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Psychohistory, Transhumanism, and Imperial Conservatism

Garnfellow

SOC-13
I recently re-read the first three Foundation books for the first time in almost 30 years. I was struck, of course, by the many elements that made it into Traveller wholesale -- and the one essential concept that didn't, at least not overtly: psychohistory.

But then again, perhaps psychohistory is already implied in many of the basic assumptions of the OTU.

If the Vilani of the First Imperium were anything, they were likely highly effective social engineers. The Terrans might have been far better at the biological sciences, but the Vilani of the Ziru Sirka were probably supreme in the social sciences, producing unsurpassed sociologists and economists. The development of something like Asimov's psychohistory -- megascale statistical forecasting of human behavior -- would have been a natural extension of these talents.

A dependence upon psychohistory principles in planning and administrating the First Imperium would explain the Vilani's unprecedented success controlling such an expansive territory over such a long time period.

But as the Foundation series shows us, the single biggest limitation of psychohistory is its inability to account for unexpected and unprecedented variables. One mutant, albeit an extremely powerful one, nearly single-handedly destroys the Seldon Plan.

Cultural changes can happen quickly and bring great disruption. It is often noted that while the tech in Kubrick's 2001 still looks and feels relevant (he foresaw iPads!), the movie feels badly dated in its depiction of gender roles.

The Vilani at the time of Terran contact are often depicted as decadent and complacent, having ceased to innovate, making them easy pickings for the more vibrant and ascendant Terrans.

But what if this extreme conservatism was not the result of natural cultural stagnation, as with Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, but an intentional and rational strategy, adopted to facilitate psychohistory planning? This adoption could be both overtly coded as mores (we, as good citizens of the Imperium, reject disruptive technologies for the good of the Ziru Sirka) or covertly accomplished by a Second Foundation like secret organization that intervenes to suppress potentially disruptive memes or tech.

Adoption of psychohistory planning might explain the abrupt change in the First Imperium from technological innovation and territorial expansion to consolidation and stasis. The Vilani didn't get complacent: they got careful once psychohistory forecasting showed the potential collapse of the Imperium. Contact with the Terrans represented what they most feared: A “Mule-level” agent of psychohistory disruption.

Psychohistory accuracy demands stable and consistent culture. Psychohistory failure can result in unnecessary economic disruption, political turmoil, wars, and potentially collapse of the entire Interstellar community, with millennia of attendant suffering. So the stakes could not possibly be higher.

A pervasive reliance on psychohistory -- and an accompanying need for cultural stability and predictability -- would explain an awful lot about the OTU. In character the Third Imperium seems to have far more in common with the static Vilani First Imperium than the dynamic Terran Second.

Take Transhumanism. Sure, we get some very interesting glimpses of transhumanist tech in Agent of the Imperium, but clearly by 1105 this has not effected significant cultural changes in the Imperium. While Herbert had to invent the Butlerian Jihad to explain the lack of AI in the Dune universe, perhaps Traveller can point to psychohistory. Widespread development of AI across the Imperium would invalidate key formulae, wiping out centuries of careful planning. To combat this the Imperium has strong cultural values that consider such tech as deeply transgressive, passively discouraging adoption, as well as instruments such as patents, legal restrictions, and even Quarantine to actively eliminate such threats.

Or let us expand beyond Transhumanism to tech in general. Tech advancement evidently propagates slowly and unevenly across Interstellar communities. Perhaps this is due to something structural about Jump drive based societies. But perhaps this is also due to design: tech advancements move slowly to allow for measured assimilation. First Imperium Vilanis would probably consider the rapid tech progress of 20th/21st century Terra as an unmitigated disaster due to all of the social and economic disruptions created by new tech displacing old tech. How can one plan or manage an economy in such an environment? It's like building a house on shifting sand.

Psychohistory might also help explain the uniformity and stability of Imperial culture across large distances of time and space. Local worlds might have their own flavor, but there is remarkable consistency between Imperial worlds across different sectors and time periods; worlds that are incompatibly different end up interdicted or glassed. Look at all the different alien cultures conquered by the Imperium over history. While they may be allowed to retain some vestige of their native culture, the choice is generally either adopt Imperial culture, be cut off from the Interstellar community, or be utterly destroyed.

I am intrigued by the idea of a Second Foundation like organization within the Third Imperium, quietly working to ensure that millennia-spanning events unfold according to some ancient psychohistory-informed plan. Are these the same people in charge of the Vilani Forbidden Technology? The Psionics Institutes?

What the OTU has its own Seldon Plan, designed to produce the Galaxiad? That the OTU and Lorenverse converge not through amazing coincidence but due to careful, mathematically driven planning?

On one hand, I want to maintain long-term manipulation of societies as a district Hiver schtick. But on the other hand I like the redemptive notion of the Vilani not as unimaginative, tedious functionaries -- but instead, cunning, patient heroes, struggling mightily and in secret with all their boring rules to save the very universe. Or to put it another way: The Vilani of the Ziru Sirka did not fear the future because it was unknown to them. They feared the future because they knew it all too well.
 
