A not widely accepted psycho-social phenomenon but one our descendents might sometime face, the Three Generation Rule states:

that the degree of social discipline needed for a space habitat to survive indefinitely is beyond the capability of "normal" human societies. The human tendency to favor short-term expediency will, over time, make the habitat ecosystem more and more precarious.

Putting it loosely, people tend to put off patching the leak in the roof till its raining.

In the Ten Worlds setting, this means that space habs tend to run down, and fail catastrophically in 1-5 generations from when they were established. The average is 3 generations, hence 3-gen rule.

It works somewhat like the three generation in wealth building.

  1. The first generation scrounges, saves, and manages to put 10% of their wealth aside for investments over a 45 year period.
  2. The second generation is instilled with some of the discipline to maintain the wealth but perhaps too optimistically relies on the knowledge that they'll get inheritance from the first generation.
  3. The third generation hasn't seen the effort required to ensure a safe and comfortable retirement. It usually & mostly fails to save money in any meaningful way or wisely invest any money they may have inherited from prior generations. Often they spend any capital they've acquired trying to keep up with their wealthier friends. They end up frittering away the wealth.

Only in a society entirely maintained artificially, failure to manage your colony responsibly and with discipline means certain death for everyone on-board.

In such a society the people need to thread carefully between the wide-eyed green idealism and the greedy corporate capitalists. Either side could be good or bad depending upon the issue at hand. Allow anyone to run-away with their ideals and you could doom an entire colony to death.

In societies with very large populations, some people in each generation are moving up and taking on a more technologically sophisticated (and/or disciplined) jobs than their parents to take the place of others are moving down. But in small populations, a slight imbalance in one of the generations leads to the catastrophic failure of the colony.

  • How do we develop a society that can survive in an artificial environment, that requires at least a small group of people in each generation to dedicate themselves to topics they may have no interest in pursuing ("But dad, I don't want to be an algae sludge farmer!" "Sorry daughter, you scored highest in the aptitude tests.").
  • Also how do we ensure that essential skills aren't lost due to the death of people with extremely specialized skill sets?

Edit & addendum: 7/13/2015
I don't like answers with automation in them. The reason is automation tends to replace human labor in unskilled or repetitive jobs. It replaces them with machinery that requires technical and/or specialized skill sets to maintain.

I think that ultimately a colony is most likely to survive in a situation in which no technological skills are required to maintain it - meaning the environment is passively maintained by the environment. This means an environment that naturally supports life and this typically means a planetary surface. If we can't have such a thing, how do we ensure that the society can survive for 10 or more generations (e.g. for a generation ship to travel to another world)?

  • $\begingroup$ I think in this case, the reply to the daughter would be "Sorry daughter, you scored LOWEST in the aptitude tests." $\endgroup$
    – Random
    Jul 10, 2015 at 20:31
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    $\begingroup$ For all mission critical jobs (even algae sludge farmer), you will want the best, brightest, and most motivated to do the job. Failure to follow this advice would likely lead to the death of the colony. $\endgroup$
    – Jim2B
    Jul 11, 2015 at 1:10
  • $\begingroup$ The answer to this question seems so intimately tied to the design of the ship since a more complicated ship to maintain (equivalent of Linux) requires a larger body of knowledge kept in human brains to maintain, while a more automates ship (equivalent to Mac OS X) "just works", requiring only minimal upkeep. $\endgroup$
    – Green
    Jul 12, 2015 at 22:25
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    $\begingroup$ The problem is vast amounts of automation mean 2 things. Fewer people need to know what's going on when things work AND it's far more complicated to fix when things do break. Mac OS X doesn't "just work". It has teams of programmers in the background keeping it working and fixing things. Running a ship will be far more like that team of developers in the background and far less like the user experience. Actually, that may be a good analogy for the differences between crew and passengers. For passengers, it "just works". $\endgroup$
    – Jim2B
    Jul 12, 2015 at 23:38
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    $\begingroup$ For anyone who thinks complex automated systems Just Work - has never seen bug and crash reports from any deployment of any server software :) $\endgroup$
    – user4239
    Jul 14, 2015 at 3:56

17 Answers 17


Ok. Here's my answer.

The "ship" needs to be big, so big that it's capable of providing a self-sustaining, self-regulating environment like the Earth's biosphere does. No air filters to change; instead, forests of trees will provide oxygen. No algae sludge farms; regular farms will do nicely. People have been growing their own food for thousands of years, and they can do it for thousands more here. A hollowed-out asteroid, spun up to an appropriate speed to provide gravity, would be suitable. The cylindrical interior of this "ship" is like a small, inside-out planet where people can live and breathe easily, as they would in their natural environment back home. The larger the asteroid, the more robust the environment, and the more room for a larger human population which will maintain better genetic fidelity over time. A space 2 km in diameter and 2 km long provides 12.5 km$^2$ of livable surface area and 6.28 km$^3$ of breathable air, sufficient for 10,000 people at a population density of 1.25 hectares per person. Some kind of "sunlight" will be required: I suggest a nuclear energy source, designed to last for millennia without maintenance. Why give people the chance to muck up such a vital component? No need. Nuclear fission (or fusion) can burn for a loooong time.

This makes maintaining a stable living environment easier, but it doesn't solve everything. You still need people to:

  1. Remember their technology. What's the point of travelling to a distant world if, by the time you get there, your people have regressed to the stone age? They won't even be able to get off the ship. Language retention will also be important, so they can read the ancient texts and follow the recorded instructions for landing once they finally get there.

  2. Take care of their environment. If you think this is important on Earth, it's ten times as important in a relatively small, enclosed space capsule like this. Pollution, deforestation, overpopulation, and extinction (not to mention war) need to be absolutely avoided. Religiously, in fact.

