Everything I needed to know about game theory, I learned from Italian publishers

There is an Italian version of More Than Two. Or rather, there is, in an alternate universe in which the Italian publisher who published the Italian-language edition of More Than Two was honest and abided by its agreements, an Italian version of More Than Two. Alas, that universe is not this universe.

In the universe we live in, the publisher signed an agreement, but then never made the payment that would have activated the rights transfer. They also added a foreword without consulting with us first, something explicitly forbidden in the agreement.

Okay, so that’s shitty and all, but the place where things get especially weird is that so far, every Italian person we’ve talked to about this has nodded sagely and said, “Well, yes. That’s Italy.”

Since things have gone sideways with the Italian publisher, I’ve heard a number of stories of commiseration from Italians. This is, it seems, about par for the course when one sets out to do business in Italy.

Which is really weird, when you think about it.

But I didn’t come here to complain about the Italian publisher of More Than Two. I came here to talk about game theory.

Say you’re a businessperson who deals with a certain…unsavory element buying and selling products you legally oughtn’t. Say that, for your security and that of your clients, you always do business anonymously. You don’t know who your clients are, they don’t know who you are, and never the two of you shall meet. You do business indirectly: you leave a suitcase full of money under the tree stump at the old Dearborn farm, and your client leaves a sack with the shady goods under a trestle out by the abandoned railroad bridge.

This is a variant on the Prisoner’s Dilemma problem, which I’ve touched on before in the context of polyamory. This is a classic problem in game theory. You have a choice: leave your money or leave an empty suitcase. Your mystery client has a choice: leave the goods or leave an empty sack. If you both leave what you’re supposed to leave, you both benefit. If one of you leaves what you’re supposed to leave and the other leaves nothing, then whoever left nothing makes out double–he gets the money and the goods. And if you both leave nothing, neither of you loses but neither of you gains, either.

In game theory terms, you each have a choice: cooperate (C) or defect (D). Each of you chooses C or D. If you both choose C, you both benefit a little; if you both choose D, neither of you benefits but you also don’t lose; if one chooses C and once chooses D, the person who chooses C loses and the person who chooses D gains.

The temptation, then, is very strong to defect.

Ah, but what if you don’t have just a single exchange? What if you have a standing arrangement where you do the transaction every Friday night at midnight? If your mystery partner defects, you will naturally lose trust, and you’ll have no reason to cooperate. But if both of you defect all the time, neither of you is getting what you want! Presumably you want the goods more than you want the money, and presumably they want the money more than they want the goods, or else you’d never agree to the exchange. So what benefit is there in both of you practicing an all-defect strategy?

So the calculation is a bit different in one-off exchanges (where there’s strong incentive to defect) vs. an ongoing relationship (where there’s incentive to cooperate).

These situations play out all the time in real life. Every day, we have choices to cooperate or defect, where defecting might give us short-term gain, but at the cost of long-term success. Some of those choices are made in situations where there won’t be an ongoing relationship, and some in situations where there will.

Most of the time, we know the other player in these games; it’s rare the other side is totally anonymous. It’s also rare each side is powerless to seek redress if one party defects. In fact, you could make a case for the notion that’s what civilization is: a system designed to prevent people from practicing an all-defect strategy without consequence.

We are a social species. Social entities have to work together. If everyone defects all the time, social structures break down. This is, in fact, hypothesized as the root of altruism: for social species, altruism has positive survival value. Working together, we can accomplish more, and survive challenges we can’t survive apart. (There’s a book about this, in fact; it’s called The Evolution of Cooperation.)

But there’s no getting around the fact that defecting does offer a short-term payoff, especially if you do it and your partner doesn’t. And there’s a huge penalty for cooperating if your partner defects. Them’s the facts.

In most human societies, most people cooperate most of the time. In some societies, however, it seems people are more prone to defect.

The Italian publisher applied and all-defect strategy with us. They defected when they didn’t pay us, and defected again when they added a foreword. When we complained, they said they’d stop selling the book until we resolved our differences; and while we were in the process of negotiating with them to do so, they defected yet again, continuing to sell and advertise the book when they’d said they’d stop. And then, when we complained again, they said, “Ok, sue us, Italian courts are so slow it’ll never go to trial–and even if it does, we don’t have any money anyway.”

So finally, we stopped trying to negotiate, issued a statement, and started filing takedown requests. From the publisher’s perspective, this probably felt like a defection. And neither we nor the publisher got what we wanted. And everyone shrugged and said, “Yeah, that’s Italy for you.”

Worse, the fact that we pulled the plug probably validated the publisher’s idea. “See,” they might say, “this is why we behave the way we do–because, look, people are always screwing us!” When you practice an all-D strategy, your partners are going to defect too. Which means you should defect, because they’re going to defect, so why should you be the only chump cooperating?

But here’s the thing: Since we are, arguably, evolved to be cooperative; since most of the encounters we have are not one-off exchanges (and even if they are, word gets around–if you screwed your last ten customers, the eleventh might not want to deal with you); and since societies need some minimum level of cooperating in order to function…why do we occasionally see places where people appear to play an all-D strategy?

One person Eve and I have spoken to has suggested that Italy has such a long history of corrupt, dysfunctional politics and essentially broken legal systems that people have developed a habit of breaking rules, simply because in a corrupt society, you must break rules simply to get anything done. This pattern has played out in Russia as well, another place where, it seems, all-D strategies are common. If that’s true, it would seem to create a perfect storm of positive feedback: people begin to defect routinely, as a matter of course, because the social systems have become dysfunctional. This causes the social systems to become more dysfunctional, because societies in which many people tend to defect are intrinsically dysfunctional. That increased dysfunction causes more people to defect more often in their exchanges with others, which leads to greater dysfunction, and so it goes.

Which, if that’s true, bodes ill.

There is, right now, in the US White House, a person who has made a career of defecting. The Cheeto-in-Chief is notorious for screwing his contractors, his vendors, and his financial backers; that’s why he ended up in bed with Russian banks–American banks refuse to do business with him. His Orangeness has surrounded himself with people who also tend to practice all-D strategies; indeed, one could argue that the Tea Party was virtually built on a foundation of all-D behavior.

I fear that, if this idea becomes entrenched enough in US society, it will become normalized to defect as a matter of course, in all kinds of business and social interactions. Once that positive feedback loop sets in, I’m not sure how, or if, it can be reversed.

And people will sigh, and nod, and say, “You got screwed by an American company? Yeah, that’s the Americans for you.”

A society that works this way will never remain a world power. (Russia, I’m looking at you here.)

The Lucifer Effect effect

Eve loves to read to me. It’s one of the love languages we share, and it’s been a part of our relationship for years. We’ve read fiction (like Use of Weapons) and non-fiction (like Parasite Rex) together.

