COTI IV - The Centaurians
Results of the Project
A Summary of The Offworld Colony Design Project at CONTACT IV
by James J. Funaro [Note 1]


In the spring of 1987, a group of Anthropologists -- Mischa Adams, Paul Bohannan, Ben Finney, Reed Riner, Bob Tyzzer and myself -- and others (Note 2) addressed the issue of offworld colony design at CONTACT, an interdisciplinary academic conference which each year brings together scientists, writers and artists for 3 days to exchange ideas, explore possibilities and encourage new perspectives about humanity's future, and to promote integration of human factors into research and policy as we enter the space age.

An Offworld Colony Design Study

There is only time here for a brief summary of some of the issues developed in our three-day design project, but it will perhaps give an idea of the approach. Participants were presented with a starting scenario: Two self-sufficient colonies in starships of different (and specified) configuration will be traveling together, to provide backup and to allow some interchange of personnel and culture over the 25-year journey. Assumed was a projected but not unrealistic technology for about 100 years hence. Each ship is effectively an offworld colony, in its design, operation and development. Our task: Create the sociocultural system -- as it is and as it evolves.

Synopsis: An unmanned probe has reported evidence of intelligent life on a planet of Alpha Centauri B. A two-ship scientific expedition is mounted to gather data, initiate contact and explore economic potential. The starships are based on a projected but not unrealistic technology: Fusion power, advanced computer and robotic assistance, adequate shielding, etc. No near-light speeds, extended lifespans or suspended animation. Since the journey will take about 25 years and a return trip presents considerable difficulties, it will be a one-way ticket for most, and perhaps all, of the personnel; consequently, the expedition is effectively an offworld colony, in its design, operation and development. The target system is (only) 4.3 light years distant and so a speed of about .2c is appropriate, which allows interesting ship to ship exchanges of people and culture en route. This slow speed -- coupled with a long period (perhaps generations) of orbiting the planet during which the ships become an O'Neill-type colony -- will permit sufficient time depth for the evolution of a "natural" human community in isolation from the continuous cultural influence of its home planet

Our culture-building began with basics (Note 3). Each colony had a population of 500, a "magic number" for hunter-gatherer "tribes" cross-culturally. Within were "bands" of 25-50 (another magic number), each made up of several "families" (Note 4). These nested units were incorporated into a "Residential Function," which was meant to serve some of the basic human needs, for the individual and the group, by networking members into an inclusive system of social responsibility and approval.

It is important to understand that these units (not named as above) were not the traditional mechanisms from our evolutionary past, but modern "equivalents" of these ancient design features, intended to serve the same human biosocial requirements but in a future offworld context. For example, the "families" were not necessarily bilateral, biparental or kinship-based, but were "households" fulfilling familial and kin functions. Our goal was not to preserve traditional systems but to meet human needs; any social mechanism that could do the job effectively was a possible alternative to the evolved originals.

We then added four other coordinate "Functions" to facilitate performance of what seemed to be fundamental societal operations, which we named (somewhat unsatisfactorily) Political, Economic, Avocational and Emergency. Multiple roles for the individual, so characteristic of human social life, can be a disruptive factor in society; we attempted to design out the dysfunctional potential by making this aspect of human flexibility work for social cohesion. Our intention was to construct an integrated system in which multiple roles cross-weave (rather than cross-cut) the social fabric. The key to the system was that each individual performed a role in each of the five Functions, which allowed considerable freedom of choice in positions, created a network of individuals' allegiances throughout the society (and even between colonies), and resisted unnecessary bureaucratization and overspecialization either of persons or functions.

Application of the concepts of non-hierarchical structures, networks and societal interweaving to our starship colony seemed particularly appropriate -- and, for us, preferable to more commonly proposed traditional alternatives -- partly because such systems are more consistent with the "naturally-evolved" generic model. We intended our society to be not a like a jigsaw puzzle (in which each part fits into its own place) but more like a specially-built kaleidoscope, in which the same elements may continually and differently recombine into a small number of necessary functional sectors within the same field. In theory, at least, our system provided both the requisite flexibility and integration.

This modified generic human social model, with its five interwoven functions and built-in flexibility, constituted our "minimal essential structure," an attempt to provide a self-sufficient, adaptive societal package capable of meeting both basic human needs and many possible environmental situations in spatial and temporal isolation from Earth support.

