Violence Is Not an Option (maybe on the NASDAQ)
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:
McDowell, more known for horror but with a
couple of Asimov’s stories under his belt;
Kurtz, writer, publisher, and Forsyth County
Barnett, who’s producing an SF
educational TV show; and
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
Mind Control Lasers suddenly more
about how the field of history tends towards after-the-fact
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
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:
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
one day authorities grew tired of the Demos gatherings and forcefully
removed us from Gezi . . .
that is when the flippening happened.
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
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
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
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.
Fascinating discussion of warlord-centered “markets of violence.”
The opening quote is from a Facebook post, not his Twitter feed.
Who I first met at Guilford College’s What the Hell Con.
Targeting middle school students. Sort of a “Hogwarts in space.”
I read the first one as a re-gift from a goblin thief I happen to know.
Steve Jackson’s Illuminati: New World Order is a great little game, if you’ve never played it.
“Serving the paranoid since 1997.” How have I never seen this?
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.
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.
Includes a link to the classic cut “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” Coincidentally, the author also writes SF.
Longer and more technical than the NYT magazine article above.
Strangely, the mere presence of a weapon can increase various forms of aggression, even if it is not in direct use.
See especially Figure 2 for an explanation of the behavioral pathway.
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.
This is paywalled but allows you to at least see the chapter titles and first pages.
And some writers interpret the book differently than Micah White does.
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.
Like concerted efforts by third parties to inject chaos into the game.
Not proven, suspected.
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.
Read more by Randall Hayes
I love The Wayback Machine.