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Did the reference to psychohistory disappear from later editions? Application of psychohistorical concepts (as psychological manipulation at the scale of whole populations) was expressly given as the reason for the Psionic Suppressions. The overboard response was then given as the reason for (publicly) ceasing Psychohistorical manipulation.

Just like nanotech, religion, and a few other SF tropes not expressly mentioned within the setting, it is quietly assumed to be present IF YOU NEED IT TO BE.
 
I recently re-read the first three Foundation books for the first time in almost 30 years. I was struck, of course, by the many elements that made it into Traveller wholesale -- and the one essential concept that didn't, at least not overtly: psychohistory. But then again, perhaps psychohistory is already implied in many of the basic assumptions of the OTU.

Hey Garnfellow,

I would love to see someone of your caliber pour some more creative energy into the Psychohistory article at the wiki...

*** Could I persuade you to pour some of your genius into expanding that article located here: http://wiki.travellerrpg.com/Psychohistory? ***

Nudge, nudge...

Shalom,
Maksim-Smelchak.
 
I rather thought the concept implicit in the First Imperium.

Although thousands of years later for most citizens I expect it's more 'we've always done things this way', honoroing the wise ancestors, etc.

A closer scifi example might be the CoDominium, which intentionally halts R&D to avoid disruption and war- only to of course lead into a decline ultimately.
 
If the Vilani of the First Imperium were anything, they were likely highly effective social engineers. The Terrans might have been far better at the biological sciences, but the Vilani of the Ziru Sirka were probably supreme in the social sciences, producing unsurpassed sociologists and economists. The development of something like Asimov's psychohistory -- megascale statistical forecasting of human behavior -- would have been a natural extension of these talents.

I will preface this by saying that I read the Foundation series, once, and have never re-read it as I was not at all enthralled with it. I actually prefer Asimov's non-fiction writings to his science-fiction. Like Alaska being at the same time the most westerly and easterly state in the United States at the same time.

My question is, what do you base your statement respecting the Vilani on?

I should not that I am not a fan of Gibbon either.
 
Did the reference to psychohistory disappear from later editions?

I don't think it quite disappeared, but it's never been particularly strong, and I don't think it's ever been connected with Imperial conservatism. Rim of Fire, I think, mentions historical forecasting predicting the end of the Solomani Confederation.
 
And of course.........

planning_the_manipulation_by_arcas_art-d6wubiq.jpg


If nothing else I would expect the major powers to pursue psychohistory as a defensive technology at the very least......
 
This leads to my trying to reconcile one disturbing aspect of Agent of the Imperium with the rest of the OTU:

How were existential threats suppressed by the First Imperium or the other empires? Were they better at it? Was some of this done via pychohistory?
 
I recently re-read the first three Foundation books for the first time in almost 30 years.

Coincidentally, I'm also re-reading them, but in an odd order. I started with the "Second Foundation Trilogy" (Fear/Chaos/Triumph) by Benford/Bear/Brin that I'd only read once before to see if my memory of them held up. Answer: mostly. I'm still not a fan of Benford's; Bear's was still an acceptable bridge; Brin's was more fannish/overwrought than I remembered, despite tying the whole thing together. Then I went backwards through Asimov's Prelude/Forward to see how those intersected. Now I'm through Foundation and into Foundation and Empire. Noticing lots of things I'd missed when reading them the first few times around.

A dependence upon psychohistory principles in planning and administrating the First Imperium would explain the Vilani's unprecedented success controlling such an expansive territory over such a long time period.

As others have commented, I agree that the Vilani intentionally created a predictable culture. Not sure if this is psychohistory or merely psychology, although Asimov himself started off without the "psychohistory" term (The Encyclopedists just uses "psychology")

But as the Foundation series shows us, the single biggest limitation of psychohistory is its inability to account for unexpected and unprecedented variables.

Asimov himself later (in the prequels) confronts "chaos" and starts to make the Seldon Plan less of a prediction and more of a trajectory for behind-the-scenes meddling. While perhaps more (far, far more) realistic, I found that diminished the story.

The Vilani didn't get complacent: they got careful once psychohistory forecasting showed the potential collapse of the Imperium.

Excellent theory. No objections here!

To combat this the Imperium has strong cultural values that consider such tech as deeply transgressive, passively discouraging adoption, as well as instruments such as patents, legal restrictions, and even Quarantine to actively eliminate such threats.

Agreed. I don't think the Traveller future history is at all viable or realistic, but in attempting to hand-wave it - that's the same sort of conclusion I come to.

In Brin's Foundation's Triumph he makes the same sort of thing apply to the stability of the 12,000 year-old Galactic Empire, breaking down by the time Seldon appears on the scene. (Avoiding spoilers here. If you're a fan of Foundation I do recommend struggling through Fear and Chaos just because Triumph is a masterpiece of loose-end tying.)

Thanks for kicking off this conversation! It's clear to me you're saying "what if?" which is a lot of fun here.
 
How were existential threats suppressed by the First Imperium or the other empires? Were they better at it? Was some of this done via pychohistory?

Such things would have spread more slowly to begin wth, as the First Imperium topped out at Jump 2 and only the Vilani themselves had that for most of their two-to-three thousand years in the hot seat. Everyone else within their influence was at Jump 1.