The Lucifer Effect is a book by Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist who designed the now-infamous Stanford prison experiment. The Stanford prison experiment was an attempt to understand the dynamics of deindividuation in prison environments. Zimbardo hypothesized that prisoners lose their sense of individual identity in institutional settings. The experiment, which had been focused on prisoners, ended up showing that prison guards become abusive not because they are evil or abusers, but because the psychological environment of prison creates enormous pressure for otherwise normal people to become abusive and sadistic. The experiment recruited a group of college students to role-play prisoners or guards in a false prison. Within days, the students assigned to guard roles became so violent, abusive, and sadistic, and tortured the students playing the role of prisoners so severely, that the experiment was discontinued.

And the book has turned into a rough ride for me.

Reading the book, which goes into great detail about the physical and psychological abuse inflicted on the “prisoners” by the “guards,” has been surprisingly difficult. When Eve reads this book to me, I find my blood pressure shooting up, I end up angry and irritable, and I have trouble sleeping.

This is Venango Elementary School, in Venango, Nebraska, the tiny town where I grew up.

It’s more fair to say this was Venango Elementary School. It closed for lack of students decades ago. Venango had 242 people living in it when I was there; at the last census, the population had fallen to 167, none of whom are children. The grounds are still maintained by a retired gentleman who’s lived in Venango most of his life, but nobody’s had a class here in a very long time.

When I was in middle school, I was socially isolated and alienated. I was the only kid in town who didn’t follow football, and the only one who owned a computer. I had no friends, and spent my time building model rockets or dialing computer bulletin boards from my TRS-80.

Needless to say, I was bullied extensively during my career in middle school. The two worst offenders were the two Mikes, Mike A. and Mike C. They were both a couple of years older than I was and quite a lot bigger, and they were inseparable. One of them—I think it was Mike C., though time may have garbled that detail—was fond of coming to school in a T-shirt with iron-on letters on it that spelled out “It’s nice to be injected but I’d rather be blown.” (It’s about cars, geddit? Geddit?)

The particulars of the abuse I suffered at their hands is as predictable as it is tedious, so I won’t bother cataloging them. The official response from teachers and faculty was also tediously predictable; they were aware of the abuse but not particularly motivated to intervene.

I went into high school shy and with few social skills. Then, about the time I was midway through my senior year, I changed.

I had always believed that the reason I was bullied was the reasons bullies gave for bullying me: I wore glasses; I didn’t like football; I liked computers. It took a very long time for me to learn that the content of bullying is completely separate from bullying. That is, bullies bully because they are bullies. If I didn’t wear glasses, if I didn’t like computers, if I did like football, they would still have bullied me, they just would have bullied me about different things.

But that wasn’t the life-changing revelation. In fact, it didn’t come until after the life-changing revelation.

The life-changing revelation was that bullies bully people who don’t fight back. If you want to end bullying, you walk up to the biggest, meanest bully of the bunch, reach back, and punch him square in the face. When bullies realize you bite back, they look for easier prey.

So I went into college with a whole new attitude about violence, one that a lot of folks who know me now find difficult to believe. I was, for a while, quite willing to resort to casual violence in the service of self-protection. I got into fistfights often, and learned yet another lesson: victory does not go to the biggest or the strongest person in the fight. Victory, nine times out of ten, goes to the person who escalates fastest, the one willing to do what the other person is not. I could get in a fight with opponents far larger and stronger than I was, and I almost always came out on top, because I escalated swiftly and aggressively.

I am not the person I used to be. Or, more accurately, I am not the people I used to be. I’m not the shy, friendless, unsocialized bullying victim I was in Venango. I’m also not the aggressive, in-your-face, ready-for-a-fight guy with a hair trigger I was in college. In fact, most of the time it’s hard for me to connect with either of those mindsets any more.

But man, this book.

This book does not mince detail. It describes, directly and even clinically, the abuses suffered by the “prisoners” on behalf of the “guards,” abuses that range from verbal bullying to refusing to allow the prisoners to use the bathroom and forcing them to urinate and defecate in their rooms.

When Eve reads this book to me, I’m transported back to the person I was in college. I can feel my body amping up—I can feel the adrenaline, the shaking, the hair trigger coiled up inside me ready to explode that I used to feel back in my college days whenever someone would start harassing me. And I mean that literally; my hands will shake while she’s reading.

I can identify with the group of students who were made into prisoners. I can understand what they’re experiencing. And I believe that if I had been chosen to participate in an experiment like the SPE and had been assigned to the role of prisoner, there is a very strong likelihood I would have injured or killed one of the “guards,” or been injured or killed myself in the attempt.

It’s been rough, this book. It’s brought me viscerally back to a time and place that I haven’t been in for more than half my life now. We’ve had to switch from reading it in the evening before bed to reading it in the afternoon, because when we read it at night, I can’t sleep.

The book is an excellent deep dive into the underworld of institutional evil (and it’s astonishing how closely the casual abuse that happened in the faux prison in the basement of the Stanford psychology building mirrored the abuses in the real world at Abu Ghraib, and for exactly the same reasons). It’s a book I think everyone needs to read, now more than ever, and I’m glad we’re reading it.

But man, it’s turned into a painful slog.

A lot has changed in twenty years

Wow, has it really been twenty years? My God.

Back in 1996, I released the first version of the sex game Onyx. It’s a game for two to six adult players, played a bit like Monopoly (the players can buy properties on a game board) but with a twist. Each player fills out a profile specifying sex, orientation, and kinks, and if a player lands on a property owned by someone of the correct sex and orientation, the player can pay rent or work off the debt. Working off the debt causes the game to search its database of sex acts and draw an appropriate act that fits the genders and kinks of the players.

All very straightforward, right?

Fast forward twenty years. I’m working on (among many, many other things) an update to Onyx, Onyx version 4, and I’m a lot more aware now than I was then.

Twenty years ago, I thought there were only two possible sexes, and the idea that someone might be trans wasn’t even on my radar. (And nonbinary genders? Way outside my conception!) One of the things this new update includes is a complete overhaul of my assumptions, which means a complete overhaul of some legacy code that stretches clear back to version 1.0.

Onyx 4 will allow players to specify their own pronouns however they like, and will be much more accommodating of trans and nonbinary players. As part of the update, I’m going through the database of sex acts, and man, I made a lot of assumptions.

Assumptions about pronouns. Assumptions about genitalia. Assumptions about what would and would not be possible when someone identified as a particular gender.

It’s slow going. There are hundreds of actions in the database, and I’m having to go through and check every one: am I using hard-coded pronouns? Am I presuming what the players’ bodies look like? (Spoiler: Yes. Yes, I was.)

