On Protest as a Tactic

I’ve been thinking about the whole notion of “protest” lately – specifically the variety where a bunch of people gather together at some physical location to demonstrate their objections to policies or institutions that they disagree with. (I’m deliberately using “protest” to refer to this, not to individual acts or boycotts or other varieties of expressing displeasure.) We’ve had a lot of these hit the news this year: Greek austerity protests, the protest/riots in London, the “Arab Spring” wave of protests, and the Occupy movement, to name but a few. Gathering somewhere to publicly air grievances is a very old tactic, and obviously still popular. Still, I can’t help wondering about the efficacy and utility of this tactic in the context of your “average” Western society (if there can be said to be such a thing). I don’t have any concrete conclusions, but here is my thinking so far.

I think that the notion of a bunch of people gathering, maybe with signs, to yell and/or occupy a space works largely on a threat principle. Either the target of the protest is threatened with the possibility that the “non-violent” group of protesters could turn into a violent mob, or is “non-violently” threatened with a reputation hit for failure to resolve the issues that the protesters raise. Historically, this was somewhat effective when a group of people could gather outside the dwelling or halls of the person(s) with the power to resolve the issues with immediate action, usually the stroke of a pen or a simple proclamation, and shame or intimidate the target[s] into compliance with the demands of “the people.”

Secondly, these sorts of protests traditionally took advantage of the time it took for information to spread. What I mean by this is that if you, as the person with the power to effect change, were faced with a mob outside your door, you didn’t have immediate access to the counter-opinions of millions of people around the world arguing for the exact opposite. You only had your personal judgment and convictions, and whatever physical force you were willing to employ to maintain your position.

In modern Western societies, we generally face a different situation. First, the representative structure of our governments and the election cycle mean that protests are necessarily symbolic. In the US context, when you rally outside Wall St. or on Capitol Hill, you are not facing people with the power to effect immediate change. There is no one such person — not even the President. At best, you could set gears into motion to have someone draft a bill that might be passed into law if you are able to emotionally sway the bulk of 535 people to agree with you. More likely, you might generate some minor debate and perhaps have some subtle influence over events two or four years later – most likely insufficiently large influence, and not nearly soon enough if the issue is something causing enough discontent to draw out a protest group to begin with. In addition, even if you manage to rally a literal million people to show up in support of your cause, it’s easy to find ten million voices online criticizing your position and arguing the precise opposite. This, of course, is the perfect “out” for officials to say that an issue requires more study in order to find a “balanced” solution (since the search is for whatever pleases the largest percentage of an electorate, not for the solution that actually solves the problem at hand).

I realize that this is sort of a double-edged sword. The intent behind longer election cycles and the dual-house system is to deliberately introduce some delay in effecting change for the purpose of ensuring that more considered solutions prevail over knee-jerk legislative changes. This can be a good thing when the issues are purely cultural (e.g., do we really want to ban violent video games?), but a bad thing when the issues are technical and relevant to physical survival and well-being of some or all of a population. That said, the entire representative/democratic system is vulnerable to poor decision-making in the first place, because effectively the people making the decisions are the most popular, not the most competent. (No, I don’t pretend to have a better solution — but I am also not going to pretend that what we have is even very good.)

Moreover, the above comments only apply to government. When the target of your protest is an economic system as a whole — or even simply specific corporations — protest is largely useless. Unless you can generate enough public embarrassment, a corporation is unlikely to change its behavior. It is immune by law to direct violence, so attacking its property or its representatives brings the risk of direct criminal consequences. Its property is considered “private,” so there is no right to occupy its premises or disrupt its business – you’ll simply be removed for trespassing. If you’re protesting the entire economic system, then you are facing the fact that capitalism as we know it is woven into the very language we use, and it’s ridiculously hard for people to even sanely discuss alternatives as a result. In addition, instead of trying to convince one person or a small group of people to change, you’re literally trying to apply a “threat,” as I’ve defined it above, to millions of people with your protest — this tends to be laughed at, and I would suggest that to expect any other result is naive.

In the case of government, then, the implicit “threat” of a protest is limited – modern society is highly reactive to violence (you will be met with and dispersed by disproportionately larger force for even minimally aggressive or destructive behavior), and the representatives are beholden to their local electorates back home, not to the protesters outside the door of the legislative assembly. A vote by representatives against the interests that elected them is much more potentially embarrassing than ignoring a bunch of “hippies.” In the case of business, the threat is also limited – violence will not work for the reasons above, and the reputation risk is weighed in terms of the resulting media coverage: “does this make us look bad, or the protesters?” If the answer is the former, there might be some business motivation to change, otherwise the protest will simply be ignored. In the case of the “system,” you’re unable to bring even the hint of a credible threat to bear through a protest.

