Secret Project: The Planetary Datalinks

“As the Americans learned so painfully in Earth’s final century, free flow of information is the only safeguard against tyranny. The once-chained people whose leaders at last lose their grip on information flow will soon burst with freedom and vitality, but the free nation gradually constricting its grip on public discourse has begun its rapid slide into despotism. Beware of he who would deny you access to information, for in his heart he dreams himself your master.”

— Commissioner Pravin Lal, “U.N. Declaration of Rights”

Upon constructing the Planetary Datalinks, the player is treated to a reprise of Brother Lal’s introductory quote.  It is coupled with a series of thoroughly familiar images that are intended to inspire people of a modern liberal leaning.  Young people bringing down the Berlin Wall, wearing tongue piercings, marching in demonstrations carrying signs, moving digital information on then-current optical media, and, all in all, agitating against tyranny through the sacred means of the free flow of information.

This is all set against the initially faceless, impeccably dressed guy with a briefcase who stands in as the enemy.  The man who wants all your information – the numbers that flash across his face – because he seeks control.  To Lal, he is the Platonic ideal of the tyrant, and the only real defense against him is that the youth band together and refuse to allow him to control their communications.

To this end, his faction built the Planetary Datalinks in the implied canon.  This is essentially a cool word for what we’d call the Internet, with the libertarian social effects that people expected the Internet to have back in the ’90s.  At the very least, it has the same in-game effect that the Internet had in Civilization II: the faction that builds it automatically gets any technology that is discovered by three other factions.

But it comes much earlier in the game, as it only requires the fourth-tier Cyberethics technology.  If the player is using manual research, this fact can open up the potential to beeline deep into the tree toward critical technologies and count on the other factions to fill in the lower-tier techs that were skipped.  Since the tech tree is pretty tightly intertwined, this can be a big benefit.

To Reynolds’s credit, this quote has become something of a real-life Internet meme.  Whenever nerds are talking politics, or whenever they’re declaring their real-life political affiliation, you’ll find somebody riffing on this quote.  The quote and the video really speak to people who wholeheartedly agree with Lal.

But it is quite interesting to note that there’s no evidence that Lal is actually right in the game mechanics.   After all, a faction can build the project and get all the tech benefits in a Police State.  And the Planetary Datalinks don’t somehow work better if the possessing faction is a Democracy.

This is actually pretty compelling counter-evidence, as there are a couple of projects in SMAC whose effects synergize with or depend on social engineering choices.  So it is quite interesting that this one does not.  I consider this decision to be yet another demonstration of Reynolds’s remarkable philosophical evenhandedness.  It would have been very easy to load the dice here after Brother Lal’s rousing speech and put something in the game that would make Democracy or Knowledge the one right choice.  That he refrained speaks very highly of him and of the SMAC project as a whole.

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9 thoughts on “Secret Project: The Planetary Datalinks

  1. Dunno

    This is one of the only interesting blog-type things I’ve ever personally come across, and my first time ever saying such a thing, so excuse the awkwardness.

    This is something I always had an urge to try and write about if I had the foresight, because of a similar longtime interest in Alpha Centauri, as well as an interest in the speculative near-future technology and the general fluff surrounding its setting. Keep doing what you’re doing, very engaging to read and fun to follow.

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      1. Sesquame

        You seem to be moving up in the Google search hierarchy. I found this blog when trying to look up one of the building quotes.

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  2. northstar1989

    Nick, you seem to be subject to several major misconceptions about what the Planetary Datalinks are, and what the quote represents. This is one of my favorite project videos, and I strongly identify with Lal as a character (which helps me understand his viewpoint), so I hope you won’t mind my pointing out some major things you got wrong here…

    First of all, the Planetary Datalinks do NOT represent the Internet. The Internet is essentially a system of networking protocols and related infrastructure, and the discovery of the Planetary Networks tech two tiers earlier in the technology tree already drove the development of planetary-wide networks. So the Internet already exists. What then do the Planetary Datalinks represent? I would posit they represent an attempt to collate all human knowledge- similar to Wikipedia in real life, or the Great Library in Civ3… (grants any tech researched by two other civs in Civ3)

    The quote on the other hand, is not about HOW the Secret Project works, or the philosophy underlying its building, but the Peacekeepers’ specific reasoning why THEY feel they needed to build it…

    ANY faction could have built the Planetary Datalinks, as you point out, and indeed several other factions (such as the University) might feel driven to build a collation of human knowledge simply as a purely scientific endeavor. However what Lal is pointing out, is that it’s also a HUMANITARIAN endeavor…

    This is precisely *because* a Secret Project like the Planetary Datalinks could be very dangerous in the wrong hands. In Civ-style games, wonders like this generally serve two primary functions (1) They prop up technologically-backwards highly-militarized states by allowing them to copy other more advanced factions’ advances or (2) They are built by technologically-advanced more peaceful researcher/builder civs *specifically* in order to deny their benefits to their more warlike competitors.

