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.

Oh for the Love of Science

This rant was brought to you by me checking Facebook before I got out of bed today.

Do you know who’s just as irritating to me as global warming deniers?  (Let’s be honest.  More irritating.)  All the people pointing at the weather this summer and snarkily/sneeringly/self-importantly going, “Take that, global warming deniers.”  You see, this is one group of wrong, ignorant people smugly teasing another group of wrong, ignorant people and expecting to be patted on the back for their virtue.  Uhm, sorry, you’re still wrong and ignorant.

Here’s the thing: you need at least three points to establish a trend.  This summer is one data point.  Yet everybody seems to be littering their (justified) complaining about the heat with assertions that this proves the existence of a warming trend.  You can’t do that.  If you could, then the deniers would be just as valid when they point to the abnormally cool spring and early summer we had last year as counter-evidence of global warming, and we’d all be in a screaming match over the cherry-picked data points that fit the case we want.  Science does not suffer screaming matches.  (Okay, it does, but it shouldn’t.)

If you want to make a case for global warming or, more accurately, climate change, you have to point at long term trends.  You have to use the data showing a warming trend that is both bigger and more sustained than normal fluctuations with a stable climate.  If you want to argue for anthropogenic climate change then you have to show that those trends both diverge from normal variations in climate cycles and correlate it to shifts in human activity.  Otherwise you are just as guilty of being ignorant and unscientific as the people you’re feeling superior to.

I don’t really expect you to lay out graphs and data anylses in your Facebook updates.  I just expect you to not spew stupid correlative arguments as if you’re some paragon of intellectual piety.

This week we may have found the Higgs-Boson.  Let’s all celebrate by not looking like a bunch of jack-ass morons on the internet, okay?

The Age of the Amateur

Bear with me.  The following things are related.

Scientists put gamers to work, scientists get pwnd.

I just changed the oil in my snowblower.  I’ve never changed the oil in anything outside my kitchen before, and snowblowers in particular are still a vaguely foreign concept to me – until three years ago I had absolutely no need for one, and I haven’t exactly been around much in the winter since getting the house.  I’m told that last year our previously well-behave little machine turned into an onorey punk, so I’ve changed its oil.  It seems very well mannered now.

A guy with too much free time discovers planets.

Stanford offered their intro to AI class to everybody.

I could list a lot more, but I think just that is enough to reveal my thesis: Amateurism is back.

This could very well be (read: probably is) a romanticized description of how things were, but back in the day, say, late Victorian through turn of the last century, amateur science was a thing.  Most science was amateur science, in fact, because, like the olympics, amateur didn’t mean crap, no good, or otherwise sub-par.  It meant the person doing it had a day job.  To be a straight academic required money, and enough of it to not have a day job.  So people worked out their theories and did their experiments in the period equivalents of their garages.  Then science got big and expensive, the equipment required too specialized to produce on your own and too massive to put in your yard.  Also war, Depression, war, anti-intellectualism, and football.*  A beautiful thing died, and science retreated to universities and corporations.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am here to declare one thing: It’s baaaaack.  See links and anecdotes above.  See every bit of home maintenance or repair I’ve done in the last three years.  Hell, see most everything I know about non-baking cooking.  Our lives have been invaded by a lovely thing called the internet, and it is wonderful.  I have no idea how people figured out how to fix their garbage disposals before a troubleshooting guide was just a google search away.  I imagine they hired a plumber and remained mystified when all they needed to do was crank a wheel.  So maybe the modern era isn’t so great for plumbers.  Or maybe they can stop making house calls to idiots who don’t know how to crank a wheel, and can focus on the more complicated, interesting problems.  If I were a plumber, I’d be pretty pleased with the latter.

The only point of this entry, really, is to wax enthusiastic about this extremely cool aspect of modern life.  Garage science is a thing, and it happens, and it could happen to you if only you’d let it.  Your opportunity to learn new things and run into weird, random stuff doesn’t end in college.  It doesn’t even have to begin in college.  As much as I adored school and would wage holy war against anybody who tried to take it away from me, I get a bit excited when I think about a world where you can have all the cool things college provides without actually going.  Who cares about term papers when you can find nebulae without leaving your house?

No longer do professionals and academics get to have all the fun.  The world is our playground.  I call dibs on the swings.

*It’s possible football is a symptom of all that is wrong with the world, rather than the cause.  I blame it anyway.

Nice news

The news last week was utterly depressing, more so because the people I was voting for (well, not for so much as I was terrified of their opponent) kept knocking on my door while I was trying to work and asking me to please, please vote. They must have had me on an under 30, therefore likely liberal and unwilling to vote list or something. But every time they knocked on my door, they were both interrupting my work and wasting their time. It was a giant flag of “I don’t deserve to win.” Which is depressing when the other side is terrifying. And unsurprisingly, they didn’t win. (The only person I voted for who didn’t lose, also the only one who never came to my door or wasted propaganda on me. Also also the only one I was happy about voting for) So yeah, I wish I’d found out about this when it happened, because I could have used the cheering up, but I’m glad I heard about it now.

No, genes are not patentable. And they never should have been. Thank you for some basic understanding of science getting involved here. Yay!