October 28, 2004

O Brave New World

Thinking today. Do that too much, about too little, too often, to no avail, of no consequence. In any case, I was idly looking around whilst considering the trade deficit and the recent rumblings of consolidation-as-innovation in the American steel industry, or fiscal offshoots thereof. While doing so, I thought about a special I saw recently on Hyundai and its impressive shipyards, churning out enormous pieces of capital equipment to move the global economy. Then into the sorts of large bits of gear big enough that they still have to be sent around the globe by ship and rail - generator turbines, steelworking crucibles and machinery, all that sort of stuff. The Big Machines that shows like Modern Marvels are so fond of filming, with impressive classical music and showers of sparks.

That got me thinking further. Imagine, just for a second, that there was oil on Titan, or that we found some form of magic gateway to...somewhere else. Imagine that somehow we had a chance to establish a human colony somewhere else. Okay. Now (here's the really hard part) just punt all the inevitable religious bullshit, pseudoenvironmentalist handwringing, sheer psychosis and other normal human reactions that would occur, and jump on to the really technically sweet question:

What would you need to take? How much would it *really* cost? How would you go about it?

This is a question as old as the hills, since the first group with any sort of stable agriculture decided to check out what was over the next hill and see if they could do the Magic Thing with Plants again over there. But if you really push it, there's all kinds of nice system-level questions here. Here are just a couple that help lay out the ground rules.

What is the environment you're going into?

Okay, this is sort of key. For the moment, let's assume we're heading for someplace that looks (to us) pretty much like home - that is, it has a human-supporting atmosphere, gravity is roughly the same, it's got easily accessible water (albeit industrial quantities will require some form of purification akin to desalinization). There is native flora/fauna. We haven't found any we recognize, but it's DNA-based, and it's all dextrorotary amino acids - which means we can probably find stuff that we can eat, and that can eat us. We don't know if there are disease vectors that can jump the gap. There are seasons, not too extreme. I'm essentially picturing something akin to the colonization of an alternate Earth, but one we don't have all the answers to yet. Oceans, forests. This is sort of going to be a big, big game of Civilization, with a twist.

What kinds of resources are available?

Raw state, lots. Picture, again, Earth, with natural resources intact. Stuff found in roughly the same distribution and accessibility.

How is transport handled?

This is extremely important. For my purposes, for this to be interesting, I assume that transport is relatively reliable but slow - i.e. communications have a one-year round-trip timelag. I'm not factoring in the cost of transport - this means, for example, we might be being Uplifted by friendly Exsolar folk with a charitable taxi service. However, the one-year roundtrip is ironclad, and there is (let us say) a load limit. I rather like the notion of one hundred thousand tons payload per load, one load per month. Note that this must include lifesystems and power and environment for all non-vacuum-rated goods, so if you want to bring people/livestock/fragiles, you better include their needs in that total. The transport (let's just call it FedExtra) is benevolent but not responsive to puling from the passengers.

So, here the fun stuff starts.

One of the first questions I had was obviously 'how many people would you send?' before I realized that that was a really bad place to start. The number of people is going to be integrated very very tightly into the system you build. The colony, at least from the start and for a great deal of time, is going to have to be a very complex and very tightly managed system if it has any chance of survival. There is no way the 'drop 'em on the world and let 'em figure it out' approach is going to work if you really want to maximize your chances of having functional humans to talk to at the other end of the trip when you decide to take a vacation there in a couple years.

How about this: What tech level should this colony have? I'm assuming present day. Our technology can handle pretty much anything that nature can throw at us on Earth - assuming it has an industrial base to back it up. The real 'magic tech' in Star Trek and the like isn't the flashy gizmos the crew is holding when they leave Enterprise, it's present in three things - the Ship's Computer (sum total information), the Warp Core (infinite energy) and the replicator (infinite complicated stuff, when combined with the Warp Core, the Ship's Computer and interstellar hydrogen). We can do a fairly good job of packaging our current informational base without having to have Treknology, even without having to rely on computers - after all, if you don't want things to wear out, plastic is wonderful, and books are an old technology, if low-density. Even microfiche, if done using modern polymers with solar lensing, could provide a low-tech, high-density information storage that wouldn't require power to utilize.

The other two? Problem.

