form of “flower wars” that obtained slaves without destroying the main source of needed manpower.  Perhaps they thought the Spanish would continue their strategy in such a way as to offer them, in turn, military support against other peoples.  In any case, their response – a combination of bluster, mumbo-jumbo, gifts, and honors – was a pathetic failure.  Once the Aztecs had been slaughtered in a series of battles, all Mexico lay at the feet of the Spaniards and they systematically asserted rule by mollifying native groups at first and then ruthlessly crushing any opposition.  Though the Aztec king Monteczuma has been critiqued and psychoanalyzed by generations of scholars who blamed him personally for the downfall of his regime, today’s world leaders show that they have learned little from history.  The modus operandi of the current American president in particular shows marked similarity to Monteczuma’s approach to “international” problems, and there is no indication that Barack Obama would behave differently in an interplanetary situation.  In fact, his recent insistence on “American exceptionality” would invite any tricky alien strategist to use a typical Cortes policy co-option to obtain his aid in subduing any parts of the planet unwilling to comply with the “advantages” being offered them. 
Of course, the goal of the Spanish invasion of Mexico from the beginning was precious metals.  Cortes was only sent to conquer them after intelligence had provided adequate proof of a fortune to be dug out of the earth.  The development of large-scale mining , as well as the construction of a European-style infrastructure of palaces, forts and churches, required huge pools of physical labor in a country where the wheel had not yet been put to economic use.  Other types of labor-intensive exploitation, such as harvesting lumber and cultivating plantations, accompanied the administrative projects.  In most cases where the Aztecs had already established the bases for slavery, it was simple for the Spanish to redirect manpower to their own priorities.  When necessary, less docile elements of the Native American population could be forcefully “settled” around mission churches, where the priests, under the guise of spiritual conversion, would also provide intelligence and surveillance for the forces of order, at the same time instilling an ideology of total obedience and an idolatry of poverty among the populace.  Humans could expect, in the event of a Conquistador-type contact, that the same process would be followed: divide-and-conquer politics, assimilation of existing earthly channels of authority, phased economic domination, and installation of an ideological system (perhaps based on digital communication?) to ensure the progressive elimination of resistance and the transformation of the consciousness of the slave population.  Again, the only obvious way to impede such a program is a pre-coordinated opposition from the very earliest point of encounter.
Pizarro’s conquest of Peru in many ways mirrors the Cortes strategy in Mexico and that of other minor conquistadores in other parts of the Americas, but adds one glaring addition: kidnapping.  Pizarro’s expedition was in some aspects much more vulnerable than that of Cortes, at least until he arranged to be admitted to Cuzco and in a commando-like operation kidnapped the Incan king Atahualpa.  Rafael VarĂ³n Gabai describes in Francisco Pizarro and his Brothers: The Illusion of Power in Sixteenth-Century Peru the intricacies of the carrot-and-stick approach employed by the Spaniards while the Incas were locked in internal feuds.  When Pizarro demanded ransom for the king’s release, it appeared to offer the Incans the prospect of reestablishing the status quo ante and perhaps ousting  usurpers from their territory.  Yet the very value of the ransom they raised assured that the Spaniards would never do any such thing.  The rooms full of treasure so ignited the greed of the conquistadores that they were incapable of relenting.  Of course there was a certain amount of palace intrigue involved in Atahualpa’s fate, which in some aspects bore more resemblance to The West Wing or House of Cards than to the type of human-versus-alien shootout that is the stock of sci fi thrillers.  Yet it is not impossible that a first contact encounter on the conquistador model might involve a small number of operatives entering the White House or the Pentagon and engineering a kidnapping situation, either on a small or large scale, that would occult their ultimate goal of systematic enslavement and exploitation.  There is no reason to think that this would involve a ransom in the form of gold or other precious metals, but rather perhaps items that might not seem so valuable to the man in the world’s streets.  After all, for the Incans, gold was not really an article of everyday utility or a staple commodity, but rather a substance reserved for certain politico-religious purposes.  If first contact occurs, we should not blindly assume that the scale of alien values will resemble our own.
