This article was originally published in H+ magazine, albeit in a slightly edited form that I do not completely approve of. This is my self-edited copy, without some of the modifications made by the H+ magazine editors. You can use the discussion forum there.
In The Rapacious Hardscrapple Frontier, Robin Hanson analyzes the evolutionary economics of how civilization spreads throughout the universe in a wave of expansion. The article is a must-read if you're interested in the long-term future of humanity, frontier life, or evolution. I'd like to elaborate on some points that Robin Hanson couldn't find space to discuss in his essay.
First, let us recapitulate Hanson's essential insight about the Space Frontier: evolutionary thinking applies to the conquest of the scarce resources of the universe. Now the ultimate scarce resource in the universe is usable energy-matter: Stars, black holes, gas clouds, separated by many light-years of void, grouped in galaxies hundreds of thousands of light-years wide, themselves clustered and separated from other galaxies and other clusters over still-greater astronomical distances. Whoever manages to first colonize any given resource may use this resource to grow and prosper, and to eventually send missions to the next nearest exploitable resource to found new colonies, and so on. Comparatively speaking, whoever does make efficient use of his resources to grow, prosper and multiply, does grow, prosper and multiply, whereas whoever does not, does not. This tautology, from generation to generation, from star system to star system, entails an evolutionary arms race, whereby those civilizations are selected that indeed make extremely efficient use of resources to spread throughout the Universe.
Such is the lesson taught by Robin Hanson, who in his article explores the evolutionary consequences of the economic constraints on the expansion of civilizations in the Universe, whatever form or shape these civilizations may take, as long as minimal constraints apply. I am going to expand on these premises to discuss the concepts of Aggression, Law, Immunity and Identity. But first, I will make my own prediction as to the shape and form of colonization missions.
The expansion of Civilization through the stars is limited by several factors:
Indeed, space travel is as hard as it is slow. On the one hand, it is limited by the speed of light. On the other hand, hitting even a tiny speck of dust while moving at a large fraction of the speed of light can like totally ruin your trip. The greater the distance, the more opportunities you have of making such "interesting" encounters; and the bigger your ship, the larger the surface it offers to potential collisions.
Therefore, for efficiency reasons, we should expect an initial colonization mission to be much like an egg: it may very well be the size of an egg — whether of an insect egg, a chicken egg, or a dinosaur egg, it is unclear. It will have a tiny seed inside, a bootstrap kit made of a few nanomachines, capable of decrypting a redundantly encoded plan, plus just enough fuel and raw materials to get by upon arrival. The raw materials may also double as a passive protective shell against space radiation during the trip — i.e. surviving collision with single particles, much smaller than a speck of dust, but already quite destructive. Something like an egg shape might also be optimal to deal with collisions, though a structure that has such a shape at relativistic speeds might look quite long at rest.
An active membrane may regenerate the shell after it has been hit, and thin filaments of life may provide similar services inside the shell, as well as communication between the shell and the actual seed. The egg may itself be carried by some structure that only knows how to accelerate then decelerate on arrival, or the deceleration structure may itself be in its own egg, with fuel being the surrounding raw material.
Once on the target planet, the nanomachines would reproduce using the resources in the egg, the resulting nanobots growing into a bigger organism. The organism may possibly adapt to the surrounding environment based on the data from sensors grown early to probe the world outside the shell. When ready, the organism would finally hatch, and start gathering external resources to reproduce; it would build new organisms that can themselves reproduce, and together grow into a bigger structure, itself a self-reproducing organism. The cycle of reproduction, growth, and emergence of greater structures may continue at several levels, following the seed plan. The higher-level plan may consist only of vague hints, relying on algorithmic search or slightly directed evolution to fill in the gaps while adapting to whichever actual environment the mission will find on its target system. Indeed, interstellar communications will probably remain slow and unreliable, and they might not be available until the seed has already grown a lot; the seed must thus be able to develop on its own without external input. Eventually, if it survives each of the successive steps of growth planned and unplanned, the seed may eventually become a mature civilization, build vessels, and spread further by sending more Space Eggs.
Confronted with such a vision of ruthless impersonal efficiency, some of my readers will protest: if humans are ever rich, powerful and technologically advanced enough to launch spaceships, won't they prefer to satisfy their romantic urges, fulfill their dreams, and travel in person? After all, science fiction books and movies show us manned deep space missions, involving fancy shaped spaceships of all sizes, from the personal ship hosting a single human traveler to the gigantic spaceship hosting an entire megacity.