Beyond The Basics: Designing For Change

The long journey itself -- coupled with a period (perhaps generations) of orbiting the target planet, during which the ships would become an O'Neill-type colony -- permitted sufficient time depth for us to "evolve" a natural human community in isolation from the continuous cultural influence of its home planet. This allowed the Anthropologists to utilize their collective knowledge of the broad range of human options in speculating about the new and changing colonial culture in its projected social and physical environment. It also provided some fun.

Overall, I think the results of our discussions argued for a conservative and permissive design formula: Provide only a "minimal essential structure" that serves the basic human requirements yet allows maximal flexibility for individuals to find their places within it. We should not overburden our colonists with nonvital specifics that they may be forced to overcome; their survival, especially in isolation, would likely depend on their freedom to come up with their own solutions. As one Anthropologist put it, we get a chance to "finally leave behind a whole lot of cultural baggage."

As the basic model suggests, behavioral flexibility seems "wired into" our species and insures a wide range of potential for responding to the specific and unpredictable exigencies of changing conditions. To expect or desire anything else is to negate our greatest adaptive advantage. Designing for particular cultural conditions presumes the maintenance of those conditions as they exist on earth, which will probably be neither possible nor adaptive in remote colonies. A primary reason for the short lifespans of many utopian societies is perhaps that they must resist change in order to maintain themselves; it may be generally counter-productive to design specialized cultural ideals or goals into an evolving system, since these can too easily become limiting factors in a new or changing environment. So, beyond meeting the biosocial needs of our species and the basic requirements of society, we decided to concentrate not on "designing in" what we want -- like democracy or Zen or socialism, much less any particular whole cultural model -- but "designing out" what we don't want.

What is an example of something we attempt to design out? Offworld colonies will necessarily be restricted by technological requirements and/or alien planetary conditions. Data from nonhuman primates and specialized short-term human groups in confined circumstances (e.g., zoos, prisons, submarines, remote research stations, Sealab, Skylab, etc.) warn us of the problems to be expected. Natural human communities that have evolved in relatively closed or bounded ecologies, such as island societies, frontier settlements or other similarly isolated small populations, could provide us with the best analogues for offworld colonies, but Anthropology has not yet, to my knowledge, produced an adequate cross-cultural survey of "bounded systems." However, we do know that intragroup aggression, always a potentially disruptive factor, is especially problematical in such societies; and the dangers of the various cultural manifestations of witch hunts and scapegoating are chronic, unless mechanisms have evolved for redirecting aggression outside the group. One proposal for circumventing these problems was a "dither mechanism," a program (or "virus") built into the main computer that would sporadically introduce into nonvital systems apparently random variations, thus providing interesting breaks in routine and also an impersonal pantheon of "glitches, bugs and gremlins" to blame things on.

Much thought went into devising mechanisms to help design out boredom. What do a thousand-plus people do on their twin spacefaring islands for 25 years? We anticipated the development of a ship's calendar based on local secular and ritual time, including new ceremonies celebrating turnaround, seasonal ship-to-ship exchange and other significant and predictable journey-specific events. These mission rites of passage (pun intended) would parallel, at the macro and machine level, the colonists' own life-cycle ceremonies which we thought would likely reassert themselves in the context of a small organic community. Intership rivalry might be expressed in regularly scheduled games and fairs, as well as in contests involving extra-vehicular sculpture.

We assumed that education would be a necessary ongoing major activity for all. The highly trained but aging original scientists and technicians who might never see their destination would need to pass on their knowledge to their spaceborn children who will actually accomplish the goals of the mission. It soon became apparent that a parallel oral tradition would arise spontaneously, from a mythos about "Old Earth," adopted by the impressionable new generation that had never seen -- and would likely never see -- humanity's home world, to local legends like the infamous fight at Murphy's bar, which "people were still talking about seven years later." By the way, such events also turned out to mark ship time via a less formal but more dramatic "folk" calendar.

Though there would be plenty of "jobs" involved in performing the many necessary techno-ecological and societal functions, it was thought that other activities should be encouraged that allowed for more creative and avocational expression or that simply provided useful ways to keep people busy ("WPA projects"). So, while outbound from the solar system, the starships picked up a small asteroid to provide shielding and raw material for projects along the way, ranging from remodeling the environment to space art. One of the unexpected uses of this stockpile was the construction of a third ship by "anarchist" rebels, who (for various reasons, from politics to black marketeering) felt constrained by what they considered to be the somewhat stuffy, small-town attitudes of the more conventional colonists.

