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Designing society for posterity

(Continuing from the comments/discussion following an earlier post ...)

Generation starships: they're not fast.

If you can crank yourself up to 1% of light-speed, alpha centauri is more than four and a half centuries away at cruising speed. To put it in perspective, that's the same span of time that separates us from the Conquistadores and the Reformation; it's twice the lifespan of the United States of America.

We humans are really bad at designing institutions that outlast the life expectancy of a single human being. The average democratically elected administration lasts 3-8 years; public corporations last 30 years; the Leninist project lasted 70 years (and went off the rails after a decade). The Catholic Church, the Japanese monarchy, and a few other institutions have lasted more than a millennium, but they're all almost unrecognizably different.

Consumer capitalism along our current model simply won't work as a way of running a long-duration generation ship (the failure modes are lethal and non-recoverable). Communism (or rather, Leninism) has a slightly better prospect, but is still a long way from optimal. Monarchism is just a pretty word for "hereditary dictatorship supported by military caste". What are the alternatives? And what do we need to consider when designing a society that can survive for a 500-1000 year voyage in a bottle without exploding? (I'm assuming, for the sake of argument, that suspended animation or life extension technologies don't change the picture out of all recognition; after all, even if you can expect to be alive in a thousand year's time when you reach Barnard's Star, you're not going to get on the ship in the first place if the living conditions are intolerable.)

Designing a space habitat/generation ship with the implicit parameter that the crew are expected to work 40-60 hours a week is a really bad idea; efficiency is the enemy of redundancy, and multiple redundancy (in life support and propulsion) is absolutely vital to any such project (because it provides resiliency that is essential to have any hope of recovering from a disaster). What if the population crashes? If you've designed your ship to require a 40-hour work week by 1000 maintenance crew and you're down to 250 crew, you're going to die. A 10-hour work week, in contrast, gives them a fighting chance of survival in event of a major die-off.

A sensibly designed long-duration hab would require the crew to do just enough work to maintain the necessary skill set (you don't want them to go rusty), but leave lots of time available for education, recreation, and socialisation. You can't build a stable hab culture on material acquisition because it has to function in a resource-bounded environment (although soft goods/intellectual property is another matter, if you want to provide an escape valve for acquisitive urges, or a "training wheels" environment for the market-mediated culture that you might need to revive after arriving in another solar system).

I've been (inconclusively) batting around some ideas with Karl Schroeder — how do you design a society for the really long term? There are a couple of levels to consider: notably, decision-making and economics. And it doesn't look as if we've got any good solutions to either.

Administration first: Democracy is prone to mutation into some other form (kakistocracy, oligarchy, populist dictatorship). Monarchy has a single point of failure and historically only worked when there was a draconian enforcement regime backed up by Malthusian pressure (whenever the lid came off — e.g. with the opening of a new frontier for emigration — the oppressed tended to vote with their feet: aboard a generation ship, their only option would be to vote with the knife). We were somewhat intrigued by the idea of a society with multiple designed-in local attractors, so that over time it can oscillate between different modes of governance (but returning eventually to previous patterns); but nobody's tried it yet.

Another issue to consider is the need for designed-in escape valves. The social pressure on a generation ship is going to be fierce; but if there's a designed-in expectation that, say, 20-50% of the inhabitants at any given time will be preoccupied by non-functional distractions such as the arts or sports, that might go some way to defusing social stresses. Arts and sports can act as vectors for social competition and status-seeking, while being channeled easily in directions that don't consume excessive physical resources.

One thing I'm pretty certain of is that the protestant work ethic underlying American-style capitalism, with its added dog-eat-dog ethos, would be a recipe for disaster aboard a generation ship — regardless of whether it's run as a democracy or a dictatorship. American (or British) working hours are a bizarre cultural aberration — and a very local one. More to the point, competitive capitalism tends to reward increases in operational efficiency, but efficiency is most easily optimized by paring away at the margins — a long-term lethal threat to life in this situation. The "tragedy of the commons" has got to be engineered out aboard a generation ship, otherwise the residents will wake up one [virtual] morning to discover someone's acquired a monopoly on the oxygen supply. And that's just for starters.

(Finally, don't get me started on libertarianism. Economic libertarianism -- in the contemporary American sense -- aboard a generation ship would be just plain suicidal. It's dog-eat-dog capitalism with the brakes off; I'm of the opinion that libertarian ideology is based on a falacious theory of mind, and would in practice degenerate rapidly into a rather nasty form of industrial feudalism. The end point of which is monarchism, and bloody handed revolution. Not the kind of metastable multiple-attractor society I have in mind at all ...!)

So. You, and a quarter of a million other folks, have embarked on a 1000-year voyage aboard a hollowed-out asteroid. What sort of governance and society do you think would be most comfortable, not to mention likely to survive the trip without civil war, famine, and reigns of terror? (NB: communication with the home world is assumed, as is the ability to implement any innovations they come up with that don't require a work force greater than 10% of your people.)




I think the small environment of a generation ship maybe a stabilizing factor. We are still wired for small group living, so it may not be all that bad. I think a good portion of the instability we have comes from the social complexity of civilized life, and the impersonality of global civilization.


One of my implicit assumptions is that nobody in their right mind is going to send out a generation ship on a recce mission: it's a colonization tool. So it needs to support a sufficiently large population to maintain the specialized professions needed to build a high-tech civilization at the other end. Low tech is a non-option (see earlier postings about the low probability of us finding a planet that offers us a shirt-sleeve environment), and there are a lot of such professions -- a good rule of thumb is that it probably does require a minimum of a billion people to deliver the kind of technology base and pace of progress we've become accustomed to, and anything less than a tenth of that won't even be able to maintain an early-21st century equivalent society (without much extra R&D).

So any generation ship is going to be big -- city-sized, at a minimum -- or it's not setting off in the first place.

Think in terms of Hong Kong, in spaaaace ...


None at all. I think you'd have to put everyone to sleep.

Maybe you could try familial structures, but then I think about some of the spats my kinfolk have engaged in and think that might be a bad idea as well.

Better to just put everyone to sleep. Then have everyone wake up at the same time. That way everyone would be on equal footing... a little bit.


The average democratically elected administration lasts 3-8 years

I dispute this. The average party in power may do so; the institution of democracy should last much longer, indeed aim for permanence. Changing governments in a democracy is a feature. The oldest democracies currently extant are getting on for halfway through a 500 year voyage, depending on where you set the bar on democracy.

Actually, oligarchic/democratic city state seems to be a model with legs. The Venetian Republic, for example, or the city council of Amsterdam. Perhaps the ship's crew could be divided into hereditary parishes and hold an annual unfrozen orca race round Water Tank One.

By Arrival Day there should be a really nice line-up of statues of a dozen or so distinguished and safely deceased mayors, like the kings around the roofline of Bradford City Hall. Perhaps there's even a controversial figure in the hold because the shipwrights from Group T refused to install him/her/it as they're still bitter about his rule 300 years ago, as happened with Cromwell's statue in Bradford and the Irish construction workers.

(Well, it was rough on the leaders of the Slightly Upward Deviationists to be vented into interstellar space. But you have to agree the ship might not have made it through The Crisis without him/her/computer.)


By the way, the book should be called "Are We Nearly There Yet?"


Think in terms of Hong Kong, in spaaaace ...
I'd say that Hong Kong is the exact opposite of a starship. It's an extremely open, urban economy that can't produce even a fraction of the number of things it uses.

Tokugawa Japan might be the closest model we have, as an extremely stable and isolated society that managed to sustain about as complicated or 'advanced' a society as available in pre-industrial times. But that's already 30 million people or so.

It does suggest that a fiercely feudal system, with castes and little rights for common folk can be stable for at least hundreds of years, if stability is the goal of its leaders. The big advantage (well, for stability purposes...) of a feudal system is that it sharply limits the number of people who are potentially destabilizing, since most people can never have enough status to be a threat. So you can focus your stabilizing methods on the elites.


Zamfir: on the subject of Hong Kong, think in terms of population density and living space.

Tokugawa Japan: yes, it was stable. Now go and recruit your colonists, hmm? (Bearing in mind that only 5-10% get to play samurai, and the rest get to be the poor bloody plebs who the samurai get to test their swords' edges on if they feel like it.)

The problem with caste/elite based societies is that they're prone to upheaval -- and the more repressive they are, the more violent the upheaval when it comes.


For some reason, I quite like the "Generation Fleet" idea someone raised on the other thread. A number of smaller ships operating in close proximity, so people (and goods and ideas) can move between them, and of course so that you can lose one of them.

Unfortunately the downside is the extra surface area.


At a macro level it does tend to depend on whether you put a big premium on getting people to be nice to one another, or simply concentrate on getting people to the other star without blowing up the ship.

An artificial landscape of small areas separated by natural boundaries like rivers, mountains etc. populated by rurutanian style monarchies without many resources would keep a low level of conflict going indefinitely. You'd probably want to overlay it with some kind of stretchable religion along the lines of popular Hinduism, just to assimilate any msytical impulses people might be prone to have.

I suspect no one here would necessarily want to live in such a society though.


Any societal structure you set for the during of the trip can be quite useless or nefarious once the destination is reached. Certainly strong power structures would be good for the harshness of colonizing a new world, but you could just as easily consider a scenario where it would lead to disaster. (crude example, but Nazism coincided with the elimination of a major part of its (Jewish) scientific community, which would be pretty bad if the colonist do not land on a perfect copy of earth where everything is exactly to there needs.(dangerous bacteria, killer alien's language barrier, etc)

You could at least reduce internal strife by assuring ideological and ethnic streaming colony ships. At least the arguments of the type "he is a Japanese neoluddite and i am an Australian belly dancer, therefore i need to bash his head.." wouldn't take place.

But I think Hong Kong sized population would either be too big or far too small. And population density or living space wouldn't be a problem, mass is the problem isn't it? Volume increases faster than mass use (consider a sphere's volume to surface ratio, surface and its arrangement determines protecion). Since protection from incoming danger is at the front, you could make a ship really long for example, you could make a ship big enough to make sure that a couple millions people never had to met each other without significant material needs compared to a tight packed ship.


I'm feeling cynical today and suspect that the only way to stop human nature ruining everything would be to do as cod3fr3ak says and put everyone to sleep.

Otherwise, a series of benign dictators might work but how could you guarantee their benignity over that period of time?

Maybe the film Wall-E has the answer? Create a completely leisure based society with everything else being run on auto?


Tokugawa Japan: yes, it was stable. Now go and recruit your colonists, hmm? (Bearing in mind that only 5-10% get to play samurai, and the rest get to be the poor bloody plebs who the samurai get to test their swords' edges on if they feel like it.)

The problem with caste/elite based societies is that they're prone to upheaval -- and the more repressive they are, the more violent the upheaval when it comes.

But Tokugawa Japan was remarkably free from such upheavals, even though there were regular famines. If there were upheavals, they were repressed within days. Even the ending of the period took the form of a relatively formal war, by the equivalents of European dukes or princes and their personal armies.

As for getting people to be lowest rung on the ladder, do they need to choose it? It seems that a starship society is most likely to evolve as the descendant of an inner solar system colony, and I can imagine a Tokugawa type colony that reacts to a Major Perry by building a drive and leaving, taking the peasants with them.

In other words, instead of designing a society to last for centuries, you are more likely to find a society that looks back on it own history, sees stability-in-a -pod for centuries, and decides that it can leave for the starts.

I doubt anyone else would have the confidence to take such a step.


Aldous Huxley thought about similar problems, surprisingly long ago (he was T.H. Huxley's grandson, and married Matthew Arnold's niece!) His "Brave New World" (1932) stands up much better today than George Orwell's "1984" (1948), although it's interesting that our two best-known dystopia novels were written by old Etonians. (They're not all as thick - or as rich - as they're made out to be...)

Huxley began by rejecting organised religion and studying institutions of government. He soon realised, however, that no institutions would work well in the long run unless the citizens were mature, balanced, and sane. To put it another way, no one has ever devised a constitution that could withstand the determined pressure of clever, ruthless men seeking to subvert it.

So perhaps a generation ship could only be feasible (from a social point of view) if the right sort of people were available to man it. People who have outgrown vanity, selfishness, striving for dominance, etc. People like those selected by the Games Machine to go to Venus, in A.E. van Vogt's "Pawns of Null-A".

Whether such people will come to exist, in the near or distant future, is hard to say. If they did, would they be strictly speaking human? One of the first steps towards finding out would be to lay the foundations for a science of education. Unfortunately, after enjoying the status of a valued craft for at least 2500 years, education is currently going in the wrong direction.


I like the model Molly Gloss used in The Dazzle of Day - the generation ship Dusty Miller is populated by Quakers, who put a lot of mindful care into looking after the fabric of the ship itself, the internal ecology, and their own society. Of course, being Quakers, part of the novel's drama is in their quest for clearness on whether or not they should leave the ship at the new planet.


Possibly a direct democracy enabled by networked communications: a modernisation of Classical Athens, so that policy is decided by the "demos" and executed by office-holders selected by lot for a limited term of office. I'd suggest having an exception for some of the more vital engineering issues, with these being delegated to elected office-holders who'd have to be qualified in their fields.

Doubt that even that set up would work for the timescales in question though, so in practice you'd probably need something like Banks' Culture; government by weakly-godlike AIs masquerading as an anarchist-leaning direct democracy.


There's another problem in that whatever society that works for the voyage is unlikely to work when you hit the destination and you're going to want the transition to happen fairly smoothly (sealed instructions in the captain's office giving the King the good news that they should now become a democracy probably won't work!).

I hate to say it Charlie but your description of Monarchy fits the bill fairly well, the whole Malthusian pressure is describes the journey quite well and the end point will uncap that pressure fairly effectively so you're not designing a Empire of Forever.

The trick would be to make the fail state of the monarchy and the means of fighting over it less than lethal to society as a whole. A naive example would be the monarch is whoever is best at running or piloting the ship in VR (giving them a pretty good means of actually getting to the ground in the end).


On designing long-lived institutions, it's fascinating to browse through Wikipedia's list of the world's oldest companies:


Until 2006, the oldest company was a Japanese construction company, Kongo Gumi, founded in 578 CE. But they went bust in 2006, and were bought out:



I suspect the isolation of the community (ie its a single city state, with no political external pressures, no imports/exports, immigration or danger of external influence, etc) will completely change the properties of a long term society.
Personally I believe that if the residents are correctly recruited, and a high level of social responsibility is maintained through education (and maybe some kind of national service where people have to spend a few years working for the good of the community), then generally a democracy could work on pretty much any time scale. But maybe thats just me being optimistic.
Still as I say, the effect of being the only group does completely change the dynamic, a lot of major political change is brought about from real or perceived external influences.


Aldiss. Non-Stop. I read it when I was about 12, and it put me off interstellar travel for life.

But if we assume for the sake of argument that a Generation Ship could avoid a return to primitive tribalism, Lord of the Flies with serious technology, then I seriously rate the point about art and sports. After all the Roman Empire survived for 500 years, including crises which would have torn apart many societies, by judicious deployment of bread and circuses. The Roman Empire was, of course, extremely nasty. But we're not trying for nice, we're trying for survival.

How about that then? A broadly elective monarchy/dictatorship, with a resticted franchise, but one to which outsiders can aspire to be admitted by working successfully for the public good? But please don't save me a ticket for the voyage.


Tom Welsh@13

I seem to remember reading a short SF story along those lines. Dang what was it? Basically this generation ship set off, from an over crowded earth in the midst of a socio-religious craze (terror attacks killing millions, wars killing billions, etc). Along the way many of the initially atheist crew/colonists find religion - of traveling through the stars. The religion of stability and equilibrium. They drop the "more rational" colonists off on the planet they were going to and then continue off into the void.

Why can't I remember...


Before you rule out democracy, consider doing it according to its ideals first:

The basic idea in democracy, is that the leadership represents the population.

What easier way to do that, than to pick the members of government at random ?

In Athens this was not a feasible process, doing a random selection from a big set is very nontrivial by physical means. If you don't belive me, ask the bloke who has to do QA on a shipload of coal.

But in these days it would be trivial: Decide the size of your government, and have the computer replace a quarter of it every year, by randomly selecting eligble population members.

In one stroke of a well designed RND() function, you have eliminated pretty much all that ails current democracies, while gaining a truly representative government.



Two alternatives:
1. The passengers sleep all the way. No problem to solve, (but they'll still have to create a successful society on arrival.)
2. The passengers are alive, and live normal human lifespans. Then you need a system that can adapt itself to unpredictable circumstances. That system is a combination capitalism and democracy. Of course it has a fair chance of failure, but it's the only form of social order that is "conscious" of its circumstances, and can adapt to them. So instead of saying "we know everything this society will have to deal with for the next 400 years", you say "here are the tools you'll need in order to make the right decision 300 years from now". It might not be a good idea to do this. Then there's alternative 1.

Okay, here's a third alternative: You design software that is powerful enough to rule absolutely, and smart enough to manipulate its subjects in beneficial ways. For instance, it could be designed so that people do not realize they are unfree in many ways, (something that is impossible with a human dictator, and is difficult at best with a non-human one.)

But a society run by humans, it will have to take the risk of political and economic freedom. It's the difference between telling your kids everything you think they need to know, and teaching them to think for themselves. They may act stupidly anyway, but the first alternative definitely doesn't work.


Pre-settlement humanity -- "primitive communism" in Marxist terms -- was stable on multi-thousand-year time scales. Design the ship so that doing the hunter-gatherer thing performs maintenance tasks automatically, and hope nobody invents agriculture?


It seems to me that there are two conflicting long-term drives in human politics (using politics in the narrow sense of "who's on top" rather than the broad sense of "what do they do").

One is the desire of the currently powerful to (a) remain powerful (or rich, which amounts to the same thing) and (b) pass it on to their children.

The other is that incompetent rulers don't last.

Hereditary monarchies become unstable because at some point the hereditary monarch isn't up to the job; overly-meritocratic systems get undermined by the son/daughter with inherent advantages and become informal caste systems.

I think the best compromise in stability terms is to have a large ruling caste (10-20% of population) that is reasonably generous about ennobling the most capable of the commoners and where the caste choose the actual rulers from amongst their own number. A hereditary oligarchy like the Venetian Republic, but with the C19 British aristocracy's genius for co-opting commoners.

This gives a comfortable place to the incompetent children of the aristocracy, without actually resting society on their (lack of) talent. It ensures rulers are at least reasonably competent, and grants a place in the sun to the finest products of the lower classes.


Suggesting capitalism as the model for an interstellar starship is absurd. Capitalism is an effective economic model when you're dealing with a resource pool significantly larger than your demands. In that sort of situation, it's very effective.

Once they arrive at the destination, it would probably arise naturally from the environment. For a short period, one could probably bank against that future, and create a capitalism on the ship, but I think you're right- it would teeter into instability.

Anyone who seriously suggests applying capitalism to a resource limited environment is a fool, though.

If we look at successful long term organizations, even ones that have mutated dramatically, we will notice a significant element: they're exceedingly draconian. From the Roman Empire to the Catholic Church, successful organizations are ruthless about maintaining their organizational structures.

This makes religion a pretty sound organizing principle for a generational ship. None of the modern mainstream religions really work, but it would be possible to inject the appropriate doctrines into one. A resurrection motif could be adapted pretty well.

But now that I really think about it, we need to step back a bit further: we all seem to be assuming that we're going to build a generational ship, lay out the organizational principles, and then send it on its way. Realistically, what we should do is organize the population first.

Today, round up a few thousand volunteers, and lock them away. To start, we provide food in exchange for successfully completed tasks, but as time goes on, we take their habitat further and further off the grid. Eventually, they live in a Biosphere II type environment. They're mostly left to their own for cultural formation and rulership, although periodically, new outsiders are added to realign some elements of the interior culture with the exterior (just to keep the drift down so that no one balks at sending these aliens on the first interstellar spaceship).

After a stable culture has formed, say 500 years, we bundle these people up, give them a few hundred babies to give the next generation a good start, and shoot them off into space.


You could at least reduce internal strife by assuring ideological and ethnic streaming colony ships. At least the arguments of the type "he is a Japanese neoluddite and i am an Australian belly dancer, therefore i need to bash his head.." wouldn't take place.
They would swiftly be replaced by arguments of the type "he is an Australian belly dancer with three facial piercings, and I am an Australian belly dancer with four facial piercings ...".


Emma in France@11

You shouldn't feel cynical at all, just realistic.

No sure if you know but some guy up and shot a bunch of folks at a military base in Texas, a few days ago and it was the subject of a conversation I recently had with a co-worker.

His argument centered around the fact the "Muslims" have strange beliefs, that cause them to attack others. I pointed out to him that this is not a Muslim phenomenon, but a human one and that humans have always found reason to justify murder, pillaging, etc. He wasn't buying it. Mind you he's and African Catholic.

Humans having a blind spot that large, in my view, can and will cause problems in any enclosed space. If you want an intact society at the end of the journey you would do well to sedate or incapacitate the folks on the ride. Maybe you'd do it by making a happiness pill, or the "Allswell" stuff from Neal Stephenson's Anathem. Either way it would only take one human convinced he's heard the word of god to destroy the air scrubbers, or propulsion system, and any number of other critical equipment - secure in the knowledge that he or she is doing gods work and will be rewarded after the ship crashes into some stellar object.


@Edmund: that only works if you want them to continue being hunter-gatherers when they arrive. The entire purpose of sending a generational starship is to seed planets, not simply with people, but people like us.

@cod3fr3ak: This is why you need redundancy and automation, and it's also why the population should be bred in isolation on Earth before we ship them off to the cosmos. Conflicts will be uncovered and managed while we can still meddle in the society.


cod3fr3ak@19: You're probably thinking of Ursula LeGuin's "The Birthday of the World".

Meanwhile... I'm still keen on (non-capitalist) anarchy, but I'm aware that it doesn't scale very well. And dividing your population into small units is going to give you trouble maintaining rare specialties. Maybe borrow an idea from Christopher Alexander's "A Pattern Language" and create a patchwork of small communities, each with a single unique contribution to the larger community? If each has a different character then mobility between the communities would be an important safety-valve.

I probably won't be able to post again for a while, which is a shame because this is getting interesting.


Pre-settlement humanity -- "primitive communism" in Marxist terms -- was stable on multi-thousand-year time scales. Design the ship so that doing the hunter-gatherer thing performs maintenance tasks automatically, and hope nobody invents agriculture?

Or set up the ship so that agriculture is somehow impossible and a hunter-gatherer society is the only option. Keep the population divided into difficult to cross (geographically separate) areas to prevent large-scale warfare and maintain diverse populations. Is it ethical to maintain a forced primitivism for a millenium? Probably not, but anyone going on this voyage is making a decision to restrict their progeny to this ship for dozens of generations.



Just read your post, I like it.

I just keep thinking that all that would stand between success and failure would be the sanity of one person. And lets not forget, some folks start off okay and then have an unexpected reaction to some life event which causes them to totally shift. I am thinking this project is unfeasible without some psychotropics keeping our base primate natures at bay. More than the engineering or political structures the human mind must be managed. after all like many folks have pointed out we have political structures or examples of structures that can work well. The wild-card is always us.


Ahh yes "The Birthday of the World", that's it.


I agree. It's why politcal/social structures based on ideals, such as communism and libertarianism will never work. They simply fail to take human nature into account. For any system to work it will have to accept human nature and work with it, this includes accepting to some extent some abuse of the system to ensure that benefits for the majority are not reduced.

Anyway, to get back on track, here's a radical idea - what about a women-only population plus sperm bank and gender selection? Many would argue that would tend to be more cooperative and peaceful. Perhaps that would provide the necessary stability?


One important aspect to social cohesion that perhaps could be designed deliberately into ship operations is to instill a sense of "we're all in this together". If people are constantly reminded that their existence is fragile and continued survival depends on working together, they may be less likely to fracture into extremist factions that refuse to cooperate. I'm thinking of a situation like the Netherlands, where people have been required to work together to maintain the dikes or else huge swathes of the country simply cease to exist (but I know nothing about internal Dutch politics so I would be interested to know what any Dutch commenters think!).

As far as government structure, I think you would be hard pressed to find any large, successful long-term organization that isn't organized into some sort of command-and-control hierarchy. The trick is going to be how individuals are selected and promoted, and the extent to which the system can be gamed and corrupted.

In other words, instead of designing a society to last for centuries, you are more likely to find a society that looks back on it own history, sees stability-in-a -pod for centuries, and decides that it can leave for the starts.

Except those are just the sorts of societies that are unlikely to leave the familiar of their own accord.


@Emma in France: I don't buy the idea that women are somehow better at getting along and compromising than men. Women may be less likely to resolve conflicts with physical aggression (not something I'm convinced of), but even if we grant that, there's plenty of room for society-damaging conflict in a female driven society.

Here's another thought, actually: population will need to be carefully regulated so that scarcity cannot arise. Resource contention is the leading cause of conflict, and not just physical resources: we're talking positions of power and responsibility, social acceptance, etc.


AI benevolent dictator?


I thought about a women only thing, as well. But it might be that women are more cooperative due to predations by the men in their societies. That is, their increased cooperation is a result of being at a size, strength and most importantly power disadvantage in relation to men. Remove the men and you get the standard human hierarchy structure replaced by Alpha females rather than alpha males.


Whats wrong with cryostasis? I mean, we talking about the future here.
Sleeping persons dont care much about political problems. Neither do their maintenance robots.

I think any kind of colonization vessel designed as generation ship is doomed to fail.
The environment needed to fully support us "meatbags" is indeed fragile on earth and even with technical assistance almost impossible to maintain for a couple of centurys in a closed tincan surrounded by vacuum.
We might be able to handle technical problems like the reactionmass for the (/insert hypothetical engine here/) and the radiation shielding but a working and self sustaining biosphere i think not. The question is, will technological workarounds be sufficient to compensate for that on the long term?

The problems created by human interaction would be very low on my priority list. They will turn ugly anyway when the lifesupport systems start to fail.

Back in my teenage years i read a book named: "Andymon" by Angela and Karlheinz Steinmueller. Its a good novel about the subject offering some interesting proposals.

I found it on amazon, but im not sure if there is an translated version. If not you might have to brush up your german reading skills. :)


@34: Well, but he was saying there was a "Perry"-type event at some point. So, the familiar is gone; it's a choice between keeping some rags of the familiar together, and totally discarding them. It's not at all clear that the latter is necessarily the choice that will be made.


Edmund@22: Pre-settlement (or pre-farming*) humanity appears stable to us, but that's largely because of a lack of information about the period. The Mesolithic period did last for thousands of years, but we have no information on the stability (or otherwise) of individual Mesolithic polities. Moreover, the evidence typically interpreted as indicating disruption, in archaeological contexts, is the sort of evidence that is not going to be found on pre-settlement sites - destruction horizons on settlement sites, for example.

* there were a few settled non-farming societies, in areas with extremely rich all-year-round natural resources, such as the southern Baltic.


@2: Hong Kong doesn't seem quite the right model to me, partially for the reasons listed in 7. Previous discussions have convinced me that any interstellar ship will require very large amounts of mass (as biomass) just to have a stable life-support system, let alone the amount of mass, volume, and area needed to operate manufacturing etc. to keep the tech base up. Perhaps the living area (as opposed to the manufacturing or life-support areas) will be as densely populated as you say, but I think it more likely that people will spread out into the other areas, if only to get away from their neighbors. I'm not quite sure what the model is here--perhaps the Netherlands (which would go well with the oligarchic republics proposed earlier).



I know by "capitalism" you really mean "market economy" but it's worth pointing out that capitalism really means "a bunch of people pool their resources to do something that an individual doesn't have the resources to do and then share in the profit or loss". It is hard to have capitalism without a monetary system (which implies markets), but ultimately it is just another way of incentivising people to work together.

A consumer economy based on disposable material goods is clearly impossible, but one based on services and intangibles like art and entertainment can be continued indefinitely. Going down that line of thought, people could spend most of their time in an Accelerando-style virtual environment to escape the limitations of their physical situation, and only unplug from time to time to take care of physical needs such as ship (and crew) maintenance.


Aren't we already running this experiment, on the generational starship that we all currently live on? Due to our rapid and accelerating growth in resource usage, we're currently starting to bump up against some of the ship's limits and are finally starting to realise that it is, in fact, a starship with finite resources.

Re #24: 'Anyone who seriously suggests applying capitalism to a resource limited environment is a fool, though.' Well, quite.

Anyway, lessons from the current voyage: If you've got enough redundancy & resiliency built into your ship and biome's, then everything else will work itself out, for quite a while. Over a long enough time-span, with enough people, a lot of fucked up shit is going to happen, whatever you do. Most of what happens after the first couple of generations is going to be entirely unpredictable before launch; think about the first 70 years of the 20th century - manned flight is impossible, to a moon landing, with two world wars and uncounted revolutions etc., in between, in one lifetime. You could start out with a crew of pacifist quaker scientists, and the ship could arrive looking like a charnel house, filled with roaches and skeletons, or it could be packed with happy utopians, or not arrive at all; all are possible and more or less equally likely, from a pre-launch perspective.

You aren't assuming future-tech that's idiot proof - and like it or not, you're going to have to take a lot of idiots, so build for massive redundancy. You obviously can't micromanage this endeavour from earth because of relativity - and because people will stop listening to you after a while anyway. So it's mostly fire and forget. I would make sure _everything_ is an ecosystem rather than a mono-culture. Build the biggest fleet you can manage and send them all off gravitationally coupled, in close proximity and communication, on the same course. Give them the ability to easily move stuff between ships. Make a lot of the ships, crews and setups different, but make sure there are at least two of each. Think swarm, or cloud - a bunch or hollowed out asteroids orbiting each other with a large halo of diverse man-made stuff surrounding it. They don't all have to be big, or even new hardware. lots of small groups, biomes and societies, rather than one big one.
You're going to have to assemble most of that stuff in space anyway to do the hollowing out and building in the first place, so just collect a bit more tonnage and then send the whole lot.

Then build another lot and send it in the other direction.

This setup feels much more attractive to me psychologically as well. I would be much more likely to sign-up for this than for the one-big-ship, pressure-cooker, society-in-a-can version. Also, the colonists wouldn't be shut-ins and would probably get quite good a 'space faring' by the time they arrived.


@42: people could spend most of their time in an Accelerando-style virtual environment to escape the limitations of their physical situation, and only unplug from time to time to take care of physical needs such as ship (and crew) maintenance.

I fully expect that within two generations this will be a standard (or at least very common) lifestyle here on Earth.


A few people mentioned the Netherlands as example, where I happen to come from. For all the national mythos of working together to keep dry feet, the actual political stability in the Netherlands seems to resemble England pretty well over the last centuries. Both countires were ruled by very similar oligarchy of nobility and wealthy merchants, and Englands relatively powerless monarch did not differ that much from the heridatary power of the Orange family during the Dutch Republic years.

The Netherlands' main political disturbance of the past 400 years was the occupation by the Frech around 1800. This occupation had initially wide popular support, suggesting the previous Republic was not a paradise.

After the French the British and their pals made the Netherlands a true monarchy. About a generation later the king lost a lot of personal power to the parliament, and the oligarchy returned with a tad of democracy. From there on, the process resembled England again.

So if the Netherlands are an example of stability over the centuries, I would argue the same is true for England.


Let's suppose you succeed in building a thousand-year-stable society in a hollowed-out asteroid.

Why would they leave the ship? If you can have a happy life in it, and there are sufficient outlets for curiousity and adventure that you've managed 20-30 generations without a disastrous revolution, there doesn't seem to be much point.

If you can do a hundred-year stable society, then maybe you can extend that indefinitely via a variation on the Second Foundation method: every so often the hidden revolutionary council comes out of cold sleep, assesses needs, and spends a decade re-organizing.


This setup feels much more attractive to me psychologically as well. I would be much more likely to sign-up for this than for the one-big-ship, pressure-cooker, society-in-a-can version. Also, the colonists wouldn't be shut-ins and would probably get quite good a 'space faring' by the time they arrived.

The trouble is that for a given budget of resources, the individual ships will be much more cramped, and even the sum of their volumes will be a lot less than the volume of a single ship. You can achieve the exact same social effect by separating the big volume into parts. If multiple ships close together can sustain multiple polities, then presumably one volume can too.

The technical advantage of multiple ships is of course full redundancy, but the removal of single-cause failure seems even more complete if they can't communicate with each other at all.


@-dsr-: Honestly, an excellent question. Does it matter?

What is our goal in sending out a generational ship? The purpose, as I see it, is to ensure that our genetic and memetic lineages do not die out when the Earth becomes uninhabitable, which is an eventual certainty.

In that context, it doesn't particularly matter if they leave the ship or not. Practically, I think they will eventually require resources beyond the capacity of the ship to provide. Entropy, and all that.

Even if they use the ship as a habitat, they will eventually need to set up shop around a star.


Two comments ...

1. Software lives a long time. Successful commercial software has a lifespan comparable to the average publicly traded company, and much longer than employment lifespans. This is a real problem for software development.

Ok, now to the story ...

Can you tweak your humans? Maybe you could change their programming (biology/education) to be better suited to this life. Maybe make them completely dependent on a drug that changes behavior?

Then on reaching destination they breed a non-dependent generation?



Yes! Drugs are the answer baby!


Not sure how useful it would be, but this could be the perfect opportunity to implement Rawl's veil of ignorance.

Every so often (few years or so), everyone votes on what the different duties aboard the ship are worth in terms of perks and status without knowing who is going to be assigned which duties. This would have to be the 10 hours a week or less of ship work with enough time to keep their real skills up to par allowed.


As much as I dislike the institutions of religion, I think Walter Miller and Neal Stephenson have it right. Nothing can beat religion for maintaining the long term social structure, adherence to received wisdom, and compulsion to ritual that religion has proven. A properly engineered theocracy, with the ships officers as the ruling clergy and the ship's AI or expert system as the "oracle", could give the necessary social stability to make it to the goal. Of course this system, because of it's aggregation of power, is as, or more, prone to the Stalin problem as any other.


I question the basic assumption: why do we need a society which remains stable?

Think about it: what kind of people will a 500-year unchanging society produce? Will they be psychologically capable of dealing with settling a new world when they arrive? Ancient Egypt was a highly stable society with an amazing degree of cultural continuity across nearly 2000 years, but it was absurdly helpless in the face of new threats.

I also think it's extremely unwise to play "god-kings" and attempt to "design" a society. Designed societies on Earth do NOT have a good track record. It's hard to think of any utopian projects which did not involve either parasitism on a larger non-utopian society (as with 19th century religious and socialist communities), or horrifying internal repression (as with 20th century ideological movements).

So forget about it. Don't design a stable society at all. Design a deliberately unstable society. Ask an aircraft engineer: the unstable planes are the quickest to respond to the controls.

Set up a system which can evolve quickly and with a minimum of stress and violence. In other words, don't create a 500-year Stable Utopia, create a 500-year process of ongoing change. That requires a set of clear guiding principles, unambiguous ways to change the rules within those principles, and limits to ensure no actors can break the system.

Fortunately some political geeks and entrepreneurs have already done a lot of work on this, at a con held in Philadelphia.


If I was a the person sending people into space and I was feeling particularly draconian, I'd find some way of separating the offspring of the colonists from their parents at birth and then rearing them in entirely separate groups by some sort of robot nannies.

You could then create lots of micro-colonies within your spaceship all with different worldviews/strategies for survival. As they know no different and have no knowledge of the other micro colonies you can nurture them to believe whatever you like. If they get troublesome, just cut off their air supply and start again. Keep repeating this with every generation and hopefully things should maintain a steady-state (or at least reset with the new generation). When you get close to your final destination, start tweaking the worldviews of some of the micro-colonies to be more adaptable to colonising a new world and then euthanise the rest when you arrive.


Certainly the governing system is very important on a ship like this, but problems that arise with a government often come from social pressures independent of that government's rule (or indirectly related).

If this is a journey which will take multiple generations to complete, then there has to be a goal in life for those who will not make it to the end. Certainly there is the ideal goal of maintaining the ship and its people so that it can reach the end, but I feel like a healthy society needs something more than that. Thus there needs to be facilities and capabilities for development which goes beyond just the goals of the journey. Labs for scientists to develop their ideas, studios for artists to work, gyms for athletes, etc. While many of these things might seem a given in a large city-ship, the way they are implemented can significantly vary.

It would do the society good to have rewards for the most promising science, museums for the artists, competitive games for the athletes (olympic style, not just seasonal), and other such goals and rewards for the society that go beyond just the successful completion of the journey. Particularly for those who won't reach the end.


t3knomancer: Yes, and they will become people like us -- in a couple thousand years, when presented with the crisis that precipitates the rise of agriculture.

Forest Pines: Our goal is to get humans to another planet. The potential for the whole multi-thousand year history of humanity is contained in the set of humans we send -- same as if we send a gene bank and grow the humans in tanks when they get there. The polity is by definition disposable as people won't live the same inside the ship as outside anyway.


Ask an aircraft engineer: the unstable planes are the quickest to respond to the controls.
As an aircraft engineer, I can assure you that no one in his sane mind builds an unstable aircraft if safety is an issue. Only fighter planes are sometimes unstable or neutral, under the philosophy that an occasional crash is a part of life for fighter pilots.

The big problem with such "adapting society" concepts is that circumstances in the ship do not change. The amount of resources available is fixed, and the amount of people on board is small compared to the system that send the ship, so big innovations that the mother system hasn't made already are unlikely.

In such circumstances, a society like ours that thrives on change is only going to bang its head against walls.


How do you design a society for the really long term?

From a theoretical standpoint, I plead ignorance. Not enough data.

