Friday, 30 November 2012

The Coming Era of Supervillainy

Multiple converging trends indicate that someday, evil overlords and criminal masterminds straight out of popular culture and into the news. There are multiple types of supervillains we can discuss here, often with significant overlap between the categories. Many are as old as society itself, while others wield abilities undreamt of by previous generations. As long as human society exists, there will be crime and malcontents of some sort. There will always be those who use power for their own ends, ignoring the cost to others. Such an environment is neither conduciveto representative government nor human benefit

The supervillainy of the era represents the return of a system that is as old as history. This socio-economic model is neither capitalism nor socialism, but instead something much older: feudalism. Parasitic elites at the top use warlords and peasants to support their lifestyles while peasants and serfs toil beneath them. Those outside of the system are outlaws, having no legal representation to the feudal order. 

The fundamental components are already in place, and the momentum is already leading there. I will discuss three categories of potential supervillain that could thrive in such a system: the Corrupt Elite, the Empowered Individual, and the Underworld Entrepreneur. There is significant overlap between these categories in some cases, but I believe these could be the main archetypes that tomorrow’s supervillains may gravitate towards. These are just my takes on how they may arise, what their strategies may be, and how they may deal with threats. 

--The Corrupt Elite: The robber baron, the corrupt politician, and others who abuse power and wealth for their own benefit are among both the most transparent and easiest to loathe. However, as long as even the elite have “skin in the game,” they realize working with others (the positive sum game) is better than just ignoring them. Power and wealth often go together, and history is full of politicians who help wealthy friends loot others’ wealth (via often taxes on lower classes, no-bid contracts, and bailouts for their associates). The term “kleptocrat” is most apt for these individuals, as their primary goal is to use the state apparatus to encourage rent-seeking. 

When there is less difference, financially and ideologically, between the top and bottom of society, there is a greater chance each member realizes they’re “all in it together.” This is why I believe the health of the middle class and related metrics like “median household income” are better indicators of social and economic health than just GDP. As the middle class collapses, stratification, crime, and instability also increase. The elite become increasingly isolated, building their own infrastructure and segregated enclaves while letting everything elsefall apart. Look at the American infrastructure. 

While barely half a century old, it’s already collapsing to below Victorian levels. Overreliance on cars and suburbs, as opposed to logical urban planning and mass transit (public or private), additionally made the USA extra-vulnerable to oil price shocks. There was actually a conspiracy behind this that makes the tinfoil hat crowd seem sane. Oil, tire, and car companies conspired to replace streetcars with buses. By the time the case had made it to court, the damage had already been done. The fact oil and gas companies have such financial and political power is hardly surprising. 

Many Corrupt Elites do not content themselves with merely minding their own business. Many will crackdown on the “peasants” for espousing views they disagree with, turning police forces into their personal illegal spying agencies, and enforcing their personal whims upon others with a “nanny state” approach. While police forces and crackdowns are their preferred tools for now, advances in drones, automation, and surveillance technology will mean the need for “manpower” for running their regime is greatly reduced. So maybe those police and official pensions are ripe for kleptocrat seizure, once drone and robot technology has become sufficiently advanced. Like Dr. Doom, they are “legitimate” overlords of states and territories with no shortage of robot henchmen.  

--The Empowered Individual: As stated before on the blog, new technologies can empower individuals for good or ill. However, unlike comic books, it is extremely rare for a “lone genius” to produce paradigm-shifting technologies wholly by themselves. However, the production costs and increasing ease of fabrication makes many disruptive technologies more available.

This means that while a single mad scientist is unlikely to destroy the world, the potential for disruption increases. Autonomous, decentralized networks are a far more likely incarnation for the deployment of disruptive technologies and techniques. From non-violent activist groups to armed insurgencies (and everything in between), the successful techniques used by one group are likely to be copied en masse by others. By the time a countermeasure has been found, others will likely have moved on to different tactics. Especially savvy groups might combine tactics for maximum effect, a sort of fourth generation warfare (4GW) analog of combined arms theory. 

