Living in an Artificial World

Photo by Philipp Deus on Unsplash

A few years ago, I had a random thought. I wondered if the best environment for an intelligent species is one they create themselves. At a certain point, is it better to start adapting the environment to suit yourself, rather than adapting to suit it?       

That started me thinking about space travel, and how humanity might develop if it found itself confined to an artificial environment on a long term basis. 

But why would humanity choose to thus confine itself?

In my forthcoming novel, Stars and Bones (March 1st from Titan Books), I postulate a superior alien intelligence that shows up and acts like a parent. It decides to give the Earth a chance to heal from all the damage inflicted upon it by the human race, and so it casts us adrift in a vast fleet of arks. Instead of being allowed to strip mine the Earth and run wild with nuclear weapons, we are effectively scolded and sent to our room. 

How would we react as a species if we pressed the big red button and went for full-throttle Armageddon, only to see all the missiles snatched away while in flight and cast into the sun by a powerful alien entity? Obviously, we would be shocked and maybe more than a little ashamed and traumatised. I don’t see how we would ever again be able to trust the leaders that brought us to the edge of annihilation. And having faced that yawning existential chasm, maybe we’d decide to do things differently from there on out, to avoid the possibility of such a thing ever happening again.

But how would we adjust to living in a wholly artificial environment? Could we possibly remain mentally and physically healthy without a direct connection to nature?

Life on the arks is very different from life on Earth. For a start, every person has equal access to food, water, and healthcare. To some, this seems like the answer to their prayers; to others, a socialist nightmare. One of the viewpoint characters is a software billionaire by the name of Haruki, who spent much of his life and fortune building a bunker where he hoped he and his family could survive the ravages of climate change. But in the Continuance Fleet (as humanity’s diaspora becomes known) almost anything a person desires can be manufactured by the arks at no cost—so Haruki’s billions are suddenly worthless. He thought he would be restarting civilisation with a handful of survivors, but now everybody’s survived and he no longer enjoys any special advantage.

How would you feel in that situation? Imagine it’s a normal Thursday night. The news is full of rising international tensions. And then suddenly, the missiles are in flight. The world is about to end in nuclear fire. And then… It doesn’t. All the missiles disappear, and instead, a bunch of blue-skinned androids appear in your neighbourhood and start ushering people through a silver portal to a starship that feels like a cruise liner the size of New York.

You no longer have a job or bills. Your mortgage is gone. You will never want for anything, for the rest of your life. But in return, you have to spend the rest of your life in this fleet of giant ships. You will never again feel a natural breeze or sink your feet into the sand of a real beach. Could you adjust?

Recent research by the American Psychological Association suggests time exposed to natural environments improves working memory, cognitive flexibility and attentional control, while exposure to urban environments is linked to attention deficits. But can we fake a ‘natural environment’ using birdsong, sunlamps and hydroponics?

The second generation born on the arks don’t understand the homesickness of their parents. The corridors and gardens of the arks are all they’ve ever known. The idea of living in the open air seems strange and a little terrifying to them. They have never experienced sunburn, hay fever, or frostbite. But as one of the older characters complains:

John Lennon once asked us to imagine a world without countries, religion, greed or hunger. Now, that world had come to pass, and we were living in an imposed utopia in which everyone had shelter, food and clothing, and access to education and self-betterment.

However, as wonderful as this all was, I couldn’t help feeling we’d been let off the hook a little too easily. Instead of reaching this state by ourselves, we had it foisted upon us. We hadn’t had to take responsibility for our behaviour or clean up our own mess, and maybe that meant we’d missed learning an important lesson.

Would you exchange a natural existence for an artificial one? 

Stars and Bones is published by Titan Books on 1st March 2022. This article first appeared in The Engineer magazine.

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Author: Gareth L Powell