Nobody Expects The Mongolian Earthship

As a kid, I enjoyed thinking about my address in the universe. You know — the one that extends your regular postal address with Planet Earth, Solar System, Orion Spur, Milky Way. I think we like this game as kids because it provides us with a comforting sense of being at home in the universe. When you know your whole address, there is no foundational ambiguity left in the human condition, cosmically situated, as you experience it. Moral and ideological relativism may leave you disoriented with respect to loftier aspects of it, but at least you know that you’re home relative to material reality. And that there are no horizons beyond which lurk unnamed, unplottable horrors, threatening to refactor that determinate condition. You’re in a universe with a place for everything, and everything is in its place. Including you. A universe where true surprise is profane.

Betty Bowen Command Deck of Spaceship Earth. Coordinates: tidy.advice.curry

Addresses though, are for plants, and at home in the universe is a sessile way of thinking. Real Humans™ are defined by their mobility more than they are by their stationarity, and there ought to be a way to relate to the universe that emerges from a fundamentally mobile, nomadic outlook on life, the universe, and everything. A Hitchhiker’s Metaphysics of the Universe, so to speak, based not on the home metaphor, but perhaps on something closer to the Spaceship Earth metaphor popularized by Buckminster Fuller: the entirety of the planet construed as both a literal and figurative vehicle for the shared human adventure.

Allow me introduce you to my version of Spaceship Earth: the Mongolian Earthship. Its defining feature is one shared by the Spanish Inquisition of the Monty Python universe: nobody expects it.

The Mongolian Revenge

What got me thinking along these lines is a gleefully sociopathic geographic addressing scheme, adopted by the Mongolian government, that reduces all of Earth’s sessile geography to random triplets of words that identify any 5m x 5m patch. The address of my drop-in office space, for instance, is I went to college at active.defrost.butternut. You can find your own addresses here.

The scheme itself was invented by a startup from the UK (the Mongolia of the oceans), but the government of Mongolia has apparently adopted it for its postal system, along with a bunch of big multinationals. So I am going to call it the Mongolian address scheme.

There is some delicious irony to a postmodern addressing scheme, based on nonsensical word triples, being adopted by Mongolia. The word barbarian, supposedly, comes from the proto-Indo-European root barbar, which means babbling incomprehensibly (it still means this in Hindi). This is the Mongolian revenge: a futuristic addressing scheme that reduces sessile place names and addresses — imbued with all the rich history, culture, and sense of place that sessile humans develop as part of their collective consciousness — to algorithmically generated word-triplet logorrhea. It’s delightfully barbaric.

Revenge for what? For being forcibly sedentarized. One of James Scott’s original motivations for developing his theory of legibility and authoritarian high modernism was the forced settlement of nomadic peoples by authoritarian high-modernist governments. I for one, am still pissed about that, though I’m only 40% Mongolian.

Genghis Khan would be proud of the Mongolian addressing scheme. His tomb, incidentally, remains undiscovered till today, so there is neither a regular historic address (of the “#1 Great Street, Important Empire” variety), nor nonsense-word triplet for it. May his illegible soul wander in peace. He is a better nomad in death than you or I are alive.

The Mongolian scheme does more than desecrate the sessile sense of place history with refreshing nomadic irreverence. It also starkly highlights the sheer poverty of sessile imagination. Only a tiny fraction of the surface of earth can actually boast of much of a history in sessile terms. If you were to associate, with each Mongolian triple-word address, a history book based on the history of that patch of Earth, most locations would have little more than a word or two in their hyperlocal history books. Words like Pacific Ocean, Siberia, or Mostly Harmless.

Forget outer space. As Fuller observed, almost all of the surface of Earth is terra incognita for almost all of us. Yet, almost all our attention, in thinking about matters global, is confined to developments in that tiny fraction; epicycles in the un-grand tale of remaining Mostly Harmless even on our little pale blue dot. For instance, for months now, we’ve been obsessing about what relations the guy at engine.doors.cubs might have had with the guy at crafted.appendix.voltage. Two patches of Earth out of 20.4 trillion. We dream of colonizing Mars, yet we barely know Earth. I for one apologize to all of us for partly turning into a tree.

