Letter From The Editor - Issue 63 - June 2018

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Writing Fantasy

  
Plotbot
  Science Fact-ion by Randall Hayes
May 2018

Violence Is Not an Option (maybe on the NASDAQ)

Some science fiction writers and fans make the disingenuous claim that the field has been too politicized and that is "ruining" a genre that was once purely about imaginative storytelling. The people who say this invariably know nothing about the field of written SF, which has been rocked by political controversies and philosophical division since the 1930s. The most famous example, other than the Futurians (wiki that term), was when prominent authors took out ads opposing and supporting the Vietnam War (the opposing side included Bradbury, Le Guin, Delany, Ellison, Asimov, Leiber, Roddenberry, and Margaret St. Clair, while the pro side had Heinlein, Niven, Clement, Brackett and Marion Zimmer Bradley). The field has always been political and willing to fight about it.
-Ian McDowell, on Facebook

That quote paraphrases the opening of the best SF discussion you missed last month. Immediately following the March for Science Triad, I convened a panel of local authors at our downtown public library:

  • Ian McDowell, more known for horror but with a couple of Asimov’s stories under his belt;

  • Nicole Kurtz, writer, publisher, and Forsyth County English teacher;

  • Vince Barnett, who’s producing an SF educational TV show; and

  • Stuart Jaffe, author of like 35 books, including a series about a ghostly PI, whom I had never met but former IGMS editor Ed Schubert recommended.

The topic was SF and politics. The panel outnumbered the audience by one. That was a theme for the day, really. Last year’s March drew over a thousand people, and this year’s many fewer, despite months of meetings and organizing and advertising. I know, because I did some small amount of that work.

Why? What was different between the two years? Was it the date? Was it the weather? Were three protests in three months too much to ask of the populace? Were the Orbital Mind Control Lasers suddenly more effective?

I’ve written before about how the field of history tends towards after-the-fact arguments and explanations rather than predictions that can be tested against experimental data. Micah White, one of the organizers of the Occupy movement, takes a step towards a science of historical prediction by laying out his own theory of social change in The End of Protest. He lays out a whole series of them, actually, conveniently summarized in a two-dimensional comparative graph.

If that intrigues you, check out the book. Here I want to focus on White’s contention that protests are a form of display, street-theater that makes activists feel good but accomplishes nothing, because the wealthy elites who control the government are simply not afraid of peaceful protests the way they were during the 1960s, when it seemed more likely that groups of protesters would inevitably morph into violent mobs if not dealt with in one way or another.

This assumption by the elites is a result of game theory, which was all the rage during the Cold War. The basic idea is to treat elites and protesters as single entities, locked into a two-person dominance competition, where there can only be one winner. On each round, a player can choose only one of three responses:

  • Escalate the display (dominate);

  • Do nothing; or

  • De-escalate the display (submit).

If both de-escalate, that could be something like a compromise.

A dog barking, or a cat arching its back and hissing, are examples of cheap warnings which could escalate to a more risky attack. Humans can of course extend those rituals indefinitely, using finer and finer gradations of signaling. Imagine a pair of kids on the playground staring each other down, then calling each other names, then cursing, then yelling, then pushing, then throwing a punch. If things get completely out of hand, there could be a transition to violence as biologists define it. This would mean focusing damage on soft, vulnerable parts of the body like the eyes or the throat, which might be the normal targets of a predator hunting another species, but which are unusual in combat between members of the same species. Human adults are more likely to resort to weapons in these situations, which can short-circuit the slow escalation process in extremely deadly ways.

This process of escalation towards pathological violence, as opposed to normal bounded aggression, has been extensively researched in non-human animals, as model systems for human behavior. As you might expect, a behavior as important as combat is a rat’s nest of hormonal and neuronal checks and balances. There are contributions from genetics, from toxin exposure, from personal history, and from social and cultural context.

White, writing about revolutions in human societies, which he defines broadly as the “substitution of one legal system for another legal system,” does not explicitly mention game theory, or use the word escalation, but he does reference a famously controversial book in which a prominent sociologist named Gamson concluded that, based on his survey of 53 situations of political conflict, violence (defined much more broadly as any physical aggression) seemed to be one of the revolutionary’s more effective tools. This was not a popular finding amongst nonviolent activists.

Today the politicians in charge can be much more confident that the protesters will break for a nice lunch downtown and head on home at the end of the day. Only extended protests like Occupy, or possibly the upcoming Poor People’s Campaign, even merit choreographed arrests. In another strikingly unpopular conclusion, White takes this to mean that street theater has lost its effectiveness, like a virus that becomes less deadly in order to infect more people, and that new tactics are necessary to break through the noise.

On his website, he has proposed shorting the stocks of misbehaving companies through the use of options contracts, allowing activists to fund their campaigns and hurt their enemies at the same time, much like Al-Quaeda is suspected to have done by shorting airline stocks immediately before 9/11.

What would activists use this money for? Why, app development, of course, just like any other social entrepreneurs of the early 21st.

My identity and voter registration was already verified by Ballot. And because Ballot supplied signature collectors with my location—similar to how Uber summons me a driver—the process was smooth and cost efficient.

Collectors that used to harangue people on the streets now busily dart from activist to activist throughout the city. They now earn a nice income collecting signatures for an ideological rainbow of proposals.

It wasn't long before everyone was talking about, and using, Ballot. Especially when we collectively gasped when hundreds of thousands of signatures were collected for explicitly revolutionary constitutional amendments that were frighteningly democratic.