This kind of "Space Opera" sells well, because the current human public easily empathizes and identifies with the humans in such missions, who have lives similar to their own, thus allowing the public to experience for a few hours the escapist dream of being a space explorer. And so it may be a deep human trait to somehow "prefer" in the abstract the travel of grown up individuals to the sending of mere seeds. But evolution doesn't give a damn for the abstract preferences of individuals. The point is: any civilization that fails to do whatever it takes to spread faster than its rivals, will be outcompeted and will fail to find any additional resources to colonize. Faced with the concrete choice of either being more efficient or becoming irrelevant, civilizations will make their pick, with the tautological consequence of their being either efficient or irrelevant.
The very first civilizations that spread into space may well be very inefficient; but space is astronomically large, variations will occur amongst civilizations as they spread through space, and these civilizations will de facto compete for expansion in space, with the first to get there tautologically being the first to get there, and the one to spread from there, in an evolutionary arms race. Very quickly, in astronomical times, only those that approach the optimal combination of travel speed, growth cycle, reproduction rate and success rate, will succeed in spreading and conquering the resources of deep space, while their inefficient rivals get left behind. In the end, the evolutionary pressure will strip space-conquering civilizations from anything that doesn't positively contribute to the efficiency and success of space conquest. No resources will be available for satisfying the arbitrary fancies of humans, or for sustaining human bodies at all instead of more efficient robotic life forms.
Some scared people will then inquire whether that means that in our evolution-shaped future, there will be neither art, beauty, curiosity, nor love? Such a question reveals a striking lack of faith by the asker in the value or art, beauty, curiosity and love, though he claims to cherish them. Of course there will be all those things! Because they are essential aspects of civilization as it builds its way up towards mastering the secrets of the universe, and being able to survive, in the harsh environment of the Frontier as anywhere else. And there as anywhere else, there will be only so many resources available to dabble with anything that doesn't eventually contribute to the bottom line. The space age won't provide limitless resources to devote to art for the sake of art, higher beauty, ultimate truth, or mystical millenium. Yet, the yearning for all of them will be preserved as traits of all civilizations. The future may not match the human fantasies of Space Opera, but I am confident that there will still be Opera in Space.
Now, the wavefront of galactic expansion will probably not be the only place where action happens: indeed, whereas it may take a few years or even centuries for a civilization to mature and spread to the next star, the star it colonized will burn over billions of years, and only so much can be done to accelerate the rate at which one may extract energy from the star. The explosive spread of civilization through eggs will be accompanied then followed by ways of competing for resources other than sheer speed of reproduction.
Aggression will keep happening, if only because it does pay to attack a victim that is insufficiently prepared. Evolution will reward variations that allow mutants to successfully claim resources that others do not properly defend; an evolutionary arms race will therefore decide what is efficient aggression and what is proper defense, guaranteeing that everyone should pay the price either of taking proper defensive measures in advance, or of being conquered in the end.
Of course, the threat of future retaliation may discourage a lot of unnecessary violence, as we'll discuss below regarding Law. But this threat has to be eventually credible to be meaningful, which still supposes not only that the means of aggressive violence will keep being cultivated in the same arms race as for defense techniques, but also that these threats will be acted upon once in a while as a test of credibility.
Still, the first civilization to reach and colonize a given star system will enjoy a first-mover advantage in being able to shape said system to fulfill its needs. Over time, other civilizations may be sending their own eggs, or even bigger missions, possibly so before the first comer has completed its maturation cycle, if said cycle takes long enough. Then what? Will the newcomer be eliminated by the established civilization's defense systems? Will it overtake the system, destroying the first occupant in the process? Will it grab its own share of the resources and then coexist, peacefully or not with the previous occupant? Will the two contenders somehow join forces and information and work together towards common goals? Will one subvert the other and parasitically use its resources and capabilities while taking over the direction of efforts towards its own goals?
There again, evolutionary thinking can help us understand some of the essential characteristics of war and peace, on the Frontier as everywhere. Aggression, conflict, war, conquest, will happen on the Frontier as well as within settled territory. So will their opposite, defense, justice, police and commerce.
In the most extreme case of a successful aggression, a second wave of conquering eggs may spread everywhere and quickly vanquish all the systems initially settled by the first wave of colonial eggs. The systematic success of aggression may be due to some technology so vastly superior to previous rivals that the original colonist can but yield completely; or it may be due to the discovery of some essential weakness in the blueprints of civilizations from the previous wave of universal expansion. Several such waves may happen as new disruptive aggression technologies are invented by some civilization that consequently subdues the previous civilizations.
