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.

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