Violence: The Next Big Leap
Crime authors deal in the currency of violent behavior. Every society has violent actors. Mostly they play the part of villains, except when they are portrayed as heroes. The shifting role is confusing.
Crime novels are filled with guns, victims, criminals, police, prosecutors, judges, and prison guards. Flip through the pages of a crime fiction novel and you tune into some point in the continuum of violence. Crime fiction readers process violence through the vicarious experience of following the characters and story. Books, TV, and movies deliver the planning, execution, conspiracies, corruption and lies that propel violence.
Crime of the violent kind appeals to some desire or need deeply embedded in our nature. The fear of and fascination with violence are keys, which unlock the mysteries of our true nature. Hobbes built a philosophy on this cruel feature of the human psyche. He wasn’t alone. David Hume, the great Scottish philosopher, argued there was no justice, equality, or fairness in nature. People invented these ideas, taught them with parable, myths, foundation of culture and people stories incorporating them as sacred text. We cling to these ideas as a shield against violence and conspire to maintain the illusion that they are innate rather than they are made up by people just like you and me.
Crime writers tap into a long tradition of writers and thinkers who chart the pathways of violence and the safe byways to block those paths. The noir writer, like Hobbes, believes nothing short of holding people’s true nature hostage by ceding authority to one powerful representative who maintains the peace to contain violence in society.
We are in the midst of a modern story of violence reported in many places, which shows how fragile our defenses have become. Social justice, fairness and equality need a political structure to have meaning. Without a structure, brute central force is the substitute offered to guarantee a certain level of peace.
When faith in a democratic structure loses its grip on a substantial minority of people, we lurch to non-democratic alternatives to keeping the peace in densely populated areas.
Such repression does little to prevent or contain violence. The bonds that bind begin to fall apart. Has Thailand reached that point? My answer is not yet. The fact remains, despite the increase in violence and the instability of the political process, we enjoy a mostly peaceful existence in most places.
Around the world, we find cities that have or in the process of collapsing into the black hole of violence as well as countries which have fallen into the category of failed state. These are isolated events. In Thailand we are a substantial distance from a failed state. But the potential for a rapid, uncontrollable expansion of violence remains.
In general, we should be worried about the early warning signs that our great experiment in domestication and huge, dense concentrations of people may fail. In other words, is the world doomed to become a massive crime scene?
Before I discuss weapons (essential instruments along with drills, routines, propaganda in the domestication process), I want to talk about the scaling of large concentrations of people.
None of our closest cousins the Great Ape,
scale population concentrations beyond a small community. There are (no have there ever been) no cities of apes where thousands or millions lived side by side.
Our history is recorded in evolution allowing us to trace our mental and psychological roots to other primates.
Unlike our cousins in the primate world, in less than seventy years our population of 2.5 billion following WWII has exploded to over 7 billion in 2014. Millions of people shelter, feed, bath, play and kill each other in cities. Given our genetics that is an amazingly difficult thing given the density of cities, there isn’t more killing. It is evidence that domestication has been largely successful.
If you shoved one hundred chimps into a Sky train (BTS) carriage in Bangkok, closed the door and ran the train from Siam to On Nut and opened the doors, you’d find clumps of hair, blood, ripped-off testicles, missing eyes and noses, multiple wounded and dead bodies. And these chimps weren’t fighting over the merits of a political system. They have no political system or abstract ideals, or process for controlling anger, rage and violence when clumped together in a train. They revert to natural instinct and the lid comes off the bottled violence. These chimps were bad. They simply displayed their chimp-like nature. One that is very close to our own primate nature.
Civilization and modern big cities wouldn’t have risen without a number of other essential features such as fire, language, and tool making. But without a way to control our violence-prone species, the chances of scaling cities to populations of 12 million like Bangkok would have been impossible. My theory is that the big bang that drove that inflation in numbers and density was the role of the sacred and technological advance of ever increasingly powerful weapons.
The feeling of transcendence makes it possible for a person to feel part of a much larger collective or community. The experience of a sense of awe of the ineffable lifts a person beyond narrow borders of his or her own day to day life. Religion saw the opportunity to fill this space. In close quarter living, the goal is to strive for a domesticated species that believes that it is part of something larger than itself and fears exclusion from the community where this collective communion takes place.
One of our most powerful social constructs learnt from an early age is fueled by the strong desire to belong and fit in, to the family, the neighborhood, the school, and the church. The sacred through religion provided the stories and rules for such belonging to a larger whole. The early sense of the transcendent has decoupled from religion and found voice through the arts, music, literature, dance, and painting. The same mechanism is at work run by a sprawl of sacred creators, who are our unofficial, unorganized secular priesthood. Celebrities and other snake oil sellers mingle, offering their visual and aural cathedrals.
No matter how widespread the sacred is, it isn’t enough to stop our inclination to use violence. It has never been zero. The idea of zero tolerance for violence is Utopian. It remains at the margin everywhere. When a political system halts through gridlock, an uptick in violence is one of the first things to notice. In Bangkok, as the government is under siege, there are scattered acts of violence.
The isolated shootings and bombing are absorbed in the day-to-day living. In Bangkok, we read daily news reports of violence. We read about them on the Internet or in the Bangkok Post, or watch them on TV. The sound of gunfire, the pictures of bullet holes in windows of cars and houses, or images of beat-up people remain outside of our direct experience. Life in Bangkok goes on pretty much as usual with trains and restaurants packed, offices filled with workers, and traffic jams along Sukhumvit Road. The general calm of the vast population indicates the increase around the edges of violence has not panicked the population.
For the domesticated animal there isn’t a clear and present danger sensed when going out the door. Bangkok remains far away from the levels of violence found in Bagdad, Kabul, Caracas, Nairobi, Cape Town, Peshawar, Sana’s, Ciudad Juarez or other cities on the top ten most violent cities.