Sessile culture, understood through the sparse-matrix lens of the Mongolian address scheme, almost seems like a collective mental illness. One that descends on humans when they start to think of themselves as trees, with roots in places. Trees with Napoleon hats perhaps, but trees nonetheless.

At home in the universe is a terrible metaphor through which to relate to the universe for various reasons, but it is a natural one. The imagination of a child is a fundamentally domesticated one, with its exploratory urges firmly rooted in the security of the domus.

It takes an act of adult imagination to truly understand what it means to explore beyond the boundaries of home, and grow intellectual wheels in place of cultural roots.

The Spaceship Metaphor

I’ve now lived in Seattle for 4.5 years, the longest I’ve ever stayed put continuously in one place since age 18. Over the last 22 years, I’ve lived in 7 cities. A mix of practical constraints, more than any real diminishing of wanderlust, has been the cause of my current involuntary sedentarization.

You’d think the world’s geo-targeted spam infrastructure would catch on, but in the last few months, I’ve been relentlessly barraged by spam phone calls from the 585 area code (Rochester, NY, where I acquired my current phone number 11 years ago). A lot of them, curiously enough, promising me free cruise vacations.

The Mongolian address scheme, the spam calls, and some big picture reading in my pile that I’ve been working through (Vaclav Smil, and Hannah Arendt, along with far too many Futurama re-binges.) all got me thinking about the same questions: what can we say about Spaceship Earth? How literally should we construct this metaphor? How should we understand it? What does it mean to steer it? In what space does it move? Where shall we take it to have lunch? Where shall we dump the garbage?

The Mongolian Earthship I want to construct is somewhere in between the materially grounded vision of the world due to Buckminster Fuller, and the politically grounded one due to Hannah Arendt.

Buckminster Fuller’s 1968 classic, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth doesn’t really do a whole lot with the spaceship metaphor, besides using it as a lens for philosophizing about the Earth’s resource wealth. But it does provide useful calibration and an inventory of things to think about:

In organizing our grand strategy we must first discover where we are now; that is, what our present navigational position in the universal scheme of evolution is. To begin our position-fixing aboard our Spaceship Earth we must first acknowledge that the abundance of immediately consumable, obviously desirable or utterly essential resources have been sufficient until now to allow us to carry on despite our ignorance. Being eventually exhaustible and spoilable, they have been adequate only up to this critical moment. This cushion-for-error of humanity’s survival and growth up to now was apparently provided just as a bird inside of the egg is provided with liquid nutriment to develop it to a certain point. But then by design the nutriment is exhausted at just the time when the chick is large enough to be able to locomote on its own legs. And so as the chick pecks at the shell seeking more nutriment it inadvertently breaks open the shell. Stepping forth from its initial sanctuary, the young bird must now forage on its own legs and wings to discover the next phase of its regenerative sustenance.

Though Fuller phones in some metaphor spam, his use of the spaceship construct is a confused, allegorical, and normative one (freely mixed with other metaphors like the hatching-egg one above). I was disappointed that the book was not a systematic conceptual metaphor constructed for insight.

…at the present moment our Spaceship Earth is in the perilous condition of having the Russians sitting at one set of the copilot’s flying controls while the Americans sit at the other. France controls the starboard engines, and the Chinese control the port engines, while the United Nations controls the passenger operation.

This is, to put it mildly, not particularly useful or insightful. At best, it is mostly harmless. To make the spaceship metaphor more useful, insightful, and consequential, you have to either get more systematically literal with it, or more systematically conceptual.

The literal direction is mostly poetic perspectives on  bald physics facts. We do live on a spaceship hurtling through space. It is useful to think of the terrestrial resource base as a sort of finite cargo manifest (we may be poor at estimating how long resources will last, but they are certainly finite, and at some point Scottie is going to want more dilithium crystals). We do have a force field, in the form of a magnetosphere keeping out harmful radiation. The HVAC system does seem to be acting up.

We also have a meaningful velocity vector and trajectory, lending some substance to the mobility highlighted by the spaceship metaphor.  If your frame of reference is, say, the Milky Way, then Spaceship Earth is on a complicated multi-spiral trajectory composed of the Earth’s movement around the Sun, and the Sun’s orbit around the galactic center. You can keep going, to larger and larger reference frames, all the way to the Laniakea Supercluster, the largest known cosmic structure within which you can empirically situate our little pale blue spaceship in a non-vacuous way.