And possibly the development of a new cryptocurrency.

Then one day authorities grew tired of the Demos gatherings and forcefully removed us from Gezi . . .

And that is when the flippening happened.

Activists abroad had been watching the livestream and when they saw our movement getting suppressed they started buying Demoscoins on decentralized exchanges as a way to support the movement's early adopters.

The more intense the repression, the more revolutionary their actions, the more valuable Demoscoin became. Early founders now had a warchest: just by selling a few hundred coins on anonymous exchanges they raised millions of dollars to fund the revolution.

Those are both pretty blasé, as pieces of flash fiction. I’m sure any professional SF author reading this could do better. But the guy’s got ideas. As an idea guy myself, I respect that.

In my favorite recent Little Free Library find, Life with Representation, another pair of idea guys proposed doing away with national elections and instead choosing Congress-people by lottery, the same way we nominate jurors today, as a way of eliminating conflicts of interest over campaign donations. After being chosen, the Congress-to-be would have two years to educate themselves on the problems and potentials of their districts, and on the rules of lawmaking. Then they would serve for two years, and spend their final two years educating the next cohort. The book came out in 2010, and by the time their website CongressOfAmericans.org disappeared in 2016, they were talking about their proposed assembly as merely advising and pressuring the current elected Congress, not replacing it. Sad.

Why not do an anthology of stories around this last idea? The West Wing taught Americans more about our government than anything since Schoolhouse Rock. I call dibs on the redneck neuroscientist member of the Randomly Selected Congress.

Randall Hayes, the fictional Senator from KY, has very little idea what a Minority Whip actually does, but he thinks someone should probably change the name of that office.

REFERENCES

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/discussion.php?id=erpi1wx3zyiq0ecwutkddnng

http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.537.3680&rep=rep1&type=pdf

Fascinating discussion of warlord-centered “markets of violence.”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Futurians

https://www.facebook.com/groups/marchforscienceGSO/

https://twitter.com/iankeithmcdowel?lang=en

The opening quote is from a Facebook post, not his Twitter feed.

https://nicolegivenskurtz.com

Who I first met at Guilford College’s What the Hell Con.

http://scienstars.com/personnel/vince/

Targeting middle school students. Sort of a “Hogwarts in space.”

http://www.stuartjaffe.com

I read the first one as a re-gift from a goblin thief I happen to know.

https://everything2.com/title/Orbital+mind+control+lasers

Steve Jackson’s Illuminati: New World Order is a great little game, if you’ve never played it.

https://zapatopi.net/blog/?post=200907301160.how_the_mind-control_lasers_work

Serving the paranoid since 1997.” How have I never seen this?

http://www.intergalacticmedicineshow.com/cgi-bin/mag.cgi?do=columns&vol=randall_hayes&article=002

https://www.economist.com/news/essays/21596796-democracy-was-most-successful-political-idea-20th-century-why-has-it-run-trouble-and-what-can-be-do

A vivid description of the current situation. Data collection is a good step, but it helps to have explicit hypotheses that can be thrown out when they don’t work. Ideologies are not hypotheses.

https://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/16/magazine/16Bruce-t.html

A really good general explanation. Interestingly, it says that 40% of all political science papers in a leading journal now use modeling, so in a hundred years I may have to find something else to complain about.

White, M. (2016). The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution. Knopf Canada.

http://www.mattluedke.com/book-commentary-the-end-of-protest-by-micah-white/

Includes a link to the classic cut “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” Coincidentally, the author also writes SF.

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/game-theory/

Longer and more technical than the NYT magazine article above.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/get-psyched/201301/the-weapons-effect

Strangely, the mere presence of a weapon can increase various forms of aggression, even if it is not in direct use.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2854525/

See especially Figure 2 for an explanation of the behavioral pathway.

https://www.wired.com/story/how-ai-driven-insurance-could-reduce-gun-violence/

Unlike historians, “convolutional neural nets [used by insurance companies] can be very good at prediction, because they can take into account a long window of past values.”

Gamson, W.A. (1990). The Strategy of Social Protest, 2nd edition. Wadsworth Publishing, Belmont, CA.

https://www.questia.com/library/1363660/the-strategy-of-social-protest
This is paywalled but allows you to at least see the chapter titles and first pages.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_movement_impact_theory

And some writers interpret the book differently than Micah White does.

http://www.unice.fr/sg/authors/bios/Gamson,%202013,%201046878113503301.pdf

Gamson is an interesting guy who’s invented multiple teaching RPGs, as well as helping kickstart the fantasy sports industry. We’ll come back to him at some point.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/nov/02/activist-russia-protest-occupy-black-lives-matter

Like concerted efforts by third parties to inject chaos into the game.

https://www.micahmwhite.com/options/

https://independentaustralia.net/article-display/911-terrorists-made-millions-on-the-stock-market,3738

Not proven, suspected.

https://www.micahmwhite.com/ballot

https://www.micahmwhite.com/demoscoin

https://qz.com/578544/social-movements-will-put-an-end-to-war-as-we-know-it/

Tilleman, R., and Johnson, J. (2010). Life with Representation: The Promise of Real Democracy in the 21st Century.

Self-published” is the kiss of death to my bookseller wife, but hey, it’s pretty common in SF these days.

https://web.archive.org/web/20150814041106/http://congressofamericans.org/main.htm

I love The Wayback Machine.

Read more by Randall Hayes


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