Empowered Individuals may be motivated by a number of things, but Corrupt Elites are natural targets for them. Activists may seek the removal of a corrupt official, protest the favors given to a crooked businessperson, or seek redress for government misconduct. Not all EIs may have ideological or "moral" reasons for their activities. As people become desperate, there is always the risk of the depraved spree killer. As stated before, Dr. Brin has a great way to deal with them, denying them the infamy they seek. Like the character "V" in Alan Moore's "V for Vendetta," they cause ideologically disruption against centralized power and infrastructure for good or ill. Or like Batman's eternal nemesis, the Joker, engage in destruction for its own sake.

--The Underworld Entrepreneur: Crime of the regular sort has always been part of the economy.

As such, there have been individuals and organizations that out-competed their rivals to dominate their market. In the underworld, this means the most adept at violence and ruthless behavior can dominate their fellows. Whenever something is banned in the regular economy, black and "gray" markets may emerge to fill the demand. 

The effects of Prohibition and the "War on Drugs" have encouraged organized crime to thrive. Not only are drug-related shootings the dominant type of firearms crime, but prisons have been shoved full of non-violent offenders who have little to lose by going deeper into crime. Many street gangs use drugs to fund their own activities, and battle other gangs for control of turf they can use to sell drugs with. Typically, the police target the largest gang, often the "victor" of the gang war. After the police act, there is typically a power vacuum as other gangs or factions within the gang start the cycle over again. 

No matter which gang dominates the streets, the long term winners are the drug cartels that supplied the drugs in the first place. Some groups, like the Mexican drug cartels, have such wealth and power, they have built their own infrastructure. Not only do they possess significant munitions, logistics networks, tunnels, and other methods to smuggle drugs, some even built their own communicationsinfrastructure and armored vehicles. They maintain international smuggling networks to move their product, and are a force to be reckoned with in their home country (and beyond). 

Even outside of "regular" criminal activities (gun-running, drug smuggling, etc.), there is an entire market ecosystem outside of official channels. This is known as System D. The original term comes from a French word, "d├ębrouillards" (meaning "clever"), but I believe an apt English translation is "Devious." Not all parts of System D involve organized crime of the regular sort. System D is a broad category for all "informal" economic activity, from kids selling lemonade to African marketplaces selling fresh food to even services like trash removal. There's even real estate provided by System D.

System D is the world's fastest growing economy outside the USA (and possibly inside it). As more things are banned, regulated, or restricted by increasingly desperate and cash-strapped states, the black and gray economies can only grow as more and more people turn to alternative economies. As 'legit' economies falter, the laws of supply and demand reach new equilibrium independent of existing policies and laws. Even "legit" companies can inadvertently be drawn into System D by proxies and "technically" legit deals.

As discrete method of payments like encrypted cybercurrencies (such as BitCoin) and unofficial exchange/logistics networks (such as the Islamic world's "hawala" practice) combine, a new type of underworld entrepreneur may emerge. The survival criteria for continuing to operate in System D are being sneaky enough to avoid law enforcement and/or having the wealth/political clout to evade accountability. This not only means it is possible an organization like SPECTRE from James Bond may emerge, but statistically probable. 

A real life Blofeld or Moriarty may lord over a distributed network of crime like a spider in a web. They may supply Empowered Individuals with illicit goods, be targets of them, or may compete with Corrupt Elites (or perhaps even make the transition into "legitimacy"). A UE may likewise benefit from automation, as it removes the need for human operatives in crime networks to a significant degree. (Such an idea is the basis of a new novel a friend and I are working on.)

So there you have some of the archetypes I believe may emerge in the future. Of course, if strange vigilantes arise to match real life supervillains, then things may get very interesting real fast. For the rest of us, however, the quality of life is likely to suffer greatly. There are many reasons why places with roving warbands are not pleasant to live in. At the same time, living on the whims of a neofeudal overlord are little better. That is why I believe in living in a resilient community less dependent on an increasingly unhinged world system.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Waiting for Naglfar

We are watching our world die. The world is sleepwalking into an environmental, financial, and political Ragnarok. Like the Norse apocalypse, our own tribulations include rising seas, savage wars, and the death of the old order. The Arctic Ocean may be ice free in a few summers from now, raising sea levels around the world. More alarmingly, this will increase the moisture in the atmosphere, allowing the effects of climate change to snowball exponentially. There is also the possibility that the methane clathrates in the Arctic will burst forth like Lovecraft's Elder Gods, sending Earth's climate into uncharted territory. The methane released could greatly accelerate the greenhouse effect, a Surtur's flaming sword of runaway climate. 

