The Technium

The Scarcity of the Long-Term

The chief hurdle in constructing a Death Star is not the energy, materials, or even knowledge needed. It’s the long time needed. A society can change their mind mid-way over centuries, and simply move on. The galaxy is likely strewn with abandoned Half-a-Death Stars.

Despite the acceleration of technological progress, indeed because of it, one of the few scarcities in the future will be a long attention span. There will be no shortage of amazing materials that can do magic, astounding sources of energy to make anything happen, and great reserves of knowledge and know-how to accomplish our dreams. But the gating factor for actually completing those big dreams may be the distractions that any society feels over the centuries. What your parents and grandparents found important you may find silly, or even embarrassing.

To build something that extends over multiples of individual lifespans requires a very good mechanism to transmit the priority of that mission. It is much easier to build a rocket that will sail 500 years to the nearest star, then it is to ensure that the future generations of people born on board that 500-year rocket maintain the mission. It is very likely that before it reaches the 250-year halfway point, that the people on board turn it around and head back to a certain future. They did not sign up for this crazy idea!

It is certain that 250 years after the launch of that starship, the society that made it will have wonderous new technologies, new ideas, maybe even new ways to explore, and they could easily change their mind about the importance of sending flesh into space, or decide to explore other frontiers. That is not even to mention how the minds of those onboard could also be changed by new inventions in 250 years.

If let alone, an advanced civilization, could over many millennia, invent AIs and other tools that would allow it to invent almost any material it could imagine. There would be no resource in the universe it could not synthesize at home. In that sense, there would be no material and energy scarcity. Perhaps no knowledge scarcity either. The only real scarcity would be of a long attention span. That is not something you can buy, or download. You’d need some new tools for transmitting values and missions into the future.

There’s an ethical dilemma around transmitting a mission into the far future. We don’t necessarily want to burden a future generation with obligations they had no choice in; we don’t want to rob them of their free will to choose their own destinations. We DO want to transmit them opportunities and tools, but it is very hard to predict which are the gifts and which are the burdens from far away. There‚Äôs a high probability, they could come regard our best intentions as misguided, and choose a very different path, leaving our mission behind.

In this way it is easy to break the chain of a long-term mission. one that is far longer than an individual lifespan, and perhaps even one that is longer than a society life-span. It may turn out that the most common scarcity among galactic advanced civilizations is a long-term attention span. Perhaps vanishing few ever complete a project that lasts as long as a 1,000 years. Perhaps few projects remain viable after 500 years.

I am asking myself, what would I need to hear and get from a past generation to convince me to complete a project they began?


© 2023