The only argument I can really think of in favor of protests is that they are capable of raising awareness; however, this almost always comes at the cost of protesters being abused. Awareness, in our society, comes largely through traditional media (papers, radio, and television – online or offline), and the media is drawn to sex and violence. If the protesters are merely ignored, they will fade into obscurity, as both supporters and detractors have observed in regards to the Occupy movement. If there is a hint of sex or violence, the coverage skyrockets and positive or negative awareness jumps.

I’m still trying to decide exactly how I feel about it all, but my instincts tell me that, while protests such as the Occupy movement’s are admirable and the need for change is real, the tactic is largely useless. Politicians look to home, and businessmen to their markets – neither looks outside at the protester waving a sign. The energy would be better spent creating real change on a local level, I think – in trying to organize people into participating in activities that reduce their reliance on distant corporations and governments, subverting the system instead of merely railing against its largely symbolic headquarters.

As an aside, at least one observer (John Robb) thinks that protests might simply become impossible in the near future. I completely agree that it’s technologically possible already to auto-disperse protests before they become entrenched, but part of the function of protest, from a cynical sociological perspective, is precisely to allow the most disaffected groups a harmless outlet for their frustrations — after all, nobody really pays attention to them in any serious way, and eventually the cops have an excuse to disperse them or they get bored and go home. Either way, things proceed as they were. I strongly suspect that the dystopian “crush the protests” outcome is unlikely — what’s more effective is to allow people their protests and just ignore them.

As a sort of postscript, I emphasize again that my thoughts only apply to the sort of largely non-violent “street protests” we’ve seen. When they cross the line into full-blown rioting, the threat scales and the implications change. There are also other types of protest, like boycotting and educating, that have much different dynamics, but I’m not really discussing those either. Not to say I haven’t been thinking about them, but that’s for another blog post.:)

Thoughts on Occupy and the State of the Global Economy

Advance Warning: I have no formal background in economics. I have a master’s degree in sociology and a lot of experience working on the topic of knowledge economies, but that’s about the short of it.

Time for my $0.02. 🙂 Comments/criticism encouraged – I’m always interested in improving my understanding of the world.

I’ve been following the Occupy Wall St. movement and the associated #Occupy movement worldwide for a few weeks now with a fair amount of interest. I’m trying to make sense of it, as is everyone else. As anybody who’s been following the mainstream news is undoubtedly aware, we’ve been cycling in and out of economic crisis mode now for the last four or five years, and we seem to be poised at a “make or break” point yet again with regards to global markets and more than a few national economies, with the global economy at stake. It makes sense to me that people would be upset and looking for solutions when the rich are getting exponentially richer at the expense of everyone else, even getting away with outright fraud in multiple instances (robosigning, etc.).

Part of the beauty of the Occupy movement is that it has steadfastly refused to produce any concrete list of demands that would allow it to be easily categorized and then demonized or dismissed. That said, a lot of the discourse is still framed from an approach informed by capitalism and the global economy we’ve worked and lived with for most of the last hundred years (I realize I’m horribly generalizing, but to address this properly is more writing than I can do as a quick first commentary). This bothers me, because I believe that the underlying premises that we derive our systems of resource distribution from have changed fairly abruptly in a way that is not yet appreciated.

In short, there will never be enough jobs again.^

Globally, the stats I can find (ILO’s Global Employment Trends 2011) indicate:
* 3.1 billion workers globally out of a population that has recently crossed 7 billion.
* 660+ million in industry (slightly declining).
* 1.06 billion in agriculture (declining).
* 1.3 billion in services (increasing).
* 220 million unemployed (increasing).

As globalization continues to break down the barriers for access to these labor markets, Western countries have increasingly found themselves competing directly with this global pool of labor, resulting in cries for increased protectionism and spawning anti-globalization movements from people of all political colors. This is an implicit recognition of the fact that there will never be enough jobs again^ – these calls seek to artificially prop up labor markets by limiting the competition to labor pools inside national borders, but the internet has reduced the relevance of national borders to the average citizen in almost every area besides employment and nationalist emotion.