Religion, or something like it, is the key to making sure this happens. The mythology of this religion is simple, and it's extra compelling because it's completely true: this world we inhabit is actually a vast ark, sent off long ago to travel through the universe to another, vaster, distant alien world. Some day, we'll get there... and when that happens, we need to be ready.

As you can see, it's got something in common with some of the more popular Earth religions, stories which have stood the test of time. There's the "chosen people" narrative (always a winner) which in this case includes everybody on board - but, our spacefaring acolytes still have the mythical schlubs back on Earth to feel superior to, so it's not all bad. Then there's that "day of reckoning", "end times", "world beyond our world" angle... we know humans dig this kind of thing.

But in case this isn't enough to make it stick, we can borrow an even more powerful trick from an even older period of human history. Nearly all ancient tribes used rites of passage to cement a young person's relationship to the ethos and mythos of the group. This form of ritual has been so pervasive because it's so effective, and of course it's still around today. The Marines use it. Fraternities use it. Cults use it. The idea is to use drugs, fasting, or some other means to induce an altered state of consciousness, break down psychological barriers, and induce a state of "imprint vulnerability", wherein the subject's mindframe is susceptible to permanent, groundbreaking change. Fraternities use peer pressure, humiliation, and beer for this purpose; cults may use faith healing demonstrations, group hysteria, or psychedelics; the Marines use intense physical training, camaraderie, and the horrors of war. All good, but we've got something even better. Let me tell you a story to illustrate.

A girl is born in a village near one end of the "ship". As a child she's exposed to the standard mythology and tenets of her world's religion, and accepts it unquestioningly, as children do. We are a chosen people, approaching a great destiny; we must shepherd our world, keep all things in balance, maintain peace with our neighbors, and learn the ancient language and knowledge so that one day, when our time of reckoning comes, we'll be ready. All this she takes for granted. Eventually, though, she starts to grow up and to question her place in the scheme of things, and wonder whether any of it really makes sense. This is fine; it suggests that she's maturing intellectually and is ready to begin learning the deep magic of the ancients (electricity, metallurgy, semiconductors, photolithography and so forth). However, there's really no room for deviation from the principles in this society, so the point needs to be brought home in a big way that this is real, and an imprint created of this epic, magical sense of manifest destiny that will last for the rest of her life. So, as happens to all children on the eve of their adulthood, she's sent to the far end of the world (a pretty short walk, in this case) where there is the entrance to a cave. All kinds of symbolic rituals could take place here. She could strip naked and be covered in paint; the cave could be on a sacred island on the far side of a swamp where she'll be rowed across at night by masked, chanting monks. It doesn't matter: this part can evolve organically, as rituals will do. What's important is what's inside the cave. Also, preferably, that she not have the slightest idea what's in there before she enters. The bigger the mystery, the bigger the fear, the bigger the impact.

It's dark inside, to start with. Soon after leaving the entrance behind, it's completely dark. The floor is smooth, though, and there's only one way to go. Feeling her way along, she hikes up a steep incline, initially out of breath; but after some time, she begins to notice something different. Incredible as it seems, she's growing lighter. Each step seems easier than the last, until she's basically swimming through the air, unfettered by gravity. At this point, a slight glow begins to fill the cave again. It's not much, but her eyes are by now highly attuned to the darkness, and the faintest glimmer of light is visible. This makes the next part even more mind-blowing, as she comes around a final corner, into a vast, transparent half-dome at the very nose of the ship, and sees - for the first time - the stars.


She's never gonna forget that. Ever.

When she gets back, and her training begins, there's even more in store for her: science, the knowledge of the ancients, will start to reveal its mysteries, explaining everything she just saw and more. It might seem that this is giving away the magic, but any scientist will tell you that a greater understanding of nature doesn't in any way cheapen the thrill; totally the opposite, in fact. That's important, because these people are going to need everything they've ever learned, and furthermore they'll need the ability to discover, adapt and invent. This can't become one of those dead religions, where people accept what they're taught and follow it blindly until they die. People need to not just understand technology, but be capable of creating it for themselves. That their survival is basically pretty easy, with not a lot of work required to maintain it, definitely helps. There should be plenty of time for learning and intellectual pursuits.

Strong critical thinking skills, widespread education, a generally prosperous and easy lifestyle, a decentralized, democratic society, and a powerful sense of common purpose should be enough to keep this community peaceful, intelligent, and healthy - at least until they arrive. At that point - anything could happen. :)

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    $\begingroup$ While I find your answer very beautiful, I think that the human mind is a bit more complex than that. There's always the black sheep who won't do this or that, would question everything and eventually destroy something beyond repair. Maybe not in the third generation, but it can still happen $\endgroup$ Jul 15, 2015 at 6:30
  • $\begingroup$ While reading this, I can't help but think that's how the world of "Game of Thrones" was created. I'm sure it doesn't really take place on the inside of a hollow sphere as the intro credits seem to indicate, though it's fun to imagine that way... And I could definitely see a religion, in an enclosed space, setting an intelligent species back thousands of years... $\endgroup$
    – Ayelis
    Jul 15, 2015 at 20:33
  • $\begingroup$ Now that I've got time to read it in depth, it IS quite brilliant. Encoding the secrets of the sciences within 'the knowledge of the ancients' while allowing for a generally low-tech culture is awesome and admirable. And that detailed journey culminating in the reveal of the star-dome... A masterpiece! I'd be worried about the system being brought down by pride, but otherwise, this could conceivably work. $\endgroup$
    – Ayelis
    Jul 16, 2015 at 18:56
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    $\begingroup$ I sense a different kind of story from this: earth is actually a giant generation ark with self sustaining environment, to reach the other side of the universe, but after generations the dinosaur race screwed up their original mission and killed themselves, and the ship pests, the mammals, have taken over the ship. $\endgroup$
    – Lie Ryan
    Jul 18, 2015 at 3:06
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    $\begingroup$ Not really understanding the tech of the dinosaurs, the mammals ignored and forgotten the dinosaur's technology and missions for a long time. The atmosphere is the ship's energy shield is failing due to disrepair, the sun is a huge nuclear reactor, and a particular trace of the mammals, the humans, redeveloped intelligence and are just starting to rediscover the dinosaur's technologies. $\endgroup$
    – Lie Ryan
    Jul 18, 2015 at 3:07

There are several possible ways to do this.

