Neal Stephenson ain't wringing his hands over the Prime Directive

This topic contains 10 replies, has 5 voices, and was last updated by  Necarion 5 years ago.

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  • November 1, 2012 at 9:20 pm #26845

    The makers of the One Laptop Per Child project have sort of tested an idea put forward by Neal Stephenson in The Diamond Age. They gave 1000 Motorola Zoom tablets to kids in Ethiopia. Kids who may never have seen a written word.

    “We left the boxes in the village. Closed. Taped shut. No instruction, no human being. I thought, the kids will play with the boxes! Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, but found the on/off switch. He’d never seen an on/off switch. He powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs [in English] in the village. And within five months, they had hacked Android. Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera! And they figured out it had a camera, and they hacked Android.”

    I’m not trying to argue that giving computers to Ethiopian kids is a perfect analogy to Starfleet making first contact with a pre-warp civilization, but there are parallels. William Gibson made some weird-sounding statement about how the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed. Well, here’s a situation where present day technology is unevenly distributed. These kids are getting a peek at what many of their neighbors, and other kids around the world and some in the US, will probably not get to use until the future.

    Anyway, I’m wondering if the Federation would approve of this kind of experiment, or if they would apply some scaled-down version of the Prime Directive to prohibit sharing technology with people who did not invent it. How can we (the smug hi tech culture) be sure that they are mature enough to use this technology properly, without endangering themselves or others?*

    Ok, it’s not a nuke bomb. I’m not sure how they would harm themselves with a tablet computer, but that seems to be a premise of the Prime Directive. Surely there are Newsweek stories from 2008 or 2002 warning about the dangers of spending all our time looking at computer screens or developing digital social lives instead of interacting in meatspace. O noes, what if they use it wrong?

    The other thing that screws up the analogy is that the tablets appear to have been pre-loaded with apps to teach the alphabet or English language. (I think one of the other articles mentioned that.)

    * Again, I feel icky talking about the culture clash in this context because it sounds racist, but that’s part of what bothers me about the Prime Directive as it’s exemplified in some iterations of Star Trek. It sounds like a sci-fi way of reframing reactionary judgments about “civilization” versus “barbarians.” Is it really about technology and proper manners, or just a way to rationalize xenophobia lite? Putting it in the form of a question makes it sound like I’m not advancing a thesis, so I’ll say it more directly and own it: I say the Prime Directive smells like patronizing xenophobia. The morality of using a certain device or technology is not necessarily an ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED as soon as a person or nation or culture invents that device.

    It’s not that I think all technology should be shared with all societies, in our world or in Star Trek. I would oppose the “One Luger Per Child” project. I wouldn’t want the Federation to share higher tech with all cultures indiscriminately. I just think the Prime Directive, drawing the line at warp drive technology, not even telling some cultures that higher tech or aliens exist, is a foolish way to do it.

    November 1, 2012 at 9:25 pm #26846

    Dammit, I shouldn’t say “we” sit in judgment of this culture with lower tech. I just bought my first tablet a couple weeks ago, long after these kids began using them. Can I be trusted not to injure myself or others with this device?

    November 2, 2012 at 3:46 am #26852

    Interesting thoughts. I’ve always viewed the Prime Directive as more an article of faith than simply a pillar of policy, because articles of faith are much more resilient to these kinds of contradictions and rationalizations in action. Starfleet’s highest ideals are 1) to explore/seek out new civilizations and 2) not interfere with those civilizations until they’re “ready” based on arbitrary criteria. Our morality is full of similar contradictions, for instance when we say that people should have the freedom to make their own choices and then restrict those choices when people make what we view are the “wrong” decisions. Or, more politically, in the U.S. one of our highest ideals is freedom and democracy, yet we tolerate our government supporting oppressive monarchies because we benefit through access to natural resources.

