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The Great Filter

Here’s a quick fly-through of The Universe. It’s fairly awesome.


We’ve recently found The Universe to be a bit more awesome.


Ahem… so then, WHERE IS EVERYBODY?!

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This is the Fermi ParadoxThe apparent size and age of the universe suggests that many technologically advanced extraterrestrial civilizations ought to exist. However, this hypothesis seems inconsistent with the lack of observational evidence to support it. 

We here on Earth have been announcing our presence consciously since 1974 with messages such as the Arecibo Message that looked like this, colour added.

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It shows how intelligent we are by indicating

  1. We can count from (1) to ten (10)
  2. We know the numbers of protons of the elements in DNA
  3. We know the formulae for the sugars and bases in the nucleotides of DNA
  4. We know the number of nucleotides in DNA and how they form,
  5. A selfie of a human, the dimension (physical height) of an average man, and the human population of Earth
  6. A graphic of the Solar System indicating where the message is coming from
  7. A graphic of the Arecibo radio telescope and the dimension (the physical diameter) of the transmitting antenna dish

The message has ten-fingered DNA-centric written all over it but it doesn’t matter – by the time it gets to where it’s been sent, its intended destination will have moved – which is not so clever. [Perhaps other “intelligences” are trying and missing as well?] In any case, SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence hasn’t turned up anything. Nada. Niente. Nanimo. We seem to be, for all intents and purposes, alone in the universe.

In 1968, Erich von Däniken didn’t think so.

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His book Chariots of the Gods? suggested that the technologies and religions of many ancient civilizations were given to them by ancient astronauts who were welcomed as gods.

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And so on. I haven’t heard much of von Däniken’s “WHO ELSE BUT ALIENS COULD POSSIBLY HAVE DONE THIS!” jumpy conclusions recently so they’ve probably been debunked by later books such as this.

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In 1996, Robert Hanson returned to Fermi’s question of “Where are they then?” and gave it some thought. He concluded there must be something stopping life from spreading throughout the universe as we feel it ought to. His line of thinking went like this.

With no evidence of intelligent life other than ourselves, it appears that the process of starting with a star and ending with “advanced explosive lasting life” must be unlikely. This implies that at least one of the following steps must be improbable. 

  1. The right star system (including organics and potentially habitable planets)
  2. Reproductive molecules (e.g., RNA)
  3. Simple (prokaryotic) single-cell life
  4. Complex (archaeatic and eukaryotic) single-cell life
  5. Sexual reproduction
  6. Multi-cell life
  7. Tool-using animals with big brains
  8. Where we are now
  9. Colonization explosion.

He concluded:

This is bad news. Really bad.

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It means that instead of developing warp drive and boldly going, it’s more likely that intelligent life in the The Universe invariably discovers industry and destroys their environments out of greed and poisons themselves to extinction. Alternatively – and this is no better – they discover nuclear weapons without first overcoming their ideological and/or tribal differences and thus manage to annihilate themselves. Evidence? Well, we’ve nearly managed to do both in our short time on the planet.

It’s not all gloomy though. Glimmers of hope are provided by counterarguments relying on the “it’s just that we see no evidence” loophole in the Fermi Paradox. Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, they say. It’s a weak argument, but possible. It might just take too much resources and time for any civilisation to colonise the Universe. Earth might be too far out of the way or not worth a visit. Earth might be considered too troublesome or primitive to bother. Or any or all of these. The only counterargument that really interests me is

“Truly intelligent life might just want to keep to itself.”

The idea that intelligent life would by definition want to endlessly explore and colonise as much as possible is typical of us projecting our own aggressive and colonial history upon other inhabitants of The Universe, driven by our belief that appropriating other people’s habitats and exploiting them is A GOOD THING.

This is our prehistory of human life spreading across this planet. It’s our documented history of civilisation, and it’s also our modern history of conflict and aggression. It’s all our histories but we can’t assume other intelligences might or might want to act in the same way. In fact, we scare ourselves when we do imagine it.

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1950s stories of alien visitors doing to us what we would most likely would have done to them are routinely interpreted as the Cold War fear of “The Other” with the added frisson of impending annihilation due to the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).

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The 1996 reworking of 1984’s V was the most recent outing of our fears of being done unto.

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Friendly or otherwise, we seem programmed to not like people who are not like us.

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We don’t look forward to actual meetings but nevertheless continue to scan space for radio transmissions that don’t appear random. This is what SETI does. 

