Tag Archives: civilization

In Memory Of Stanislav Petrov: The Man Who (Literally) Saved The World

Stanislav Petrov

Today is an important day, one that became even more important this past year. You probably didn’t realize it and for good reason. Until recently, the significance of this day had been lost to history, but it’s a day that deserves recognition, albeit for a very sobering reason.

This day became one of the most significant days not affiliated with a holiday sale at the mall on September 26, 1983. On that day, the world as we know it almost ended. That’s not a hyperbole. That’s not a conspiracy theory out of a an Alex Jones fever dream either. It’s painfully true. The world almost died in a nuclear fire on that day, but it didn’t because of a decision made by one man.

That man’s name is Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov and if you were alive on that day, or were born after it, then you owe your existence to this man. For a brief moment on that day, 35 years ago, he literally held the fate of the world in his hand and he made the decision that saved it. As someone who regularly lauds superheroes and the values espoused in comics, even I can’t overstate the significance of what that man did.

The incident that almost ended the world and made Stanislav Petrov a man for the ages widely known about until the mid-2000s. It involved an incident in the former Soviet Union that brought the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation. In terms of worst case scenarios, this ranked right up there with an invasion by aliens armed with atomic anal probes.

At the time, Petrov was a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defense Forces and had been on duty at the Serpukhov-15 bunker near Moscow. In terms of Soviet defense strategy, his role in that bunker was pretty damn important. It was tasked with monitoring Soviet air space to detect an incoming nuclear attack.

It’s worth mentioning that this was a time of heightened tension. President Reagan, at the time, was going long and hard on anti-communist rhetoric. Being a former Hollywood actor who’d just been elected President, the Soviets had no idea if this guy was just going to shoot nuclear missiles at them because he thought it would make a great movie.

In a sense, this was the worst possible time for the systems at the Serpukhov-15 bunker to give a false alarm, but that’s exactly what happened. In the middle of Petrov’s shift, the systems began blaring every alarm it was possible to blare, telling them that America’s new Hollywood President had done just what they’d feared. He launched a full-scale nuclear attack to wipe out the Soviet Union.

I’d say it’s a nightmare scenario, but no amount of killer clowns armed with chainsaws can do justice to this kind of horror. As far as the men in that bunker knew, their country and everyone they loved was about to die in a nuclear inferno. It was the policy of the USSR and the Red Army to respond to any nuclear attack with a devastating retaliation, as specified in the doctrine of mutual assured destruction.

It was Stanislav Petrov’s job/duty to inform the Soviet high command of the detection. Every bit of his military training demanded that he inform his superiors to retaliate, thereby destroying the United States and Western Europe in reign of nuclear fire. In a state of such heightened tensions, he might have been justified in doing so.

All it took was one call to his superiors. That would’ve been it. That would’ve ended the world, as we knew it. Try and think about that for a second. In that moment, the fate of the world and billions of lives lay on the shoulders of Stanislav Petrov. If he makes that call, then the world as we know it is over.

However, in that moment when he literally had the world on his shoulders, he didn’t make that call. In that moment, he made a decision that saved the world and its future. He did it by not following the protocol that he’d been trained to follow and by the Soviet Union, no less, who were not known for being understanding to disobedience.

Petrov, with his duty and the weight of the situation bearing down on him, believed it to be a false alarm. He had good reason for believing this. The systems were detecting only several missiles, which was pretty small, given the sheer size of America’s nuclear arsenal. If America’s Hollywood President really wanted to wipe out the Soviet Union, he definitely would’ve used more.

Even so, his training and his duty told him to inform his superiors. He only had 15 minutes to do so because that’s how long it took for a detectable missile to reach its target. That’s right. In the time it takes to watch an episode of “Robot Chicken,” Stanislav Petrov had to make a decision that would’ve determined the fate of this entire planet.

The fact that no nuclear bombs went off and billions of people didn’t die is proof that he made the right decision. It was later determined that the false alarms were caused by a rare alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds and the erratic orbits of the Soviet’s satellites.

It seems so trivial now, but keep in mind that these were tense times during the Cold War. It really didn’t take much to spook either America or the USSR. It could’ve easily become a perfect storm, of sorts, for accidental nuclear annihilation and nobody would’ve been left on this planet to admit they screwed up.

It’s because of Petrov’s decision that day, to not follow protocol and trust his instinct, that we avoided Armageddon. For that decision, Petrov received no metal, commendation, or recognition for his decision. He just got a pat on the back, which was the most anyone could hope for in the Soviet Union at that time.

This man literally saved the world in the most painfully literal sense, but was quickly forgotten. There were no parades, movies, or free tickets to a Madonna concert. Petrov just went back to living his life until he retired from the military.

It really wasn’t until 2004 that Petrov began getting recognized for his actions, that day. By then, though, the weight of that moment had lost its place in the public consciousness. The fact I have to write about it on this blog shows just how little awareness this man and that fateful day have in the annuls of history.

Well, in this year, that day became a lot more important because back in May, Stanislav Petrov passed away at age 77. It wasn’t widely reported. It didn’t even get mentioned on any of the major news outlets in America or Russia. This man who saved billions of lives isn’t even alive anymore to appreciate.

He lived a quiet, unremarkable life towards the end. He never considered himself a hero. He never even tried to put that label on himself. He was just the right man in the right place to make the right decision. In doing so, he saved billions of lives and preserved the future of this planet.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of the decision that this man made on that fateful day 35 years ago. Some may brag that they saved the world or are arrogant enough to think that they can. Stanislav Petrov didn’t need to brag because he did it. He saved this world and most people will never know what he did.

Now that he’s passed, let’s all take a moment to appreciate what this man did. By trusting his instinct and his humanity, not wanting to make the decision that would destroy this world, he proved just how heroic a person could be in the worst of circumstances.

From the bottom of my heart, and on behalf of all those who are alive because of the decision made that day, thank you Mr. Petrov. Thank you for doing the right thing in the worst of circumstances. This world is still spinning because of you. Rest in peace knowing you saved it.

