Thursday, August 9, 2007

The Mote In God's Eye

I gave a "Tech Talk" at Google this week. Writing it, I came up with two analogies that are worth sharing, one based on Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's 1974 science fiction classic The Mote In God's Eye and the other on global warming. Warning: spoilers below the fold.

The Mote In God's Eye describes humanity's first encounter with intelligent aliens, called Moties. Motie reproductive physiology locks their society into an unending cycle of over-population, war, societal collapse and gradual recovery. They cannot escape these Cycles, the best they can do is to try to ensure that each collapse starts from a higher level than the one before by preserving the record of their society's knowledge through the collapse to assist the rise of its successor. One technique they use is museums of their technology. As the next war looms, they wrap the museums in the best defenses they have. The Moties have become good enough at preserving their knowledge that the next war will feature lasers capable of sending light-sails to the nearby stars, and the use of asteroids as weapons. The museums are wrapped in spheres of two-meter thick metal, highly polished to reduce the risk from laser attack.

"Horst, this place is fantastic! Museums within museums; it goes back incredibly far - is that the secret? That civilization is very old here? I don't see why you'd hide that."

"You've had a lot of wars," Potter said slowly.

The Motie bobbed her head and shoulder. "Yah."

"Big wars."

"Right. Also little wars."

"How many?"

"God's sake, Potter! Who counts? Thousands of Cycles. Thousands of collapses back to savagery."

One must hope that humanity's problems are less severe that those of the Moties, but it is clear that preserving the record of society's knowledge is, and always has been, important. At first, societies developed specialist bards and storytellers whose job it was to memorize the knowledge and pass it on to succeeding generations. The invention of writing led to the development of libraries full of manuscripts. Most libraries at this stage both collected copies of manuscripts, and also employed scribes to copy them for exchange with other libraries. It took many man-years of work to create a copy, but they were extremely robust. Vellum, papyrus and silk can last a millennium or more.

Printing made copies cheap enough for the consumer market, thereby eliminating the economic justification for libraries to create copies. They were reduced to collecting the mass-market products. But it was much cheaper to run a library, so there were many more of them, and reader's access to information improved greatly. The combination of a fairly durable paper medium and large numbers of copies in library collections made the system remarkably effective at preserving society's knowledge. It has worked this way for about 550 years and, in effect, no-one really had to pay for it. Preservation was just a side-effect of the way readers got access to knowledge; in economic jargon, an externality.

Humanity is only now, arguably much too late, coming to terms with the externalities (global warming, acidification of the oceans and so on) involved in burning fossil fuels. The difficulty is that technological change brings about a need for something that once was free (the externality) now to be paid for. And those whose business models benefited most from the free externality (e.g. the fossil fuel industry and its customers) have a natural reluctance to do so. Governments are considering imposing carbon taxes, cap-and-trade schemes or other ways to ensure that the real costs of maintaining a survivable environment are paid. Similarly, the technology industry and in particular highly profitable information providers such as Google, Elsevier and News Corporation are unlikely to fund the necessary two-meter thick metal shells without encouragement.