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Alien Technology

A common theme in science-fiction literature is that of unexplicably complex alien technology. In one common scenario, some group of humans stumble across the remains of an alien race and find some artifacts. The artifacts have remarkable power and complexity -- maybe they are powerful weapons or antigravity fields or food-generation devices or omniscient computers. What happens? How do people adapt to this technology? How does the technology change their culture? Their society?

Pretty much all science-fiction is based on speculation from the present. What current-day seeds inspire these stories of complex alien technology? Is it current technology? Computers? The impacts of industrialization? Interaction with other cultures? The process of scientific discovery?

Probably the answer is "all of the above." There's an additional source of inspiration, though, one that I found myself articulating early this morning. The way I see it, we have already been confronted with an alien technology of enormous complexity. That technology is the biosphere -- the systems of bioregions and ecologies and interactions between life forms on our planet. Even the interactions of nonliving elements confound us -- how well can we claim to understand worldwide water cycles? Carbon cycles? I don't think we can claim much knowledge at all. We have some superficial fragments of knowledge, but for all our research and money and human ingenuity a deep understanding of these processes eludes us.

It is not much of a stretch to believe that we don't understand much about how the biosphere works. If you need evidence, consider the field of biology. People continue to do respected research into invidivual species of organisms. Organisms are just one component of the biosphere, and we cannot pretend to understand the way they work, the diversity and complexity of which they are capable. We certainly don't understand the ways different species interact with each other very well. We don't understand when it is safe to introduce foreign species into new environments -- we think we do because we think we don't make mistakes on the scale of introducing rabbits to Australia -- but we really don't.

So what happens when we face an alien technology? How do we adapt to it? How does it change our culture, our society? How does it change our technology? I can't tell you all of our reactions and all of the ways in which this complex system called the biosphere changes us, but I can make a few observations. Two primary reactions to our confrontation with this complexity are to draw inspiration from it, to exploit it, and to belittle it.

Let's deal with inspiration first. We look at the complexity and diversity of life and draw inspiration from it. Would we believe that flight was possible if we did not notice birds in the sky? Would we believe that it was possible to selectively breed plants and animals if we had not stumbled across cross-pollination? Would we believe in the possibility of organized nonhuman societies if it were not for the ants and the termites? Would we believe that it is possible to breathe underwater if we did not know of fishes? Would it even occur to us that breathing underwater is more natural than breathing in the open air?

We take these observations as obvious, but I don't think they are obvious at all. If we were unaware of the components of this giant machine called the biosphere, we would have missed out on all sorts of examples of possibility and opportunity. What a loss that would be.

And here our friend Hubris sneaks in. We have made some valuable observations about the fragments of the biosphere. We then think we understand the entire system, and start tinkering with that system at our whim. We exploit the resources the biosphere has to offer, and in the process we fiddle with the workings of this complicated machine. We learn cultivation techniques, clear land, grow and harvest food, develop foods with different properties. We have been practicing agriculture for a long time, and it has benefitted the human species immensely. However, it has had its costs, costs of which we still are not aware.

As another example, consider our natural nonliving resources -- oil, water, soil. We have learned how to manipulate these nonliving things to develop new technologies and better ourselves. But we did not understand what we were doing, and we got ourselves into trouble. We have messed up (and are continuing to mess with) water cycles. The use of oil has disrupted the carbon cycle, and greenhouse warming may be a consequence of that.

Furthermore, when we did bother to worry our worries were often misplaced. Some people (bless Paul Erlich's little heart) used to worry about the "population bomb" because the world has finite nonrenewable resources. These doom-and-gloomsters predicted that we would run out of these nonrenewable resources, that the costs of these resources would increase, that we would be doomed because too many people were consuming too much stuff that we could not replace. Some other people -- the so-called "economic optimists" -- (bless Julian Simon's little heart) believed that this would not be a concern. Objectivists and economic optimists love to tell the story of how Erlich and Simon had a bet to see whether the prices of nonrenewable resources would fall or rise over the long term. The economic optimists love telling this story because Simon won -- definitively. It turns out that the prices of nonrenewable resources go up when they become scarce, which gives enterprenurial enterpreneurs incentive to develop alternatives. For example, plastic has replaced metal in many ways, because plastic is lighter, more versatile and (in our economy, at least) cheaper to extract than metal. Nonrenewable resources proved to be a problem that solved itself, and poor Paul Erlich found himself on the losing end of a bet.

Economic optimists often generalize this story to mean that all problems are solvable given enough human ingenuity. This may be true. However, it is not the case that human ingenuity already has solved all problems, which is the basis of Thomas Homer-Dixon's excellent book The Ingenuity Gap. For instance, we have discovered that although scarcities of nonrenewable resources are handled well by conventional economics (at least for humans), the problems of renewable resources is far more complex. Part of the problem is that renewable resources get renewed via cycles, and the economists don't know how to assign strong property rights to cycles. Another problem is that renewable resources have complicated interactions that we don't understand very well. And yet, we collectively have this widespread perception -- among the economic optimists and others -- that we understand enough of these cycles to control nonrenewable resources effectively, and that if we don't have enough knowledge we will either get it Real Soon Now or the knowledge is not important enough to matter.

