Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization

First Edition

© 1975-1979, 2008 Robert A. Freitas Jr. All Rights Reserved.

Robert A. Freitas Jr., Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization, First Edition, Xenology Research Institute, Sacramento, CA, 1979; http://www.xenology.info/Xeno.htm


21.2.2  Dispersion

Another significant limitation on extraterrestrial governments is the problem of dispersion -- the relative distance between social or political units. These units may be individuals, cities, planetary civilizations, stellar communities, or galactic societies, depending on the cultural scale involved. Dispersion is a very flexible concept. It may refer to large physical distances between units or to the length of time required for communication between them. Functionally, the element of dispersion acts to limit the effectiveness of a government by restricting its ability to communicate and to transport the means of control.

While the notion of dispersion may be used to analyze governments at all cultural scales, we shall concentrate on the interstellar regime since this is less frequently discussed in the literature. Distance alone may be the critical factor. The dispersion of social units decreases as their physical separation becomes less:

1. 106 light-years (intergalactic dispersion)
2. 104 light-years (galactic dispersion)
3. 10 light-years (interstellar dispersion, Disk)
4. 1 light-year (interstellar dispersion, Core)
5. 10-5 light-years (interplanetary/stellar dispersion)
6. 10-9 light-years (planetary dispersion)

To the extent an extraterrestrial civilization technologically is able to surmount physical dispersion and engage in communication and/or control, it may have government at that scale. Interstellar government thus is sharply limited by the transportation and communications technology available to it. At least four distinguishing technological scenarios may be identified:

1. Suboptic transportation, optic communication
2. Suboptic transportation, hyperoptic communication
3. Hyperoptic transportation, optic communication
4. Hyperoptic transportation, hyperoptic communication

Dispersion is effectively reduced as a culture moves from scenario (1) to scenario (4). Much as radio, telephone, and air travel have caused Earth to "shrink" during the 20th century, so will interstellar dispersion decrease as the carriers of information and control begin to travel at hyperoptic (faster than light) velocities. It must be admitted that communication and transportation are not exactly equivalent. From a control and distribution standpoint, fast transport may be somewhat more effective than fast message-sending. Still, a galactic government could position outposts and supply depots near populated centers and dispatch warships or supplies by "remote control." This probably is not a perfect substitute for direct physical presence, but it’s the next best thing. So the series above from scenario (1) to scenario (4) represents a continuous sequence of decreasing dispersion in the interstellar regime.

How will dispersion of sociopolitical units affect the form of alien governance? Let’s consider each of the six political dimensions given in the Taxonomy.

Increasing speed of travel and communication between units effectively reduces the time-distance between them. More units can be added to the organization without additional cost in communication or control delay time. As dispersion decreases, cultural scale is free to increase. Hyperoptic talk/travel will make galactic-size organizations possible.

Similarly, a very high degree of dispersion (lightspeed or slower talk/travel) will render empire virtually impossible.1135 As one science fiction writer explains:

Punitive expeditions would be nearly impossible, hideously expensive, and probably futile: You’d be punishing the grandchildren of a generation that seceded from the Empire, or even a planet that put down the traitors after the message went out. Even a rescue mission might never reach a colony in trouble. A coalition of bureaucrats could always collect the funds for such an expedition, sign papers certifying that the ships are on the way, and pocket the money .... in sixty years someone might realize what had happened, or not.1226

As dispersion lessens, greater organizational centralization becomes possible since the leadership is better able to communicate or enforce its decisions.600 In other words, while decentralized forms are always possible, low dispersion should permit centralized governmental entities to emerge.

What about leadership? At high levels of dispersion, probably only chaos is possible in the interstellar regime. As dispersion decreases, autocracies and oligarchies may emerge where strong, diligent individuals or small groups are able to command the loyalty of widely separated cultural enclaves. As dispersion becomes small or negligible, democracy and pantisocracy (which require more debate and communication between social units) become possible.