It is clear that humans isolated in space would be dependent on technology in a more ultimate way than ever before. This would be so obvious a part of everyday life that colonists would tend to see themselves as the major organic component in a cybernetic system, with its machine aspect -- and particularly the main computer, the organ most analogous to a systemic brain -- readily personified and functioning as parent-cum-God-cum-companion, depending on the circumstances. Differentiating between human and machine (as they blended) became not only more difficult but dysadaptive. We took the approach that increased interaction with machines only continues that most basic process of humanization, cultural adaptation. Indeed, I believe it can be argued that we began to become effectively cybernetic or metabiological organisms at the moment one of our ancestors several million years ago picked up and used that proverbial "first rock."

Because the main computer was capable of interacting both at the public/social level and the private/intimate level, it could be many things to many people. Computer simulation reached an unprecedented degree of sophistication in our space culture, providing an ultra-realistic medium for internalizing and externalizing theoretical models. However, since the generation of such models is just as appropriate to religion, esthetics and fantasy as it is to science, many interesting side effects emerged, which included "cyber-pagan" cults, as well as "addicts" (I called them "heads") who rejected non-simulated reality for their "plugged-in" state "under the helmet" and other antisocial types I found myself thinking of clinically as "technopaths."

This brief sampling of some of the issues we discussed is not a summary, but it perhaps gives an idea of our design project. Of course, a three-day period of informal sessions is too limited a context to create a finished product. As you can see, this effort was, in process, a serious game, but (despite its lighter moments) one with a strong, professional commitment to an interdisciplinary approach to human factors in designing an offworld human colony. Though our results are preliminary, we hope the approach can bring some new and potentially useful perspectives to space research and suggest new resources for future design studies.

Concluding Remarks

It may turn out that all such attempts at designing cultures are in vain. As Anthropologist Gregory Bateson used to say: "There are the hard sciences and then there are the difficult sciences." Human problems -- unlike technological and physical ones -- commonly have no solutions, only resolutions, which are by their nature temporary, context-specific and variable; and levels of predictability will likely always be lower than in the hard sciences. While this may seem small help to the engineer and challenges the scientific credibility of the human factors researcher, it is of course the main advantage of our species.

Perhaps we must ultimately "let" humans build cultures the way they always have: Willynilly, using their own generalized and spontaneous colonizing equipment, viz., cultural adaptation, to do what works. This method has been responsible for humanity's singular success (as well as its numerous failures). But, at the beginning of this new stage of human adaptation -- especially in environments not only alien but deadly to Earth-born biologies -- it behooves Behavioral Scientists to at least try to provide, on the basis of their joint accumulated knowledge of the human past and present, the best head start they can for the human future.

  1. This summary of the work of the Human COTI Team of CONTACT IV (1987) is primarily an incorporation of material from two of my papers presented elsewhere: 1) "The Achilles Expedition," read at CONTACT V in Sacramento in 1988 and 2) "Anthropologists as Designers of Offworld Colonies," published in The Case For Mars: III by the American Astronautical Society in 1989.

  2. Numerous other conference participants (including Al Harrison, Poul Anderson, James T. Hogan, and Joel Hagen) contributed ideas. Some of the results of this project were presented in a PBS video documentary, entitled "Contact," produced by KCET and aired in Los Angeles in June, 1987.

  3. Basically -- and at least -- humans are highly social, mobile, and potentially migratory primates with floating home bases. They tend to live in organizationally flexible communities that exist at three nested levels, here named traditionally for convenience: "Families" are small economic/reproductive units that link particular adults of both sexes and young into an intimate context of nurture, education, food sharing and mutual support; "Bands," the community in which most of the general daily activity, face-to-face interaction and resource management occurs, are local residence groups of individuals bound by close and constant personal, economic and political ties; and "Tribes," larger, more dispersed regional groupings (whether polities or not), form a self-sufficient matrix within which constituent bands are affiliated and function to maintain cultural identity and a mating pool.

    Within and between these levels, kinship-type bonds of varying intensities -- consanguineal, affinal or fictive -- link individuals into networks of social responsibility and prerogative that normally provide an adequate system of societal control and approval. However, at all levels, there is considerable freedom of action for the individual and a wide variety of striking mechanisms have developed to facilitate social and physical movement within and between groups. Unique elaboration of mechanisms from both family and dominance contexts has resulted in an extensive system promoting intragroup cooperation and negotiation. Beyond this, the effective solutions to most problems of population, politics and ecology -- at small-scale levels and in unbounded situations -- are group fission and migration.

  4. See the work of Finney and Physicist Eric Jones (in their impressive Interstellar Migration and the Human Experience) for a similar, though less detailed, application of the hunter-gatherer model (1986:99-100).

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