It’s been an interesting exercise, being confronted with these assumptions in a direct and systematic way. I hope the new version, whenever it’s done, will be more accessible and accommodating for more people.

Some thoughts on being fifty

Three days ago, I celebrated my fiftieth birthday.

Well, perhaps “celebrated” is too strong a statement. I was in the middle of an allergy attack that made me miserable, so I spent it faffing about on the computer rather than engaging in the kind of orgiastic bacchanal that one might expect from an Internet sex gargoyle.

In any event, in between faffings on the Internet, I spent some time musing about what an absolutely bizarre trip it’s been, and some time cleaning in my writer’s loft. These two things are related, as it turns out, because in the process of cleaning I came upon some old photographs.

I started the journey through life in New Jersey. Before I was a year old, I realized that living in New Jersey was a bit rubbish, so I moved to Idaho, taking my entire family with me. My parents drove a Volkswagen Bug, something which apparently left quite an impression. What can I say? I was struck by the elegant simplicity and robustness of the design.

We stayed in Idaho long enough for me to pick up a sister, then bounced around the Great Midwest for a while, where I picked up the hobby of model rocketry. There is, it seems only one battered and scuffed Polaroid photo exists from this particular time in my life–peculiar, when one considers that model rocketry was pretty much the greatest thing in my life for quite a long time.

And yes, that’s a plastic model of a Romulan bird of prey from the original Star Trek on my desk. Don’t judge me.

I had a computer back then as well, a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 1 that was a Christmas gift from my aunt in 1977. That thing might have saved my sanity. I didn’t have any friends while I was growing up in Venango, Nebraska, but who needs friends when you have a computer and a bunch of rockets?

Radio Shack published the complete schematic of the TRS-80. Seriously, you could walk into the store and buy not only the schematics but also books on how to modify it, and a complete, commented disassembly of the ROM chips–something that is beyond unthinkable today.

I modified the computer extensively, spray-painted it black, and overclocked it. Stock, it had a 1.77MHz Z80 8-bit processor, which I modified to work at 2.44 MHz (which caused some software to break) or at approximately 4 MHz (which caused it to malfunction frequently and required that I set it in a tray full of plastic bags of ice). The yellow LED you see in this photo would come on when I ran it at 2.44 MHz, the red LED would come on at 4 MHz. My parents were often horrified to see it spread out all across my bed, which was the only work space I had.

I kept it until I was almost 40, purely from nostalgia.

In my memoir The Game Changer, I talk about taking two dates to my high school senior prom. This wasn’t because I was suave with the ladies; it was because one person asked me to the prom, I said yes, another person also asked me, I said yes again, and it didn’t even occur to me that this might be a problem.

Fortunately, they were both totally cool about the whole thing. I took them both to dinner before the prom, which raised a few eyebrows.

Only two photos from that prom exist that I’m aware of, and I found both of them. Yes, I’ve always been a weird-looking motherfucker.

Until recently, I have not been much into partner dancing, though I do love to dance. My high school senior prom might’ve been the last time I partner danced until I was in my 40s.

I had a storied checkered educational career. I went to school at Lehigh University, where I discovered, and feel in love with, a Digital Equipment Corporation DECsystem-20 mainframe. Ours was a forbidden love. There were certain…allegations from the faculty of less-than-completely-aboveboard activities involving that mainframe. “Computer hacking,” they said. Also, “your scholarship is revoked.” And “don’t come back.”

I bounced around for a bit, worked fast food for a while, then ended up going to school in Florida again. Sadly, that part of my life is poorly documented–if any photos exist from that period, I don’t have them.

I did find this photo of me, taken in April of 1991, the last year I was in college.

My early childhood experience with my parents’ Volkswagen led to a long-term love for the cars, of which I’ve owned two. The first car I ever owned was a 1969 Bug; my third car was a 71 Bug, which, like my computer, I modified extensively.

There’s a passage in The Game Changer in which I talk about how absolutely clueless I was about sex and relationships, and how I could not recognize even the most obvious attempts at flirting:

Worse, I was in that awkward stage of male development where I was so desperate to try to figure out how to get girls to pay attention to me that I completely missed it when girls paid attention to me. Prior to that afternoon at Jake’s place, Caitlin and I had spent quite a lot of time together. We were great friends. But when I look back with wiser eyes, I can see she was trying in a thousand ways to tell me she was open to more.

One particular evening, I drove her home from work in my beat-up Volkswagen Bug. We sat in the car in front of her house talking for a while. She complained there was something on the seat digging into her butt. She dug around for a bit and came up with a small machine screw—a leftover, no doubt, from the work I’d just done replacing the back fenders with the half-sized fenders popular among people who liked to take Volkswagens through deep mud. “Hey!” she said brightly, holding it up. “Wanna screw?”

The whoosh of her flirt passing over my head might have sucked all the air out of the car had the windows not been open. It was years before I realized she’d been flirting with me all along.

This is the car in which that happened.

From about 1978 or so on, I had been involved heavily in the computer BBS scene. A BBS was the forerunner of modern Web forums–a computer running special software connected to a phone line, which you could dial into and leave messages on (text only, generally) at agonizingly slow speeds. Most BBS systems could only accommodate one user at a time, so if you called while someone else was logged on, you’d get a busy signal. Popular systems were constantly busy, so you’d set your computer up to keep redialing, over and over, until it got through, then alert you when it made a connection.

I was on systems with names like CBBS-Chicago, Pirate-80, and Magnetic Fantasies. When I started school in Sarasota, I ended up with a roommate who was, like me, an enthusiastic TRS-80 hacker and BBS fan. He ran a BBS called The Wyvern’s Den. I thought “hey, I can do that!” and started a BBS of my own, called a/L/T/E/R r/E/A/L/I/T/Y.

I ran A/R for about six or seven years, on a TRS-80 Model 4 that had been heavily modified. The IBM PS/2 computer had just come out, and the PS/2 systems used 3.5″ floppy drives that had a design defect: they were prone for going out of alignment. IBM would replace them under warranty and then, rather than taking the five minutes to fix the floppy drives, would just throw them out. I went Dumpster diving behind an IBM repair shop one evening, came out with a big pile of 3.5″ floppy drives, cleaned them up, aligned them, and connected them to the TRS-80 by way of a custom hardware interface I designed and built. These became the storage for the A/R message boards. You can see two of them, sitting bare without cases, to the right of the computer in this photo. There’s a third one sitting on the shelf just behind the center of the computer, and a fourth one under the 5.25″ floppy in the foreground on the right.

TRS-80 floppy drive controllers were only supposed to be able to access four floppy drives, but it turned out to be possible to instruct the floppy controller to access two drives at the same time, so with a bit of software trickery and a 4-line-to-16-line demultiplexer chip, you could actually get them to talk to up to 16 drives at once.