You would want to maintain a stable society where certain things are done "automatically". A theocratic society such as the ancient Egyptian might be a model, where daily life revolves around rituals and beliefs. Instead of worshiping the world of the dead, you might be imbued throughout your life from childhood to worship the Sun as the source of all energy and the provider of power to the ecosystem. Solar priests are high on the social ladder (just below the Pharonic "Mission Commander" Himself) and their word is law.

Of course, it is not all drudgery. After the ritual of the mirror cleaning and the allegory of the mutated algae is played out, there is the festival of recycling and the ever popular reseeding of the living quarters.

The ship or colony can also be divided into the "Crew" and the "Passengers". The Crew is a military like organization who are trained in the various disciplines of keeping rings running, and are NOT self perpetuating; recruiters look at every generation to select the best candidates from children of both the Passengers and Crew; being born into a Crew family does not automatically ensure you have what it takes to be a Crewman. So long as the idea of a meritocracy and open selection survive, the Crew will be able to keep things running. In order to prevent a sort of inbred Passenger/Crew thing from happening (the Passengers become slothful and don't care to become Crew) there should be enough perquisites ("perks") to being Crew that entering Selection becomes desirable, and Selection itself should be challenging and fun. Maybe children are given access to social media games of increasing complexity that give them a glimpse of Selection and crew life.

The lesson of the United States is to create an society which encourages and rewards social mobility. It may not matter if your family has gone down the "three generation path" so long as other families are moving up to take their place. And of course, you can restart the cycle for your family, becoming the new "first" generation rather than remaining a slacker "third". So long as the dynamic is rewarded, rather than punished through laws, regulation and taxes, then people will continue to follow incentives to succeed. (The other lesson is there can be no welfare state in Space).

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ If your colony/society is large enough then I agree those moving up and down should balance and you should be able to maintain the technological base. But if it's too small and you get a single generation with no interest in the technology, then your colony dies. Similarly if the knowledge is present but the discipline is not, then the colony also dies. I was thinking some sort of stratification system with rewards & privileges would be good. The problem is when people try to make it hereditary :( $\endgroup$
    – Jim2B
    Jul 10, 2015 at 2:19
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    $\begingroup$ You'd have to have some mechanism for making the meritocracy work. Historically, persons with any position of influence have always been willing to use that influence on behalf of their children, deserved or not. $\endgroup$
    – Random
    Jul 10, 2015 at 20:35
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    $\begingroup$ Yeah, pretty much every system I can think of could (and probably would) eventually be corrupted by those in power. At first they could muddle by but as it became more corrupted, then survival would rely upon slimmer and slimmer margins. Eventually something catastrophic would occur. We'd almost have to rely upon some uncorruptible system (colony AI?) to do the selection and training. Plus a system to remove crew who began to corrupt the system. $\endgroup$
    – Jim2B
    Jul 11, 2015 at 1:12
  • $\begingroup$ Perhaps the colony planners could make a colony large enough and self-sustained enough to survive several kinds of catastrophe. I always thought the concept behind "The Star Lost" was awesome. I wish someone would dust it off and try again. $\endgroup$
    – Jim2B
    Jul 11, 2015 at 1:14
  • $\begingroup$ Wow, I remember that show! A colony that is large and self sustaining enough to do that would be really huge, possibly even bigger than a "Island Three" colony construct. The largest one that could be made with present knowledge of physics would be a "Bishop Ring", 1000km in radius and @ 500 km wide, with 100km "mountains" along the edges to hold in the atmosphere. Such a structure would have the land area of a continent. $\endgroup$
    – Thucydides
    Jul 11, 2015 at 1:24

Use advanced AI and Automation for the "Boring" stuff

Have an advanced AI and a team of robot menials doing the boring stuff. One of the big movements in the workplace at the moment is towards automation. There's no reason why the really boring basic stuff can't be done by robots. The only exception to this is management - its harder to teach a robot what to do when it all goes wrong, so the majority of what humans will be doing in a colony will be creative and reactive, not menial.

Therefore, any colony will likely have very few people confined to menial survival critical tasks - it'd be more creative and reactionary tasks "Oh bugger, algaefarmer065 has a dodgy motivator. Looks like I'll have to cobble together a fix for the damn thing a-gain or its ration bars for dinner tonight".

I'm aware this still could be boring, but it also allows the colonists some measurement of control and not being a cog. It also allows you to train your colonists to approach things laterally which means they can improve things for themselves.

Automation is also often a progressive thing. If you have teachable AI, you could teach a robot to be a maintenance person and free up some of your time. If you're not being paid by the hour and just surviving, the more time you can devote to automation in the short term, the more time you get back in the long run.

Improving Quality of Life

There is something additional to be had here too - conservation of materials. Assuming your setting hasn't got mass-replication or portal networks, any components etc are going to have to be flown in. I would therefore anticipate any human enterprise to be more around making things work with the bare minimum. After all, if you can patch something with local materials, you can then use the stuff that's been sent out as replacement or repair to improve your current lot. One example is fixing a solar panel rather than scrapping it, and using the replacement one to improve power output so you have a warmer habitat.