    I believe that it is for reason (2) that the Peacekeepers built the Planetary Datalinks, for fear of (1). What they are worried about is what might have happened if a less ethical faction with no qualms about seeking to control the free flow of information (such as the Hive or Believers) had built the Secret Project instead. It’s not hard to imagine Miriam censoring “un-Christian” ideas from the Datalinks, or Yang carefully policing them and restricting editing permissions on them only to citizens who have received state-approval to spread pro-Hive propaganda on them. And with Lal is rightfully, legitimately worried about, is that if such a faction were allowed to control the free flow of information on Planet, so to speak, by controlling the Planetary Datalinks, that the faction controlling them would no longer feel the pressure to adopt Democracy to keep up in the tech-race, and would usher in a new era of global tyranny. In this sense, Lal feels the Peacekeepers HAD to be the faction to build the Planetary Datalinks, because they are the only one that can be trusted not to abuse them for more sinister ends (and indeed, the game mechanics support this- the Peacekeepers have a preference for Democracy and are the only faction that CAN’T adopt Police State- thus they really *are* the only faction that can be trusted not to leverage control of the Planetary Datalinks into an era of global tyranny…)

    This all goes to another point- I think the Peacekeepers are the faction you have the LEAST real understanding of- as strange as that might sound with factions like The Believers and Hive in the game, I don’t think you are really able to wrap your mind around how Lal thinks, what he believes, or WHY he believes what he does- and thus I see you *consistently* coming to incorrect conclusions about the psyche and motivations of Pravin, as well as the likely behavior of his faction in the game…
    I would *strongly* recommend going and reading the official backstory (http://www.ign.com/faqs/2005/sid-meiers-alpha-centauri-storyplot-faq-577701) for more insight into Lal’s mindset. Once again, this would be called “fanfic” if it were playerbase-made, it’s NOT. This is OFFICIAL backstory to the game, made and released by the game devs at Firaxis in order to provide context to the factions and the initial situation on Planet…

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    1. Not Zakharov in Disguise

      You see, I have a different view of the Planetary Datalinks than you. I agree with your concept of it being a ‘Wikipedia type structure’, but disagree slightly in its purpose.
      First off, the term PLANETARY Datalinks suggests that all factions on Planet have access to it (like how Wikipedia can be edited by people throughout the world). This explains why get techs known by other factions, their researchers/students are …kind/stupid… enough to put their advanced tech in the Datalinks. But then why does only one faction get the benefit? Well the faction that builds it has all the hardware the website runs on. Therefore, it can be presumed that they can see who writes/changes what and when they did it. So if Zak brags about discovering Retroviruses, then quickly deletes it, the owner of the Datalinks would have a record of it. Meanwhile, if University, Morgan, and Gaian researchers are re-editing articles on Military Algrithoms, then the owners could look at the changes and attempt to ‘reverse engineer’ the tech. This is also why the Planetary Datalinks doesn’t have a Social Engineering Preference: All factions with all the governments, economies, values, and future societies have access to it, but only the owner can sift through the changes made and reverse engineer technology out of it.
      Second off, who would build an ‘international Wikipedia’ on planet? Well let’s go through the original 7:
      -Spartians wouldn’t because they are constantly at war with everyone (even if it’s not official, the Spartians are always in a Cold War)
      -The Hive wouldn’t build something that other factions’ citizens would use more than their own.
      -Morgan would encorage the buying/selling of tech instead of just ‘handing’ it out for free.
      -The Gaians really have no reason to build this project. Deirdre is too busy ‘communing with planet’ to care about such things.
      -The Believers are a strong candidate. In the pre-story, Miriam and Lal are the only ones who support everyone meeting back up once they land on planet, so it can be said that she wants the factions to co-operate. However, as the other factions start dismissing ethics in favor of ‘mad science’, she quickly abandons this attitude.
      -The University are another strong candidate. They support the pursuit of knowledge, so it is only logical that they would build a version of the Datalinks. However, I feel like the University is stuck too high in the Ivory Tower to be willing to share their knowledge with the factions below.
      -Then we have the Peacekeepers. As mentioned before, Lal wants to try and get everyone to co-operate on planet. They also stand for ‘Freedom from Tyranny’ which in the quote is defined as giving access to information… on a project that gives EVERYONE on planet access to Wikipedia (well almost everyone, I doubt the Hive-Slaves have access, but you get my point).

      In short: Lal built the Planetary Datalinks because he is the only one with the inter-factional cooperative mindset needed for such a project. If he didn’t build it, no one would as none of the other factions (partial exception to Miriam) would even dream of such a project.

      I hope I explained myself well. All this analysis from a 3 sentence quote, I cannot help but feel we are making a mountain out of a mole hill. XD

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      1. Nick Stipanovich Post author

        That reasoning all sounds plausible enough on the surface. But I don’t think that it’s correct to abandon the game-mechanical fact that any faction can (and thus, could have) built the Datalinks. Therefore, you have to conceive of this project and its effects in a way to allow for it to be used by any faction, for any ideological purpose.

        Remember, Yang in Police State can build (or capture!) the Planetary Datalinks and get the exact same benefit as Lal running Democracy. In fact, in the game, it’s probably better for factions not running Democracy! That’s because they probably have less energy running through their labs and are thus less likely to be on the technological frontier.