There’s a wooden box just barely visible in the right-hand side of the picture. It held a power supply that powered all the floppy drives. I used to warn guests to the apartment, “don’t touch that, you’ll get electrocuted.”

I was a late bloomer sexually, but made up for it through the rest of my life. In the late 90s, I developed a prototype of an Internet-controlled sex toy. It rose up out of a toy I’d developed in the mid-90s that was designed to be plugged into a telephone line and controlled by the tones from a Touch-Tone phone. My former business partner and I tried to bring it to market, with less than stellar success.

We designed a plastic cabinet for it, which we made with a vacuum-forming rig we built. We had a run of circuit boards made, and I would sit for hours at the kitchen table with a soldering iron in my hand putting components on them. The company we’d hired to fab the circuit boards made a mistake in the fabrication, so each board required reworking as well.

We called the device “Symphony.” This is the very first one we ever sold. It’s supposed to have the name “Symphony” screen printed on the front; somehow, this one ended up without the screen printing.

And now, decades later, Im still exploring the intersection of sex and technology.

From high tech to low tech: in the early 2000s, I was invited to speak at Florida Poly Retreat. One of the classes I taught was in how to build a trebuchet, a Medieval siege engine. During the course of that workshop, we designed and built a working model trebuchet.

The T-shirt I’m wearing in this photo reads “Catapultam habeo. Nisi pecuniam omnem dabis, ad caput tuum saxum immane.”

Even after my divorce from my ex-wife Celeste, which story forms the backbone of The Game Changer, I kept this habit of extensively hacking any computer I own. (That continues to this day; I’m typing this on a MacBook Pro that has had its DVD drive removed and replaced with a second hard drive, and the first hard drive has been replaced with an SSD.)

My partner Amber and I moved into an apartment together after the divorce. The living room looked like this.

I kept the TRS-80s and an Apple Lisa, even though they’d largely been retired by this point. The black thing stuck to the ceiling is an Apple //c monitor, spray-painted black. It had a green screen monochrome display that accepted a composite video signal, so it was easy to pipe just about any video into it. Most of the time, Amber and I had it showing Bladerunner on a loop. When I played World of Warcraft, though, I would pipe that to it instead.

Amber and I ended up rescuing two cats during the time we lived together. One, a rather handsome tabby, had climbed a tree to the third story of the apartment building next to ours, jumped from an overhanging branch onto the roof, and then realized he couldn’t get back down. He cried piteously for days. We threw food up to him until we could figure out a way to rescue him. We named him Snow Crash.

The other adopted Amber when we were out walking in a large park late one night. We heard a cat meowing from under some bushes. When we turned around, a cat came catapulting out straight for Amber and jumped up into her arms. She refused to let go, holding on to Amber until we walked all the way back to the car, then insisting on accompanying us home. We named her Molly, for the character Molly Millions in Neuromancer.

So here I am, fifty years old, and what a peculiar thing it is to be a human being. Life is amazing.

When I was a child living in Venango, the bus that took me to school would drive past a church with a sign out front that had pithy sayings on it intended to inspire us to live better lives. One day, that sign said “Your life either sheds light or casts a shadow.” I knew, at eleven years old, there was something wrong with that, but I didn’t have the words to describe what. Now, almost forty years layer, I understand: it’s bullshit. We are all, every one of us, made of light and shadow, good and evil.

I have screwed things up and hurt people. I have been hurt. I have gotten things wrong, made mistakes, been careless with the hearts of others.

I have also experienced the most amazing love. I have known and been loved by people who are so remarkable, I consider myself privileged merely to have known them. I have learned things and gotten some things right.

We are all made of light and shadow. It is on all of us to treat each other with care. We’re all confused. Being human is fundamentally weird and more than a little scary. We’re all making this up as we go along, even those of us–especially those of us–who try to pretend we Have It All Figured Out.

I’ve spent thirteen and a half billion years, give or take, not existing, and fifty years existing. That’s enough of a sample size to tell me that existing is better. It’s harder, sure. We have to do stuff. We have to make choices. You don’t have to make choices when you don’t exist. Making choices means sometimes we make wrong choices, and making wrong choices means sometimes we hurt people. Hurting people sucks.

I carry a lot of regrets with me. There are many things I have done that I wish with all my heart I could undo–times when I have not been as careful as I should be, perhaps too preoccupied with my own fears to be properly gentle with other people. It’s a consequence of being plonked into existence without a user’s manual.

We all get banged up a bit on the journey through life. But despite that, I would not trade a goddamn minute of it for anything. I am flawed and I make mistakes. All the people I know are flawed and make mistakes. And yet, this brief moment we share in the sun is a gift of inestimable value. I am grateful for every moment of it, and I hope to be here in existence for much, much more.

Some random late-night musings on profanity

When I was a kid, I had a little plaque with a poem on it hanging up on my bedroom wall. I have no idea who wrote the poem or where it came from, but it was there on my wall for so long I memorized it.

Never say die, say “damn!”
It isn’t poetic,
it may be profane,
but we mortals have need of it,
time and again.
And you’ll find you recover from Fate’s hardest slam,
if you never say die, say “damn!”

I love profanity. I’ll admit it. Supposedly “profane” language is language that communicates quickly and effectively, with lovely immediacy. It’s shunned because it’s particularly well-suited to conveying unruly emotions–messy, untidy emotions that some folks would like to pretend don’t exist.

But they do, and “vulgar” language is singularly eloquent in expressing them.

There is tremendous nuance in vulgarity. If I call someone a hopeless fuckmuppet, that conveys a different meaning than if I say they’re a hopeless fuckwit or a hopeless fuckhead. Each of these communicates disdain, to be sure, and in a far more visceral way than saying “I rather do believe that chap is quite distressingly incompetent at going about this business of life,” but those few syllables after the vulgarity carry a great deal of subtlety and differentiation.

People who fear vulgar language fear life, for it is a fact not easily overlooked that some parts of life are vulgar.

Some thoughts on social issues in video games

Unless you’ve spent the last year living entirely under a rock, far from the hustle and bustle of normal life, and entirely without any sort of Internet connection, you’re probably aware to some extent of a rather lengthy fuss about the heart and soul of computer gaming. This fuss, spearheaded by a diverse group of people loosely gathered under a name whose initials are similar to GargleGoose, is concerned about the future of comic book and video game entertainment. They believe that a sinister, shadowy cabal of “social justice warriors”–folks who are on a mission to, you know, right wrongs and uplift the oppressed, kind of the way Batman or Superman do only without the fabulous threads. This cabal, they fear, is coming for their video games. The social justice warriors, if we are to believe GameteGoose, are so obsessed with political correctness that they wish to make every game in the world a sanitized, sterile sandbox where not the slightest whisper of sex or violence may be seen.