One of the common threads that run through the list of violent cities is the breakdown of domestication especially of young unemployed men; the ability to control violent people, armed and ready to use their weapons, isn’t working in these cities. The danger is greater as the ability for fast, cheap communication and alliance building through social media creates instant communities fueled by anger and hatred. It is hard to have mass violence without those emotions infecting a significant number of people.
People are emotionally driven and our communication breakthroughs have enabled them to amplify anger and fear over vast numbers of people, and to organize and deploy angry people. We look around at the world, and there is no shortage of fronts where people attack each other, or strike out against neighbors who happen to accept a different view of the sacred, or come from a different tribe or ethnic group. Another feature of widespread violence points questions of legitimacy of authority, or lack of fear of the authorities.
In the top ten most violent cities, the legitimacy of the government is openly questioned by force of arms. Those challenging the authority aren’t deterred by any credible threat of state violence to stop them. A small minority that can create enough chaos to make a city impossible to live in and drives refugees to cross border destabilizing their neighbors and exhausting resources of international humanitarian agencies.
In my first novel, His Lordship’s Arsenal, I created a story about the invention of the Thompson sub-Machine gun and how that weapon changed the way violence was projected and distributed in a way that revolutionized the world. The idea of weapons and their capability was based on assumptions about the relationship of soldiers and officers and the State on the Eve of WWI. Modern weapons toppled political systems in Europe collapsed like a house of cards. I explored the theme of this technical/political change. The grunt with a machine gun capability had a weapon that could kill hundreds of the enemy, including their officers, heroes, and officials. Their trigger finger represented more power than any previous warrior who’d ever gone to battle. No longer did an officer distribute rounds to his troops in the field. The troops in the field had their own supply ammo fed by belts in to rapid firing weapons. A generation of young men, well-bred and lowly-bred, in Europe died in WWI trenches felled by other young men manning machine guns.
One hundred years later another technological change threatens to change power arrangements between those with a monopoly over violence and the domesticated populations who bow to these overlords.
Hovering above the future event horizon is another leap in weapon technology. Drones. What is in store for us is beginning to take shape. There is a window for the state authorities to retake control of violence and neutralize the egalitarian nature of automatic infantry weapons. The elites equipped the infantry with such weapons and feared that such weapons could be turned on them. If one could keep the firepower with the elites as in medieval times, this elite fear could be more easily managed.
Nuclear weapons and guided non-nuclear missile systems are overkill for this purpose. But a drone that can stay over head for hours, watching, waiting, for the digital command from an operational center 10,000 miles away is another kind of weapon entirely. The new infantry sits behind computer monitors thousands of miles away in ordinary cities, goes home at night to spouse and children, goes to school plays, shops at the mall, sees the latest film at the cinema. They don’t carry an automatic weapon home at night.
An essay that examines the implication of new drone-robotic weapon systems and concludes this generation of weapons represents a game changer. Why? Because a drone means the 1% no longer needing the 99% as muscle in the violence business. Owning the software and hardware does away with the need for heavy lifting by troops in the field. Weekly meetings to agree upon the kill list, expansion of surveillance to detect the violent troublemakers, and using, in essence, white-collar computer workers to pull the trigger creates a new weapons/violence paradigm. The idea is the 1% can use drones to subdue the 99% who are no longer essential as frontline troops. This not only reverses the equality earned through the use automatic weapons in WWI, it upsets the whole notion of projecting violence and re-domesticating the population with instruments to instill genuine fear.
If this premise turns out to be true, no matter how much oppression we feel from the authorities that administer the current state of weapon technology, 2014 will appear to be the end of the golden age of freedom and liberty enjoyed by billions of people. Policing, administration of justice, the process of controlling criminal conduct would be thoroughly disrupted. Crime novels would be an oddity from the distant past and read with the survivors by a degree of awe and disbelief.
The struggle over violence containment has inevitably called into balance the golden mean, the sweet spot between just enough tyranny to keep our primate violence in check so large populations whose members are competing for scare resources and mates can live in peace, but not so oppressive as to allow for outliers to convince the average person it was in his or her interest to risk life, limb, family, and property in order to turn violence against his neighbor or combine with his neighbors to challenge the authorities.
There are other possible outcomes. As autonomous robotic system integrate with artificial intelligence, it is likely that overtime the 1% may find the weapon systems pointed at them. The newly grouped 100% will have an overlord to ensure not the survival of the fitness but survival of the most domesticated human and once again the term ‘drone’ will apply to people rather than smart weapons.
Our social constructs will no longer be programmed by the 1%; they will be programmed by a machine world that will know better than us our biases, our weakness, and our primate nature. Such knowledge drawn from big data will be more effective than codes, stories, myths or sacredness penned by any ruler, philosopher, historian, psychologist or the smartest person working at Facebook or Google. Our sacredness will evolve into ways we can’t quite imagine. Our overlords will program our faith.
Past wars have had the collateral effect to cull the legions of angry unemployed young men. Artificial Intelligence may decide it is more efficient to cull the populations down to historical size where violence prone primates needed less managing.
Realistically, we have to face the fact that an AI system might question the wisdom of feeding, housing, controlling 7 billion people, large numbers of whom act on violent impulse. These numbers create a big management, logistical and environmental problem.
No country or leader has shown the resources or ability required to resolve conflict between and inside such large groups. At the same time, the population shows no signs of stabilizing.
We are finding our limits. When we can’t find a 250-ton plane with 239 people two weeks after it disappeared, we are learning a lesson in humility. For all of our advanced technology, we have large blind spots. It is only a matter of time before machine intelligence eliminates the blind spots and decides a general culling of the population would restore our primate species to the proper order from which we evolved and broke free on our journey out of Africa.