Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Technology Levels in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Not to blindly defend the Kardashev scale (as I have nothing personally invested in it) but just to explore these ideas a little more, it seems to me that some criticism is merited, while some isn't.

To the charge that the Kardashev scale is arbitrary and inaccurate: of course it is. Any model which points out categories or classes of form or function within complex systems is guaranteed to be arbitrary and inaccurate to some degree because perceiving patterns requires abstracting out some of the details. But that doesn't mean reduced-data models are without value.

On a Celsius thermometer marked from 0 to 100 degrees, for example, the change from any one degree to another is imperceptible to us. And yet we call a temperature at the high end of the scale "hot" and a temperature at the low end "cold" -- in other words, we establish different classes of temperature. These classifications are perfectly arbitrary; they even vary from person to person; but we still find such arbitrary classifications to have significant practical value in distinguishing a system with one type of behavior from a system with a different behavior.

Is the Kardashev scale the "best" way to classify civilizations? Possibly so; probably not. But arguments over "best" will never go anywhere or accomplish anything productive. Utility is where you find it, regardless of how some might argue one model stacks up against other models. Every model is an imperfect representation of the thing described -- if it were perfect, it would be the thing itself and not a model! So the reasonable person has to be willing to accept some amount of looseness in any model, so long as that model gains descriptive power by eliminating irrelevant details in order to highlight more salient qualities.

On that basis, I'm not ready to agree that classifying civilizations in terms of their total energy consumption capability is without value.

Is that primarily a technological measure? Yes, I agree that it is. Is it just one measure among several that could (and perhaps should) be applied to a society to try to understand its "civilizational" content? I'd agree with that, too.

Does that mean it's a hopelessly flawed measure? Well. :)

One of the historians for whom I've developed considerable respect is Carroll Quigley. Without going into all the details of his excellent book The Evolution of Civilizations (which I've already referenced somewhat in a previous blog entry), in discussing how different civilizations might be distinguished from one another Quigley noted that dividing the concept of "civilization" into two, or eight, or any number of characteristic high-level qualities is arbitrary and imperfect. That being acknowledged, there's still value in doing so as long as the qualities selected communicate some information that usefully helps distinguish one civilization from another.

Quigley suggested six key qualities against which the development of civilizations could be measured: Intellectual, Religious, Social, Economic, Political, and Military. For various reasons, I actually prefer to extend this classification system to span eight characteristic qualities:

IntellectualThe need for comprehension
TechnologicalThe need for control of the physical world
EthicalThe need for control of human motives
ReligiousThe need for psychological security
SocialThe need for community
EconomicThe need for material security
PoliticalThe need to organize power relationships
MilitaryThe need for group security

In this model, the Kardashev scale is simply one way to represent a civilization's level of technological development. I think Kardashev and White might have said (I'm guessing here, of course) that energy consumption is not solely a measure of technological advancement, but that its effects on a society are so pervasive that it becomes a reasonably good measure of a civilization's general level of development.

Maybe so. I can see descriptive utility in both approaches to classifying the development of a civilization. I've thought myself for many years (long before I ever heard of either White or Kardashev) that we could see a clear line of more advanced development of civilizations directly related to energy sources: from individual human power, to slave power, to animal power, to steam-mechanical power, to combustion-electrical power. Certainly that's primarily a technological effect, but energy-generation technologies (compared to other technologies) seem to have a kind of positive-feedback effect with any/all other qualities of a civilization. The technology can't pervade and radically change a civilization's level of development if the intellectual and social characteristics aren't sufficiently advanced themselves to support that new technology, but a radical new technology can "pull" a civilization's social and intellectual (and other) qualities forward as well.

Quigley discusses this in The Evolution of Civilizations, calling it the "tension of development." As one high-level quality of a civilization (such as its development of political forms) advances, it creates a tension with the other qualities, placing pressure on them to advance as well. At the same time, less-developed qualities act as a brake on more developed qualities, retarding their further advancement. Thus the growth or decline of a civilization depends in part on the relative differences in advancement among its component qualities -- a civilization in which there was no tension of development, in which all qualities were equally advanced, would stagnate since it would lack all internal forces that would propel any component part of that civilization forward.

So, back to the Kardashev scale, I see nothing inherently wrong with using it as a general measure of a civilization's development as long as we bear in mind your perfectly valid point that there are other measures we could use. Of course seeing a civilization's general level of development purely in terms of its energy usage isn't a perfect model, but no perfect model exists. If the Kardashev scale provides even a marginally useful way to look at civilizations and conclude that one is more powerful (however one defines "powerful") relative to another, or even on an apparently absolute scale, why throw cold water on it? Better, I would say, to extract what value we can from it while being conscious of its deficiencies.

Finally, I note that one of the uses I suggested for the Kardashev scale of civilizational assessment was for a game (Star Trek Online). This scale seems to me like something they'd use on Star Trek, plus it's a nice, simple bit of lore that could work for a game, so I'd enjoy seeing it in a Star Trek MMORPG. But I'm open to specific suggestions for something better.

If an energy scale isn't acceptable as a rough guide to the overall progress of a civilization, what would be?

Originally Posted by Ahura Mazda:
My own perspective on "future history" is that the more socially advanced a culture is, the less likely it is in reality for its inhabitants to migrate, expand and move. Mass exploitation of extraorbital resources and mass proliferation throughout spatial habitats speaks to me of a civilisation that might be more technologically advanced than our own, but is socially and philosophically identical. I do think that the most advanced civilisations that are possible may infact never, or rarely, leave the places they call home. Expansion might be an indicator of technological advancement, but it is to me an indicator of societal and civilisational immobility.
I like this concept a great deal. I don't necessarily agree with it, as I'm more inclined to believe that social and technological and political (etc.) characteristics tend to move forward together (albeit in jerks and lurches). I would not consider a civilization that was only highly developed socially to be generally "advanced" any more than you would appear to consider a strongly technological civilization to be advanced.

That said, your suggestion is pretty fascinating as a "what if." Could a civilization whose most advanced form of energy generation was human physical effort be considered "advanced" if its social development were radically more developed than our own? What might that look like, anyway?

Where would the Bak'u from Star Trek: Insurrection fall on a scale of civilizational progress?