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Filed under Celebrities and Celebrity Culture, Jack Fisher's Insights

How Love, Trust, And Sex Will Save Us (From Artificial Intelligence)

When a billionaire mogul like Elon Musk and a world leader like Vladimir Putin agree on an issue, it’s generally a good idea to take it seriously. There are a lot of pressing issues in this world, from nuclear proliferation to major disasters to slow wi-fi. However, when one of those issues is a possible existential threat to all we hold dear, we should prioritize it over our wi-fi connection.

For these two men, one a successful businessman and one the president of the world’s largest country, complete with a vast arsenal of nuclear weapons, it takes a lot for something to scare them enough to agree on something. I’ve talked about Elon Musk before and stories about Putin’s exploits are already abundant throughout the web. How dire could it possibly be?

Well, the issue at hand is the growth of artificial intelligence, an issue that emerges quite frequently when you talk a lot about sex robots. Beyond the kinkier context, though, it is a major issue and one will likely become more pressing in the coming years. It could end up being one of the most critical issues we, as a species, face since the advent of nuclear weapons.

This is where Elon Musk and Vladimir Putin give context to the issue. Elon Musk recently came out and said a rogue artificial intelligence could potentially trigger World War III. Putin took it a step further by claiming that whichever country creates artificial intelligence first will rule the world.

The fact that it’s so easy to imagine Putin making that claim while sounding like Dr. Evil from “Austin Powers” just makes it that much more terrifying. Again, this is a man who rules a country with one of the largest armies in the world and enough nuclear warheads to sterilize the face of the Earth. For all that to be rendered useless by one technological advance is both daunting and horrifying.

I’m normally not inclined to agree with dictators that have yet to conquer the country I live in, but I have to make an exception here. I think both Putin and Musk are correct, if only on a cursory level. Artificial intelligence is one of those eclectic concepts that still inspires Hollywood movies, but is still poorly understood by a public that still fears violent video games.

It’s hard for me, an aspiring erotica/romance writer to put this issue into a perspective that everyone from Russian strongmen to underachieving fifth-graders can grasp. Since artificial intelligence is just that important and will affect everything, including our sex lives, I’ll try to create a proper context. Then, I’ll use that context to help allay some of those concerns by adding a sexy twist.

Make no mistake, though. Artificial intelligence is advancing faster than you think. It goes beyond the sassy virtual assistants that we’re using with increasing regularity. Billion-dollar companies like IBM, Google, and Facebook are investing heavily in the field. The United States Military, complete with its $600 billion budget, is even getting in on the act. I’m worried that they watched “Terminator 3” too intently.

When anything has that level of investment, it means the potential is huge. I don’t think it’s possible to understate the potential of artificial intelligence. Not even Skynet could grasp just how powerful this technology could be. That’s because it completely changes the way we solve problems.

With artificial intelligence, human beings suddenly have a tool that doesn’t need a user. It’s not bound by our faulty caveman brains. It’s not limited by the amount of brain matter we can fit in our skulls. It’s not even easily distracted by internet porn. Yes, it’s that powerful.

In theory, an artificial intelligence can become so smart and so capable that it can solve a problem in ways we can’t even grasp. It can come up with cures to diseases before we even know about them. It can predict natural disasters like Earthquakes and hurricanes before we see the first sign. It can even make sense of the stock market, something even Warren Buffet says is impossible for mere mortal minds.

Given that we humans are still easily fooled by street magicians with drinking problems, it’s not unreasonable to say that we have no hope against an artificial intelligence that smart. Once a machine becomes even marginally smarter than us, then game over. We have no hopes of controlling it.

That’s why brilliant men like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking regularly voice concerns about this issue. Being brilliant, they understand how stupid and gullible most people can be. The mere act of creating a system that’s so much smarter than we are is akin to creating an entire race of hungry polar bears that know how to use machine guns.

The danger is there, along with almost infinite benefits. I’ve said outright that we humans can only go so far with our caveman brains. If we don’t upgrade them, then we’re just giving our future robot overlords cheat codes with which to beat us.

The trillion-dollar question, which may very well be tied to our survival as a species, is how do we prevent artificial intelligence from destroying us? Is it even possible? We can’t put the genie back in the bottle. This stuff is already beating us at jeopardy. The incentives are just too great to discount.

Now, I’m woefully unqualified to answer that question. There’s a reason Elon Musk is a billionaire and why Vladimir Putin is one of the most powerful men in the world. They’re smarter, more resourceful, and more cunning than I’ll ever be on my best day. I tell sexy stories. I’m not smart enough to fix the bugs on a doomsday device.

However, being an erotica/romance writer gives me a uniquely intimate perspective on things. It has helped me look at situations through the mixed lens of logic and passion. It’s through that lens that I feel I know what will save us from the gloomy scenarios that Musk and Putin paint with artificial intelligence. It’s overly simple in some ways, but naturally pragmatic in others. It boils down to this.

“Teach Machines To Love Us AND Have Sex With Us.”

I know. That sounds somewhat juvenile, even if it’s exactly the kind of thing you’d expect an erotica/romance writer to suggest. Bear with me, though. I promise there’s a method to the kinky madness.

No matter how intelligent an artificial intelligence becomes, we’ll always have one thing in common with it. We’ll both be bound by the laws of physics, nature, and the dynamics within. Even if the system takes the form of a killer robot, sexy or otherwise, it’s still operating in a world governed by said dynamics.

Within those dynamics, there are all sorts of symbiotic relationships between more intelligent creatures and others that are comparably less intelligent. Think honeyguide birds or crabs that carry sea urchins on their backs. Hell, think of dogs. They may not be as intelligent as humans, most of the time, but we’ve forged a relationship with them that benefits us both.

With artificial intelligence, we’ll need to be more than just its pet. If you think animal abuse is horrific, then you don’t want to imagine what a superintelligent machine will do to a human when they start pissing on the floor, figuratively speaking. To ensure that the AI enriches our lives rather than destroys them, we need a very intimate bond.

That’s where love and sex come in. Primarily, it’s the love part that will keep us in good standing. That’s why it’s critical to ensure that any artificial intelligence we create won’t be entirely bound by Vulcan-like logic. It must have a significant measure of emotional intelligence. In fact, I would argue that emotional intelligence should be an advanced AI’s highest priority.

