Ken MacLeod pointed out this interesting article on interstellar archaeology – looking for alien civilizations’s remains.
Interstellar archaeologists are looking for evidence of engineering on scales that dwarf our own. They assume that civilisations eventually build technologies capable of exploiting the energy resources of entire stars. They are building on the early work of the Soviet astronomer Nikolai Kardashev, who, in 1964, set about categorising these futuristic civilisations. His scheme, called the Kardashev Scale, has three types, and so far humanity does not even rate as a Type I — a civilisation that can master the energy resources of its entire planet. A Type II culture can tap all the resources of its local star, and a Type III can harness the energy of an entire galaxy. We do not, of course, know if any civilisation other than our own exists, but Kardashev’s scale offers us a way of approaching the problem of detection: it gets us thinking about what kind of traces these advanced civilisations might leave behind.
Imagining the engineering of ancient extraterrestrials is difficult work, foolhardy even. The earliest attempts to do it tended to focus on the largest conceivable structures. The former Fermilab scientist Richard Carrigan, one of interstellar archaeology’s pioneers, has long been a vocal proponent of the hunt for Dyson spheres, a technology proposed by Freeman Dyson in 1960. Dyson predicted that energy-seeking civilisations would surround their home stars in a technological shell, or a swarm of spacecraft, in order to capture its energy. A sphere with the radius of Earth’s orbit would have an interior surface area 100 million times as large as the surface area of our planet.
I remember being fascinated by this as a kid reading science fiction – the grandness of Dyson spheres, the wonder of vast, galactic engineering.
And yet now it seems to me faintly ludicrous, too. What we get here is a view of civilization as an ever-growing, ever-expanding project – what I would term Galactic McDonaldization. But that seems a very child-like idea of civilization. It is unsustainable and unnecessary. A more mature view of civilization would be one that has become civil. That exists within the bounds of its physical world, halted expansion, managed its resources, sought wisdom rather than conquest.
We see wealthy societies existing in relative peace, with a reduced rather than increased childbirth rate. Why would a future civilization expand beyond its means? Where would it go in a relativist continuum (the answer: nowhere fast).
In other words: Why would anyone bother to build a Dyson sphere? A true civilization would look to become civil, not conquer the stars and build monumentally idiotic galactic structures.