That voice -- the voice that tells us we have everything under control, that we are the most advanced civilization ever, that we have a clear grasp of nature, that given enough human ingenuity and democracy and free market economics we can solve every problem -- that voice is hubris. It's unfounded pride in our own abilities. It's one of the most tragic reactions to our interactions with this complex alien machine, because it means we do not respect the machine. We approximate some of the machine's workings -- through agriculture, through economic systems, through flight, through luminescent chemicals, through many other crude approximations -- and pretend that we understand everything. We pretend that the machine has nothing more to teach us, and we pretend that we can safely modify (or dispense with) parts of the machine without consequence.

Don't get me wrong. I am grateful that we have learned from the machine. I am even grateful that we have exploited the machine. However, it distresses me greatly that we do not respect the machine, that we are reluctant to learn lessons it has to teach us, that we are loathe to change our own actions when it appears we may have altered the machine in some damaging way. It infuriates me that we wantonly destroy the diversity of the machine. We label some species important and other species unimportant. We pretend that cutting swaths of roads and civilization through forests doesn't matter, even when we know (from our primitive knowledge of migration paths) that it does. Yes, yes, yes: we do learn from our mistakes. A few decades ago we would not have even considered migration paths to be important, and now we do. But our attitude is all wrong. Instead of presuming we know nothing until we find evidence to the contrary, we assume that we know everything (and can thus alter anything) until we find evidence to the contrary. I am too biased to have a solution to this problem, but at least allow me the privilege of pointing out that there is a real problem here.

One of the lessons we disregard at our peril is that of diversity -- in this case, of biodiversity. I mentioned that biologists are still studying individual species of life for their unique properties. Well, guess what? Those individual species (and the many species we don't know about yet) have real value to offer human knowledge. I'm not even talking about the intrinsic right life has to live free of human interference. I am talking about mainstream economic dollars-and-cents value. And yet, we don't place value on biodiversity. We pay some lip service to it in the name of "conservation", but we do not factor the value of that diversity into our decisions very much. The farthest we go is to conduct environmental assessments to determine whether we are going to wipe out species we have recognised as being endangered. But even our attitudes towards those assessments is all wrong: we think of them as barriers to construction and progress rather than investments in our own future.

So far I have just whined about individual species. We don't know much about the interactions of those species. There are valuable lessons to be learned from those interactions, but we don't take those interactions into account very much. Some people worry about food webs and food chains. Some people worry about habitat. But I am willing to bet that there are lots of other interactions that we aren't aware of, but which are going to haunt us when the consequences hit.

So what's the solution? I don't know, and it frustrates me. For better or for worse, we are manipulators. We have manipulated (and continue to manipulate) our world for our own short-term benefit. I am not sure I want us to stop being manipulators. Are our only options hubris or destitution? Are there not other ways?

One response that people suggest is that we should change our attitude. These people (somewhat naively) point to the aboriginal civilizations of the Americas, who manipulated their world in many ways (such as by developing corn) but supposedly respected nature more than we did, and lived in greater harmony with it. I agree that changing our attitudes and perceptions is one component of a solution, but I don't see how changing that attitude is going to lead to real solutions. Unless we can quantify those changed attitudes, we won't factor them into our economic calculations, which will mean that we will continue to manipulate the world in wanton ways.

Personally, I would like to see us respect the biosphere -- both for what it has to offer and for its own sake. I would devote resources towards showing that respect -- by finding ways to reduce our ecological footprints, by finding ways to make cities less environmentally disastrous, by giving money to organizations such as Nature Conservancy Canada -- organizations which buy up land for conserve it in perpetuity. I would devote resources to more learning and research into the processes of the biosphere, because that learning makes a difference. Our environmental assessments may be inadequate now, but they are better than they would have been if we did not have this knowledge. Our response to global warming is pathetic, but at least we have some awareness and some concrete evidence that it may be a real phenomenon we can change, and if the economic optimists and oil companies don't convince us that everything is actually hunky-dory, we might take some action based on that evidence.

Humility. I wish we had some humility. I think a little humility applied to our thoughts and actions would go a long way towards improving so many of our relationships, including our relationship to this alien machine.

And then there is inspiration. Go out to the woods. Go to a river or stream or some other natural place that has not been cultivated too much. Sit there. Listen to the sounds. Smell the smells. Observe the interactions around you -- why are the groundcover plants in a forest so close to the ground? What are the local species in the area? What species are non-local, and how have they integrated and changed the dynamic of your wild space? How do those flowers get pollinated? Once you open your senses, you'll get that sense of deep appreciation, and you might even begin to see that we don't understand anything about anything, and that this has consequences.