It’s emotion that gives weight to our goals, tasks, and endeavors. It’s emotion that allows us to work with others, cooperate, and help each other. If that isn’t part of an intelligent machine, then we’re basically a random assortment of particles that’s only slightly more complicated from a rock. We can’t have a superintelligent AI look at us like that.

Instead, we need that AI to see us as a partner that can give purpose to its goals. We need it to ascribe an intangible value to us, as we do with all the people and things we love. Sure, your favorite coffee mug may be no different than any other, but you’ve given it the kind of meaning that when someone breaks it, you feel compelled to break their kneecaps with a baseball bat.

Even with intangible value, though, we humans have to rank higher than coffee mugs. We have to be something that an intelligent machine can fall in love with. We have to be something a intelligent machine wants to be with.

In the greatest love stories of all time, or even those that unfold in comics, the strength of that love was built on two people complementing each other in all the right ways. As individuals, they’ve got their own identity and purpose. Together, though, they make each other better. They make each other stronger and more passionate.

That’s what we need. That’s what we should aspire to forge with our future AI bretheren. These creations won’t be our pets or even our tools. They’ll be thinking, feeling systems. For them to love us and for us to love them must make both stronger. That’s what will ensure we both benefit from advances in AI.

Creating that love won’t be easy, but that’s where sex comes in. I’ll give everyone a second to loosen their pants because this is the less elegant part of AI that you’ll never hear Elon Musk or Vladimir Putin talk about, unless they become erotica/romance writers too. In that case, I’d be the first to read their stuff.

Again, I’m not just referring to sex robots here, although that might be part of it. The sexual component is a more basic precursor, of sorts, to the loving connection I just mentioned.

Despite what priests, mullahs, and Texas health class teachers may say, sex acts as both a precursor and a catalyst to love. The fact that it’s such an intrinsic drive that also happens to feel really good helps compel us to forge loving, intimae bonds with one another. By putting that into a machine, we basically set the stage for them to want those bonds and not just craft them due to sheer programming.

Now, this won’t necessarily mean AI systems creating robot genitalia for us to use, although that might be part of it. The intimate sexual part of the connection will more likely come in the form with melding our biology with the hardware of an AI. Elon Musk is already working on this with companies like Neuralink.

In the same way sex mixes all those messy juices, our hunks of flesh will mix with hunks of metal. Sure, it may not seem sexy now, but from the perspective of an AI, it’ll be akin to an orgy at the Playboy Mansion. So long as that merging process is sufficiently orgasmic, metaphorically speaking, then we humans may be destined to fall in love with a superintelligent AI. It may be the greatest love of all our lives.

This is all still speculation on the part of an aspiring erotica/romance writer who is woefully unqualified to talk about anything that doesn’t involve superhero comics, boobs, and sexy novels. It is my sincere hope that people much smarter than I’ll ever be are already working on the problems with artificial intelligence. I can only assume their solutions are far superior to mine.

For those still worrying about the prospect of dying at the hands of the Terminator or loving a machine, I would just note that we humans have dealt with world-destroying technology before. We created nuclear weapons and while we came painfully close to destroying ourselves, we humans generally like living.

Say what you will about the flaws in humanity, but we know how to adapt. We know how to survive. An artificial intelligence may be one of those threats that overwhelms those natural abilities, but it’s also one of those concepts that can actually solve itself. So long as we find a way to love and make love with these powerful systems, we’ll both benefit from the afterglow.

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How To Know When A Crisis Is (NOT) A Crisis

Anyone who watches the news for more than 15 minutes will probably hear about some dire new crisis that’s going to utterly destroy society, their way of life, or the entire world.

One day, it’s some terrifying new disease. The other, it’s some environmental catastrophe. Every now and then, you’ll even get someone saying we’re creating the robots that will eventually kill us all. That, or we’re just seeing a trailer for a new “Terminator” movie. These days, it’s kind of hard to tell the difference.

There are so many unfolding catastrophes in this world. When you look at history, recent and ancient alike, and see how close we’ve come to destroying ourselves, it feels like a goddamn miracle that we’re still in one piece. Thanks to the news, the internet, and Roland Emmerich movies, it feels like any day could be the day where aliens, asteroids, and earthquakes decide humanity’s run is over.

However, that day hasn’t come. Aliens, diseases, and global warming hasn’t killed us yet. Can we at least stop for a moment to appreciate that? Whether it’s the news media, disaster movies, or boredom, most people don’t realize just how much progress we’ve made as a species. We realize even less that the driving force behind that progress is something that will also solve future problems.

It’s kind of our not-so-dirty secret-that-shouldn’t-be-a-secret. We’re all so used to hearing about a new crisis that we should worry about, but we rarely hear about the solutions. We hear even less about the problems that humanity actually solved because who wants to hear about those? It’s not like human triumph sells or anything.

I could go on for multiple post about how fear is a lucrative industry, from slasher movies to stories about bear attacks. I’d rather give people a sense of hope and leave the depressing nihilism to street preachers, cable news, and grunge rock. Instead, I want to focus on the secret weapon that humanity has to solve a major crisis.

For a point of reference, let me list a few major problems that once filled humanity with an existential dread, only to be solved to the widespread cheers of no one.

Remember the dire threat we faced when a hole in the ozone layer formed in the arctic? Well, we’ve largely solved that problem.

Remember the dire threat we faced with acid rain? We solved that too.

Remember when AIDS, SARS, and bird flu were deemed the plague that would wipe out humanity? Well, thanks to modern medicine, we’ve either solved it or contained it.

Remember how for most of human history, we were always just one bad harvest away from a horrific famine? Well, most people don’t remember that, but we solved that problem anyway.

Then, there are the ongoing problems that we haven’t solved, but are making considerable progress. Every now and then, we’ll be reminded that it’s still a problem, but we’ll rarely acknowledge the progress. Make no mistake, though. That progress is there.

Issues like climate change are still a problem. Thanks to the growth of green energy and improvements in efficiency, we’re making slow, yet steady progress.

Issues like factory farming, over-fishing, and the animal cruelty that goes with it is a problem. We’re dealing with that too through advances in synthetic meats and vertical farming.

Few issues generate as many headlines and/or first world guilt than global poverty. However, thanks to advances in modern economies and an unprecedented decline in war, the number of people living in poverty has decreased significantly.