The occurrence of such waves is all the more likely since civilizations on the wavefront of expansion are pressed to clone themselves as fast as possible to further the frontier, and thus evolve in a slow asexual way, whereas civilizations inside the expansion core can and must interact with other civilizations to improve their processes, in the hope that the improvement may make them relevant again, thus evolving in a faster, sexual way, and eventually yielding stronger enough technology to takeover previous civilizations, or faster enough expansion speeds to overtake them.
The weakness in the conquered could conceivably be an intentional back door left by some master civilization, that is not capable of travelling at the maximum speed, but wants to reserve for itself the existing resources and prepare them for its enjoyment once the slower spaceship carrying fully grown humans or transhumans reaches the destination star system. The master civilization would then possess a master key enabling it to take control of the slave civilizations built by the eggs it sends before it. However, such design is fragile: as the slave eggs move faster than the master ships and conquer the universe, there is no intrinsic selection pressure towards keeping the back door and its key intact, and plenty of opportunity for them to be damaged by bit rot or made irrelevant by new defense mechanisms that the slaves may evolve as they race for colonization of the universe. Moreover, whatever resources this back door uses are a source of inefficiency, with an intense evolutionary pressure to reclaim these resources for more adaptive uses; i.e. whichever civilization possesses a mutation that gets rid of this inefficiency will lead the race against the civilizations that keep it. Finally, this back door may itself be a locus onto which other parasites may grow: if the key ever leaks, eggs will be made that make use of the key and take control of all the slaves faster than the master civilization can move to come into possession of its colonies. And so while master-slave relationships will probably exist in space, it is probable that these relationships will not be stable over evolutionary scales.
To achieve relevance, and to survive even, established civilizations must cooperate with each other, for which they can communicate using signals traveling at the speed of light to trade tactics to resist aggression faster than any enemy egg can spread. It might sometimes be hard however to distinguish the recipe for a great improvement against aggression from the recipe for an egg that will take you over. And the border between the two needs not be sharply defined. Indeed, in a somewhat peaceful scenario, some new revolutionary changes in civilization may very well spread through voluntary assimilation: when faced with disruptive superior war technology, a less advanced civilization may gladly welcome such change and adopt the technology even when it means accepting the cultural paradigm and mores from a hegemonic foreign power. By accepting the superior culture, the receiving civilization actually becomes more advanced, an equal to its teacher; whereas by refusing the superior culture, it will remain weak and eventually be conquered by eggs carrying the superior technology, then have to cope with centuries of misdevelopment under older less efficient paradigms. Is the offer of the new overarching technology a helpful hand that allows your civilization to survive existential threats, or a proposition you can't refuse that subjects it? The distinction doesn't matter much in the end.
Whatever the nature of the successive waves of expansion that will happen (for what is the probability of getting it exactly right the first time?), be it through brutal aggression, programmed domination, or some form of peaceful consensual assimilation, each of these waves can be seen as an instance of exogenesis of some superior form of existence, whereby star systems get infused with higher forms of life and civilization, by eggs that travel through space and become ubiquitous in the universe. Thus we may predict that Fred Hoyle's Panspermia hypothesis will come true, and that he's a great prophet: there will be seeds of life everywhere in the universe, populating every parcel of it, bringing civilization to the most barren intergalactic backwaters. But we can simultaneously conclude that his hypothesis hasn't come true yet, and that Fred Hoyle was completely wrong thinking it had already come true.
Space eggs are indeed, or indeed will be, an instance of Panspermia, except for real: the seeds I am talking about are not some miserable amino-acid molecules or proto-bacteria, that take hundreds of millions of years to maybe, painfully, blossom into something of a civilization, totally unspecified by any plan carried with the seed, after randomly travelling in space for aeons without active acceleration or deceleration. Amino-acid molecules or extremophile bacterias are as totally inefficient as they are totally useless as seeds of life through space, for amino-acids and proto-bacteria or better, locally adapted, equivalents may be generated just as well from natural conditions in less time than it takes for those things to travel. No, the seeds we're talking about will be full-fledged eggs of civilization, travelling for a few years only at a sizable fraction of the speed of light, not at random but in a directed, targeted way, then exponentially growing to take hold of planets in a matter of years, and of complete star systems in a matter of centuries, fully preserving the blueprints of advanced technology that it can quickly replicate as it propagates from star to star, from black hole to gas cloud.
