Thursday, December 24, 2009

Control and the City

The small town is notoriously oppressive. It is ruled by patriarchs (mayor, police chief, pastor, banker) and through gossip and rumor. In a world made up of small towns, most people live outside town, in the country; rural people are even more easily ruled, and have traditionally been owned by lords and kings. In both cases, monarchical and hierarchical control are made easy by the fact that the ruled masses have nowhere else to go; they know their place because they are stuck there, in one spot, forever. But the absolute power that the patriarchs have held over the past 10,000 years of agricultural civilization is threatened with destruction by the inherent democracy of the city. Thus, with the desperation of the dying, they inflict all kinds of control technologies on the city in order to abolish its chaos and impose onto it the oppressive stasis of the village. Hence surveillance cameras, tracking systems, mandatory ID systems, and so on and so forth. The purpose is to reduce the city to a small town that just happens to have a lot of people. But, as the fall of Communism shows, this is easier said than done. Enter Dictel Corporation.

Dictel has many divisions, but the two largest and most important ones are the security and research divisions. The security division not only supplies massive mercenary armies to the US colonial occupation of the Middle East, but private security to corporations back in America. The research division develops surveillance and control technologies. The security division dominates Bad Company like a god, hovering overhead and blotting out the sky with its inky blackness, using terror to force the people to submit and obey like the peasants they once were. However, city people are not peasants, so they revolt. Dictel's attempt to overthrow the US government fails because of this. Thus Black Science is dominated by the shadowy research division, which is developing a mind control device: if the people can't be reduced back to peasantry because the city has made them willful and disobedient, then the only way the old order can be saved is to reduce them even further, to will-less robots. Once that fails, the Dictel brass decree that humanity must be destroyed and replaced with mechanical robots, which obey perfectly because they do not have wills or even consciousness of their own: hence New Flesh.

Is your every move being tracked? Are forces beyond your control trying to trap you and strip you of your will? That's the old order trying to survive at the expense of the new. The new order is the rapidly growing urban civilization that is replacing the old agricultural one. So why is agricultural civilization monarchical and hierarchical, while urban civilization is far more democratic? The reason is structural.

The master metaphor of the agricultural stage and its authoritarian order that is struggling to retain control is the pyramid. At the apex of the pyramid is the king; at the base, the enslaved masses of farm laborers, who are not so much people as farm equipment, like plows and sickles. The absolutist hierarchy of the political and religious order follows naturally. The village, really, resembles not so much the city as a stockyard, containing peasant laborers the same way a stockyard contains livestock. Indeed, peasants and livestock are treated the same way, and in fact peasants are just another form of livestock, really.

In contrast, the master metaphor of the emerging urban stage is the net or web. Human relations in the world of the city are not governed by strict lines of command and control, but by ever shifting networks of connections. Indeed, urban civilization may be a human manifestation of Indra's net, in which every node is connected to every other node, directly or indirectly, locally or nonlocally. Power derives not from the number and level of vassals you can control, but from the size and strength of the networks you can build and coordinate. But the networks can only be governed through the consent of the people in them, because power in the city comes from below. Power in the traditional plantation nation comes from above, from the king on down, and ultimately from God, the supreme king who rules from the high court of heaven.

All the strife and violence of the city is nothing other than the clash of the two orders, the old (agricultural civilization) and the new (urban civilization). The old (authoritarian) order sees the new, but in terms of the old: the cities are chaotic and out of order, so order must be brought down on them from above. Government, economic monopoly, organized religion, and organized crime are the weapons the old order created to force order on humanity. Their job was easy when most people were peasant serfs. But the masses today are now urban workers, and they are footloose: if the company they're working for does not satisfy their needs and desires, they can always leave for another. Even worse from the perspective of the old order, they can always start their own companies, and frequently do. Since urban workers, unlike rural serfs, are not bound to their jobs, they can ruin a company by leaving for better ones. The benefit the old order sees is that workers are easily fired, whereas peasants are not. But a large number of unemployed workers carries the threat of rebellion against the corporate order.

The old order shot itself in the proverbial foot when it forgot the purpose of agricultural civilization, which is control, and started thinking in urban terms of industrial productivity: it cleared the peasants off the farmland and replaced them with far more efficient machines, forcing the peasants to settle in the cities and work industrial jobs. And the city transformed them. Stadtluft macht frei was the motto of the mercantile towns of medieval Europe: city air makes free. Is it any wonder that the lords of the old order are now frantically trying to turn the huge and fast-growing new cities back into easily controllable villages?

Ultimately, in Spanner, the old order tries to obliterate the new entirely. This is the "Armageddon" that is imminent: the new order, in order to replace the old, must fight it to the death. There are only two possible outcomes: "Ragnarok", the twilight of the old gods (and the death of the old order), and "Armageddon", the destruction of the world (and the new order with it). The battle ultimately comes down to controllers vs. hackers.

The battle between the two orders has been going on for centuries. Europe's first genocide, the infamous Albigensian Crusade of the 1200s, was only the first great battle. The conflict has only accelerated since then, especially since the Industrial Revolution. Technologies of control and freedom are advancing at the same rate. Is this the true significance of 2012? The final battle won't necessarily happen then, but it's coming. Dictel's "hostile takeover" attempt in Bad Company is only the first shot...

Back to Spanner’s World...

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