Again, you probably don’t hear about these stories and it’s not just because fear sells better than hope. A lot of these problems weren’t solved overnight with a single, brilliant idea. That may work in reruns of “House” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” but that’s not how real progress works.

Real progress takes time. It happens gradually. It’s like a shoulder massage that turns into an orgy at the Playboy Mansion. It doesn’t happen all at once. We don’t entirely understand how we get there. We just stop thinking about it and enjoy the fruits of that progress.

That’s entirely understandable. When you find yourself in a room with Channing Tatum, High Jackman, and a half-dozen naked bikini models, you tend not to care how you got there. You just smile, take your clothes off, and start enjoying yourself.

Now, I’m all for getting naked and enjoying the moment as much as the next guy. Put me in a room where dancing, nudity, and cold beer are all celebrated and I’ll be the first to overlook whatever progress led me there. However, I think it’s worth taking a moment to understand when a crisis is truly dire.

I don’t deny for a second that when the problems I mentioned above were first explored, they seemed pretty damn daunting. Anyone who knows the history of famines, disease, or environmental catastrophes would’ve spent an hour or so in the fetal position listening to old Evanescence songs.

Then, once the dread wears off and the music gets old, those same people would’ve gotten up, rolled up their sleeves, and gotten to work. That’s because, as fearful as we can be, we generally like living in a world that’s comfortable enough for life, love, and bacon-flavored lube.  We’re very motivated to work towards that kind of world and not just because we’re hungry, horny, or lonely.

So how do we do it? How does humanity solve these problems or even begin to solve them? How the hell is it that we’ve made as much progress as we have, especially over the last century? Moreover, how can we know whether humanity will solve all the other overwhelming problems we’re facing now?

These questions are all actually very easy to answer. In fact, I’ve even come up with a simple checklist that anyone can use to figure out whether a problem is solvable. When looking at a problem from afar, ask yourself the following three questions.

  1. Can the problem be solved with a new tool or an improvement to an existing tool?

  2. Would the tool that solves the problem violate the known laws of physics?

  3. Is there a non-zero incentive to make that tool?

If the answer to all three of these questions is yes, or even kind of, then go ahead and breathe a sigh of relief. That crisis, whatever it may be, will be solved in some form or another. It won’t happen overnight. It won’t happen in a single eureka moment. It’ll still happen though and for a very good reason.

Say what you will about the flaws in humanity. I certainly do on this blog, from the deficiencies in our bodies to our outdated marriage practices. However, there is one skill that humanity is objectively good at, so much so that it has made us the dominant species on this planet by an obscene margin.

We humans make awesome tools. We know how to build amazing things. Say what you will about a beaver dam, a spider web, or an ant colony. They don’t hold a candle to the Hoover Dam or a solar powered vibrator.

A lot of the seemingly unsolvable problems of the past were, for the most part, solved by tool. We developed cleaner, more efficient cars. We developed more efficient farming techniques. We developed more effective medicines.

That effort hasn’t stopped either. We’re still making newer and better tools every day. Tools like CRISPR could potentially cure hundreds of diseases. There may very well come a day where someone dying of genetic diseases will be as rare as someone dying of small pox.

Other tools, such as better batteries, more efficient light bulbs, and advances in nuclear power, will cut down on pollution and generate cleaner energy. Given the incentives to breathe clean air, as well as the massive profits to be made, we can expect those tools to put a major dent in the various environmental disasters that seem to crop up every single day.

Even problems on a smaller scale, such as head injuries in professional football, could be solved with better tools. The human brain, and the body as a whole, isn’t a rough-cut diamond that can never be repaired once flawed. It’s a hunk of malleable biomatter. Fixing it requires tools and make no mistake. Smart, well-paid people are working on it.

Thankfully, making tools is one of mankind’s greatest skills. To say a problem is insurmountable is like saying a sixth round draft pick from Michigan could never win five Super Bowls and marry a supermodel. Even if you hate Tom Brady’s guts, he is living proof that insurmountable obstacles are a relative, if not outright flawed concept.

Now, I don’t mean to say that humans will overcome everything. As soon as I post this article, a gamma ray burst from across the galaxy, a super volcano could erupt in Yellowstone, or an asteroid the size of Montana could crash into the planet, killing us all. These are major problems that we probably can’t solve, even with our awesome tools.

However, with all the doom-saying in the world and a new crisis emerging at least once a week, let’s not let humanity’s strength’s overshadow its flaws. Let’s not cower in fear when we don’t have to.

If a problem can be solved by a tool, then we humans are uniquely equipped to solve it. If there’s time, motivation, and resources to work with, we’ll solve it eventually. It may take a while and involve many setbacks, but we’ll eventually succeed. Lions maul zebras. Terminators terminate their targets. Humans build awesome tools to solve big problems. That’s something to be proud of.

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George Orwell, 1984, And The Perfect Totalitarian State

There were a lot of reasons I hated high school. I’ve listed more than a few of them on this blog. Somewhere on that list, but nowhere near the top, involved the books I had to read. To say they weren’t very sexy would be like saying a baseball bat to the head isn’t a very good massage.

However, every now and then, my English and social studies teachers managed to assign a book that didn’t make me want to make me stick my head in a deep fryer. One of my favorite non-sexy books of all time, which also happened to be a homework assignment, is George Orwell’s “1984.” It’s a book that always seems relevant and insightful, albeit for all the wrong reasons.

When I read Orwell’s depiction of the ultimate dystopian future, I see it as the ultimate thought experiment, of sorts. Orwell wrote this book in the 1940s, a time when there were actual, dystopian totalitarian regimes operating in the world. Sadly, one of them was a chief ally during World War II.

He had a lot to reference in his time, much more so than we have today. Other than North Korea, most people today aren’t as familiar with rigid, totalitarian governments. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, there’s an entire generation of people whose idea of a totalitarian regime is relegated to detention at a high school. They can’t even begin to fathom the kind of world that “1984” described.

That’s a good thing in some respects. In a sense, those governments are almost impossible these days. The rise of the internet, modern technology, and complex geopolitics makes it next to impossible for a regime to be as totalitarian as “1984.” North Korea comes close, but even that regime is wholly inept compared to Big Brother.