As for economics, free market laissez faire and piracy are most likely under conditions of extreme dispersion, since planning and control are virtually impossible across great distances when time delays between data reception, decision, and implementation are too great.982 As dispersion becomes less severe, the economy can be controlled more effectively. Socialism and communism become more likely when dispersion is low or negligible.

With high dispersion a "blind" exchange system such as gift exchange or silent barter is most reasonable. As talk/travel becomes quicker, fixed exchange ratios can be set and bargaining may take place because both communication and delivery are faster and more reliable. At the lowest levels of dispersion, symbolic valuta become possible as well.

Finally, as regards sociopolitical freedoms, large distance and high dispersion should make libertarianism all but mandatory. As dispersion lessens, causing the effective talk/travel distance to "shrink," tyrants and mobocrats will find it easier to force authoritarian or totalitarian regimes upon subject populations should they desire to do so. There is considerable support for the above speculations from political histories of societies on Earth. Xenologists have searched for examples of human cultures having geographical dispersions analogous to those of widely separated interstellar communities.55,883 The best examples on Earth appear to be the island chain societies of the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea.884

Consider the early Hawaiian political system. True to expectations, it remained primarily tribal (low cultural scale with high dispersion). The leadership was autocratic or oligarchic, consisting of military chieftains or classes of ruling nobles. Most often, chaos ruled among widely separated island communities and only weak alliances ever formed. The economic system remained essentially manorial.887 Today, by virtue of modern communication and transportion technology (decreased dispersion), the Hawaiian islands are part of the United States -- a national, republican, federal, corporate/welfare, egalitarian political system. Our speculations check against the facts.

Indonesia is another illustrative island chain society. Prior to colonization the Indonesian group was ruled by an absolute monarch, symbol of the highest status in the local religious pantheon. The basic cultural unit was tribal, the central government decentralized and loosely administered, and the economic system manorial. Today, the culture remains fractured. In 1955, just a few years after independence from the Dutch empire was granted, no less than 170 political parties competed in the national elections and representatives from 26 of these were elected to office in the parliamentary legislature. This so weakened the cabinet that Sukarno was forced to assume dictatorship in 1957 to restore order.1866 The history of the Philippines is remarkably similar.2989

The Tongan islands too were originally ruled by a military dictator theocrat who presided over a confederation of island-states. The economic system was manorial, involving "lords" and fiefdoms bearing a striking resemblance to medieval European feudalism.886 The Samoans, who occupy 14 volcanic islands in the southern mid-Pacific, have a basically tribal society. Individual tribes are organized into districts, but these are notoriously unstable political units. There is no record of any unified government holding sway over the entire Samoan "nation" (e.g., chaos reigns at this level), although occasionally a sacred warrior-chief may assemble a short-lived decentralized autocratic alliance on the two largest islands of the chain.888 The record of Caribbean island groups is much the same.2623

There are several other Earthly analogues to high-dispersion interstellar communities.831 For example, desert societies, clustering around water holes and infrequent oases, exemplify an insular existence upon a sea of sand. Desert people tend to be extremely nomadic, organized into families or small tribes. Alliances are rare; when they do occur, they take the form of staunchly egalitarian oligarchies or autocracies of convenience. Piracy and laissez faire with open barter are the most common economic forms.2620

The Eskimos, who inhabit the arctic deserts of the north, lived in bands of less than 50 persons. They had no chiefs or standing deliberative assemblies, and there was "rule by none" among bands. Laissez faire was most common and total decentralization the rule, with controls on social aggression based on informal devices such as kinship systems. The dominant attitude was highly libertarian: Suicide and revenge were considered socially acceptable.1745

Our xenopolitical speculations with regard to dispersion appear to be reasonably accurate. To summarize, a decrease in the dispersion of social units (whether by decreasing physical distance or by technologically increasing the velocity of transportation or communication) should permit extraterrestrial governments to evolve in the following directions: Bigger cultural scale, leadership by larger segments of the population, more organizational centralization, greater control of the economy, increasingly symbolic valuta, and more totalitarian methods of governance.


Last updated on 6 December 2008