Keep 'em Busy!

A final one is to keep your colonists busy and have them directly see the benefits of what they're doing. Using the example of Algae farming, you'd not want someone doing this - you'd want this to be automated. If it was someone literally standing over sludge all day pressing buttons, that's a recipe for an unhappy worker - one who's more likely to goof off and cause issues. If instead they're reactively responding to serious issues, whilst also spending "downtime" improving things for themselves and their neighbours, they'll be much happier as they'll see that they are important and making a difference.

This last point would feed heavily into some of the social stuff already mentioned - if your neighbour hasn't been pulling his weight, he gets pushed down the priority list for fixing non-critical things, or he finds his power allowance drops first, or his "nice" ration allowance shrinks first - or he pulls the nasty jobs ahead of others.

  • $\begingroup$ Definitely +1 for the importance of mood and morale in enclosed environments. Quality of life is certainly very important... Though there are ways to achieve good mood and high morale in lieu of complete automation, and future generations definitely need to be intimately familiar with the process of creating ration bars, specifically in the case of dodgy motivators... $\endgroup$
    – Ayelis
    Jul 15, 2015 at 21:26
  • $\begingroup$ Loving the idea of a creative and reactive society. A 'job' would be different in that you're not doing anything until something goes wrong. To use the algae farming example, you don't even need advanced AI to have an automated system detect that a farmbot has collected significantly less algae than its brethren today and maybe someone who knows about farmbots should go take a look at it, so perhaps a farmbot engineer gets a notification on their spacephone and they trot off to go and take a look at it. This has given me splendid bunch of ideas, thank you! $\endgroup$
    – ktyldev
    Jul 22, 2016 at 16:42

Almost ANY and ALL societal models can (and will) survive.

A highly artificial environment will, by nature, be highly automated. It is not likely humans living in such environments would need to be particularly proficient engineers. Not nearly as much expertise is needed to maintain a machine than craft the machine. Also, you only really need ONE person to seriously 'know' how the system works, the others can simply borrow from their knowledge. Even if this person dies, the next most knowledgeable person likely knows far more than is needed to keep the ship in working order. Provided you can maintain an decent archive and library of knowledge, I'd contend the 'three generation rule' simply would not apply to to a space colony.

Our society today tends to overstate the importance of its own education systems, as such it can be hard to escape the impressions they create, such as some rather odd and arbitrary distinctions between 'professional', 'volunteer', and 'hobbyist'. Our colonists would have as much use for a 'professional' algae farmer as they would for a 'professional' shoe lacer. There is nothing particularly difficult about electrical, mechanical, structural, or other sorts of engineering. Actual, practical experience offers a far more valuable education than can be accrued in the modern classroom setting, and your colonists can no more 'escape' the mechanical and artificial aspects of their environment than modern person can 'escape' from the earth they where born into. It follows that any member of your station will be just as capable as patching a leaky roof as any other. They don't need to be 'trained' in a classroom or 'motivated' by debiting their service. They fix the leak or THEY SUFFOCATE.

Instead, I'd flip this 'rule' on it's head and say that, after three generations, your colonist have vastly IMPROVED their condition and are likely to produce far superior space station construction and maintenance personnel than earth can hope to struggle to produce.

The only society NOT likely to survive, maybe, is a despotic theocracy which might seek to obfuscate the workings of the space colony in someway, and replace that knowledge with a dangerous and misleading myth. So long as this can be avoided, you can craft whatever society you want.

PS: Atomic Rockets! best website EVER


Learn from nature

First off, if this issue matters, then you're making it too hard to survive on your generation ship. If we look to nature, we don't see a system which catastrophically fails if one fox decides to be an herbivore. The fundamentals of survival are intentionally spread and made easy. Life may be horrible if all the foxes stop eating rabbits and the rabbit population explodes, but life keeps ticking. If you are dependent on every single generation doing exactly what you thought they should do when the ship left its homeworld, you've set yourself up for disaster.

Second, teach people to seek balance, not always the most extremely optimal result. Sure, you can get away with exactly 71 algae sludge farmers, but maybe you plan for 75. Then, when 3 of them choose to be artists instead, you still have enough support. More importantly though, is how you handle a mass exedous. If 10 algae sludge farmers decide that algae farming is horrible, you'd still be in trouble. However, if you taught them to seek balance, maybe (just maybe) 5 or 6 of them will see that food is important, and choose to farm potatoes instead. And maybe, people will see that the balance has shifted, and be more frugal until the vaunted position of algae sludge farmer is prestigious enough to at least bump their ranks back up to the requisite 71. However, had you brought only 71 on to begin with, you'd find you had no room to balance. You needed 100% of those who left the trade to return to the trade, or you're under quota.

Third, ditch the classic machinery. One of the classic arguments in such a generation situation is that they forget to maintain key hardware, so future generations get screwed. The solution to that is also found in nature: hardware that maintains itself. If you concentrate on hardware which can repair itself and can be produced mid-flight, you can afford to lose a lot of hardware. I'd make my generation ship out of almost entirely organics or organic-like machines, so that the ship survives even if the crew fails to do their job.


For knowledge to survive through generations, people need to take pride in their craft. You need to motivate people by making it so that what they do is not just a job, but rather an art, a craft, something they can take pride in, something that affects other people, and something only they can do. You need a tradition.

For an algae farmer, each generation need to show to the next generation how the produces from the farm affects the society, how the result of a bad crop directly affects the health and happiness of the rest of the crew, how a bad crop causes half of the crew to become sick. You also need people to be able to make mistakes without devastating the entire mission, so you need just enough redundancy, enough to maintain the crew through a bad period, to show the effect of laziness from time to time, though not too much that it causes people to depend on the redundancy.