Okay, so granted that’s not likely the characterization GrizzleGoose would put to their aims, though I think the general gist is there.

And they’re not entirely wrong, though they’re pretty far from right. There is a battle going on for the heart and soul of entertainment. For decades, comic books and video games have catered to straight white middle-class guys, who overwhelmingly make up the demographic that bought the games, read the comics, and to whom writers, artists, and developers catered with laser focus.

But times have changed, comics and games have gone mainstream, and they’re attracting more and more people who aren’t straight white dudes any more. And as other folks have come into the scene, they have started pointing out that some of the tropes that’ve long been taken for granted in these media are, well, a little problematic.

And merely by pointing that out, the folks talking about these problematic things have provoked pushback. When you live in a world where everyone caters to your exact tastes, the idea that some people might start making some things that aren’t to your liking feels like a betrayal. And the suggestion that there might be something about your taste that isn’t quite right? Well, that can quickly turn into an existential threat.

GooeyGoose has effectively capitalized on that existential threat, rallying straight white dudes into believing they’re the Rebel Alliance who are under attach from the forces of social justice while adroitly handwaving away the reality that when it comes to popular taste in entertainment media, straight white middle-class dudes are and have always been the hegemonizing Empire.

But here’s the thing. You can point out that popular entertainment media is problematic without saying the people who like it are bad people.

I play Skyrim.

Skyrim is an open-world role-playing game where the player takes on the persona of a mythic hero trying to save a world plagued by dragons, a civil war, and the restless undead. It’s almost entirely unstructured, with players having the ability to choose to do just about Anything. Non-player characters the player interacts with offer advice and provide quests, which the player can choose whether or not to do.

It’s a lot of fun to play. I’ve lost quite a number of hours of my life to it, fighting dragons, deciding which side of the civil war to support, participating in political intrigue, exploring creepy dungeons, and exploring a lush and richly detailed world.

It also has some problematic issues.

This is Haelga, one of the characters in the game. The player can be given a minor side quest in the game by her niece, who works for Haelga but doesn’t like her very much. Haelga’s niece, Svana Far-Shield, tells the player that Haelga is having sex with several different men, and wants the player to get proof in order to shame and humiliate Haelga.

The way the quest is written, it’s sex-negative as hell. It plays to just about every derogatory trope out there: open female sexuality is shameful, women who are perceived as sexual are “sluts,” and pouncing on a woman with evidence of her sexual attitude is a sure way to humiliate (and therefore control) her.

You might argue that Skyrim is set in a time that is not as enlightened as the modern-day West, but that ignores a very important reality: Skyrim is set in a time and place that never existed. There’s no compelling reason to write sex-negativity into the script. The game works well without it. It’s there not because the distant faux-medieval past was sex-negative, but because modern-day America is.

But that, too, misses a point, and it misses the same point the GiggleGoose folks miss:

It is possible to recognize problematic elements of a game and still enjoy the game.

I recognize that this quest in Skyrim is sex-negative, and that’s a problem. I still like the game.

The people who play these games and read these comic books are not bad people for doing so. The content of the games and comics is troubling to anyone who cares about people other than straight white middle-class men, sure, and it’s certainly reasonable to point these things out when they occur (though they happen so damn often that one could easily make a full-time career of pointing them out). That doesn’t make the people who like them Bad And Wrong simply because they enjoy them.

GiddyGoose believes that saying video games are a problem is the same thing as saying people who enjoy video games are a problem. And if you identify with comic books and video games so strongly that you can not separate your entertainment media from your sense of self, they might be on to something.

But most folks, I think, are able to take a deep breath, step back a half pace, and recognize that the writers and developers have done some really cool, fun stuff, but they can still do better. It would not kill anyone if the quest in Skyrim were rewritten (how about have Haelga’s character replaced by a man? There’s a thought…), or even dropped entirely. Nobody suffers from recognizing that it’s not cool to make fun of people who aren’t like you.

Nobody’s saying that Skyrim shouldn’t exist, or that people who play it are terrible people. I would like to think, on my optimistic days, that that’s an idea anyone smart enough to work a computer can recognize.

Some thoughts on porn, coercion, and the Fundamental Reconstruction Error

If you spend any time in any forums where people talk about sex, it is a truth as inevitable as night following day that, sooner or later, someone is going to talk about porn.

And as soon as someone starts to talk about porn, a certain predictable conversation will come up.

“Porn performers are coerced and trafficked,” someone will say. “Porn is bad because women are forced into it. It is a terrible meat-grinder industry. We need to rescue all the victims of porn.”

The same narrative comes up around sex work as well. Sex workers, according to a certain kind of person, are victims, people there because they have been forced, threatened, or tricked into it.

The people who make these arguments, in my experience, almost certainly don’t know any porn performers or sex workers. They will cite “studies” they read on the Internet, like the rather dreadful study that claims legal prostitution in the Netherlands has resulted in a huge increase in trafficking in that country. (I’ve read that study. Buried in the fine print: the study’s authors define a “traffick victim” as any person who for any reason crosses national boundaries and then ends up working in any capacity in the sex trade. So a person who immigrates legally and voluntarily goes to work as a sex worker is a “trafficking victim” according to the study.)

A particularly pernicious variant on this “women-as-victims” narrative is circulating amongst folks who are generally politically liberal and see themselves as allies of women, but still face discomfort about porn and sex work: Well, yes, women can and do freely choose to go into porn or sex work, but, you see, not abuse porn like what you see at Kink.com. Those women go into normal mainstream porn, and then they get “groomed” to do abusive porn.

I’ve seen variants on this narrative turning up in places where people are otherwise open to the notion that not all sex workers or performers are victims–sure, “mainstream” porn (whatever that is–I would say there really isn’t any such thing as “mainstream” porn; porn is, by its nature, niche) isn’t inherently exploitive, but that kinky stuff? Man, just look at it! Sometimes the performers cry! That’s clearly abuse!–and for a long time, I’ve simply chalked it up to standard, ordinary squicks about exchanging money for sex, cultural taboos about sex, ideas about what is “normal” or “not normal” around sex. You know, the ordinary soup of preconceptions, emotions, and cultural norms that oozes through the public discourse on sex.

But lately, I’ve started thinking there’s something else at work, too. Something that lies rooted in a tacit assumption that those who hold these ideas about porn and sex work hold, but don’t directly articulate, and an assumption that sex-positive folks who support the right of people to choose porn and sex work don’t directly address: the starvation model of sex work.

The starvation model of sex work starts with the assumption that it is hard to find people who want to do porn or sex work. A reasonable person wouldn’t make that choice, except through coercion or the most dire of necessity. Therefore, to feed the demand for sex workers and porn performers, there must be coercion and abuse.