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Do we really expect a truly advanced society to want to build engineering mega-structures visible from other planets or galaxies? Surely a truly intelligent society would turn off unnecessary lights at night?

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We can’t understand why a truly advanced society might not want to get to know us. We can’t comprehend that intelligence may be inward looking rather than outgoing, or more interested in quality over quantity, or value comprehensive performance over visual appearance. This is the position of Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute. He says

the possibly flawed assumption is when we say that highly visible construction projects are an inevitable outcome of intelligence. It could be that it’s the engineering of the small, rather than the large, that is inevitable. This follows from the laws of inertia (smaller machines are faster, and require less energy to function) as well as the speed of light (small computers have faster internal communication). It may be–and this is, of course, speculation–that advanced societies are building small technology and have little incentive or need to rearrange the stars in their neighbourhoods, for instance.

In other words, advanced societies might simply just get on with sustaining and improving their societies, keeping to themselves, and developing the technologies they need in order to function in harmony with their neighbours and in balance with their resourcesThis is difficult for us to comprehend. When we try to visualise it we tend to appropriate the look and feel of primitive societies we think achieved that,

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or, less convincingly, ancient civilizations

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or, more recently, the Amish.

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This last example is interesting. Check out those houses! The problem of shelter appears solved as best it can for available levels of technology and resources. This Divergent imagery makes a virtue out of not making of statements of fashion and individuality. It’s fiction, but encouraging nonetheless.

abnegationActually, It’s been what Misfits has been saying all along, but it’s good to see these ideas get out into society from a different angle. Consider this next photo from our collective image bank.

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To be fair, these buildings were once thought of as virtuous but, for many then and since, these were boring buildings and, by association, the people who lived in them were boring people for whom individuality and artistic sensitivity meant nothing. The surrealism of the Divergent imagery comes from wrongly assuming that human virtue is only possible in the presence of artistic architectural invention. This is the default position of many architects. It’s questionable.

We can accept an advanced society being defined as one that’s found a happy equilibrium between existence and resources, but we’re still not used to the idea that such a society could be achieved far easier than we can imagine and at a level of resource expenditure lower than we expect. But it’s a start. The idea has been planted. Once again.

Architecture still has a long way to go if it is going to improve our chances of surviving a Great Filter of the climate change sort. Even the words we use to talk about buildings mirror our colonialist, capitalist and militaristic mindset. All of the following are seen as for the GOOD. These are the words that change descriptions into narratives.

COLONIALIST
EXPLORE is the preferred verb to describe the act of finding solutions.
EXPLOIT is what the solution does, particularly with topography and views.

MILITARIST
STRATEGY is what a plan for achieving something is now known as.
INTERVENTION is something thought to be desperately needed, and that one feels one ought to be thanked for having done.
WAR on poverty, homelessness, etc.

CAPITALIST
DEVELOPMENT is always positive, a good thing
ADDING VALUE is losing its abstract shades of meaning.
STAKEHOLDER is gaining abstract shades of meaning.
TAKE ADVANTAGE OF is the clever application of knowledge and intelligence
VIBRANCE / VIBRANCY is the ambient bustle and hum of low-level commercial activity.

The very words we use to talk about architecture exemplify a mindset that might not be compatible with the long-term survival of the human race. This mindset is everywhere.

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The use of “we”, “our” and “America” makes this message no more than a local wish for a global problem. There’s the implication that the planet is somehow at fault and that the cause of its warming is external. As we know, anything external is threatening, and necessarily destructive. It is the mindset of war, once again. It’s like those nasty polluting Chinese are out to get us this time.

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Scaremonering? Of course. What I like about the concept of the Great Filter is how it forces us to focus. To talk of “saving” the planet for future generations misses the point. If the Great Filter exists, there won’t be future generations.

The Great Filter takes no prisoners. There’s no such thing as semi-annihilation. The concept of The Great Filter restates Pascal’s Wager for our times in terms of actions and consequences that have no ambiguity.

The Great Filter either exists or it doesn’t. If it exists, then it’d be prudent to do the right thing so we don’t get filtered out of existence. If it doesn’t exist we’ll never know and so we have no choice but to believe it does and to live accordingly. There’s nothing to lose except a few luxuries. 

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“… to live accordingly.” This is a philosophical justification for not only environmentally responsible building construction but for an environmentally responsible architectural aesthetic as well.

If the Great Filter exists, then it’s not that such an architecture will serve us better in the long run, but rather that it’ll help ensure there is a long run.

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