While our present tech base does use and have a lot of energy, it does so by using enormous volumes of nonrenewable resources that in turn require a huge fixed industrial base to extract, process and transport - something our colony won't have. Just building one of those is something we do know how to do (e.g. the North Slope, the North Sea, Siberia, the deserts of the Middle East, New Jersey) but again, it takes a whole world at the other end of the shipping line to do it.

Well. Wait a minute. We have that.

Perhaps the answer is to build an oil infrastructure out there first. This is not as stupid as it sounds. The oil industry has by now a century's experience at building technological installations in the middle of inhospitable wildernesses that are months away from anything else. This is a technology that we have, now. This is a technology that is well understood, and cheap to build and deploy. Tooling and suppliers for it already exist, as does a skilled and experienced work force who are used to rough living conditions with hazards that seem ridiculous.

Plus, the oil industry is experienced at dragging along whatever infrastructure is required to support their workers as they bild whatever ridiculously technological installation is required in the middle of Darkest Nowhere. Perhaps Phase I should be, then, the export and setup of a petroleum industry, from extraction to refinery and some storage. Once that's in place, the next bits get easier. Sure, there will be enormous hullabaloo from environmental concerns, but the alternatives suck even more - send nuclear power plants? While renewable energy is a great idea, the problem is that we're no good at transporting it. Electricity is just no good (at our current tech base level) for powering transportation - other than trains, and only then by laying down enormously capital-intensive track and cabling (not to mention generating) infrastructure, which is only useful between fixed points. In the early days of settlement, our notional Terra2 is going to need air, ground and ocean vehicles - which presently means petrol. Solar is nice, but the tech base required to make the relatively fragile (and still extremely expensive) elements to use it is huge, starting with a viable arsenic extraction and refining industry and adding in rare earth mining for gallium, selenium and all the myriad doping ingredients that go into modern electronics. While those could, of course, be shipped, the goal is for this colony to be as self-sufficient as possible. The advantage of the oil industry is that for the most part, most of it is simple metal-bending. Losing advanced computers and machinery loses you efficiency, but not total capability; people were mining and refining oil with steam engines and wind power. Batteries are not viable, requiring a huge industrial support pyramid as well. Nope, petrochemicals. Maybe fuel cells, but those have a much higher tech base requirement just to support them - internal combustion engines can be made to work (even relatively cleanly and efficiently) without computers, using hand tools for maintenance.

This brings up the next big question - that of the 'fallback tech base.' Is this something that you'd even need? It would seem only prudent to me. If you're going to have a colony like this, on the other end of a long and potentially unreliable transport and communications link, you have to assume that at some point you may lose contact with it for some period of time. While ideally the colony would then be able to support itself indigenously, the notion that it could simply carry on as before is unrealistic. There would have to be a scaleback emergency plan; one which redirected resources from expansion and exploitation into survival and accumulation of surplusage and additional sustainmnt development such as agriculture and native industry resource gathering. It might be beneficial to try to determine, in advance, what tech level that 'fallback position' would attempt to support, in order to maximize the efficiency and hence survivability of the switchover.

This would likely be a moving target. Initially, it would probably assume the loss of contact was temporary without evidence to the contrary, and avoid disrupting ongoing expansion projects. Eventually, however, the resources locked up in those projects (like pipelines, say) would become too precious and would need to be reclaimed for use in more critical roles (like plowshares, say) which, while lower tech, might be more important. The social problems inherent would be fascinating; how to avoid hoarding of tech and tech-related resources would be an enormous issue. You'd have to assume that weapons would be fairly freely available, given 'frontier' conditions; even the wholesale punting of the sociopolitical question of governance and management I've done so far, that would have to factor in heavily. Continuing, though, there would be 'pockets' of durable, high-advantage technology that would need to be emphasized, such as solar-powered radio communications and the durable information storage (as well as the means to create more!) I mentioned earlier. Without those, the danger of a cultural slide becomes (it seems to me) incredibly pronounced. Simple things like solar water heating, heat exchanger HVAC, solar furnace forges and possibly power stations - things which, while requiring some decent tech to invent and build wouldn't require much more than willing labor and knowledge to maintain or replicate.

Okay, enough for tonight. This is just an example of ten minutes of sitting in a car letting my mind go nuts. Like I said, of little consequence, but spinning mind games are better than playing Taipan on my phone...although, of course, were I ever to find myself in a simplified 1900 East Asia, I could trade my way up to being an opium magnate in no time flat... Posted by jbz at October 28, 2004 8:40 PM | TrackBack

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