In places where porn and sex work are criminalized, that makes sense. Production of porn and sex work becomes a criminal enterprise. The pool of people willing to work in criminal enterprises is small.

In places where these things are not criminalized, the equation is different. I personally know many porn performers and sex workers (yes, including performers for Kink.com). They report they enjoy what they do and choose to do it freely. I have no reason to doubt them.

And yet, whenever I ask the folks who criticize the porn and sex work industries, or cast sex workers as victims, if they’ve ever talked to sex workers, the answer is almost always “no.” And when I say the people I know choose what they do, the response is almost always incredulity.

If we assume that it is true nobody would voluntarily choose to do porn or sex work, then it makes sense to think the folks who are doing it, aren’t there by choice, and to look for coercion. If we assume there are lots of people who are willing to do porn or sex work, but nobody would choose to do “abusive” sex work, then the same thing holds–the folks who appear in Kink photo shoots must be being groomed, tricked, manipulated, or coerced.

If, on the other hand, we assume that there are actually quite a lot of folks who are totally okay with porn and sex work, the narrative falls apart. Why would I, as a porn producer, risk my business (and prison) forcing women to perform when I can simply put out a call that I’m looking for performers, and people will come to me voluntarily? Why would we assume that every sex worker is a trafficking victim, given that there are people who like the idea of doing sex work?

For the women-as-victims narrative to hold true, a necessary prerequisite is women wouldn’t choose to do this voluntarily. But that premise is rarely stated explicitly.

So why would people make that assumption?

I spent some time asking questions of people who promote the sex-worker-as-victim narrative, and discovered something interesting.

Psychologists often talk about a quirk of human psychology called the fundamental attribution error. It’s a bug in our firmware; we, as human beings, are prone to explaining our own actions in terms of our circumstance, but the actions of other people in terms of their character. The standard go-to example of the fundamental attribution error I use is the traffic example: “That guy just cut me off because he’s a reckless, inconsiderate asshole who doesn’t know how to drive. I just cut that car off because the sun was in my eyes and there was so much glare on the windshield I didn’t see it.”

We do this All. The. Time. We do it without being aware we’re doing it. We do it countless times per day, in ways large and small.

The penny dropped for me that something similar was going on in discussions about sex work during a different conversation–not about sex work but about polyamory. There was a guy who was railing, and I mean railing, about polyamory. Nobody, he said, would ever truly be okay with it–not really. No guy would ever willingly share a woman with another guy. Sure, poly folks say they are okay with it, but that’s just because they think it’s the only way they can keep the one they love. You give any poly person the magical power to have absolutely anything they wanted, he declared, and nobody would choose to share a partner.

Now, this is a load of bollocks, of course. I would, in a perfect world, still be poly, and still not have any desire to have my partners be sexually fidelitous to me.

When I told him that, he flipped out. That’s disgusting, he said. No man–no man, no man ever–would be okay with it. No man. If someone says otherwise, there’s something wrong with him.

We see the same line of reasoning used in other arenas. No man would be okay with having sex with another man–if a guy fancies other men, there must be some kind of damage or trauma, as one example.

And then it clicked.

I would like to propose that there is another bug in the operating firmware of humanity, similar to the fundamental attribution error. Call it the fundamental construction error, if you will. We as human beings re-construct the world in our own image, assigning our own values, ideas, squicks, taboos, likes, and dislikes to the great mass of humanity as a whole. “Nobody likes,” “everybody wants,” “nobody would,” “everybody thinks”–all statements of this class can most properly be understood to mean “I don’t like,” “I want,” “I wouldn’t,” and “I think.”

“You must be damaged in order to be gay” really means “nobody would want to be gay,” which really means “I wouldn’t want to be gay.”

“All sex workers are victims” really means “nobody would want to be a sex worker,” which really means “I wouldn’t want to be a sex worker.”

The fundamental reconstruction error makes it extremely difficult to realize that other people can be, on a very deep level, not like us. We assume that others are like us. This tacit assumption is the foundation of most of the models we build of the social world around us. It doesn’t get explicitly mentioned because it’s wired so deep it doesn’t even get noticed.

Why are porn performers and sex workers victims? Because nobody would do these things voluntarily. Why would nobody do these things voluntarily? Because I wouldn’t do these things voluntarily. Ergo, it must be–it follows inevitably that it has to be–that people who do these things are damaged, broken, victimized, or have no other choice.

And since it follows that these people are damaged, broken, victimized, or have no other choice, then the stories of people who work in the sex industry voluntarily can be discarded–because they are the words of someone who is damaged, broken, victimized, or has no other choice.

I would like, therefore, to propose a radical idea:

The world is made of lots of people. Some of those people are different from you, and have different ideas about what they want, what turns them on, what is and is not acceptable for them, and what they would like to do.

Some of those ideas are alien, maybe even incomprehensible, to you.

Accept that it is true. Start from the assumption that even if something sounds weird, distasteful, or even disgusting to you, it may not be so to others–and that fact alone does not prove those other folks have something wrong with them. If someone tells you they like something, and you have no compelling evidence that they’re lying, believe them–even if you don’t understand why.

How do you do it?

Awareness of the fact that your cognitive impulses are buggy is a good place to start. I started looking at myself any time I caught myself saying “oh, that driver is an asshole” or “oh, that person is obviously an inconsiderate jerkoff”–I would stop and say “huh. Have I ever done that? Is this an example of the fundamental attribution error?”

Doing the same thing when you find yourself assuming that all X are Y, especially if it’s “all X are victims” or “all X are damaged goods,” is probably a good mechanism for sorting out the fundamental reconstruction error. Is that really true, or are you just re-creating the world in your own image?

#WLAMF no. 26: The more things change…

There is a rather delightful little book on Amazon, available in Kindle edition for free. It’s called The Ladies’ Guide to True Politeness and Perfect Manners or, Miss Leslie’s Behaviour Book, and it’s a book about proper manners written in 1864 by Eliza Leslie.

In among endless detailed information about how the British peerage system works and how you should talk to your servants, there are gems like these:

Truth is, the female sex is really as inferior to the male in vigour of mind as in strength of body; and all arguments to the contrary are founded on a few anomalies, or based on theories that can never be reduced to practice.


Men make fortunes, women make livings. And none make poorer livings than those who waste their time, and bore their friends, by writing and lecturing upon the equality of the sexes, and what they call “Women’s Rights.” How is it that most of these ladies live separately from their husbands; either despising them, or being despised by them?

Proof, perhaps, that conservative talking points aren’t new. And also, it’s possible (probably even common) for those oppressed by a system to endorse that same system.

Did I say this was a delightful book? I meant that other thing.