You need a tradition whereby people don't just pass on their skills, but also their pride to the next generation. They may pass on tales and mythos about other ships that didn't survive because of fatal mistakes made by people within their craft. These mythos are intended to make the successors appreciate their work, and to take it seriously.

  • $\begingroup$ This dovetails well with jobs that are managed in a craftsman/apprentice sort of environment. Newcomers spend an extensive amount of time being trained and mentored by experienced workers, who pass on both their knowledge and passion for their craft. $\endgroup$
    – bta
    Jul 13, 2015 at 21:38

The answer, ironically enough, is staring you right in the face (this week), from a sidebar advertising, from Meta site:

Fortnightly topic challenge #11: Religion


Seriously, what's one sure-fire way known in human practice to motivate multiple people to maintain any sort of equilibrium or in general behave in somewhat predictable and socially beneficial ways; and to pay attention to small details, for long periods?

That's right, religion!

This is a well known SciFi concept (I won't dignify myself with trawling through TVTropes, but one example from a work I absolutely love is David Weber's "Heirs to the Empire", book 3 of "Armageddon Inheritance", aka "Dahak series". Or, more recently, Weber's Safehold series).

Create a religion, whose tenets include:

  • Requirements for habitat maintenance as one of commandments

    Judaism excelled at making people obey tons of anal-obsessive, frequently hard to comprehend, and definitely frequently annoying and hard to obey rules (no offense to YLOR). FOR THE LAST 3000 years, give or take - with only the last ~150 years producing the ... say, 150th generation that invented Reform Judaism so they can get away with not maintaining algae sludge!

  • Requirements for keeping your place in life. Reincarnation is there to ensure hope of future improvement.

    Hinduism succeeded in this by applying concepts of Karma, reincarnation, and castes.

  • Severe respect for hard work

    Calvinism, Puritans, and other assorted Protestant flavors excelled at that.

  • Add commandments about having to learn and teach important subjects

    Any number of religious historical examples, from Judaism, to Jesuits

  • $\begingroup$ Interestingly enough, I was wondering if some sort of social hierarchy like religion or other sort of tradition might be required. But then the initiates would begin their studies and learn what's religion to the outsiders is all mechanical to the insiders. Hmm, interesting. $\endgroup$
    – Jim2B
    Jul 14, 2015 at 5:05
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    $\begingroup$ @Jim2B - I don't think it's a necessity. Religion commands the reason for doing things, not the physics and technology side. So there's no "insiders" per se, just people more knowledgeable of the rules of the religion. Remember that monks and priests, in most religions, do NOT consider their religion to be fake. $\endgroup$
    – user4239
    Jul 14, 2015 at 7:06
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    $\begingroup$ You are forgetting holy wars, heresy, atheism, agnosticism, illuminism and so on... History is full of facts that make religion a not-so-reliable equilibrium force. Especially in advanced humankinds (rate of skeptics raising). $\endgroup$ Jul 15, 2015 at 6:27
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    $\begingroup$ @DVK Human beings are curious, that's why they explore, discover, research. Eventually a person who asks "why" will come out and that would be the beginning of the end $\endgroup$ Jul 15, 2015 at 12:15
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    $\begingroup$ @DVK I don't understand then exactly what you mean... There are Pastafarian and P2P-Revering people out there, if that is what you mean by "designed". There are cults whose "designed" religion does not prevent people who believe to do stupid things or even die... $\endgroup$ Jul 15, 2015 at 12:20

Well first you would need a large enough pool of people living in this habitat that you can pull the needed aptitudes and skills to minimize 'forcing' people into jobs they would hate.

Then take something from the military. many of the 'boring/bad' jobs will be passed around. Everyone gets 'KP'. Someone is in charge say the 'cook' and they get a revolving host of helpers. So the cook makes sure the meal is done correctly, but doesn't have to do all the work themselves. On top of that everyone gets an appreciation of both the effort put forth and knowledge on how things work that allow them to live as they are.

Then the amount of 'KP' you get might also be based on what your other duties are. If you don't want to do 'anything' then half of your time might be 'KP' so it becomes your defacto job. If you are in charge of keeping life support up and running, then 1 day a month or a quarter might be more appropriate.

Like anything this could be abused to allow people who think they are too important to be bothered with it, might try to get their name off the list. So the lists need to be kept public as well as past records. So everyone can 'audit' the duties. Of course days can be traded.

Now with this, when important jobs that need more than physical labor are not filling well, then comes in the 'bidding' to raise or lower how many days of 'KP' the position is required to donate. If everyone wants a nice cushy job, then maybe 1 day a week is 'KP', if no one wants to touch it, maybe 1 day a year of 'KP' to encourage others to go down that path. In call cases someone needs to be in charge of every critical system (which really is all of them) and are expected to keep things in 'ship shape'.


There are two parts to the problem: short-term issues and long-term issues.

Short-term issues

Part of the problem of the Three Generation Rule is that people like procrastinating. Why do today what you can put off 'til tomorrow? Or, in this case, why do today what you can put off 'til the next generation? If I understand correctly, though, people will start to do things they don't want to do when it becomes apparent that if they don't do them immediately, they will die.

The solution to these problems, of course, is to do the maintenance continuously so that this stage of crisis is never reached. So there must be an incentive to do the maintenance. This can be accomplished by one of two systems, which are positive and negative reinforcements. As an example, I'll say that there is a micrometeorite shield that needs repairs (not a particularly difficult or disgusting task, admittedly). Here's what happens when Spaceman Spiff is needed to fix it.

Positive reinforcement

Computer: Spiff, you didn't do the repairs on the micrometeorite shield, like you were scheduled to do.