It’s hard to get an exact figure, but the estimates I’ve found (google “how many people can one farmer feed” – I’ll try to find some easy-click sources later) indicate that somewhere between 100 and 1000 people (150-ish being a more common estimate) can be fed per farmer using modern farming techniques. I presume this refers to grain and livestock and probably not to more obscure types of farming (saffron, anyone?:P), but in terms of simply providing a base amount of food, the number of people working in agriculture can only be expected to drop massively as technological improvements and increased education hit the rest of the developing world. By today’s “modern” standard, at a low number of even 75 per farmer (a number more in line with the 1970s), we actually need less than 100 million, or one-tenth, the number of agricultural workers that actually exist. This suggests that, in agriculture alone, approximately 900 million jobs currently only exist due to massive systemic inefficiency (I won’t even go into market factors that result in outright waste, farmers destroying crops because they can’t afford to transport them to markets, etc.).

I haven’t even tried to find numbers for industry, but I’m presuming that at least a couple hundred million people working in modern industry are employed making “widgets,” textiles, etc. These are currently things that are impractical or impossible to produce easily at home – but with home fabrication under intensive development and the price of both open-source and consumer fabrication devices falling rapidly, I don’t think I’m out of line in predicting that the upcoming revolution in personal-scale manufacturing by simply downloading designs and “printing” real objects at home a la RepRap is going to utterly decimate jobs in both manufacturing and service which are related to the design, manufacturing, and delivery of these types of objects.

A conservative guess is that maybe half of the global workforce is currently necessary to maintain current levels of production if obstacles to efficiency were removed (patents, lack of access to capital, etc.). It’s not inconceivable to think that in 20-30 years, we could be facing an extra billion “unemployed” workers from technological improvements in agriculture and industry as well as from simple population growth, and the number of “necessary” workers could drop to a tenth of the available pool. And the truth is, we don’t need everyone to work to produce enough for everyone.

I realize that a lot of people believe in the magical free market fairy that “creates” wealth and jobs out of thin air (yes, improvements in resource use and efficiency do result in improved standards of living, a sort of wealth-by-adding-energy-to-the-system that is still subject to degradation like every other form of order in the universe), but short of utterly useless service jobs like everyone having a personal hairdresser or a maid, I don’t really foresee there being enough jobs ever again. And to further complicate matters, artificial intelligence and robotics are increasingly proving more efficient at a lot of previously service-oriented tasks as well, so I think that even this segment of the global workforce will ultimately see decimation.

The short of it is, we’ve reached a point where our collective technological advancement has outpaced our ability to know what to do with ourselves as a species. “Liberals” think that “conservatives” are keeping them poor. “Conservatives” believe liberals are lazy hippies who just need to get a job. Communists say that communism will save the world, and the Ayn Rand fans wave the banner of individualism and capitalism as some sort of cure-all. All of them, I think, are wrong.

The debate must be reframed in terms of a world where we no longer need everyone to work and there will never again be enough jobs.^ What sort of world do we want that to be? While I believe that not everyone needs to work, I believe most people are happier if they are being productive members of society in some way, so we need to refashion our economic realities to provide them an opportunity to do so and to have a basic standard of living. I don’t know what this world will look like. I don’t know if we will ever get there. I don’t believe capitalism is the answer, nor do I believe that communism is. Humans have a competitive instinct that must have an outlet, but must also be channeled for the greater good. All I know is that we – all of us, not just the Occupy movement – have to put our thinking caps on now because time is running out, and forgiving student loans, making the rich pay an extra percent in taxes, and/or building more Starbucks for barista jobs will not solve a damn thing.

^ I keep marking this statement because there are a couple of ways that there could actually be more jobs, only one of which is really currently feasible, and that’s simply annihilating large percentages of the working population so that there is suddenly sufficient demand for the remaining labor pool again. I don’t think anyone thinks this is a good solution, but historically humans have resorted to war when resource distribution goes out of whack, and we are naive if we believe that it will not happen again. The other is finding some magical way to colonize the oceans/space/whatever that isn’t outrageously resource-intensive, since that would provide a lot of work for a lot of people. Pure fantasy, at least in the foreseeable future.:)

Quick Update

I’ve been making slow progress at various projects, primarily trying to fix some bugs in my Brainsucking Mutants game and contemplating a paper doll system (pixel art) for it. I’m not sure if I’ll manage, but I have a few random (not very good, as you’ll see) pixel art doodles to prove that I haven’t been wasting all of my spare time playing Civilization… >_>

Browser-based MMO Update

So I’ve been working on getting my little browser-based MMO up and running again. I seem to have gotten the basic engine working on this server, so if you want to check it out in all of its pre-alpha glory, it’s at brainsuckingmutants.com – there are a lot of bugs to fix, be warned. Anyway, the basic idea is wandering around a city collecting items, beating up other players, and drawing things — so far. My plan is to get it much more playable and add a lot of content over the next few weeks.:)

ActionScript 2 Tip Of The Day

This info is available elsewhere on the web, but it was hard to find, so maybe reposting it here will make it easier (and if I need it again, I’ll be able to find it myself!).