From a practical standpoint, what would I do if I had to? Well, I wouldn't. Especially, I wouldn't *design* such a society. If anything, I would pick a society that works (better yet, I would have this society pick itself), after having put several models to the test.

One of the few scenarios in which I would consider viable generation ships somewhat plausible, is one in which lots of reclusive societies end up inhabiting asteroids for a couple of centuries *anyway* and some of the longer lasting ones simply decide that they might as well leave the solar system and take their asteroid with them ...


How about a Confucian style society? Advancement to a high level is by examination, which would be administered by a computer. At death, all possessions go back to the community, (or are destroyed, perhaps, so there is always the need to build stuff.) The "book" for this society would be the operating manual for their starship.

This could be combined with the kind of reputation-based economy Bruce Sterling suggested in Distraction. Good, obedient service to the community was rewarded by rank, but getting a new idea implemented by the community would require a demotion - you had to spend your power and give it up to get something done. Something similar could be done by a potlatch kind of custom.

Perhaps there should also be an initiation of some kind, one that shows every passenger the inherent fragility of their vessel - the young adult getting initiated dons a spacesuit and circumnavigates the hull. This would be their first look at the outside.

Lastly, I suspect that by the time we're ready to launch a generation ship, we'll have really good medical records on some families that go back ten generations. It might be possible to pick people who haven't had an ancestor go to jail, abuse drugs, require hospitalization for psychiatric reasons or enter politics for X generations.

On the subject of Libertarians there are two kinds; those that don't know Ayn Rand was writing fiction, and those that don't know Heinlein was writing fiction.



"that only works if you want them to continue being hunter-gatherers when they arrive. The entire purpose of sending a generational starship is to seed planets, not simply with people, but people like us."

And 29

"Or set up the ship so that agriculture is somehow impossible and a hunter-gatherer society is the only option. Keep the population divided into difficult to cross (geographically separate) areas to prevent large-scale warfare and maintain diverse populations. Is it ethical to maintain a forced primitivism for a millenium?"

It's fair to say that hunter-gatherer groups like the San or Inuit manage interpersonal relationships (especially in close or uncomfortable settings) better than any other societies on record, so it's a good start to model your slowship culture after them.

However, setting up a mountain range between two tribes in different hunting grounds (on a starship) or forbidding agriculture or whatever isn't going to happen easily until you have a GSV-level/size unit.

Instead, why not kill two birds with one stone? Mate ecological awareness and animistic shamanism to ship and biosphere maintenance so that every necessary action taken by the crew corresponds to the hunting and gathering social relations which sustain them.

The simplest way to achieve that would be to use an biologic technology for everything ("the solar bamboo needs trimming if we are ever going to have that oxygen panda hunt") but even with classical tech you could make it happen ("Per the village elders I will run to the top of Buttress 16, log into Fuel Feed Monitor 8 to run a diagnostic mudra, and then the Ship will deliver enough food pellets for a week of feasting")

Make this worldview sophisticated enough and your people would have no trouble adapting it to a new world, but personally it seems like a waste of culture to have your crew disembark at destination - have them set up the colony of hibernators/clones and move on to the next star.


@59 Alex -- the young adult getting initiated helps build a spacesuit, then goes for a solo circumnavigation. Instills the importance of both self-reliance and teamwork. Probably works best if the spacesuit doesn't need to be custom-fit until the end of production, and/or testing is really extensive.


Haar@52 sorta like a Comstar from Battletech...

It works, but when it doesn't (insert random crazy human here>, it blows up spectacularly. So in the end I am guessing you'd be more likely to get a Ringworld type of situation. A population not suitable to colonize anything.


Anne McCaffery's colonists to Pern (a 30 year trip, if I remember) were carefully screened with a battery of psych tests and a few bad apples still made it through.

She also imagined a hybrid sleeper ship; people were in stasis in shifts, only the captain stayed awake the entire time. So, stable benevolent dictator who doesn't mind giving up power to civilian leaders once they arrive.


A lot of these sound like really fun experiments - to watch. Re #54: Nice, if a little harsh, perhaps. Also, would require omnipotent AI to run it. If you've got one of those, then it could probably come up with a better plan, possibly not involving fleshy meat bags at all.

As far as I can see, you've got basically zero hope of any 'plan' - no matter how great it sounds to you - remaining coherent after the first couple of generations; it's all out of your hands. You can only set the initial conditions. Provide the best DNA you can find, supply truly huge amounts of tech. & resource redundancy - and hope for the best.

Also, how are you going to make the initial travellers adopt your shiny new never-been-tried-before culture? They're going to want to take theirs with them, whatever you say. If you can build your beautiful stable society, then you should just do it, here & now. Either in the make-earth-better sense, or the biosphere sense, as in #24.

Speaking of religion, how about a monastery? The Benedictine system was partly designed as an ark for (Christian) civilisation to escape the demise of the Roman empire - and worked quite well. You would need to make significant changes to the system if you wanted it to run without outside assistance though - no trade, no new recruits, etc... Maybe don't try. Just have some of your asteroid fleet be a monasteries/nunneries and then the rest of the fleet could play the role of the wider secular world - and they could act as pressure release valves for each other. Slightly 'Canticle for Leibowitz', I guess, but it might work. I probably wouldn't pick Roman Catholicism for my monastic base, though. Buddhism, maybe?

Funding? It occurs to me that this would the best Reality TV show, ever. It's actually real, and has a similar setup to Big Brother, but in spaaaaaace! Anything can go wrong!! At any time!! Thrill as 'contestants' get sucked out of airlocks! Gasp as fuel tanks explode, people shag like rabbits and go crazy! Big Brother + Star Wars - that shit will sell. Even if you don't sell it, that's what the telemetry and video feeds are going to get used for anyway, so you might as well get the worlds entertainment networks to foot some of the bill, no?


You would not have generation starships, you would have cities that travel.

Asimov talked about that long ago. That you would have space cities moving further from the solar system as people simply go about living their lives, and in the process move from system to system.

The population would move off planet, build cites, live their lives. Space cities would be the norm, living on planets would make no sense to them, so colonization would be building new cities and spreading through the galaxy.

So think of small nations on the move, living and growing normally, rather than some "designed society" that exists only to get to some destination.


Divide the ship into tribes. Each tribe is governed by direct democracy, and each tribe sends one representative to a governing council. Relations among the tribes are brokered/kept peaceful by an elaborate series of blood-sports in order to channel the aggression of the young men into duels in "sanctioned" arenas, Thunderdome style. Chainsaws and welding-torches are to be the preferred weapons.

Clearly, this is a foolproof plan. And I haven't even had my coffee yet.


If you're looking for a social model for a generation ship, I think the most likely to survive is the ancient Egyptian society. Yes, I'm talking about Ramses' Egypt, the one with the slaves and the priesthood and the leader who's a descendent of the gods.

Why? It's for the children. The first generation colonists are all going to be volunteers, whole-hearted believers in a bright future amongst the stars. Their children might not be that way. They will come into adolescence when the ship is well under way, and they might not so readily embrace their parents' dreams and choices. Many will be frustrated by the stuff they missed on Earth - it might be stuff as basic as seeing New York in the spring, or walking on the sands of the Mediterranean. They are the children of the journey; they have neither the glory of the first step to sustain them, nor the anticipation of reaching their destination in their lifetime. They are caretakers, they and their children and their children's children, and I don't see them resigning themselves to that role.

Let us now imagine the following scenario. The first generation set up a mock Egyptian-like society. There are workers that tend to the daily chores, scientists that are "priests" of knowledge, the military caste that polices things and the expedition leader, presiding over a council. Unlimited access to Earth knowledge and science is limited to the "priests", that is, the scientists, and access to this caste is done after initiation ceremonies - also known as exams. The children are taught that this is the only world there is, and there's a "profecy" describing the end of the journey. By the fourth generation this mock society will become a reality. The smart or the rebellious need to be taken into the "priesthood" and taught properly, of course, to prevent social instability.

The one thing that has to happen on arrival is a sort of Renaissance. This might be much harder to achieve than it sounds, given that the power structures will be well settled by then (if all goes well). I do not know what the strain on society would be if the sum of modern knowledge would be unleashed upon them in a hurry - say, 20-40 years of "liberation". But if the last generation has planetary colonisation (or conquest, if you will) to look forward to, that might be enough of an incentive to keep things in check during transition.

I admit that this relies on a somewhat jaded view of human societies. I remember an article by Peter Watts ( http://www.rifters.com/crawl/?p=184 )in which he mentioned in passing a surprising statistic which states that religious and authoritarian societies have a better chance of survival in adverse conditions (such as, say the Wild West, circa 19th century). That's by Norenzayan and Shariff, in "The Origin and Evolution of Religious Prosociality", if you don't want to click through. The ancient Egyptian society was quite stable and successful; it would have survived, too, if it wasn't for those pesky Romans. And there are no Romans on a generation ship.

Or, if we discover the idealism gene by then, we can send a hippy commune to the stars, but that's as likely as having the Matrix onboard.


RE #65: Possibly, but I think that we're talking about some intermediate state here - where we don't have uber-sophisticated space cities and the best we can do is an Arkship of some kind.


It has to look like the Internet.

In other words, I should be able to move freely between communities, zipping and unzipping identities as I go, with the ability to opt out and be "alone" anytime I like. (You know, like in Lady of Mazes.) But my participation must be logged, my votes must count, my intangible contributions must mean something, and I must always have a new group to enter or leave as I wish. The rules must remain basically the same everywhere, with environmental shifts in context-appropriate behaviour. Flexibility, not rigidity. An endless stream of possible citizenships, not a single commitment to one hierarchy.

So, fandom. In space.


The longest stable civilizations that I can think of were Theocracies. I don't really like a Theocracy with a human high priest, but an AI could probably do that, and be a pretty good Oracle as well.

Basically, I don't think any human or human controlled society is capable of enduring stably, but I can quite easily see an AI autocrat running things that way. Not the current generation of course, and not the next, but the one after that. It doesn't need to be as intelligent as a human, but it needs to be an impartial ruler that's capable of minimax projections which are inscrutable to the ordinary citizen. Not all religions promise something impossible or unverifiable. Buddhism comes to mind as an example. (I'll admit that many forms of Buddhism DO promise things like reincarnation, but that's an add-on, and not a part of the original doctrine.) People talk about "The religion of science". For the generation ship, let's MAKE science (actually engineering & technology, but officially science) a religion, with the AI as the high priest. (Note that even today most people can't tell the difference between engineering and science.)


I've been toying with the idea of a scale-free State, lately.

Some small unit of citizens(10-25, maybe), who elect from among them a judge and a secretary, and a representative or speaker. Things aggregate geographically upwards from there. the next tier works the same way, composed of the reps from the tier below, a judge voted on by all of the judges, and a secretary voted on by all of the secretaries.

Secretaries implement policy that is voted on my members, judges attempt to square policy with the canon of existing law and constitutional boundaries.

Some pros:
- every citizen is familiar with the process, since it's as self-similar as possible at all levels.
- the body of law must be simple, as keeping everyone up on a huge body of law like that of the united states is practically very difficult.
- finer grain of representation than fix-rep systems like that in the US and UK
- fewer tiers of government between the top and the bottom. even in 10 billion person society, there are only five or six layers of representatives at N=25

Some cons:
- very hard to make it self-similar at all levels, since certain levels can't really be allowed to do certain things.
- very hard to get the rules that simple, and procedure that smooth.
- very hard to figure out how the professional bureaucrats who're necessary to the function of a large state get their skill levels up to par when they could be voted out at any moment.
- large costs, something like 1/(N*2)% where N is the basic voting unit size, of full time work and more economic drag from everyone participating more (couple of hours per week per person at minimum, I'd think).
- unclear where large, independent institutions like Central Banks and Energy Regulators come from (see also professional bureaucrats above).

It's unclear also how well this accords with currently emerging theories of mind, and the broad spread of human cognitive/decision-making deficits. Fun idea to toy with, though.


If you're talking about hundreds of years in a single ship-world, my guess is that success is unlikely with the people awake. Attempting to extrapolate various earth experiments with this ism or that one fail, I think, for two reasons: the folks on the ship are aware of alternative isms and they have nowhere else to go to practice them, so they will end up fighting to establish the dominance of their preferred version. If we had the technology and resources, I think some possible strategies would be:
- Send LOTS of ships (on diverging courses to make warfare impractical). Most will fail, but a few might get through.
- Put everyone to sleep and wake them on arrival. This would require smart enough computers to handle any problems.
- Wait until the Culture sends a ship by and hitch a ride.

That's the practical; here's the moral: Is it morally acceptable to bring new generations into a ship which will be their entire world, effectively? If the solar system is still habitable, have you limited their freedom too much? Have you sentenced them to life in prison with no hope of parole?


@65: Cities that travel.

Also known as "Polynesian model". Polynesia was colonised one island at a time without any overarching plan, often by accident as a boat got blown off-course. If (a BIG "IF" in my opinion) humans ever colonize Kuiper Belt, it will not be a big stretch to move onto Oort Cloud, and few hundred millennia later, when Sun passes sufficiently close to another star, to migrate into that star's Oort Cloud.

FWIW, I do not believe anybody will ever send out a generation ship for an express purpose of colonizing a planet. I can believe some political/religious faction doing it mainly in order to get away from prevailing society of its time, but have no faith (pun intended) in such factions' ability to survive centuries between stars. Not unless they already had centuries of experience in outer solar system, in which case it is little different from the above paragraph.


David@66: I think the TV networks would pay more for your plan :)

I also think it's semi-reasonable, up to the chainsaws bit.

You are going to get social fragmentation and diversity whether you like it or not. If you start with a social mono-culture rather than an ecosystem, then this probably has to happen via dangerous revolutions or rebellions, at some point - probably a generation boundary. If you deliberately start off with an ecosystem of societies, you set a precedent for diversity and allow pressure to be bled off individual societies by intermixing, intermarriage and social mobility. There's also the hope of best practice bubbling up if you allow people to vote with their feet and defect to the more successful & functional societies.

When I said earlier that I would make everything a redundant ecosystem, I wasn't kidding. I'd apply that school of thought to everything, from soil & plants, to nuts & bolts and even the fleet's societies.



A couple of thoughts no one has brought up:

--Redundancy. Putting everyone in one big egg is begging for trouble, on everything from the engineering perspective (big egg!) to the micrometeoroid perspective (big balloon!) to the failure mode (N=1 for ecospheres, no backup).

--I'd suggest something that looks a lot more like an ant's nest, with lots of smaller chambers that can be sealed off. That way, there's redundancy, smaller target areas (part can get fragged and the rest might survive), and more importantly, groups can isolate from each other.

The organization of the ship is going to be reflected in the government system(s) used to run it.

--There has to be some sort of management. Basically, with 250,000 people, anarchy won't work. You need small groups of people who will work with each other, to break the groups down into something below 150-200 people per group/level (read up on Dunbar numbers). This is more about how many people you can know and get to work together for anything more than a short time. Dunbar argues that the numbers of people we can deal with efficiently are hardwired in our primate brains.

I hate to say it, but for 250,000 people, we're looking at at least 5 levels of management, whatever system we're using. Doesn't matter whether we call them majors, mayors, or block managers, we're still going to need mid-level management.

--Commerce will be necessary, because you need some way of moving goods and services from those that have to those who need. We also need an enforcement system (aka a government) to make and enforce the commercial rules, or we get the alternative, less efficient state of people doing their own enforcement.

--Capitalism in its current flavor is a non-starter. This isn't an ideological point, but a practical one. Right now, we've got much more virtual money than we do real resources to buy with that money. That's leading to these speculative bubbles that are making our lives miserable at the moment. People are currently trying to find ways to make more unreal money by manipulating real goods, and this may be as insane as it sounds, depending on your point of view. It certainly is making a lot of real people miserable.

In any case, in a tightly closed ship, real goods need to have real values. Effectively, we would need a gold standard, or rather, things like a local currency that are based either on the productivity of some group (i.e. shares of their surplus, like the old grain-back) or a common fiat currency whose value is based on a basket of resources such as food, water, nutrients, etc. Either system would work, but in both cases, you need a bureaucracy with real enforcement powers to keep the enforce the value of money and fix problems.

--So, what form of government? Whatever it is, there need to be lots of feedback loops running up and down the system. Hereditary aristocracies don't particularly work, because there's not a huge incentive to pay attention to doing a good job on an everyday basis, and while minor failures are endured, major screwups lead to revolution. Not a stable system. Ditto with dictatorships.

That leaves some form of democracy. You want to reward competence, but also you want lots of feedback loops, so that managers are rewarded for paying attention to what's going on and penalized on varying levels for screwups (losing an election is somewhere between kowtowing and harakiri or a lynch mob).

Thing is, I suspect that, whatever the outward form, the actual form of government will swerve around. For example, the US representative democracy is just coming out of a rather ugly experiment with primogeniture, and the talking heads are still babbling about who else in the Bush clan will rise to high office. Similarly, people buy offices all the time. All this is covered under the mechanisms of US-style democracy.

As with the life support system, you want to have a system that can fix itself, and whose failure modes are recoverable.


Firstly, unless you have advanced sociology tech, the iron law of oligarchy applies.

Secondly, I second the notion of independent, possibly loosely connected, and redundant societies. Or to look at it another way, if you do have advanced sociology tech, set up a social ecology as stable, complex and redundant as your biological ecology. You may not have the people budget for that though, and as usual you have to be very careful about destructive conflict.

Thirdly, I question the minimum population for high tech is billions assertion. We currently do it that way due to the same ruthless margin hunting you decry elsewhere in your post. Any Genship that pretends to have been subjected to significant thoughtful planning (probable on a big ticket item responsible for thousands of lives) will have done some work on how to do things with less people.

Fourthly, your plan has to be able to plausibly recruit crew for the ship. Maybe it's stuffed with conscripts (not good), maybe things in the Solar System are Really Bad and it's staffed with refugees (some planning problems there), but if those aren't true it will be staffed by people who Want to Go. If the ship isn't a very attractive place, you will be staffed with crazies. (Better get exactly the right kind of crazy, and good luck with that). If the Genship is attractive, it will be staffed with the influential folks who could compete out others wanting the berths, which is to say, mostly right bastards.

Fifthly, even if you are heading for a garden planet, fer Ghu's sake don't settle the damn thing. Settle other hollowed out asteroids. Your society is designed for hollowed out asteroids. It is comfortable in hollowed out asteroids. It has the correct tech package for hollowed out asteroids. You can expand massively in hollowed out asteroids before running out of room, and when you do, start on the bloody Dyson Swarm. The one in the Solar system you've been chatting with will have tips.

Leave the bloody garden planet as a park and/or scientific outpost. If you can travel between the stars, vandalizing planetary biospheres is below you. (Also, aforementioned Solar System Dyson Swarm might be belligerent wrt damaging interesting scientific and entertainment resources.)


Re: the work issue - one possible model is big naval ships. Most of the crew are entirely redundant most of the time - there are lots of them just in case the ship ends up getting shot up. However, in the meantime navies have to be very good at keeping their oversized crews busy. I think it would be useful for the though-experiment population of a thought-experiment generation ship to have enough to do - it's best for them not to get too bored!

(However, an open issue here is whether or not a large society *could* be run on military lines for decades or centuries without breaking. The real-world experience with fascism could be taken as implying that it can't be.)

Also, re: democracy, I don't personally think it's hopelessly unstable. If you look at the 20th Century, there are arguably only five countries that came through the entirety of it without some sort of political collapse, falling under foreign occupation or randomly ceasing to exist. They're the UK, the US, (arguably) Canada, Switzerland and Sweden. And one common factor is that they're all liberal democracies.

Obviously correlation =/= causation, but food for thought nonetheless.


I imagine you wouldn't design a social system, you would develop one naturally like all (most?) social systems have done.

But wouldn't that be dangerous in an interstellar voyage?

Well yes, which is why you'd first start with local O'neill style colonies that can still be rescued if things go pear shaped and once you've had some actual real world experience running such a society, strap an engine to it and send it to wherever needs colonizing (As mentioned before it would have to be an attractive colony prospect, i.e. detected terrestrial planet with biosphere traces, for example).

Or, if we go all technological, just make the colony a lump of computronium with all or a high percentage of the population of earth running as uploads in a simulated planet, then once the colony arrived people would still be a stone's throw away from "home"


Sixthly, in the time I took to write my comment, I got massively ninja'd.

Fun blog.


Why are people under the impression that the actual practical beliefs of a religion -- as opposed to the supernatural ones -- won't drift immediately?


I imagine you wouldn't design a social system, you would develop one naturally like all (most?) social systems have done.

But wouldn't that be dangerous in an interstellar voyage?

Well yes, which is why you'd first start with local O'neill style colonies that can still be rescued if things go pear shaped and once you've had some actual real world experience running such a society, strap an engine to it and send it to wherever needs colonizing (As mentioned before it would have to be an attractive colony prospect, i.e. detected terrestrial planet with biosphere traces, for example).

Or, if we go all technological, just make the colony a lump of computronium with all or a high percentage of the population of earth running as uploads in a simulated planet, then once the colony arrived people would still be a stone's throw away from "home". Interstellar colonization via planetary gestalts. One way of guaranteeing the people on the colonies are "like us".


DavidM@76: I was going to mention navy ships earlier, especially the Royal Navy during the 17th & 18th C. They pulled of some truly amazing feats of seafaring and ran stable ships for years on end - if you don't look too closely. NB press-ganging, cat-o-nine-tails, ships biscuits, stopping of for repairs & supplies, mutinies, etc...

I would not deliberately sign-up to spend my whole natural life span on one, no matter how shiny it was, unless the other options were pretty poor.


You want a stable society?

What you need is an oppressive theocracy, something like the devine pharoahs of Egypt or the god emperors of Japan. Both were relatively isolated societies with stable structres that lasted centuries.

Or - you can emulate those "arrested", "abortive" or "fossilized" civilizations described by Toynbee (nomads, eskimos, polynesians, Osmanlis, Spartans, etc.) with their highly specialized workforce resembling social insects. Generational starships may have to resemble bee hives and ant hills just to stay functional.

Or - plug the crew and passngers into an imaginary Matrix-like fake reality where they can "live" during their journey. Societal breakdowns, elections, revolutions, religious revivals, even wars can occur as simulations without actually harming the ship or its occupants.

Or - instead of suspended animation you can put the colonists on ice, literally. Millions of frozen embryos can be stored in a tiny corner of a star ship. Upon arrivel, merely start up your artifical wombs and start cranking out as many babies as you can raise. The actual crew could be androids resembling human moms and dads and programmed to love, protect and teach kids. Androids would never get bored or have revolutions during the centuries long voyage.

Or - have multiple containers each with its own isolated society (one Amish, one high tech, feudal, corporate, democratic, theocratic, paternal, feminist, etc.). Remember the 70s SF series "Starlost" starring Keir Dullea from 2001? Great idea from Harlan Ellison ruined by the executive suits.


I agree with those who think that attractive generation ships are unlikely to be possible. Definitely better to do almost anything else - hibernation, holo-decks, sending embryos, matter transmitters - anything that removes the inherent problem of designing a 'stable' society that is acceptable to socially advanced humans. Unless the reason to leave the solar system was extreme, I cannot easily imagine who would want to take the trip if it was going to mean a restricted and possibly unpleasant life for you and your offspring. I can barely tolerate 10-12 hours on airplane travel these days, and that is just as a non-working passenger.


Re: So. You, and a quarter of a million other folks, have embarked on a 1000-year voyage aboard a hollowed-out asteroid. What sort of governance and society do you think would be most comfortable, not to mention likely to survive the trip without civil war, famine, and reigns of terror? (NB: communication with the home world is assumed, as is the ability to implement any innovations they come up with that don't require a work force greater than 10% of your people.)

One question is: Why would anyone do this? Assuming lifespans something like what we have now, those who embark on this journey will die long before it reaches its destination. What is their reason for going? Because the inside of an asteroid is simply a neat place to live? If so, why not stay near earth? To contribute to an epic undertaking? Those on the asteroid may be thoroughly obsolete before they arrive. Even if kept abreast of all new technologies from earth (will earth bother or wish to share for 1000 years?), will the resources brought on the journey be sufficient to implement these new technologies, or will the expedition arrive someday to find long-lived super humans flitting about in much fancier ships?


Alex@83: 'I can barely tolerate 10-12 hours on airplane travel these days, and that is just as a non-working passenger.' - I think that just underscores the benefits of keeping busy - the crew manage to do it everyday.


I think it worth questioning why we want the colony/colonists to be "like us". We're sitting here with >20k nuclear weapons still pointing at one another (hoping they won't be used), completely failing to manage basic resource/environmental problems, still dealing with some very basic tribal conflict issues.... Which part of this are we trying to preserve on Alpha Centauri exactly?

Another question I thing should be examined is why "we" think that a hollowed-out asteroid colony in Earth orbit would be politically/socially stable when the same one at 0.01c would not be. Is it the neighbours? The illusion that one can go out and travel? Is there no real difference?

And lastly, perhaps the real goals of the colonization deserve scrutiny. I believe Charlie was driving the "like us" requirement based on needing to survive in a questionable environment. Can this still be met while allowing completely anarchy and low-level warfare on your ship for the n-1 generations before arrival? (as long as genetic diversity is maintained) Never mind, I can't finish this one coherently without reaching....


I'm surprised nobody's mentioned Gene Wolf's Book of the Long Sun yet. That featured a hollowed-out asteroid generation ship populated by multiple, competing city states. We didn't get a lot of information on the ones other than the protagonist's home state, but it was made clear that they all had very different political systems.

Obviously state-level factionalism and warfare is a drain on limited resources, and the people on the generation ship in that series had regressed technologically to roughly the 1700s. But if having all the citizens under a single political system, and that system becomes a make-or-break aspect of the whole mission, it might make sense to design for this kind of waste as a way of hedging the risk.


@45: I agree with you Martin, for purely practical reasons. Colonizing a working biosphere is kind of a risky thing to do, and I think we've talked about it before. The biggest problem is that microbes from the planet might colonize your biosphere, and suddenly, all the systems that worked for the last 1000 years don't work the same anymore. That's bad.

Ideally, if you want to settle and/or colonize an alien planet, make sure that you have the technology, they're on the ground, and that they can't build a rocket to get back to you. You can still talk, trade information for resources, and so on, but until you can prove that monkeys can live in a canned hybrid gaian/alien biosphere, it's not worth the risk.

Another thought: any generation ship has a lifespan measured by the predicted lifespan of the drive and/or life support system. The job of the flight crew is to make sure that the ship makes it to a point where it can resupply, period. These people don't necessarily have to be part of the day-to-day politics of the passengers. They could be in the "screw with them and we all die horribly" group. This is all to point out that a bifurcated political system is possible, with a meritocracy running the critical ship infrastructure, and some other system for the ecosphere. In practical terms, this would be akin to having two groups: one (the ship's crew) responsible for getting everyone there, the other (the ship's passengers) responsible for getting themselves there by keeping their portion of life support working.


Since we have little experience with human institutions lasting anywhere near 1000 years, actually directing the "governance" has to be a non-starter, unless we are talking AIs or Sekrit Masters who really run our generation ship. We really have no choice but to go with whatever the crew does; we are very poor at predicting and directing social change. Our liberal democracy or Venetian city council may mutate into a monarchy or a nasty dictatorship. The issue is not to stop this, but rather to make it as irrelevant as possible to the ultimate goal of the voyage.

Perhaps, if it really only takes 10% of the passengers' efforts to keep the ship running, we can work harder on our AIs and get that down as close to zero as possible, and give the rest of the job to a priesthood (either religious or scientific).

Allowing our ship to be in continuous communication with the home planet probably makes things even worse. Most Earth changes generate envy, as they require resources the ship doesn't have, or worse, produce outcomes that would demoralize the crew (immortality drugs that can't be created on the ship). And that's just the good changes; what if Earth civilization collapses? How do our colonists feel then?


My ideas seem to parallel a lot of other peoples. Apologies for not explicitly giving the nod of the head to everyone, I kind of lost track....

How about combining the monastic ideal with a sleeper system, to add dynamism?

There is a permanent crew of technician-monks and the a large hold filled with frozen passengers. The passengers wake up and live for a while on a reasonably elongated schedule. Any passenger wanting to can opt out of sleeping and join the monastics. Any monastic wanting to can opt into sleeping and wake up much later in the voyage.

You would (IMO!) get a slow churn of ideas, people who get bored can go back into cryo and wake up a lot later with a different group of people. If you allow for it, people can settle down and have children.

It would be a slowly evolving society with at pretty much all times a core of people who still hold the ideals that inspired them to get on board in the first place...


I don't think it's about the difference in stability between a hollowed out asteroid in Earth orbit and one outbound at 0.01c but the relative importance of that stability.

If the orbital habitat goes tits up there are at least potentially other sources of resources and people that can assist with the situation. The entire society isn't necessarily dependent on that stability.

However, once you get even a significant fraction of a light-year away from everyone else, then stability becomes much more important. If it breaks down after 500 years it's a much bigger problem than if it happens to the orbiting society.

It's the difference between an open and closed system.


I agree: @49, @53, @54, @59.

Just like immigrants doing things that the entrenched population can't bother with I suggest that other major ecological niches be filled with animals other than humans, or humans that are made for that purpose. Maybe even make Humans not the densest node in the network of life and/or top of the food chain.

Think less "society" and more "ecology". Crows don't build dams, bears don't break down waste material, worms don't spread seeds, and beavers don't make honey (mmm, beaver honey). My point is that humans all by them selves make for a lonely shitty world. AND they may not even be able to adapt to the world they land on.
"Holy smokey, King Jim, if only we had brought animal X we'd be shiny. Oh well, let's curl up and die."

Also you'll most probably want to populate your ship with midgets, hey, every .05% of efficiency counts.


Not quite off topic, but this is an interesting intersection of Kelson's question about minimum pressure in the habitat and politics.

Minimizing the air volume (i.e. running at low pressure) is a really good idea, because there's less air to move, and less of a pressure differential to deal with. There are minimum levels of oxygen below which things can't reproduce, and mammals are particularly vulnerable when sufficient oxygen can't cross the placenta. Still, we can get by with a lot less air than we do at sea-level.

That said, the mountain people in the Andes and Himalayas use plant drugs, coca and marijuana respectively, to help them adapt to working hard at high elevation. Stuff works, too.

So, we have an intersection between technical and social issues: drugs in space.

Do we think it's legit to give people coca leaves to help them get through a work shift, but bust the idiots who are cooking crack in the crawlspaces? This is a social issue, but it's also an adaptation issue. Is the potential for having addiction problems worth bringing drug plants along for their beneficial uses?


In fact, we've done more and better on the governing front than you think. Checks and balances are the most important thing for making a constitution last centuries. The Roman Republic lasted five centuries, and the US Constitution incorporates both checks and balances and an effective bugfix for the problem that brought them down (army paid by and so loyal to its generals). Democracy may seem bad to you, but you've been living in a nearly unchecked state until this year. Our constitution's been going 220 years; it's suffered corruption and decay. But, it's still going strong, and IMHO has centuries of life left in it, though it won't last forever. IMHO it's likeliest to be peacefully obsoleted for something bigger-scale than be hacked.

And, do notice which form of government's researchers noticed the global warming problem, and which form has done best, so far, at enviromental stewardship. We've already been using a combination of regulation, stewardship memes, innovation, and higher prices for rarer objects or objects we we want to discourage buying to keep trouble at bay better than others.

A Tokugawa-style generation ship would have the same problem its example did - it'd be way out of date once it got wherever it was going.


Re: A 10-hour work week, in contrast, gives them a fighting chance of survival in event of a major die-off.

Hmmm... What happens when the ship arrives? The people onboard have lived inside a rock all their lives. They have worked 10 hours per week. Ditto their parents, grandparents, great etc, etc.

Now they are here and they all troop down to the planet's surface, start building houses, farms, roads, schools, etc in all kinds of weather (weather? what's that?) 40, 50, 60 hours a week. How long before they find another rock to get inside of? How long will it take to want to live on a planet?


Can we add the traditional Chinese bureaucracy to the list of extremely long-lived institutions? (I'm not 100% sure about this, but I have a feeling it outlasted a number of European empires, all the while acquiring a truly frightening level of complexity).

Thoroughly agree with martin@75's last two paragraphs. Although we possibly wouldn't recognise much about a society that was tooled up to live like that.


I once wrote a short story set in the Pioneer 10 museum, which we will one day build to celebrate the first artificial object to leave the solar system. We'll build it around Pioneer 10, of course, perfectly co-moving. Visitors to the museum will be able to walk around the space-craft and admire its antique workmanship as it obliviously continues its steady journey towards Aldebaran.

Generation ships will enjoy a similar fate.


Another novel that addresses with some of these issues is Vernor Vinge's "A Deepness in the Sky" (although the time scale for the primary plotline is on the order of decades rather than centuries.) Specifically, Vinge uses a variant on the hibernation idea where the crew works in shifts. At any given time 1/3 of the crew is awake and the other 2/3 of the crew is in deep sleep where they don't age; this effectively triples the collective lifespan of the crew. This way you could reduce the number of generations required to make the trip.


I would expect that any society that was limited to a single generation ship would of necessity have to be somewhat more authoritarian than most modern societies are. Considering that the environment itself would be likely much more fragile than on Earth, and conceivably the actions of one person could kill large numbers of people (say, if that person sabotaged the air filters or built a bomb and used it to blow a hole in the fuselage),regardless of the level of multiple redundancy the ship had, then it seems likely that punishments we would consider draconian would be necessary as a deterrent - think medieval-style torture and brutal public executions. Alternatively, if there were a way to destroy someone's personality and rebuild it from scratch, as in Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man, this would be a more palatable alternative.

Furthermore, such a society could not afford any excess baggage, so prisons would be a no-no. About the most lenient punishment possible would be a chain-gang style work group.

There's also the issue of how diverse the society could be. Humans being humans, it's likely that one grouping or other would be victimised during the course of the journey, despite the best efforts of the mission planners. On the one hand we could create a society that was as diverse as possible so that there's no clear majority of one ethnic group, but all it would take would be for a few more of one group to be born en route and a few less of another and soon one ethnicity would be in the majority.

So maybe sending only members of a single ethnic group would be a better idea, but it would be hard to decide which group should go. And it would certainly be controversial here on Earth prior to launch - I can imagine newspapers being filled with comic strips showing a huge rocket with a Whites Only sign on it!

A single language, however, would probably be non-negotiable - if all the warning signs are in English, you can't very well have a few non-English speakers who can't read the big red Do Not Press button. And even if everyone spoke the same language as at least a second language, then different languages can still divide people.

Personally I think that a society designed for a long-term endeavour such as this should be as simple as possible, and this would mean giving them as little knowledge as possible. Anyone with a grudge, no matter how primitive, can smash the air filter with a rock, but only someone with a good enough knowledge of technology can overload the engines and blow everyone to bits. Also, small, simple societies such as villages are easy to control, especially if they follow a religion that is designed to force their thinking along certain desirable lines. The regular maintenance of the ship could becoming part of the religion - so changing fluorescent lightbulbs could be their religious duty. There would still need to be some people who could sort out more technical problems, though.

So maybe divide the interior of the ship up into separate areas and place a village in each. It offers easy multiple redundancy in that if anything goes wrong in one village's habitat, it won't adversely affect the others. Individual villages support themselves through agriculture (I'm thinking rice paddies, as they could raise fish in the same fields), and have them all share a common religion that keeps them maintaining their habitat.

Once they reach their destination, then maybe the colonists could begin to pick up the skills they'd left behind again from some kind of records that would be made available to them at the time.

The main problem is that this scenario requires someone to watch over the ship to handle what the primitives can't. One way would be to have a separate group of "Angels", who would have access to technology and would be responsible for more complex tasks, such as repairing the drives. To the primitives, they might seem divine, which could easily cause them to become an elite, thus dividing society.

Even if they only came among the primitives occasionally during the journey, after planetfall when everyone was down on the surface they would likely remain the "nobility" of the new world, possibly causing conflict later on.

The only other way I can think of is having AI's look after the ship and have them pass their knowledge on to the colonists after planetfall.

But, of course, that argument falls flat on its face if you don't have a shirtsleeve environment at the other end.

How about hereditary professions? They were common in societies such as ancient Egypt, and would help to ensure sufficient numbers of people with the necessary skills. They could even take them as their name, similar to how many modern English names come from people's profession, such as Butcher, Baker, Thatcher etc. So, say Mr and Mrs Aquaculture Habitat Maintainer have two kids and they both learn the family trade and pass it on to their kids. But it does still run the risk of someone not suited to a profession being forced into it and putting the whole ship in danger through their incompetence.


Step 1: Send out A.I. controlled generation ship that can survive 20-30 years without human intervention. Ship has no humans on-board, but has womb tanks and an extensive gene bank.

Step 2: A.I. births and trains first generation. Plenty of extensional robots to train and care for the tykes. Emphasis placed on cooperation, self-sacrifice, etc. Pick a model of a tight-knit resource limited society, like Inuit, as a baseline model. Omit certain words and concepts from training (war, etc). After generation proves it can sustain itself (repair/replace robots, care for biome, etc), A.I. goes into watcher mode.

Step 3: Ship society naturally evolves into a stable society. If it doesn't, A.I. exterminates current generation and tries again with altered initial parameters.

Step 4: When ship gets within 20-30 years of planet-fall, A.I. exterminates the current generation. A.I. births a new generation and trains with settler/frontier oriented culture with a strong grounding in the Philosophy/Religion/Belief Framework that prompted launching the ship in the first place.