Spaceman Spiff: I'll get to it. I'm busy, and I have some other things to do.

Computer: You'll get an extra helping of chocolate cake tonight if you do it.

Spiff: I'm on it.

The problem with this implementation - besides the fact that they will one day run out of chocolate cake - is that people could learn to game the system. If they wait until to do a task, they know they will be rewarded in the end. A better way is to simply make a long-term promise: Fix the shields whenever you're supposed to, and you'll continue to get extra helpings of chocolate cake.

Negative reinforcement

The problem with positive reinforcement is that there's no immediate downside to not making the repair. When the repair really, really, really needs doing at the last minute, there is a motivation: death. This is simple logic; If Spaceman Spiff doesn't do X, Y will happen. In this case, Y is death.

The system can be applied to short-term maintenance, too. Let's go back to an alternate version of the conversation.

Computer: Spiff, you didn't do the repairs on the micrometeorite shield, like you were scheduled to do.

Spaceman Spiff: I'll get to it. I'm busy, and I have some other things to do.

Computer: Spiff, you might be interested in knowing that between the micrometeorite shield and the main structure is a very, very thing layer. It just so happens to contain some electrical wiring that is associated with the heating system. If there is some damage to the shield, then the main structure will not crumble or be irreversibly damaged. That will happen quickly after. But what will happen is that those wires will be irreversibly damaged, which will cause the average temperature in the crew quarters to drop by about - oh, I don't know, about ten degrees. This won't kill you - no, not by a long shot - but it will make some sleeping periods very cold.

Spiff: I'm on it.

This time, there is a definite consequence to Spiff not doing the repair, and this consequence will make him and his crew members very, very unhappy. This system will probably work better than the positive rewards system.

You could apply this to other tasks, too. For example, if the algae are not introduced to nutrients on a regular basis, then perhaps other organisms added to them could emit large quantities of gases that will make life quite unpleasant. Or if the sewage system is not cleaned properly . . . well, the effects of that are automatic, providing you figure out how to install some strategically placed vents.

Long-term issues

This is trickier. It's one thing to motivate someone to "feed" the algae. It's another to convince someone to spend their entire life farming algae sludge.

I need a bit more time to finish writing this one. In the meantime, I'm all ready to address any issues with the first section.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ In behavioral sciences, what you are describing is termed "positive reinforcement" and "positive punishment" (or maybe negative punishment). This is a duality term; positive/negative means adding or removing something; reinforcement/punishment means something that increases or decreases the frequency of a behavior. It's a debate you see in dog training all the time, with people making arguments about "positive reinforcement" and "positive punishment" training methods. What you describe, especially the second example, isn't as clear-cut, but I believe the term positive punishment still applies. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Jul 12, 2015 at 20:55
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling Thank you for that. I recalled hearing something about what I was talking about somewhere, but I couldn't recall exactly what it was. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Jul 12, 2015 at 20:57
  • $\begingroup$ Wikipedia has a better description than I could fit into my comment above, as well as several other examples. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Jul 13, 2015 at 10:10
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Joze In positive punishment, you add ("positive") something (generally an aversive) to cause a decrease ("punishment") in the frequency of a behavior. In negative reinforcement, you remove ("negative") something (again, generally an aversive) to cause an increase ("reinforcement") in the frequency of a behavior. Dog training provides ample examples that are easy to understand; compare jerking on the dog's collar when it pulls on the leash (positive punishment) to pinching the dog's ear until it walks nicely on leash (negative reinforcement). $\endgroup$
    – user
    Jul 15, 2015 at 17:03
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ In many cases, the distinction between all of positive punishment, negative reinforcement, negative punishment and positive reinforcement is largely academic, but there are situations when reasoning about all four quadrants makes sense. Often, it is sufficient to distinguish between positive punishment/negative reinforcement on one side, and positive reinforcement/negative punishment on the other, which generally leads to drawing the line at using aversives or reinforcers. If you have further questions about this, I believe Psychology & Neuroscience is the place to ask them. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Jul 15, 2015 at 17:04

The cultural requirements of the crew/colonists is completely dependant on the design of the ship. Let's start with the ship.

Dr TechSkill or How I learned to stop worrying and love automation

There's two ways you could store the information needed to make a self-healing, self-sustaining biosphere for a generation ship. The ship designers can design a ship driven by biological means or by mechanical/electrical means. Either your ship can be repaired by biochemical machines or they can be repaired by metallic nanomachines. A human crew can only be responsible for macroscopic repairs, ever. Consider the scale of repairs to be made.

Scale of repairs The largest component of this ship will be the hull. It needs to last the entire trip but major repairs shouldn't be necessary because there are few to no moving parts. On the other end of the scale, the ship will make innumerable stress cracks and metal fatigue that should be fixed.

What do you want your crew working on? Which activities are going to drive them nuts faster? Which ones will make them curse your name through the generations for making them do stupid busy tasks?

Is robust enough? A ship that is merely robust will eventually degrade and fail. We see this in well made and well maintained cars. They last for a very very long time but even with the best preservation techniques, reach a point where to keep them in shape means to make them museum pieces.

A generation ship cannot afford museum pieces for critical hardware. Therefore, the ship must regenerate itself. This is easiest to imagine if the ship is biologically based though it's no different than if nanomachines performed the repairs. Each subsystem is an 'organ' with multiple redundancies to improve fault tolerance. As the organ operates, the "cells" of the organ repair damage as it happens, without intervention by humans; much the same way our bodies regrow the linings of our stomachs as we digest food. In the event of complete organ failure, it is broken down into constituent materials and a new organ is regrown. This process of renewal can occur at every level, from the fixing smallest hairline cracks to repairing hull breaches. This manner of renewal must happen, especially without human interaction.

