Easily overlooked in the suggestion of interstellar settlement is the question of maintaining communication between Sol’s civilization and its distant extrasolar progeny. This is likely to be a proposition as grand in scale and sophistication as the development of starships because the challenge of maintaining communication at a civilization-scale bandwidth across interstellar distances is very great. And how we accomplish this will have great ramifications on the cultural evolution of these distant branches of civilization. Will we be able to maintain a cultural coherence across such distances or will these settlements become very isolated islands whose cultures radically diverge to the point where they are truly alien to the rest of us in time?
Our ideal situation would be the development of a super-luminal speed means of digital communication. We can hardly speculate on the nature of such technology today, though the notion of a means of quantum entanglement communication without pairing with a ‘classical’ (relativistic) communication channel continues to persist. We can, however, suggest that if such technology is at all possible, the Solarian era civilization, with its community of transhumanist intellects, is likely to figure out how to accomplish it. What such technology may be physically like is hard to envision, though if it does relate to some kind of quantum entanglement it may take the form of paired devices that are crafted in one place with one half of the system transported by starship to other stars.
If we can devise such a technology, it would greatly ‘shrink’ our universe in the way telecommunications shrank the Earth across the 20th century and allow for a great coherence of culture across our expanding galactic civilization. The infrastructure of this extended civilization -by the Solarian era based on technology such as NanoFoam- would be in constant simultaneous communication with itself while its inhabitants would be exchanging all forms of media, information, and personal communications instantaneously. Via the Virtual Habitat -the distributed virtual reality environment that may some day become a key parallel to the Internet as we know it now and which may become the ‘native’ habitat of the community of artilects- the distances between stars would virtually disappear and societies across the galaxy would be in constant direct -even intimate and personal- interaction. This would be a direct expansion of the macroculture of a single coherent civilization. It would diverge on a subcultural level with the expansion of the population and their compulsion for novelty but these would not exist in isolation. They would be part of a larger community in constant communication, cross-fertilization. Such a civilization could evolve to a kind of galactic self-consciousness in real-time.
But what if we cannot achieve such superluminal communications? How then might we keep in contact with these distant branches of civilization? Sticking with the extrapolation of known technology, we can imagine the likely use of laser or maser communications. But to achieve reliable communications over such distances while limited to the speed of light means systems of tremendous scale. Such systems may take the form of separate receiver and transmitter systems of grand scale. Transmitters may be very similar to solar orbital power stations; vast modular solar energy collectors flanked by vast phased-array transmitters in constellations on common solar orbits. Receivers would be similar; vast solar energy collectors flanked by radio/optical interferometer arrays. These may be located in outer orbits -which might require other forms of energy- to be shielded from the radio noise of the, by then, large solar civilization.
Another likely -and seemingly cruder- technology would simply be cycling fleets of compact starships whose ‘cargo’ is stored data in fast high-reliability data storage systems. In effect, an interstellar Pony Express. This relates to the old hacker’s adage to; “never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of hard drives.” Such fleets might employ very minimalist starships -perhaps based on the tether structure architecture of the Powel/Pellagrino Valkyrie concept- in vast numbers so that that conveyed information is relatively continuous, though in practice very high rates of launch may be difficult to achieve if the received information for both parties is not deemed very valuable.
With these technologies the approach to communication would be based on maintaining continuous ‘anticipatory’ transmission. In other words, we could not effectively hold conversations when the wait for response is decades to centuries long. So each party in the exchange would need to try and anticipate the information the other party would want and trust that each party would be open or generous in the information they share. This is not a particularly efficient means of communication and decades of debate and passive AI development may be necessary to work out a satisfactory protocol for deciding what out of the vast mass of local information continuously generated is to be selected for transmission. Because trust in openness is a critical aspect of this form of communication such links would be ‘brittle’ in a social sense. Fairly great resources would be needed to maintain such large communications infrastructures and each party would need to feel, based on the character and quality of the information they receive, that they are getting value from it, and that there is no holding back of valued information out of ulterior motives. This becomes further complicated by the fact that the new communities settled would obviously, because of smaller scale, produce far less volume of information than their parent communities while their information would be seen as having possibly higher value based on its novelty.
In this situation the tendency for cultural divergence between stellar communities would be much greater as their perception of what it going on in the rest of the civilization loses its sense of simultaneity. All news is old news -from decades to centuries. You can’t act on it or respond to it in any coherent sense. It becomes an artifact, like a DVD collection of never-before-seen I Love Lucy episodes dropped on your doorstep, as opposed to a message that relates to you. Sub-cultural cladogenesis would become more whole cultural divergence as what goes on in the rest of the galaxy relates less and less you your immediate lifestyle.
And if that wasn’t all complication enough, the potential bandwidth requirements for communication for each community would increase exponentially with the expansion of the overall galactic civilization because there would be a fixed limit in practical point-to-point communication distance similar to that for starships. And so each community at the limit of these distances would assume a responsibility to pass-along the information from communities farther out. In certain situations they would be forced to filter the information they pass along to keep their bandwidth within their affordable limits. And so as the civilization grows you actually face a problem of getting progressively less useful information from progressively more communities unless you can keep devising means to increase bandwidth. The galaxy being as big as it is, you could reach a point where most if not all the resources of each stellar community might be spent on the communication of fossil information. But, of course, this is a crisis we may not face for many millennia.
Personally, this author would prefer that superluminal communications as the prospect of a coherent galactic civilization awakening in self-consciousness seems a very exciting prospect. But given the limits of the physics we know today, we must expect the more limited forms of communication to be more likely and a certain isolation of stellar cultures probable.