    In scifi, I’ve been reading Iain M. Banks’ ‘Culture’ novels over the past year, and these are the issues he likes to address. The larger setting is a galaxy-wide, super-advanced culture that values personal liberty and non-interference, but the stories themselves often focus on the agents of “Special Circumstances,” the clandestine service that interferes in developing cultures when they’re doing something “wrong,” so that the citizens of the Culture as a whole can enjoy that bad things are being “fixed” while also enjoying the facade that their morality of non-interference isn’t being violated.

    November 6, 2012 at 11:22 am #26891

    As much as I tend to fall in line with Starfleet dogma, the Prime Directive always stuck in my craw a little bit because humanity only made it’s big leaps and bounds because the Vulcans wandered onto Earth after it was in a borderline post-apocolypse. They literally wandered over to a civilization that was far behind them, technologically speaking, and (from what little of Enterprise I’ve seen) policed thier advancement according to thier beliefs. While I understand that the Federation is now much much larger than the Vulcan space program (or whoever was in charge of stumbling across other intelligent life), and there’s a lot more risk for abuse, the idea that humanity’s origin story is something that shouldn’t be imitated feels a bit condecending.

    November 7, 2012 at 4:24 pm #26898

    DeanMoriarty Well Actually

    About a month back there was an article about the elitism of the Prime Directive. In the comments I argued that the Prime Directive is actually a pragmatic strategy, couched in the language of principle, to hold on to the material advantages of one culture in the face of potential demand from other cultures. How I see it is that the prime directive’s strategy is to prevent demand for technologies, and the material, labor and time resources necessary for it, by preventing knowledge of said technologies. Drawing the line at warp drive, therefore, is not arbitrary, because warp drive is the first step to the knowing of the very existence of these technologies as well as of the prime directive itself. In the ST universe, a civilization must discover non-einsteinian physics just to find out that someone’s already done it. To go further, the PD ends up creating a catch 22 for non-warp cultures: PD prevents them from learning about warp, the lack of warp prevents them from learning about PD. The PD is elitist because it is designed to safegurd the status of an elite by hiding the very existence of that elite. It’s no wonder first contact situations are so “delicate,” starfleet has to diffuse the righteous indignation of entire civilizations that have been left on their own and kept in the dark about their aloneness.
    On earth, in the real world, this kind of elitism won’t work because it can’t keep the elite well hidden enough to prevent an onslught of indignation and anger by the non-elite. Those kids in ethiopia don’t need advanced technology to see a computer, they could, in theory, just walk or ride to a city or town. Morality aside, centuries worth of history has shown us what the masses, when angry, can do to elites, and that few things piss off the masses more than being kept from things that would improve their lives, like technology. It makes more sense, then, to just try and share the technoology. If we did have a technology whose very essence meant it stayed hidden from those without its knowledge, like invisibility, then we could start arguing about the moral implications of a PD-like policy.

    November 7, 2012 at 4:28 pm #26899

    DeanMoriarty Well Actually

    You did write that article! now i feel like a jerk. sorry. i (for the record, i clicked on your nme to check if it ws you, but that only showed me the stuff you’d written on forums, i only thought to check the actual article after i wrote that whole thing, my bad.)

    November 7, 2012 at 7:18 pm #26908

    Dean: Yeah, this news item reminded me of it, and I was apparently still feeling defensive.

    November 12, 2012 at 3:11 pm #26958

    DeanMoriarty Well Actually

    I’m very happy you brought it up again. The Ethiopian village comparison really helped me refine and clarify my marxist reading of the Prime Directive.

    November 12, 2012 at 5:48 pm #26959

    I had thought of it as if the Federation judges pre-warp civilizations to be undeserving or unready, and that inventing warp drive suddenly marks a civilization as mature enough to be contacted. After reading your post, I wonder if the Federation just gives up hiding after the civ hits warp technology, because they don’t expect to stop it after that. How you gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen the big city? Like if you give Internet access to citizens, it’s hard to keep news events secret in the way that the Chinese govt or other regimes might prefer.