Step 5: A.I. unlocks full historical and technological databases... except for the part about the A.I. manipulating and murdering the in-flight generations. A convenient "it was all automation" statement to the settler generation may be enough to deflect their curiosity.

Which proves that what you really need for this trip is a really good A.I. The humans are superfluous in-flight, unless they are needed for some obscure task that the automation will have a difficult time handling. I have a hard time fathoming what that could be though.

Bottom line is, I don't think you will get a stable on-ship society unless you evolve it. Others have suggested doing that before the first ship leaves. That might work, except what kind of society can do a 500 year on the ground experiment?

Ultimately, the society that is on the ship, for good or ill, is likely to be composed of Strong Believers who have a motive for leaving Earth (religious intolerance, political philosophy, etc). If it is because of Looming Disaster (rogue black hole, unstable Sun, mutant super-weasels etc), then its going to be composed of whatever society of Them That's Got, rather than Them That's Optimized for Survival.


Jon@94: Don't forget the US in its 220 years has undergone an attempted secession that had to be put down by a major civil war. A generation ship couldn't survive that. The UK is no more "stable", our secessionists (mostly) succeeded, and left us with an on-again, off-again insurgency that lasted another 75 years and may not be over yet. A generation ship couldn't survive that either.


@88...The idea of potential conflict between microbes at the colonization point is more than a little unnerving...could we assume that since this mission is for colonization, that in order to get a picture of what the colonists are in for, we've sent ahead a (faster than 1% c) robot to take some samples and report back?

Bit of a lag time, to be sure, but a worthwhile investment. If the colony ship is in constant contact with Earth, then the information resources of the home planet could be utilized to help the colonists produce working solutions along the way, since we're assuming the colonists have a high degree of autonomy. It would also give a lot of folk something to do right away...

That said, do we really want heavy specialization? I'm not leaning towards generalization, jack-of-all-trades kind of thinking, but rather comprehensiveness. A biologist with a CS degree is probably never going to be bored, and is also going to have a wealth of info to disseminate with her fellows.

So, you get a colloquium and practicum based intermingling of your 250K seeds with the aim of, let's say, four areas of human expertise within an average 70 year lifespan. Every decade or so you have them move *within* the colony (as family units if necessary) so that the idea of a colonist being on a *colonial* ship is fairly constantly reinforced. Stagger that inter-ship movement with some brownian motion. Kids will help with stirring the pot. 450 years is just under six and a half of those average lifespans...that much stirring might just create a longing for the relative permanence of a new home around a new star.

Now, considering the original intent is to colonize a system, just how much governance is *really* going to be required? The qualities that we find manifest approval in a 'good leader' (which is probably subject to debate), mean just how much when the first part of the colonization mission has one primary task, and that's making it to the new homestead.

Whatever system that's decided upon must persuade the colonists away from hoarding while at the same time not be oppressive, nor requiring constant excellence on the colonist's part, assuming that they're only human.


t3knomanser: "Anyone who seriously suggests applying capitalism to a resource limited environment is a fool, though."

It's not the resources you need it for, but general adaptability. Someone else here wrote that there won't be a need to adapt, because circumstances will be constant. But people won't. It's not external circumstances that drives social change on Earth, it's humans themselves.

What are people going to do on this journey? Let's say fixed and limited resources are managed, and managed well, by a government. So you eat, and sleep, and wake up to live another day. And then what?

The purpose is to get people to eventually arrive at their destination. People need things to do. Which means there will be services, and art, and media - and religion. And it will all happen in ways it is impossible to predict beforehand. Only somebody who has been born and grown up in this environment can really know what is required to give meaning to people who live there.

Which means you need to start out with a society that is adaptable. A society that can look at itself, and change how it operates, without excessively painful conflicts. Which is the strength of capitalism and democracy. Capitalism provides a way for people to change how they live their lives, and democracy a way to change how society is run, without having to shoot anyone.

Of course it's likely to fail. But at least you should start out with the most adaptable model possible, and hope it doesn't degenerate too soon. The civil war may happen five generations in instead of three, for instance.

If you want to start out with an inflexible model, you'd first have to invent one that works, then test it over several generations on actual humans. You'd have to do that because you'd have a lot to prove. An inflexible model requires that you get everything perfectly right from the beginning. An adaptable model assumes that people will themselves be able to solve unexpected problems - and we already know that is possible.

Of course, it's silly to assume that we can only send one ship. If we have a hundred, the smartest solution may be to seed each of them with a different social system. You'd send communists off in one ship, libertarians in another, just because it's possible that they will create a sustainable society.


It seems to me that we can't expect to know enough about the future of any organization to be able to predict what will last for centuries. I think it is far better to go into it with your eyes open, knowing that whatever you set up will likely be quite different at the end of the voyage than at the start.

Any large population will be divided or will divide into separate tribes or groups in one way or another, even if they are not geographically separated. Give the whole population the best possible chance of surviving by making it as diverse, mixed, flexible, and open as possible. Move information around the population as quickly as possible. Give the people the ability to communicate with as wide an audience as possible. The internet is helping to level the playing field here on Earth, but I expect it would have an even stronger effect if it is in place and universally accessible within the community right from the start.

Maximize constructive competition. Maximize the inclusion of sports and intellectual competitions that allow team members and fans to have adversaries, goals, failures, and victories. Think of every constructive way to get groups of people competing for positive goals. Find ways to create competitions that benefit society. Find ways to turn jobs into competitions. Find ways to engage citizens outside their careers. People do well when they have a goal and an adversary.

Make it about the journey not the destination. The citizens need to have fulfilling lives despite the fact that most will never see the destination. The government needs to allow them the ability to live a full life on the ship not a restricted one. Treat the ship as a small world not a ship. This is their colony. Yes, their descendants may eventually live on another world, an actual planet, but in the meantime the citizens are living in this one. Provide the ability to continue scientific research and technological advancement. Allow them the chance to continually improve their environment. Whatever government is initially set up needs to consider the journey as the short term goal and serve the citizens of the here and now.


The leading internal cause of death for societies is the dominance of a political oligarchy that is too rigid to adapt to changing circumstances and sees its sole purpose to be protecting the privileges of the already privileged. Put less politely, the leading internal cause of death for societies is conservatism. Designing political systems that are immune to takeover by conservative oligarchies is an unsolved (and possibly unsolvable) problem.

Strictly excluding authoritarian personality types from the initial passenger load and establishing structures to keep any later-generation APs out of political power might help. Age limits on political leaders may also be effective.


I think that if you have AIs capable of running the show, you have AIs that can colonize the bloody target themselves at much less expense and much greater speed. (If you insist on meat colonization at some point, have the AIs develop a high tech civilization and then build some meat to inhabit it. Strikes me as inefficient though.)

More generally, the whole idea of a genship requires somewhat unintuitive to me "soonnesses" wrt when some techs are going to be ready.

It requires very strong biology to build the ecosystem. [ok]

It requires very strong sociology to keep running. [meh - maybe]

It requires a strong space infrastructure to even consider building the thing. [Why do we even have space infrastructure? How long has it taken to build?]

It requires awesome space travel tech to consider sending it somewhere in any reasonable length of time. [Plus stopping. Big, high energy stuff. Fundamental game changing stuff.]

However, if mind uploading or AI come first, the whole thing is pointless - send metal. [AI is not near, but it strikes me as much nearer than the space stuff. Ditto uploading.]

Similarly, if revivable monkeysickles come first, then send em frozen in a can rather than in a genship. [Seems to me that the deep understanding and control of bio needed to build the genship should lead to this.]

Also, if strong biotech comes first, the ecology and crew can be made to order and provided maintenance on a much smaller scale than a genship implies. [Seems nearer to me than the space stuff, and would develop along with the required ecology.]

In other words, the genship implies a significant number of massive technical achievements, and another batch of significant failures. Some of them are connected.

Gonna be tricky to set up a background where the genship makes a lot of sense.

Any plan that requires the successes not to be there, or the failures to be there, pushes unfortunate SoD buttons for me.


I'd vote for a cross between stakeholder society (Genossenschaft, that's cooperative) and city state. Worked quite well with some of the old cities (that are really old institutions) already mentioned.

The co-operative society part: every person by birth (actualized with the 16th birthday) - owns an equal stake of the ship (the more people, the more stakes). With the death of the stakeholder, the stake becomes nil (so no direct hereditary effects). Being a stakeholder encompasses citizenship (right to vote, right to veto if there are more than x% of all stakeholders of one opinion ...), enables certain rights (getting to eat, housing, ...) and also leads to certain obligations (work 15-20 h/week in aptitude-adequate position, participate in the annual elections of the political commitee etc.).

The communitarian city state model means maybe a hierarchy of local communities (spatial or "operational", ie. hydroculture community, artistic community, navigational staff community, ...) forming the generation ship city. You get to know your co-citizens - and you also do know whom you want to elect coordinator(s) of your local community. Ship-wide decisions are either organized by vote of all stakeholders, or, for less important decisions, by consensus between the coordinators of the local communities.


One problem with creating a social model for the spaceship is that everything we know on earth is worthless. Every society or political model we had had one thing that you do not have on a spaceship, room for expansion. In fact one could argue that every nation since the dawn of time has thrived on expansion, however static it may have seemed, there was always more land to conquer, improvements in agriculture, people stared building up, outside markets increase, etc.
The point is resources are fixed in a spaceship (unless you collect intersolar dust). Therefore any society is automatically static. And as such no current or past earth model is likely to work.


The only one I can think of is a Monastic style society. Monasteries have survived very long times compared to other human institutions. And they're designed to avoid things like idleness while engaging in useful work.

They wouldn't have to be religious (though that is probably a good basis). Something like the secular monasteries in Stephenson's "Anathem" comes to mind.

But a society with a shared value system, strong work ethic, community-orientation, and a promotion of selflessness would be ideal. Useful once you arrived for building a colony as well at the start. Longer-term once population grows you'd need to allow changes somehow. I suspect it would happen organically as there were too many people and too much open space for control.

It could help with reproduction issues too. If you kept genders mostly separate, you could control births and reduce other problems. Perhaps separate environmental sections with regimented social interactions on special festival days?


Andrew G: Birthrates in cultures with high standards of living and high population densities trend to replacement (or even lower) within a few generations. This is happening all around the world.


@ doowop
The 'Matrix-like' simulation should be of the destination planet. Let them think they are already there, and 'before they know it' they will be.


Chris L: Yes, but we're talking about a shipboard environment -- and one designed to last centuries. We don't know that people would have the right amount of children. They may get board and make lots. Or they may not make enough. A social system for a generation ship has to account for that.

There's also genetic diversity. It might be a good idea to continually introduce new, stored, genetic material to the genepool during the voyage. Which means adoption of children more or less.


All societies, even democracies, seem to be quasi-stable, with outbreaks of violent change occurring following a power-law distribution - small changes are frequent, larger changes less frequent, but never reaching a cut-off point. The problem for a society in a generation ship is that the maximum size of violent change is sharply limited. Beyond a certain level of disorder, everyone dies, whether through a catastrophic failure (war that punches a hole in the ship skin) or a systematic failure (extinctions in the biosphere, extinction of the knowledge to run the biosphere).

This means that there'll be a requirement for the society to be responsible and self-limiting. However, there is no requirement for that society to be just, fair, or compassionate.

One example is Pitcairn Island. It's probably the most isolated example of a long-term community that we've got, a spec in the depths of the South Pacific, with a population that's varied between 50-250 since 1790. The history began with the mutiny on the Bounty, went through murder, slavery and alcoholism, had a successful transition to extreme religion, and spent the Twentieth Centry in what we'd call the systematic sexual abuse of twelve-year old girls. Many of the men there, including the Mayor and his deputy, called this "a normal part of Pitcairn life".

This continued over generations, because of the requirement for social stability. What else is going to happen? Without the community working together, then the place economically falls to pieces. When you're all your eggs in one social and economic basket, you're not going to tip that basket over, and if you're mad enough to try, then everyone else will try to stop you.

The problem was only resolved by outside force, namely intervention by the British Government. Pitcairn also had a safety valve - substantial emigration to much larger communities. That's not available on a generation ship. Without safety valves, it's going to get messy, eventually.


Much of our bad behavior originates from growing up in a dysfunctional culture (the "protestant work ethic underlying American-style capitalism, with its added dog-eat-dog ethos", for example). The original crew would have to be brought up in an environment isolated from the rest of humanity, and ingrained with whatever values and economic/political institutions which are deemed to be stabilizing to the starship culture.


I haven't thought deeply on your analysis so this is a stream of consciousness sort of reply.

I'm only mentioning one core idea here.

Do away with any thought of a space ship that needs constant attention to move.

Replace that idea with a "ship" that just goes in a direction whether or not the engineers are on strike.

This could be a comet with a hollow core, an O-Neil, a Thistledown like lump of rock, something like a ringworld...

The place is big enough to sustain several different societies. Physical design makes it natural to have multiple cultures if the societies are pre-industrial. (Islands, Minefields, Berlin walls of China/West Bank, gorges, caves systems, moons in the sky...) make for "natural" physical separation.

There's enough energy and information (= technologies) to keep it going till it gets there, and to slow it down if the residents want to stop at Epsilson Eridani when they get there. This is varied. Coal, the right pure Boron isotope to fuel those wiffle ball cold fusion reactors, a sun of suns in the sky!... Computer language specifications, chip fabrication machines, machine tools, seed banks, wrist mounted DNA sequencers... Stock it with a good variety of humans, with a good share of stronger, brighter, more creative...

An engineering team gets it started on it's way and works on it at least for a while. After that the guys are on their own and will evolve. The engineers might survive as is, they might be eliminated, they might evolve; the core thing is that even without them the "ship" can just keep going, albeit probably with some intelligent action from the citizens.

There's a lot of varieties can come from that basic "formula". The essence is get em started then give them some chance of figuring their own way to survive, change, evolve and get off at the preselected destination if they want.

They might decide that trekking through space is the "only way to travel" utterly uber cool and raid passing stellar systems to make more "ships" like their own, initiating a sort of accelerated panspermia!!


@65 and 72 - The "cities that travel" were James Blish’s creation, not Asimov. Credit where credit is due.

There are two forms of government which would be complete disasters unless we radically alter human behavior; anarchy and direct democracy.

Absent the ideal human, anarchy lends itself to easy takeover by either ruthless and violent groups or, well-meaning idealists insistent upon the absolutely "correct" society.

I live in Oregon, a very close approximation of direct democracy. I spent two years with a group studying the Initiative and Referendum system here. It is a completely open system which allows any group with sufficient resources to enact laws and change the Constitution. It has given us anti-gay marriage articles in the constitution, along with other unpleasant and self-defeating laws about "mandatory minimum" prison sentences. Direct democracy is too often prey to demagoguery and the madness of crowds.

A strictly representative democracy with hard and fixed, but long, terms is as stable a form of non-tyrannical governance as any in history. Legislative representatives would be elected from sub-units for a term of, say, 10-20 years and then would be out. They would also be subject to "recall" in the event of malfeasance in office. The Executive would be limited to the same terms. The sub-units would be self created and, if dissolved, would notify the appropriate agencies. As would new sub-units. Some sort of limitation on size of the sub-units would be required to prevent domination of larger units. The US decadal census is also a sound self correction tool. (See the US Electoral College, or the House of Representatives.)

The best answer really is described above. People being people, the best thing is to put most of them to sleep while waking some rotating portion for several years at a time. I'd also want to rotate the captaincy every decade or so. The idea of one person ruling for many decades at a time just bothers me.

There's more but, I've already said too much.


Plenty of universities have been in continuous operation for 800+ years. In fact, it's pretty hard to find an example of a university that fell apart and stopped functioning. Worst case is more or less Paris 1968, or perhaps the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Scholastica_riot, which seems survivable in a sensibly designed spaceship.

So if you set things up so that the students and professors get all the necessary work done, then the only constraint on the rest of society is that it is a source of students, a sink of graduates, and that it doesn't physically blow up the ship.

Lots of things would work for that, from hunter-gatherers-with-health-care (as in le Guin's Always Coming Home) to Warcraft-7.0-players to even a 21-century service-exchange economy (everyone's a hairdresser, programmer, DJ, ...).

Might as well have them all and have the outgoing students pick one at around the time they gradually come to realise they are never going to get their second dissertation finished.


Yes - (kudos to @5) the book should be called "are we there yet?", be set entirely on a generation ship, long before arrival, but a few generations after departure.

Based on several days of discussion the challenges to a working generation ship are centred around (in no particular order):
1) Social
2) biology
3) physics

Sci-fi authors having more physicists than anything else much more has been been written about 3) than the other two.

Even if 1) is not a challenge in absolute terms (and this is far from definite)- It's one hell of a moral one - I don't think engineering a theocracy (or a pitcairnesque stable dystopia) and sending it off to the stars counts as success...

I think we've established that 2) is also quite hard...

Oh, and capitalism is just silly in this context. This does pose massive problems for how we stop organisations atrophying.

Finally, I can’t help but feel that those planning their ship to be based on a celibate religious order may have missed a problem.


Captive Universe - Harry Harrison. Genetically engineer your "crew" into separate tribes with reduced intelligence in such a way that they breed back to human normal when they interbreed. Set them up in a fake-primitive subsistence ecosystem and run the ships (more-or-less) on automatic.

Again, optimising for survival rather than equity...


Why are so many people here convinced that the pinnacle of liberal civilisation's achievement must necessarily be its antithesis? A lot of ideas along the lines of "reduce the shipsters to pre-civilised" or "engineer a tyranny that'll work this time, yes really".

And artificial womb tanks. Really. I thought that had been vented to space back on the High Frontier thread.

There is probably a bend in the curve of governmental rigidity; you want it to be fairly easy to overthrow the state but not so much that it's a casual step. Perhaps closer to the average instability of France than of the UK.

(Oh yes; Canada was repeatedly invaded, by British and French colonists, by American Indian and colonial forces, by British amphibious forces, by American land forces..)


Several posts have mentioned the Culture - one aspect of the Culture that is rarely mentioned in such references is that its "humans" are radically engineered to nearly remove the sorts of insanities we could expect to destroy fragile biospheres, and disrupt societies, in the long-term.

The three pillars of Culture success are:

- Weakly godlike AIs who, being way more enlightened than even Culture "humans", are just gosh-darn nice most of the time, and run the industrial base on their own as easily as we run breathing;

- Utter lack of scarcity of everything one could conceive of, except of social status (everyone wants to be in Special Circumstances);

- Human nature itself was changed back when the Culture was forming, so people stopped being dicks to each other so much.

I'd say that engineered humans could cope even with a bit of scarcity of mass for a few thousand years, as long as the population remained steady and you had nanoassemblers to let you make your mass allocation into anything you like.

So my answer to the question would be: Don't send unaltered humans, no matter what your society resembles, don't use today's technology, and don't let the puny, mentally limited superhumans run the industrial base!


I think a lot of it depends on what level of technology you have available. For example, capitalism need not be painful, nor even a bad idea.

As for how, it would require nano-technology, or some other technology capable of ripping the interior environment apart and putting it back together again. Essentially, a post-production technology.

The way I would set up the society is it starts out as an agrarian culture, but people being people, they insist on making things better. When it sets out, the ship has buried iron and other metal deposits. There are mountains with waterfalls and rivers suitable for generating power throughout.

As people burn things, or dump things into the rivers, the ship recycles the material and returns it to the system as silt and organic molecules in rain clouds and at the beginnings of the rivers.

The waterfalls would serve dual purposes of clean water for agrarian eras, and power during industrial ones.

As for social designs, you simple don't. Let the people determine what they want/can live with/are forced to live with.

The important part is that there be a way for every person to talk to the computer. The computer wouldn't need to be very smart, but it would need to have plans for re-making the world. When enough people are unhappy, or the biosphere is on the very, very edge of collapse, to the point people are dying, then the computer activates the nanotechnology to put everyone to sleep, and remakes the world, removing all traces of technology, resetting it all to the basic agrarian life that people started with.

I would think that each person would have a companion that they could talk to the computer with. In agrarian eras, that would be a useful animal, such as an oxen or horse. When the world is reset, the people would have no idea how to farm, and the computer would talk through the animals to teach them, and answer questions.

In other eras, the animals change to fit what's needed. In industrial eras, they could be more like dogs, or, depending on what tech level's resources you put in the environment, phones or little mechanical robots.

There should never be any secret that the computer is watching everything, or that this is a ship going someplace.

What happens is that people make society and make mistakes. Eventually, it will either become stable, or people will become very unhappy and push the reset button.


John Munro @ 36 I was curious why machine intelligences had been left out…
Haar @ 52 presumably we want scientists onboard, and moreover want to foster an environment of technical/technological/scientific education, achievement and competence. This seems, to put it mildly, pretty incompatible with inculcating a rigid theocratically-exploitable mythos. (excepting AI, but if really deified than who cares what social structures humans have? they need have no hands on joysticks)
Mattan @ 55, quote"Thus there needs to be facilities and capabilities for development which goes beyond just the goals of the journey. Labs for scientists to develop their ideas, studios for artists to work, gyms for athletes, etc. " - exactly. I think there should be a kind of segregation of the developmental/learning spheres and the maintenance sphere. Persevere in scientific/scholastic pursuits (simulation infrastructure) long enough to demonstrate stability to work with the real deal, starship infrastructure, novel technological implementations, etc. etc. Think a very comfortable and intricate but insulated playpen. (along Alex @ 59's lines.. without the eugenics.)

Also, am struck by similarity of this scenario to that our benefactor laid out in the Septagon system in the Eschaton books… Scarcity as psychological condition leading to meritocracy: we are forced to excel because of our proximity to vacuum.

The ant colony idea seems attractive, but I wonder whether we could keep certain subsets of our colonist/inhabitants tightly coiled around the capitalist attractor by continually refreshing a kind of blank-slate microworld. Competition comes in the form of who can terraform/bootstrap technologies and implement them in the blankslate playpen faster. Some kind of point system lends incentive to excel at this technological tournament in the form of massively increased leisure capabilities (more simulation time on the supercomputers? ability to procreate? I'm not sure exactly what carrot, but in any case very short term. Not the kind of carrot that allows hegemony to form around the victors, but certainly an incentive to compete w/ ones otherwise equal peers in a limited pursuit such as speed-terraforming, or some other suitably useful skill presumably to be enacted "for real" whenever the genship gets to the chosen rock.) Encapsulate capitalist mode within hopefully stable leisure society, game played upon suitably secure non-vacuum couch. Infrastructure somehow sacrosanct, non-point giving but seen as honorable, probably older people doing it after tiring of other pursuits?


My first thought is dictatorial ship-board computer that has control of a lot of the ship-sustaining processes and a good contingency memory bank for how to keep human behavior on track over the generations.

Computer-imposed eugenics would probably be important as well, so that behavioral phenotypes suitable for colonialism but not necessarily optimal for life on a ship aren't lost from the population.


A scholastic society is an interesting approach, but by their nature universities are open societies. They have a very stable structure, but rely on bringing in young students and passing them through in a few years. Without that, there's not much to hold them together.

There's another possibility, though a somewhat unpleasant one: temporary modification of the passengers. If you need a large pool of passengers for genetic reasons, but don't need them as crew there's no reason to keep them at the human norm. If you were to diminish the IQ of each generation through some artificial means, you could keep them out of trouble and keep them from going stir crazy.

Many people are functional at very below-average intelligence, in a stable setting. And they find things rewarding in life that are trivial to people of average or above average intelligence. Drop the IQ of the people on the ship down to 70 or so for the generations of the voyage, and give them menial tasks that keep them busy and happy without putting the ship at risk.

When it comes time to colonize a world, the artificial agent that decreases intelligence is removed so that future generations develop at the human norm.


Anybody read Stephen Baxter's Ark? Trying to not be too spoilerific here, but it posits a star ship crewed by about 80 people on a multiple decade journey. They have births, deaths, abuse, rebellion and yes, even people tasked to do the cleaning - wash walls etc.

Which reminds me, are we talking multi-generational ships with or without gravity?


I find this an interesting problem, and similar to many discussions I have had with friends, although those were about nuclear survival. Most of those discussions were characterized by extrapolating abject failure, though.

What interests me about your hypothetical scenario is the discussion of large-scale ideologies for the society on this ship. When you talk about a quarter-million people, I can't help but think we're speaking of a city. Perhaps its just my ethnocentrism speaking, but I don't think I can imagine a town of that size making decisions about things like, say, natural rights, or the definition of murder. I simply don't know how so small a population can be represented effectively and honestly unless put to strict-democracy, which I don't see as a viable method for day-to-day management of a ship. I suppose it would make more sense to me for the ship to launch with a body of law and provisions to modify it by majority vote.

I suppose if we were to look for an example city, we'd be looking for one that has kept a stable population for a millennium, produces virtually no nonrenewable waste, has a high efficiency in space-usage with a lack of sprawl, and has a fair economic output and standard of living for inhabitants. The only pertinent examples I can think of would be island cultures, and I haven't researched them enough to comment.

As for what I'd like to see in a generation-ship government? Well, I'd like to see a government that protected my basic rights, kept the ship and all contents in good running order, had a harsh and well-maintained population cap policy, fed me, provided for my education up the chain, gave me choices of interesting, variable, and personally fulfilling professions, and allowed for the production of entertainment. Infrastructure is most important, naturally; can't enjoy my sims if there's no oxygen. As for the concerns of the municipal government? Well, it would be more important to me when my life was on the line, I'd hope, but as it stands now I have no idea what the Aldermen or Ombudsmen do, so I doubt I'd be interested.

I'd say I'd be so thrilled to be on a colony ship that I'd be up for just about anything, but that's not taking into account years aboard ship, even before generational churn. Even if everyone going onto the ship is gung-ho (and ethnically/socially homogeneous, if you like), give it one generation before some kids take up the idea of opposing the mission (most obvious available rebellion), or people find some other reason to crack skulls.


Hollow out a huge asteroid and terraform it on the inside. (Rotate it for 0.8-1.0 gravity). Think an inner radius of kilometers, the more the better. Light source at the center, and of course a way to get rid of / recycle waste heat. Pack plenty of energy for launch, survival and insertion into new solarsystem.

Plenty of vegetation, grass fields, forests and multiple sources of food. (Animals, grain fields)

Population of

On arrival at destination make learning terminals available that can take an un-educated pig farmer to a basic level of science (eg. can read & play educational video games ). Assume that the feudalists will try to restrict access, so better hide a couple in caves.

Once a threshold of video game players has been established, make landing craft available. The adventurous ones will descent (and live/die) in the destination solar system.

The non-adventurous ones will stay in the globe for all eternity (eg. until the lights go off)


On arrival at destination make learning terminals available that can take an un-educated pig farmer to a basic level of science

While you are at it, put some of those terminals on earth too. We could save fortunes on teachers and other such parasites.


John @37: if you've got AI, you don't need a generation ship.

@38, apropos men/women/predation ... how about boosting human societal cohesion by including a superhuman predator? (Something like Peter Watts' vampires a la "Blindsight".)

Andreas @39: if you want to talk cryostasis, find another discussion. (This one is implicitly predicated on the question "what could we achieve if AI, cryostasis, or several other not-available-yet technologies turn out to be impossible?")

Duncan @44: the argument against sending lots of ships can be summed up in one word: "cannibalism". (Or maybe "war" is a nicer-sounding euphemism.) If ship A hatches a virulent monarchy that decides it wants some of ship B's trace elements, ship B is in for a world of hurt, or a war to the knife. This is not an environment in which the loser of a war gets to demand a replay a generation later ...

Madeline @70: that's a breath of fresh air after all the authoritarian bloodbaths I've been skimming as I play catch-up (I'm travelling, and 128 comments in 24 hours takes quite a lot of catching-up).


After the first generation dies off the inhabitants will think of life on the ship as normal (they'll only know life on earth as something seen on the equivalent of TV).

So to us they may seem like they're living in some horrid prison, to them it's normal.

So then it's the question of how do you organize life for 250,000 people? If you're going to maintain a high tech civilization -- then that's probably a small college town. I'm not sure how many high tech scientists you can expect to train (and how many trainers you can train) from a population that size -- but I don't think it would be very many. And to get what you need I think people would have to work a lot more than 10 hrs/week (honestly, I think a population the size of Hong Kong -- 7 million would be safer, if you're going for a billion -- then something the size of the earth's moon may be needed -- space 1999!).

I think the fear of some catastrophic social failure is overblown. We've had the possibility of punching a hole in "our" ship for over 50 years (nuke exchange) and it hasn't happened -- and when it got close the human survival instinct took over.

As far as specific form of government I think it would have to be democratic -- to have a high tech civilization requires a level of independent thinking that monarchy, theocracy, etc. doesn't allow. The specific type of government would evolve over time, but in an adaptive way. In practice, though the form of government would start out as whatever the type of government was that hived off the genship (i.e. municipal gov't if 250k people, small nation if 7 million).

If the population was as small as 250k there would probably be social changes (incest taboo less strict). I would argue that gender equality (i.e. feminist) rather than patriarchal forms of social relations, family structures, would serve to decrease conflict (but again, it would be hard not to just replicate the existing social structure).

As mentioned above if they get it working, the hard part is getting them off the asteroid (or as martin@75 said -- if they get it working for 1000 years that's probably what they'll keep doing).


The low tech social form (agrarian, theocracy, monarchy) of organization seems less plausible to me than putting them to sleep. Because basically you're arguing you can take people from a high tech democratic society, somehow get them to transform into one of the low tech social forms described above and then after 1000 years in that state transform them back into a high tech society.

It's basically like a "social sleep" except instead of waking up high tech people (as would happen in the cryogenic scenario) you're trying to uplift a society that's been primitive for 1000 years -- much, much harder.


I wonder if this problem could be simplified a little if the crew were kept in an artificially pre-pubescent state. I suspect most of the passengers would need to be located in 'Test-tube Class' with a more contained Caretaker Crew to do the limited heavy lifting required in a seriouslyredundant environment.

A Caretaker class comprised of children might de-risk some of the social weaknesses although you'd probably need some (smaller yet) guiding force, be it AI or adult Parent surrogate, to look after some aspects of child welfare.

This approach would multiply some issues however, language for example. Language structure and use are very different now compaire to 150 years ago and the rate at which language mutates and colloquialises in children is faster still. It would all be a bit pointless if the instructions of the Caretakers were ultimately incomprehensible to either the Passengers or their (AI) guides once planetfall was reached.


There's a lot of suggestions on here that are really unpleasant:

Eugenics, genetically engineering them to be stupid, feeding them happy pills, killing of a bunch of them at regular intervals, etc, etc.

Come on people, surely you can do better than that! Or is it that, given free reign, people invariably come up with a system that is good for them and bad for others?

I'd be quite unhappy to be stuck in a closed system with some of these suggestions going on.

Oh wait...


CS@132: what not-yet-available technologies are we allowed to assume? How's this gen-ship going to be propelled?

Thought experiments like this are fun, but the ground rules could be clearer. How about a wholly automated alien gen-ship bus which arrives in LEO tomorrow transmitting "next stop, Epsilon Eridani, 3000 AD." That way we're limited to today's technology and social understanding.

For 250K people, I would favour a socialist democracy with a strong constitution, with some sort of local government (parish councils) to give some mix (don't like it here? Try the next parish to spinward, they do things differently there).

If we're going to build genships ourselves, it'll be hundreds of years from now and even without AI "we" probably won't be entirely recognisable as human. Who knows what sort of social structures we might choose.



What about a mix between iceland-like representative government and large families based group, like for the uros.

Both are subject to harsh environment, with finite resource in habitation / space.

But the principal problem here is population pressure.

If we have a total fertility rate > 2, we will attain population pressure, wich will destroy any society.
If we have a total fertility rate below 2, we loose.


What about 25.000 people instead of 250.000, but place for at least 100.000, so a slow population growth is no problem?


136, 137: Yes. This does seem to be a topic that encourages The Authoritarians to let their freak flag fly. It looks, in fact, like it really is a case of Socialisme ou Barbarie all the way to the stars.

(BTW, I like the image of an avenue of statuary in which one of the figures is a computer.)


BTW: an interesting thought experiment would be to put Charles Fourier's "Phalanstère" into space. (Read more about that in the Wikipedia).


Stiglitz has an interesting take on such issues: What we are actually deciding is how to decide projects that get funded (encouraged), and which are not, also by whom. Projects can be anything that is relevant to the survival of the human race.

Now: if the failure of a project means extinction of human race, those decisions are better-off centralized. If however, we need to "try" bunch of projects, don't care of failures, but success will push everyone forward in some way, there we need decentralized projects, that is, people start them on their own, take the risks, and the benefits as well. The latter would be capitalism (or any other free enterprise based system), fhe former central, government. The paper is here http://bit.ly/3uUhkf


That's interesting - Stiglitz has essentially replicated Joseph Schumpeter's notion (in Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy IIRC) that even if an ideal-type capitalist economy might be perfectly efficient, the costs of creative destruction at really big scales and the instability of such an economy would mean that it could only exist as an authoritarian state, and even then might not work in practice. (Hey, if you creatively destroy the water company, you've got a problem.)

Some of the other Austrian economists got to the bit about the authoritarian state, and liked what they saw, but Schumpeter went further and concluded that therefore, the ideal form of economic organisation in practice would be a hybrid system with a core of really big enterprises owned or at least influenced by the State, surrounded by a sea of deregulated small entreprises.


If the voyage takes hundreds of years, the linguistic changes will be significant as well as the cultural ones. I am surprised no-one has mentioned Ursula Le Guin's short story, "Paradises Lost" (in "The Birthday of the World" anthology) about a generation starship, in which a religion emerged that believed that the starship was heaven, and that going on EVA rendered people impure. Also when the colonists finally arrived, they had serious issues with being under the big scary sky, walking on uneven ground with shoes, the meaning of transmissions from Earth, and dealing with animals.


I find it strange that most comments are so retrospective. Surely we can not find the best solution for this scenario by looking back in time at more primitive systems? Take modern, prosperous societies, particularly the Scandinavian countries. Here democracy seems pretty stable. I think the key is not to be burdened by too much baggage (injustice and inequalities) and to find ways to express ambition without infringing on others' rights and assets.

It seems we assume that social and technological decay will be the inevitable result of a limited environment and a large time span. I think perhaps we should be talking about how we can break down these barriers rather than adapt to them.

An augmented reality system is pretty much granted in any future scenario that has reached this level of technology (heck, i think it is granted in any scenario 10-20 years from now). Taking that into account and by extrapolating today's web technology (think of life as one giant reality wiki), the barrier between the past and the present will be severely weakened. If we also assume the link to Earth to be reasonably direct (speed of light) and distributed (going independently to each individual rather than only to a "captain") we can maintain a sense of participation and awareness among the travelers across the generations.

Let them spend 10-15 hours a week maintaining the ship and training, and split the rest between spare time and time dedicated to greater pursuits (developing strategy and researching in preparation for arrival or helping earth through writing, art or research).

This way the travelers remain part of Earth, and will come to think of themselves as an elite with a responsibility. Of course it would be a risk that they become bitter to vengeful for having been robbed of the opportunity to experience the free sky, the sun and the ocean etc, but it is surely better than the alternative (sending off a bunch of thugs with no emotional attachment to Earth). And perhaps experiencing it virtually is equally satisfying by then, and becomes the safety valve for those who can't adapt?

In this scenario, what are actually the decisions which would need to be made collectively? Would physical possessions exist? Abuse and violence would always be there I guess, and I think laws would have to be be made pretty directly with advice from experts on Earth. Decisions that arise from disruptive technology would have to be made by referendums (oh shit, someone is gonna get there before us. Should we go home again?) Social decisions could be left to some type of emergent, distributed model (anarchy, if you wish, but without the material possessions and needs to mess things up). Set them off with some kind of base law (or constitution) that requires a large majority in several votes/elections in order to protect minorities and individuals and hope for the best.


David Brin in his book "the transparent society" proposed the idea of a society where everything is monitored, but not only in the orwellian sense of a top-down control by those in power toward the pebble, but in all directions. A democratic transparent society (like you can also read about in "I see you" by Damon Knight) could be the answer to the problem of matching security and relative freedom. For sure, it's a bit of an alien idea for western mindset, but some believes it's part of the reason of japanese stability (paper walls, leads to social conventions about "inner rooms", politeness, etc. etc.) and also for small communities.
Also, it's likely to be quite enforceable on a limited environment like even a big generation ship: it would likely be a desired feature, to be able to track every single organism inside every hidden corner of the ship, and the difficult thing would be putting limits to this monitoring for privacy's sake.


Extend the lifespan. With few children, raised by an extended family of Methuselahs, "human nature" might be more serene. Heading for Diaspar?


How about considering multiple levels of governance? It allows an exporation of several types of society:

(1) Smaller societies "at a human scale". City-like or townlike structures of no more that 10,000 people or so. People in these then know each other. Different types of society can be tried out.

(2) A "Ship-wide" level of governance. As pointed out before, conservatism is a strong desire for your overall governance, but not one you want to impinge on you: so this level fixes disputes between towns. And thats about all, with a prickly defense of "towns-rights".

(3) Term limits for (2). The two levels are in tension, but the top-level has limited functions and powers.

(4) "Monastic" / "University" structures (Universities as we know them evolved from Monasteries) with a strong aim of conserving knowledge. Again, separate "town" and "gown";

Yes, a lot of this is copied from elsewhere: lots of precedence to learn from!


Do the colonists have to be moderns, or can they be hunter gatherers/farmers circa CE 0? The stability can be maintained by Malthusian pressures and static technology.
Ship functions are maintained by automatic systems. (c.f. Star Trek TOS)

As others have said, monastic institutions have also been very stable. Again, automatic systems will be necessary for shipboard maintenance. (Mixed scholarship and long livedmonasteries ~= "Anathem")

Both these solutions seem to be tropes to me.