Don't hold your breath for any sort of political solution. The major nations have no interest in curbing emissions, even at a time it would be prudent to kick their fossil fuel addictions. Fossil fuels themselves are becoming harder to retrieve, with a diminishing rate of returns. Some types of gas and unconventional oil, for instance, have a negative rate of returns on energy invested. The processes to recover them are environmentally disruptive, and require increasingly scarce water resources to retrieve. Wilderness, aquifers, and farmland are turned into septic cesspools as a result of the toxic chemicals blasted into the ground. It is only through massive government subsidies to fossil fuel companies and use of eminent domain to seize private property that such activities are possible. It is not unlike a desperate junkie in need of a fix slicing their skin to find traces of their drug. 

Alternatives to fossil fuels likewise cannot sustain the status quo. Fossil fuel companies wish to inhibit competition as long as possible. Big Government-funded "green jobs" are unlikely to do much, as the individuals responsible for the pollution (public and private) have little interest in fixing it. Technical problems with energy storage, including rare earth supplies for batteries, have yet to be fully addressed. Despite some promising developments, deploying the new infrastructure would require money that no longer exists. Even in a newer, low cost infrastructure was developed, governments tend to prefer cozy relationships with centralized oil companies rather than a competitive market of decentralized firms. 

The money that could have been used to fund and develop alternatives has essentially vanished from the real economy. Kleptocratic central banks and political insiders continue to print money to sustain the pyramid scheme of speculation markets. The majority of trades on most stock exchanges are performed by software rather than humans, often used to rig trades to favor an increasingly fat few. Euros, dollars, pounds, and other currencies are being increasingly devalued with rigged and low interest rates, which penalize savers and reward speculators. Like a rigged casino game, the world economy ensures most people who play lose. Financial emergencies (often declared by the same people who started them) are used to seize the remaining assets in the name of debts that cannot be repaid. 

Globalization overcame the feedback mechanisms able to stop it. Crime and black markets have likewise become globalized. One of the fastest growing economies is not a country, but an informal economy known as "System D." While System D includes "conventional" criminal activities (e.g. smuggling and protection rackets), it includes alternative and informal transactions of all sorts. "Technically legal" gray markets, digital currencies (such as BitCoin), and barter agreements all have grown. In areas where the economy has effectively collapsed (such as Greece), barter and informal agreements handle services from protection to waste removal to food production. Revenue-strapped governments eagerly try to reign in such transactions, but to little avail. 

Attempts to ban such transactions will likely raise black market prices and empower criminal syndicates due to the "Prohibition" effect. Militarization of the police force, surveillance technologies, and the loss of rights are the logical side effects of heavy-handed government crackdowns. One need only look at the War on Drugs to see how quasi-military tactics have backfired. Ironically, in areas were state power has weakened, non-state groups from guerrillas to crime syndicates may take the place of states in the role of service providers. Many drug cartels, for instance, maintain logistics networks that could smuggle anything from illegal aliens to weaponry and even their own communications infrastructure. Political disruptions can result in these groups becoming the de-facto government. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Russian Mafia was already the effective power in control of the streets. When Rome fell, many regions had already began to rely on local feudalism. 

Fear and panic are reported on by media firms and echoed by politicians. The realities of the elite and non-elites increasingly differ, despite (or perhaps due to) the attempts of politicians to hold onto the status quo.  This type of instability could easily be exploited or redirected into domestic opponents or foreign enemies. Resources from fuels to water to arable land become increasingly scarce, desperation reignites potential for conflict. From trade sanctions to shooting wars, "zero sum" foreign policy is seen as increasingly acceptable. From massive crop failures in the USA to glacial melt-water disputes between India and China, food and water become increasingly valuable. The parasitic kleptocrats and corporate socialists loot as much as possible before heading for foreign tax havens and private holdouts. When events similar to this happen in historical cultures, it simply means the former elites are the last ones to starve to death. 

 Those who oppose such policies can easily find themselves the targets of well-honed intelligence and dissident monitoring infrastructure. With drones and a lack of political transparency, targets can be executed from around the world. Even if actual assassination is impractical, character assassination and agents provocateur can easily sabotage attempts to form alternatives. With a dystopia worthy of a science fiction novel, the system ironically destroys any chance it has for genuine reform and survival. The resulting crash simply is delayed and made worse by shooting messengers. 