Were they good at mass psychological reading and manipulation? I'm not sure they needed to be, except in the field of market manipulation. Their approach to technology suppression was just that: suppression. It didn't succeed at sapping actual innovation, just made sure it didn't spread. The Vilani appear to have viewed technological advancement as an existential threat, to some extent.

All things considered, the Vilani shangarim probably thought they were good at population manipulations, but were only mediocre at it in the broad scheme of things.
 
Such things would have spread more slowly to begin wth, as the First Imperium topped out at Jump 2 and only the Vilani themselves had that for most of their two-to-three thousand years in the hot seat. Everyone else within their influence was at Jump 1.

Were they good at mass psychological reading and manipulation? I'm not sure they needed to be, except in the field of market manipulation. Their approach to technology suppression was just that: suppression. It didn't succeed at sapping actual innovation, just made sure it didn't spread. The Vilani appear to have viewed technological advancement as an existential threat, to some extent.

All things considered, the Vilani shangarim probably thought they were good at population manipulations, but were only mediocre at it in the broad scheme of things.

I hope Marc reads some of these musings and uses it as fodder for one of his next books...

Shalom,
Maksim-Smelchak.
 
My question is, what do you base your statement respecting the Vilani on?

A lot of inference and extrapolation, but at least a couple of specific sources with regard to that quote:

What specialty area, then, is peculiar to the Vilani? In a word, politics. The Vilani are masters at maintaining profitable and harmonious group relations. . . . Along these lines, the Vilani are masters of economics (Vilani and Vargr 30).

The Vilani were masters of the social sciences, able to build social and political institutions that were effective and stable over very long periods of time. However, Vilani methods seemed to require a “closed system,” a society that was self-contained and insulated from outside contact. The unpredictable influence of outsiders made Vilani social engineering less effective, less able to produce a stable community (GURPS Traveller: Interstellar Wars 29).
 
This leads to my trying to reconcile one disturbing aspect of Agent of the Imperium with the rest of the OTU:

How were existential threats suppressed by the First Imperium or the other empires? Were they better at it? Was some of this done via pychohistory?
I think during the early stages of Vilani expansion there was relatively little concern about existential threats. According to Vilani and Vargr, the Vilani discover the jump drive in -9235 and immediately begin expanding, forming the Bureau system in -8715 to better manage the growing sphere of influence. By -6000 the Vilani control an area approximately 60 parsecs in radius from Vland. But then something changes.

The Vilani start to observe technology leaking out via unassimilated client races. And I surmise that psychohistory projections either start to fail (too many variables are being introduced too rapidly) or point towards collapse due to uncontrolled fragmentation. In any case, the Vilani make a sudden and dramatic course correction: the Consolidation Wars begin in -5400 and rage until -4045, when the Vilani emerge triumphant. This marks the formal start of the Ziru Sirka, and the end of unregulated expansion.

This is a long way to say that the First Imperium, once it got wise to the potential of existential threats, responded severely by creating, forcefully, a closed system: assimilating or destroying all alien cultures within their sphere of influence, and then essentially halting further expansion of that sphere.

The Terrans were exactly the sort of threat the Vilani were probably most afraid of: an unprecedented variable completely unaccounted for in their psychohistory equations.

The First Imperium Vilani were probably far more effective (and maybe ruthless?) than the Third Imperium at addressing existential threats because, at least for a few millennia, they had enormous advantages over every sophont they encountered, with the exception of maybe Sabmiqys (Antares 2117), and that was effectively Quarantined.

The Third Imperium is at a severe disadvantage in preparing psychohistory forecasts because it is surrounded by Major races that represent uncontrollable and therefore unsolvable variables.
 
This is a long way to say that the First Imperium, once it got wise to the potential of existential threats, responded severely by creating, forcefully, a closed system: assimilating or destroying all alien cultures within their sphere of influence, and then essentially halting further expansion of that sphere.

That may have been the goal of the powerful, but the locals would eventually develop their own ideas. By its end, the Ziru Sirka border was leaky in several directions, most notably to coreward where the Vilani culturally and genetically absorbed the Yileans while never touching borders with them.
 
That may have been the goal of the powerful, but the locals would eventually develop their own ideas. By its end, the Ziru Sirka border was leaky in several directions, most notably to coreward where the Vilani culturally and genetically absorbed the Yileans while never touching borders with them.

Where are the Yileans discussed? I am intrigued.

Edit: Also leaky to rimward; the kimashargur, a dissident Vilani subculture probably aided and abetted the Terrans for much of the Interstellar Wars.
 
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Where are the Yileans discussed? I am intrigued.

Edit: Also leaky to rimward; the kimashargur, a dissident Vilani subculture probably aided and abetted the Terrans for much of the Interstellar Wars.

The Yileans are found most prominently in GURPS Trav Humaniti, but the Empire of Gashikan has been on the map since the Julians were first discussed in MT.

As for rimward, I tend to doubt that there was a lot of leakage, but the Empire Vilani in the neighborhood of Terra were certainly not unhappy with the newcomers.
 
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