I’m writing one blog post for every contribution to our crowdfunding we receive between now and the end of the campaign. Help support indie publishing! We’re publishing five new books on polyamory in 2015.

#WLAMF no. 19: Kinky sex

A while back, I was participating in a conversation about sex, and the subject of kink came up. A guy was saying his girlfriend had approached him with the idea of some sort of non-specific kink, and he was reluctant to engage in it for fear that “nice guys” don’t do that sort of thing with their partners. What, he wondered, would it be like if the sexes were reversed? A guy who asked his girlfriend for kinky sex was clearly not a nice guy; nice guys would never do such a thing! So why should it be okay for a woman to ask her boyfriend for kink? Didn’t it show a double standard–women can do something bad but guys aren’t allowed to? Someone else said that he shouldn’t be a nice guy, because women don’t want nice guys–nice guys, he explained, are emasculated, and women actually want strong, alpha guys, guys who will control them.

And listening to it, I felt despair.

I’ve always been suspicious of framing things in terms of “nice guy” vs. “bad boy;” I think, to be blunt, it’s childish and stupid. Modern social expectations do not “emasculate” men, being a “soft male,” or “losing your center.” That’s a load of rubbish. Modern social expectations are about treating women as human beings rather than need-fulfillment machines. That’s it. You don’t have to be “emasculated” or any of that other silly stuff to do that. You simply have to look at women as full human beings, deserving the same levels of respect and consideration you’d give any other person.

At the end of the day, it’s about consent, not disempowerment. It’s messed up to see relationships in terms of who’s empowered and who’s disempowered; in a good relationship, it’s possible for two (or more!) people to all be empowered.

Likewise, being a “nice guy” or treating women with “respect” does not mean holding doors open, always being soft and gentle, or always having sex in candlelight on a bed strewn with roses. REAL respect, as I’ve said many thousands of times, means talking to women about what THEY want, and then treating them the way they want to be treated.

Are you seeing the Matrix yet?

The “nice guy” who refuses to try anything kinky because he thinks it’s disrespectful isn’t really a nice guy. He’s not listening to his partner, because he knows what’s best for her.

And the “bad guy” who talks to his lover about what she wants, talks about what he wants, and then works with his lover to explore their mutual fantasies together? He isn’t really a bad guy…even if those fantasies involve kinky sex.

It seems to me the world might be a happier place if we all stop trying to figure out the rules about how to treat women “properly,” and instead just talk to women like human beings and treat each individual the way she wants to be treated. A lot of men say they just don’t understand women. A lot of women say they don’t understand men. I respectfully submit that perhaps, if we listen to each other, that might change.

I’m writing one blog post for every contribution to our crowdfunding we receive between now and the end of the campaign. Help support indie publishing! We’re publishing five new books on polyamory in 2015: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/thorntree-press-three-new-polyamory-books-in-2015/x/1603977

Musings on being fucked: Christian millennialism and the Fermi paradox

When all the world’s armies are assembled in the valley that surrounds Mount Megiddo they will be staging a resistance front against the advancing armies of the Chinese. It will be the world’s worst nightmare – nuclear holocaust at its worst. A full-out nuclear bombardment between the armies of the Antichrist’s and the Kings of the East.

It is during this nuclear confrontation that a strange sight from the sky will catch their attention. The Antichrist’s armies will begin their defense in the Jezreel Valley in which the hill of Megiddo is located. […] At the height of their nuclear assault on the advancing armies something strange will happen.

Jesus predicted the suddenness of His return. He said, “For just as lightening comes from the east, and flashes even to the west, so shall the coming of the Son of Man be” (Matt. 24:27). And again He said, “…and then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth shall mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matt. 24:30).
–Sherry Shriner Live

Believers must be active in helping to fulfill certain biblical conditions necessary to usher in the return of Christ. Key to this plan is for Gentiles to help accomplish God’s purpose for the Jews. […] Jesus is saying that His Second Coming will not take place until there is a Jewish population in Jerusalem who will welcome Him with all of their hearts.
— Johannes Facius, Hastening the Coming of the Messiah: Your Role in Fulfilling Prophecy

There is a problem in astronomy, commonly referred to as the Fermi paradox. In a nutshell, the problem is, where is everyone?

Life seems to be tenacious and ubiquitous. Wherever we look here on earth, we see life–even in the most inhospitable of places. The stuff seems downright determined to exist. When combined with the observation that the number of planetary systems throughout the universe seems much greater than even the most optimistic projections of, say, thirty years ago, it really seems quite likely that life exists out there somewhere. In fact, it seems quite likely that life exists everywhere out there. And given that sapient, tool-using life evolved here, it seems quite probable that sapient, tool-using life evolved somewhere else as well…indeed, quite often. (Given that our local galactic supercluster contains literally quadrillions of stars, if sapient life exists in only one one-hundredth of one percent of the places life evolved and if life evolves in only one one-hundredth of one percent of the places that have planets, the universe should be positively teeming with sapience.)

These aren’t stars. They’re galaxies. Where is everyone? (Image: Hubble Space Telescope)

When you’re sapient and tool-using, radio waves are obvious. It’s difficult to imagine getting much beyond the steam engine without discovering them. Electromagnetic radiation bathes the universe, and most any tool-using sapience will, sooner or later, stumble across it. All kinds of technologies create, use, and radiate electromagnetic radiation. So if there are sapient civilizations out there, we should see evidence of it–even if they aren’t intentionally attempting to communicate with anyone.

But we don’t.

So the question is, why not?

This is Fermi’s paradox, and researchers have proposed three answers: we’re first, we’re rare, or we’re fucked. I have, until now, been leaning toward the “we’re rare” answer, but more and more, I think the answer might be “we’re fucked.”

Let’s talk about the “first” or “rare” possibilities.

The “first” possibility posits that our planet is exceptionally rare, perhaps even unique–of all the planets around all the stars everywhere in the universe, no other place has the combination of ingredients (liquid water and so on) necessary for complex life. Alternately, life is common but sapient life is not. It’s possible; there’s nothing especially inevitable about sapience. Evolution is not goal-directed, and big brains aren’t necessarily a survival strategy more common or more compelling than any other. After all, we’re newbies. There was no sapient life on earth for most of its history.

Assuming we are that unique, though, seems to underestimate the number of planets that exist, and overestimate the specialness of our particular corner of existence. There’s nothing about our star, our solar system, or even our galaxy that sets it apart in any way we can see from any of a zillion others out there. And even if sapience isn’t inevitable–a reasonable assumption–if life evolved elsewhere, surely some fraction of it must have evolved toward sapience! With quadrillions of opportunities, you’d expect to see it somewhere else.