Alternatives to the highly-centralized consumer state are present. Power, food, water, production, and defense are things which would be more ideal as decentralized networks rather than hyper-professional bureaucracies. However, popular culture remains fixated on trivial politics, escapism, and propagation of the status quo for as long as possible. The solution is not the "doomsday bunker" mentality. Even rationed supplies cannot last forever, and a small family group is easy prey for a large group. Instead, form connections that matter. Replace "zero sum" with "positive sum." Strive for self-sufficiency whenever possible: in food, energy, water, production, and other methods. Aquaponics, desktop manufacturing, and home energy have all become cheaper, and will likely continue to do so. Resilience is a golden ideal, and will help as the world becomes unstable. Do not rely on Big Government or Big Business for employment or salvation from the problems they helped create. Find friends, family, and those you can trust. The reward is a genuine community you care about, rather than a hideously complex system built upon fraud and ignorance. 

We may draw some parallels to Norse mythology. A ship of dead men's nails, Naglfar, manned by the treacherous Loki, would start the final battle. With the endemic unethical behavior in once-trusted institutions, one failure could cause others. The venomous death throes of the old order, like mythic serpent Jormungandr, could destroy much of what we are used to. However, Ragnarok brought an end to a doomed world, so that new one could arise. The fever dream will eventually pass, although the transition will be difficult. It is better to strive and fail than to passively wait for Naglfar. Even the fallen warriors ended up in Valhalla.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

The Magic of Bond: Hermetic Magic and the Original '007'

"Bond, James Bond."

James Bond is the iconic spy in popular culture. While real life intelligence operatives generally prefer inconspicuous, low-profile positions and lots of boring work, the cinematic Bond travels the world in high class tossing off one-liners as he dispatches baddies and seduces women. He prefers his martinis "shaken, not stirred," and Bond himself acts the same under pressure. However, the modern interpretation and almost stereotypical behaviors of Bond differ from Ian Fleming's original vision. In my blog entry today, I'm going to discuss a relevant topic to supervillainy and mad science, the intersection of spies, magic, and popular culture. I have not yet seen "Skyfall" as of writing this entry, but it is on my mind.

Bond's iconic status has more to do with the movies than with the novels he originated in. The novels portray an often blunt, sympathetic anti-hero navigating the murky world of espionage during the Cold War. This is in contrast to the earlier movies, with over the top villains, zany plot elements, and cartoonish evil schemes. Part of the reason this was done was to lower the rating. More outlandish villains and plots allowed the movies to slip past American cinematic rating agencies, compared to a more brutal and "realistic" one. As a result, the silver screen version of 007 became a much-reduced version of the one in the books (at least in the 60s/70s films).

Ian Fleming himself was the real deal when it came to intelligence operations. He was a member of the British T-Force during and after World War II (a 'technical' force responsible for capturing German industrial and scientific know-how), serving alongside fellow bad ass Christopher Lee. There was also the fact many of Bond's own habits and preferences came from Fleming himself (and Fleming's own death was a result of them). The name for James Bond, according to Fleming, came from the name of an ornithologist. Many of Bond's skills are based on a combination of real life spies, commandos, and covert operatives. But how about 007, Bond's famous callsign?

The answer to that question takes us back to the reign of Queen Elizabeth in the 1500s. John Dee was Queen Elizabeth's court wizard, a scholar who combined magical and scientific research. This is what was also called a 'natural philosopher,' sort of a proto-scientist in an era when the scientific method was not quite hammered out yet. A polymath like Dee saw his Hermetic occult research as merely another aspect of furthering knowledge, combined with his more conventional research (especially in astronomy, mathematics, and navigation) and running rings of informants. He used the number "007," with the "00" signifying he was the Queen's eyes on the world. The "7" was used because of mystical significance. Dee himself was also an avowed imperialist, believing in British dominion over the New World. His use of "occult" knowledge was intended to further the power of his employer, as well as his expansive intelligence network. Again, this is a real life parallel between the "dark arts" of espionage and occultism alike. 