Considering that we have no reason not to believe we'll be able to send out such eggs in a few centuries, it appears that the slow proto-bacterial version of Panspermia is completely improbable and therefore bogus: by the time primitive "life" may have evolved from such weak seed, then travelled and spread to any degree, advanced civilization will long have conquered the entire universe. This also explains the "Great Silence", or Fermi Paradox, whereby we both consider space civilization a very likely phenomenon in Universal scales, yet can observe none of it in the visible universe. Space civilization, once achieved, expands rapidly and quickly overtakes any proto-civilization that it may reach. There is precious little window of opportunity for any civilization to independently evolve just to a point where it's on the verge of the space age to witness the wave of expansion of space eggs just at a moment where it's visible from the newcomer's system, but has not yet reached and overtaken said system. In the most improbable case that we ever witness extra-terrestrial life, it will be too late for us to react. Most probably, we are the seed of life that will conquer the universe leaving no opportunity for any other life to evolve. The sad alternative is that we are a stillborn space civilization that will quickly die without trace after exhausting our local resources.
Now, space civilizations are necessarily made of a great number of smaller individual organisms, where each organism is autonomous, able to make decisions over some resources of its own, and act on them, without having to wait before every action for a global consensus over these decisions with other constituents of same civilization situated hours or days away on the other side of the system. These individuals may in turn have to coordinate and cooperate with other individuals in achieving their own goals, as well as fulfilling whatever higher goal may or may not exist one or several abstraction layers up from their activities. Rivalry on the use of resources is inherent in all these activities, and considering that coordination is necessarily imperfect, conflict will just as necessarily arise as to who shall have control over the coveted resources. Therefore, space civilizations will necessarily cultivate technology to efficiently prevent and resolve conflicts. In other words, Law.
Of course, not all Law is created equal. Some principles of Law lead to more conflict than others, or resolve conflict to the advantage of parasites rather than creators, inducing vicious incentives. The civilizations that adopt such principles will waste their resources, and lose in the competition for space conquest against civilizations that do adopt better principles of Law. Inasmuch as Law matters, and it does, there will be intense evolutionary pressure towards the adoption of more efficient Law. That is why we can be confident that good principles of Law will be eventually adopted throughout the stars, until all acknowledge a Universal Law, a set of universal principles of Law that when recognized minimizes conflict and aggression (as compared to rival sets of principles of Law).
This Universal Law will be universally accepted wherever Law matters on the Frontier; a few universal principles, that apply at the scale of civilizations as well as at the scale of individuals within civilizations and scales within or beyond; principles all the easier to maintain at one level as they are acknowledged at other levels; principles that can be encoded and communicated, and made readily available at any scale capable of reflecting over these few abstract concepts. What more, the same universal technology that is Law may well be used to settle conflicts with invaders from foreign star systems as well as conflicts between natives from the same star system.
What will that Universal Law be like? I'll argue that it will be none other than the "Natural Law" of Libertarians, principles that acknowledge that resources are better managed when the liberty of choice towards the usage of the resources coincide with the civil responsibility as to the outcome of the decisions taken — in other words, when it is recognized that resources are to be owned by individuals, and where furthermore, to minimize aggression, ownership is based on discovery, transformation, and voluntary exchange. For an elaboration of why Libertarian Law is the efficient foundation for Law, see my essay Capitalism is the Institution of Ethics.
In the previous section, we invoked a notion of scales of abstraction, to claim that Law applied to individuals as well as to civilizations. And we intend to invoke this notion again later when we'll discuss immunity and identity.
The concept of individual (respectively star's civilization) is useful because it helps describe a reality where: (a) There are many entities each defined by a membrane (respectively made of matter or huge empty space) that separates an inside from an outside. (b) Peer entities do not overlap, each entity (its membrane and inside) is outside each other entity. (c) The behavior at the interface between inside and outside of an entity is determined more by the inside than the outside, and definitely more by the inside of the entity than the inside of any of its peers. (d) The interaction between inside and outside has a slow and/or narrow channel of information as compared to the decision processes happening inside or outside the entity. (e) The decision processes inside an entity are coupled to the survival of the entity as a phenomenon, both through internal design and through (external) natural selection.