Like a surgeon, cutting for the very first time!

Humans then play the role of surgeons to the life form that is their ship. The finer grained repairs of the ship are handled by the ship, just as the human body will repair skin cut during surgery. And while the ship could repair a major hull breach on its own, it may not be able to do it in time to maintain a livable atmosphere for the crew. Therefore crew action is needed to patch the breach then let the ship repair the finer details.

Who wants to go to Med School?

Oh! Oh! Pick me! Pick me! Everyone on board knows that the ship surgeons have the most dangerous and most important job. They are the firemen, and engineers and as such, the prestige is high. Even in a society of equals, competition for a position like this will be intense. There will be no shortage of candidates who want to learn the skills required.

Build up a school to train them and provide facilities, such as the ship can support, for additional research into how to improve the ship's efficiency.

A socialist democracy perhaps would be best where everyone is invested in decisions and everyone's needs are taken care of. Let there be an exceedingly strict divide between governance of the ship and it's crew, and the colonists. As in ocean going ships, the captain is the ultimate authority on all matters. However, the colonists should have their own leaders and hierarchy so the captain can focus on running the ship.


The Survivors

They are the result of a thousand failures, a culture built on the blood, bodies, and bad air of those before them who refused to see. The descendants of those who saw what was coming, and left early to protect their own.

They learn the lessons on their parent's knees. Of dedication, of competence, of carefulness. They know the importance of maintenance, of environment, of planning, as things seeped into the bedrock of their culture. They know these things as custom and law, so basic that they are beyond simple religion.

They are taught about the Bureaucrat as children, who killed his Home through neglect to a get a bonus he would never spend. They are told of the Lazy, and how the filter he left unchanged filled the air with death and killed him, and his children, and his children's children. They are told of the Fools and the Optimists and how they met their ends.

And they know of the three-generation rule as a cautionary fable.


Build It as a Culture/Habit

The military does this a lot. There's a reason why everyone is forced into a certain routine. It's good for everyone. Anyone who breaks from this routine is disciplined. They can train school dropouts into organized officers.

They deliberately design everything to minimize mistakes. Codes like Alpha Bravo Charlie are picked so they don't get confused with other words, even with different dialects. They use 1300 instead of 1 PM, so people don't forget the PM.

Another example is surnames. People's names indicate their role and expertise. If there's no bread, blame Bob Baker. If there are no shoes, blame Michael Schumacher.

An individual's status might be raised based on their responsibilities. Jane Algae and Raj Oxygen could have higher status than Albert Overseer.

Society would make sure that these people perform their roles. Not doing their responsibilities would be a high taboo akin to treason. There are many of negative effects, but survival is at stake!


Any critical system has a lot of redundancy built into it. Spaceships, airplanes, nuclear power plants, dams. It would require a series of errors for the system to fail. Before it fails there could be multiple warnings, to wake people from complacency.

Automatic maintenance

Anything that could be automatically maintained would be.

  • $\begingroup$ I enjoy the "Jennifer Government" style names, yet at the same time, people who are disillusioned, disenfranchised, or just burned out should have the option for a change of scenery. All processes should be documented, and all crew members should be trained to do any job. Redundancy, after all. $\endgroup$
    – Ayelis
    Jul 15, 2015 at 20:26

My answer could be a little boring, but nevertheless I will give my opinion a try.

Let's say that the population lives in a scenario where machines have to be mantained in order to avoid a structure failure (planet colony with no breathable atmosphere, space ship, etc.). You are supposed then to be setting the scenario in a most advanced era, where technology is very present in everyone's life.

The first generation built sustaining-structures for all other generations to come and you say the the last ones would not manage to somehow understand that their life depends on it.

That is, in my opinion, because people's life DOES NOT immediately depends on it

People may forget, not know or don't want to know how a water-recycling filter works, because while everyone knows that shortage of water may be deadly, it is yet very different than having a gun pointed at one's head. What I am trying to say is that the knowledge of immediate death would make butts move.

Now, let me combine some of the answers I've been reading until now and give you my "customized" answer:

If the first generation is so smart, they probably already dealt with the following generation problem as well. Since they know the population would depend on machines, why not creating an ad-hoc religion which revered machines? Now, the perk of religions is always that women and men would want to elevate themselves to have a glimpse of their gods (paradise, nirvana, etc.), so why not installing pieces of machines inside population bodies (who said "mind control"? - in this case every possibility of "heresy" or "atheist" would be eliminated - ) in order to make people feel baptized ?

If someone learns to live with implants that produce pain if a machine is "suffering" and needs to be repaired (the sewage-filter god is angry) , he/she would probably take it as a holy duty to implant infants with the same tech, so that the generations problem won't be a problem anymore.


This is an economy question. Basically, there has to be an incentive for maintaining the colony, just like there are for nation states (national pride, safety, welfare from the state and many other things I can't think of) and incentives for people to personally better themselves.

This is not an easy question though, I would argue you're very close to the holy grail of economics; how do we make people produce stuff we need indefinitely, so there's never any recession because the consumer demand is always high enough to put the producers to work and there's never any starvation because the producers always live up to the consumers basic expectations ("starvation" being applied loosely, meaning a child who doesn't get any adequate entertainment for example is starving).

You have to make the colonists work give them dopamine or constantly make them confront the consequences of not working enough (people were in contact with death multiple times during foraging times) or the society is going to fall apart.

  • Gamification is one way. At Stackechange, we're doing tons of stuff for free simply because we get the acknowledgement from our peers through badges and rep points. Only problem; what happens to the losers? And how do you deal with depressed losers feeling so bad they don't want to play anymore? Darwin explained what could happen, the question is if you're comfortable going through that particular route? Possible darwinism applies to every suggestion given.