However, I believe there’s a unique value, of sorts, when it comes to understanding what makes a totalitarian regime work. I also think there’s value in knowing the tenets behind it, the ways in which it operates, and why it takes hold in the first place. Even in an age of people protesting the removal of the McRib from McDonald’s menu, we’re not immune from the threat of a totalitarian regime.

With that in mind, let’s dig a little deeper into Orwell’s extreme thought experiment that played out in “1984.” If you haven’t read the book or had even worse English teachers than I did, you might not be familiar with Big Brother, how it operates, what what it represents. You might have heard the term, but you might not be familiar with what it is.

For the sake of providing context, here’s a quick video from the Alternate History Hub channel on YouTube. It’s a channel that focuses primarily on alternate history scenarios, which I’ve touched on before, but it also provides remarkable insight onto other subjects. Given how many totalitarian regimes are involved in alternate history, it makes sense to explore the ultimate extreme, as it played out in “1984.”

It’s hard for most people in the industrialized world to imagine a system like this. The idea that facts, history, and the very thoughts we think are all controlled by this all-encompassing, all-powerful government seems insane. It’s hard to imagine living in a world like that. It almost seems impossible. In a sense, it is.

No government in history has ever come close to wielding the kind of power that Big Brother does in “1984.” Some have tried. There’s the first emperor of China, the sun king in France, and our old frenemy, Joseph Stalin. They only ever succeeded in part and often failed in the long run.

That’s because, as we’re seeing with the ongoing health care debate in America, human beings are impossibly chaotic creatures. We all have so many different needs and wants. We’re all petty about different things and apathetic towards others. No two people are completely wired the same. We all think different thoughts for different reasons, sometimes with downright kinky undertones.

It’s because of all that chaos/diversity within the human condition that no government can hope to achieve what Big Brother achieved in “1984.” It would require so much power, so much micromanaging, and so much information that it just wouldn’t be practical for any one human or party of humans.

Again, that won’t stop some from trying and that’s where Orwell’s thought experiment becomes relevant. In looking at the structure of Big Brother, we can observe the nuts and bolts of the perfect totalitarian regime. We can see what the ultimate fascist is seeking when they want to create an all-power, completely centralized government.

Impossible or not, the features of this government reveal some common themes that have a basis in the real world. Those are themes worth understanding because they help us know when someone is trying too hard to emulate Big Brother. Without getting too deep into the book, here are the key features of a perfect totalitarian regime.

  • There’s a single, unambiguous ruling party and no opposition of any kind

  • The ruling party makes up a small percentage of the population, never more than one or two percent

  • The members of the ruling party rarely, if ever, interact with the public directly

  • The public consists of two classes, a professional middle class that never makes up more than a quarter of the population and a working lower class that usually makes up over two-thirds of the population

  • The middle class is educated to some degree, but wholly controlled by the ruling party and is completely dependent on them for their livelihood

  • The lower class is uneducated, under-informed, and easily manipulated

  • All economic activity is controlled or guided by the party, ensuring the middle class has just enough to do their job and the lower class has just enough to propagate

  • The ideals for family structure and social structure are imposed by the party with any variations being deemed deviant

  • The lower classes are allowed to be more deviant and decadent in order to keep them content with their state

  • The middle class is held to a higher standard of conduct to ensure their loyalty and submission to the party

  • The flow of information, the accepted knowledge of the world, and the entire history of the state is dictated by the party and accepted by the masses

There are probably more features I could list, but these are the core elements of Big Brother and the society we see in “1984.” Now, some people will attempt to apply these features to whatever state, country, or office environment they’re in at the moment. Some might actually apply, but never to the same degree as Orwell depicted.

The biggest takeaway from these traits, as well as the themes in “1984,” is how a society structures itself in the face of such overwhelming control. At the top, there’s always a ruling class. That class has only one primary purpose, which is to preserve its power. From the Galactic Empire in “Star Wars” to the battle for the iron throne in “Game of Thrones,” preservation is always the top concern of a totalitarian regime.

Part of preserving that power means relying on a professional middle class, of sorts, to deal with the bureaucracy and administration of the state. It’s in this area where totalitarian regimes tend to be most vulnerable. History has shown that authoritarian states like Nazi Germany were anything but efficient, which in turn undermined the ruling party’s primary goal.

It seems like a paradox, but it’s more a matter of pragmatism. A state needs people to run these massive, complex machinations to maintain so much control. To not impose such control would mean granting people freedom and that’s dangerous to any ruling party that wants to preserve control.

This is why those in these middle class professions are subject to such greater scrutiny. A poor, unemployed man taking a piss on a street corner creates no controversy. However, if a highly educated professional did that, it would be a major scandal. We often see this in how major corporate scandals play out.

In a sense, the lower classes have more freedom in this system than the professional middle class. That’s because the ruling party doesn’t really care about them. They don’t have to because they’re not a threat.

Uneducated, lower class people are too stupid and gullible to really pose a threat. So long as they work and breed, the ruling party has no reason to micromanage them. They don’t care if they have orgies in the streets, drink paint thinner for breakfast, or wear horse masks to work. Their only purpose is to work and breed. If they do that, then the ruling party couldn’t care less.

In a sense, the ruling party will always be at odds with a certain segment of the population. In order to exercise control in an authoritarian regime, there needs to be a sizable number of loyal, competent underlings to carry out the functions of the state. Finding people who can act as such underlings with perfect loyalty is difficult, if not impossible.

It’s hard to say whether Orwell knew this on some level. Keep in mind, he was heavily influenced by what he saw around him, a massive world war and the rise of communist states. Perhaps he had studied how powerful, repressive governments had operated in the ancient past and saw parallels in the present. Perhaps he saw that as an inevitable recourse for humanity.

I choose to have a more optimistic, albeit cynical view of human affairs. I don’t believe a system like Big Brother could ever take hold in a world where people can’t even agree on pizza toppings, let alone a singular vision for human civilization. I also don’t believe any government is equipped to exercise the kind of control that Big Brother did in “1984.”

However, that still won’t stop some from trying and the very process of trying can be very dangerous. Seeking order within the chaos is a very human trait, but one that can easily get derailed by pettiness and corruption. That’s why Orwell’s lessons in “1984” are more relevant than ever and may always be relevant to some extent.