At a given scale of abstraction, it is not directly relevant whether the inside may itself be made of many components that may be considered individuals (or not) at a lower scale of abstraction. Indeed the notion of individual is useful precisely because it allows for abstraction, i.e. the ability to abstract away (i.e. disregard) most details of processes inside individuals or around them, and focus on the interactions between individuals and their environment, and particularly between individuals and their peers.
A society made of a variety of individuals is particularly robust, as compared to an amorphous structure: when circumstances vary, some individuals survive and prosper, whereas others whither or die; whichever individuals succeed, the society survives and adapts. Individuals provide a locus of change: they make it possible to locate positive and negative innovation, hence to duplicate and propagate beneficial mutations, or to isolate and eradicate detrimental infections. Evolution and progress becomes possible and manageable. Moreover, a society of individuals as a structure is itself a modular design, that can be applied at many levels, providing abstraction, robustness and adaptation at every scale that it is applied.
We can therefore expect space-faring civilizations to further and expand the existence and development of individuals amongst societies, at many scales of abstraction. Therefore we can examine the evolutionary implications, and dispel a few obvious mistakes along the way.
If we consider a star's civilization as an individual at its own scale, with post-human individuals (or some intermediate social entities) being cells of such, then what at a smaller scale can be seen as violent efforts against individual aggressors, at the larger scale can be seen as immune system reactions. What to post-humans can be seen as war against invading space eggs, to the civilization as a whole can be seen as reaction to an infection disease. What to post-humans can be seen as police operations against stray individuals, to the civilization as a whole can be seen as treatment or elimination of deficient cells. And what to post-humans can be seen as state oppression of innocent individuals to the civilization as a whole can be seen as auto-immune diseases whereby the immune system itself attacks the body it is meant to protect.
Changing between viewpoints is a good tool to clarify points that may seem murky under one point of view but are obvious under the other, to debunk mistakes that could easily be made under one and can be disproven using the other, to counterbalance the bias inherent in one point of view and not the other. Consider, for instance, the legitimate use of violence within a healthy society, and the appropriate use of immune action in a healthy civilization.
On first approximation, the immune system fends off aggression of "me" by "not me"; in social terms, this is war between citizens and foreigners. Now, in addition to physical means of violence against "not me", such fight crucially requires the ability to efficiently distinguish between "me" and "not me". In a biological organism this is typically done by testing for cells that share some genetic and epigenetic traits, and homing on those that fail the test. In societies also, inborn and acquired traits are used to distinguish between "us" and "them".
Now, on second look, we find that a healthy body contains a lot of symbiotic organisms that are genetically "not me" yet usually friendly, whereas it may contain cancer cells that are formerly "me" cells gone astray and other cells infected by viruses or other agents, that otherwise misbehave — all of which pass the "me" test, yet act in ways that are as detrimental to the organism as the worst foreign invasion. Moreover, at the scale of a civilization, the individuals that contribute positively to the civilization may have a wide variety of genetic and cultural backgrounds largely uncorrelated with the actual behaviors that make some of them detrimental to the civilization: invaders, criminals, saboteurs, subversives, violent madmen, etc.
Elaborate tests of identity — "me"ness — may thus be required to avoid the immune system contributing to the destruction of the organism rather than its survival, in what is at heart an information warfare. There again, this is no quest for a perfect test, but an evolutionary race between ever more efficient defense mechanisms and ever more treacherous aggressive behaviors; at all times, there will be culprits who get away with murder, and innocents wrongly punished — the defense system itself becoming the aggressor. The existence of a minimum background noise of aggression that cannot be fully eliminated is therefore a sad fact of life. In the end, only competitive pressure from civilizations that do better will keep everyone's defense systems relevant and keep the aggression level closer rather than further from this minimum.
What then makes for more or less efficient litmus test or shibboleth to distinguish friends from foes, good citizens from bad citizens? What are constant aspects that will be optimized for, and what will be constantly changing aspects that will keep moving? We know that whenever a useful test is found and enforced, aggressive behaviors will adapt and somehow manage to pass the letter of test while challenging its spirit, until the test is not marginally relevant anymore. Old criteria will then get abandoned, new ones adopted; due to some necessary rigidity in the defense structures, there will be an evolutionary lag between enforced criteria and actually relevant criteria, causing an unsolved background of wasteful aggressive violence. But how much rigidity is necessary? And can't we identify overarching principles behind a civilization's immune system's sense of identity?
