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


21.3.1 System Complexity

Complexity must be regarded as one of the most fundamental cybernetic parameters of a system. The more parts a system has, and the more interactions which occur among them, the more complicated it is.2991 A number of writers have attempted to argue against the possibility of large galactic governments on the ground that the immense number of sociopolitical units would give rise to unmanageably complex information systems.63 One illustration of this effect is called the Galactic Democratic Federation Model, which goes as follows.

Imagine a government responsible for 1000 member worlds,1474,1059 each with 10 billions citizens. The Federation operates under a Constitutional representative democracy much like the United States. In the Galactic Congress, as in the U.S., each Representative speaks for about 500,000 Citizens. Even with such marginally effective representation (how can one really speak for half a million?), the population of Congress rises to 20,000,000 individuals (as compared to the present 535 members of the U.S. Congress). Assuming at least 100 research and support staff for each Congress creature in the Federation, the population of the Capitol Planet rises to 2 billion. (One wonders what kind of global subgovernment would be needed at the Capitol to restrain such a large number of aggressive, devious politician-lawyers.) The problem of complexity is further exacerbated if more member worlds are added to the Federation, if galactic high technology and artificial habitat construction techniques permit several orders of magnitude greater population per star system to exist, or if a better representation ratio is demanded by the citizenry (the U.S. Constitution provides one Congressman for each 30,000 persons).

Another favored illustration of the problem of complexity in the universe is the Galactic Encyclopedia, variants of which include the Cosmic Telephone Directory55 and the Galactic Planetary Survey.63 The Encyclopedia is intended to serve two purposes: First, to assemble all current information accumulated by all sentient races comprising the galactic civilization, and second, to record new data as it becomes available and to update the Encyclopedia on a continuous basis. Most writers attempt to demonstrate the "numbing complexity" of the project, thereby "proving" that the Galaxy can never be surveyed, recorded, governed, or understood.

Consider a Galactic Confederation with a billion (109) member worlds. How much complexity does this represent? Present human planetary civilization generates perhaps 1013 bits of useful new data each year.3521 has been estimated that humanity may be specified by a data set on the order of 1015 bits total. A billion planetary cultures with an average of 1015 bits/world means that the Galactic Encyclopedia starts off with an impressive 1024 bits in the first edition. This is enough information to fill ten billion Libraries of Congress.

As for the annual update, each person alive today on Earth adds, on average, only about 2500 bits/year to the sum total of human knowledge and culture. Let us generously assume that future high technology will allow the negentropic output of each individual to rise nearly five orders of magnitude, up to 108 bits/year. If each member star system has an average population of 100 billion people, then the annual addition to the Encyclopedia should be 1028 bits/year. Over the course of an eon of galactic history, the total accumulation will amount to 1037 bits of information. Impressive?

Not really. If we calculate the minimum energy theoretically required to process this information it is astonishingly small. According to the late Princeton mathematician von Neumann1726 and others,3073 the basic thermodynamic requirement for information processing is a mere 9.56 × 10-24 joules/bit-K. Hence, at the minimum universal equilibrium temperature of 3 K, the first edition theoretically may be assembled for as little as 30 joules of energy. Each annual supplement requires an additional 300,000 joules, the approximate caloric content of 4 lumps of sugar. Even after one eon of progress, the Billionth Edition of the Galactic Encyclopedia (1037 bits) could be copied for only 3 × 1014 joules, or about 0.3 second of the power output of a mature Type I planetary civilization. (Table 21.3 gives the maximum theoretical information handling capabilities for cultures at each of the four major levels, assuming the information is processed at a system-wide average temperature of 3 K -- at lower temperatures more data can be processed, but energy costs may rise.) This does not seem unduly expensive or unreasonable.*


Table 21.3 Theoretical Maximum Information Processing Rates at the Minimum Universal Equilibrium Temperature (3 K) for Extraterrestrial Civilizations in Various Stages of Their Development 
Total Available
Peak Data
Processable Information
Type I
3 1032
3 1037
1 1055
Type II
2 1045
3 1048
7 x 1067
Type III
2 1056
3 1059
7 x 1078
Type IV
2 1066
3 1069
7 x 1088


Still, the idea that energy and mass requirements for large-scale information handling appear almost negligible should not blind us to the fact that tremendously advanced computational, cybernetic, and sociopolitical technologies will be required even to approach the grand theoretical limits suggested by von Neumann’s work. Problems of structure and interrelatedness are central.

