Economics in Transapient Societies

Dyson swarm -early stages
Image from Anders Sandberg

(from the 10404 Elepeth Sihjang Key Lecture, Ken Ferjik, by Al Firbrnd)

The key to a realistic calibration of the economics of those star systems which are controlled by transapient entities lies in:
  • a) facts of life that are going to be true about almost every star system and
  • b) the behavior of the resident transapient in that system.
For simplicity, let's first imagine a medium-tech civilization in a star system with zero transapient activity. Note that all of the following applies to the "average" system, not to all systems, and not to any given system. Things can be different in all kinds of ways in any given system — cultural traditions, unusually large or small energy/mass availability, biological limitations, odd transapient behavior, and any of an infinity of other things. My goal here is to create a starting point so at least we have some handle on what the variables and dependencies are and then alter them to make interesting local economies.

Matter and Energy distribution in a star system

In a star system, the optimal place to harvest energy is as close to a star as your technology will permit you. The optimal place to harvest matter is in the asteroid fields or around planets that have belts. That right there lays the groundwork for trade-- the matter-miners fire payloads at the star (which decelerate using solar sails) and the energy-collectors pay for the matter by beaming concentrated microwaves at the collectors of the matter miners. This is just an overall picture — all kinds of elaborations are possible where different energy-collectors and matter-miners bid for each other's goods along with a host of middlemen, auxiliary services, manufacturers, etc.

Effect of the economy on lifestyle choices

In terms of lifestyle, one would expect that overall sun-siders will be prodigal with their energy (warm habitats, lots of light, computers running all the time) but would tend to recycle and favor artifacts that are small and efficiently made. The rock-siders will be the opposite — energy conscious but extravagant with certain physical goods. These are overall trends, though, not absolute rules.

Why Cheap does not mean Free

From a sapient point of view, matter may be infinite... but extraction and refining equipment (be it nanites, synsects, or giant bots) as well as the sophont-hours necessary to control, troubleshoot, and build it are finite. Therefore, even though a ton of iron may be cheaper in the current era than it was during the Industrial Age of Old Earth, you will still have to encumber a certain amount of your time to pay for it one way or another. Same story with energy. On the average, any individual will work less... in some polities it will mean that a few individuals will work somewhat short hours and everyone else will be unemployed outright. In other polities leisure and employment will be more equally distributed and everyone's work-month will be several days worth of actual labor.

Orbital Planes

The rock-siders will be in the plane of the star system where there are the most rocks to be found. They will be particularly concentrated in areas where rare elements are to be found and in the areas closest to the sun. As the high-demand elements are exhausted, the rock-siders will move further and further out from the star. The sun-siders will start out in the same plane as the rock-siders (due to ease of receiving payloads from the rock-siders) and (very slowly) build a Dyson swarm.

Dyson Swarms

A dyson swarm is much easier to build than a solid dyson sphere (even the dynamically supported supramundane shell variety). No exotic engineering techniques necessary to resist the star's gravity. Just a huge number of thin solar panels saturating all orbital planes around a star to the greatest extent that would be safe. See the image above showing what it would look like during construction. When completed the swarm elements look like a continuous semi-opaque ball from a distance. Semi opaque because the panels themselves are not 100% efficient at absorbing and storing sunlight and also because there would have to be some gaps between the panels. Furthermore, if there are inhabited planets in the system, there may be political opposition to saturating the shallow-angle orbital planes... this may be a recurring causus belli in numerous star systems. One possible technical workaround to this is a treaty or contract under the terms of which solar panels have to retract or turn parallel to the star's rays whenever they were between the star and the planet. Another workaround is for the planet to buy solar energy equivalent to what it would normally get from whatever solar collectors happen to be in front of it at the moment. In fact, buying more or less energy than it would normally get amounts to terraforming. The phased array Sunbeams of various Negentropy Alliance dyson swarms are an example of such redistribution of focused stellar energy.

In practice, this happens very rarely, since it would takes nearbaselines and other typical ordinary sophonts a LONG time to saturate even a few orbital planes let alone complete a Dyson swarm. This is especially true if one factors in that actual growth is determined by the profitability of selling microwave power rather than by the hard technological limits. In other words, like a fossil fuel cartel on a low-tech planet, the sun-siders need to balance their expansion of output against the drop in prices the increased competition brings. One endless source of small-scale conflicts can be accusations of price fixing being exchanged between sun-siders and rock-siders.