  • There's also the classic economic theory; compensation as incentive. Maybe the harder you work, the more dopamine you get in your system, or the more dopamine producing stuff you can afford. The question is, how do you prevent people from gaming the system? Purely chemical ways to get dopamine is practiced by drug addicts, gym addicts, alcoholics and others while dopamine produced through results can be abused by unscrupulous business people, despots, bullies and others. These are obviously people who have taken it too far and are not in the near majority, many of us dabble in chemicals like alcohol or trash talk while winning at sports, but the risk is always there. How do you deal with them?

  • People have already mentioned religion, and a sense of purpose can absolutely produce dopamine and therefore motivate people. Some have mentioned cults, and they are corrupted good willing people, no doubt, but churches who voluntarily hold soup kitchens, work their ass off to read large tomes of lore and spread the word down through generations, travel thousands of kilometers for pilgrimage and fight oppression because they believe in such a thing as right or wrong detached from majority opinion. But, how do you make sure everyone is on the same page? Words are really hard to make unambiguous so someone, or some people, have to be named "chief interpreters". That's a lot of power vested in these people, and just like classical economic incentives, this can be used for abuse, no doubt. But, a sense of purpose need not be rooted in religion at all, but instilling the belief that something is really important is hard, let alone maintaining that belief through generations.

If these are humans you're talking about, I do think that you can make a colony last beyond three generations with any of these as a foundation to maintain the colony. But don't expect that there will be no conflicts what so ever. Sure, just like water cooler trash talk, they might not destroy people's lives and still keep the crew focused on getting the job done but if you want absolutely friction free, effective and productive colonies with no internal threats, automate everything. Really, I can't see any other way other than winning the Nobel Prize in economics or engineering humans to produce dopamine in a way that's more easy to bend to the benefit of the colony.


Assign jobs, train skills, rotate jobs, manage morale, rinse, repeat.

I believe the Fallout franchise, and in particular, Fallout: Shelter, is a good illustration here. In the world of Fallout; a nuclear war occurs in 2077, but not before the "good people" at Vault-Tec create and deploy a number of Vaults (their term for Fallout Shelters), around the United States. All of this is flavor, I believe, for the main game mechanic in Fallout: The SPECIAL system.

This is basically your standard RPG-style statistic system. In the SPECIAL system, every human is ranked from 1 to 10 for each of seven individual statistics: Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, and Luck. These stats affect a variety of things throughout the games, from damage dealt and received, to resistance to damage or fatigue, to how much you can carry or how fast you learn skills. Certain outfits may reduce or increase these statistics, and they can also be increased through training. The important part, though, is how they are implemented in Fallout: Shelter.

In this game, you are the Overseer of a Vault (for the most part, a closed environment, much akin to a spaceship), and so, you decide which facilities to build in what locations, and whom should be sent to which room. The latter task is made much simpler by the definition of a certain prominent skill type assigned to each room. For instance, the Power Generator room is better served by individuals with higher Strength, the Water Treatment facility increases output when staffed by those with better Perception, etc.

Additionally, individuals in the game seem to prefer when they are sent into rooms that match their highest-level statistics. Managing Vault-dweller's happiness is a very important aspect of this game, just as managing a spaceship-dweller's happiness would be in real life. According to the in-game manual: "A happy Vault runs more efficiently and produces resources faster."

In the game, as in real life, there are a variety of ways to keep people happy. The main ones include:

  • Keeping them healthy
  • Assigning them to a job they enjoy
  • Successfully meeting deadlines seen as important to that job (where the Luck stat comes in)
  • Giving them time off
  • Assigning them where they can converse with someone of the gender of their sexual preference
  • Allowing them to have babies
  • Promptly disposing of dead bodies

In real life though, you might prefer a variety of jobs that play to your strengths, or even a few that don't, so accounting for 'desired jobs' should also be taken into account.

So I guess my answer to the question is A happy society. I know Happiness has been mentioned in a few other answers, but not as central to the theme. If any closed environment is to be successful long-term, keeping people sane and happy is the most important thing.

If anything can or should be automated, it should probably be the system that gauges skills/preferences and assigns jobs, to prevent the sort of corruption seen in Vaults in the Fallout Universe. And when it comes to space colonization, this standardization of personnel management is increasingly important the farther from Earth you travel, since messages from mission control will take longer and longer to arrive.

The main foreseeable problem after that would be faith in the system, so people would need to be reminded of the potential for human corruption. Though I'm sure sending them off with a nice databank of Earth's finest works of post-apocalyptic science fiction would help with that.

Or just let them play Fallout.

  • $\begingroup$ Though I mention automation, there's probably an easy way to implement a system of simple evolving rules that allow the community to decide potential jobs through skillsets and desires. $\endgroup$
    – Ayelis
    Jul 15, 2015 at 22:43
  • $\begingroup$ I am electing to award you the bonus points for answering the question. My reasoning is that I think this is the most unique answer and I think it has interesting possibilities for story lines (I'm not writing stories but simply wondering how our space faring ancestors might some day overcome this issue). $\endgroup$
    – Jim2B
    Jul 16, 2015 at 15:56

It need to be a natural group like bushmen in Africa or jungle strain in the Amazonas with a strong cohesion and a fair religion that will guide them through the generations, since the genetic drive of rival and a liberal approach to competing would disunite the group.

The young people must hear the same story from all adults, the same story as the adults once heard when they where young.

Development would be their greatest hazard.


I think you might need something like the British aristocracy, which maintained large estates/fortunes for centuries. Individual families might fail due to one generation being spendthrift, but they'd be pretty much cast out of the system, and the assets would wind up with someone newly ennobled.


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