CollapseOS is Foundation for climate doomers

Published on 2024-01-26

Content warning: you know, climate doomerism

A few years ago I read the first book in the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov. If you're not familiar, it's a science fiction novel about a galactic empire and its decline. The impetus of the story revolves around a man who developed a new discipline fusing psychology, history and math to create a sort of predictive model for human civilization. He predicted that in the near future, the empire would start to collapse, and if there was no effort to preserve it, human progress would be reversed to something akin to the stone age. His plan was to create a "foundation" that will protect human knowledge through the collapse, and the story follows the foundation and how it grows and changes over time.

I liked it a bit when I first read it. It had some interesting ideas about how science can serve like a religion.

Scientific apostasy

Not enough to keep reading the series apparently because I never did, but my view on it soured a bit as I got older. I don't know how much if at all this idea gets explored later, but I have two significant problems with the crux of the Foundation series:

  • It assumes that the galactic civilization of the time is good enough to be preserved through the collapse
  • It assumes what the characters call the "stone age" is intrinsically bad.

And I think those ideas might merit some more explanation:

  • In the first book, we don't really get to see what the galactic empire looks like; we only end up seeing what it looks like on the furthest galactic periphery (that is, it's basically absent). I have a really hard time imagining a galactic aristocracy constituting an equitable society. I think the TV show they made recently gets this right in portraying it as a weird eugenicist dictatorship.
  • The first book also doesn't really expand on what exactly the stone age would look like, just invoking a lot of words that we'd use to denigrate societies other than our own, like "barbarism."

In this sense, the Foundation series is kind of like a microcosm of American science fiction. It advances the thesis that we ought to be the rulers of a galactic civilization (or more specifically, our ruling class deserves to rule a galactic civilization), and that idea is never seriously interrogated. There's a reason it's popular among the longtermists.

How I escaped longtermism

So that's foundation.

CollapseOS is:

a Forth operating system and a collection of tools and documentation with a single purpose: preserve the ability to program microcontrollers through civilizational collapse.

The CollapseOS website

Less technically, CollapseOS is a set of software meant to run on pretty much any computer, including improvised computers, with the goal of creating a computer system that will remain useful through the collapse of the modern global order, particularly as a result of climate change, and to "bootstrap post-collapse technology."

The parallels are... interesting.

Very similarly, Foundation starts with a proposal to create a "Encyclopaedia Galactica" to be published widely across the universe encoding enough knowledge to bootstrap contemporary science following a galactic collapse. The story branches away from that relatively quickly but this idea of bootstrapping modernity remains very relevant.

I liked CollapseOS a lot when I first learned about it. It felt like a good expression of a lot of the anxieties I had about the world and the future of my discipline at the time.

Studying computer science at the end of the world

I still think it's a really cool project, especially as a sort of technical art piece. But I always felt a little strange about it, and I think the reason why is very similar to what turned me against the Foundation series. In particular:

  • It assumes modern computer systems deserve to be preserved through a civilizational collapse
  • It assumes that a world without modern computer systems would be worse than the one we have today

And I'm not convinced that's true!

Sand never asked to think

I have a lot of concerns about the way we build computer systems. I find them inherently authoritarian, and I'm not convinced that this is the only way computers could have been designed. Not unlike Foundation, CollapseOS doesn't interrogate these questions; it accepts computer systems as they are.

I hope this piece doesn't come off as a "take down," or anything. I do think CollapseOS and DuskOS are really interesting. I also worry the fixation on societal collapse is fatalistic to a fault, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't inclined to believe the same. Sometimes, it's just easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. But now that we have to factor in atmospheric tipping points, it's hard to say whether or not we've truly fallen off the deep end. If that's the case, then it makes quite a bit of sense to start preparing for what comes next.

But if we are to have another chance at building and implementing computer systems from scratch, then I'd love to see those premises interrogated. I suppose the burden falls on those who care to do the work.

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