These spatial dimensions are vast enough, and the velocities subliminal enough, that time becomes a factor. At these spatial and velocity scales, any cycles in time are overwhelmed by the grand secular trends in the evolution of the cosmos.

Our planet’s core is cooling for instance, headed towards a Mars-like post-seismic state (tectonic activity is apparently necessary for life to originate on a planet, since it creates the necessary supply of free elements). Our middle-aged Sun is growing towards its red giant stage. Our solar system itself is a second-generation resident of our universe, since it was born of a nebula that included the heavier elements produced and scattered across space by ancient supernova explosions.

The supermassive blackhole at the center is sucking stuff in. Our galaxy is on a collision course with a couple of others. And of course, the whole universe is likely winding its way down to a heat death.

The cosmic cruise calendar of Spaceship Earth, in other words, is pretty packed, but the addresses you and I made up as kids won’t change significantly in our lifetimes. Only the cosmically least significant bits will change. Unless we do something interesting, the next meaningful port of call on a cosmic scale is millions of years away.

There is something unsatisfying about deploying the spaceship metaphor in such literal-minded ways. It is unsatisfying for the same reason breathless reports of brain-location addresses, accompanied by pretty fMRI pictures, are unsatisfying for understanding your mind. There are names on offer, and spatial and temporal relationships captured, but no means for interpreting their significance. And no hope of gaining any meaningful agency over the realities being mapped, or trajectories being plotted through them, individually or collectively.

Taken literally, both the Spaceship Earth metaphor, and neuroanatomy, have a depressing read-only quality to them. Both illuminate our condition within the two universes we inhabit — outer and inner — but lend us no meaning or agency within those universes.

The multi-billion-year mission of Spaceship Earth has a flight plan through physical space, but no story. A command deck with a great view, but no captain. It’s on autopilot, its course irrevocably set: to go timidly where nothing will ever be any different.

Fuller saw this problem, and there is a somewhat confused thread in his book about the metaphysical subplot of the human journey. He groped towards a less literal, but more meaningful sense of Spaceship Earth’s mission through ruminations like this (emphasis mine):

But the finite physical universe did not include the metaphysical weightless experiences of the universe.

The procedure we are pursuing is that of true democracy. Semi-democracy accepts the dictatorship of a majority in establishing its arbitrary, ergo, unnatural, laws. True democracy discovers by patient experiment and unanimous acknowledgement what the laws of nature or universe may be for the physical support and metaphysical satisfaction of the human intellect’s function in the universe.

The universe is the aggregate of all of humanity’s consciously-apprehended and communicated experience with the nonsimultaneous, nonidentical, and only partially overlapping, always complementary, weighable and unweighable, ever omni-transforming, event sequences.

There are seeds of a more promising conceptual metaphor for Spaceship Earth in there, with implications of meaningful navigational agency within some sort of well-defined evolutionary space, via event sequences.

There are also shades of Hannah Arendt in this framing of the subjective aspect of the human condition in terms of event streams and irreversible historical causation. Though Arendt was thinking in terms of history-making in the polis, and Fuller in terms of light cones in the cosmos, both were getting at the same conceptual metaphor: a meaningful notion of active navigation and steering for Spaceship Earth, in the form of the event stream of history. The cosmic journey defined as the sequence of moments when human history, more or less arguably, “changed course.”

The question of course, is what sort of space we changed course in, since it was clearly not in physical space, and what does it mean to steer within it? What is the equivalent of Kirk saying, “Set course to heading 235, mark 6 Mr. Sulu”? What do we choose to explore in this ship of ours and how? What exploratory choices do we forgo as a consequence? Who does the choosing and when?

Steering in Surprisal Space

Here is the basic idea of the Mongolian Earthship: it travels not in physical space, but the possibility space multiverse. Course changes happen when humanity is collectively surprised. Steering events are a subset that happen when a few humans decide to pick a new course for all, by way of a globally surprising fait accompli. All course changes are surprises, but steering events are humanity’s self-surprises.