While Cortes and Pizarro set up structures that were effective in assuring vast amounts of human labor for the New World mines and for the plantations that followed, it is worthwhile,  in order to glean some possibly useful lessons, to look at one more conquistador who failed.  De Soto’s expedition, no less impressive in military might than that of his earlier countrymen, set out from the vicinity of Tampa Bay with a goal of subduing all of present North America.  He actually covered more ground than either Cortes or Pizarro, but wound up dying miserably (perhaps at the hands of his own men) without obtaining precious materials and, more importantly, without establishing a superstructure for slavery.  His army annihilated several tribes in the Southeast, especially the Mobiliens whom he hoped would be the Aztecs or the Incas of North America.  They eradicated many more indirectly through imported diseases, since the majority of the tribes identified by him had ceased to exist by the time subsequent explorers visited the area.  The pigs he brought along for food even changed the ecology of the region when they escaped and began to breed in the wild.  For all this, though, he failed to achieve dominance on a human level.  The main reason seems to be that the majority of Southeastern tribes seem to have been wary of his motives, uneager to interact with him, and capable of ongoing military resistance against a vastly superior technological force.  The first two factors are probably the most crucial.  De Soto was never able to assemble auxiliary enforcers like the Tlaxcalans or to worm his way into a local power structure.  When he did try to do this with the Mobiliens, they eventually reacted with fanatical fervor, preferring death to the last warrior rather than submission.  Their sacrificial example served as a powerful deterrent for other people who might have fallen under De Soto’s sway.  Despite the fact that Southeastern Native Americans represented a panoply of ethnic and linguistic groups, they were able to achieve a majority, if not unanimity, in their rejection of the newcomers.  Though this seeming victory was impermanent and came at a heavy price, twenty-first century humans owe it to themselves to be aware of this history.
Enslavement of indigenous groups was not universally successful under the conquistadores.  In some colonies, the Spaniards were able to use priests to implement and enforce an ideology that they were actually improving the indigenous peoples by “making them work” in virtuous ways, as Richard Lee Marks points out in Cortes, the Great Adventurer and the Fate of Aztec Mexico.  But where local conditions prevented the brainwashing of the Native Americans, there was an alternative.  For the Portuguese in Brazil and for the Spanish in the Caribbean area, a hybrid form of slavery was developed, as African slaves were massively moved to the Americas.  The history of African slavery, over-simplified in current school texts and in the media, was actually too long and complex to trace here in detail.  The main point pertinent to our discussion is that members of a different “race,” but of the same species, were enslaved to function in a slavery system originally conceived for Native Americans.  Given the conclusions reached in preceding paragraphs about the difficulty of transshipping human slaves to other planets, we should not forget that it may be easier for exploitative aliens to transship humans to other parts of the Earth in order to exploit their economic program.  In fact, it would be much easier to do so today than in the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries, since large population elements from some parts of the globe are already yearning for migration according to their personal economic imperatives.  It is not inconceivable that a conquistador-type alien power would actually offer to facilitate population migration as part of a larger enslavement plan.  This was already done to some degree by human colonial powers with residents of India who were enticed or coerced to migrating to other lands as part of an imperial scheme, leading to the presence of Indian ethnicities still active in the Caribbean, Africa, and the Indian Ocean islands.  A conquistador contact might seek large-scale re-engineering of the Earth’s populations in ways quite different from the Spanish Asiento system that accounted for the biggest percentage of African slavery in the past.  There is a danger that this could be combined with a form of creative outsourcing that would invite existing corporations on Earth to take advantage of the colonizing profit, above and beyond the control of existing human governments.  It would be silly to believe that aliens capable of travelling from star to star would have no other way of controlling humans than putting a collar around their neck, especially if the lure of a living wage would induce them to cooperate of their own volition with schemes that might be far beyond their comprehension. 

This last point, the vulnerability of Earth’s current population to manipulation through simple material demands, brings up the larger issue, already hinted at in the first installment, of the necessity for a social preparation for contact on our pre-contact planet.  While hunger, disease, environmental degradation, and ignorance to unaddressed all over our world, gaping opportunities are arising for an external force to seize.  The best preparation for ill effects of first contact is probably not to invest in exotic military programs that might prove as useless as the Maginot Line in World War II, but rather to upgrade our planetary population generally by forging a more fit, intelligent, and cohesive human race.  If we don’t, it could be that our neglect is preparing us instead to walk right into the shackles of an unknown kind of servitude from beyond our Solar System.