The “we’re rare” hypothesis posits that life is common, but life like what we see here is orders of magnitude less common, because something happened here that’s very unlikely even on galactic or universal scales. Perhaps it’s the jump from prokaryotes (cells without a nucleus) to eukaryotes (cells with a nucleus, which are capable of forming complex multicellular animals). For almost the entire history of life on earth, only single-celled life existed, after all; multicellular life is a recent innovation. Maybe the universe is teeming with life, but none of it is more complex than bacteria.

Depressing thought: The universe has us and these guys in it, and that’s it.

The third hypothesis is “we’re fucked,” and that’s the one I’m most concerned about.

The “we’re fucked” hypothesis suggests that sapient life isn’t everywhere we look because wherever it emerges, it gets wiped out. It might be that it gets wiped out by a spacefaring civilization, a la Fred Saberhagen’s Berserker science fiction stories.

But maybe…just maybe…it won’t be an evil extraterrestrial what does us in. Maybe tool-using sapience intrinsically contains the seeds of its own annihilation.

K. Eric Drexler wrote a book called Engines of Creation, in which he posited a coming age of nanotechnology that would offer the ability to manipulate, disassemble, and assemble matter at a molecular level.

It’s not as farfetched as it seems. You and I, after all, are vastly complex entities constructed from the level of molecules by programmable molecular machinery able to assemble large-scale, fine-grained structures from the ground up.

All the fabrication technologies we use now are, in essence, merely evolutionary refinements on stone knives and bearskins. When we want to make something, we take raw materials and hack at, carve, heat, forge, or mold them into what we want.

Even the Large Hadron Collider is basically just incremental small improvements on this

The ability to create things from the atomic level up, instead from big masses of materials down, promises to be more revolutionary than the invention of agriculture, the Iron Age, and the invention of the steam engine combined. Many of the things we take for granted–resources will always be scarce, resources must always be distributed unequally, it is not possible for a world of billions of people to have the standard of living of North America–will fade like a bad dream. Nanotech assembly offers the possibility of a post-scarcity society1.

It also promises to turn another deeply-held belief into a myth: Nuclear weapons are the scariest weapons we will ever face.

Molecular-level assembly implies molecular-level disassembly as well. And that…well, that opens the door to weapons of mass destruction on a scale as unimaginable to us as the H-bomb is to a Roman Centurion.

Cute little popgun you got there, son. Did your mom give you that?

Miracle nanotechnology notwithstanding, the course of human advancement has meant the distribution of greater and greater destructive power across wider and wider numbers of people. An average citizen today can go down to Wal-Mart and buy weapon technology that could have turned the tide of some of the world’s most significant historical battles. Even without nanotech, there’s no reason to think weapons technology and distribution just suddenly stopped in, say, 2006, and will not continue to increase from here on.

And that takes us to millennialist zealotry.

There are, in the world today, people who believe they have a sacred duty, given them by omnipotent supernatural entities, to usher in the Final Conflict between good and evil that will annihilate all the wicked with righteous fire, purging them from God’s creation. These millennialists don’t just believe the End is coming–they believe God has charged them with the task of bringing it about.

Christian millennialists long for nuclear war, which they believe will trigger the Second Coming. Some Hindus believe they must help bring about the end of days, so that the final avatar of Vishnu will return on a white horse to bring about the end of the current cycle and its corruption. In Japan, the Aum Shinrikyo sect believed it to be their duty to create the conditions for nuclear Armageddon, which they believed would trigger the ascendancy of the sect’s leader Shoko Asahara to his full divine status as the Lamb of God. Judaism, Islam, and nearly all other religious traditions have at least some adherents who likewise embrace the idea of global warfare that will cleanse the world of evil.

The notion of the purification of the world through violence is not unique to any culture or age–the ancient Israelites, for example, were enthusiastic fans of the notion–but it has particularly deep roots in American civic culture, and we export that idea all over the world. (The notion of the mythic superhero, for instance, is an embodiment of the idea of purifying violence, as the book Captain America and the Crusade Against Evil explains in some depth.)

I’m not suggesting that religious zealots have a patent on inventive destructiveness. From Chairman Mao to Josef Stalin, the 20th century is replete with examples of secular governments that are as gleefully, viciously bonkers as the most passionate of religious extremists.

But religious extremism does seem unique in one regard: we don’t generally see secularists embracing the fiery destruction of the entire world in order to cleanse os of evil. Violent secular institutions might want resources, or land, or good old-fashioned power, but they don’t usually seem to want to destroy the whole of creation in order to invoke a supernatural force to save it.

Putting it all together, we can expect that as time goes on, the trend toward making increasingly destructive technology available to increasingly large numbers of people will likely continue. Which means that, one day, we will likely arrive at the point where a sufficiently determined individual or small group of people can, in fact, literally unleash destruction on a global scale.

Imagine that, say, any reasonably motivated group of 100 or more people anywhere in the world could actually start a nuclear war. Given that millennialist end-times ideology is a thing, how safe would you feel?

It is possible, just possible, that we don’t see a ubniverse teeming with sapient, tool-using, radio-broadcasting, exploring-the-cosmos life because sapient tool-using species eventually reach the point where any single individual has the ability to wipe out the whole species, and very shortly after that happens, someone wipes out the whole species.

“But Franklin,” I hear you say, “even if there are human beings who can and will do that, given the chance, that doesn’t mean space aliens would! They’re not going to be anything like us!”

Well, right. Sure. Other sapient species wouldn’t be like us.

But here’s the thing: We are, it seems, pretty unremarkable. We live on an unremarkable planet orbiting an unremarkable star in an unremarkable corner of an unremarkable galaxy. We’re probably not special snowflakes; statistically, the odds are good that the trajectory we have taken is, um, unremarkable.

Yes, yes, they’re all unique and special…but they all have six arms, too.
(Image: National Science Foundation.)

Sure, sapient aliens might be, overall, less warlike and aggressive (or more warlike and aggressive!) than we are, but does that mean every single individual is? If we take millions of sapient tool-using intelligent species and give every individual of every one of those races the ability to push a button and destroy the whole species, how many species do you think would survive?

Perhaps the solution to the Fermi paradox is not that we’re first or we’re rare; perhaps we’re fucked. Perhaps we are rolling down a well-traveled groove, worn deep by millions of sapient species before us, a groove that ends in a predictable place.

I sincerely hope that’s not the case. But it seems possible it might be. Maybe, just maybe, our best hope to last as long as we can is to counter millennial thinking as vigorously as possible–not to save us, ultimately, but to buy as much time as we possibly can.

1Post-scarcity society of the sort that a lot of transhumanists talk about may never really be a thing, given there will always be something that is scarce, even if that “something” is intangible. Creativity, for instance, can’t be mass-produced. But a looser kind of post-scarcity society, in which material resources are abundant, does have some plausibility.