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Humankind’s Virtual Voyage Through The Great Filter

Updated: Jan 11

June 13th 2021

- A Voyager's Manifesto -

A persuasive essay highlighting the reasons why I believe that physical limitations of interpersonal communication, and the need to transcend them at a rate relative to the expansion of our species, are what create the “Great Filter” that is currently preventing humankind from becoming a sustainable interplanetary species; how the solution to this problem has already been taking shape in our hands for decades, and a manifesto for anyone intending to help shape it further.

To restate this theory in a much broader manner: I believe that the adoption of a singular global method of non-physical interfacing by the majority population of an advancing intelligent species, and the perfection of its ancillary technologies are the most difficult prerequisites, or “Great Filter”, for achieving a sustainable interplanetary civilization.

The Virtual World Prerequisite for Our Interplanetary Existence

Landing the first human on Mars and setting up our first colony as an interplanetary species is a fun thought to entertain these days, especially with figures as prominent as Elon Musk driving the narrative and supporting it with cutting-edge reusable rocket technology. The thought of a new space race has even been tempting enough to coax billionaire innovators Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson into the fray. Fun thoughts and fancy rockets won’t be enough to break through the Great Filter, though. Colonizing Mars or other planets and sustaining an interplanetary existence is going to require humankind to first create and sustain a singular and universal “Virtual World” to keep everyone sufficiently connected and cohesive.

Generally speaking, the farther apart we grow in attempts to expand our reach, the harder it becomes to maintain cohesiveness as a civilization. Imagine a game of “Telephone” where a message is passed through a chain of people one-by-one until arriving at the end of the chain, in most cases no longer bearing any resemblance at all to the original intended message. Similarly, as the reach of a civilization widens, its risk for breakdown increases exponentially. As such, the challenge throughout history for human civilizations has primarily been to grow cohesively and sustainably by advancing the technology that we use to communicate our needs to one another. Human civilizations have repeatedly tested these limits of interpersonal communication and have endured the resulting problems that have arisen, innovating the solutions that have allowed us to grow over time from small and sporadic tribes into sprawling collections of villages, cities, Kingdoms and Empires. I believe that it is that same persistent and innovative growth that will compel us to an interstellar existence, but only if we are able to first reach a global consensus and create a suitable singular virtual experience for humankind.

This hypothetical virtual world would act as a baseline existence to keep us securely and sufficiently connected on a constant basis, regardless of how far apart from each other we might sail on our fancy rockets fueled by fun thoughts. It would keep the deep space sailors on track as they map our neighboring stars; isolated pioneers of human colonies on barren planets could access the same preferred medium of social and economic interactions as those living in comfort on their home planets. These ambitious efforts to build a virtual world would be necessary to ensure that our civilization can remain cohesive while withstanding the growing pains of our constant expansion. Luckily for us, we’ve been laying the groundwork for this prerequisite virtual world for decades already whether we’ve known about the need for it or not. Unluckily for us, it’s still going to require an incredible and unprecedented display of synergy and ambition from our species to further develop it into a vehicle capable of delivering humankind through The Great Filter, to Mars and beyond.

The Great Communication Filter

The need for a virtual world of near-instant interpersonal interaction is nothing new at its core. Throughout our history, humans have sought out ways to better connect with one another and communicate across greater distances. Whether it was through sending smoke signals to be seen from miles away or homing pigeons to deliver urgent messages across battlefields, the advent of telegraphs to telephones or radios to televisions, we have always had a strong desire to seek out and connect with each other in more meaningful ways. I would argue many of these to be innovations birthed from necessity for survival, as it has oftentimes been the physical limitations of humankind’s access to resources, and the difficulties that arose from attempting to expand that reach, that have caused our greatest collapses throughout history; humankind wouldn’t be around for as long as it has been if we weren’t halfway decent at adapting solutions to help us grow through these problems.