Early in a star-system's colonization, the rock-siders need the sun-siders much less than vice versa... the rock-siders could build (expensive) fusion reactors or (inefficient) solar collectors where they are. It would be much more expensive for sun-siders to skim matter off the star's surface. As the matter gets depleted and the technological infrastructure improves, the power shifts a little more toward the sun-siders — with the rock-siders further and further away, the cost advantage of importing matter versus using stellar husbandry techniques diminishes.

Low to Medium Transapient Activity

Now, what happens if a modestly active transapient is added to the mix (which will eventually happen in most systems, as soon as one more ordinary sapient beings manage to ascend)? The transapient may lay claim to a certain percentage of the orbital planes (perhaps the shallowest angled ones) and the choicest asteroid orbits (perhaps the ones closest to the star or the ones richest in rare elements). These claims could potentially be occupied/depleted faster due to the transapient's higher intelligence and tech level. In addition, some orbits far from concentrations of matter may be claimed for the purpose of megascale structures, which reduces the number of available trajectories for microwave beams and matter payloads. (In the event of conflict the transapient can punish those who endanger its construction projects by ignoring its space, and the surviving baselines quickly learn not to do that.)

From an ordinary sophont's point of view, solar collection under these conditions is less efficient (since the sun-siders are picking up whatever stray light got through the transapient's own collectors). Mining will involve more of a time-lag (due to firing payloads over greater distances and along trajectories that would not provoke the transapient) and may be more expensive (if the inner system is so crowded that there is no 'clean' trajectory and fuel must be expended on velocity adjustments). Therefore, it will take more time and effort to get a given amount of goods or energy, and therefore the average work week will be higher and the average standard of living, lower. However there are ways the transapient and the ordinary sophonts can benefit each other. The transapient can pay the baselines in wormhole access, processing/virch time, and artifacts in exchange for scraps of matter and energy the transapient doesn't find cost effective to collect personally. Maybe even for some services, such as the use of their brains as random-number generators.

High Transapient Activity

A system with high transapient activity may have several high-level transapients, several wormholes, a completed Dyson swarm, and possibly a Dyson sphere or Niven ring in some stage of construction. The original asteroid belts have been converted into artifacts and perhaps some of the planets have been converted into asteroid belts. Sapients may be largely shut off from direct sunlight and rely on fusion or beamed energy. Unless allowances are made by the transapients, they live under conditions of scarcity, in some cases as bad as that in early Information Age Europe, Japan, and North America (although at much higher tech levels). Since the transapients loom larger in their lives, their attitudes toward them also span a larger spectrum ranging from worshipful subservience, to parasitism, to paranoid avoidance.

Saturating Transapient Activity

Almost all the energy in the star system is captured by transapients. Almost all the matter is already locked up in the form of structures. Star systems rely on stellar husbandry and recycling of old structure to obtain raw materials for building new ones The only 'feral' nearbaselines remaining are the haloists in the outer fringes of the star system... everyone else is either a servant/pet of the transapients or perilously clings to life as a god-dweller parasite. A system may ultimately be converted into a Matrioshka Brain or dismantled altogether.

Per Capita Material Wealth and Population

Per-capita wealth is a function of resource availability (factoring in the cost of extracting these resources into usable form per unit of time as well as the cost of transporting them) and population. Population is only weakly limited by scarcity (and in some cases is accelerated by resource scarcity). The main limiting factor on population growth in the early stages of a star system's colonization is the speed at which the nearbaselines in question are willing and able to reproduce.

In the early stages of a star system's development, the ability to harvest resources grows faster than the population, and so there is a growth in per-capita wealth. In the later stages, resource extraction levels off and population growth enters its Malthusian stage with a consequent reduction in per-capita wealth. It should be noted that in the complete absence of transapients, by some calculations it would take nearbaselines in an average star system about 8,000 years and several decillion individuals to reach this point. The increased energy and resource demands of transapients shift the Malthusian point down to as low as 1,000 years and several octillion individuals.

True Malthusian systems are rare for several reasons. First, wormholes permit rapid migration to any region of civilized space. Second, transapients can easily control population growth through memetics, provoking wars between the ordinary sophonts, and in some less scrupulous places, outright culling or compulsory contraception. Thirdly, of course, many cultures develop in ways that lead to slow, zero, or negative population growth, either because they can foresee the Malthusian point or because of other reasons. Finally, those systems (in the Outer Volumes and remote parts of the Middle regions) which have no resident transapients have generally not been around long enough to reach the Malthusian point. More common are the pseudo-Malthusian systems that got that way through inept government, transapient malevolence, or for other preventable/remediable reasons.

The corollary of this is that in the very oldest systems, children are rare and young adults even rarer (since the young adults are most likely to leave and seek their fortunes on the periphery).
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Text by Al Firebrand
Initially published on 17 November 2004.