Not all parallel timelines and possible worlds matter in consequential ways. The two timelines where you did and did not eat a peanut right now aren’t consequentially different for instance. Even if they diverge dramatically, they don’t do so in a way that involves most humans being immensely surprised by the historic turn of events. We’d be oblivious to a peanut-level historic event even if one fork led to utopia and the other to oblivion. If you didn’t know that the peanut-choice was so consequential (and could therefore exercise no relevant agency with respect to those consequences), and nobody could tell afterwards anyway, it wasn’t really consequential. If a tree falls in the possibility space multiverse forest (I love how confused and mixed this metaphor is getting), and nobody is there to hear it, did it fall?

No, the mark of Spaceship Earth being actively steered is the bulk of humanity being intensely surprised by itself. A collective experience of cognitive acceleration (note to those who have forgotten their high school physics: turning is acceleration even if the speed remains constant) and a renewed sense of our own agency. A this sort of thing can happen moment that is also a we can do things like this moment.

Like, for instance, when Genghis Khan erupted out of Mongolia and overran multiple smug empires full of court historians, for no apparent reason other than it seeming like a fun thing to do.

So not all events count as steering events, and not all forks in the multiverse of possible futures count as Spaceship Earth steering events. Only a certain kind of paradoxical event: one that reflects both human agency at its most powerful, and complete surprise for humanity at large, leading to a change in the consensual understanding of the human condition. A change that broadens that understanding by adding more parallel historical timelines to it.

Both Fuller and Arendt, the two Spaceship Earth philosophers I’m drawing on, almost get to this conclusion, but stop short. Both recognized the importance of three elements in creating a meaningful command deck for Spaceship Earth: unpredictable events, an operating notion of human freedom and agency, and a cosmic perspective (you need to be in a low-humanity orbit at a minimum) from which to make sense of how the first two interact.

Yet both fail to get to a conceptually interesting and solid notion of Spaceship Earth, because they fail to resolve the paradox of collective agency and collective surprise within a single event.

For Arendt, Columbus discovering America, and Galileo pointing his telescope at the stars were humanity-steering events. But their steering potential was largely a function of the exogenous surprisal they embodied, in the form of genuinely new information about empirical reality.  The bulk of humanity was surprised, but not by itself. America, Venus and Jupiter provided the surprises, not Columbus or Galileo.

I am caricaturing a bit, but it almost seems like, for Arendt, the only good reason to steer Spaceship Earth is to upset the order within the acropolis-as-command-deck so something interesting and internal could be witnessed and entered into the captain’s logbook. Captain’s Log, Star Date 1312.2: Something happened, and Uhura fell down and Spock went barreling into Sulu. I dropped my coffee mug.

Energy creature outside be damned.

For Fuller, scientific discovery and engineering invention conspire to periodically refactor the human conception of wealth in surprising ways, and each time, the ship gets steered towards a condition of greater abundance and material freedom. But again, there is a certain reactive, deterministic quality to the steering: Fullerian ship-steering appears to happen only in response to existential threat, not exploratory possibility paths collectively chosen.

He envisions all humans individually and freely choosing the courses of their own life, but not Spaceship Earth itself steering much, other than to choose utopia over oblivion whenever that particular informationally vacuous existential fork in the road appears across the horizon. The rest of the time, it sails along on a predictable course, tethered to its energy supply ship, the Sun.

In short, the Arendtian Spaceship Earth steers only to rearrange the deck chairs, and the Fullerian one steers only to avoid the icebergs. They are titanic conceptualizations of Spaceship Earth that seem oddly indifferent to the actual journey it is on, and the journeys it could be on.

The reason, I think, is that both operate with a fundamentally sessile view of humanity. If you think humanity is fundamentally “at home” and going nowhere even if it is moving, the question of steering Spaceship Earth is moot, even if the metaphor supplies insights on lesser matters like energy abundance. Only people who like moving think about where to go.

While both build accounts of uncertainty and unpredictability into their models, neither gets to the conclusion I think is the correct one: Spaceship Earth is traveling in surprisal space, where movement is marked by steering shifts between parallel historical timelines triggered by self-surprisals. Lane changes that involve non-trivial changes in the human operating system, not just religiously framed vacuous choices between utopia and oblivion, or freedom and slavery.

History, as Kurt Vonnegut said, is merely the list of surprises so far. A subset of those, where the surprises were self-generated, make up the steering history of Spaceship Earth

Whither Spaceship Earth?