Throughout human history, our growth as a species has come through dangerous but necessary technological innovations which themselves have oftentimes counterproductively caused or aided with warfare, mass casualty or economic destruction. Moreover, just the act of growing and expanding the reach of a civilization is an arduous one and has often resulted in depleted resources, famine and economic instability, creating cycles of collapse and rebirth throughout human history. It is only through resilience and adaptivity that humankind has with great persistence been able to grow through these failures; as human civilizations have grown to encompass the planet in recent years, so have our increasingly complex methods of staying connected to one another. It is this exponential growth that in hindsight made it inevitable that we would birth both our greatest modern challenge as well as the solution to it at the roughly same time.

Otherwise known as the “Great Filter”, Robin Hanson first proposed the existence of this theoretical barrier as a reason for explaining the “Fermi Paradox”, or absence of other advanced intelligent civilizations within the known universe. In reduced terms, it is the make-or-break moment from which an advancing intelligent civilization will either break down into ruin, or break through the barrier and into a sustainable interplanetary existence. I believe that humankind is now facing this make-or-break moment with the advent of the Global Internet, and that in our case, the internet is also a prerequisite seed to be nurtured and grown into the virtual world that will allow us to survive and thrive beyond the Great Filter. As such, the advent of the global internet and the subsequent “Tertiary Information Age” that humankind now finds itself in should be seen as our point of no return, and the greatest current barrier facing our advancement as a species.

Problems Posed by the Point of Singularity

The internet represents an innovation to communication that is so transformative for our species that we can never revert healthily to a way of living without it. It has created a rate of growth within our global civilizations so intense that it can not be sustained by any inferior method of communication, and so significant that its collapse would be devastating to our species. In that sense it is our species’ current point of singularity, to use a hypothetical term popularized by John Von Neumann. By innovating the technological means to translate the audio and visuals of the physical dimension into the virtual dimension in tandem with our own thoughts and identities, we have created a singular global method of non-physical interfacing. Or rather, we have birthed a very scary baby version of our hopeful “Virtual World” which we now affectionately refer to as “The Internet”.

We have in actuality created a frighteningly corruptible medium for interpersonal communication within which all that exists can be manipulated in ways foreign to the physical dimension. Someone could, for example, create a social media page with the exact same photos, videos and biography as another person and cause real-world consequences by masquerading as them without ever even needing to leave the confines of their bedroom. Or they could lead a years-long campaign of disinformation, effectively manipulating a population and causing geopolitical ramifications, without ever having their true physical identity exposed. With the right technology, someone could even alter real-world video and audio to the point of creating uncertainty over what is real and what is not. Simply put, proof of authenticity, consensus, and accountability are just some of the problems we now face as we enter the information age. We see these problems manifesting largely through "synthetic media", deep-fake photos and videos and other unbridled near-instant access to differing narratives of current events happening all over the globe.

Failure to address the global communication issues caused by this unstable infant technology and inability to find effective solutions to them will result in the collapse of the internet as a viable means of global communication. If humankind is lucky, the best case scenario of such a collapse would have several independent internets working with and against each other on an effective-enough level to keep the world running to an extent, if not actually just slow-walking backwards. In any event, failure to fix these weak-points in our information infrastructure will prevent the emergence and adoption of the prerequisite singular virtual world that our species needs. In its current state, the internet will in fact be the very barrier preventing us from being a sustainable interplanetary species. If we can not communicate effectively enough to efficiently manage the resources that are available to our species on one planet, we certainly can not be relied upon to coordinate cohesively enough to manage the resources of multiple planets at once without it leading to catastrophe.

Avoiding Colonial Catastrophes

It is through constant technical innovation that we will grow our infant internet into a sufficiently evolved, trusted, singular baseline virtual world. We are already creating methods of bringing transparency, accountability, and consensus to our global communications and taking other necessary steps towards crafting the ideal virtual world. I believe that early pioneers of colonies on other planets will require access to this baseline virtual world as a means of both coping psychologically with the potentially harsh and foreign conditions of their new planet, and of ensuring that they build a colony that is cohesive with the values, resources and technologies of their home planet and species. Because of this, it is important that a fully fleshed global virtual economy and social space is created on Earth prior to attempting colonization of other planets.