For several decades cybernetic theorists and organization analysts have tried to study and understand the general characteristics and evolutionary dynamics of large, complex systems. Often they begin with the basic notion of entropy. According to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, entropy tends to increase -- in fact, can never decrease -- in any system that is energetically isolated or "closed." Such systems, whether of life, intelligence, or of society, cannot accumulate information and complexity without drawing energy from the external environment. Negentropic processes can only occur in "open" systems.

On the basis of "social entropy" considerations, it is expected that organizations which are virtually closed to all outside contact tend to increase in systemic entropy.1030 Disorder and randomness spread, causing decentralization and generalization of political functions. Conversely, organizations which remain open to outside contact should experience a decrease in systemic entropy, the result of progressive negentropic processes. Organization should become more centralized, jobs more specialized, and patterns of internal structure more complex.3071

The Square-Cube Law has also been found to affect the size and growth of large sociopolitical systems. Many years ago it was noticed that the components of an organization concerned with its external relations tend to be proportional to the two-thirds power of the number of components having to do with internal relations.824 This is often hailed as demonstrating that organizations are growth-limited by the sheer difficulty in getting communications from the "surface" of the system (where it contacts the environment) to the decision makers scattered throughout the corpus of the organizational body. Since the surface of a body increases with the two-thirds power of its volume, the analogy is certainly compelling.

It appears that the Square-Cube law acts on social systems in much the same way it does on biological ones. In a living system, doubling the linear dimension of an organism quadruples surface areas and octuples volumes. Since lung, alimentary, brain and other tissues must service eight fold-increased volumes, but matter and information inputs will only be passing through fourfold-increased surfaces, organ surfaces in larger animals must become at least twice as convoluted just to break even. Similarly, Dr. Kenneth Boulding, Director of the Institute of Behavioral Science at the University of Colorado, has proposed that there exists for all organizations a "principle of increasingly unfavorable internal structure." As a system grows larger, it becomes impossible for it to retain the original communication and control structure intact. More information regarding efficient survival must be added to the structure to enable the organization to maintain healthy functioning. Says Dr. Boulding:

As an organization increases in size beyond a certain point, it becomes more and more difficult to maintain an adequate system of communication between those people who are directly in contact with the environment of the organization and those who are in major executive positions. If the information system is in adequate, information which is essential for the survival of the organization does not get transmitted to those who are mainly responsible for its policies. Increasing size is possible only at the cost of increasing complexity of structure.829

So as organizations grow larger and maintain proper open contact with the environment, both internal structure and leadership tend to centralize. It is Michels’ Iron Law of Oligarchy all over again. In comparison to these centralized, autocratic-oligarchic systems, notes Boulding:

Acephalous, nonhierarchical organizations, like a democratic family or a commune, or even a producers’ cooperative, have even sharper limits on scale, simply because the number of people who have to talk to each other increases much faster than the number of people in the organization. Groups employing participatory democracy have the same tendency for fission as does the amoeba, for very much the same reason.824

As systems grow larger they tend to become more specialized.3071 The division of labor in society, as in multicellular lifeforms, is a cybernetic "trick" that enables an organization to assimilate larger amounts of information and become more complex. Research in the field of organizational evolution indicates that the number of occupational positions increases roughly as the logarithm of system size.835,839 Large size also affects the exact mixture of specializations chosen to solve the problems of scale. According to social cyberneticist John D. Kasarda at the University of Chicago Center for Urban Studies, the most prominent organizational changes occur in the field of communication: As institutions, communities, and societies expand, substantially greater proportions of their personnel are devoted to communicative functions. It may therefore be inferred that the major role of holding large social systems together rests with those whose primary function is facilitating communication.852 Xenologists are interested in research into the problems associated with large complex organizations because of the insight gained into the difficulties of designing galactic governments and other intricate interstellar regulatory or communications systems. According to recent systems analysis work completed by Duane S. Elgin of the Center for the Study of Social Policy at SRI Inc., and Robert A. Bushnell, former General Counsel for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, any social system that grows to extreme levels of scale, complexity and interdependence soon displays the following characteristics:

1. The relative ability of any individual to comprehend the system will tend to diminish.

2. The capacity and motivation of the public to participate in decision making processes will tend to diminish.

3. The public’s access to decision makers will tend to decline.

4. Participation of experts in decision making will tend to grow disproportionately, but this expertise will only marginally counteract the effects of geometrically mounting knowledge requirements for effective management of the bureaucracy.