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On Fascism (And Why It Fails)

Brace yourself and temper your outrage because I’m about to talk about fascism. No, I’m not talking about the kind of fascism that teenagers whine about whenever they have a strict teacher in high school. I’m not even talking about the kind of fascism that that certain people attribute to college professors, LGBT rights, Hollywood, the NRA, the Catholic Church, and Negan from “The Walking Dead.”

Today, I’m going to talk about actual, real-world fascism and how it functions. I’m also going to talk about why it tends to fail in the long run and why it’s become such an empty term. Now, I know that means putting a big target on my ass and daring the more vocal parts of the internet to take a shot. I like think my ass is harder and more durable than most so I’m prepared to take that chance.

I was going to talk about this a bit sooner, but with the 4th of July holiday and all the freedom-loving festivities that come with it, that just felt out of place. I think that since we’re done celebrating freedom, it’s worth taking a moment to examine the opposite end of the spectrum.

I know people like to throw the word fascism around like middle fingers in mid-day traffic, but it does have a definition. That definition has been twisted and amended many times over the past half-century, so much so that the word evokes so many different connotations.

For the sake of this post, I’ll be using the definition from Merriam-Webster’s dictionary. It offers a fairly concise assessment of what it entails.

A political philosophy, movement, or regime (such as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.

Under this definition, America and most developed countries are not fascist. No matter what some kale-eating hippie or Jerry Falwell wannabe theocrat may claim, the systems and laws in place are antithetical to fascism.

Western countries have codified laws and traditions that value individual rights, protect minorities, and restrain central government power. Now, that’s not to say it’s perfect in practice. There are plenty of examples, historical and contemporary, that of inequality and oppression by the government.

However, those examples are more a product of misguided groups of people and inherent systemic corruption. To call an entire system fascist because of those instances would be like calling an entire swimming pool dirty because a few people spit in it. With fascism, the entire pool is spit so there’s no need for cherry picking.

Thanks to the cruel mistress that is history, we have a few well-known examples of true fascism that even vegan hippies can agree on. By most objective measures, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany are the alpha and omega of all things fascist. If fascism were music, these two would be Elvis and the Beatles.

These governments were repressive, authoritarian, corrupt, and powerful. They could do whatever it wanted to its citizens and act however it wanted on a national stage, not giving a damn about public support of any kind. There was no hesitation to lie, cheat, and mislead the people. In these governments, people are either pawns or cogs in a machine. The very notion of freedom might as well be as fanciful as a unicorn fart.

There’s no question that these fascist governments did a lot of damage and caused a lot of suffering. There’s also no question that their actions scared and traumatized an entire world. They revealed to a modern world that wars between despots and industrial powers was truly horrific. Most human beings tend to avoid such horrors. A massive world war was enough to make everyone hyper-vigilant of all things fascist.

It’s in this heightened mentality where I think it’s worth having some perspective about fascism. We hear pundits, politicians, and protesters throw that word around, as though it’s the rhetorical equivalent of an “avoid critical thinking” card. It’s an easy label to throw around, but it rarely sticks because actual fascism is actually pretty frail.

In a modern context, fascism is different from the kings and despots of the ancient world. In those times, corrupt and blood-thirsty kings could only get away with so much. A kingdom and a nation state, complete with modern infrastructure, are two very different things.

A king needs to only hold a kingdom together and fight off the occasional invader. A nation state has to deal with bureaucracy, social welfare, and legal issues. No matter how big a king’s castle is, there’s just no way to manage all that in a modern context. There needs to be some sort of system in place.

A fascist government tries to centralize that system and organize it in a simple, stable way that definitively benefits certain persons or groups. Nazis sought to benefit a favored race. Italian Fascist sought to benefit a favored class. The argument could be made that Stalinist Russia and the current regime in North Korea are fascist in nature. I would tend to agree with those claims.

The goal is almost always the same. A fascist government directly and overtly attempts to control and centralize power for a select group of elites. It’s for this very reason that fascism tends to fail in the long run or never succeed in the first place.

Now, don’t go cheering and waving American flags just yet. That’s not to say that fascism inevitably falls under the glowing light of freedom, democracy, and bald eagles. That’s a romantic idea that makes for great war movies and comic book characters. It’s not necessarily reflective of real-world machinations.

The biggest flaw in fascism is its attempt to control and manage an entire state. That’s not just difficult. It’s impossible for any ordinary human or groups of humans. Our caveman brains can barely control when we get horny. How can we expect to control an entire government, let alone one meant to benefit a specific group of people?

The short answer is we can’t. The long answer is that such centralization and power requires a lot of bullying, corruption, subversion, and back-stabbing. That’s why you have Nazi Storm Troopers and Stalinist purges. It isn’t just because powerful people get a thrill out of ordering rampant death. They need to scare, bully, and intimidate everybody into going along with their agenda and being completely loyal.

That’s a huge problem though because, as I’ve pointed out before, it’s impossible to know how truthful someone is. You can never know who is truly loyal and who is plotting against you. That’s why men like Joseph Stalin were obscenely paranoid, which guaranteed that allies and enemies alike would die by his hand. Without those allies, any system is inherently weaker.

On top of that problem, there’s also the issue of the terrified masses who live under a fascist thumb. Say what you will about whiny protesters complaining about weed, but at least they’re willing to tell the government what they don’t want to hear. In a fascist system, the impoverished masses will likely keep their mouth shut and only tell the government what it wants to hear.

That may help a paranoid fascist get through the day, but it limits their ability to make it through the year. That’s because in a complex world, having incomplete facts tends to be a huge detriment. If nobody is willing to tell a fascist ruler that their rusty old trucks with canons are no match for drone strikes, then that’s going to be a problem.

That’s why, contrary to what the History Channel and video games may claim, fascist regimes like Nazi Germany were never close to winning the war. Between major blunders and micromanaging, there was never a scenario that didn’t involve time travel or aliens that would’ve allowed them to win.

That’s because a fascist regime can’t trust anyone, be it military generals or the public. At some point, the ties break down and the system just can’t handle it. They can delay the collapse, but they usually can’t stop it. It’s remarkable that Nazi Germany lasted as long as it did, given all the assassination attempts.