For modern people, what about a Matrix type simulation or spending a lot of time in a second life/WoW VR? The advantage of this is that the same technology could be used to allow the colonists to run robot bodies to do the maintenance functions. Dreaming away your journey in different VR worlds might be quite acceptable.

Going fully into simulation mode without physical bodies could allow a generation ship which is miniscule in size. On arrival, the colonists grow new bodies or just teach the embryos when decanted. The simulation minds would have to run in real time to ensure that they could respond to ship maintenance and emergencies.


A few thoughts:

1) I'm not sure how important it is that the society be stable. If the colonists aren't armed with explosives or anything else that can destroy the ship, what harm can they do? Suppose they have a civil war and half of the males die (a far worse figure than most actual civil wars) - so what? This will cause the mission to fail? They would have to actually try to destroy a robust ecosystem. The worst case scenario would be like the Easter Island ecological collapse, and even that wasn't the end of the world (or the island).

2) If you do want to engineer for stability, you need to make sure there are no shortages of resources and no competition. You'll need mandatory birth control to keep the population in line (OTOH, if your colonists are typical Europeans or Asians who refuse to breed, you need incentives or coercion to make sure that they do). You should also give people jobs for life that cannot be changed, like a caste system, except that it wouldn't be hereditary. Most wars are started by factions of elites trying to gain power over other elite factions. Make this proposition hopeless and it won't happen.

3) The whole premise is flawed anyway. With a research budget of considerably less than the cost of a flying city you could probably
- cryonically suspend people indefinitely
- Grow clones in an artificial womb
- Modify DNA so you could make the clones of one person non-identical to that person.

I don't think that these techologies would be that difficult to develop. They would open up possibilities for getting a colony across space with considerably fewer canned monkeys - possibly as few as zero - awake or alive at any given time.


JB@145: Interesting idea. You could actually do psych-screening on your candidates as screening unborn generations is kinda impossible. Population control would have to be rather draconian (though *any* generation ship would have to handle this one), but you could have room for some growth along "replacements" for accidents etc. There would actually be hope for the original crew to return to Earth someday, centuries in future but nevertheless to return. This little fact would have rather Serious Implications for operating the ship and society.

ObComment: 0.01c is a rather ridiculously low cruising speed for any sort of interstellar operation and most would probably prefer to develop better drive technology (Project Daedalus envisioned 0.12c). 0.05c-0.1c would be much better and you could actually do a round-trip to Centauri in less than century with that. Of course, if you're aiming farther out...

ObComment2: In any generation ship you could avoid genetic bottlenecks and inbreeding problems by taking a suitably large genebank with you and mandate "test-tube babies" for everyone.


I continue to be amazed by the number of suggestions that amount to: "Here's an amazing technology that would make the genship itself unnecessary - we can use it to make an artificial genship distopia!

Admittedly, this is a common plot in *bad* SF, but Charlie claims to be done with his "Space Nazis Must Die!" phase. ;) (OK, SNMD was pretty good, but it was a little schlocky at times.)

I have to admit I am beginning to wonder what the tech assumptions and social background of this genship are, but I suspect I will have to wait for the book.

Mostly because from what I can see of Our Host's current conclusions, this is going to be a huge-assed project with an odd tech base and an odder sociological base, rigorously Strossified to seem plausible.


@145 Remember that there were two surviving civilizations in Against the Fall of Night. There was Diaspar and there was Lys. Both "sort of" worked. Diaspar was idealized urban, Lys was idealized rural.

Both required population control measures. Both required "magic" to work. And both forms of magic are probably emulatable with sufficiently advanced technology...except Diaspar's resource recycling.

Personally I think that the idealized rural would be more pleasant, and more feasible. You would need to maintain the technology level some how, though, to allow the magic to work. I'm not sure that full nano-tech is needed, but something pretty close.

Well, if we're only talking about a few thousand years, I can envision a self-repairing machine system. (Believing it might take more work.) But I think some of our "rural" residents will need to be technologists. This is going to require long life-spans, and something that will encourage the folk to not be quite so crazy in various different ways. This is going to require some genetic tailoring and lots of social conditioning. Doubling or tripling the amount of time spent at each period of development during childhood would assist here, but you still need to limit social stigmatization AND aggressiveness. This probably means tinkering with various hormones.

If you do that, you may come up with a humanity that can support a stable social system. But remember, it won't be an ESS unless you create reactions that defeat aggressive intruders (i.e., mutations, whether genetic or developmental). Bullies can't be tolerated. They need to be either repaired or removed. A lot of this can be done by social conditioning, but in situations were it isn't instinctively apparent that it's a survival situation, this requires methods not currently available (though possibly less than 20 years away as lots of people in lots of diciplines are currently working of "theories of mind").


@ the numerous negative comments about "primitive" "pre-civilized" and "low-tech" crew models

Sorry people, and not to start a flame war, but from an anthropological perspective this is plain ignorant

1. It's pretty clearly documented - in terms of *social* interactions and relationships certain hunter-gatherer cultures (which still exist, btw) are far more advanced than "civilized" ones. This isn't romanticism. Murder, violence, slavery, theft, war, and corruption just don't happen unless some guy goes Wendigo/insane, at which point everyone bands together to kill him (and it's always a dude).

2. We have several working models of peaceful, egalitarian, and cooperative society *that already exists,* and nothing says you can't tie that into high technology except assumptions that because it hasn't happened it can't. You show someone a technology that will keep them alive and they tend to pay attention and create narratives around it. Channel the narratives back into the mechanism and you have successfully integrated advanced social dynamics with advanced technology. (i.e. a fire origin myth that explains how to make fire)

3. The premise is no AI, no hibernation, and some amount of human maintenance to the environment/ship over 1000 years, with a workable colonist group at the end, right?

With the exception of the monastic and Quaker examples, maybe, you have to preclude any model which allows one guy to punch another in the face. You either need egalitarianism per above or a mechanism that allows you to exile violent/destructive individuals while keeping them productive - make them hull cyborgs or something..

@132 - Wattsian vampires are an interesting thought, but might be a temporary solution - if you make them too efficient as predators then they either eradicate humans or get hunted to extinction.

But let's say you reach a point where your predator culls the weak without reducing the population and for some reason can't be killed off - it will be normalized, rather than a unifying bogeyman. Maybe you'd need a timed release to keep it fresh - every 5 years or so it thaws out a neutered Utahraptor. You can license your timer directly from Valve (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Left_4_Dead#AI_and_the_Director)

It's interesting that you brought up Blindsight, though - non-sentient intelligences would have no trouble spending 1000 peaceful years in a hollow asteroid


fizz @ 144:

In 'The Light of Other Days' Clarke and Baxter speculates about the societal consequences of a see all-device, and the theory is (as I perceived it) that the need for privacy is not something fundamental, but rather a way of coping with the lack of transparency. Great book btw.


Re #152: The things that made social interaction in hunter-gatherer cultures "advanced" (I prefer "different") aren't available in our gen-ship.

First, in such a culture crime of all sorts is hard to get away with. Everyone knows everyone, is related to everyone, and will notice that person A stole the widget from person B, as there's no place to hide it.

Second, in extreme cases of internal conflict a hunter-gatherer band fissions and one party heads off to form a new band.

I second the idea that looking backwards to primitive cultures isn't likely to work. I can see what you're trying to do, which is limit the damage a social collapse does to the ship ecosystem and population, but regressing society to the hunter-gatherer stage seems to be overkill, especially if you need "Angels" to also be around to do the maintenance and "governance."

If your high-tech caste has to survive 1000 years in the midst of hunter-gatherers (or watching them from "heaven") you have introduced another problem that is hard to solve. Maintaining a separate elite group (the Illuminati?) amongst the primitives is something humans have never done outside of fiction. Instead of one population having to survive 1000 years, you have two.


Kestrel @ 152:

I sure hope disagreements doesn't mean a flame war, but calling others ignorant might not be the best way to avoid it! If I am one of the ones you refer to, allow me to elaborate.

First of all, I think it is quite a big difference between being "far more advanced" and being in a much simpler situation. I don't think hunter-gatherer societies are less violent/corrupt because they are more highly advanced, I think they are just in a very different context, and a context which we are genetically programmed to cope with (and where 'power' exist at a much smaller scale, thus also corruption and violence). One argument which you could make is that the situation on the ship will be similar to that of the hunter-gatherers and we should adapt the society for that, but I cannot see how that would make them very proficient or well adapted to dealing with the arrival.

Second, I think you miss the point of how radically society and humanity has changed in the last hundred years as a consequence of technology and complexity. Trying to get to grips with this has been the challenge of many philosophers and anthropologists (Levi-Strauss, Derrida etc.), and simplifying it by giving them technology and hope they call it divine is not very helpful.

Regarding the 1000-year human, it might be a very good tool to achieve stability on the ship, but again makes for something way too conservative and rigid to be very suited for arrival. It would just be a human version of the AI solution. It is worth questioning though if the travelers should be genetically similar to us. Particularly in relation to birth rate as the ideal for the ship (total stability) is the opposite of the ideal for arrival (explosive growth?). I think Le Guin's explorations in this territory are fascinating, and perhaps the best route so a good answer? Our gender roles and behaviours certainly haven't proven to be the best for a modern society..


Kestrel, I see your point about hunter-gatherer societies, but I think the objection to high-tech societies based on somethign resembling hunter-gatherer lifestyles is more than just "we have never seen it".

There is a good reason to assume that advanced technology needs a very complicated, very interwoven group of people, just to allow the labour specialization involved. The assumption that we can fit such a situation into the amount of people of just one medium sized city is already a stretch.

The hunter-gatherer model would split those up into very small, relatively isolated groups. Presumably those groups resemble each other too in their activities, or they would not resemble a hunter-gatherer society any respect at all, as they are already not hunters or gatherers.

I would love to hear how a high-tech society, with the specialization and interdepence involved, could resemble a hunter-gatherer society. I personally can't see it, but I would love to see ideas.


Charlie: Thanks! Glad to be of service.

Seriously, though. The question isn't how to maintain citizenship, it's how to entice citizenship. There's a giant fucking vacuum outside our ship, and it keeps us where we are with very few alternatives. What's going to solve social problems is not just a habitable environment, but an enjoyable one. We gotta wanna.


There are answers to this question in the "Accelerando":

1) Uploading + nanoassemblers. Great economy of resources, citizens can't do any harm to the ship while have almost unlimited place to live (in the virtual reality). And if society crashes it always can be restored from backups! :) After arrival construct human-habitable ecology, bodies and download there selves from the ship's memory.

2) Make the spaceship from the gas giant. There will be a space for millions of different societies, even libertarian ones. :)


We don't know how stable Athenian direct democracy could have been, it got conquered and permanently suppressed by the Macedonians and Romans. It did spring up again after Spartan conquest, which went away.

"In Athens this was not a feasible process, doing a random selection from a big set is very nontrivial by physical means. If you don't belive me, ask the bloke who has to do QA on a shipload of coal."

Uh, Athens did exactly this, random selection of multiple 500+ person councils and juries by physical means. They had cute little machines to do so transparently, the kleroterion. Didn't do so all in one place, each 'tribe' alloted its own members. As for electronic sortition, well, if you trust the software.

Absent suspended animation or Conjoiner-like group minds, I'd go for something like an Athenian model, a la #15 and somewhat #52. Nicest and fairest with respect to equality and majority pressure to conform is probably good for stability. Possibly not nicest with respect to diversity but I'm not sure anything reliably is.


A society in these circumtances would be required to be very flexible (to survive arrival), yet stable enough not to have mission threatening upheaval. Pre-determining a society for 450 years will either not be stable and allow for change/revolution, or oppresive enough not to survive arrival.
That said, the only mission threatening event to avoid is the destruction of the ship. I can't see how generations of people are going to live for some future goal. So we don't have to fear people loosing sight of the objective, that's a given.
Then the only thing to avoid is people having the tech to blow up the ship. Is there a requirement that this is a modern society for all this time? If not, hunter-gatherer societies are stable, sure, lots of violence and short live spans, but society is stable. I suggest robots grab the hunter gatherer babies toward the end of the journey and educate them, assuming you need modern people there. I don't think you need much more AI for that than we can muster today.

If you find a better solution for a stable, flexible and non-oppressive society, Charlie, give up the writing and go into politics. You'd have my vote.



"Re #152: The things that made social interaction in hunter-gatherer cultures "advanced" (I prefer "different") aren't available in our gen-ship.

First, in such a culture crime of all sorts is hard to get away with. Everyone knows everyone, is related to everyone, and will notice that person A stole the widget from person B, as there's no place to hide it."

Which neatly parallels the perfect surveillance commentary running alongside this one, but do you really think it's that simple? Big Everyone doesn't stop crime in a society where inequality between members exists, for one thing.

"Second, in extreme cases of internal conflict a hunter-gatherer band fissions and one party heads off to form a new band."

This is a valid point. I'm not sure what the escape valve would look like, unless you came back to virtuality.

"...looking backwards to primitive cultures isn't likely to work...regressing society to the hunter-gatherer stage seems to be overkill, especially if you need "Angels" to also be around to do the maintenance and "governance." "

1. Again with the regression, looking backwards, and primitive talk. It's fascinating that you and several others in this thread equate interpersonal peace on a social scale with regression. Just to be clear, we are talking about worldviews and systems of relationship here, not hunting bison. Do you preclude Catholics from being good scientists because they hold hold a 'primitive' religious worldview?

2. Who said anything about angels?

@ 155 and 156 -

I'm with you on the technological expertise necessary to make this happen. I just don't see the connection between specialized science and oppressive/inherently unstable systems of thought.


heteromeles @95: I don't see the problem with addiction to narcotics. Seriously. While some psychoactive drugs have unpleasant side-effects (cocaine: peripheral vasoconstrictor, can cause hypertension, especially in folks predisposed to that condition), the more attractive ones (cannabis, diamorphine, LSD) are pretty safe if deployed within an appropriate cultural framework. And let us not forget that the #1 and #2 killer narcotics in the world today are tobacco and alcohol, respectively.

(Note, however, that this is not the War On Drugs Is Stupid thread.)

Matthew @101: I fail to see why draconian torture/execution penalties are necessary to deter people from committing suicide. I think your cognitive model of human societies and criminality is in need of some introspection.

Tim M @102: implausible. (Hint: read the comments in this thread on the subject of robot nurses and raising kids. Shorter form: raising human children is hard and would appear to require human nurses or parents.) Even if it is practical, your scheme qualifies as inhumane and/or genocidal.

Kelson @104: now that's a bit less objectionable than some of the other proposals!

(Why are folks so addicted to trying to create an environment with all the charm of Pol Pot's Year Zero in Cambodia, minus the possibility of escape?)

Bjoern @105: the problem with capitalism is that capitalist enterprises externalise the costs of failure. "The rockets go up, who knows where they come down? That's not my department, says Werner Von Braun." If there are major failures aboard a generation ship the environment is a lot less survivable than any inhabited land on Earth. I might grant you the possibility of a mixed-mode economy combining regulated markets with a social security net and supportive public sector, and an emphasis on intellectual property as the main object of industry -- but bubbles, market failures, depressions, and so on represent a major hazard. In other words, the costs of "doing business as usual" are probably too high for this kind of environment.


Skipping ahead from #107, sorry if someone else suggested this:

Many above have suggested just putting all the colonists in cold-sleep, and others have suggested the (to me, highly probable) issue that once a multi-generation ship gets to the destination, they may not want to leave the ship and/or won't be well-suited to planetside work/life.

How about a compromise, that still allows for story. (I'm assuming that the point of the exercise is to allow story, and I'm thus liberally applying handwavium because I can't be bothered to figure out a real solution over lunch, plus this is the blog of a talented writer who could either really do this idea justice or ignore it and write something much better anyway...) Put everyone to sleep for the trip, high-level automation keeps everything/everyone running fine. Except, a few bugs in the sleeper controls crop up and/or you have some stowaways and you end up with a rag-tag bunch of people "loose in the ship". Technological level would be all over the map, depending on tech level of stowaways, who's sleep berth malfunctioned and/or was deliberately woken up by a stowaway who wants company (or made a mistake). Assume life support was designed for a reasonable interval at a high enough population level to oversee large-scale colonization (say enough to wipe out the hazardous flora/fauna (assume non-sentient - or not...) of a living world and seed it with friendly-to-us flora/fauna, etc.), so there's something for this rag-tag bunch to use, but they do have to be careful or if they don't reach a planet with "good enough" biome raw-material to restock they may not have a good enough system to successfully colonize...

If this has already been written, lemme know, I wanna read it! I'd write it myself, but I'm much more at home with mechanical things than words...


Alex @147 (also @158): see "Accelerando". If you've got that level of tech, you don't need a generation ship -- you can go full-on NAFAL using starwhisps.

(Which is why I'm not focussing on that idea here. It's too obvious.)

C23 @148: google on "demographic transition". Turns out that if you want population control, all you need to do is increase the social status of women, give them access to education and contraception, and get out of their way. (Who knew?)

NB: clones are always non-identical -- you need to look into epigenetics.

@159: that's not an obviously bad idea, as long as we don't adopt the less savoury aspects of Athenian life (slavery, institutionalized pederasty, etcetera).

MirrorField @149: remember Newton's laws of motion? The energy input to reach a given velocity scales as the square of the velocity.



I'm going to be brave. Have you read A New Philosophy of Society by Manuel Delanda? I haven't myself, though this conversation inspired me to order it, and his other writings are great. I have a feeling it might give you some good insights for this conversation.


One thing that hasn't been mentioned is the question of what purpose a gen-ship mission has for the society that launched it. If it's anything more than "fire and forget", there's going to be some motivation for the launcher to build something into the ship's society that will get the job done the way they want.

Let's assume for a second that the purpose is exploration; that the ship is being sent to one nearby solar system known to have planets, one or more of which could be earth-like. So there's a long-term goal we'd like to give the ship's inhabitants, that they'll do some exploring when they reach their destination. But what do they do after that's done? There are a number of possible goals, but which makes sense (and which will make sense to the travelers) depends on what they find. So you can't build a single long-term goal into the ship's society even if you wanted to; if it's the wrong one it could cause real political and social havoc when it's frustrated by the realities of the destination system.

In other words, the ship's society would probably work best if its internal goals really were organically related to the society rather than imposed from without. If the work required to run the ship is a small fraction of the work available, it's likely that even if the majority aren't interested in the builders' goals, there would be a hobbyist group that would be. I think that's an excellent argument for Madeline Ashby's suggestion of a society modeled on fandom: it ensures a wide range of hobbyist interests, and an acceptance of the validity of hobbyist goals on the part of society as a whole.


Several people have been talking about people on generation ships as "colonists", or referring to their "mission" to "colonise" some other solar system. While that might be a goal of the original ship-builders, it's unreasonable for them - or for us - to insist or even to strongly expect that it should remain a goal of the starfarers themseives. The ship-builders aren't going to live to see the ship arrive. In what sense is it a mission failure if the crew decide they don't want to leave the ship and live on a planet? Maybe they will want to keep going, maybe they will want to stop for long enough to refuel (perhaps rather, given any even faintly-plausible genship propulsion system: to build one or more new ships), maybe they will want to stop in the new system but build lots of in-system space habitats (given that we are granting them the technology for lots of cheap energy on the genship, the main reason to do this in a system rather than in deep space seems to be the availability of plenty of mass).

The best wills are simple, giving outright gifts. Conditions and other encumbrances are exactly that: a burden on one's heirs. The ship-builders are giving the starfarers a spiffy space habitat with an awesome propulsion system. What they do with this pretty cool inheritance should be left up to them. Especially, the idea that the ship-builders - who are already sufficiently at home in space to build genships - are going to expect that their descendants - with several centuries more of space habitat life and several centuries more of technological development - will *definitely* want to live on a planet, or should somehow be *compelled* to do so, doesn't make much sense.

I felt this was the best part of 'Learning the World', although MacLeod's rules differ from ours in various ways including life extension. Most of the inhabitants of his universe live in a topopolis cosmic spaghetti around various stars. His genship crew will be dropping off the passengers but not hanging around. The passengers will be building topopolis habitat(s) (and other stuff) as fast as they possibly can. Some will also build new genships. Living on planets is not a high priority for them, even before they discover the Alien Space Bats.

Just for the record, I think that genships, topopoli, and so on are probably never going to happen. They require too many different kinds of magic, and don't make sense in the presence of several other (more likely, IMO) kinds. If our descendants ever build them, it will be for fun.


Duncan Lock @ 44:

Aren't we already running this experiment, on the generational starship that we all currently live on?

SSHHHHH! You'll ruin it for everyone. Especially given the incompatibility of pure capitalism with the scenario; e.g., "Anyone who seriously suggests applying capitalism to a resource limited environment is a fool, though."


I agree with several other posters: it's crazy to expect that when the ship arrives at Tau Ceti or wherever people will be able to land on a "habitable" planet and start building huts. It's extremely unlikely bordering on impossible that an alien biosphere would be even remotely compatible with our own.

Now I don't hold with the neo-Calvinists who insist Western civilization or humans in general are innately sinful and shouldn't taint other worlds with our presence, but the difficulty of settling an alien world does call into question the point of the whole enterprise.

Quite simply, you're going to either have to modify the planet or the colonists, very extensively. In the former case, you're practically going to be terraforming the world -- so why not ignore the lifebearing world and terraform the first well-placed rock you find?

In the latter case, that means the colonists will be different from the ship crew, to the point of being a different species. This points to an issue we keep circling back to: what's best for the voyage isn't best for the destination.

So here's what we need: a society which can be content in tremendous physical isolation, constrained by limited (and slowly decreasing) material resources. After some arbitrary length of time they're going to suddenly gain access to near-infinite resources, and will have the opportunity to expand and leave. They will have a constant feed of information from Earth, but actual communication will be difficult.

All this points away from any kind of neo-primitives or theocratic hydraulic state. You want a society of people who won't get bored. Who can make their own fun, and who can tackle the big jobs at their destination. In other words, you want the "good parts" of Western civilization (flexibility, innovation, personal freedom, law). I think a small crew with lots of robots might be the solution: all aristocrats with mechanical serfs to support them.


@169: Good points, Nick. While I think some ships will be gifts, I'm cynical about human nature. I think anyone leaving the solar system (or possibly leaving Earth) will have to buy themselves out of the system, by paying in some way for the resources and talents they are taking away with them.

The travellers are effectively paying for their freedom, and that might become part of their mythology, that they paid their debts, built their ship, and got the heck outta there.

As for colonists, I suspect they will have to think as colonists, simply because the ship will eventually break down. All living things die, and an interstellar ship is much more complex than any living thing. It won't be able to survive indefinitely. Therefore, a ship is a home for now, not forever.

Whether they settle among asteroids or use asteroids to make more ships is another answer.

Octavia Butler's Oankali trilogy has an interesting colonization scenario. The oankali generation ship splits into three: one to colonize the planet (post-holocaust Earth), one to remain in space, but take up Terran life forms to create a new type of ecosphere, and one to stay back and aloof, in case the other two fail. That kind of three-way split would work well for a starfaring culture.

Another cultural form I'm partial to (probably because I haven't lived it) is the Andean Ayllu. These are autonomous clans that are based on family ties, although you can buy in. The clan owns the land and resources, and deals these resources out (generally through a democratic process) so that everyone gets what they need: big families get more farmland than small families, and so forth. Think of it as an extended family crossed with a worker-owned business, and you get the idea.

Surplus labor and products gets sold to outsiders at market rates. However, the ayllu does the selling, not the individuals. Similarly, the ayllu takes care of members children and members who are too old or ill to work.

The Inkan empire was organized around groupings of ayllus into larger and larger blocks, with the Inkan family ayllu on top running the show.

Ayllus are far from perfect, as anyone who pays attention to Andean history and archeology knows. Still, evidence of the form shows up for thousands of years, and it has allowed the Andeans to survive and occasionally prosper in a very inhospitable area.

As social systems for starships go, ayllu-like clans aren't a bad idea. They help organize resources, labor, and care for children and elders. The small group politics get ugly, of course, but if you're writing a story, that's just what you need.


Poul-Henning @ 22: "In Athens this was not a feasible process, doing a random selection from a big set is very nontrivial by physical means. If you don't belive me, ask the bloke who has to do QA on a shipload of coal."

As said above, Athens at least got very close. As for a (close to) randome sample of a shipload of coal, I believe that Deming's answer was to scoop bucketsful out of the conveyor belt at random times.


I didn't say anything about suicide, I was referring to acts of sabotage.

Assuming things like self-replicating nanotechnology are off the table, then any interstellar arkship will be a considerably less robust environment than a planetary surface. It would be all too easy for one person with a grudge to kill everyone aboard.

Coincidentally I recently finished reading Stephen Baxter's book Ark, and in one part a group of the shipborn tear a hole in the hull in the belief that the ship isn't actually in deep space. Of course, when they open the hull they discover it is in space, killing several people and injuring many more. The ringleader of this uprising was subsequently executed offstage.

The point is that any crime against the structure of the ship itself would be something that would put at risk everyone aboard, and the mission itself. It would probably be roughly equivalent to mutiny on a warship, and would probably merit a similar level of punishment. Believe me, I'm certainly not advocating a harsh regime. I'm simply not sure any viable alternative would exist in such an environment.

I don't know if you've read Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men, but my thoughts about a shipboard society that aimed to colonise a new planet were along the lines of this passage from Chapter 14, part 2:

"They should have planned a hardy brute, lustily procreative, cunning in the struggle for physical existence, but above all tough, prolific, and so insensitive as to be scarcely worthy of the name man. They should have trusted that if once this crude seed could take root, natural forces themselves would in time conjure from it something more human."

The passage actually refers to the creation of the Ninth Men who colonise Neptune, but a similar principle could be applied to designing a society intended to colonise a new planet. A society which had to survive a centuries-long journey and then colonise a totally alien environment would have to be extremely tough and self-reliant, perhaps something like Sparta but with an emphasis on survival and maintaining their biosphere rather than militarism.

It certainly wouldn't be a pleasant society in which to live, but it would certainly be interesting to scholars a few hundred years after planetfall.

Once they reached the destination system, then there's plenty of opportunity for new societies to develop, rejecting the brutality of the ship's regime.


Roy @ 103:
"Jon@94: Don't forget the US in its 220 years has undergone an attempted secession that had to be put down by a major civil war. A generation ship couldn't survive that. The UK is no more "stable", our secessionists (mostly) succeeded, and left us with an on-again, off-again insurgency that lasted another 75 years and may not be over yet. A generation ship couldn't survive that either. "

I'd also add the obvious facts that that during this time the USA scarfed up a few million square miles of already-terraformed wilderness, defended (for the most part) by scattered bands of stone age hunter-gatherers. While drawing millions of immigrants from across the world, and trading with the rest of the world (in both goods and knowledge). Pretty much the opposite of a generation ship, what you start with is what you've got.


How about making the ship into a game? Populate the ship with smart, but technically illiterate people. Put them into The First Chamber. Fill the Chamber with puzzles, which will in time yield plot coupons, that will eventually allow them to open the big, obvious, meter-thick doors into the next chamber. Then repeat as necessary.

This has several advantages:

1.) A society that faces lots of interesting challenges hopefully won't devolve into warfare.

2.) You train people in a scientific mindset. The entire culture would be oriented towards the idea that Solving_Puzzles=More_Room. (Or more goodies...)

3.) Puzzles could be designed that require cooperation to solve - several people pressing levers in sequence in multiple places, for example - this teaches an important lesson.

4.) The puzzles could be oriented towards the kinds of problems humans might face in an alien biosphere, with each chamber teaching an important principal of science or suggesting a different type of alien psychology.

People who are either too smart (thus solving puzzles too quickly, if that's a problem) or too dumb, or anti-social get taken back stage, sterilized, educated, possibly lobotomized, and turned into crew. Or maybe post-menopausal women get turned into crew? Something like that, anyway.


@171: Don't be so sure about alien biospheres. I'm not reopening the particular can of worms Charlie ate a few posts back, but if there's an oxygen atmosphere, at standard temperature and pressure, and it's been around long enough, my bet is that you're going to see something that's pretty similar to our biochemistry.

The reason I say that is that our chemistry is
a) Boring. There's no good evidence of someone goofing around with magic enzyme system #1 to make the first cells. Rather it looks like a lot of reactions that happen naturally at low frequency and tend to synergize each other when they occur near each other (e.g., lipid membrane forms around self-catalyzing reactions). The stable end-point of that synergy is a living cell. Granted, this takes a lot of time, but I'm assuming a lot of time passed before you got there.
b) Repetitive. Hemoglobin and chlorophyll are similar, the electron transport chains in mitochondria and plastids are similar, and so on. It suggests that once you have a few pieces of the biochemical puzzle, the rest of the puzzle will evolve from those variations in those few pieces.

The problem is that alien biospheres are probably going to be fairly compatible with ours, and there will be far more of their biomass than our biomass. We may be able to settle such worlds, but only through assimilation.

The problem with Joe the Hut-dwelling colonist is that he's a high-level biohazard to anyone living in a purely Terran biosphere. Settling a foreign planet is a one-way trip, and they will probably kill you if you attempt to go home. This won't stop people from trying to be Joe, though. They might think it's a reasonable alternative to living aboard a ship and dropping disposable probes onto the planet you're orbiting, while someone else builds a shelter on a nearby asteroid that looks *just like your old ship.*


It would seem the design of a space faring, multi-generational colony ship is as much a reflection on the designer as it is the people who would be desirous of living on it. Perhaps it's a bit of the ol' puritanical meme, rising its ugly head up. I mean, obviously, I find a society that fosters professional student-ism to be highly desirable, and it’s certainly not the only solution for this intriguing problem, but hopefully I’m also honest enough to recognize the value of practical labor in terms of one’s own development and well-being. A couple hours toil every day in the gardens is going to be good for me, but so is the every-once-in-awhile Cleaning of the Gak out of the series of tubes that lead to your super-critical oxidizer (an endeavor that’s going to amount to more than basic plumbing...), or whatever you’re using to handle waste. You never know what skill sets are going to synergize (for good or ill) with each other.

Madeline @70 reminds me of Paul Di Filippo’s WikiWorld, and makes me wonder, for a group of 250k on-ship, would it seem to an outside observer that there were really 500k (or more if there were Anonymous accounts)? I know my online persona is probably different than my ‘real world’ one, but maybe that’s just because I don’t have sixthsense, yet.

And h@172 the Inc(k)a look to be an excellent example of things that can go right and terribly wrong with a society’s colonization efforts. It only takes one pandemic to lay some serious hurt to a population, and the Incas took on five over the course of seventy years with a little help from their guests from Spain.

Alex @176, I was finding this intriguing until it went slightly Hellraiser in Space with the last bit there. You're right that mystery and puzzles are good for people, though. It would be quite a challenge to come up with a puzzler that could take multiple generations to solve. Of course, that’s kinda sorta what we’re doing with Earth right now...we just need to decide what it is we want to win.


@178: It would seem the design of a space faring, multi-generational colony ship is as much a reflection on the designer as it is the people who would be desirous of living on it.

And on the designers' weaknesses. It's a really good way of exposing their preconceptions about the Good Life to scrutiny, and I'm really dismayed by how many folks on this thread are glibly throwing out the most vile authoritarian proposals.

General rule of thumb: take any proposal for how to run a generation ship. Imagine applying it to your own city or state or municipality. If you wouldn't like living that way (in the lowest status slot in the pecking order), you're doing it wrong. If your neighbours would arrest you for crimes against humanity for implementing it, you're doing it wrong. If it results in an overall quality of life for the colonists that is significantly lower than what they'd have if they stayed home, then you're doing it wrong. If your setup specifies a legal code/judicial system, imagine your mom being wrongfully accused of committing the most serious offense it recognizes: if you don't like to contemplate how she'd be treated, you're doing it wrong.

Now. Do we have any proposals for how to do it right?


The regular contact with the home world was the one bit of your proposed scenario that struck a chord. I would like to add my experience of remote living with regular contact with the home office.

Before my current life playing with plutonium, I spent a year at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. For nine months of the year, the only contact with the outside world is the internet, satphone and short wave radio. The winter-over crew are primarily caretakers, to make sure that nothing breaks during the long, cold night. There were 58 people there my winter. Stand on your average street corner; in a minute you'll see more people than I did for a year. This sounds heavenly, until you take into account that you are working under a US gov't lowest bidder contractor with no possibility of escape and bizarre corporate direction from the home office back in Denver.

Imagine the finest "Office Space" quality cubicle culture trying to direct the actions of people living 14000 miles away coping with equipment of all kinds never meant to experience -40C for a protracted period, much less -70C. We were subjected to an endless string of policy statements and weekly departmental newsletters showing all the fun Human Relations had at their "Mid-winter ice Cream Social" in July to celebrate us making it halfway through the austral night.

It should be no wonder that the unofficial winter motto at all the United States Antarctic stations is "Fuck Denver". I remember conference calls that were spent with all Antarctic personnel members present flipping off the phone for the duration. We wanted nothing better than a highly selective satellite outage that would leave us the entire internet but no way to speak with our corporate overlords...and we were the ones specifically chosen for the psychological fortitude to endure a year of isolation.

I can think of no crueler thing to do to a long duration space journey than to give them continual contact with home. We on the frontier don't want to hear about the new departmental babies.


Any ideas for social structures on a genship have to bear in mind the following: the starfarers are going to be entirely out of your control. You have to trust them to be smart, otherwise there's no point sending them anywhere. Given that you trust them to be smart, you should put them in charge of the ship, because that gives them the maximum chance of surviving unforseen problems (and because if they are smart they will find a way to take charge anyway). Given that they are in charge, they will be able to change whatever social structure you give them. The ship-builders are not gods. So the best you can do is to give them a social structure which you think will be good enough, and which you think they will be happy with. If they don't like it, they will change it (and so it should incorporate a mechanism for change).
Any constitution which starts "We know what is best for you and it is this:" is going to fail. It should start "We, the people,"



@169: Good points, Nick. While I think some ships will be gifts, I'm cynical about human nature. I think anyone leaving the solar system (or possibly leaving Earth) will have to buy themselves out of the system, by paying in some way for the resources and talents they are taking away with them.
But any such payment will have to be made up-front. There's no way to extract interest payments from a genship ten light-years away, five hundred years after launch. So the starfarers are free of any practical obligation to the ship-builders, and while they may feel a considerable debt of gratitude, they may also feel resentment, or indifference. There's no way to tell before the launch. So you can't make them colonists, to colonise any given target system, that was my point.


Based on the constraints I'd start with a society where the people existed in virtualized environments most of the time. Preferably things would be gradually adapted over the generations to become more and more like life at their destination. By the time you get there the AIs running the ship can crap them out to colonize the new solar system and then continue onward to find new entertainments. Or stick around and play gods.


Wow... what's with the obsession with creating primitives? What would give us the right to deny a bunch of people the knowledge we have just to try and engineer a "stable" society. How do you recruit these ignoramuses anyway? "try to forget what you know of astrophysics, pretend you are a hunter..."

Some of these societies sound horrible. For all its faults we've managed to create a relatively free society here in the developed world. I don't think creating Burma-on-Alpha-Centauri is a good thing. The goal shouldn't just be to move humans around, it should be to create a society we'd actually want to live in. Don't assume 1000 years of slavery on a floating rock will create a free society at the other end.


Geeze. I was wondering if maybe I was being a little too much of a starched shirt with my ethical qualms - as many people seemed more than willing to make plain. But this:

How about hereditary professions? They were common in societies such as ancient Egypt, and would help to ensure sufficient numbers of people with the necessary skills. They could even take them as their name, similar to how many modern English names come from people's profession, such as Butcher, Baker, Thatcher etc.

and this:

There's another possibility, though a somewhat unpleasant one: temporary modification of the passengers. If you need a large pool of passengers for genetic reasons, but don't need them as crew there's no reason to keep them at the human norm. If you were to diminish the IQ of each generation through some artificial means, you could keep them out of trouble and keep them from going stir crazy. Many people are functional at very below-average intelligence, in a stable setting. And they find things rewarding in life that are trivial to people of average or above average intelligence. Drop the IQ of the people on the ship down to 70 or so for the generations of the voyage, and give them menial tasks that keep them busy and happy without putting the ship at risk.

make me realize that no, I'm very right to be concerned about these sorts of things. These are some seriously authoritarian, seriously scary people. I'm glad they don't live in my neighborhood. And no, I don't think for one second that these and similar schemes are any way to organize the politics/culture of a generation ship.



And on the designers' weaknesses. It's a really good way of exposing their preconceptions about the Good Life to scrutiny, and I'm really dismayed by how many folks on this thread are glibly throwing out the most vile authoritarian proposals.

General rule of thumb: take any proposal for how to run a generation ship. Imagine applying it to your own city or state or municipality. If you wouldn't like living that way (in the lowest status slot in the pecking order), you're doing it wrong. If your neighbours would arrest you for crimes against humanity for implementing it, you're doing it wrong. If it results in an overall quality of life for the colonists that is significantly lower than what they'd have if they stayed home, then you're doing it wrong. If your setup specifies a legal code/judicial system, imagine your mom being wrongfully accused of committing the most serious offense it recognizes: if you don't like to contemplate how she'd be treated, you're doing it wrong.

Thanks for the sanity check. I'm appalled that not only did several people weigh in with some rather nasty proposals, but that no one called them on it. The Rule Golden is the one to live by, of course. I don't think that too many of policy makers here thought of themselves as living on the bottom rungs of these hypothetical societies. More like near the top, doubtless because of their 'leet cognitive skills.