That much is known: that any expense of resource incurred towards passing the identity test is to be accounted as a liability of the defense system, not as an asset. Therefore a more efficient immune system will seek to minimize such expenses and maximize the return on these expenses. In other words, a good civilization keeps the identity it requires from its members both small and relevant, with evolution stripping anything that is not essential to success.
In the end,
whichever technical means are being used to assess whether
an individual is a
good citizen, a bona fide member of society,
sharing identity with the rest of civilization,
the actual intent of the test, the content hopefully tested for,
might be as small as just that:
that an individual should act in good faith, stand by his word,
respect other individuals, their life, liberty and property,
and follow the rules and conventions of groups with whom he interacts.
In other words, in a sufficiently advanced and peaceful society,
being a good citizen equates to being respectful of Universal Law
— being a law-abiding citizen, a "lawizen".
There will, of course, always be irreducible background conflict and war activities.
And when society breaks down into civil war,
identity issues can get really ugly.
When people have taken to lazily identify with some institutions
as proxy for identification to respect for Law, and
those institutions come into violent conflict with each other,
something's gotta give.
But even then, as long as both parties
recognize some variant of Universal Law,
conflicting claims can be settled somehow,
and a modus vivendi can be reached.
Each group can live following its own rules, and
an interface between the two systems of Law can be established,
with some kind of physical or logical
membranes to segregate resources,
and proxies on either side of the membrane serving as agents endorsing
trade and other cross-membrane interactions
with respect to their side of the Law.
Evolution will exert pressure towards efficient and stable
ways to represent Universal Law, express and test for respect of such Law,
so as to minimize the cost of such membranes.
Now violence is the last, not the first, refuge of the competent. The Law — i.e. violently enforced rules — does not cover the whole of social interactions, only the hopefully few points where these interactions break down. Within the realm of peaceful interactions that the Law purportedly protects, the rules and values based upon which individuals cooperate and that we weave into our identity are largely propagated, adopted, preserved and defended through more subtle ways, that offer finer control at lesser cost.
A stable civilization depends not just on respect for the Law, but also on honesty (playing by mutually accepted rules), a sense of fairness (knowing what rules to accept to play positive sum games), a general benevolence towards others who also partake of civilization (to seek such positive sum games rather than conflict), none of which is usually usefully enforceable as such. Christian Michel in Should We Obey The Laws Of Our Country? explains well categories of rules that may apply: Law (what he calls rights) being the only category where rules may legitimately be enforced through violence; mutually voluntarily accepted contracts may legally codify behavior and bind the signatories, affecting their rights; finally, most rules of behavior that one may accept in dealing with others are in the large and vague domain of morality, and are not enforceable with violence, only through peaceful means. (As for legislation, as Christian Michel explains, it is an usurpation and does not apply — see more below.)
Peaceful enforcement of rules of behavior may rely on ostracism, shaming, nagging and non-aggressive forms of non-cooperation. But peaceful enforcement actually relies more importantly on positive interaction and conditional forms of cooperation: education, financial incentives and any kind of non-monetary rewards, including love. These strategies allow to make incentives proportional to the desired effects, independently from each other, in a modular, incremental way that doesn't involve the existence of the targeted subject as a whole, but each cover but a small aspect of any individual's resources. Thus, individuals may develop many overlapping networks to cooperate efficiently on each of the many aspects of their lives.
A notable distinction between the Law and all these peaceful rules of interaction is that the Law is simple and universal, and we could therefore predict what it will converge towards in this very short essay, whereas the peaceful rules of interaction that will be developed by civilizations constitute their interaction structure; they may grow arbitrarily complex, are completely context dependent, may develop in path sensitive ways, and are mostly beyond our ability to predict.
Conflict is inevitable. Indeed coordination has a cost, and perfect coordination has infinite cost. Conflict will therefore arise all the time, from discrepancy between the beliefs and opinions of various parties, even between bona fide members of society.
Now as long as both parties are in good faith and recognize the Law, no violence is necessary to resolve conflict. Indeed conflict, being a negative sum game that gets worse with time, includes its own punishment and disincentive towards causing it, which is borne by the perpetrators — at least when Law is recognized and property rights are enforced. Therefore when parties disagree on facts about how their properties are delimited or even on rules about how to delimit properties, but agree on the principles of peaceful society, they will eventually reach a resolution without violence, because such is their understood mutual interest. For that, they will seek a settlement, and if they can't agree on one, they will obtain arbitration in a court of justice, by the terms of whose decision they abide peacefully.
