The Prime Directive – Not a Metaphor for Imperialism

One of the panels I was on at WorldCon was on the Prime Directive and whether or not it was a good idea.  I wasn’t really sure how I felt about it before sitting down on the panel – I can see arguments either way – and planned to hop onto whichever side was getting less love.  The panel more or less turned into a struggles with the Fermi paradox, but I still managed to get my head wrapped around some of the sticky problems surrounding the idea of the Prime Directive.

For those of you out of touch with your Star Trek, the Prime Directive is a rule that says you aren’t allowed to share technology, or even reveal that there’s technology to be shared, with civilizations that haven’t yet independently developed the technology for FTL travel.  The idea is that cultures need to mature and develop on their own to keep from being overwhelmed by the cultures of the technologically advanced societies interacting with them, and that this gives them a chance to “grow up” enough to be ready for the responsibilities of playing with interstellar society.

There’s a lot to be said in favor of a Prime Directive or something of its sort. Human society is rife with examples of cultures and civilizations evaporating in the wake of contact with technological superiority.  We’ve lost languages and folklore and handicrafts, people have been cut off from their sense of community and heritage, it’s altogether a problematic, objectionable thing, especially when you consider that the interaction consisted mostly of the technologically superior group taking what was valuable and generally screwing the already damaged society.

But here’s the thing: enacting a Prime Directive for human-to-human interactions on Earth means telling a group of people, “Sorry, you didn’t invent aviation, so you don’t get to have airplanes.  Nyah, nyah, you’re screwed.”  Or, “Since you’re over in that corner now, you have to stay in that corner, because we’ve decided to protect your cultural purity, even if that means sticking you in a corner without running water or electricity.”  This is just as problematic, because in deciding to value the unique and special aspects of a group, you define them by what they don’t have, and it’s external people making those value judgements and definitions.  This is not okay.

But the reason it’s not okay comes down to the fact that human-to-human interactions on Earth can never be completely isolated – there are no closed systems.  If I dam this river here, that effects you over there.  Hell, if I burn this forest over here, it could very well affect you way over there, on another continent, which I may have never heard of.  We’re bumping against each other all the time, and we don’t even have pretend frontiers anymore (except Antarctica, which is special).  You can’t ask Prime Directive type questions in these situations without being an extraordinary asshole, because it’s impossible to posit denying useful advanced technology to a group of people “for their own good” without at the very least patronizing them.  The problem isn’t the technology, it’s the smallpox, slavery, resource depletion etc., that comes along with it.

As far as I know, however, any alien civilization swinging by Earth on a joy ride is, effectively, from a closed system isolated from the closed system we’re hanging out in.  They really can ignore us without it having any effect. That changes things, opening up a whole other set of questions about ethics, obligations to other sentient races, responsible self-interest etc.  Some of these questions are the same as the ones you ask when looking at the thorny beast that is Imperialism, but the context and circumstances are substantially different – you can’t port the answers from one situation to the other.

I point this out, because mistaking the metaphor for the real thing is how you get stupid plots that make no sense.  Or fumble the ending on Hugo winning books.

In summary, I still want to argue quite a bit about the Prime Directive, but that argument is not the same thing as an argument about Imperialism.  May that knowledge enlighten your future pedantic squabbles.

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