@184: Good point. There's three different things going on here under the rubric of primitive.

A. There are the real engineering challenges of trying to keep a ship working for 1,000 years. We really don't know how to do this, but assuming it's even possible, it suggests that whatever culture is living within that ship is going to have to be strongly geared towards keeping the ship alive at all costs (ship dies, they die). To some people, the best solution is an authoritarian one. It's unpleasant, but they may possibly be right (note: I'm not one of the people pushing such draconian solutions).

B. There are people (like me) who are armchair anthropologists, but who know enough to know two things:
1. Our current society as set up can't even manage it's own resources sustainably on any scale, so the way we are today is not a viable template for an interplanetary culture, let alone an interstellar one.
2. Most primitive cultures were sustainable over at least a generation or longer, so it's worth looking at how they have done it. Granted, most have learned how by being on the painful end of the sustainability vs. starvation gradient, but they have learned. What can they teach us?

C. Even if you don't entirely buy that primitive cultures are sustainable, most of the diversity in cultural forms occurs in so-called primitive societies, so if we're looking for a working example of something that might survive on a generation ship, some place like Micronesia, the high Arctic, the Andes, or Papua New Guinea is useful as a starting point.

So, I guess it depends on what you consider primitive.


@13 - I wouldn't discount '1984' as a model either. It did a reasonable job hypothesing a permanently stable (if intensely unpleasant) society. In particular how it required a (true or imagined) Enemy to maintain social cohesion.


You want a Billion people at the end of the journey right? I mean, start off with a fairly small band of smart people that could adjust & evolve their own system,like us yanks! OK, maybe not the best example, but barring an immortal Moses, eventually these people will take charge of their own lives.


@190: This depends on the margin of safety built into the biosphere. Basically, if you assume that the biosphere in the ship is overbuilt by a factor of two to ten as a safety factor, that's how many more people you can have on the ship. Beyond that, population gets controlled by things like famine and cannibalism.

Since I've managed to learn lessons about birth control without having to go through a famine episode, I suspect that we can teach people their reproduction appropriately.

Given how complex the ship is, it's going to take a long time for people to become functioning adults, and that will also help limit reproductive activity. Highly trained professionals often have fewer children.


Charlie@132 -- Almost certainly a lethal (but perhaps not superhuman) human predator will develop -- the tiny celled ones will evolve over 1000 years much faster than humans -- at some point the ship will confront some version of the plague. That's why I'd argue (within the parameters) you need a high tech, independent thinking society that can carry out original research. The no AI constraint means you need non-artificial intelligence.


I think that taking a municipal approach to a generation ship is probably best. Most cities do go through evolution, ups and downs in quality of life and changes in structure. Almost none of them totally disintegrate. In fact many people, even today, never leave their home city/municipality and don't care about higher levels of government.

It is amazing how much the majority of people don't care how the government is run as long as their basic needs are taken care of without too high a cost.

Variety in communities can be provided through a ward system. If you don't like the bohemian ward you can move to the suburban one.

Everyone should be assigned a maintenance job on reaching maturity, and I have no doubt that they will be almost universally boring/unpleasant, and have many people going over the same job someone else did yesterday.

Most entertainment will probably come from some sort of virtual system, and regular information uploads from the originating planet.

Hobbyists will go through every possible option on when they arrive at their destination. Not everyone will want to do this, but there will always be some.

The only obvious question that might come up is who "captains" the ship. It might be something as simple as the oldest person who is still mentally competent at the time the need arises. It is probably best to make this a non-gameable method, even random systems can be manipulated. (If the situation is so bad that assassination is being used to manipulated the system then you're screwed)


It's possible people are making this problem more difficult than it needs to be (including me).

It's a small town. People survive small towns today. Occasionally people have existential angst, but most people make it through life without committing suicide (but there will be some of that) or revolting (and there will be some of that, too, but towns are a pretty long lived institution). A lot of people have families (including gays and lesbians), some don't.

How about this -- find about 10,000 well functioning extended families of about 25 people (grandparents to grandkids -- assorted aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.) with the requisite skills. At least they've got the generation thing down.


This discussion is a bit like having oil painters design the Ares rocket. Reaching back for outmoded governing structures like monarchies, dictatorships, etc. is like the artists building that Ares rocket with an oak hull and gunpowder propulsion, because 18th century warships were beautiful and that's what artists know.

Designing a society for posterity is a social science question and yet there's not much mention of that here. Political science, economics, sociology, political economics, anthropology, history, etc. are critical to answering this question.

Read Jared Diamond's books ("Guns, Germs and Steel" and "Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed") and Robert Wright's "Non-Zero: The logic of human destiny." Sprinkle in some Bruce Sterling, and the deliberations on a functioning government in KSR's Mars Trilogy to get the futurist juices churning.

Bottom line: Societies are becoming more complex, and therefore more resilient as communication and transportation costs decline and cooperation increases. But, but, but, societies can fail when they turn a blind eye to approaching problems (e.g. deforestation on Easter Island, climate change today, etc.).

For the political philosophers and social scientists out there, you can project forward from the present. The more dynamic political systems (western democracies) are continually expanding civil rights (right now we're knocking on the door for gay equality in the U.S.). As society becomes more self-aware in its governing, either democracies pushing for greater personal autonomy, stronger safety nets and fine-tuned capitalism will take the long view as well, or they (we) will get sunk by the problems we can't stomach facing head on.

The difference is that once an advanced society like ours begins to falter, the residents can flee, taking the outdated model with them along with a burning desire to fix it (e.g. the U.S. in 1776).

So part of the challenge, and the fun, for a social science geek like me is that predicting future societal or political conditions is harder than predicting future tech or science: the seeds of tech take a while to sprout in plain view and the universe doesn't rewrite the speed of light limit because Star Trek snagged a bunch of eyeballs. Structuring a persistent society is about how we think about ourselves, an area that is subject to sudden changes of mind, new memes, new interpretations, fringe ideas sweeping into the mainstream, or not because of impenetrable paradigms and inertia all duking it out on the battle field of mass psychology. Fun stuff, IMHO.


There's a rather questionable assumption right in the beginning, btw:

If you can crank yourself up to 1% of light-speed, alpha centauri is more than four and a half centuries away at cruising speed. To put it in perspective, that's the same span of time that separates us from the Conquistadores and the Reformation; it's twice the lifespan of the United States of America.

If you've got a generation ship embarking on a thousand-year cruise with a population of 100K, well, this thing is pretty massy; millions to hundreds of millions of tons would be my guess. So. What are you using for propulsion? Some sort of fusion mechanism I would guess, so exhaust velocities on the order of 1% to 2% of c (I think 3% of c is the upper limit) wouldn't be unreasonable. The good old rocket equation says that to crank it up to 1% of c then, you need a mass ratio of e:1. To slow down, square this, and you get a mass ratio of about 9. Not too bad. The thing is though, that getting up 10% of c isn't too bad either: 22,000:1. Yes, yes I know, it seems like a lot. But you've got to compare, say, 43 years to Alpha C vs 430. In the latter case, that's going to take on the order of 500 million tons of fuel. divide that by 20,000 and you've got a 25,000 ton payload that you can deliver much, much faster.

So on top of all the rest, you've got to wonder why a multistage fusion hot rocket that only takes 43 years to get where it needs to go would not be preferred over the generation ship. This objection goes away of course, if you don't assume those high exhaust velocities, and you don't want the trip to take only 400 years. Make it 4,000 years at 0.001 c with the best propulsion tech, and the mass ratios become pretty awesome to get a cruise velocity 10% light speed.

Does anyone else detect a pattern here?


It seems to me that the "correct" answer heavily depends on the population shifted (much like in the other threads...). If you insist on a billion people, you're in trouble. We've only got two countries on Earth with that many people now, and one is a democracy with some serious institutional issues, the other is an out-and-out dictatorship, and neither has existed for more than 65 years. In short, that's a BIG unsolved problem there. OTOH, if you only need a million, that's just the population of a large city. Governance-wise you're set (though you'll probably need to work on some issues not normally apparent to large cities). Smaller than that, and you're getting into town scales.

So to me the best idea is breaking it into self-similar democratic bits, much like most modern republics. You have the city/parish/county/ward, with a few thousand people living in it, which are grouped into regions with a few tens of thousands, which are grouped into commonwealths (or something) of a few hundred thousand, which are then grouped into the United States of GenShip 7, with the whole population.

The smallest levels in particular should take advantage of small-group dynamics, while the middle-levels should be fairly differentiated. You have a university region, a manufacturing commonwealth, a maintenance commonwealth and so on. Specialization means that the inhabitants have an incentive to get along--trade--and may help people find a niche. It may also help keep culture and politics from ossifying over the generations, a useful trait when you get to the end.

The problem of how strong the top level should be is complicated. Obviously, it should be strong enough to prevent the subsidiary levels from doing really stupid or evil things like conducting war against the neighboring parish, but weak enough to try to keep it from doing really stupid or evil things in the first place. Probably the best solution for this is to start off all the lower levels as sane and good, and the overall government as federal or confederal, but allow it to be amended over time to be stronger if necessary.


...I can only think of one formula for success on a generation ship with non-frozen crew: a theocracy. For the theocracy to function, its constituents would need to truly believe in the principles of The Faith, which would, of course, have been carefully designed ahead of time to stabilize the society on the ship. Of, course The Faith would need to meet several other requirements as well; it must not interfere with the understanding of the function, mission, or situation of the ship, as that would interfere with the crew's ability to deal with unforeseen circumstances.

The chain of command would need to be highly centralized, with some decisive form of government that doesn't change ideologies every half decade: democracy is by nature schizophrenic, and, in a crisis, it's Too Damn Slow.

Economically, the government would need to run all mission critical services, but regulated capitalism would be permissible for non-essentials, such as entertainment goods. Socialism, therefore, would be preferable.

My recommendation would be a sort of constitutional monarchy, except that the monarchy would not be hereditary. The monarch should be selected by [some special committee here] on the basis of competence, leadership, and temperament; there should probably be a clause for the removal of the Monarch upon unanimous vote of ALL parliamentarians.

To guarantee the acceptance of The Faith by the majority of the people, and to prevent the favoring of genetic relatives beyond their merit, I would implement several policies from Plato's "Republic": Children would be indoctrinated in The Faith from an early age, Media would be carefully regulated to remove ideas harmful to The Faith, and, most importantly, children would be raised without knowing who their parents were. To prevent the genetic nastiness of accidental incest, which would already be rare for statistical reasons,siblings would be scattered, so that their chances of meeting would be lessened, and marriages would require approval from The Computer, which would have access to genealogies. This sort of indoctrination would need to be preformed on Generation Zero BEFORE the were put on the ship; Generation Zero must be raised in a carefully controlled environment, as their progenitors and teachers will not be members or believers of The Faith, and this controlled environment would probably need to be larger than the ship. (or at least, it could not be contained in the ship, where volume is so valuable)

With proper indoctrination, a proper Faith, and a little bit of luck in selecting Captains (sovereigns) who are not grossly incompetent, I believe a Theocracy/Platonic Republic could last a long time.

PS: There would need to be (classified) instructions in The Faith for the dismantling [at least part] of The Faith upon arrival. This could be also be the impetus for leaving the comfortable ship for the alien environment of the planet to be colonized.

Well, there it is: am I nuts, or what?


Re: the Tokugawa shogunate as a model

FYI, the Tokugawa experienced over 3000 peasant revolts in less than 300 years. To the shogunate, it was a livable problem. They just sent in samurai, wiped out the locals, killed everyone with the same family name as the rebels, and got on with it. A generation ship probably couldn't handle this level of violence.


The idea of making people sleep through a voyage is wrong.
Whats the point of being a sentient species if your comatose through the journey?

Thinking about generation ships in terms of destination is erroneous. The journey and what we learn along it is just as important.

Humanity on earth NOW, is becoming a series of City states rather then geo political boundaries.
Technology is changing the need to be close to our rural (food Production), yet this is the very thing that is unsustainable in the long run. But we are coming around to the idea of converting city spaces into food production centers, I think this is inevitable in the future. My point is dont look to the past for examples of stable communities, look to the future of our current city states as inspiration.

Because thats the closest model we have to the idea of living homogeny in a technologically advanced society.

City states, seem to operate remarkably well irrespective of political or religious ideology, The logistics of suppling, operating and maintenance of a city state is much the same wherever you go.

Human beings tend to, by large, live happy fruitful lives in these environments, I dont see any reason why this could not continue in a space habitat.

Its just another place to live.

How such a society could be started on earth is pressing question however. As the building of a space habitat would in itself be a muti generation undertaking on earth, the logistics of a governance system could be applied to the (company) or city state that you would have to create on earth to get the project started.

As the principal people that work on this project are unlikely to actually go to the space colony, participation would have to guarantee future generations citizenship in the arcologies.

On a side note, if the technological Singularity extends our lifetimes then your Generation ship gets a completely different perspective. :)

One idea I had is that if you transcend your consciousness in the future to some kind of (surrogate) technology then you have to leave earth. (the price)



For city sized ship the economic problem may not be too difficult (Charlie@164 in response to Bjeorn@105).

If it's 0.25-1 million people we're not talking major industrial policy. It's urban policy, which isn't that "-ism"-istic.

There will be money (barter is too inefficient). There will be some institution that regulates the supply of money (this all existed well before capitalism). There will probably be a "plan" at the beginning about how different jobs (and maybe prizes, etc...) should be rewarded. Almost certainly once it get's going it will be changed by the participants.

There will almost certainly be a judicial system (a dozen or two very generalist judges for the smallest population) -- but again, in a group that small the details of maintaining order and enforcing contracts is not likely to be that complex. It will be complex enough for the tasks people have to carry out -- to enjoy their lives, but they may not be very hung up on whether it's called capitalism or socialism or communism. Basically it's -- "flying the shipism".


All the talk about the super-authoritarian regimes is why I proposed mine @124.

It lets the people decide and live all themselves. If they don't like what is happening, hate what is going on so badly they'd give up everything they have, then the whole system resets.

Eventually, they will have either come up with a system that they can live with and is stable, or they arrive. You don't have to have an AI, because it just needs to have the equivalent of a teaching tutorial and some smart polling software.

The computer can use it's role in education to speed up/slow down the pace of development as needed. There'll be a lot of time to determine which is best.

Now, this does require nanotech, but it doesn't need AI, and you aren't allowing the people inside such advanced tech, they'll be stuck with whatever tech level the designers choose to grant. At the lowest, it'll be agrarian, with few of the problems normally facing agrarians, and I would say at the highest, about today's level, but with little heavy engineering, due to the lack of things to bridge.

This appeals to me, because it lets the people work out their government, and if something goes wrong, there's an escape, but one that brings consequences, so people won't take the option lightly.


Roy@103, sadly, it doesn't get better than that. There is no system that's outperformed checked democracy. With monarchs or dictators, you get serious disorders 1/3 of the time you change kings; and it's about six of one, half a dozen of another vs oligarchy like Sparta, China, or Iran, so you might as well let your people be free and happy, if they want to be. I'm not sure a war would have to be fatal, with appropriate schooling; the world's gone how long with only two nuclear weapons fired in anger? Teaching the world MAD did the job; there'd it be more like, leave the powerplant/thrusters ALONE! You'd need special training for the police, anyway, at the least.

Oh, and we can expect serious technological change during such a long period, and democracies are clearly best at that. I don't expect the colonists to develop FTL , as happened in one short story, but can expect some innovations from the colonists if they're awake. triozyg@133, Athens did quite alot with their 250k inhabitants, including inventing democracy and real history, and the ship'd have a MUCH better specialist ratio.

Charlie@132, adapting to /creating hundreds of years of tech improvements is one thing a sleeper ship CAN'T do, by the way. To me, that's a serious disadvantage, because the ship'd otherwise set down centuries out of date. Of course, that might be a nonstarter if you're on bad terms with home or if home's nicely toasted with nukes.


I missed the no AI constraint, but they really are not necessary in my virtualized society model.
The way I see it, the ship has to be designed to essentially run and provide sustenance without human action. Staying within the the bounds of "we could probably do this already with enough money": I'm thinking robots. Lots of robots. You have a completely controlled environment, automate food and industrial production, and the general operations of the ship and there's a lot less for humans to fuck up. If the ship is a mostly boring place and interaction with it is generally mediated through a virtualized environment then there is not much reason to even be interested in messing important shit up. Turn actual reality into something as mundane as plumbing and it becomes unlikely any authoritarian assholes will fuck with it. I can imagine a feasible dictatorship based on totalitarian control of plumbing, but it's a stretch. Who would even take my manifesto seriously?
To put the whole thing in other terms: Scarcity of the basic necessities of survival must be eliminated. Just as there is always someplace to shit, there must always be someplace to eat. Without the ability to exert control over the basic necessities of survival any potential cultural mutation is less likely to threaten survival.

So objectively we all live in a self-sustaining environment, subjectively we all live in a mediated reality. Our ship is boring, but we have no reason to care because it is not our world. Over a few generations I imagine for most people unmediated reality would become even more of a flat dream world than it already is.

From here I can see a few directions you can go with designing a sustainable society. I think more than anything though you would want a starting point that minimizes the potential for known dangerous ideologies to form, and that maximizes the potential of there being anyone alive who gives a shit about colonization on the other side. Fill your generation ship with as many atheist anarchist scientist pornographers you can find and you should be good to go. Maybe I'm crazy but I think they would produce a stable culture that keeps itself entertained, values knowledge, resists dangerous ideologies, and is still open to radical changes.

Do I win?


Since the head of the world's biggest company (a Scottish bank, at the time) sat in front of a parliamentary committee and said, with a straight face, that he didn't see the credit crunch coming... since British intelligence organisations were blind-sided by the threat from Islamist extremism ... since stuff just happens and - bugger me - keeps happening (history, just one thing after another) then there can be no telling ... you might stick 100,000 amenable democrats on a massive spaceship and 200 years later, a democratically elected loon will be overseeing the murder of all the ginger ones on the grounds of "neanderthal gene pollution" - the more planning, then the more hidebound; if you simply accept that "they're people and they'll make up their own minds" then anything could happen ...


Jon@202 -- Athens may have done a lot, but they did not make the leap to an industrial society. Arguably they had the precursor technology and intellect, but socially found it easier to stick with slavery. Whatever good Athens may have produced -- as a social model, I don't think a patriarchal slave city-state would work.


To defend "primitives" a little more -- you don't need to reduce human intelligence to get people who are relatively happy to live a hunter-gatherer existence. I know of nothing to suggest that existing hunter-gatherer groups are dumber than First World technological groups, just that the usual distribution of intelligences they evince is targeted at a much different problem than quantum mechanics or global finance, viz. continuing to eat and take shelter, which are for technological groups at the First World level solved problems on an individual scale. Survival is a great motivator to group cohesion. (To those who suggest the need for a superhuman predator or enemy to promote group unity, how does space itself not fit this description? Perhaps our problem on earth is that the environment is insufficiently inhospitable.)

Charlie @179: To be fair to the dystopians, I think it's important to distinguish what might work from what we might want to design. Any of the dystopias might succeed at placing humans on another world for colonization. I think it's good to question are assumptions about what is good in life occasionally. I don't actually want to live there, however, and your guidelines are very good for thinking about what we might want to design, which is a far more interesting question than thinking about just what might work.

martin @77: (Better get exactly the right kind of crazy, and good luck with that)

I dunno, MIT seems to do okay at that -- and several generations of the right kind of crazy, too!

Universities are an interesting model. They don't all output their students after only four years, though some do. MIT is a notable example of the kind that don't output after only four years, either because of grad school or because people have decided to stick around socially, which has a lot of interesting effects, and does a pretty good job of enabling long-lasting institutions within the greater institution.

Any big city has sufficient diversity that one can reasonably escape from a portion of it one doesn't like without leaving the greater whole, though one does have to tolerate living in relatively close proximity to one's fellow human. Our genship project probably wants to recruit from places like New York City, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Bombay, Beijing -- places where you're likely to get people who already know how to live in big cities and get along on those resource constraints and with so many neighbors. I think the argument that our genship wouldn't look like Hong Kong, because Hong Kong can't support itself, is a red herring. Cities are by far the most efficient way of getting necesssary resources to large numbers of people. There would probably be a rural belt outside our Hong Kong-in-an-asteroid where the food production etc. took place, and having a "rural" place for people who couldn't deal with the city to escape would be a good pressure-release valve. Most people would live in a dense urban center to which food was transported for efficiency reasons. There's no way our genship would look like the isolated freeholds of Idaho or Wyoming or whatever -- nowhere near as effective a use of resources.

Come to think of it, especially if our city ran largely on services and other ephemeral goods, I suspect it would look a lot like a Boston-style university city or a New York-style cultural megalopolis, and not very much like, say, Detroit as it was in the 50's. How's that for a less-dystopian vision?


Long term means designing institutions that outlast the life expectancy of a single human being, as you note, is badly done by humans.

I feel (observe) that like a biological or ecological system, where it is the nature of the dynamic, power inevitably accretes in the hands of the few.

There may be flux, as tides of change ebb and flood.

It happens regardless style of government, political philosophy, level of freedom.

It may sometimes be for the good, mostly just benign or occassionally bad, or worse, evil.

Consider Obama. All his promises of hope aside, there just is some entrenched power structure that has ruthlessly 'engaged' him on his rise to Presidency, and already in most any meaningful way, enthralls him, so it can only be more of the same. Obama likely only has a very narrow avenue of potential within which he can act.

Frankly, the future belongs to entities that can move the limited goal horizon past that of humans'. In my mind, that means stamping out what we call corruption or concentration of power, and maximizing transparency, so that valid long-term decisions can be made.


One of the most obvious tensions within any of the prospective political models is the need for both an executive function which has the authority and reaction speed to take effective action in emergencies, and damping processes to keep the speed and magnitude of potentially disruptive structural and/or functional changes within ranges that won't actually tear the government, and the society, apart.

Common damping processes include multicameral legislative bodies, separation of powers among government branches, separation of specified classes of government powers among the various levels of a federal system, requirements for Group A's action to be ratified by Group B (and perhaps by Group C as well) before a change can become effective, and separating authorization from funding from implementation from evaluation. It may be useful to note that many -- even most -- of these processes can be implemented in any of a very wide range of nominally distinct formats in which a government may be organized.

Feedback loops are also essential -- and both the more formal types (such as reasonably regular elections of legislative representatives) and the relatively informal (including culturally established norms for bribery of government officials) can be highly effective at guiding any nominal form of government into a version which is at least tolerable to most of the people who live under it. Quite often, the relative effectiveness of any particular feedback loop mechanism may have very little to do with its originally intended purpose, or indeed the degree to which it is even part of the "official" structure of the society or government in question.

So, I suggest that a really, really important part of the design of any administrative / government structure will be provisions for relatively easily grafting in more of these sorts of damping and feedback mechanisms, even in places where there didn't seem to be an immediate need at the time the system was originally designed (or that, simply, nobody happened to think of at the time).

Done properly, I suspect that this approach might also tend to favor certain types of "messy but workable" government, such as those exemplified by large urban polity "political machines" of the type particularly common in major U.S. metro areas during the latter half of the 19th century and the first two-thirds or so of the 20th. (Examples: New York City in the "Boss Tweed" era, Chicago with the first Mayor Daley.) Also see: oligarchies of the Venetian Republic or Dutch municipal types. After all, certain types of built-in political corruption can provide a remarkable degree of flexibility in how the actual powers-that-be respond to a truly new, and absolutely not-anticipated, class of problem.


@ 208: "One of the most obvious tensions within any of the prospective political models is the need for both an executive function which has the authority and reaction speed to take effective action in emergencies, and damping processes to keep the speed and magnitude of potentially disruptive structural and/or functional changes within ranges that won't actually tear the government, and the society, apart."

Too many words mate. Too many opportunities to be special interest mate.

In your defense, and sorry Charlie for introducting a competitor's perspective : ), but in Iain Banks' book Matter there are agents given potentially unlimited powers to exercise in 'emergencies' that in the novel seem to be executed with 'universal ethical precision' but in reality

people seek power

people become corrupt

people serve themselves

The best way to fend this off, or rather the best way to expose this, is to have perfect transparency in any process that involves governance. Period.

Shine a light. Show the bugs.


96: mentioned "checks and balances" which is important too, but when there is no transparency, there is no way to verify independently that the scales aren't tipped in the favour or one or the other or many interests.

Theoretically, judiciary, executive and legislative (and media) (and citizenry) are checks and balances. Current state is proof that it is tampered with.

Imagine: in vernacular of USA, every Senator, Congressman, Councilman, etc, must list every influence on decision process, then we all know ...

... but you know what? .... it doesn't matter if there is perfect transparency, it will be zero sum exercise bc lack of involved citizenry ...

Charlie, there is no potential for humans as currently incorporated to exist long term, never mind on a ship you ask about ...

Longer goal horizon is required in concert with species goal horizon rather than individual,lifetime goal


funranium @ 180 ...
"It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match'd with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,--
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

That IS read out at the start of every Antartcic winter tour, is it not?

Trackball @ 195
The US was founded by greedy slave-owners, who didn't want to pay (admittedly unfair) taxes - nothing at all to do with "freedom".

genoki @ 209
Someone said this several threads back, re a "Halting State" moment - that when the COPS have "nothing to hide, nothing to fear" ...


Some thoughts:

@187 @206: I wasn't suggesting that "primitive" is bad. I do think any society on a multi-generation trip would probably need to accept less "stuff" than we have now (or at least make their mind up early what stuff they wanted and get used to it lasting a long time).

People volunteering to do this - good. Deliberately hiding knowledge we possess from 100 generations to try and engineer a stable society. Really ethically dubious (to put it mildly). I'd argue that deliberately lying (to create a religion) is a step worse. You are no longer failing to pass on information, you are actively lying to try and fool people into doing what you want.

Re: 187 - "Most primitive cultures were sustainable over at least a generation or longer" - be wary of selection bias here, the only groups you can study are the sustainable ones, the others starved to death or changed their ways. Also it may be sustainable, but it tends to need a lot of land for the sort of low-tech basic agriculture or hunter gatherer things we are talking about. May be a clash between sustainability and efficiency? (there was talk earlier on the previous thread about maybe taking some trace minerals with us in storage, because with certain things it's so much easier than trying to get them circulating sustainably through the eco system).

Also unless we've just changed the rules I thought Charlie said a quarter of a million people. Unless this rock is very, very big we want city dwellers. I think @206 is right, we looking at a city for efficiency. We want to be recruiting from New York not the amazon rain forest.

@194 - while we are quoting Jared Diamond he had some very interesting things to say about how high the murder rate was in "primitive" societies. Reckoned it was (mostly) many times higher than the west. These societies only look peaceful because the population density is so low you (the researcher) are rarely near a murder when it happens.


ScentOfViolets, how is your 0.1c multistage rocket going to stop when it gets there? You don't get to aerobrake at those speeds.


Ok, here's an attempt to try and answer the "why so many authoritarian/dystopian recommendations"

Maybe people are thinking about it as -- each generation would suffer the anguish of knowing that they could be living in a much nicer place -- on a planet with wide open spaces and green rolling hills, etc, etc. And the dystopians argue that in that case you'd need a brutish government to keep people there (to us it might seem like the ships used to take the slaves from Africa to the Americas). But only the first generation might feel that way (and hopefully they are committed enough to the cause to get it going).

For everyone else living inside an asteroid is normal. Really normal -- it is where they live and die -- where they find the people they love and raise their children and participate with others in games and life -- its the place where they realize the hopes and dreams of their lives. They will read and write science fiction stories. Maybe late in the trip one of them may come up with the radical notion of writing a story about living on the OUTSIDE rather than the inside of a sphere.


All right, let's try to propose a design for a society: how about a “panopticon constitutional direct democracy based on a social credit system”? It's a social system that I doubt it would work in a large (10 milion plus) world, and that does require quite advanced technology, but I think it would be best suited to a limited, close enviroment, populated by an initial selected group of motivated and educated people, and where at least the basic needs (food, roof, health-care and total access to information) are a matter of constitutional rights for any citizen (and every self-coscient being is a citizen, let's not forget). It's a bit far from what we're suited to, but after all I think it's likely that the first generations ships will not be populated largely by “flatlanders”, but mostly by descendant of people that already went to live in orbital and asteroid environments.
Let's begin from the panopticon side: like I said before, I'm thinking about a truly transparent society more than to an orwellian surveillance society. After all, being a generation ship quite a fragile environment as it was discussed in previous topics, you already will need to have a lot of monitoring stuff all around. You want to know immediately if a strange fungus start developing in a corner of the tubing system, if a rodent with a taste for cabling wander were it must not go, or if a stupid disgruntled citizen decide that a bit of botulin in the water supply will make his ex-lover pay for it. It would be in any case very difficult having in place a system that limit the use those in power would do of this embedded surveillance stuff. So, let's instead embrace it, and give it to everybody. Everybody should be able to watch what's happening, and what's happened, in every small corner of the ship, complete with helpfull intelligent tracking that keep note of where everybody where in every moment. Abuse of this system, like people using it for “immoral purposes”, would be self-limiting as after all, if you like to spy on people having sex or similar things, being watched by somebody other while you're doing it would be quite a turn-off. And in this way, you could almost eliminate crime (I can imagine that some passional stuff now and then could still happens), sabotage, and revolutions. Also, on the side of those in power, you would strongly reduce the chance of corruption, military coups, conspiracies and generally bad behaviours. After all, you would have always full coverage of everything that does happens.
I know that his system would be quite a strain for many modern westerners, but everybody that lived in a very large family, in a small town, or inside any kind of strongly knitted community knows, the concept of privacy is a very relative one, and mostly a matter of upbringing. And, let's face it, the future it's going to be very likely a surveillance society in any case, so, instead of fighting it, and likely lose, why not embrace it and make the best of it?
Now, as the working of a transparent system is reliant on an active, informed and participating population, let's see what we can tweak on this side (I still think it could work with a traditional democracy too, but I want to try desigining a variant system, obviously it would need some real-life tweaking but still).
First of all, as the panopticon system and everything else that's going to follow is going to be a bit hard for the weak minorities (organized mionorites will have plenty way to fight back), you will need a constitution in place to make sure that things do not go too badly out of shape.
The direct democracy would mean a direct vote system on all important matters: it would be like the parliament is made from every single citizen. There would still be the need for elected representatives, to draw law proposals, apply them and so on, but a much minor one form current political systems (also, I would get rid of parties: their role is to support a common p.o.v. Collecting resources to advertise it, support the idea that have the same idea etc. etc... in the gen-ship information-heavy environment, they would have no need if not becoming a bureaucratic possible authoritarian point of failures). Elected representatives I guess would have some kind of blog, where they could publicize their proposals in time, and discuss with anybody wanted to comment, propose, and discuss it... maybe even a wiki...
A quite different thing I would try from existing democracies, is that I would get rid in this case from anonymous vote. I mean: the reason for anonymous votes is avoiding unlawful pressures from other people in the way you vote, and following consequences. In a transparent society, if somebody tried pressuring you before or after, it would be immediately evident, with the appropriate consequences. Probably there would still be plenty space for social pressures, but if your basic needs are constitutionally supported, if there's reason too, you could fight or ignore it. The positive consequences of a transparent vote would be that 1) it would be almost impossible to cheat and 2) it would favor a culture of active participation and personal responsibility for the choices made.
Another thing that could be tried is a system for social credits. People get their basic needs as a matter of constitutional rights. After that, they can work to get monetary credit, to acquire luxuries and other extra stuff, or they can do socially important work for free to acquire social credits. Democracy is currently always seen as “one man, one vote”. If we want to try something different, and encourage participation and responsibility, lessening the effect of the tyranny of the majority, we could try a differentially scaled system. Everybody get one vote once reached majority in any case, but also, when accumulated sufficient social credit, get the chance to acquire additional votes. You could also give such extra votes for extraordinary circumstances (a bit like medals and knighthoods today: you save the drowning child risking your life, you get the medal and an extra vote too), and maybe for some very specifics achievements (you take a full degree on “gen-ship systemic”, you get an extra vote about all decisions involving the gen-ship systems).
I would keep the amounts of votes in circulation still quite limited (normally about 2-3 votes for each, with only very obsessed people reaching about 10). This would smooth the effect of people gaming the system, and the fact that every detail would be totally transparent to everybody (how many votes have everybody, and that wanted to check should avoid a creeping tendency toward the forming of an elite class (together with the fact that these votes would not be ereditary). This system could help giving more weight to decisions made by people motivated and informed about the topic, helping offsetting some of the undesiderable effects of a direct democracy where every single government move is subject to vote from everybody.
One problem you would have to deal with would be hacking of the info-system of the gen ship. You would have a strong help in transparency, as any would-be cracker would be subject to public scrutiny while still in the process of learning how to crack the system (you would have to do it right the first time, there would not be a second chance to try...). I guess you should design the system so that 1) everybody have total full read privileges, but writing privileges for important stuff limited to the most scrutinized elected officials 2) all the surveillance data are immediately committed to write-once archives, where nothing short of physical tampering can get rid of it.
Ok, that's all for the moment. I've no idea if such a system would work in real-life, and for sure I see no way you could do such a thing in a pre-existing large reality like current countries and so on, without generating some kind of monster, but after all we're talking SF...


If you are going to be travelling for 20 generations or so, you need to develop a civilization that calls the world ship home. Assuming the people on the ship are prosperous, well educated and not wage slaves, all you need is a bottom up democracy with checks on majority rule dictatorship. The constitution should include certain givens such as that the ship wont be turned around unless it is faced with certain destruction.

If you keep everything bottom up with policing and militias based on small groupings, nobody will be able to gather enough power to threaten the rest of the ship. You should probably also start with a smaller population and let it peak by the time the destination is reached (people who are well off normally don't have large families).

It would be like a multi-celled organism that grows through 20 or so cell divisions and then divides when you reach the destination. On arrival, I imagine that almost everyone will want to stay on the ship. It would probably have to stay at the destination system for at least a generation. This would expose the population to planetary life and then let it naturally divide into those that want to stay and those that prefer the worldship life.


ScentOfViolets@185 - What exactly is wrong with hereditary professions? How exactly is it a hardship to go into the family trade? Not everyone is happy with their job now.

Obviously if someone showed outstanding talent in another field then there would have to be ways and means to get them doing that field instead, and have someone else go into the family trade instead. And there would have to be flexibility in case, for instance, the couple who dealt with the heating system were infertile.

And the issue about the names is pretty spurious. As I mentioned, there's a precedent in many common Anglo-Saxon surnames, and in modern-day India where some English occupational nouns have passed into common usage as surnames. They include things like Pilot, Engineer, Paymaster.

Kevin@206 - That's exactly my thoughts. An arkship society would be transitional, and the society that developed after planetfall would be completemy different. The society that would keep the arkship going would have to be ruthlessly efficient, whereas a planet-based one need not be. I am most certainly not advocating such a society, and would not want to live in it, but it would depend on the conditions of the society from which they came - if Earth was in the throes of an ecological catastrophe, then people would probably be willing to accept a harsh regime on board ship.

Charlie@179 - You mentioned that people wouldn't want to go if it meant a significant drop in their living standards, but that depends on the situation at time of departure.

As I mentioned earlier, I recently read Stephen Baxter's Ark, and that's coloured a lot of my thinking in respect of this problem. In that book the crew of the ship are fleeing a huge environmental disaster that kills billions, so naturally the environment on board the ship is somewhat harsh, but people accept it regardless because it's still better than what they'd get back home.

Conversely, if an interstellar arkship was built purely for colonisation and not as a desperate last gamble for the human race to survive, then the people aboard would not be willing to accept a significant drop in living standards. There would be hardships, no doubt about it, but they would be tolerable.

I think the problem is that the only experience we have of this particular scenario is from science fiction, and in most of these scenarios the situation does deteriorate into either a low-tech society or an authoritarian one, and that inevitably is going to nudge people towards one of those. I don't seriously think any of the people who've suggested either of these two options have done so lightly or would do so under any other circumstances (I know I wouldn't).

So, I'm assuming that you mean the arkship was launched by a wealthy, peaceful and democratic society from Earth, and there was no motive for escape such as a collapsing ecosystem or a totalitarian regime, making it purely for the purposes of exploration, colonisation and scientific advancement. That puts a completely different spin on things.


@211 Glib, but wrong. I never mentioned anything about freedom in referencing the American Revolution, did I? Most of the revolutionaries thought the British system was perfect until George III got heavy-handed. The taxes were the window dressing: the revolutionaries were upset about self-government and individual rights. My point in referencing it was that they wanted to leave the British system but improve on it when designing their own. Also a good chunk of them were not slaveholders; in fact, the Constitutional Convention nearly broke apart over fights between the slaveholders and the abolitionists like Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin over the issue of slavery.

@212 Yes, Jared Diamond's findings on crime among primitive societies echoes Wright's contention that violence is decreasing. We have been seeing that in the last two centuries as well. Extrapolate that trend and the 'government mass graves' retort that is rolled out whenever someone suggests that maybe there are alternatives to messy democracy or dictatorships sounds increasingly hollow. Thanks for reminding me of the violence angle.

@all: Charlie is asking how to design a society for posterity, not how to engineer a multi-generational colony ship mission. In the best traditions of SF, he and Karl are using the multi-generation colony ship as a pretext, a vehicle, a trope to discuss and play out answers to this question. So stop measuring the curtains and oxygen levels of the colony ship, and in the immortal words of Red Leader: Stay on target, stay on target.