A virtual medium for communication, transaction, and social interaction between anyone, at any time, with real-world implications is the desired result of this effort to create the ideal virtual world. This new virtual medium would also have the added benefit of reducing the average expense of human energy and natural resources that would otherwise be required to have this type of global interpersonal experience and economy in the physical world. In creating this more efficient virtual version of our world, humankind’s needs for physical interaction and thereby its consumption of our planet's natural resources to achieve those interactions, would in theory become lesser and lesser until reaching a point of maximum resource efficiency. In fact, we are already seeing the global transition to this more isolated way of interacting with one another, albeit a bit expedited due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Essentially, being able to attain personal fulfillment with less average impact to the physical world around us and while consuming less of our available resources would be likely outcomes of this singular method for virtual interfacing.

This constant, trusted, secure and all-encompassing virtual connection will also serve to ensure that no physical “War of the Worlds” would break out between human colonies of different planets. Perhaps more importantly, it would ensure that our species can continue to grow cohesively in its pursuit of expanded knowledge, and not into a fragmented species of biologically-related but very different humans spread across the cosmos. As we’ve seen earlier on in our history with the similar relative vastness of our deep blue oceans, too many problems can arise from a singular species advancing multiple civilizations independently from one another in a finite space. Eventually they run out of individual space and clash into one another with catastrophic results.

The Blockchain Bones of Our Distributed Ledger Skeleton

Creating an interpersonal communication infrastructure that is both scalable and secure is a technological achievement that has been sought after for as long as humans have been communicating with one another. The internet is humankind’s greatest achievement in this endeavor to-date, and yet it can not scale without losing security and reliability. In fact, I would argue that the more widespread the internet has become through the advent of smartphones, wearables and other widely accessible "IoT" devices, the stranger and more complicated our problems with interpersonal communication have become. Because of this limitation, I believe that the internet is only the first variable of what is likely to be a long equation; one that will need to be solved if we intend to achieve secure scalability of interpersonal communication on the level required to sustain an interplanetary civilization.

Only recently has there been any innovation sufficient enough to meet our increasing communication needs. Simply put, I believe the next integral variables are blockchain-based distributed ledger technology and its subsequent cryptocurrencies. Distributed ledgers combined with blockchain technology can provide secure consensus to our global internet infrastructure, acting as a solution to many of the communication problems that have been caused by the advent of such a disruptive technology. While a distributed ledger does not stop someone from fabricating or manipulating information, building it upon blockchain technology does provide a transparent, detailed and ideally immutable accounting of every bit of information that changes; this combination can make it increasingly difficult for malicious parties to get away with or benefit from their nefarious activities if there are also real-world agencies in place to enforce and maintain accountability.

The advent of blockchain technology has also allowed for secure and global cryptocurrencies to emerge, with Bitcoin being the first and most notable. Additionally, using blockchain technology in tandem with distributed ledgers allows for the use of secure smart contracts, a decentralized and trustless means of transacting instantly with one or more disparate parties from anywhere in the world. Ethereum is the oldest and most notable blockchain to use smart contracts, contributing to the current wide array of decentralized applications that are accessible by a global decentralized network of users, leading many to call it “The Internet 2.0”. It is through these growing uses of blockchain technology, distributed ledgers and smart contracts that we can see the beginnings of the global economy and social space that will exist within the virtual world that is taking shape.

