Riding on the train into Valencia the other day, I noticed that fresh graffiti tags had appeared on concrete barriers that are being put in as part of a high-speed rail expansion. The economy in Spain is not doing well at the moment, and there is a lot of youth unemployment, which probably explains the proliferation of graffiti art. A moral panic erupted in mainstream society during the 1980s around urban youth and the disorder represented by graffiti, which has never really abated. We obviously have not found a reliable way to reduce graffiti in the 30+ years that it has been a widespread activity. But on longer timescales, are societies getting better or worse at subduing behaviors that the majority deem a nuisance? That question got me thinking about cyberpunk science fiction and the whole idea of counterculture, and whether it was likely that highly advanced civilizations could support or contain lively countercultural movements within their borders. While alien ‘resistance movements’ are a frequently used trope in science fiction (see the Rebel Alliance, or the mutants in Total Recall), there are some sound scientific reasons why ultra-conservative, homogenous alien civilizations might be a more common scenario.
One answer to Fermi’s paradox that I’ve always found both preachy and intellectually unsatisfying is the proposition that intelligent species destroy themselves through technological folly before they are given the chance to spread across the galaxy, explaining their absence. This solution has been called the ‘doomsday scenario’ by aficionados of Fermi’s paradox, and it makes up part of a range of solutions broadly classified as the ‘great filter’ hypothesis. In the 20th century context of the Cold War, in which Fermi and his immediate successors worked, the inference was that nuclear war would be the most likely cause of the demise of Earth’s civilization (nowadays this solution to Fermi’s paradox is picked up most fervently by environmentalists). But one reason why nuclear bombs did not destroy the planet in the 1960s and why they are increasingly less likely to do so is that humanity has developed systems to control risk and limit the possibility of their use. These systems include technological devices such as nuclear launch codes and the apocryphal ‘red phone’; but they can also include socio-political innovations such as geopolitical diplomacy and the United Nations. The old adage that no two countries with a McDonalds franchise have ever gone to war with each other is anecdotal evidence that another type of system – global capitalism – functions as a set of checks and balances limiting disruptive human behavior. Many of these systems involve predictive algorithms (insurance risk, terrorist profiling), meaning that we are increasingly regulating virtual, potential activity before it takes place. If cities could find a cheap, practical way to stop graffiti before it even began, they would probably employ those methods everywhere they could (actually, new innovations in building materials and paint are technical systems intended for this very purpose; youth employment schemes and neighborhood watch are socio-political examples).
The stakes appear to be rising as our civilization achieves greater levels of technological proficiency. With the advent of globalization and computerization, single individuals now command more resources at their fingertips to potentially disrupt or destroy large swathes of the globe. The recent furor over the publication by Nature of details about how to make a weaponized strain of Bird Flu using genetic engineering is one example of the currency of this debate. We need only look at some near-future science fiction to understand the risks of living in a world where disgruntled individuals can command nanotechnology, artificial intelligence or atomic energy. One kid with a spray can does not make much of an impact upon our 21st century society, but a skilled and malicious virus programmer could potentially devastate a future, more heavily computerized Earth.
Robert Freitas Jr. imagined this scenario in his short seminal (1983) paper ‘Crimes, Crazies and Creole Cooking’, which deals with dangers faced if Earth were to make contact with only a handful of unsavory members of an extraterrestrial civilization (ETC). The analogy he employs is the ease with which a single human child can wipe out an entire ant colony, without supervision or help from the rest of his species. An alien child or criminal could therefore be extremely threatening to humanity. But as dangerous as the brigands, zealots and smugglers of an alien ETC could be for any humans they encountered, these characters would be equally destructive to their own society, given the immense quantities of energy that individual agents would command in such an advanced culture. By Freitas’ back-of-the-napkin calculations, a single member of a stellar civilization might command 10^16 watts of energy, a thousand times greater than the entire energy output of the current planet Earth. Things get worse if even a few hundred such individuals were to band together and pool their immense resources. Alone by themselves they could engage in interstellar travel at near the speed of light or launch relativistic projectiles at planet-sized targets. It would therefore be in the best interest of the alien hypercivilisation to stamp out those sources of disorder, lest it be rapidly destroyed from within. In fact, as the technological capacity of individuals and small groups increased, so would the stakes for any emerging highly advanced civilization. Even pockets of political diversity that were tolerated in nearby space might have to be wiped out, to eliminate the chance of an organized attack sparked off by some future diplomatic disagreement. Indeed, one of the key tenets of game theory is that agents that do not act to take advantage of a short-term benefit risk losing out in the long term when their opponents do the same to them (see the prisoner’s dilemma).
We might term this the inverse doomsday self-regulation scenario, because it takes as its starting point the observable tendency of technological systems to become more and more dangerous, but diverges to optimistically suggest that most intelligent civilizations overcome this problem through aggressive self-regulation and increasing cultural conservatism. This solution to Fermi’s paradox has several troubling implications for any future interactions with an advanced ETC, notably:
1. Most advanced civilizations in this scenario will be culturally and politically homogenous;
2. For all civilizations, sending out an exploratory vanguard is a risky strategy because the exploring colonists could defect and return to harm the parent ETC;
3. There could therefore be a large number of advanced ETCs in the galaxy that mostly keep to themselves and do not communicate;
4. If we get too close to a neighbor or become too technologically threatening they may seek to eliminate us.
Students of Fermi’s paradox make a distinction between proposed solutions which are based on the real or supposed existence of testable physical or evolutionary laws, and those that are dependent on a specific arrangement that may not hold in other parts of the universe. Is this self-regulatory proposition a ‘soft’ solution to Fermi’s paradox, relying on a contingent set of circumstances? Not necessarily. Inasmuch that the doomsday scenario could be considered a ‘hard’ solution because it relies on an as-yet-untested but possible evolutionary tendency toward self-destruction, so does the inverse regulatory solution rest upon a testable hypothesis about the development of advanced intelligence. If we observe that our own civilizational development tends toward more robust and evermore complete systems of social control, then we can confidently hypothesize that self-regulation and the elimination of discord are fundamentally linked to advanced civilizational development. There might, following John Smart (2011) be a point at which we observe early-stage civilizations ‘turn off’ all radio transmissions as they reach a point of civilizational consensus and decide with a single mind that contact with others is not worth the risk. A more developed paper on this concept might seek confirmation of a trend toward increased social control in our own planetary context, perhaps using data on declining crime rates in western societies or the internal characteristics of nation states that have avoided war with one another. Science fiction, undaunted so far by the lack of evidence for a galactic Wild West is likely to carry on telling stories about rogues, antiheroes and troublemakers; the less dramatic reality may be that the cosmic Sheriff is always in town.