Charlie @179

You asked for what may work, so here goes:

A cultural/educational system where individuals find a greased path to become self-actualized. Every society needs someone to wipe noses and change bedpans and there are people who actually enjoy doing that work as much as those who get off on making money, being a 133t hacker, writing Laundry novels, running for office, delivering mail, etc. Society needs to connect people to their passions to maximize productivity, innovation and happiness. Clearly, a much superior education system than any that exist is necessary.

A political system that maximizes autonomy for individuals, which is both morally right, politically necessary, but also needed to support a self-actualized workforce. While people worry a lot about political special interests, the bigger problem is having some arm of government that will force society to face challenges it would rather not. Some kind of council of geniuses who only get to set the agenda, in a sense. Of course, this would be built on top of a parliamentary or bicameral/separation of powers structure, not in place of it. Because as society becomes more complex, we usually build on top of the old, or tweak it, we don't hit the reset button.

Still thinking on this though...


Bruce@168: Thanks! I think you're right about the need for hobbyist niches; people are far more interested in protecting their own communities when they feel as though they've put a personal stamp on them. I think cultivating that kind of engagement is far easier than performing some great conversion or swindle that ultimately dupes an entire populace about the value of X or Y, because it relies solely on fun people doing fun things in addition to their normal work, not an elaborate tapestry of fabrications and rhetoric.

If you give people a good spot, they'll work hard to keep that spot. They won't need enforcement. They'll want to invest in the long-term sustainability of their situation.

Carrot, not stick.


If this Ship could be constructed today,I'm thinking the Government(s) would insist on a military structure. They would figure it works on subs don't try to confuse us with Headshrinker B.S.! Like they could control things after Radio lag time reaches a day.


A generation ship will be in existence for a long period of time relative to the pace of technological and social development. It is therefore very optimistic (if not downright arrogant) to presume we could design any system now that would remain intact over such a long period. The folks on that ship will know more than we do about their needs and resources, so they will have to make their own decisions.

In general social terms, the most successful motivator is enlightened self interest. So we should send them off with advanced (by our current definition) systems of education and a "Prime Directive" stating that all citizens will receive unlimited education and access to all information. No State Secrets are allowed. Beyond that, all we can do is hope that the planetary Generation Ship called Earth will survive long enough to received the colonists' safe arrival message.


Should we send generation after generation of humans into a hostile environment for extended periods of time? There is no evidence thus far to support our ability to survive either as a society or physiologically in such circumstances. A huge risk to take with potentially catastrophic results.
Why not sidestep the whole issue of a human society ‘en-route’ and develop a ship equipped with the ability to create life. Sperm, Ova, artifical wombs, etc.
As the ship approaches a potentially inhabitable planet, (say, 60 years out) Von Neumann probes are boost-launched (travelling twice the speed of the ship) to see if the planet is indeed a viable target for colonisation. They contact the ship (still 30 years out) and awaken a small crew of robots. These would be able to oversee the birth and initial development of say, 50 colonists, equipping them with the skills to oversee the growth of the rest of the colony.
The Von Neumann probes are busy in the thirty years they have to wait, and by the time the mature colonists arrive, they have built structures, developed mining facilities, sophisticated machinery etc for the colonists to utilise.
Assuming the ships are still in tenuous contact with the home planet, the robot crew would periodically receive updates as to the latest society ‘trends’ back home, and would educating the toddler colonists accordingly.
Of course, if the Von Neumann Probes report back that the ball of rock orbiting Barnard’s Star is just that, a ball of rock….then no harm done, the ship moves on to it’s next target. Red faces at whatever passes for NASA by then avoided….
The advantages of this approach are numerous. Not least the fact that no resources are expended sustaining a biosphere en-route, there are no mutinies, dictatorships or otherwise sabotaging of the mission objective.


re: Charlie is asking how to design a society for posterity, not how to engineer a multi-generational colony ship mission.

re: how do you design a society for the really long term?

I think the answer is that you *don't*. You can design a society for roughly a human lifespan. People will work to solve problems that affect them or their children. Solving a problem that will affect the 50th generation is unlikely to generate much interest. What kind of society posterity will inhabit will be a result of many iterations of shorter-term problem solving, not an inspired vision by someone today.


@ben #52 and many others: very neat trick. I didn't delve in implementation details at the in-polity level myself, and instead did stick to the meta-polity/ship perspective, ie: rules that apply to every and each monkey on the ship, but this kind of stuff sounds like it could help a lot. Same about religion, this is handy but probably works best if left up to individual communities, as opposed to a ship-wide mandatory cult.

@bert #55: short of spectacular improvements on the robot-nanny front, this sounds like a such a good way to breed armies of sociopaths that I doubt it would be easy to get any political traction for this model (outside of Skinner-devout clubs like fractional 'merika, that is), but it could make for good drama and could easily be implemented spontaneously inside one of the niche societies described below.

[Although it's probably the most practical and sensible approach to send colonists out there, incubators/cryosleep is out, because that would make for a Drowsy Award Winning book.
A few commenters suggested prepping for the trip by selecting/building the future generation ship community ahead of time, which sounds interesting, even though it could 'drag' a huge part of the story into covering the pre-launch period, instead of mainly focusing on the ship's odyssey — which I understand to be Charlie's game plan.]

Assuming it can be weaved into the story via split narrative/flashbacks/history lessons or any other not-too-hammy device: self-selected, insular communities (with limited bridging) built and brought up to cruise speed way ahead of launch, then boarded 'as is' (possibly unbeknownst to them) on the generation ship could possibly work.

• P2P Panopticon societies all, we can take that pretty much as a given: any individual can monitor and review at will anyone/thing happening around the ship, in and beyond the limit of his social/geographic niche.

• A weakly godlike AI ruler is possible yet entirely optional. A judge-bot expert system should be more than enough to enforce the basic ruleset outlined below, while maintaining and steering the ship. As long as the monkeys don't escape their containers, they can't seriously interfere, and when they do, it's time to go all HAL on the party-poopers.

• Like the panopticon, a leisure society can be largely taken for granted. Most people would probably sink up to 80% of their waking time in mediated games and entertainment, which can do a pretty good job of harnessing and channeling their frustrations/enthusiasm/energy/anger. Story wise, protagonists involved in meatspace will probably be part of a tiny minority, unless some 4th millennium BSOD forces everybody to go play out in the artificial sunlight.

• Communications between isolated niches are one-way and 'passive': you can see (through the ubiquitous surveillance network) what's happening out of your area/group, but you can't select a recipient for a message outside your polity.

• Limited permeability between niches: one can vote with their feet and leave their community for what they believe to be a better/more suitable one, by applying for immigration. If accepted, the expectation is it would be a one-way ticket: a time limitation on how many such 'visas' an individual is eligible for (1 every n months/years) should be enforced by the ship's own 'crowd control' mechanisms.

• New communities should be allowed to form in 'spare' land reserved to that effect, under the same basic rulesets enforced by the ship systems.

• 'International events' could be set up and hosted on neutral grounds, Olympic Games or mini-war style, to strengthen the sense of reality of each to the rest of the world.

• And obviously drugs are pushed through the air scrubbers. C'mon: you can't dodge that one.

Limited scale communities foster a sense of belonging and impose strong behavioral norms to individuals, helping social cohesion and stability. The necessary 'steam valves' (for individuals who can't take their niche anymore) are made available through the 'emigration' option. The ability to 'look through the window' at what's happening outside a polity enables each community to evolve and inform its practices and customs without fear of being 'gobbled' by a foreign entity (since it's 'watch, don't touch').
Besides helping reduce the odds of the ship's inhabitants slaughtering each other for good, those micro-nations would help prevent cultural necrosis (by virtue of each community raised awareness of the others), so that the colonists aren't entirely brain dead and can still show some adaptability by the time they reach the promised land.

Within the boundaries of each polity/community/land, how people decide to organize could be extremely diverse, and the more the better.

Yes, I can see how the one-way communications (via panopticon) could be gamed and worked around by resourceful individuals/groups through the immigration membrane, and I believe it would be a nice plot device, that would leave up to the author to decide whether it ruins things, saves the day, or both.

Major caveat, hinted at the beginning of this post: how do we justify not going for cryostasis/incubator transportation of the colonists ?



General rule of thumb: take any proposal for how to run a generation ship. Imagine applying it to your own city or state or municipality. If you wouldn't like living that way (in the lowest status slot in the pecking order), you're doing it wrong.

Here's the problem: In moral terms, you are absolutely correct. In practical terms... there are reasons why the law of the sea (or the law of space) is different than the law of the land. Space/Sea is much more dangerous than the land, meddling with your enviroment (the ship) is very, very hazardous, and the potential for hurting others increases gigantically once your vessel is an hour or two from its port.

There's an inherent contradiction which needs to be resolved. We need to balance "freedom" with "surviving the voyage" and that's (obviously) not an easy balance to find.

A moral society in space grants only as much freedom as a person has been rigorously proven to deserve. I don't think the exterior design of the culture - Mandarin, Victorian, Panopticon, or whatever, matters much as long as your ship adheres to this principal. You could simply chip each person and if you're at the bottom of the pecking order certain doors don't open.


Should we send generation after generation of humans into a hostile environment for extended periods of time? There is no evidence thus far to support our ability to survive either as a society or physiologically in such circumstances. A huge risk to take with potentially catastrophic results.
Why not sidestep the whole issue of a human society ‘en-route’ and develop a ship equipped with the ability to create life. Sperm, Ova, artifical wombs, etc.
As the ship approaches a potentially inhabitable planet, (say, 60 years out) Von Neumann probes are boost-launched (travelling twice the speed of the ship) to see if the planet is indeed a viable target for colonisation. They contact the ship (still 30 years out) and awaken a small crew of robots. These would be able to oversee the birth and initial development of say, 50 colonists, equipping them with the skills to oversee the growth of the rest of the colony.
The Von Neumann probes are busy in the thirty years they have to wait, and by the time the mature colonists arrive, they have built structures, developed mining facilities, agricultural machinery, transport etc for the colonists to utilise.
Assuming the ships are still in tenuous contact with the home planet, the robot crew would periodically receive updates as to the latest society ‘trends’ back home, and would educating the toddler colonists accordingly.
Of course, if the Von Neumann Probes report back that the ball of rock orbiting Barnard’s Star is just that, a ball of rock….then no harm done, the ship moves on to it’s next target. Red faces at whatever passes for NASA by then avoided….
The advantages of this approach are numerous. Not least the fact that no resources are expended sustaining a biosphere en-route, there are no mutinies, dictatorships or otherwise sabotaging of the mission objective.


Not the artificial wombs thing again. Who's linked you this time?


fizz @215: You ever hear of line breaks?


re Alex 228:

Oh, I see...we can presume the creation of a viable self-supporting biosphere for thousands of humans...but not artificial wombs..?


I think I'm with Jamie on this one. Beat me to it!


Thanks Scott.

And to extend the idea (and borrow from a previous post...though which one of the 231 I can't recall, so apols in advance). Much smaller ships, so you could send out several for multiple redundancy..in fact...send out hundreds...seed the galaxy!


I'd say forget about the societal structure -- it simply doesn't matter as long as what you're starting with works reasonably well. In the course of 400+ years, it _is_ going to change, a lot, and there's almost certainly no practical way to control the nature of that change. Aside, that is, from the basic fact that the environment will require (if the generations are going to survive) a strong orientation towards scientific and technological pragmatism.

So, if the Group is large enough, at the end of the voyage, a significant number will be anxious to get off the ship and form a New & Better World (think "disaffected adolescents", or most of the s-f Fans you know) -- and human culture on the first Terra-like planet settled will be shaped & re-created by the conditions of that planet.

We can think of a large number of possibilities, but it doesn't look to me as though any one of them could be depended upon. The crew will have to work things out for themselves, and take their chances. This seems to be a fine basis for an almost-infinite Series, especially if it includes the assumption that the Ship is to go on and seed a large number of planets.


Artificial wombs? Sure you could do it, but who/what is going to raise and educate them? We tend to have these things called Parents to help with that. Maybe machines could be built to do the job, but don't expect the results to be mentally well-balanced. That's also putting a lot of faith in machines that could fail, be damaged, have bad instructions, etc.

Besides where's the fun in sending canned eggs?


I note (belatedly) that by the end of your post you're postulating a quarter of a million people and a thousand-year voyage. And, presumably, an unspoken-of stable-replacement birthrate.

All that actually is needed would be a carefully-selected adquate gene-pool -- and given the eventual goal of populating a planet (or many planets) it might be a good idea to establish, within the ship's cultural tradition, some idea of reproducing almost up to the carrying-capacity of the environment. Not that humans, or other animals, need to be actively taught this, I suppose, but humans seem to be unique in their ability to establish sub-cultures in which it isn't done.


re 234.

Agreed, a lack of parents isn't ideal...but then we aren't shy about sending our own kids off to Military Academies, Boarding Schools etc etc.

Not an exact analogy I appreciate... I guess my point is that a crew of robots with decent AI attributes might make better parents than say, those of Charles Manson, Peter Sutcliffe etc.

One other thing about great 'parenting'. Many of the ideas already suggested in this forum hint at executing wrong-doers, wiping out neer do well populations and in one instance complete genocide prior to landing.

I'm starting to think robot parents might have been the way to go for some of the people in this forum....now just let me get in my time-machine and sort that out for them.....


Stiglitz has an interesting take on such issues: What we are actually deciding is how to decide projects that get funded (encouraged), and which are not, also by whom. Projects can be anything that is relevant to the survival of the human race.

Now: if the failure of a project means extinction of human race, those decisions are better-off centralized. If however, we need to "try" bunch of projects, don't care of failures, but success will push everyone forward in some way, there we need decentralized projects, that is, people start them on their own, take the risks, and the benefits as well. The latter would be capitalism (or any other free enterprise based system), fhe former central, government. The paper is here http://bit.ly/3uUhkf


Bob @224 nails it in one.

There's two questions here. The first is how to build a society that is stable in the long-term. The second is how to fit one of those societies into the constraints that come with being inside a generation ship.

The first question is irrelevant to most societies - societies are designed to benefit those that live in them and the rare attempts at creating a long term society have been pretty unsuccessful (thousand year reich, anyone?).

Given that we haven't solved the first problem, arguing about the second seems somewhat premature.

Not that that'll stop us. The key problem here is that all existing societies can externalise anything they can't deal with, whether that's emigration to get rid of troublesome/aspirational offspring, dumping waste carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, or blaming [insert hated minority group] for the society's social or economic problems. A generation ship can't externalise problems, other than as waste heat, so social, economic, or environmental problems are ever present and unavoidable.

(Oh, and all you sick, sick puppies who are arguing for dystopia, tyranny, or reducing people to mentally mutilated monkeys? You'll be first up against the wall when I'm Ship's Captain...)


Jamie @236. The military academy analogy doesn't fit, particularly as you're not sending infants.

Building robot parents would probably be as difficult a problem as designing a shipboard environment. Just one question, how many children per parentbot? You still have to be able to feed/clothe/shelter them, which means other machines to do all that. And of course you still have to design a society for them to grow into.

The idea of replicating the surrogate mother experiment with human children isn't very appealing.



Yes, the military academy analogy doesn't exactly fit....I think I said that myself.

I can't see that building a complete self sustaining biosphere would be in the same league as building robots...it took the Earth a few hundred million years to get our current biosphere right....and yet somewhere in Japan little robots are walking about as we speak...hmmm.

I'm not quite sure what conclusions you can draw from the surrogate mother experiment either. I could belligerently massively oversimplify the results and say that whoever feeds baby gets the parent-infant bond....

But yes, that is obviously over-simplifying the issue. Something we could work on in the next couple of hundred years though surely? Surely there are ways to ease the implied trauma of surrogate parenting for the first generation of colonists?

And is surrogate parenting less appealing than catastrophic loss of the whole mission/society? Or the feudal breakdown / murder / genocide options previously espoused in the forum?


Jamie @230: artificial wombs are a hard biomedical problem -- not an easy one, like an artificial kidney or heart. Even a quick glance at uterine function and reproductive biology will tell you this. And as for robot nannies ... that's pretty much the ultimate Turing test scenario: it takes humans to socialize human infants.

(This has been chewed over at length, ad nauseam, on this blog in the past. Put it this way: if we can build AIs flexible enough to raise functioning human children, the parameters of our base society have changed so radically that the whole current no-singularity/generation ship scenario we're discussing is obsolete.)

NB: we don't send kids off to boarding schools or military academies until after the critical developmental stages. And even then, and even despite the resilience of juvenile humans, the process damages some of them.


Can I just point out a key problem with most concepts here? You're assuming the generation ship gets up to speed, takes several centuries to traverse space, then slows down again to a stop.

Instead consider the journey IS the destination. This is a ship that accelerates and doesn't stop doing so, continuing to journey between stars, one after the other. As it nears each star very small craft detach, taking down colonists, then maybe picking up few supplies to accelerate again to catch up.

In this context you are looking for a living civilisation, probably organised as a series of semi-independent systems, where some can travel between systems to revitalise ideas. When you near the next system either the very good, or the very bad, form the colonisation party, set down with minimal supplies to make the best of it. Some are 'ship' people and enjoy the journey, some are 'restless' and leave. Everything else has an emphasis on sustainability, which means reuse, and mend. That probably means a focus on intellectual pursuits.

Done like this the gap between 'hopping off points' decreases over time (as speed increases) and the end point is more a natural run down in entropy as non replaceable resources are used up.

The story is the story of the journey. It spawns other stories along the way, but they don't define an 'end'. Those that take part are obviously those that want to be part of that story. The civilisation is defined by the story its following.



artificial wombs are a hard biomedical problem -- not an easy one, like an artificial kidney or heart. Even a quick glance at uterine function and reproductive biology will tell you this. And as for robot nannies ... that's pretty much the ultimate Turing test scenario: it takes humans to socialize human infants.

Could you perhaps be a bit more exhaustive and specific with your constraints? They appear to be pretty ad hoc at this point (reasonable if you've already got a certain story you're planning to tell in mind), and it's not at all clear why you're picking them. For example, given that you're going to need around 500 million tons of fuel for this beast for a 0.01 c velocity, why not budget the same amount of fuel to send something much smaller, but also much faster, say at 0.1 c? 43 years to Alpha C vs 430 makes a huge difference in provisioning, life support, etc. So there's got to be a reason why this isn't preferred over the generation ship approach.

Also, I think I've been pretty clear that almost all of the various schemes proposed so far seem immoral, unethical, illegal, and quite possibly fattening as well. I'd guess that future generations would feel the same, i.e., no generation ships are launched unless the alternative is even worse. Something like Resuna or the Blight taking over Earth. Nothing quite so sophisticated of course, given your stipulated technological limitations, but more along the lines of everyone on the home world being fitted with the equivalent of Vance's torcs from "The Anome"(we'll assume that besides the decapitation option there's the William Shatner writhing on the ground stylings of neurally induced agony.) If I was living on an established O'Neill type colony in the 25th Century and the rulers of a torqued civilization which controlled 99.9% of the population and resources of the Solar system started making noises about how those lawless anarchists living on the High Frontier needed to be brought into the fold or else be considered an existential threat, I might think that leaving first and organizing a better social setup later might be the most expeditious course of action too.



I think you are exactly right, the primary problem isn't really designing political institutions that can survive a thousand years so much as it's creating a cultural teleology. We can't know what will actually work best in such a unique circumstance. We can know who we put into the ship.

Cultural evolution is inevitable in any society, in the confines of a generation ship our only choices are to fight it through various forms of tyranny or accept that it will happen and try to create the best possible starting framework. Hence my suggestion of atheist anarchist scientist pornographers.

In my scenario their subjective experience of life in the ship would be as mediated as possible, either in a virtualized or augmented reality. This will help keep them focused away from the physical experience of life locked inside a hollowed out asteroid and thus decrease the likelihood of some radical cultural change compromising the colonization project. Depending on how far you could take it there are a lot of efficiencies to be gained as well. Think of all the waste that goes into mass production of a thousand variations on the same consumer goods. You can eliminate that by virtualizing the subjective experience of the product. The ship could produce a few basic food items, but to the people they could look and taste like whatever (either through direct stimulation of the brain or through good old fashioned chemistry). They can have an entire industry of people who do nothing but try to design awesome food, except it's essentially designing software. The actual production of food continues as always. And in that same sense, the actual production of life continues as always because the production of culture exists within the virtualized environment.


Wow, this thread went long. I kind spaced around post 200.

With that caveat in mind, Alex pretty much gave the answer. Lots of others then repeated it. But I don't think anyone drew the right conclusion.

The answer to Charlie's question @179 ("Do we have any proposals for how to do it right?") is: nope.

Small-c conservatism, folks. You take the society you got, stick a smaller version into a large pleasant box, and hope for the best. That looks sort of like a small company town in space. With really strong anti-smoking laws, or whatever it is you need to keep people from punching holes in the hull and whatnot.

I don't think you need a military hierarchy any more than the TVA does. (Yes, that TVA.)

Where it goes after four centuries, who knows? You takes your chances.

Try anything else, and nobody gets on. Unless you're arrested and shut down for trying. In which case you don't even get the chance to recruit crazies even crazier than the ones who want to live the rest of their life on a really really small island with pleasant weather and a weird-looking sky.

All else is ... huh. I guess I can't sensibly say "science fiction." But not possible unless the society launching the ship looks hella unlike our own. In which case designing your on-board social system is a second-order problem.

P.S. I find it ironic, if unsurprising, that Alex was the first and strongest small-c Burkean conservative on this thread.

P.P.S. Alex Roston@226, you've taken a reasonable point and pushed it to breaking. Civilian ships don't work that way. Hell, the U.S. Navy doesn't work that way. You been reading too much Heinlein, G.


Ah, Charlie, I will bow out gracefully, but unconvinced.

Will we never get to a point where we solve the 'hard' problem of artificial wombs?

I think we will, and probably sooner than we as a civilization will be prepared to sacrifice the resources necessary to create an asteroid sized generation ship.

Will 'turing' level AIs mean civilization will change irreparably and there will be no need to look to colonizing or building generation ships?

I don't think so...an influx of AIs will probably make the problem more pressing, and more practical (they might help solve our 'hard' problems for us too...)

Unless of course you picture some kind of BSG or Terminator scenario...

This just leaves the morality / pyschological effects of artificial child-rearing. Well, what seems obvious and right to us today may well look very different in a few years time...


TVA, is that the Tennessee Valley Authority? I'm not saying a Military Hierarchy is best (or the worst)! This ship is obviously going to cost a lot. Who ever "foots the bill" is going to want a say in how things are run. Politicians will want to go with the closest analog that's worked before. Unless a bunch of Rich geeks get together to build it and I don't see any of them not wanting to control everything :)


Noel @ 245

You're missing a couple of points. First, space is much more dangerous than the ocean. Mistakes/foolishness at sea are merely bad. The same in space is much worse. This implies an extra level of caution if everyone is to survive.

Second, the system I propose doesn't involve killing anyone or unnecessary restriction of freedom. It goes more like this: If you want to visit the engine room, you pass a test. If you do something stupid/dangerous in the engine room, that door doesn't open again for X amount of time. If you want to work in the engine room, you pass a much harder test...

Third, the system doesn't have to be run by rigid assholes, but it does need to be run by someone who can distinguish between newbie error and somebody arrogant enough, as a very junior officer, to attempt to rewrite the antimatter containment software.

Fourth, this doesn't always need to affect freedom of speech. A person who writes "The captain is an asshole" on the ship's forum may be a snotty kid, the Captain's ex-lover, or a minor officer who's had a bad day. Someone who writes, "God told me the captain is an asshole" is another story.

Fifth, a controlled sort of privilege escalation, on the level of "sudo Captain" might be a very good way to run a generation ship.

Lastly, this works fairly well for handling criminal issues. The ship can keep someone out of work areas, or it can enforce a restraining order, or simply make sure that a convicted murderer's cabin door doesn't open except when the robots bring him food.

I'd be happy for my mom to live under this system, as long as it wasn't administered by a jerk.

Noel, I've thrown out three different ideas on this thread, each of which contradicts the others. Remember, we're just playing with ideas here and having fun - there's no need to get insulting. (On the subject of reading too much Heinlein, note my post at 60.)



I'd be happy for my mom to live under this system, as long as it wasn't administered by a jerk.

I trust the bolding is sufficient comment? On a related, note, proposing 'solutions' that can't be implemented isn't really proposing any sort of solution at all.


Charlie@ 179: "I'm really dismayed by how many folks on this thread are glibly throwing out the most vile authoritarian proposals."

You want a society that will emerge with a population after 1000 years without anything going wrong in the interim.

The problem is that this is like trying to determine a Nash equilibrium in a large, diverse multi-agent system. It is NP hard and most likely the system is chaotic unless the interactions are extremely limited.

Despite what some people are saying about modern society freedoms, the one thing we are seeing is increasingly draconian laws against individuals doing anything novel, like home chemistry experiments or eventually, gene engineering. In this spaceship of presumably lots of high technology and smart people, how is it even possible to ensure that no one ever does a spaceship killing action, even by accident? You cannot unless the society is relatively rigid and that means it's access to technology must be extremely limited, maybe even very primitive.
The generation ship is just a microcosm of the planet and like island cultures, more vulnerable to perturbations of any sort.

Perhaps the best solution is to mimic the earth, ie design the ship so that it is not a single society, but rather separated, even isolated, societies. This will provide more chances for one or more to be working by the end of the voyage and possibly provide the escape valves for the pressures within each society. So maybe design the ship as separated compartments as a start, like cells in an organism and steer clear of the optimum social design problem?


Following on from the thought of separating societies.

One key to having an effective feedback mechanism is to allow the disadvantaged to escape from the control of the advantaged. If a society mutates into a monarchy, then allowing the peasants to migrate elsewhere limits the power of the monarch.

A second issue is the prevention of one society controlling another, especially by force.

This suggests that the ship needs to be constructed so that societies are separated by porous membranes. People can slowly move across membranes, e.g. migrating individual refugees, but not quickly, as with an army.

More subtle forms of warfare or chaos are still possible, but the separation of society populations reduces the severity of many of these.


You can't design a stable society for a 1000 year generation ship voyage. Whatever initial constraints you build into the system will be subverted by multiple generations of humans doing whatever they damn well want to.

This is not a bug; it's a feature. Those Nth generation residents of the ship are going to know a lot more about what it takes to survive and thrive in their environment than you are. They may get it wrong and die horribly. But they are less likely to than people--however good intentioned--who have never been, and will never be, in their situation.

The best you can do for them is engineer a robust, highly redundant ship/ecosystem, pack it full of all the knowledge and history you can fit, and hope for the best.


The comments here are interesting. One thing that always stands out in my mind is why people dont consider our own planet as a generation ship?

Lets put it this way, we are on a self sustaining Biosphere Orbiting a sun which is traveling through space. Its part of a Galaxy which in itself is traveling at 552 to 1000 km/s through the interstellar medium.

The fastest observed object we have seen is a a neutron star known as RX J0822-4300 traveling @ 1,800 km/s. Even that is only 1.5 % the speed of light. I find it implausible that without evidence from nature that we will ever reach speeds even close to that. (sadly)

If it can be thought of as a generation ship constrained by the laws of the universe, then the model for life can be very broad, there are great mysteries associated with such an idea, we suspect that life has flourished here from the early formation of our planet, its not life in our current self image, yet life nonetheless.

Perhaps the politics of society (in our current biology) are a little irrelevant. If you span the question to the rules for life over millions of years then the equations become different. Things like biogenesis and homeostasis become important focal points.

Perhaps the cycle of life, including species extinctions in a generational ship are also valid. Of course this initiates bigger questions about the heck life is anyway. Without going down that road to far its worth noting that life is a biological technology that is very sophisticated, adaptable and efficient.

So, here is my question, if we are a technological construct living on a generation ship, how would we know? :)



I think any system based on ignorance is a non-starter. We can't have hunter gatherers. This ship is going to be the most complex every created by people, and it will not be possible to make it self maintaining. There are bound to be many unforeseen challenges on the way. You will need lots of highly skilled people who know exactly what they are doing, and why. Everyone will know that survival depends on everyone else doing their job properly, and share the goal of reaching the destination. That shared goal will help keep society on track.
Another essential is equality - everyone gets paid the same and there is no facility for investing accumulating money and passing it down the generations. There is in my opinion no room for capitalism, no individual goals - there is just the shared goal of getting to the destination.
As far as government goes - I don't think direct democracy works - most people are not interested in the minutiae of government.
I agree with some other writers - a secular monastic system for the government would work. The monasteries would be open to anyone to join, however there would need to be something along the lines of poverty, chastity and obedience. The monks (of either sex) would have to be sterilised to prevent the monasteries becoming hereditary elites. (Actual celibacy not necessarily required). Probably a good idea to live a simple with fewer personal possessions that the ordinary citizen. These monks would elect their abbots who in turn would elect a chief executive for the ship, who would also have to be approved by a vote of the people.

The monastic rulers do not have any military or armed police under their control. In fact no firearms at all on the ship.

I know some people think nobody would do any work without the motivation of money, but I think most people like to work - or would if they felt it to be worthwhile and respected. With social pressure to do your share plus the knowledge that everyone's work is required to survive and with hours of work being reasonable people would do their share.

The work of government would not be complex on the ship - there are no foreign governments to deal with no tax systems to administer. Ooh it's a command economy - well why not, a small technologically advanced society with ample computing power could do that easily.

In the end though you need to rely on people adapting to whatever problems they have to deal with, and for that you need everyone to be as educated and aware of exactly whet the situation is as possible.


"The monks (of either sex) would have to be sterilised to prevent the monasteries becoming hereditary elites."

Hmm. Sounds problematic for a multi-generation ship.


ScentOfViolets @ 249

I'd be happy for my mom to live under this system, as long as it wasn't administered by a jerk.

Bolding is not sufficient comment. "...as long as it wasn't administered by a jerk." is true of every system ever, anyplace, under any circumstance you, I or anyone else can think of. I didn't think it was necessary to add that - I figured it would be patronizing - but I guess it was necessary.


KeithDavidson@204, yeah, capitalism and democracy are sad stuff. But, here's the thing - everything else' even worse; both've been around for thousands of years without anybody coming up better systems beyond many minor improvements, so I think that'll still be true when a generation ship's launched. Checks and balances really do work, even if sometimes all too slowly.

triozyg@205, why would you expect Athens to make the leap to industry?

fizz@215: What has being a panopticon gained for London other than its richer camera-makers? There's no decrease in crime, you still have terrorism happening. You certainly have a decrease in a human right - privacy. Genoki, transparency's a help, but it's no miracle, and has to designed carefully. Public meetings video'd's all good; panopticonsre are bad. Remember, that was a design for a PRISON; think about that; feel free to use a webcam youself if you like, but imposing it on everybody's going to make lots of people unhappy.

Koala, I see Stiglitz's never worked for a defense contractor or a government lab. I've worked for both; both institutions are forced to have serious slows because of their LONG managment chains and by the reality that courtiership's more important than being good at your nominal job. The Manhattan Project's a special case that doesn't happen often, becuase it had to be kept secret, cost-effectiveness was less important than getting there first, and it was mind-bogglingly expensive. That approach certainly'd be worse than wide competition for, say, renewables or car batteries, which are all the other way around.


Oh, forgot this one.

I think Earth Jurisprudence is an interesting idea when applied to a space habitat.


After listening to Karl Schroeder talk about Re-Wilding on his blog it got me thinking about the other. Humans need to exist in co-dependence with the biomass of a habitat, thus some of these ideas make sense.

Sorry for the multiple posts.



First, I'm glad that the problem involved "You, and a quarter of a million other folks." Because that sets aside my quantitative quibbles about population biology, and gets to the even harder problems of sociocultural structure and dynamics.

Bottom line: I don't know. Further, although I'm eager to be proven wrong, I don't know that anyone knows.

From the conferences that I've attended (presenting multiple refereed papers each time) on Social and Organization Systems, there is no consensus foundation for the field at all. I tend to go t the conferences that are heavy on computer simulation (massively multi-agent) and mathematical analysis. I have fun, but nobody knows.

Example: it is folklore in the field that "an organizational structure changes from either internal or external pressure."


But nobody has given a compelling definition of "organizational structure" or how it changes or how it changes from "internal pressure" (not defined yet) nor "external pressure" (not defined yet).

So, as in your previous thread, I like the thought experiment very much. But it is exactly the kind of problem that most of my Physics and Computer Science friends either don't get, argue about the suppositions, or get lost in fruitless abstraction or premature models.

Hence I'll lurk for a while, and see what your readers collectively suggest.

Because, as my wife trained me to say over the first few years of marriage: "I don't know."


I'm with Eric @254 and others in that a fully-aware, self-governing population is likely to be one of the few viable options here. My own belief is that the ideal population would also self-selecting and that its founders are perforce those who give their lives, their fortunes, etc. to the construction effort -- given the scale of undertaking, it is not unreasonable to think that multiple generations will have had to commit everything to such an effort before it is even ready to launch. The construction alone would probably require a generation or two of dedicated workers, nearly all of whom will already be full-time residents (or permanent employees with onsite living accomodoations, if you prefer).

What sorts of person would voluntarily board a [largely] closed-environment construct bound on a one-way tour to Ghu-knows-what, and be confident in doing so?

A1: The utterly naive, pounding on Darwin's doormat;
A2: The deranged, or those unable to make rational life decisions;
A3: Those who spent a large chunk of their life -- and whose parent(s) did likewise! -- building the damn thing and know that it's fit for the purpose. [1]

While I am not suggesting that a sufficient number of the third group of people could pool their resources and create a genship, those are the people who stand as good a chance as any of crewing a ship and propagating values to their offspring which would lead to a successful arrival. These are also likely to be people who can maintain awareness of their condition and adapt as needed to cope with changing conditions while also living with the near-certainty that, for all practical purposes, they may be the only surviving instances of their (our) race. [2]

Have kibbutzim (sp?) been around long enough to give useful data on their longevity?
*fits of g**gling ensue*

[1] The "Pack your own parachute" philosophy, in short.

[2] From a morbid p.o.v, all of us FAPP are in the "last survivors" category. Awareness of the condition and ability to cope with same varies widely among individuals.


@ 248: "Mistakes/foolishness at sea are merely bad"
Try "Peter Simple" etc ....

@257 - Panopticon.
AT THE MOMENT - BUT: soon, VERY soon, the cops and the surveyors are going to be under the panopticon as well.
The previous situation, of falling down the police-station steps will no longer apply, indeed, it is already happening.
This has already been said, SEVERAL TIMES on various threads on Charlie's pages - pay attention at the back, there!


@260 Why do people move to Alaska? Adventure, to start over, to Get Away, and the chance to be a "big fish in a small pond"! Admittedly qualities you might want more at the end of the journey than the beginning.


It seems the problem with creating a structured society stems from a flawed inability to reconcile/evolve from instinctual animal behavior modes. So why not engineer life threatening varietals (of greed, control, fear, etc...) out as was suggested in some earlier posts. And, just curious why we're moving 100's of 1000's of people to a new destination; most cross-continental discoveries were accomplished in with relatively few numbers.

Or, regarding governance… could be the ultimate reality show where earthlings vote (democracy) on who gets votes off the “Rock” (meritocracy)?



Bolding is not sufficient comment. "...as long as it wasn't administered by a jerk." is true of every system ever, anyplace, under any circumstance you, I or anyone else can think of. I didn't think it was necessary to add that - I figured it would be patronizing - but I guess it was necessary.

Right. Because you're evidently just as happy if the jerk happens to head a totalitarian dictatorship or if they're a high functionary in a participating democracy with explicit checks on power to prevent atrocities like "the tyranny of the majority". Not to sound patronizing - as you say - but you do know the topic has been booted about several times over the course of history, right? And of course you do know that the USian system was designed explicitly to dilute the effects of bad guys right? Or did you?


Greg Tingey @ 261

Greg, I'm making a tongue-in-cheek comparison, and you're not getting it. Let me try again:

Compared to the disastrous potential of mistakes/foolishness in space, with a fusion-powered ship, in total vacuum, with external temperatures in the negative 100s, at velocities measured in miles per second, light years away from the nearest help... mistakes at sea are merely "bad."



The leading internal cause of death for societies is the dominance of a political oligarchy that is too rigid to adapt to changing circumstances and sees its sole purpose to be protecting the privileges of the already privileged. Put less politely, the leading internal cause of death for societies is conservatism. Designing political systems that are immune to takeover by conservative oligarchies is an unsolved (and possibly unsolvable) problem.

I suspect there is more than a little truth in that. Here's my particular authoritarian solution: have the various jobs parcelled out to the citizens with a few provisos. The children and grandchildren of those in any sort of leadership or command positions are explicitly forbidden to hold any position of authority. And the immediate children (this doesn't apply to later generations) are relegated to the dirtier jobs. No exceptions. If anyone tries to make the case that their unique skills and peculiar talents are cause to make an exception in any given circumstances, well, I'd reply that this is evidence of a single point failure and the ship just isn't big enough. We've had enough of that sort of nonsense promulgated by the chieftains of Citigroup, AIG and all the rest of that lot.

That's the very rough prescription, but the general idea is that while individuals die and institutions fail, families can go on for a long, long time.


SoV: so, your dad was successful: you're going to spend your life shoveling shit. Doesn't sound very meritocratic to me -- quite the contrary! In fact, a system that sticks your children with the shit jobs if you excel is a system that is going to deter parents from acknowledging their children (or provide a perverse incentive for childlessness/leaving your estate to nieces/nephews). It's so draconian that there's an incentive to game the system, in other words.