The most interesting question we can ask  with the Spaceship Earth metaphor is the simplest, most obvious one: where is it going? And answers like utopia and oblivion are deeply uninteresting, even if they are important. To get to a more interesting answer, we have to look at historic steering events: humanity’s self-generated surprises.

Arendt almost gets to the correct answer of steering in self-surprisal space. By adding the Protestant reformation as a third epochal steering event in humanity’s story, an event which, like Genghis Khan bursting out of Mongolia, combined human agency and human surprisal in the same event, she kinda got it. But she didn’t run with it. She merely bemoaned how those steering events made it ever harder to return to the Eden she yearned for, the Greek polis, where men were real men, women were real women, and small furry creatures from Persia were real small furry creatures from Persia.

Fuller too, almost gets to the right answer. In the archetype of Great Pirate that he constructs early in his book (similar to the Free Human in the polis in Arendt’s model), he implicitly recognizes a kind of steering authority in relation to Spaceship Earth, cosmically situated. Yet, the Great Pirate in his account doesn’t ever make interesting choices. Only choices between utopia and oblivion. He is no James T. Kirk, choosing to investigate an unusual energy creature, or Picard matching wits with a new kind of alien who communicates entirely through metaphors. He is more a sort of Sith or Jedi Lord, forever fussing over the eternal struggle between dark and light sides of the Force.

So what does it mean to steer Spaceship Earth consequentially? Why is Genghis Khan irrupting into history from the margins, steering humanity consequentially, count as a Spaceship Earth steering event, but Alexander’s campaigns, despite their enormous impact, not so much?

The answer has to do with the relation between surprisal and mental models of the world. When Alexander defeated Darius III of Persia, it was one sessile monarch displacing another. All the events could be placed on the same timeline to construct a meaningful story. One king beat another. Big whoop if you were a farmer. Stationary bandits playing musical chairs.

But to tell the Genghis Khan story meaningfully, you need a minimum of two timelines, representing nomad and settler understandings of the evolving human condition, and a surprising shift between the respective mental models. The substitution of a Macedonian king for an Achaemenid one was a scene transition in a single-thread coherent story. However messy and violent, it could be made sense of within existing mental models and narratives. The invasion of a Mongol horde on the other hand, was more than a territorial transgression. It was a narrative violation.

In my (really old, from 2011) posts, the Return of the Barbarian and The Gollum Effect, I explored this multithreaded feature of history in some depth, contrasting the civilized and barbarian modes of being, doing, and seeing, but here I want to highlight the relationship to Spaceship Earth navigating self-surprisal space.

Barbarian and civilized ways of being represent two fundamentally different  understandings of Planet Earth. Each is a refactoring of the other, and the two are mutually exclusive, not in physical space, but in idea space. The significance of the Genghis Khan era was not that it temporarily displaced a sessile world with a mobile one, but that it increased the number of human histories by one, turning history into a polycentric narrative, with potential for self-surprising shifts between the two.

If you like to anthropomorphize humanity, you could say that self-surprisal is humanity at large undergoing some sort of red-pill moment, refactoring its understanding of itself, and consequently, the way it acts in the cosmos.

After Genghis Khan, you could no longer speak of history in an unqualified way. You could only speak of history: a sessile or mobile perception of the event stream of reality. History forked when Genghis Khan left Mongolia, creating two parallel cognitive timelines for humans.

Until very recently, to the extent the world could be governed as a whole at all, it could only be governed by one of these mental models of it. Governance was a space of mutually exclusive mental models. You could govern it as Civilized Earth, or you could govern it as Barbarian Earth. To switch between the two modes was to steer Spaceship Earth in possibility space, jumping from timeline to timeline. Between events, one timeline would be in a Dark Age, the other in a Golden Age.

But that’s not yet the Mongolian Earthship, only the proto-form of it.

You get the full-blown Mongolian Earthship once you throw technological modernity (and in particular the digital technologies of non-rivalrous agency), and the political-ideological condition of pluralism, into the mix.

Once you do that, you don’t need to be Genghis Khan with a horde of riders to steer Spaceship Earth. You don’t need to force other timelines into dark ages in order to steer yours into a Golden Age.

