Enrico Fermi, a Nobel prize winning physicist, probably said and did many interesting things over the course of his life, but the only thing I know about him is that he is responsible for what people now refer to as the Fermi paradox.
By Department of Energy. Office of Public Affairs [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In short, the Fermi paradox says that given the vast quantity of stars in our galaxy, and the virtual certainty that many of these stars are encircled by Earth-like planets, why hasn’t earth been visited by aliens from these planets?
There are many possible answers to this paradox, all of which are pretty speculative. A few examples:
- Supernaturalism (god(s), magic, etc.)
- We are regularly visited by aliens and don’t know it yet
- Alien civilizations are waiting until the universe is a bit cooler, and it is more efficient to travel great distances (the Aestivation hypothesis)
- Intelligent life is really, really rare
Well, I have a favourite answer to this paradox, and it’s kind of Marxist.
Before I proceed, I should say a couple of things. First, I am not a Marxist, I don’t practice or even like Marxist scholarship, and I am not making any claims about the way the world ought to be. This is more of a thought experiment than anything. Finally, I seriously doubt that I am the first to discuss this idea, so this is merely an attempt to articulate it in my own way.
Technological progress is self limiting
The basic idea here is that as any creative civilisation approaches the capability of efficient interstellar travel it simultaneously approaches the capacity to destroy itself, along with the technology for efficient interstellar travel. This places a limit on technological advancement well below what would be required for interstellar travel. I won’t inventory the many ways that technological progress can destroys itself. but just offer three possibilities.
- Interconnections are necessary for advanced technology, but cause fragility Interstellar travel will require a great degree of coordination and interconnection. This isn’t just cooperation between people, but the interconnection of energy production, communication systems, and labour. Basically, we’ll probably rely on single interconnected systems more and more over time because they will be necessary to reach the productive efficiency required for interstellar travel. The problem is that such interconnection makes civilisations more fragile to the effects of disasters. A single failure in an interconnected system has larger effects on the system as a whole than the same failure in a decentralised and unconnected system. Think of major financial collapses; big banks are more efficient, but when they fail, watch out.
- Production enhancing technology makes it easier for megalomaniacs to kill I have written before on the consequences of ever increasing productive efficiency on human survival. Productive efficiency boils down to how much labour is required to produce a product or service. Interstellar travel will require a great deal of productive efficiency–much more productive than we humans have now, for example. However, the downside of increased productive efficiency is that it increases the efficiency of everything–both good and bad. This means that as a creative alien species increases productivity, they also make it easy for an insane megalomaniac among them to destroy their world. Think of it this way: the scale of harm that an stone age insane megalomaniac could do was pretty limited. Today, one insane megalomaniac can do a lot of damage, and megalomaniacs of the future will have even more efficient tools for destruction. It seems inevitable that innovation in productivity would have a self-induced limit; any alien civilisation that develops technology for interstellar travel is simultaneously creating technology that enables an insane alien megalomaniac to destroy civilisation.
- Production enhancing technology evolves too fast for societies to adapt This is kind of related to the above point, but is perhaps more speculative. The idea is that social and biological evolution (whether natural or artificial) is a slower than technological innovation, and the result is that our societies have a hard time adapting to the technology we create. Failure to adapt can produce limits on further innovation. For one, it can create resistance against the technology, some minor and short lived (like the 19th century protests against motor vehicles) and some major and long-term (like current opposition to nuclear power). It can also create conflicts between societies in possession of these technologies that impairs or even reverses innovation. Lags between social/biological evolution and technological innovation slows down and eventually halts advancements in productivity, particularly those for which the benefits to humanity are not immediately clear–as could easily be the case in interstellar travel.
None of these arguments assume much about the nature of aliens or how they organise themselves. The main assumption is that increasing productive efficiency is unavoidably paired with technological innovation. That’s why I see this as a Marxist or neo-Marxist resolution to the Fermi paradox; changes in the modes and efficiency of production drive innovation, but also create conditions for destruction, resulting in a self-induced limit on all technological innovation.
Personally, this possible limit does bother me at all, as I have never been much of a fan of aliens or space travel and exploration.