I'd be intrigued by a variation on the classical chinese bureaucratic system; the son of a prince only inherits the title of duke, the son of a duke is only a baron, the son of a baron is only a knight, and so on. Aristocracy depreciates. Regaining lost seniority is permitted, but only on merit and with proof of performance (in that case, via the civil service examinations). Add a really huge inheritance tax and anti-nepotism measures (you can't hire your own children) and that ought to be sufficient.



SoV: so, your dad was successful: you're going to spend your life shoveling shit. Doesn't sound very meritocratic to me -- quite the contrary! In fact, a system that sticks your children with the shit jobs if you excel is a system that is going to deter parents from acknowledging their children (or provide a perverse incentive for childlessness/leaving your estate to nieces/nephews). It's so draconian that there's an incentive to game the system, in other words.

Well, no, just the jobs that are primarily administrative. That could be the Captain and his/her officers, the section heads of Power,Life Support, or whatever else. If you repair, monitor, and upgrade power conditioning equipment (to name on job that sounds important but isn't freighted with a lot of command heft), there's no reason why your children couldn't follow in your footsteps. In short, while I think it's hard to prevent power accreting to a certain subset of people, things don't start to become really pear-shaped until the primary entry into this privileged class is hereditary. That's what I'm concerned with to the first order(that and having the smelly, low-status, hard labor jobs also becoming hereditary.[1])

I'd be intrigued by a variation on the classical chinese bureaucratic system; the son of a prince only inherits the title of duke, the son of a duke is only a baron, the son of a baron is only a knight, and so on. Aristocracy depreciates. Regaining lost seniority is permitted, but only on merit and with proof of performance (in that case, via the civil service examinations). Add a really huge inheritance tax and anti-nepotism measures (you can't hire your own children) and that ought to be sufficient.

My first thoughts were along those lines. The question then becomes how far down can you go in this system, and to what degree your family connections can help you avoid the more onerous tests and penalties. And iirc, the Chinese system you refer to did indeed suffer from these defects, though obviously to a lesser degree and it was resistant to even those erosions for a long time[2]. I wanted to avoid a "cell" system where you can only fall so far no matter how incompetent you may be. Unfortunately, if there's some sort of arbitrary cutoff, you still get two a "two-celled" society. If you have any ideas, I'd certainly be happy to hear them.

[1]By the same token, you could also have it that the children of those doing the lowest and hardest jobs are also forbidden the occupation of their parents.

[2]As I understand it - and I may certainly be wrong - these examinations tended to devolve into questions about the best way to behave in court, mores of the upper classes, that sort of thing. In short, all the bad old stuff of IQ tests circa the 30's that 'proved' that blacks have less intelligence based upon their facility with middle- to upper-class English and their grasp of various historical and socio-economic based 'facts'.


The more I think about this, the more it troubles me: What kind of person would actually join a 1000 year voyage to another star? I might, but I'd view it as an alternative retirement community, not a place to raise a family. What would a young couple plan on telling their child(ren)? "We lived on Earth (the Moon, Mars, whatever), but we came here so you could spend your entire life inside this rock." Who does that?


Charlie, you mentioned the reinstating of a market mediated culture upon arival:
"...or a "training wheels" environment for the market-mediated culture that you might need to revive after arriving in another solar system"

This would make sense if they arrived in a solar system with a habitable planet. Unfortunately, unless that planet already has some form of life that engages in a process remarkably similar to photosynthesis, that will not be the case. Oxygen does not exist in its molecular state for long before it is burned off or reacts with some metal or another. Upon arrival our settlers would have another 2-5 thousand years of terraforming on their hands before they are living outside of habs. Of course they won't be resource bound, but the pressure to work as a collective will still be so strong that striking out into separate groups will be a rather daunting task and conflict would also remain a lethal threat.

I actually think the premise of this post is poorly thought out. By the time we have the engineering capability to hollow out an asteroid and send it through interstellar space at 1% light speed I would hope we also have a better understanding of human psychology, genetics, and sociology in order to design PEOPLE capable making such a journey or maybe some Van Neumann robot probes - or just SOMETHING better than sending a fragile human society hurtling through space in a giant rock. A lasting society here on earth would be nice, though.


How about this: a society of homozygous clones. Everyone shares the exactly same - perfectly healthy - genes.

Obviously, everyone will be a clone of the most psychologically stable person we can find.

Combined with identical upbringing, this should eliminate all personal conflicts.


A couple I’m things I’m not getting here.

Why would the ship be so fragile that one person could cause trouble? We’re talking a huge ship, it has to be sturdy. Right? I’m assuming an advanced enough tech to be relatively maintenance free, load it up and send it off. Most of the people onboard aren’t going to be involved in ship operations.


What’s with all the authoritarianism? With populations this large, it’ll never work unless you're willing to have a large military/police force. People aren’t going to stand for it and you’ll have Tiananmen in space.

This might be asking for it, but...
Here’s a few simple thoughts. Take with a grain of salt.

You’re going to need some sort of democratic structure. The colony/ship is ‘owned’ by the citizens. The main function of whatever government there is, is to look after the well-being of its people, after all everyone has a stake in keeping it functioning. When a large enough issue comes up everyone (adults, at least) has a say. Most issues could be handled by local/neighborhood committees, or if more serious a council (consisting of a representative number of randomly selected citizens, a different group every time). For the most part everyone is free to go about their business, so long as it doesn’t seriously interfere with someone else.

Not that I’m in favor of absolute consensus rule, but everyone needs to at least feel that they are part of their society. I suspect any lasting society would be recognizable to us. Unless you have intentional social engineering, or there's some major technological advances, that's not likely to change.


May I remind the lot of you, that 250,000 people is on the order of the population of Iceland - a roughly 1000 year old democracy.


I think most of the assumptions being made in this discussion are dead wrong. We don't need a society that's stable over generations. We just need the inevitable changes that occur to not be such that the evolving societies lose their technological expertise.

And there's a built in motivator for achieving that: everyone on a generation ship knows that if these things are lost they're all doomed.

When it comes down to it I suppose I'm not as pessimistic about societal upheaval as a failure mode in generation ships. Its certainly possible. But I don't think what would be needed is some extraordinary system, be it draconian or utopian, to maintain civilization. I think normal human societies, evolving though they would be, would work reasonably well for a generation ship.

Of course, I might be dead wrong. And there's really only one way to find out....


Apesofmath: hush, if you give away the spoilers, the peanut gallery will notice!

(See also: Buckminster Fuller, "Spaceship Earth".)

Anatoly: Trust the computer, citizen. The computer is your friend. Be happy!


Some people are talking about putting a hunter-gatherer society into a generation ship, or worse, SEVERAL hunter-gatherer societies, separated by MOUNTAIN RANGES.

Do these people have any idea how much room a hunter-gatherer tribe requires? At least 100 square miles, usually more. Your generation ship would be the size of a small moon. And if you can accelerate this kind of mass to even "ten-generations trip" velocity, then you don't need a generation ship! Energy is proportional to square of velocity. Use same amount of energy to propel 1/100th the mass to 10 times speed. Or 1/1000th the mass to 33 times speed -- and your (still huge) ship arrives well within standard human lifetime.

This goes with Martin @108: genship implies a significant number of massive technical achievements, and another batch of significant failures. Some of them are connected. Except this case is more like "massive technical achievements, and significant idiocy."


@Hunter gatherers are stupid. I'm reminded of an old Sidney Harris cartoon, wherein a loincloth-wearing HG is saying to a pith hatted anthropologist: "You can't make fire, you don't know how to build a hut, you're lousy at hunting, and you have no idea where to find edible plants. In other words, you do horribly on our intelligence test."

The thing about studying primitive peoples is not that it's worth putting flintknappers in space, but that they have values that are radically different than ours that might be useful. For example: you get status by what you provide (if a hunter) but only if you give it all away (a common hunter gatherer ethic); surpluses are good, celebrated, and often thrown away to rot back into the garden (a common tropical farmer ethic, especially if they have no way of storing food--surplus capacity is vital). Or that it's good to skip meals on a regular basis, because it keeps you "hard" (that's from the Amazon).

Contrast that with our current society, which has people mimicking the values of corporations to get ahead, even though they think the corporations are evil. Or, more insidiously, the idea that all progress is good, and that progress will somehow solve any problem we face, so that any changes to our current lifestyles will be minimally negative. Or that being a consumer is more important than being a citizen, or a free human being, or even humane.

Now, I'm not saying that all progress is bad, but living on a ship may well require things like putting the good of the community ahead of your personal good, or even your own life. It may be necessary to go hungry periodically so that there's food in the future, and it will almost certainly be necessary to share more than we do now, and to make a living with what you have rather than going into debt to get what you want. Conceivably, you may be required to prove your own worth at adulthood, to avoid being recycled for the good of the others living on the ship (that from the Chumash, who gave a pass or die test to their teenagers). Living on a ship may not be good, easy, or pleasant, especially by current standards. After another century or two of industrial civilization, though, it might be seen as a better alternative. Who knows?


tp1024@273 : "Iceland - a roughly 1000 year old democracy"


Bob @269: "We lived on Earth (the Moon, Mars, whatever), but we came here so you could spend your entire life inside this rock."

This was exactly the argument that O'Neill espoused countered with space colonies. If societies were already living in space colonies in te solar system, especially out at the Kuiper belt or even the Oort, pushing a colony on an interstellar journey was not going to be markedly different for the inhabitants. It's really the same argument that we are already on spaceship earth for a long time, so traveling on it won't feel that different.

Therefore I don't think this is an argument against the generation ship.


@ 265
Ever heard the phrse "Lost With Al Hands"????
Suprisingly common,
Try looking up:
SS Yarmouth LWIAH 27/10/1908 somewhere between Harwich and the Netherlands ...


Offer them heaven. Use ubiquitous surveillance to train computer models of their personalities that are good enough to pass a Turing Test, then run those models after their deaths---but only if they've been good little campers. Of course, the passengers don't know the models are just simulations: they think that if they lead virtuous lives, their souls are uploaded for storage after their deaths, to be downloaded into freshly-made bodies upon Arrival. Alongside the carrot of (supposed) immortality, imagine how conservative society would be if people actually could commune with their dead parents and grandparents (and be nagged by them).


Greg @211

I can't say that I recall a recitation of that poem at the outset of the year or winter in Antarctica, but this is the American program were talking about here.

It does bring up the point that you can't predict what will become culturally important to your shipfolk down through the years, especially things that weren't there when ship departs. Examples from the South Pole Station:

1957-2001: Primary interaction between the Antarctic bases is "Radio Darts", a custom full of broken English, drinking, lying, and laughing amongst station members of all trades. After 2001, MARISAT gives excellent Internet got to the station and contact to the other stations suddenly drops to professional scientific video conference only.

Within a year of it's release, a viewing of John Carpenter's "The Thing" becomes part of the Last Flight/Station Closing celebration.

With the departure of the Navy, most naval customs disappeared but the naked running outside at -100F persists.

After an Australian crew member died in 2000, the crew which changes every year with little continuity starts celebrating ANZAC Day.

The only thing that can be predicted year to year is that there will be a drunk/teetotaler split in the station population and that additional cliques will form. What will they be? Good luck predicting.


279: "It's really the same argument that we are already on spaceship earth for a long time, so traveling on it won't feel that different.

Therefore I don't think this is an argument against the generation ship."

The reason I think it is an argument is that while you are in the solar system, you have the reasonable possibility of leaving your current habitat and visiting or moving to another. Once you leave on an interstellar journey, you and, more importantly, your descendants will be confined to one single habitat. That seems a *lot* to give up for whatever charms the interstellar habitat may possess.


Woah, this really *has* been a pretty useless thread. Far too many people with little knowledge of sociology and anthropology.

First of all...Pirates. That's an example of a hunter-gatherer type entity using captital equipment. And they were a helluva lot better life than anyone lower than a bosun on a corporately owned ship. Thus, an egalitarian system can work in a deeply technological infrastructure.

Second, the sociology in this thread is utterly impoverished. I mean, where's the political economy aspects? Especially as it occurs to actual distribution of labor? You know, like fixing plumbing in dangerous places? Also, and this bugs me to no end, democracy as we know it is utterly dependent on exploitation of non-group members. Cut ye olde English Isle off from her spheres of influence and the costs of imports goes waaaaay up as people all of a sudden own the oil beneath their land, the fish in their seas, and can grow crops they want to grow instead of being responsive to "markets" that are constructed to coerce cash crop production. If England did suffer this calamity, you'll have thousands of people rent-seeking on the tiniest things, from free passages on bridges to not harvesting it for scrap metal. Stalin always did have to answer for dead Ukrainians while Victoria never had for dead Indians.

Now, understanding that "democracy" of the cynical technocratic variety is pretty much a nonstarter--and so is "capitalism" of the corporatist variety, it is important to realize that our social structure is dependent on a kind of machine language...something like if you insert a metalanguage parabola of nash equilibriums. Feminist literature (with ideas like Male Gaze and Rape Culture) is preeminent in analyzing the political economy of *language acts*--say Judith Butler's concept of performative acts (and of Foucalt's regulative discourse). We *do* actually have much of the social technology required for a good outcome, actually--given the assumption that we have WALL-E type tech. The problem is that very few people really have the chops to read and understand the likes of Piaget, K Popper (hey, a world where people read more of his stuff would be so much better), J Butler, H Mancur, M Foucault, Derida, so forth and on. More than that, most of their ideas are fundamentally subversive since they apply to the spaceship we all live on right now...and the interests that view themselves as masters of the universe, much as Marlo Stanfield regards wearing that crown.

Oh, and for all those who think nobody would want to go? Given the billion or so in desperate poverty, I can imagine 250k wouldn't be too hard a number to raise--enough food, water, clean, safe living areas, etc, etc, etc. Moreover, it isn't as if immigrants to the first world haven't always dealt with many of the problems discussed here--about getting there from here over generations.


I think no matter the size of your spaceship, there's an interesting question of what "freedoms" one is willing to give up to reduce the risk of larger catastrophic events. If it reduces the chance of spaceship-wide war with WMDs from 20% to 1%, is an all-encompassing totalitarian regime a good tradeoff? (I tend to think so, but the devil comes out in the actual definition of terms.)
Does this get me into the peanut gallery?
On another note (completely unrelated, I'm sure), when do Australia and Canada get to join the EU?



You're not going to do this with average humans. Not to worry. It will soon be cheap to sequence individual genomes. Identify genetic correlates of desirable traits in this society. Screen potential crew for undesirable traits, even as recessive genes (genetic engineering is unnecessary, screening and perhaps a very little selecting breeding is all that is required). Dry run several mixes for 100 years or so in Biospheres 3...N.

Imagine a ship full of very smart, very calm and systematic, unambitious engineers who don't have even a hint of claustrophobia. They'll come up with some clever, systematic form of government. The details don't really matter because they'll all be terribly terribly reasonable about it, something like an open-source project maybe. It'll probably change a bit over time, carefully, carefully, with a whole lot of calm reasonable discussion.

Sorry if I've missed the topic a little, but this is going to be part of the background, much as the possibility of building a total surveillance society is now part of our background. It'll happen because it's cheap and easy, it's not even far off.



Hey, you stole my idea!


shah8 @ 284 ...
Who let a SOCIOLOGIST loose in here?
Sociology is at leat 101% rubbish - at least in my unfortunate experience.
This is along the nonsense of "muslim science" or feminist critiques that "All men are rapists".
You mentioned Focault - a compiler of completely meaningless trash.
Has anyone here ever heard of The Sokal Hoax

The sociologists and other vapourers have STILL not cleaned their houses out.
The "idea" that there is only cultural relatrivism is a complete and very dangerous lie.


Uh, sounds like someone is science war trigger happy.

First of all, Shah8 is definitely not the only sociologicst taking part in this discussion. And to throw everything from hard-core post-modernist Derrida to Foucaults theories on power relations to realists like Popper (Shah8 mentioned him) into one big drawer called "101% nonsense" may be a bit unfortunate. Sociology isn't social engineering (even if some people like to think so) - but it is also a tiny bit more than "only cultural relatrivism [sic]". And maybe helpful for the discussion here.

(BTW: One of the best "social sciene" fiction books I've read is our Charlies own Glasshouse.)


@286, 287: genetic determinism is pants.

More precisely: the nature/nurture debate is far from settled. We can probably identify some genetic traits that are socially disabling to the carriers -- predispositions to attention deficit and poor impulse control -- but weeding those out isn't going to do much in the long term. Human populations breed back towards the norm, and some of the most serious social problems have nothing to do with violent/ambitious types.

Finally, we have a worked example of a large-scale experiment in identifying and isolating a "criminal class" from a larger population -- the colonization of Australia, circa 1780-1860. It didn't work. England didn't become more law abiding as a result of transportation: it happened due to reform of the legal code and the introduction of modern policing. And Australia isn't a hell-hole infested by sixth-generation axe murderers. QED.


I don't have time to read the whole thread, but I just thought I'd chip in with this point about the tragedy of the commons;

There have actually been many cases of human societies 'engineering out' the tragedy of the commons, without resorting to the state ownership of the commons, or to their privatisation.

I can tell you more if you like. . .



Charlie, I`m proposing to control BOTH nature and nurture. Same genes, same conditions and same upbringing. It will do wonders towards weeding out whatever problems will appear.


Don't forget that stability in the longer term (centuries) can include some horrible upheavals to individuals, families, clans, and tribes.

Following up on the stability argument, I query the need for the Western fad of development. Stifling this is part of the 'stability' criterion. Perhaps a pseudo-monastic order could instill a kind of 'traditional values' ethos. Mmm...so we need to kill off that pesky Greek-descended spirit of enquiry and replace it with a Confucian style of respect for the teachings of our elders.

Again, the monastic approach may be helpful in encouraging learning as one of the things that people do, along with sport and art, as leisure.


Remind me, Charlie, what's the point of the exercise?

The reason I ask is simply that unless this ship is being launched by radically different society, it's going to be run just like a company town. Otherwise nobody gets on board. Hell, the people trying to organize the project might even get arrested. "Company town in space" might not work, of course, but you take your chances.

The experiment assumes that Generation 0 on the ship really is a Generation 0. But it isn't. Which limits your options to tinkering with a free democratic society paralleling a powerful and hierarchical corporation that dominates the labor market. Other stuff just doesn't fly. So ... why aren't we done with this conversation? What am I missing?

Alex@248: Point taken. Apologies! Thing is, now you're talking about a legal code, not a social system. Much easier animal to redesign and implement.


There might be ways to incentivise collectivism through democracy. This would get round some of the problems you see with communist vs free market capitalist forms of government. What I am thinking of us a system where voting rights are amplified by an individuals social status which in turn is measured by their contribution to the collective good. Work would of couse be easily categorised as a contribution. However there are many other avenues that could also effect too-being entertaining, popular; chartity work; art and scientific endeavour; crime fighting etc. In effect this would be a form of " new economics" with money no longer just signalling want or desire but also the direction of the desire. Lao with current economic models the effect of economic decisions are considered only very locally- two agents exchange goods or services for money. Even if this gas very large impacts on nearby agents not directly involved (eg pollution or nefatvive effects on society) the trade is permitted. With newceconomucs the total effect of an economic activity on all agents would be evaluated. This looks like rye type of system you might need on ageneration ark to me


@293: Mmm...so we need to kill off that pesky Greek-descended spirit of enquiry and replace it with a Confucian style of respect for the teachings of our elders.

Good way for the entire enterprise to crash (either literally or metaphorically) first time they run into something unexpected. Not unlike Confucian China.


NM@294 "The experiment assumes that Generation 0 on the ship really is a Generation 0. But it isn't. Which limits your options to tinkering with a free democratic society paralleling a powerful and hierarchical corporation that dominates the labor market. Other stuff just doesn't fly."

So name a corporate town that has a 500-1000 year history (20-40 generations). How many even lasted a generation?


Jamie@295: Could we perhaps find some inspiration in how online "democracies" are starting to develop? I am particularly thinking of different systems of comment moderation and such. Daily Kos might be one of the best examples, though I am sure there are hundreds out there. (At DK you make your voice heard by commenting and voicing your opinion, but also by "voting" for others' comments if you agree with them. You own comments get a bigger influence if others vote for them, and if you post a lot of endorsed comments you can become a "trusted user" with certain powers. Stories and issues are brought to general attention by being recommended by a large percentage of readers via a complex [i guess] algorithm). Wikipedia, Slashdot, they all work in some variation of this theme and work surprisingly well.

What it would mean as an actual democratic system would be that the discussions and arguments around issues becomes the mean to make decisions, not elections of representatives. So in place of a "one person, one vote" system, your weight would depend on how engaged you are in the the argument, and how highly your opinions and suggestions are valued by your peers. We could get away from the very abrupt, definitive decisions of today and rather have slowly (or quickly!) evolving consensuses, or expressions of intent.

To further build on my point on augmented reality, I think this is a quite natural way of moving forward as different means of communication (reading, writing, lecturing, listening, talking...) begin to merge and happen simultaneously.

The obvious criticism of this approach would be a fear of rather narrow opinions dominating because not everyone gets engaged, but if we were raised in a system like this, would it not make us deal with it more responsibly? If lies and manipulations were always and immediately called out as such? I would also imagine that it would require a certain compartmentalisation, for example not all of the "trust" one has gathered in technical issues would carry over to discussions regarding social issues.


Mr. Strss is right to exclude AI and spacewarps from this thought experiment. I am published in refereed technical proceedings, but omit links here, on interstellar transport. My definition of Thinking was carefully crafted neither to include nor exclude computers (re: the Turing test), as I went from a "true believer" in Strong AI in grad school (1973-1977)l, to a skeptic of the AI agenda, as I learned more about the animal and human brain, which it seemed to me 99%+ of AI researchers were willfully ignorant.

It seems from these nearly 300 comments, that many intelligent readers/commenters are willfully ignorant of modern quantitative Sociology and, as the Stross counterexample of Austrlia shows, of History.

The constraints on the problem here make it a VERY good topic.


@298 But for some URGENT decisions shouldn't one person,with experience (not just glib!) be in charge? "There are little green men walking on our hull,shall we blast them?" :>


A genship is entirely different from a company town, ultimately because it is owned and run by the starfarers themselves. Rebellion will not be put down by police (or troops) sent from head office. If a genship is a company town, then so is Australia.


Well, yes, but wouldn't that just fall under professional responsibilities, just like the gardener makes decisions about pest control on his own? "Argh, little green bugs are eating my cucumbers, should I blast them with DDT?"

The public discussion would still set the laws (no, DDT is illegal, use soap water), and perhaps assign the most important professions. Or all, for that matter. In a worst case scenario, the individual decides to break the law and hope for forgiveness/understanding retroactively.


@301 – Spot on sir, a generation ship is only a company town until it leaves. Then it's whatever it is - tyranny, oligarchy, panopticon utopia/dystopia, direct democracy, etc. But it ain’t a company town.

Those who are backing a military system I think are barking up the wrong tree - it'd work fine for a voyage measured in years, but we are talking (many) generations. It if it did keep control it would be via a small caste having the monopoly on the use of force, but they'd only need to let their guard down once. Also if your ship is soooo vulnerable that total control is needed of everyone always otherwise that vital fuel line will be cut you probably aren't going to make it through the multi-generation voyage. You need multiple-multiple redundancy on a trip like this or murphy's law will take you down.

I think generally we shouldn't get too hung up on micromanaging the society - rather its about giving it a framework, a constitution it can evolve in. Some basic ground rules. I'd still say some sort of tailored democracy with lots of checks and balances is the way forward, but such a small society will remain vulnerable to a coup, either militarily (if a sub-group get hold of (or make) weapons) or organisationally (changing rules to benefit a group).

But I think ultimately it's up to the society. Give them a reasonably democratic system, with sensible checks and balances, strong civil liberties, take advantage of sensible IT to maximise information provision, but remember that direct democracy is very, very dangerous even in smallish states. The ability to change the rules in-flight in flight is key, because we won't get it right, we just need to get it right enough, then they can run with it and do with it what they will.

We should be thinking of some starting ground rules, not trying to design the system they will have when they arrive. As long as we give them a sensible starting arrangement it's their funeral if they wreck it in-flight.


...so Greg, panopticons're just fine and hunky-dory if it might possibly work one of these decades? Oh, boy! What about cop blackmail? And I'm waiting for you to address privacy rights - it's right in the UN charter, no matter how politicians might want you to ignore it.

What ScentOfViolets wrote about kids and power. A sonny-boy getting the top job, of course, is how my own country just went almost as close to pear-shaped as it could get with its checks and balances. It's also part of how Athens lost a major war.


Re: "We should be thinking of some starting ground rules, not trying to design the system they will have when they arrive. As long as we give them a sensible starting arrangement it's their funeral if they wreck it in-flight."

I agree that the starting conditions are all we can expect to control as long as humans are able to tinker with the system en route. The question is: Who will bankroll such an expedition when success requires that 50 consecutive generations of humans refrain from doing something terminally stupid?


@284: I'd suggest that a sociological critique is useless. Not that I disagree with your critique, but, guess what dude, that was only a critique. It added some color, but very little else.

If you're going to do world-building, you've got to get your hands dirty. Instead of pointing out how we've snubbed your favorite authority figures, why don't you start using their theories to design a hypothetical closed culture that will last 1,000 years under presumably a fairly constant (but high) technology.

If it looks good, maybe some of the unwashed masses around here will pay more attention. After all, most of their proposals aren't workable either. It would do them good to be shown up.


When we'll be ready to start colonization, we will have already evolved to a post-human species (the evolution will be tech-based, not biologic).
None of our current social models will apply. The closest model will be slavery. In this case the slaves will be machines engineered with limited intelligence and they will never want to gain freedom. The average work-week for post-humans will be very close to zero hours (all work being done by specialized "slave" drones). Anyone who will want to leave the spaceship will be free to do it, so no social conflict will be possible. I don't think there will be any sports or arts similar to these entertainment activities today. Their entertainment will be mostly virtual and way more exciting than whatever we have now.


Critiques have its place...

Most notably to stop investment in fruitless passages.

As for design a society?

The big areas are actually pretty easy.

One, and by far the most important, make crucial resources unhoardable and design the ship to make rent-seeking unfeasible (you can even make this a part of your redundancy program). Without hoards and without man on the hill dynamics, the social structure of the astroid city will not be able to support poor decision-making for a very long time--regardless of whatever social system is eventually created. The idea is to starve the political infrastructure processes of energy created from control of reservoirs of whatever.

Second, and I hinted at this in my original post, go from the start with a ship language, one that crafted around the salient landscape (much along the lines of Von Uexkull's Umwelt). Crafting that language means crafting it around cultural artifacts like clothes or how you make your living arraingments. I think that most people are not that much on thinking, and language ends up propelling thoughts. Just ask an adman (and check if he gets high off his own supply). With a ship language that is maximally suited for ship life, as much as us groundlubbers can imagine, we can also insert perjoratives into the words that describe anti-social behavior--in such a way that further tolerance of said behavior impells immediate correction. The thing here is to prevent status competitions on the basis of goods or purity--the way many people in the US think of health care as a sumptuary good. Also, it is important to prevent the dynamics of psychological deflation when it comes to maintenance. We're pretty keyed to thinking of new things rather than old things, oftentimes, so wrt to *this* society, you have to make sure that the ship's physical ecology matches with linguistic/cultural ecology and ensure that people *always* pay a "destruction tax", whether they wanted something new or not. I think you all can see where I'm going now...

btw, latest book I'm reading is
Moral Sentiments and Material Interest: The Foundation of Cooperation in Economic Life. It's bullshyte in the way N. Stephenson coined, because most of the contributors are super-condensing work, and then do the empiricist-the unempiricable dance under the streetlights, looking for that key. I read it crosswise because it *is* a good view of how one can think of social network function, but the material in the book is most suited for thinking about people with impaired rights--minorities, women, felons, etc, etc. That's mostly because the experiments all go one way, in which the experimentor is controlling or leveraging the subjects. Of course, if it went the other way, by entitling subjects, you get classics such as Milgram or Stanford Prison experiments.

Extra fun:


@308: Interesting, but unless I misunderstand your use of rents, that won't work. Hierarchical structures evolve very commonly in situations where hoarding is impossible, because power comes from control of productive resources. Even an abbot in a monastery, who is both sworn to absolute poverty and who actually owns nothing, can nonetheless have substantial power due to the resources he controls. This is, I would suggest, a universal phenomenon in humans, and many people merely model parental dynamics and call themselves the parents of their people.

Similarly, not having a strong hierarchy or personal wealth doesn't lead to good decision making. A good, everyday example is your average mid-level bureaucrat. These people have little personal status and no personal wealth, yet their position in an existing power structure magnifies their poor decision making. This doesn't even have to involve malice--I've dealt with a number of ignorant bureaucrats who have caused immense problems simply out of ignorance.

Also, power hierarchies are not confined to humans. They exist in most social vertebrates, from fish on up. To me, this suggests that hierarchies are a fact of life that has to be dealt with, not something that can be waved away. This is not to say that hierarchies aren't fluid or multidimensional, but it is to say that they are unavoidable.

Unless, that is, that you have a stable example of a human group where your ideas have worked over the long term.

As for language: we need a good example of where someone has designed a language and it has lasted more than 100years. All the native speakers of esperanto do need to speak up at this juncture. A good example of how words have many values can be seen in the current US debate over healthcare, as you pointed out.


In times past, loyalty to the cause of the populace was to be found everywhere. The will of the Group of Seventeen was the will of everyone.

Let no one be idle. If one is idle, let him band together with others who are idle too, and let them look for idle land. Let everyone they meet direct them. It is better to walk a thousand leagues than to sit in the House of Starvation.

One is strong, another beautiful, a third cunning. Which is best? He who serves the populace.


You miss the point completely. The object of the game is to reduce the *destructiveness* of heirarchal games, not to prevent them. We all know people are suckers for wanting to be "better" than others. It's just that with no hoard or little control of a vital resource/service means that there is only so far a bad leadership can take you, and more likely than not, a leader has to work for consensus or have people voting with their feet. Thus, given the intelligence of groups, the shippeople are more likely to make nondestructive at worst decisions.


What about the matrix solution? The humans on the journey are trapped into a managed virtual environment from which they can't escape, they can also have as much space as they like. Towards the end of the journey they are appropriatley prepared for emergence (perhaps hiding the truth, making think they've gone into hibernation tanks).

This has the advantage of being very compact and energy efficient...

and the disadvantage of being implausible. If we had the level of technology to achieve this we'd be capable (or close to) of uploading human minds, or have sufficient strong AI to not need to send humans.


As for language, look up the history of:

Also, the phenomena of lingua franca, trade languages, and business/politic/industryspeak also has bearing here.


Heteromeles@309: not sure it's fair to say that lack of hierarchies or financial incentivisation always "magnifies poor decision making". For instance, academics work very effectively in collaborative networks without individual incentivisation. Similarly, the judiciary or teachers. The example you give of middle management in bureaucracy is also unfair. Sure in SOME bureaucracies the organisational structure might be badly designed so that there are lots if overlapping accountabilites but poor performance at middle management is as often due to poor organisational design as ineffective incentivisation. Public service ethos in well designed organisations does go a long way.

On a generational ship anything that is going to encourage any focus on individual status or resource maximisation at the expense of the entire ship would be fatal. Zero sum economics such as capitalism just would not work. At some point individuals will be trying to address two incompatible aims - maximise individual status and resource accumulation against efficient resource allocation across the population of the ship. The difference as has been pointed out several places is the levels of resource available which in this example will be very limited and difficult to "grow".

Safest set up would be a very very collectivist set of cultural norms with an economic model predicated on the needs of the many rather than the self. See my post at 295.

Other options I could think of that might work would be a benevolent AI or a rigid military hierarchy. But something that looked like a flying co-operative/family would be best.


@314 et al. To clarify: NOT having power does not prevent someone from making monumentally bad decisions that affect society.

My favorite current example is the current US health-care system. Back in the early 1940s, the IRS issued a rule that employer-paid health care was not taxable, to clarify an unclear rule. This has directly led to our current nutso employer-paid health care system. There is no record of who made that decision, because it was considered unimportant at the time.

So, banning power will not protect you from screwing up. Someone has to make decisions, and some of the decisions will be bad, no matter what.

@313: Thank you very much. I'm learning korean. Only the hangul jamo were deliberately created, and the language can be written with Chinese characters. As for the language, it's a hodgepodge of indigenous korean words(which is a fairly complex language) with substantial borrowings from Chinese (for scholarly terms) and Japanese (due to being occupied for a century). Check the other languages, and get back to me They're all created alphabets. Incidentally, you forgot Sequoia's Cherokee alphabet, Vietnamese, and (just to throw in a weird one) oghams. Designing an alphabet is something you can in an afternoon (see www.omniglot.com). As a kid, I used to design alphabets, then write something in them for my father to decipher using codebreaking techniques. Designing a logical written and spoken language that people will use is difficult. Again, see esperanto.

As for people "voting with their feet" on a generation ship, they are going where again? Outside the ship? If you don't like it, go die somewhere? Leaving groups you don't like is a viable solution in a more open system, but on a ship, you can't leave, and you'll always have to deal with the people you don't like. What then?

Consensus based on the views of 250,000 people will take forever to reach any conclusion. Inevitably, ad hoc hierarchical groups will spring up to deal with emergencies, keep the plumbing working, and so forth, based on people who know what they're doing telling people who know less what to do to help. Since the consensus has no mechanism for limiting such groups, they will probably take over, again on an ad hoc basis. Charlie's already covered this one in Singularity Sky where the internet working group ends up as the United Nations running the world.

Also, do check out the concept of Dunbar Number. It influences how companies succeed or fail, however they're organized, and it's useful to read how people are willing to deal with each other.

On a wider basis, I'd suggest to Charlie that the rules for the ship might include the following:
--A list of "thou shalt nots"-- things that will destroy the ship if done.
--A list of "thou shalts"--things that will destroy the ship if not done.
These lists should be known by everyone, and maintained by experts (i.e. people who know what they are talking about).
--Below that would be a constitution, defining the government that the ship starts out with. It needs to define how to deal with day-to-day problems (human-scale emergency services, normal services, etc), long-term problems (a legal mechanism for changing rules and regulations. This is the level at which democracy and/or consensus matter), and a set of mechanisms for dealing with immediate emergencies where democracy takes too long to work (such as a hole in the ship). This last one is where things get scary, because if the ecosphere gets screwed up seriously, someone may have to decide who is going to live and die, perhaps within a few hours, in order to keep everyone from dying. Whether the person who makes this decision is the Lord of the Ship or the top-level emergency response team is something that needs to be discussed by the person designing the system.


Okay, you are an intelligent person. No one thinks you aren't. I've followed what you said, and I craft my words with a measure of respect to the contributions you have already made to the thread. Now, can you chill, just a little? Just because I mention a few examples doesn't mean I was excluding, forgetting, or never knew others.

Moving on, the examples I gave you were *not* about a leader *creating* a language de novo. It was about leaderships adjusting the *form* of the language to shape the possibilities that envelope their subjects. Very often, this was about creating or simplifying a written language. Missionaries do this work to spread the meme of Jesus Christ, which does have radical implications for human behavior in many cases. Other languages are made more compatible with nearby powers, and still more are slapped together with the Frankensteinian visage and used internationally. There are specific language packs that the US military uses, and there are others that US businesses use. The feature that binds them all together is purpose: to alter human norms so as to fit inside a culture dominated by some elite whether that be a dictator or just people listening to the best adapted people. We can use that power on a whole new level if we want.

Then, there is always math and computer languages...not going there.


First Post! (on the new machine) :)


@ 304 "Panopticons are not hunky-dory ... BUT having the boot on the other foot, so the cops have to tread carefully around you, as well as the other way around DOES change the game - just a leetle .....


Re: "You, and a quarter of a million other folks, have embarked on a 1000-year voyage aboard a hollowed-out asteroid. What sort of governance and society do you think would be most comfortable, not to mention likely to survive the trip without civil war, famine, and reigns of terror?"

The question sounds like: "What will motivate people to keep working toward the goal rather than fighting amongst themselves?"

One common such motivation is advancement. As long as you see the possibility to improve your life and that of your children, that will likely be your focus. When you do not see improvement as possible, you may get nasty. The problem has been stated in a way that seems to be steady-state, but what if it isn't? What if we start with a much smaller population and little more than the tools to work the asteroid into something useful. Perhaps the colony could grow for the entire journey, keeping folks reasonably busy and entertained.


Bob @ 319

Advancement is a good idea, I like it. One possible source of goals is information on new technology beamed from Earth. A lot of it will be impossible within the limited resources of the ship, but some won't. There will be some stuff that is trivial, some that is tricky, and some that is damn hard. Perhaps a lot of conflict can be subsumed into the decision making process of what to pursue, and energy can be subsumed into making the hard projects happen.

Even better, this is training for the colonization process, where a lot of big high-tech stuff will need to be done with minimal resources.



There is also the possibility of communicating with Earth. People on the spaceship could probably dedicate a quite a bit of time on solving problems that no-one on Earth would take serious or have the time to tackle.

Anathem anyone?


Ok, I give up. Seems like that server isn't the only thing afflicted by bit-rot here. ;)


The question sounds like: "What will motivate people to keep working toward the goal rather than fighting amongst themselves?" One common such motivation is advancement. As long as you see the possibility to improve your life and that of your children, that will likely be your focus. When you do not see improvement as possible, you may get nasty. The problem has been stated in a way that seems to be steady-state, but what if it isn't? What if we start with a much smaller population and little more than the tools to work the asteroid into something useful. Perhaps the colony could grow for the entire journey, keeping folks reasonably busy and entertained.

Intermediate goals. Good idea.