    I’m trying to concede a little bit, but the first example that comes to mind for comparison with the Federation is still a controlling, anti-democratic regime. I still think, even if the Federation decided not to share any technology, they could make contact and let pre-warp civilizations know that they exist, that some higher technologies have been developed. I can’t see how that would in all cases be harmful.

    Another thing you got me thinking about is Federation communication. I don’t know the fictional “science” behind Starfleet’s presumably faster-than-light communications, but what if some pre-warp civilization was able to intercept and/or decode those communications? They could discover the existence of “aliens” without having starships to put them physically in contact with offworld civilizations. I assume the Prime Directive would have to give up at that point too. (And I’d still say they’re taking it too far.)

    November 13, 2012 at 4:40 pm #26992

    DeanMoriarty Well Actually

    I’m actually not trying to say that the PD is democratic or good, but rather that its awfulness and elitism is its very nature, no matter how eloquently Jean-Luc Picard defends it. What I am trying to say (though not terribly well, I think)is that drawing the line at warp drive is the key to its effectivity (though it is very far from perfectly). Another basis for my argument that I”m not sure I made clear, is the in-universe discussions of first contact. It is always described as a difficult, delicate and even dangerous moment. The inclusion and exclusion implicit in the PD system create metaphorical bombs set to go off whenever a civilization discovers warp. The protocol for first contact is a process of diffusing those bombs. It is a way to include a new group while convincing that group that their former exclusion was not only not injurious, but actually beneficial.

    The reason I looked at it through the point of view of a competition for resources and class struggle, is because I don’t think the citizens of the federation, which seems to me to a fairly democratic or republican society, would work if the people in the federation weren’t, at some level, profiting from it. In other words, any description or explanation of the PD amounts to a rationalization by its beneficiaries of their feelings of guilt or selfishness. Therefore, to me,the elitism, condescencion and superiority you see is actually the baked in non-democratic nature of the PD peeking through its noble language icing.

    What fascinates me about that whole thing is that Starfleet, a military organization, has sold the supposedly idealistic civilians (and non in-universe viewers) on this convenient lie. To really overthink it, I see similarities between this and how American foreign policy is sold to its citizens. Most American foreign policy is about protecting the country’s interests, yet it is often packaged as a noble or necessary endeavour. We Americans, therefore, are able to keep our cheap gas and individual liberites without worrying about people being oppressed in Bahrain. So, while your argument that the Federation should let those other civilizations know about the technology, an argument I agree with, makes moral sense, it doesn’t make realpolitik sense. I imagine that if you told Leon Panetta that there was a way to erase the knowledge of nuclear fission from every Iranian’s mind and never let them learn about it again, he would ask you if it was possible or practical, but not if it was moral.

    The communication thing is also very interesting. It seems like in ST universe the knowledge of the possibility of faster than light travel comes before the knowledge of the possibilty of faster than light communication ( i’m pretty sure none of the “science” makes any actual sense, btw). I actually think that a scenario like the one you describe is the Federation’s, or Starfleet’s depending on the politics, worst nightmare. They have the possibility of a civilization who knows that they are being kept from technology, resources and “land,” who will possibly work to create warp technology, and who will probably not be very happy about how they’ve been treated. The Prime Directive might be given up, because it will no longer be useful, but I’m sure the civilization you describe will be the topic of many starfleet briefings and cause many sleepless nights for Federation politicians.

    November 19, 2012 at 4:10 am #27041

    There is another possibility: the Prime Directive could be an important defensive policy for the Federation, much like nuclear non-proliferation is to the modern day U.S. I admit I’m straying a bit from Star Trek cannon (by using real physics, gasp!), bu the fact remains that any object accelerated to relativistic speeds a fantastically deadly projectile. At v = .94c, an object’s kinetic energy and destructive potential is the same as an equivalent mass of pure antimatter.

    Since a xenophobic society could do ecocidal damage to other planets, it would make sense for the Federation to at least not encourage the spread of such a dangerous technology. In this light, the Prime Directive may even be a humanitarian compromise; the Federation doesn’t provide advanced technology, but it doesn’t invade neutral planets to destroy their WMDs either.

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