Thus, in a peaceful society, the casual residual conflicts that happen between law-abiding citizens do not as such give rise to any police intervention whatsoever. Instead, legitimate violence usually remains but a distant threat, employed solely to enforce the principles of peaceful society against those crazy enough to deny them: those who'd renege on their own Word, defy the Law, or wantonly infringe upon the Rights of others.
Yet, abiding by the Law has a cost, and the cost of everyone perfectly abiding by the Law is infinite. Therefore there will also always be residual violent conflict, due to marginal law-breakers and outlaws. This happens, whether or not any conflict in interpretation arose in where lie the limits of property rights: an identified aggressor may be shot dead, and no action of justice may follow as it was clear that the shooter was in his rights. Such an event may well be more frequent than a previously peaceful party rebelling and becoming violent after refusing the decisions of a court: for lawless citizens don't usually wait for years to show their true face, whereas if a court's decision is revolting, the angered party won't be alone in its revolt, but part of a larger movement of protest.
Indeed, in actions of police as in war, organized forces or individual parties use legitimate violence to destroy, starve or contain those individuals who do not abide by the law, the outlaws who are not part of society — whether they are former members who rejected its order, or invaders from the outside: those who refuse to play the rules, who persevere in entering conflictual behavior, who will not abide by the decisions of justice, who otherwise represent a threat to lawful individuals.
Of course, in a healthy society, such lawlessness only happens at the border, at the frontier, at the margins of society. Legitimate violence happens at the interface, not in the mass, and the amount of force required in a healthy society therefore grows much slower than the society itself. When the use of violence pervades "normal" life, the society is very sick indeed. Now natural selection does favor healthier societies, but not all societies are healthy, diseases spread, and one only needs be healthier than rivals to prevail.
There again, there is a cost to staying healthy, an infinite cost to perfect health. We must therefore expect future civilizations as well as current ones to be riddled with diseases as disabilities, some of them quickly overcome, some of them chronic, some of them fatal. As these macro-organisms grow in size and complexity, their modes of failure may themselves grow exponentially in number and degree of elaboration, and it boggles the mind to try to imagine what may be the diseases of entities the normal activity of which is itself beyond the grasp of our imagination. Yet again, without knowing too much about the civilizations of the future, we can make predictions regarding the kind of health problems such civilizations may face — by the mere fact of their being organisms constituted of a large number of loosely coordinated individual entities.
First, the same pressure towards efficiency that favors the elimination of unhealthy civilizations and their replacement by healthy ones can paradoxically cause problems within a civilization: as the constituent organs are refined to be more efficient, there are only so much resources left for mechanisms to deal with problems, and extraordinary problems can then cause a major disruption, in turn affecting other organs that were relying on efficient service, and so on, with a wave of failure quickly rippling throughout the system, and possibly causing its death. Voltaire rightly quipped that the superfluous is necessary; he was right, for if you can't and don't afford the occasional superfluous spending, you also can't and won't afford the inevitable occasional stressful situation.
Now, any developed society will possess an immune system, capable of identifying stray cells or invading parasites, stopping them from spreading, destroying them and reducing them back to elementary constituents that may be recycled into new parts. If the society strives towards immortality or long life, it will also need regeneration systems, that identify damage, circumscribe it, repair and rebuild dysfunctional or otherwise lost tissue. Now diseases will ruthlessly take advantage of any systematic or statistical mistake, flaw, blindness or weakness in the maintenance system; to survive, the system will fix previous breaches and erect new defenses, while diseases will escalate their attacks to be stronger and more devious, resulting in an evolutionary arms race between the two, whereby attack and defense systems both become ever more elaborate.
To survive the arms race at all, diseases will vie towards exploiting defects that are essential to the design of the maintenance system, rather than a circumstantial flaw that could be easily corrected. As diseases constantly need to both worry about the maintenance system and be as small as possible to avoid detection, elaborate diseases may consist in just a self-maintaining breach in the maintenance system, and the maintenance system itself will become the primary target for subversion by diseases. Who will guard the guardian? And who will repair the repairman? In auto-immune diseases, the immune system is dysfunctional and attacks healthy organs instead of protecting them; in acquired immunodeficiency, infectious agents subvert the immune system into being the propagation vector of the disease. Similar dysfunctions may abuse the repair system into propagating disease rather than health.