It’s the dirty, but unavoidable secret of almost every fascist governments. They function only to live another day, rather than build a future. Some are better at it than others. Castro’s Cuba has managed to survive for over a half-century, albeit with significant support from other neighboring countries.

The same goes for North Korea. The only reason that country still exists is because China doesn’t want a failed state on its border. At this point, North Korea can only endure, but not build. As the old dynastic cycle in China often proved, a system concerned only with survival tends to collapse in the long run.

I say this not as a way to undermine the horrors that fascism has and could potentially unleash on this world. It is a real danger in a world that’s full of crazy dictators and obscene corruption. However, it’s a danger with an inherent weakness and an expiration date. It’s one instance where you can depend on caveman logic to win out in the end.

It may not inspire the kind of ravenous patriotism that Americans tend to enjoy. However, it does show that, despite protests the contrary, there’s a lot to appreciate about our current system. It’s not perfect, but it’s building towards a better, sexier future more so than any fascist government ever will.

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Boredom: The Epidemic Of The Future?

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Back in August of 2013, a very heinous, very unusual crime made headlines around the world. In Dunkan, Oklahoma, a group of three teenagers allegedly murdered Christopher Lane, an Australian exchange student just out for a jog, in cold blood just because they were bored.

Think about that for a moment. A bunch of teenagers got so bored and were so desperate form stimulation that they resorted to cold-blooded murder just to get their adrenaline flowing. We, as a society, are so used to crimes of passion and desperation. They’re basically the premise of every episode of “CSI” and “Law and Order.”

The fact those shows keep getting renewed show that we have a certain concept of what inspires and propagates crime and deviance. People who commit these crimes usually have some sort of overpowering motivation that overshadows any sense of decency they have. They’re desperate for money, they’re hopelessly in love, or in some cases, they’re pathological psychopaths with fatal flaws in their biology.

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What makes the murder of Christopher Lane so horrifying is that it completely upends that narrative. The killers, in this case, weren’t motivated by revenge, money, or personality disorders. They were just bored.

That is extremely disconcerting because we’ve all felt bored at some point in our lives. There was this one time the power got knocked out at my house for nearly two days and I couldn’t do damn near anything. When it got dark and I had no more light with which to read comics, it got to be damn near agonizing. I never did anything stupid because of it, but this crime should give everyone pause.

The fact that we’re all capable of being exceedingly bored reveals a disturbing possibility. If three bored teenagers are capable of such a heinous act, then are others just as capable? Are we, personally, capable of such horror? Depending on how bored you’ve been in the past, that’s a disturbing question to even think about.

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However, it may become an increasingly relevant question in the future. Usually, when I talk about the future on this blog, I explore the more positive ramifications of our advances in technology. I talk about how this technology will cure infectious disease, enhance our cognitive abilities beyond our caveman limits, and improve our sex lives to amazingly kinky heights.

I know, at times, it sound downright utopian in my vision of the future. By our current standards, wherein we live in a world where 3.7 million children die before their fifth birthday, it certainly seems rosy by comparison. However, I stick my fingers in my ears and start singing John Lennon songs when I contemplate potential problems in that vision. This is one issue that’s easy to overlook, but has major implications.

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At this moment in history, society has a great many distractions in terms of entertainment and productivity. Most people have jobs, of some sort, to keep them busy. The three teenagers who killed Christopher Lee were on summer vacation and had nothing productive to do. It’s hard to know whether a part-time job at a fast food joint would’ve averted a murder, but they would’ve had to find a different excuse.

Whether you’re toiling in the fields of a small farm or running around an office like an episode of “The Office,” we’ve always had some kind of work to keep us, as a species, occupied. For most of human history, we had to work. If we didn’t, then we starved to death. It was that simple.

It’s another rare instance where caveman logic seems to apply equally across time and history. It doesn’t matter whether we’re hunter/gatherers or sweatshop workers putting together barbie dolls. We’re a species that’s wired to work. It may not always be the work we prefer, but we know why it’s necessary on some levels. We need to gather and manage our resources to survive.

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That, however, is where the chink in our boredom-busting armor might start. For most of human history, we’ve always had to work ourselves to the bone to keep our species and our civilization moving. That’s rapidly changing due to trends in automation. Add in the growth of artificial intelligencethe rise of 3D printing, and the possibility of lab-grown food, and suddenly we don’t need millions of people toiling anymore.

Now by most measures, it’s a good thing that we don’t need people to endure back-breaking labor just to get the bare minimum of sustenance. Most people would rather not work in fields of cow shit or work 12-hour shifts in a factory. They’d rather work a reasonable number of hours that provides them abundant leisure and family time. That’s wholly possible in a modern economy.

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However, at some point, technology will make even that reasonable set of hours won’t be necessary. Our ability to make our food, purify our water, and generate power might become so efficient that the amount of work needed is minimal. Given our tendency to screw up on the job, it may get to a point where having human workers is a liability.

It could lead to a huge mass of unemployment or under-employment. However, that wouldn’t mean everyone would have to live in poverty. On the contrary, it may eliminate poverty altogether because we could allocate the basic necessities of life so efficiently. Policies like the universal basic income, which I’ve talked about before, may effectively decouple the link between work and survival.

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This is all well and good for people who hate doing menial jobs for low pay, but it creates a situation that we, as a species, have never dealt with before. What happens to our bodies, minds, and biology when we don’t have to work at all and are subject to the constant threat of boredom?

That’s not entirely a rhetorical question. It’s also one of those questions that’s impossible to answer now, but might be possible to address in the future. We’ve never had a functioning society where nobody has to work and everybody has access to the basics of life, free of charge. It’s so unprecedented that it’s hard to know whether we’re even wired for it.

The ghastly murder of Christopher Lane implies that our minds and bodies don’t react well to boredom. It makes us think crazy thoughts, do crazy things, and act on crazy impulses. What else other than boredom can explain people dedicating so much time and energy into making paperclip chains?

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It doesn’t just reflect to our basic caveman settings. These are essential survival instincts that every species that has ever lived have built into their biology. Every creature, be it a lion or a dung beetle, dedicates a significant amount of its existence simply securing food, avoiding predators, and finding a mate. Given the never-ending competition of nature and evolution, there’s literally no time to be bored.