If you are trying to use BitmapData.draw() to create BitmapData based on some file that you loaded from a remote server, e.g., via loadMovie(), and your output BitmapData is blank/empty/all white space, there is a good chance that you need to force your AS2 code to load the crossdomain.xml file from the remote server via System.security.loadPolicyFile() in order for it to work. Without this, Flash decides that it doesn’t have permissions to write the image to a new BitmapData object, even if it’s already happily displaying the loaded image to you on the screen. Makes no sense to me, but this is the workaround.:)

Hope this helps someone else who hasn’t made the move to AS3 yet.

Kindle Experiment Update (And What I’ve Been Up To In September)

Well, September isn’t over, but my experiment with pricing my biopunk novel, Fourwar, on Amazon Kindle at $0.99 is. I reduced the price at the beginning of September, made the requisite announcements on Twitter and my other social networks, and pressed on with my (admittedly light) marketing efforts. Net result? Zero sales, no change from August.

To further my experiment, I’ve decided to go the other way and try a month priced at $4.99 instead. I suspect the price doesn’t really matter if you’re an “unknown” author. I also suspect that, like Robert Sawyer hints on his blog, self publishing is hard in SF generally – whether you take that as “speculative fiction” or “science fiction,” it seems like this stuff is just not going to fly off “virtual” shelves in the same way that a titillating romance novel or a traditional whodunit would. So, more work on marketing for me.:) Unfortunately, I haven’t yet been able to bring myself to spam the fuck out of every blog and forum in existence, so trying to find more organic ways of advertising has been challenging.

In terms of measuring general interest and exposure, I get somewhat confusing results comparing awstats reports to Google Analytics reports on my blog, and the latter can’t track certain things. What I do know is that my own website stats claim that, in September to date, the free PDF version of Fourwar was downloaded 19 times, and my first novel, Alice [free PDF], 10 times. Unfortunately, as I mentioned before, Amazon doesn’t show Kindle page traffic to authors, so you’re out of luck trying to figure out if you’re even being noticed on Amazon if you aren’t actively making sales.

Anyway, the experiment will press on. My third novel, a sort of urban sci-fantasy tale, is sitting at about 50,000 unedited words now, so small progress! I’m hoping to have a finished draft by the end of the year (but I know I said that before). I’m also working on yet-another-edit of Alice, which I’ll then place on the Amazon Kindle store as well as leaving it available under a CC license here.

I’ll close with a couple of very rough-draft thumbnails of images I’m working on – more things that I hope to finish by the end of the year.:)

Social Network Annoyances

So today, we find out that Facebook changed everything on us yet again. Although I don’t use Facebook anymore, I have a “fakebook” account that I haven’t yet deactivated, so I note firsthand the utter impossibility now of finding out what any of your “friends” are up to since Facebook now decides for you what you should see instead of allowing chronology to do the job for you.:P

Secondly, my old MySpace band page has been, for some time, auto-accepting friends requests thanks to some old change they made that was supposed to help bands who have to manually approve hundreds or thousands of friends requests per day. But that has lately turned into the auto-accept-spamming-bands feature, where bands I’ve never heard of in genres I’m completely uninterested in befriend me and send me self-promotional messages in gangsta-ese or some other brand of English butchered for the sake of “cool.” Thanks, MySpace.

Finally, Google Plus has utterly failed to..well, do anything new at all since they added the games. One-sided API access is something, I guess, but not that interesting since it’s read-only. Ah well, at least they haven’t made it more annoying to use. Go Google+!

Deus Ex: Human Revolution – Spoiler-free Review

I just finished playing through Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and as a long-time fan of the series, I want to post my thoughts on the overall experience here. I should forewarn you that I actually liked playing Invisible War, although the original was still by far the best, so perhaps you’ll consider my taste suspect, but in any case…

Overall, the game was exceedingly well-done. I finish about one in ten video games that I play, maybe less, so the fact that I bothered to finish it in the first place is a testament to the degree to which I enjoyed it. (Other story-based game series that I’ve actually finished are Mass Effect, Halo, Uncharted, and Assassin’s Creed, for the record.) The experience was much closer to the original Deus Ex in terms of the depth of story and the room for improvisation in gameplay than Deus Ex 2, and visually superior to both. I tend to play stealthily and generally non-lethally, and this game actively rewarded exploration (I’m pretty sure you get enough XP to earn a couple of augmentation upgrades just from Explorer bonuses alone) of its more-or-less open world, which was nice.