In cancer, some constituents start growing to the detriment of the rest of the organism, and the immune system is unable to recognize them as stray, and instead protects them like it protects healthy cells — the State defending some parasites against other parasites and honest citizens. In cases like leukemia, it is immune system cells themselves that grow out of control and victimize those they purportedly protect — as in totalitarian societies. More generally, some control mechanism in the organism will use this control it possesses to its own advantage, unchecked, some particular cells thus claiming to incarnate the interests of the entire organism when they only drive it to ruin for their own narrow short-term gain — Statism.
In the end, organisms, as they get old, accumulate tissue damage, collect untreated (and often untreatable) parasites, use up resources they received at birth or built up exclusively in an earlier (e.g. larval) stage, grow various kinds of dysfunctions in various subsystems, fail to adapt to changing conditions, etc. The addition of all these issues may eventually cause some vital subsystem to fail and catastrophically lead the whole system to collapse. All the healthy cells, that were adapted to efficiently conduct a specialized task, will find themselves deprived of the supply chain they relied upon from a functioning system, and will quickly die, incapable of adapting, or at least much less capable than simpler generic parasitic organisms that will take over whatever resources are left.
Of course, a sufficiently advanced system can learn from its previous defeats and proactively try to avoid threats; but advanced enough diseases will use the same technology to evolve new threats; and biases in the learning process itself will be the key to new kinds of higher diseases. The stakes will have been raised, but the essential issues will remain the same. All organisms have to face these very same categories of threats to their life, whatever their size or complexity, though the scale and pace at which these threats occur may vary, and with them the lifespan of the organisms.
Aggression, Law, Immunity, Identity are universal concepts. Projecting ourselves into the distant future, we can identify the essence of these concepts, what matters about them, as opposed to what are only contingent details of their current implementations, obsolete remnants of previous contingencies, or even parasitic phenomena that currently graft upon these concepts. Ultimately, that's what makes the exercise interesting. The future will not happen faster, or fail to happen, because you either understand it or don't. But your understanding of what matters about universal concepts can help you prosper in the present day, by focusing on what matters, and ridding yourself of the parasites. And then you may contribute positively to that future rather than negatively, and maximize your impact on it, whichever way you believe is positive, at your own scale, decision by decision.
Another way that thinking about the distant future is useful is by giving us perspective on problems that actually matter and problems that don't really. For instance, and most notably, understanding this future reveals the real meaning of limited resources. For centuries, people have prophesied an imminent doom, a Malthusian Catastrophe whereby whichever essential resource is depleted, deploying conceptual tools such as the Hubbert curve of (so far exponentially growing) spent resources vs (finite) total resources available to show that growth is not sustainable. Now, as new sources of free energy substitute for previous ones, we find that there is One and only One meaningful malthusian limit, and it's the size of the entire conquerable Universe. Whenever Civilization will have reached the top of its Hubbert curve, it will be down for the fall. The only question is: where do you put your resource horizon? Is the limit of our autarkic territory a farm, a country, a planet, a star system, a galaxy, or the universe? Certainly, aiming big is no guarantee of success, but refusing to see big is guarantee of failure.
It's fine to understand this aspect of the future — but what does it teach us about now, may you ask? It teaches us that there is no such thing as "sustainable development"; there is only expansion, followed by contraction. Throttling expansion will not magically transform finite resources into infinite ones; if resources are not to be spent by us, by induction neither are they to be spent by future generations or by any one; and if they are to be spent, the only question is — whose preferences will prevail? And then we see that the appeal to Ecology is but a wedge into our mental immune systems to introduce the cancer of Statism: some parasitic individuals trying to force their way upon others, violating Universal Law to replace a healthy social order with the implementation of their own crazy schemes. You might think "Great! Here's a tool I can use to implement my own schemes by taking advantage of the mass of gullible people"; until you understand that the structural feedback loop associated to this "tool" only favors the most self-serving liars, and that the Law of Total Destruction applies to all such violations of Universal Law. A good understanding of the future makes you immune to manipulation through scare of the future, or to choosing counter-productive strategies that fail to lead to the desired long term result.
If futurology interests you, you may want to read Robin Hanson's page on The Economics of Science Fiction. If you want to explore timeless principles of all past, present and future societies of human, transhuman, synthetic or extra-human sentient agents, you may want to read Human Action by Ludwig von Mises. As for the kinds of radical transformations that may happen in a near future, you may want to read Future Imperfect by David D. Friedman.