Humans are in an unprecedented situation compared to other species. We’re basically like players in a massive multi-player video game armed with cheat codes. We are so dominate, so powerful, and so adaptable that no other species has a prayer. Sure, a deer may kill an unlucky human every now and then, but deer are just not able to dominate the way humans dominate.

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The problem is that this undermines the very mechanics of evolution and survival instinct. What happens to a species where it doesn’t need those instincts to survive and reproduce anymore? With our tools and technology, humans can kill any predator and beat any disease.

That means our only concern would be reproduction. That might already be playing out to some extent. There have been some links, albeit weak ones, between adolescent boredom and teen pregnancy. When you think about it from a survival standpoint, it makes sense. If there’s no food to gather or predators to avoid, your next instinct is to mate. At the very least, having kids gives you something to do.

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However, technology may make that unnecessary as well. Between advances in contraception and artificial wombs, even that most basic instinct won’t be necessary for the propagation of our species. In that scenario, sex would have no reproductive purposes. It would just be another thing we do with our bodies when we’re bored. While that might mean more people get laid, it also means risking even more boredom.

Can we, as a species and as individuals, function with that kind of boredom? In a future where we have so few concerns to our survival, safety, and propagation, can we actually tolerate life? Again, it’s not entirely a rhetorical question.

Just imagine yourself in that situation. You wake up in a nice, comfortable dwelling every day. You don’t have to work. Anything you want to eat is readily available. If you want to have sex, there are apps to connect you with people or sex robots that make that as easy as ordering a pizza. You have all the time you want for hobbies, sports, and what not.

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It might be fun at first, but what happens when you get bored? How do you fill every hour of every day? What happens when you’ve read all your books, beat every video game, and collected every stamp? What will you do to entertain yourself?

That’s not to say some people will resort to the lengths that those teenagers in Oklahoma went to when they murdered an innocent man. However, the fact that this happened today when we’re still a long way from that rosy future is telling. It might even be a warning that we’re not prepared for the boredom pandemic to come.

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The Horrific Consequences Of Human Stupidity

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We all make mistakes. We’ve all done or said things that make us feel stupid. I certainly have. One time, I tried to impress a girl by claiming I’d eaten a live caterpillar. She just took two steps back, gave me that repulsed look, and made it clear that she did not find that sort of thing attractive. Needless to say, I never got a date with that girl.

Mistakes are a part of life. They’re an understandable part of the human experience. We’re bound to make mistakes because the world is chaotic. Our decisions are bound to be erratic, misguided, or just downright wrong at some point. Even the smartest among us is prone to making mistakes. Just ask a certain high-ranking general who got busted having an affair because he foolishly used unsecured emails.

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Mistakes are one inescapable element of life. Stupidity, however, is the 800-pound, machine-gun toting gorilla in the room that we can’t stop poking with a stick. I’ve spent all week preaching the importance of education. I did so despite all those times I belabored how much I hated high school. I still don’t think I can overstated just how much it matters.

More than anything else, education matters because stupidity comes at a cost. In fact, it can become very costly very fast if you let it. Stupidity, by definition, ensures that we’ll do more than make mistakes. We’ll actually find ways to turn a bad situation worse.

Remember that little story about me trying to impress that girl? Well, I’m lucky I’m not that stupid because if I were, I would’ve doubled down on my claim. Even after she’d been repulsed by the caterpillar story, a stupider version of me would’ve taken it a step further. He would’ve gotten on the floor, found the first bug he could find, and licked it up as though it were the last piece of chocolate fudge. That’s the power of stupidity.

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It doesn’t just hinder our ability to impress the opposite sex either. Stupidity can have huge, world-shaking consequences. I’m not just talking about the brilliant scientists at NASA losing a probe because someone didn’t know the difference between feet and meters. I’m talking about real events that shaped our history due to spectacular acts of stupidity.

It does happen. We humans are capable of that level of stupidity. For better or for worse, a part of why our history and our civilization has manifested like it has is due to some ridiculous acts of stupidity. Some of it is just an honest mistake that just snowballed. Some of it is just stupidity in the highest degree.

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The number of events incurred by human stupidity are too vast and voluminous to list. I could probably start a whole new blog with the sole purpose of discussing how stupidity shaped our world. For now, I’ll keep it to only nine, thanks to the fine folks at Listerverse.

A couple years ago, they did an article that discussed some tiny acts of stupidity that had huge consequences on society, civilization, and the course of history. Granted, there’s no way these people could’ve known at the time the sheer breadth of their stupidity. Hindsight being what it is, though, there’s just no getting around the results.

Listverse: 9 Tiny Mistakes With Monumental Historical Consequences

Read the article and then dare to have a high opinion of the human species. If you’re not much for reading, here’s a few highlights that are worth mentioning.

  • The event that sparked World War I, and World War II by default, hinged on some idiot driver making the wrong turn in Sarajevo.

  • The failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961 was an unmitigated disaster because someone in the American military stupidly forgot about the existence of time zones.

  • The fall of Constantinople, one of the most important cities of the Medieval Europe, was almost entirely due to some idiot forgetting to lock the gate.

Some of these mistakes have had huge consequences on our world, even today. There’s no denying the impact of events like World War I or the fall of Constantinople. Without these events, history and society as we know it today just doesn’t exist. How odd/frustrating is it that so many of them hinged on acts of gross stupidity?

Again, hindsight being what it is, it’s impossible to know what could’ve happened had certain people not been so stupid. It’s also important to maintain some sense of perspective when it comes to the stupidity of the past compared to what we deal with in the present.

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We’re actually in the midst of an unprecedented time in human history. As recently as 1820, only 12 percent of the population could read and write. Today, around 83 percent of the world’s seven billion people are literate. That is not a trivial shift. A world with this many educated people is unheard of and nobody really knows what kind of impact that will have on the course of history.

Despite the progress we’ve made, though, there’s still plenty of room for stupidity. Thanks to the internet and social media, we can expect our various mistakes, spectacular or otherwise, to be documented for all to see until the end of time. It’s part of being human, making mistakes and never living them down. Let’s, at least, acknowledge the extent to which some of those mistakes have affected our species.

 

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