Sunday, August 12, 2007

Resolution of the Fermi Paradox?

The Fermi Paradox is about the missing aliens. I don't remember the exact form in which Fermi presented it, so I'll begin by presenting my own form of the paradox.

Given our current technology, we could build a radio beacon that could easily be detected anywhere in our galaxy with similar technology. The Milky Way is roughly 100,000 light years across, so if we had evolved to become a stable civilization and maintained such a beacon for that long (which is trivial on the geologic time scale), then the signal would then be present everywhere in the galaxy. Now consider that there are a very large number of stars where intelligent life could have appeared, and assume that intelligence has appeared some number of times in the past. If any one of those civilizations established radio communications with another civilization and benefited thereby, then creating such a radio beacon would be the natural expression of gratitude. However, we've been looking for such beacons for a while, and we have found nothing. Why not?

There seem to be two cases for the radio silence. One would be competitive, basically a negative basis. This is predicated on intelligent animals being no better than vicious animals, but with better technology to produce sharper claws. This scenario would result in cancerous expansion of each civilization, with interstellar wars whenever they meet, and possibly even an eventual victor that would occupy the entire galaxy. Basically it comes down to any rate of geometric expansion extended over geologic time. The galaxy would be overstuffed with the first successful competitor, and any new threats would be dealt with. It is possible that our galaxy is in this state. In that case the dominant civilization would maintain radio silence for defensive purposes, but it would also aggressively and continuously search for any new threats--and exterminate them as quickly as possible. If that is the situation, then they would have spotted us long ago. Actually, they would surely track any planets that had even developed life, and most likely they would have taken possession of anything valuable long ago. Competitive geometric growth will eventually demand all of the available resources, even the marginal ones.

The other case is beyond competition, but requires that intelligence eventually evolves to the point where civilizations do become better than animals with bigger claws. This might be an inevitable result if any civilization is to avoid destroying itself. One obvious conclusion is that growth must be controlled. However, in that post-competition case, why not build the radio beacons and chat with the neighbors? I hypothesize that it's because such a civilization would be interested in knowledge, and probably in art, and the unique forms of creativity would be the most important and most valuable things. For example, though physics itself is universal, the forms of the solutions will differ, and those different perspectives have values in themselves. The explorations of the abstract mathematical mindscape can diverge even more widely into that infinity of possibilities. The art part is more speculative, because the aesthetics are so highly relative, but they will definitely be unique to each civilization--unless too much communication results in an interstellar goulash. In this scenario, the radio silence is a convention to allow for and even maximize independent evolution--but much of the resulting 'value' would be in watching how each of the unique experiments in evolution and civilization turns out. If there is such an interstellar civilization out there, it's nice to imagine that they've been tracking things all along. My personal fantasy would be that they copied the contents of the library at Alexandria and still possess such creative artifacts as the lost works of Aristotle... It makes me think of Heinlein's story about the art critic, though he seemed to be mostly devoted to the competitive scenario.

Then again, maybe we've simply been listening on the wrong channels? Doesn't seem very likely, but many things are possible, even in the finite real world.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

What is your mental model of the Internet?

This kind of mental-model thing is a big part of my epistemology, so this post is an illustrative example. It's also an example of trying to get the reader to think about the problem more deeply, hopefully to increase interest and create a deeper understanding of the proposed 'solution', a mental model in this case.

What is the Internet?

Quite a hairy and complicated problem, eh? Probably it fits under 'big ideas'. So any smaller idea of where to start? Let's try to refine it a bit more.

Is there an optical instrument like the Internet?

Optical instruments include things like telescope, microscopes, binoculars, eyeglasses, and even optical images produced by quasi-optical or hyper-optical instruments like electron microscopes and radio telescopes. Do any of these (or some other optical instruments) make you think of the Internet? Nothing yet? If you have some ideas already, great. Maybe you should jot down some notes to see if your ideas are affected by the rest of this... However, I want to narrow the approach some more:

Does the Internet remind you of any animal optical system?

Any ideas? How about the compound eye of an ant? Not just simple views for a small piece of a fuzzy view of a 15-cm hemisphere, but more like an array of telescopes that can be independently targeted on various aspects of a problem or topic of study. If it's a big problem there are lots of places to stare at it. Of course, it's much more flexible than that. You could turn them around, and convert them into microscopes to try to study the problem from many possible angles. Since it's a virtual instrument, they can be imagined as a full sphere rather than a hemisphere. You might imagine all of them active at once in separate windows--but you'd also have to imagine a really big screen to do it properly. However, you can also imagine it running asynchronously, with a small group of telescopes panning through certain regions at a time.

Using that mental model, the URLs are like settings for your finder scope on a telescope (or a microscope with the microscopic equivalent). The pushing technologies like RSS feeds are sort of like tracking telescopes that are locked onto a particular target. The URLs stacked up in your history are also the support for the asynchronous approach, and also form a kind of tracking history of the movements of the instrument over time... They don't really tell you what was actually read, and certainly very little about what was actually understood and what sort of mental models were built as a result, but interesting evidence of intentions, at least.

This particular mental model was actually a negative reaction to a discussion with someone who was trying to use the Internet to supply evidence for his prejudices--but the only thing he accomplished was to make me wonder why he seemed to be looking through the wrong end of the telescope. He would cite URLs that pointed to very trivial incidents and decontextualized trivia, where I was quite aware of much larger contexts around his ideas, but those larger contexts make his arguments seem wrong or even ridiculous. Apparently his alternative usage of the Internet is to imagine it as a way to find some fact, however trivial or obscure, that somehow supports what he wants to believe--but he can also find it repeated ad infinitum by other people who want to believe the same thing...

So imagine the Internet as a compound eye built of super-mobile hyper-adaptable telescopes? Not a practical or useful idea (AKA mental model) in any way I can imagine just now, but perhaps an interesting one. Or maybe you can see some way to apply it?

Monday, February 26, 2007

What is a metablog?

The short answer is that it's a blog about blogging, but the long answer begins by saying that epistemology is not a many splendored thing. Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that is concerned with the nature of meaning itself. I can't really justify my interest in something so esoteric and insubstantial, but it's just something that's always interested me, and over the years I've developed what I think is a rather complete but unusual epistemological system. When the spirit moves me, I'll write about it here.

A short introduction involves what we do when we communicate. The problem is that we don't have any direct access to other people's minds, but we want to transmit messages. In my epistemological system, what we are doing when we communicate is a kind of remote model building activity. We are building mental models in the minds of other people, mostly by using our words to link to various similar mental models that the other person already has, but also by persuading that person to associate those component mental models in new ways, and hopefully to finish by building a mental model that is quite similar to a model that we already have in our minds (as the senders of various communicative messages).

As it relates to blogging itself, the chronological element looms especially large. The messages we write in our blogs represent snapshots of mental models we had on a particular date. Typically they are rather small snapshots, but there is a whole lot of linkage going on. My philosophic development has actually reached the point where I feel like there is imminent connectivity from any point to all other points... I could start with this blog entry and quickly link to anything else I know--but the collapse of the connectivity will be a topic for another time. This is enough for today's snapshot.