Fleshing it Out with Bits and Bytes

The fun is just getting started with this new decentralized means of expressing ourselves, connecting with one another and generating financial benefits. I believe that NFT technology, having emerged recently through the advent of Ethereum and other distributed ledger blockchains, will likely be one of the most significant cornerstones of our future virtual world, due largely to its many use-cases and inclusivity of other rapidly emerging new technologies. By allowing the creation of verifiable virtual identities through the use of augmented reality, virtual reality interfacing, proof of authenticity and other emerging new technologies, NFTs will act to flesh out our distributed ledger and blockchain technologies and allow our virtual world to begin to truly take form. The best part is that the form it takes will be at the discretion of the builders and founders, the bold risk-takers and early adopters of this groundbreaking new technology. In short, this is an exciting time to be a virtual voyager.

Gaining the ability to create a transparent, provable, customizable and exchangeable representation of tangible assets in the virtual space is an incredible leap towards solving for the problems of authenticity, identity, and consensus currently plaguing our global communications. It is a way that someone can declare, “this is me” and show the world that, “this is mine”, with instant proof of authenticity and consensus; a way to interact intangibly but with tangible benefits and in a secure and sustainable manner. With this ability, decentralized virtual marketplaces and social spaces have been able to take form and act as secure new mediums of virtual peer-to-peer exchange. Humankind’s ability to securely create and share resources and to sustainably expand their reach, can and is now transcending the physical borders and limitations that would normally stop us from achieving an interplanetary civilization.

The near future will look like a wild variety of independent but interchangeable virtual spaces and augmented experiences. Competing technologies will innovate for dominance over which blockchains will provide the most infrastructure for our social needs, the most currencies for our financial needs, and the most use-cases for our everyday lives. We as virtual voyagers will play a special role in filtering out the inferior technologies and bad actors that will inevitably continue to arise in this new space. We will hold the value in our hands as we choose where to voyage, what to build there, and how to prioritize our needs as a people. Our demands will drive the innovation that is needed to replicate our physical world experience sufficiently enough in the new virtual world; our ambition will drive the innovation needed to improve upon it in ways not possible in our physical world.

The Virtual Voyagers Manifesto

The success or failure of our endeavor to create a virtual world suitable enough for transporting our species through the Great Filter depends entirely on the voyagers currently exploring and building it. As it stands, this innovative new space is filled with thoughts and intentions from every spectrum and corner of our planet. As a result, many of the familiar interpersonal problems from our real world have begun to manifest in our fledgling virtual world as well. It is up to us to stay vigilant of these problems and to actively work to solve them as necessary. Virtual voyagers should strive to shine light into darkness; transparency is essential to decentralization, and decentralized consensus is prerequisite to humankind reaching a global consensus or sustainable interplanetary existence.

Transparency by itself is not enough to build the type of experience we need in order to thrive. Virtual voyagers must also encourage accountability. In its growing stages, our virtual world will depend on the usage of you, fellow voyagers. That means your choices of what innovations to support carry weight behind them. Reward the technologies and companies that encourage transparency and accountability in our virtual world by using and sharing them over the ones that don’t. The virtual spaces and technological innovations with the most successful adoption by the masses will win, and so I believe that we have a responsibility to encourage the use of decentralized governance within these virtual spaces. We should also strive for and demand the continuous development of secure cryptocurrencies for transacting within these spaces, as they will gradually supplant our physical medium as the preferred method of interaction for our species.

We have the responsibility to keep our destination in sight, of staying vigilant of the dangers in front of us, and of expanding our physical and virtual reach throughout the cosmos in a peaceful and sustainable manner. Our virtual voyage through the Great Filter will be a long and arduous one, and maintaining our status past it will be an infinite task. We have reached a point of no return on this voyage already, so it is of the utmost urgency that every step taken from henceforth be taken with great consideration and care. As grave as this may be sounding now, I have the highest of hopes for us. I see a bright and optimistic future world being built all around us, layered with supplemental technologies that improve our complex lives and keep us connected more personally than ever before. There will be many trials and errors along the way, but I have no doubt in our ingenuity or ability to adapt. Godspeed, virtual voyagers!

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