Anytime you come up with any fundamentally distinct understanding of Planet Earth, creating a basis for a more or less tangible mirror world of sorts, you steer Spaceship Earth in possibility space. Not by forcing the whole thing to turn in a particular direction, but by reshaping the United Federation of Mirror Planets Earth. The swarm of imagined non-rivalrous planets making their way through surprisal space, constantly trying to crash into each other in a sort of relatively friendly demolition derby. Mirror earths constantly enter and leave the swarm-structure navigating possibility space, lending it a sort of ship-of-Theseus quality as well.

So how’s this for a final restatement of Spaceship Earth steering in self-surprisal space. It happens via mirror worlds demolishing each other, and striving to lead the swarm. And every time a leading mirror world gets demolished by another, we are all surprised.

Nobody expects the Mongolian Earthship. Even though we are all riding together in it.

There is a good deal more to unpack from this starting point, but I’ll stop here for now.

* This is a sunset view of the Betty Bowen viewpoint, on the western corner of Queen Anne hill in Seattle, a short walk from where I live. I often go there and pretend I am on the command deck of Spaceship Earth. In a certain sense, it is true. The Pacific Northwest was where the most recent wave of colonization of Earth ended. This view is the most literal view you can get, of where Starship Earth is headed.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Your engine.doors.cubs link somehow goes instead to strong.pitch.volunteered, which points at the other 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. (SE, not NW).

  2. J. Camacho says

    Great post, Venkat. Ever since I started studying (and then teaching) strategic foresight or design futures I like to say that the discipline can be seen as a small attempt to steer history.
    I really like the way you’ve been developing a more sophisticated version of this idea in this post and in the Breaking Smart newsletter episode on psychohistory.
    Here I like the emphasis on a discontinuous view on history punctuated by events and surprises. It left me thinking about what happens after those events. Alain Badiou has an interesting concept of ‘fidelity’: roughly speaking, the way that a portion of the population becomes ‘attached’ to one of the surprises and to the particular trajectory that it unfolds. I also explored that notion in relation to ‘innovation’ here (which includes a quote to one of your essays):

    • Thanks for the links (comment got held up in moderation because you posted 2 links). Haven’t heard of Alain Badiou, but of course the cybernetics approach and model of ‘error’ is familiar to me as a controls guy. My postdoc research (the main paper came out in the IEEE Systems, Man and Cybernetics journal) was basically about a formalized version of this sort of history steering across multiple possible worlds.

      I agree, yes. The discipline of not just futures, but general human cognition would benefit from more disciplined inclusion of this kind of mental model of the metaphysics of counterfactuals. There’s a lot of work in philosophy as well (David Lewis etc).

      The trick is to separate out the philosophical imponderables (free will, whether or not counterfactual worlds exist metaphysically or materially, etc) and frame the actual timeline of forking paths in a form that’s useful for decision-making. Most people seem to think of counterfactuals as kinda grammar++… no more than a particularly muscular version of the subjunctive clause.

      I am also trying to explore this in my fiction. My LEAP story and the unfinished Seoul Station story both explore aspects of this.

  3. Xerxes I died a hundred years before Alexander was born. Alexander fought Darius III.

    Additionally, the substitution in the transition was an Achaemenid king for a Macedonian one, not the other way around.

    Historical analysis is hard, even when you’ve read the entire introduction of the Wikipedia entry of the event you’re commenting upon. Narrative is fun and cool, but perhaps it’s best to present it as untethered from history when that is in fact the case.

    • Fixed on the first point.

      The second point seems fine to me. I said “The substitution of a Macedonian king for an Achaemenid one” which to me reads as a Macedonian being the conquerer though I suppose there are similar sentences in which ‘for’ would imply the reverse.

  4. “The idea is that a manipulative model of reality is something that allows you to do things. It’s based on skills or agency” (Venkatesh Rao, late 2016)

    “A collective experience of cognitive acceleration (note to those who have forgotten their high school physics: turning is acceleration even if the speed remains constant) and a renewed sense of our own agency”


    a) This you started to outline here is a manipulative model of reality
    b) Like manipulative models are illusion-relying, spaceship-steering moments are illusion-driven (can there really be good Sociopaths unaware that “agency” is an illusion? I am not one, by any account.)

    It’s always a pleasure, and really one of its own, to read you, V. R.