5. The costs of coordinating and controlling the system will tend to grow disproportionately.

6. An attempt may be made to improve efficiency by depersonalizing the system.

7. The level of alienation will tend to increase.

8. The appropriateness of basic value premises underlying the social system will tend to be increasingly challenged.

9. The number and significance of unexpected consequences of policy actions will increase.

10. The system will tend to become more rigid since the form that it assumes inhibits the emergence of new forms.

11. The number and intensity of perturbations to the system will tend to increase disproportionately.

12. The diversity of innovation will tend to decline.

13. The legitimacy (popular consent) of leadership will tend to decline.

14. The vulnerability of the system to disruption will tend to increase.

15. The performance of the bureaucracy will tend to decline.

16. The full extent of declining performance of the system is not likely to be perceived by the participants in that system.2963

Social and political systems, like living organisms, have a tendency to maintain growth for as long as possible. Duane Elgin and his coworkers have devised a simple theory of bureaucratic evolution which is summarized on the following page. The model bears a striking resemblance to many of the "rise and fall" and cyclical evolutionary theories of civilization published by political scientists over the past century.** (For instance, C. Northcote Parkinson has assembled historical evidence to suggest that the evolution of leadership in sociopolitical systems may be cyclical, as follows: Dictatorship, to aristocracy, to republic, to democracy, then back to dictatorship.2600)

Very broadly, then, xenologists draw the following general and highly tentative conclusions from modern systems theory: that extraterrestrial governments will tend to increase in size; that these organizations will become more concerned with internal communications as they grow; that they will tend to become more centralized and specialized with increasing scale, so long as they do not become isolated systems; that xenopolitical organizations may follow a regular course of birth, growth, decay, and death, except when new and successful techniques are developed which permit additional structural complexity to be acquired while efficiency is maintained; and, finally, that extraterrestrial living systems may be subject to the same general systemic laws of structure and function as all living systems on Earth.3071


* On the basis of quantum mechanical considerations, H.J. Bremermann has estimated the theoretical minimum amount of energy that can serve as an informational marker.3072 No organized mass-energy system, he claims, can process information faster than 2 x 1050 bits per second per kilogram of mass. In theory, a 1 microgram device totally dedicated to information processing with perfect efficiency could accept the Billionth Edition of the Galactic Encyclopedia in only 50 microseconds. A mass of 2 x 1019 kg could process the entire nominal peak data output of a Type IV universal civilization. Apparently a single "Library World" easily could serve as information repository for an entire galactic or universal civilization.

** See especially Appelbaum,275 Boulding,30 Darwin,706 Fried,1893 Harris,2896 Hoyle,2998 Kroeber,280 Marina,2587 Marx and Engels,3242 Naroll,1888 Newcomb,1889 Otterbein,1887 Parkinson,2600 Quigley,35 Sorokin,31 Spencer,1895 Spengler,2999 Stapledon,1946 Sumner,1883 Toynbee,3000 Vayda,1890 Wescott,264 Wesson,823 White,36 and Wilson.565,3198 For more substantive or more mathematical treatments of sociopolitical evolution akin to Anderson’s "psychodynamicians,"2997 Asimov’s "psychohistory,"2944 and Simak’s "behavioral symbolism,"1059 the interested reader is referred to Berelson and Steiner,3075 Bowden,265 Calhoun,1031 Carneiro,3231 Cole et al,2983 Forrester,2981,3185 Gray,2985 Harary,2 Hilgartner Randolph,1739-1741 Lem,29 LeVine,1881 Lomax and Berkowitz,3232 Markarian,1794 Mayer and Arney,2984 Meadows et al,2982 J. Miller,3071 R. Miller,2986 Ricci,893 Richardson,1769 Thompson,2987 Wesley,1717 White,3025 Wright,585 and the Journal of Mathematical Sociology, which commenced publication in 1971.


Last updated on 6 December 2008