I'd say we are crashing once and again against a basic contradiction: every idea, every institution, every reform useful during the trip from Earth to Planet X becomes not only useless or counterproductive but outright dangerous once the spaceship arrives at its destination, simply because the qualities one would want to encourage on board (austerity, introspection, conservatism, pacifism, conformity) are the ones you absolutely don't want in pioneers colonizing a new solar system from zero.

An Spanish novel from the 50s explored this theme. The author foresaw this conflict, few people wanted to leave the 'ship' (a big hollowed asteroid, able to sustain a population up to a hundred millions) because after several generations it had become their motherland; the colonization of the new planet became the equivalent of a secession, and worse still, a forced one.

His 'autoplanet' worked under semi-military discipline and its society was imbued with a sense of mission, a truly messianic ethos 'to boldly go where no one has gone before'... but that ethos backfired spectacularly. Most felt leaving the ship to settle on a planet would be akin to desertion. Far from being eager to colonize a promised land, most potential settlers wanted to continue the voyage to other systems.

Finally most settlers had to be chosen drawing lots, but those selected refused to become exiles expelled forcibly from their native country, and staged a coup d'etat. Of course, the novel dating from the naive 50s, the ship could take a civil war without flinching...


"Problem not solvable"- The people sending out the ship do not get to determine what social structure the ship employs, because there is nothing much they can do in response to any changes that happen aboard once underway - The most severe sanction that can be imposed on a "wayward" colonist ship would be stop sending them patches for "Wow 9.0" and "Lost season 112" episodes, and the greatest award is.. eh.. Adding HBO to the communication laser package? Both of which would occur after a delay of years. This is not going to deter would be democratic reformers or coup plotters.
All you get to do is design is the physical equipment the ship starts with, and the initial social structure. My personal inclination would be to send out a flying "university/artist colony/research center/kindergarden+school" full of eternal students, teachers and slackers. motto: "You cannot drop out, because we are already falling" And heck, actual useful research could be done! - Earth publication will be years late and occasionally outdated, but academic communication will serve to keep the ship at least somewhat in touch with outside reality.

For backup, load the ship computers with read-only distance learning courses in everything from literacy on up to reboot the skill base after any "bad events" that leave survivors.

More practically.. how the heck do you stop the colonists of generation 2 from *turning the ship around* ? Because however the initial crew feels, the second generation is really likely to have at least some desire to go back to Babylon. 4th generation on up are less of a problem because they would not live to see earth, but the second generation is a crisis point.


Does the preceding post, or indeed the whole thread, remind anyone else of the plot of Pohl's _Starbow_?

IIRC, the irate passengers/prisoners on that ship did indeed research some interesting problems, and their results allowed one of them to wreak an Interesting Yet Terrible Revenge on the planet Earth.


More practically.. how the heck do you stop the colonists of generation 2 from *turning the ship around* ? Because however the initial crew feels, the second generation is really likely to have at least some desire to go back to Babylon. 4th generation on up are less of a problem because they would not live to see earth, but the second generation is a crisis point.

That's a very easy problem. Provide the ship with only enough propulsive energy to decelerate ONCE. If the ship is moving at 5% C and after 20 years second generation decides to stop the ship early, they will end up bringing it to a complete stop (or close to it) one light-year from Earth. And will stay there.


As a bit of a digression, I wonder about the feasibility of remaining in *full* contact with earth as the voyage progresses. Since conventional protocols like TCP/IP and clicking links on a page to get more data go into the dustbin with increasing latency, connection will likely imply sending *everything* on the internet of the day and let the people on the ship decide what to look at and what to ignore. What sort of bandwidth will that require? How big an antenna? How much power?


Re: Colonization not being attractive - I don't think that's true. Colonization of a planet may not be attractive, but that's a dumb plan when you have a functioning generation ship anyway. Colonize the asteroid belt, outer moons, etc. Build generation ship style habitats, very similar to the one you traveled in.

Re: Solar Civilization (a civ confined to Earth would be unlikely to build this thing) cannot effect the ship: bollocks. SC is a big source of scientific advance, technical information, and expertise. For anyone living on a big technical construct, these are vital resources. Additionally, if you piss them off enough, SC can destroy you for much less than the cost it took to build your ship in the first place. I'll admit the second option is bloody-minded, pointless, and evil, but "baseline humans are running things" is one of the background assumptions here.


A generation ship that reached its destination would have experienced, along the way, at least one crisis that would have threatened its very survival.

With such an experience in their history, and perhaps within their living memory, would at least some of the ship's crew not be sympathetic to the idea of getting off the bus, and settling on a planet?

(assuming there was an inhabitable/survivable planet in the new system).


According to:


Voyager 1 is using a 23W transmitter with a 3.7m parabola antenna. The receiver on earth is a 34m parabola.

According to wikipedia this was sufficient to receive data in June this year, at a distance of 0.0017 ly.

All you have to do is increase the signal strength at the receiver by a factor of 4 million to communicate with Alpha Centauri.

Now I don't know about the feasibility of a 100 MW radio transmitters, but if you scale up the transmitter antenna by a factor of 100, you increase the gain by a factor of 10,000 (right?). Using a 370m antenna on the spacecraft should get the power you need down to a much more manageable 10kW transmitter - if you are foolish enough to keep using that tiny 34m receiver on earth.

If you blow the receiver up by another factor of 100 (to 3.4 km), you could probably get away with using a cellphone transmitter (1-3W) on your spaceship...

(Could anyone please prove this calculation wrong? It's surreal ... Just don't get me wrong. If you want to listen to a random cellphone on Alpha Centauri, you'd still need an antenna of a couple million km - because this cellphone won't use a 370m parabola as its antenna ... )


You could carry few Signal Repeater Satellites to leave in your wake! Well,may be more than a couple :)


Since a genship requires significant space infrastructure, a transmitter big enough to reach it should not be a problem.

I expect there to be a rather large and unsubtle launching laser freed up for comms once the ships is far enough out as well.

As for 370m dish antenna being awesome - yeah - the thing is rather large, innit?


As part of a 30km ship ...

Well, it's about the size of a satellite dish on a block of flats with 12 floors.

The thing rather small, innit?


Its not that communication with earth + associated economies is not valuable, it is. insanely so. its that the time delays inherent in communication make any attempt to use this for leverage inherently unfeasible - If an unreasonable cult arises on the spaceship involving misusing medical facilities to feast on vat grown baby flesh, by the time earth hears about it, years have passed. And the strongly worded condemnation will arrive back at the ship after another couple of years, at which point, the cult has probably burned out. The only viable communication form, in either direction is "spam the other end with anything and everything remotely interesting, let them read what bits of it they care about".


.. Which also neatly answers how you recruit crew. The crew is effectively being "paid" with wholly unlimited IP access. Academic lit, entertainment, culture, if its in digital form, its free. - This also keeps colonies in the cultural orbit of earth.


Re: The only viable communication form, in either direction is "spam the other end with anything and everything remotely interesting, let them read what bits of it they care about".

Re: Could anyone please prove this calculation wrong?

The data rate is a key factor. We can communicate with spacecraft at Mars now by radio. There is a proposal


that will use a laser to boost data rates to between 1 and 30 megabits/sec. The aCentauri mission will undoubtedly have a bigger laser, but it will also be much farther away. Will it be able to drive 30 mbits all the way? What percentage of *everything* does that represent?



What part of your mind makes you think that people on a spaceship light years away *must* share our culture?

If they feel like ritually eating vat-grown embryo livers of a cousin no more than twice removed on prime numbered days of their journey, well, who one Earth cares? And if there is someone, does it matter?

BTW, I think it is highly unlikely that such a thing would develop, but even *that* would be preferable compared to enforcing a century old culture on anyone.

The Victorian age was a mere century ago.


Yeah, ok, data rate sure is important. But still. Even sending just one bit per second (eight book pages per day) over a distance of 4 light years using a 1 W transmitter just blows my mind.

I mean the transmitter of my cellphone is powerful enough to send a message over a distance that I quickly run out of metaphors to describe. (Not to mention scales in the rest of the universe.)

This clash of scales just gave a good amount of vertigo.


So, the answer to the Fermi Paradox is perhaps just: our antennas aren't large enough by 2-3 orders of magnitude in size (4-6 in area/sensitivity).


Must is the wrong term. I just think this is a likely, and interesting, outcome. Home systems acting as the hub/most significant node in a 3D, heavily time lagged net of "communist" (from everyone - everything. To everyone - Everything)information sharing. Naturally, noone can be compelled to keep the radio on, but it seems to me that any society that elects to turn it off is very likely to be.. nuts. In ways that run counter to survival.

This also is not the internet in space - There is effectively no feedback/social interaction - you get whatever information the participants in the system are producing for internal comsumption.
Base assumptions I am making here -
1; The antennas are always going to be economical because the added value of whatever tiny faction of the IP products of the next solar system over turns out to be interesting to you is going to represent a ridicululy larger value than the price of a radio telescope.
2: The broadcast apparatus will never get run out of money because "enlightening the universe/bragging/ect" is going to draw in more than enough donations to pay for the juice in any society rich enough to be doing colonization.


@ 338 Including Arecibo & Jodrell Bank ?????


Haven't read all the comments but pre-industrial hunter-gatherer societies are basically stable aren't they? I'm thinking something like nomadic australian aboriginal society, which I think was persistent over tens of thousands of years. Without mineral resources or exposure to infectious disease, a sufficiently spacious environment could support a breeding human population indefinitely during the 'travelling' part of the mission. The problem of them destroying themselves would disappear if they didn't have the capability.

Then in the last few hundred years the same automated systems that keep the environment ticking over open up sealed areas of the ship in stages, revealing the resources and information necessary to reach an appropriate level of technological and social sophistication to colonise the new environment. This kind of directed evolution would be much easier to arrange than permanent stasis in some set pattern.

Actually I don't believe in generation starships. If we ever have the tech we'll have genetically engineered our descendants to be much better adapted for star-faring anyway. But I think it might make a good sci-fi story.


Oh finally cut this ignorant nonsense. Hunter gatherer societies are stable.


They are in a very stable state of stabbing each other, killing each others wives and children and doing it all over again once enough off-spring has grown up. We should know, because that's the state of society *we* evolved from.

Homicide rates in hunter-gatherer societies are worse than that of Somalia - and that takes some stabbing. The reason why they seem to be so stable is that it is really hard to improve your society from a state of complete mutual distrust without outside interference. (It is possible, but takes millennia.)

There are a few such societies left in Amazonia, Africa and Papua New Guinea, if they are oh-so-great and stable, why do they need "protection" to preserve their "culture" (little of which being unique, and a lot of the unique things are about as desirable as keeping the Spanish Inquisition or the Gestapo alive) and why aren't you there and live with them?


Charlie @ 179: If you wouldn't like living that way (in the lowest status slot in the pecking order), you're doing it wrong.

I'm reasonably certain that I don't want to live in even the highest status slot on a generation ship, not matter how well-designed. As you've pointed out before, even the North Atlantic in the middle of a winter storm is more hospitable than outer space. And a generation ship is long, lonely voyage into the outer dark, never again to set foot on a green field in the sunlight.

However, in the interests of saving these hypothetical poor fools from cannibalism and other madness, here are a few random thoughts:

1) There are ways to combine ambition and social stability. My anthropology teachers loved talking about potlatch societies, where you gained social status by giving gifts. This creates a web of social obligations that can be drawn upon in times of crisis. And unlike our modern society, you don't need massive and ever-growing abundance to make it work: you can survive right down near the edge of starvation, because you've essentially turned status-seeking behavior into a social insurance scheme.

2) An increasingly large portion of our world has decided that WoW is much more fun than real life, and on a generation ship, that decision would skew even farther towards WoW. So why don't we just send them the latest expansion packs? (I'm not sure whether this is a tongue-in-cheek suggestion, or the best way to improve the quality of life on board the ship.)

3) The most robust ecosystems typically have enormous diversity. This suggests that you might want lots of little governments and cultures.

4) If you believe Jared Diamond, centralized societies may be better at avoiding an environmental tragedy of the commons. Similarly, many people believe that severe crises require centralized command. Yes, this may conflict with (3).

5) As for the larger issue of "spaceship earth": Receiving 4% interest on your investments (after correcting for inflation) implies exponentially growing wealth. If you invest US$1000 at 4% above inflation for 809 years, you will have a net worth of $60 trillion. This is equivalent to the GDP of the entire planet. So we're either looking at a Malthusian crash, an economic singularity, or some sort of S-curve that eventually reaches a steady state.


@342 You misunderstand me, I didn't say I wanted to live in a pre-technological hunter-gatherer society on a starship. I suggested it as a means of getting a breeding colony of humans through a 1000 year voyage with a low risk of their society doing anything unexpected. I think it would be pretty horrible.

In the absence of a more desirable (and likely?) technological fix, there are always going to be formidable ethical objections to consigning many generations of humans to a 1000 year supermax prison in space. No matter how you set them up at the beginning.


> a 1000 year voyage with a low risk of their society doing anything unexpected.

Granted. However, what is to be expected as the *steady state* of a primitive society is much worse than even the most unexpected failure modes of more advanced societies, even in the confines of a 30km spaceship. And that includes transient phenomena like the Great Depression and the Holocaust every couple decades and vat-mediated-cannibalism. Not to mention the fact that no such society (hunter-gatherer or simple/evolved chiefdoms) has ever managed to come up with anything even remotely providing the necessary level of education for aspiring astronauts or terraformers (in one way or another it will come down to that).

Your suggestion is *much* worse on many more levels than you (and a lot of other people in this thread) seem to realize.

There are very good reasons why our kind society has spread across the world (like being sure about not being stabbed in the back when you're sleeping). That doesn't mean it is perfect or that other societies don't have any merits, but when you add it all up, our societies are better.

"Better" for very low values of "good" though - as we can see in Charlie's latest blog.


@345: Good grief, tp1024. Have you ever tried flintknapping? Basically, you're working with broken glass, and there's a reason why modern flintknappers wear goggles and carry large bandage kits. The old flintknappers (such as Ishi) had some interesting techniques for getting flint shards out of their eyes, too.

Primitive means first, not worst, not easiest, and certainly not stupidest. According to Jared Diamond, if a kid from a Papuan farming village (read: recently Stone Age) goes off to school to learn to be a nurse or a teacher, he better be good at it, because when he comes back, he will be incompetent as a farmer. They don't have a formal curriculum, but it takes a hell of a lot of applied knowledge to make a PNG hill farm work, even with modern tools, and it takes a long time to learn it all. The villagers found out the problem when they send of their bright children to get a modern education, and the kids couldn't feed themselves when they got back.

If you think being primitive is easy, take a walk into a random woodland and try to live on what you find, or, to use a socially approved method, buy an old farm somewhere and try to make a living off of it using sustainable methods (sound like a familiar daydream, anyone?). Both survival living and farming are tricky work unless you're an expert, and most people fail in various ways if they try either of these untrained.

So, yes, I would look at primitive societies for ideas about how to live sustainably. It's blindingly obvious that a society of third-world factories and first-world paper pushers won't last very long, and we need a better model for how to live sustainably. It's also obvious that living sustainably, at any technology level, takes bright, well-trained people.


>Primitive means first,

Yes. But if we assume even a marginal propensity of human beings to improve upon what they do, then primitive by necessity also means WORST, HARDEST, STUPIDEST.

Research, science, engineering ... those concepts *exist* because we *know* that whatever we do is STUPID, HARD and BAD and we'd love to do it in an EASIER, BETTER and SMARTER way.

I don't fucking care about political correctness in this matter. When people do something that is fundamentally bad and perfectly retarded and has been established that there are much better ways of doing the very same thing, then it should be SAID SO.

Reality *must* take precedence over your childish, petty nostalgia.

There is no point in defending a flat earth view, after it has been established that the world is (roughly) a sphere. The mere idea that the earth is flat is primitive, retarded and WRONG.

That's why it has has been abolished. Along with such notions as having a head of state imbued with divine power and the right to do with *your* life however he (almost invariably a male person) pleases.

Also, your view that hunter-gatherers have a more sustainable way of life than we do is just not true. Hunter gatherers never lived much denser than 1-10 persons per square kilometer, as you have undoubtedly read in Jared Diamonds books. These days we have hundreds of people per square kilometer, more than a thousand *on average* in Bangladesh. And our way of life is orders of magnitude more sustainable than theirs. Period.

Put 10.000 hunter-gatherers on a 30x30 km island and they'll be dead in less than a decade. Along with any game and edible plants there have ever been on the island. Simply because no natural ecosystem, left mostly to its own devices, can produce sufficient food for so many hunter-gatherers on such a small area.

Put 10.000 Maori on such an island (easter island is smaller and had more people) and they'll start agriculture and survive for centuries. Sure, they may reach the point when they are caught by that strange obsession that people seem to have to erect stones after a couple hundred years (and even then it took quite a while until they ran out of wood to do it), but by that time they have far outlasted any potential hunter-gatherer society of equal population on an equal area.

And that is *exactly* the definition of sustainability. To sustain a given amount of people in a given environment. You could have a village of 1000 farmers live on 30x30km with more than 95% of the area left untouched by people. How in hell is that *not* more sustainable than having 1000 people roving the whole area trying to get whatever food they can out of the whole ecosystem?

P.S.: Yes, I did try flint napping. I did work in a garden. And it wouldn't come to my mind to trade a steel spate for one made of wood, or a steel axe for one of stone if I wanted to get any work done. Nor would any serious farmer anywhere on the world *not* use better equipment, better seeds, better planting methods if they know any.

P.P.S.: This is a blog of a science fiction author, isn't it?


I visited Arcosanti yesterday (see blog post for pictures) and it struck me that the guild-like structure of the inhabitants of the prototype arcology was very like that developed for the millenia long projects that build the great cathedrals of Europe.

So here's a thought. Make your generation ship an asteroid, and stick your pioneers on it with basic tools and life support (no robots)- and then leave them building the ship around themselves as it travels to the stars. They have a task that's self perpetuating (especially if you provide an appropriate theology) and a relatively stable social structure that results from the guild-like society required to run a multi-generation construction project.

Masons to the stars!



I'm arguing on the basis that mission failure is the worst failure mode, and that it doesn't matter if the humans aboard suffer the tortures of the damned in the interim (I will happily allow that being a typical hunter-gatherer is ten times worse than suffering the tortures of the damned if it will stop you trying to convince me how horrible it is, you're pushing against an open door).

My thesis is simply that humans deliberately kept in a cage of total poverty and ignorance (up until the last few hundred years) are much less likely to modify their carefully optimised environment in deleterious ways than a society with half a clue what's going on. I think the chances of such a society not going through enough strife to bust up something essential (considered on a very long timescale) somewhere along the way are near zero. Here on earth we barely made it through 50 years of two factions threatening each other with mutually assured destruction, on a starship anyone with the know-how to open the water cycle (or whatever) has his finger on the big red button. I say extinction is the worst outcome of all.

It might be that, for example, a 1984 style dystopia is perfectly capable lasting millenia without ever suiciding in this way. Or a feudal agricultural society (you have to somehow guarantee they won't advance technologically like societies do once they have agriculture, or the problem changes again). Or even some kind of advanced liberal democracy. But my suggestion is cavemen.


I'm not convinced it can work at all. The first generation, the starters, will have a lot to cope with simply adapting to a completely new life in a tin can.

The arriving generation might be afraid of the wide open and thus might not want to get off the ship at all - best I can think is they create a space station and decide to live there (cf. C. J. Cherryh's Foreigner Universe novels where she scratches a bit on that particular surface).

The generations for which it will be easiest are those born on the journey ship and dying there.

Apart from that I expect the societal issues to be probably too huge to overcome. One will have to guarantee a stable society for fear of a runaway experiment (what happens when the societal experiment runs into a failure mode?). However, stable societies cannot be expected to last - there will always be people dissatisfied with the stability (independent on how useful and sensible it is) and will act against or around it. This can work well if there is enough space to have an alternative (sub-) society running but space on a journey ship is at a premium.

Economy and health are the next issues. There are no experiences yet of a surplus society (and, in my opinion, it would be the only way to run a ship like that: provide the people with what they need and give them options to create what they want - in the constraints of not everything being available, of course). Currently, there is no complete recycling cycle, at least not on a scale that is energy efficient.

Health: we have no idea how the human body copes with a limited food supply. Were to get the necessary trace elements (and do we really know if we can supply humans with all they need inside a tin can, without nature around them and the erratic and random influences of weather (air pressure, sunlight, wind, rain, …).

I doubt it would work. Humans are not up to the job to get it done.


A quarter of a million is way too many. For a stable society, you really need to harness the powers of peer pressure and social control and this means that your society must not be big enough for its discontent trouble makers to concentrate and reach critical mass to form their own sub culture in order to avoid this control. Think village not town.

For stability, I'd rather rely on education, indoctrination, family bonds, rituals and tradition rather than on formal structures and legal constructs. Basically, you want a completly stagnant community and you want your citizens as conservative, bigoted and narrow minded as is consistent with them still functioning as a crew.

There's really no more efficient engine of conformity than the extedend tribal family so a patri- or matriarchalic clan like structure augmented with elements of military organisation for crew functions seems to fit the bill.

Also, I don't consider a 40 to 60 hour work week a bad idea but a necessity, not only for mental health but simply to keep things going. Only a small fraction of the work is immediately mission critical - most will be about replenishing stockpiles and long scheduled maintainance procedures on timescales from years to centuries: "... according to schedule, hull section D needs to be replaced during the next 100 years for radiation wear, so we better start reconfiguring construction bay 2 into a steel work durcing the next 10 years and have it recyle armor plates for the next 50 years. By then, reactor 7 should have cooled off enough for reconstruction ..."


@Axel Eble, #350

The first generation will most certainly not be the starters - it would be madness to launch a generation ship without a crew which has been born an raised there and considers this place "home", for exactly the reasons you mentioned. The first generation will be the people who will have built the ship many generations ago - just as their progeny will rebuild it many times during their flight as no piece of equipment will outlast the 10000+ years of the journey.

As for arrival: Most people will continue to live onboard as the ship will be the industrial nucleus of the new colony for centuries to come (or longer if terraforming is necessary). They will harvest material from astroids and moons and build SPS, equipment, building material - and landing pods. Only the surplus population (after birth controls have been lifted) will make landfall and build up the actual colony. Once the pioneers got the planet up and running, there's no reason not to refuel and head for the next system - or even return to Earth - if the remaining crew should be so inclined.


I think the mention of universities are spot on. It's going to take a lot of highly educated people to keep things going, so there's something like a school. Unless the ship is even more ridiculously huge that probably puts the ratio more like a university town, or even something like a self-sufficient campus. Also, an educational institution should be able to channel a lot of otherwise destructive drives. The petty authoritarians can terrorize introductory classes with fiendish exams rather than supporting the fascist fantasies above. Those seeking power can angle for department head or even dean - and hopefully against a context of social norms where so much as striking their rivals would be so gauche as to be self-defeating, let alone blowing holes in things (a bit of quiet poisoning might slip through, but the best labs within trillions of kilometers would be available to investigate).

For something completely different, if it's the sort of ship that contains the fuel to decelerate at the destination it's a sort of "fossil fuel", but there's no much risk the passengers will use it all for mundane energy needs. An 0.1c photon rocket needs about 10% of mass in fuel to decelerate, or about 1e26 joules of energy if the ship is 10 million tonnes. The current power consumption for the whole state of New York State is under 200 GW, and 1TW for 10000 years of a 1000 light-year trip only adds up to about 3e20 J. That should be plenty for the million people or so you might support with that much mass. One project that would tax the reserves is making a black hole. 1 million tonnes is also the mass of a 0.2 nm black hole, which might be useful for a ship - see
http://arxiv.org/pdf/0908.1803v1 - but reconciling "photon rocket" and known physics already means either
a black hole for mass to energy conversion or packing half that million tonnes of fuel as antimatter.


I think artificial intelligence would need to form a significant part of the social structure. With only 1000 humans, you just don't have enough labor/manpower to have them doing the simple tasks like cleaning toilets or sweeping floors. Let the AI take care of the basics (like life support) and leave the creative stuff to the humans.

Probably an educational system of apprenticeship would work, along with small clan/tribal groupings. This also provides opportunity for "black sheep" to make a fresh start with another clan if they don't suit the work or attitudes of one clan.


Alex@8: I can't think of your comment without being overrun by nostalgic images of the older "Battlestar Galactica" series.

I'm still pondering on the subject of a stable, long-term governmental structure for such a society - no matter if they all live inside a single, giant sphere or scattered among several hundred smaller ships - but I'm leaning towards something along the lines of a meritocracy-based ruling council.

Hypothetically, every member of the colony would be granted "merit coins" for their dedication to continuous self-development and actions directed towards the collective good. Perhaps merits would also be taken away for bad decisions or anti-social behaviour or whatever.

Once someone has accumulated enough merit, he/she may opt in or out of the council at any time he/she chooses so. Why opting out, you ask? I understand that one who has been a contributive council member for some time may eventually wish to dedicate more time to personal matters. If they change their minds later, they're always free to come back.

Should anyone else aspire to take part in such a council, all they need to do is invest more time and effort on merit-giving actions, and - hopefully - expand their virtues and abilities by doing so.

Tetrarch@10: I believe this model could work both before and after reaching destination. It appears to have the capability of attracting and congregating the most talented and productive minds in a given society. What do you think?

But... as an avid SF reader a while back and a long-time fan of Isaac Asimov´s, I can't help being repeatedly hit by another idea, which addresses the concerns of Emma_in_France@11.

This idea is based on an extrapolation from what the 'Good Doc' wrote on the short story "The Evitable Conflict", which appears in the book "Robot Dreams".

For those who haven't read the story yet, a warning:

***spoiler ahead***

Three laws might be enough to ensure continued benignity.

Well, that concludes my thoughts for now. I haven't yet read past the first 20 comments or so, but will make sure to follow the thread.

And Charlie, I'm sure you must have heard this a million times, but I really appreciate your blog. If this serves as any measure, I'm sure I'll love your books too. Congratulations, thanks, and a warm hug from Brazil!


Use any flavor of capitalism/libertarianism, but make the ship too big. By the time they arrive, they'll have used up the ship's resources, but will have the culture needed for a frontier society.


I'm a little late to the party but an interesting post Charlie.

If we assume it took 1000 years for our society to reach where we are now and we are not concerned about retaining the society we have now (we are talking about removing a free market and democracy) then why not simply send our "space monkeys" out with zero society (and technology) to start with? Give them a decent biosphere and resources but force them to build their own society... from scratch. That should keep them busy for 1000 years. We have already decided that it would be a one way trip so being 1000 years behind the "mothership" in terms of technology isn't a great setback.

Of course this overlooks the need for maintenance of the "ark" which may or may not need to be addressed depending on the level of technology involved in creating it in the first place.


Andrew @357: what, you mean they'll have learned to survive by strip-and-burn of a terrestrial biosphere?

Yeah, that's really going to help them learn to manage the domed cities they'll be living in for the first millennium of the terraforming project!

(Hint: finding an inhabitable ready-to-live-in Earth like biosphere is vanishingly unlikely.)

Gordon: I'm assuming the folks in the ark (a) need to maintain it in flight, and (b) need to maintain a sufficient civilization to have the many and varied specialities necessary to maintain a biosphere and a starship. In other words, not so much monkeys-in-a-can as NASA-in-a-can.


How about an eloi / morlock setup? Where the morlocks maintain the ship whilst the majority of the population (eloi) concentrate on building their society. The morlocks would not necesarily be human if you are allowed to introduce AI / Robotics (but then as you mentioned there would be no need to use an ark if you have AGI)


I assume we need to offer unheard-of societal innovations in these comments, because if a suitable societal structure already exists on earth, Charlie Stross or Karl Schroeder would probably have already heard of it. Any system so innovative that the authors of Accelerando and Permanence need to ask for help imagining it must be a system that will sound completely insane, but I'll risk it. The quickest way I can summarize my idea is that the generation ship constantly redesigns its laws using a combination of (1) OKCupid (2) prediction markets, and (3) an Alternate Reality Game which is also a panopticon reality TV show.

I warned you about how it would sound.

As a citizen of the generation ship, you maintain, on an official internet profile, a weighted and prioritized list of measurable factors by which you personally define the welfare of the entire generation ship. It's your value system. Let's call it your "Weal Index". A computer algorithm similar to that of OKCupid matches up people by their shared values-- by the factors in their Weals, that they consider goals of their preferred society. So it assigns you to a team at the age of independence from your parents, or you may become eligible for reassignment thereafter in some circumstances.

No team may exceed ten percent of the population. This is important. What it boils down to, is that all teams are volunteer guinea pigs putting their money where their mouth is for how the generation ship should be run.

One of the centralized administrative services shared by all teams in the generation ship is a prediction market based on points. You get to propose a new policy in the form of a bet. You state the policy and predict what effect the policy’s enactment would have on various factors of well-being listed in the Weal Indexes. Each prediction is a wager. After a period of time to research what they feel the effects would be, all generation ship citizens from any team may bet points on those predictions, indicating which predictions the overall market predicts to come true.

When the market predicts a policy would result in net gain to your team’s averaged definition of the societal goals, your team is eligible to earn points by carrying out that policy, or lose points for counteracting that policy. Basically those are your new temporary laws, based on which team you are in. On the generation ship, your team has to test a hypothesis on the prediction market. (Imagine if you are on the TV show "1800 House", where you would lose points unless you act like it's the year 1800.)

Bets are then paid in points based on the measured changes in Weal factors. The bet was probably about whether or not you died, but it could be about other things.

Citizens spend the points that they won for calling the police, being heard by courts, identity documents, nationalized healthcare, social security benefits, education, and any other civil service agencies made available for sale to all generation ship citizens. So, if you back a policy, it had better not be for a stupid ideological reason. You had better make sure that acting as a guinea pig for that policy is not going to kill you. Because your team could end up having to earn your points by living that way, and then if you back out in the middle of that experiment, you are persona non grata.

So there you've got a system at the level of decision-making, and at the level of economics, in that the economy revolves around supporting and measuring the best decisions. I make no claim that it would work, but it's fun as a thought experiment.


I recommend two things;
1.) Choose leaders randomly, as others have suggested. This would solve much of what ails our system.

2.) Screen everyone for sociopathic tendencies; disqualify sociopaths from running anything important. This would also solve much of what ails our system. A Bush, or a Stalin, couldn't gain power under such a system. A fuller account of this idea here:



I recommend two things;
1.) Choose leaders randomly, as others have suggested. This would solve much of what ails our system.

2.) Screen everyone for sociopathic tendencies; disqualify sociopaths from running anything important. This would also solve much of what ails our system. A Bush, or a Stalin, couldn't gain power under such a system. A fuller account of this idea here:



How about the Pictish system, where every new king had to be a blood relative (through the mother's side) of a particular ancestor(s)? Kings were chosen by a council comprised of all possible candidates and their female relatives. Kings, in theory, had absolute power; the council was an unofficial advisory body. A pool of dozens of possible candidates limits the liklihood of a mad, sad, or bad king. It had shades of a meritocracy; the family would marry off eligible daughters to strong, smart, or otherwise successful commoners.

Start with seven or so female progenitors (scientists, politicians, artists, athletes -- some, none, or all of the above). Find several dozen female passengers willing to be used as surrogates for the Ancestors. Heck, save some ova from the originals in the event that a matriline runs out.

Side note: eugenics. It's an ugly word, but in a closed environment it would almost be a necessity.

For those in favor of the Roman model, Rome only worked as long as it did by dint of constant expansion. Empires either expand or dwindle.

Another suggestion: geneline all passengers to have brown hair, brown eyes, and brownish skin. This might stave off a few Us-v-Them issues for several generations.

Has anyone read Songs of a Distant Earth? Send a bunch of frozen embryos, artificial wombs, and human-like robot parents who can mimic empathy, love, and nurturing behavior. Get the whole mess to the planet first, then decant a new generation every twenty years or so.


Great thread, everybody -- though I am appalled at the technocratic genocide that seems so popular with some. Also, if cryogenics were available, that's the obvious solution -- but sort of defeats the point of the thought experiment. As for designing a society, that simply doesn't work with humans without a great deal of energy and bloodletting expended to maintain conformity to some ideology. The idea of spending centuries plugged in to a VR or gaming system likewise seems self-defeating, doing nothing to engage humans in skilled trades, work, purpose -- essentially, life. (Yes, I AM dissing on WoW, etc.)

Those who argue for building the ship over the course of the journey, and those suggesting social diversity, are on the right track. ("Masons to the stars!")

The key problem for this thought experiment, it seems to me, is, how to craft a society which is both long-term sustainable during its 1000-year journey, and also sufficiently motivated and skilled to pioneer a life on a new world? The two impulses are contradictory -- but, perhaps reconcilable. I'd suggest a rather smaller population than 250,000; aware of their journey; seeded with a creation-and-destination mythology ("We came from a better place that we wrecked; we're on a journey; someday, we'll get to a new, better place.").

Environmental geography is a key determinant to societal adaptation -- this is a (the) central thesis of Jared Diamond's books many commenters cite. I think he's right. Therefore, most importantly, I'd start the small, educated, work-a-day journeying population inside a MINIMALLY hollowed astroid. They should have a good deal of technical knowledge -- but not all of earth's advances. Recycling and wise ecosystem use is critical to life, so a conservative, communal social structure would be necessary. By careful mining, though, they'd increase living space and harvest additional resources (water, carbon, metals). Additionally, their huge rock should be stocked with rewards, to motivate continued mining and exploration. Imagine finding a small library; a trove of new entertainments; frozen seeds for new luxury crops; a cubic kilometer of empty space in the interior. This would encourage the frontier mentality of discovery and also a release valve, shaking up and diversifying society over the centuries as they mine new areas -- an ultimately prepare them for the idea of seeking, building, and experimenting within careful, conservative bounds.

Unless the Mining Guild decides to form a new aristocracy... Which angers the Life-systems maintenance clan...


Count me in with the "genocide and dictatorship is unnecessary" group. We're talking about the equivalent of a pretty small city here, so I don't think that war is particularly likely assuming that there's a reasonable amount of social equality. The key is to keep people involved (so they don't blow off steam in rash or criminal ways) and keep politics conservative (as in not radical).

So, you have a representative democracy with a comparatively huge number of representatives. Like, 1% of the population or higher. You plan the layout to divide the population into small neighborhoods: it's easy to move around, but everyone knows everyone else in their neighborhood, and each one gets a representative, who everyone will personally know WELL. Constitutionally, any legislation requires near unanimity to pass, say 95%. "But nothing will get done!" So what? What needs to get done? They need to stay on the ship, keep it maintained. Society isn't growing, so their lives will be the same for thousands of years running.

They can periodically appoint emergency "captains" of some sort, who have temporary authority in the (presumably unlikely) event of an emergency. But it's legal for people to disobey those captains. The point being: no one's going to stay home and watch TV when there's a hole in the hull, so captains will be listened to when they should be, but won't be a threat to becoming dictators. Also, there's a few at any given time, and their terms are short, etc.

My guess is the "work" of the ship will predominantly consist of producing "culture" (books, music, plays, whatever) and preserving knowledge from Earth (science, history, engineering, agriculture). You don't want a ship that could fall apart at any minute (or eventually it will), so I would imagine that maintenance is mostly routine and scheduled. I doubt that all relevant knowledge could be actively preserved, so there would have to be archives, and people who know how to take care of them, and ultimately teach the colonizing generation how to make use of them.


I think that one important point that has been underplayed in much of this discussion is educating the new generations on the ship (if we are talking about a non-cryogenic model).

I think the best route in educating the young would be to tell them everything (how they and previous generations arrived on the ship, history of earth, what the point of their "mission" is, math, science, writing, etc.) In a sense this would be a "overview-model" of education that each and every member would have to take. Then from there, people could specialize in areas they were interested or best suited for (Basically the Western-model of education).

This would prevent fanatical pseudo-religions from popping up in future generations (thinking the ship and voyage is heaven, interpreting transmissions from earth as the voice of god), which in most cases would have a very debilitating effect on the success of the mission.

It also would provide a sense of purpose for many of the young-crew, and be a buffer against atrophy, mutiny, laziness, etc.


I'm reminded of a wonderful story tangent from Hitchhiker's Guide where Arthur and Ford find themselves on the "B" ship. If you're not familiar: Essentially, there is the "A" ship which is full of doctors, scientists, chefs, architects, etc. There is the "C" ship which is full of the working class - Bricklayers, carpenters, landscapers, welders, etc. Then, there is the "B" ship. It contains everyone else. Hairdressers, lawyers, market researchers, telemarketers, middle management...you get the picture. The "B" ship is one of three ships sent out from an endangered distant planet to colonize a new world. Eventually, Arthur and Ford come to realize that there is no "A" and "B" ship and that the home world packed up all the "B" ship people and sent them off the planet on a wild goose chase. The best part is this: The ship crash lands on a planet only for the protagonists to discover that they, indeed, had traveled back in time millions of years, the planet they crashed on was Earth and the occupants of "ship B" are actually our decendants. Fun thought, eh? I know I'm off topic but wasn't that enlightening?


You could try a version of tribalism? As I recall, the main problems with clan or tribe structures was inter-tribe warfare, so if you put some rules in place to use combative sports for that stress-release, possibly allow "cattle rustling" of ideas and soft property from different groups, you'd keep conflict to a manageable level while maintaining a pretty strong social structure that seems to be our biological default mode.

This might also work well with the generation fleet idea mentioned earlier. One clan per smallish ship?

Only trick is, this sort of thing would almost inevitably devolve into more or less the current nation-state format once it got to the destination, because each clan would have a slightly (or perhaps radically) different cultural creep happening during the voyage.