        And don’t worry about making mountains out of molehills here! That might as well be the motto for this whole project. 🙂

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      2. Not Zakharov in Disguise

        @Nick Stipanovich
        I seem to have merged the two parts of my argument (I swear, I thought I separated them by a space). Let me see if I can separate them:
        The first part consisted of how I thought the Planetary Datalinks worked; a space Wikipedia. Anyone, anywhere, of any faction can edit the information on it. But only the owners of the project get to see who edited what and when. In my mind, this has nothing to do with any of the owner’s social engineering choices. Both a democratic owner and a police state would have a squad monitoring the Datalinks to see what each faction is writing about. And if enough articles about a specific tech appear, the squad may even be able to reverse-engineer it. If someone captures the base where the hardware of the planetary Datalinks is kept, now they have an opportunity to do the same.

        The second part dealt with why Lal was the one who built it in the ‘implied story’ (instead of Zak or Morgan). This part started on line 11, and (now that I re-read it) sounds a bit ranty. Let me try to explain. Most of it was in response to Northstar’s idea that Lal built it as part of a denial strategy. I disagree with that idea with a passion. If we start thinking in terms of denial then most of our reasoning becomes mute. Did the Spartians build the Command Nexus to deny it from the Beleivers? Did the Morgans build the Merchant Exchange to prevent the Hive? Did the Hive develop the Acetic Virtues just to keep it away from Morgan? I would say no. They built those projects because it was natural for them to do so with their ideologies. Same with the Peacekeepers and the Planitary Datalinks. The Peacekeepers’ co-operative tendencies is the reason they built it within the story line. In my mind, the Planitary Datalinks were an attempt to get the factions to work together by sharing information. Sure, Yang or Santiago could have built it, but they didn’t because their ideologies were too much at odds with the other factions.

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      3. northstar1989

        @Nick Stipanovich
        That’s exactly what I was saying- I just don’t think you understood me the first time. There are two reasons players build the Planetary Datalinks- because they are technologically backwards and want to catch up in the tech race, or because they want to deny this benefit to other factions. Since the more despotic factions all tend to lag behind in the tech race in the original game (not coincidentally the slowest-teching factions are, in order, the Hive with their massively-deleterious economy penalty, the Believers with their more moderately-harmful tech penalty, and the Spartans with their lower Industry rating leading to a slower rate of economic growth) and it is unlikely any of them will have conquered enough territory long enough ago to have made up for it by this point in the game, they stand to benefit the most from the Planetary Datalinks (in canon, by CONTROLLING the flow of information). Against this backdrop, factions like the Peacekeepers (who, if managed correctly, are the most economically powerful faction in the game as most of the higher difficulty levels) have a lot to gain by building the Planetary Datalinks (in canon, by PROTECTING the free flow of information) to deny this ability to the warmongers. This may seem to run a bit counter to the actual in-game effects (it is the Peacekeepers who, ironically, are controlling information flow with the Planetary Datalinks)- but then again maybe this is an INTENTIONAL design choice by the game devs- Pravin prates on about the free flow of information even as he is doing his best to stop it in order to keep technology out of the hands of the warmongering but technologically-backwards factions.

        Once again, I’m not convinced you understand the complex, intriguing, sometimes hypocritical character that is Pravin Lal very well. Of all the characters in the game, he actually has the BEST DEVELOPED backstory, thanks to the story-blurbs that were released by Firaxis in the early days of Alpha Centauri to spin the game’s backstory. I respectfully posit that you will never be capable of making an analysis of Pravin Lal that is in any way insightful, complete, or accurate, until you read the official backstory- almost ALL of which is told directly from Pravin Lal’s or his close friend Captain Garland’s perspective (Lal was canonically Garland’s closest friend and most trusted advisor- a fact you were clearly not aware of in any of your earlier writings about him, and the reason why he is in charge of the only faction that seeks to hold to the original U.N. mission ideals) and which yields a great deal of insight into Lal’s psyche.

        While you’re at it, the three Alpha Centauri novels are worth a read as well. They’re not considered exactly canon, per say, unlike the official backstory, but they were written by the same game developer who wrote the official backstory and thus seek to provide insight into the game’s leaders that is consistent with the official canon storyline as possible.

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  3. northstar1989

    Also, a more minor note- but the individual with 1’s and 0’s streaming across his face at the end is NOT the “faceless suit”. Reynolds chooses to keep him faceless, and for good reason. You can tell beyond a doubt the two individuals are not the same because you can still hear the footsteps of the man in the power-suit approaching IN THE FINAL MOMENTS as the individual is watching the datascreen. Thus, this individual must rightfully be seen as one of the individuals who the man in the power-suit seeks to keep in the dark, so to speak- and the sound of his approaching footsteps is meant to be ominous… Reynolds chooses to give this individual, but not the suit, a face, because it humanizes him. Indeed the face is made to evoke sympathy and identification from the viewer in its expression, appearance, and portrayal- which should immediately queue you in that this is NOT the individual in the power-suit, as Reynolds and the video do not wish you to identify with him…

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