There is a writer who continued this train of thought, connecting James Bond, HP Lovecraft, and workplace comedy together. In his "Laundry" series, Stross has a British covert operative handling battling both supernatural entities and rival agencies seeking to exploit them. In that universe and Stross' "A Colder War," supernatural secrets (often involving powerful Lovecraftian forces) were treated in a similar manner to German research after WWII, with the superpowers scrambling to capture them. Other books, movies, TV series, and videogames involve government conspiracies and agents facing the occult, supernatural, and weird, but few seem to directly invoke the common traits between "mysticism" and spycraft.

There's also a videogame that specifically drew parallels between John Dee, James Bond, and Hermetic philosophy: Uncharted 3. The player's opponents for much of the game are a British secret society with vast resources (highly trained operatives, heavy weapons, lots of funding, etc.). A supporting character mentions they were started by John Dee and used many facades of other occult groups throughout history, such as the School of Night and Hellfire Club. Hermetic symbols are used in many of the in-game puzzles and plot points, including a 'lost lab' of John Dee that for some reason, is under a French chateau. There are also more subtle homages, such as one character using a Walther P5 as a preferred weapon. While Bond used a PPK, the P5 was essentially just a Walther PPK scaled up for 9mm Parabellum. The most common pistol in the middle and later phases of the game is the Walther P99, a 9mm pistol used by Bond in the Brosnan era and the start of the Craig era. Recently, it seems cinematic Bond has gone back to his iconic PPK.

Bond's use of gadgets changes with the films and books, but one thing that remains fairly constant is his pistol. There is a good reason for Bond to use a PPK. Originally, literary Bond used a Beretta in the weak .25 ACP caliber. However, a fan suggested that a Walther PPK in the slightly more powerful .32 ACP would be a better sidearm for Bond. There was good reason for this. The Walther PPK was a compact, concealable version of the standard German P38, intended for use by undercover police officers. World War II had left plenty of surplus weapons scattered in Europe's black market for years. Real life intelligence operatives during the Cold War generally preferred weapons they could acquire locally, use, and dispose of without drawing too much attention. The PPK was one such firearm. There are some other interesting facts even about the ammunition it uses.

If there is a caliber with plenty of historical and technical significance, it is the .32 ACP. It was developed by the legendary gunsmith John Browning, and used in the first pistol, the FN 1900, to employ a slide (becoming a dominant feature in firearms since). It was instrumental in helping start and end major wars in the European continent by being the direct cause of death for two heads of state. Austrian archduke Ferdinand was killed by bullets of this caliber, and it was the caliber of the Walther that Hitler shot himself with. Furthermore, most .32 ACP PPK magazines hold 7 rounds of it. Talk about some fun with numbers. If you follow comics, the magical superhero Dr. Strange was threatened by a villain using Hitler's pistol. Afterwards, Dr. Strange held onto it for a while. (However, the gun drawn is a P38, rather than a PPK.) Even the Doctor in "Dr. Who" used a water pistol version of the PPK in the "Fires of Pompeii" episode.

The use of a Walther pistol by Dr. Strange seems rather amusing, as it unintentionally reconnects the worlds of magic and espionage. According to magician and comic book writer Alan Moore, art is literally magic. Today's black magic does not involve dark rituals and Satanic sacrifices, but instead advertising and corporate logos to shape popular consciousness. In contemporary military and intelligence circles, there is concept of psychological operations. Psyops include the use of informants and infiltrators in rival groups, propaganda, shaping public opinion, and similar things.

Like in John Dee's time, these are often performed to benefit the goals of a government, client, or employer. What Moore calls "black magic," we call other things: public relations, marketing, advertising, and the like. Spies have used "soft power" for thousands of years, currently do so,and will continue to. It is literally an innate feature of the job description. Government intelligence agencies, special forces, and advertising/PR consultants may thus be the modern heirs to "dark arts." These things have their place, as many savvy individuals have realized. John Dee, thus, can be seen as both a spy and magician. 

Bond, in many ways, has come full circle. He started as a character in Fleming's fiction, taking cues from real life. Now, he is an icon unto himself. He is a sigil if there was one, as a suave British accent saying, "Bond. James Bond," can instantly bring him to mind. The most famous fictional wizard out of Britain may not be a boy armed with a magic wand or wear a pointy hat, but may be clad in a tuxedo and holding a Walther PPK. That is how Bond relates to magic. We shall see if "Skyfall" lives up to the legacy.