Things that I didn’t like: the fact that only one energy cell actively recharges, ever. Many of your augmentations require energy, but most specifically, a hand-to-hand takedown or kill requires one full cell of energy. So you can have up to five cells through upgrades, but only the first one will recharge; the other four will stay depleted if you don’t find the stupid granola/protein/whatever-the-hell-they-are bars in order to recharge. This is pretty irritating when you are going through long sections without finding any of them (especially near the end of the game). Generally, I found the non-lethal approach increasingly hard to maintain as the end of the game neared, mostly due to lack of ammunition and energy (takedowns require energy), and by the end of the game, I was forced to extreme improvisation in order to take down the last boss without killing (I literally used a stray EMP grenade that I found after running around the entire map dodging enemy fire, since I’d previously depleted all of my tranquilizer/stun ammo and gas/EMP grenades). The game shoved literally stacks of heavy rifle ammo in my face, but I could not find freaking stun ammo for the life of me. And, of course, my one remaining energy bar was useless, since I couldn’t use a physical takedown on the boss (the option would not pop up when I was standing right next to the boss, not that they ever seemed to work on any of the bosses).

Speaking of bosses, I agree with reviewers generally saying that it didn’t suit the tone of the game to have it force you to kill the bosses even if you didn’t intend to. It would have been nice to have a way around it, but there simply wasn’t any choice in the matter. It wasn’t game-ruining, but it was a minor irritation.

The only thing about the game that actually sucked were the “Asian” accents. Argh. I can’t stress how horrible they were, although I guess 20 years from now, maybe it’s possible that Asians will have that accent…yeah, right.

The hacking minigame was okay, but got repetitive near the end (and was still worth doing for the experience points, so I spent a lot of time doing it even though I didn’t really need to – boring). I found myself wishing for melee weapons other than the built-in takedown kill weapons – Deus Ex had swords, and everybody knows swords are awesome.;)

Otherwise, the game was awesome. Tons of weapons, tons of detail in the world (books, emails, conversations between people on the streets, etc.), lots of hidden paths around pretty much every map, some nifty abilities (wall-smashing is lots of fun), and that nice Deus Ex-specific vibe of paranoia everywhere. The music was great. Yay for Final Fantasy 27 posters on the walls! If you are into biopunk and/or cyberpunk and you want a good story (besides my FourWar novel *wink wink*), this is a must-play game. 5/5!

(Note to self: in about six months, after people have had time to play the game, I’d like to post again about the storyline with a spoiler-laden review/commentary. Lots of thoughts about it, I just don’t want to ruin the game for anyone.)

Nate’s Trogdor

In case you ever wondered about why I have a sort of strange dragon (maybe a sea-dragon or sea serpent?) as my “avatar” here and there, a few years ago I stumbled over this Strong Bad email (flash video with sound, SFW) and decided I could handle drawing an S with a more bigger S.;) One day I found myself a bit bored and had scrap paper and a pencil lying around, so I sketched it out.

Click below to see the original sketch, in all of its messy glory. But definitely watch the video first!

Thought on Commercial Blogging

It’s not really a surprise to anyone that I’m a giant geek, and like many giant geeks, I follow a number of tech websites via RSS in order to stay on top of the mountain of news that piles up in the tech world every day. My RSS list includes a number of major tech sites – Slashdot, Engadget, Ars Technica, TechCrunch, etc. Until today, I also followed Gizmodo, but have done so with increasing distaste, so I’ve finally gone ahead and removed it from the list of sites I follow.

I don’t really know what happened, but in addition to Gizmodo’s widely-hated site redesign earlier this year, it seems like the writing quality has rapidly degenerated into the tech blogger equivalent of some little boys in a schoolyard trying to play “look at me.” Much of the language in any given article is now less about technology and more about trying to come up with clever one-liners, usually snarky ones, that don’t really add anything to the conversation – this is 1) annoying as a transparent cry for attention and 2) actively irritating as it takes me longer to sift through articles looking for the news. I suppose specific Gizmodo writers are more to blame than others – Jesus Diaz and Sam Biddle spring to mind as the foremost examples – but there are also an increasing number of articles coming through on topics that are only tangentially related to technology at all.

I realize that blogging companies exist to make money first and foremost, but I guess the purist in me still wishes people would write about subjects with some degree of concision rather than the verbal gaudiness that seems to occur. Technical people are often busy above all, so wasting our time is not really usually appreciated.

I think part of this phenomenon can be attributed to the fact that, increasingly, bloggers and online writers are being paid ridiculously tiny amounts of money for their work, so they have to compensate by deliberately over-writing, and/or writing tons of not-really-useful articles in order to make a useful amount of money. A look at any freelance site for writing work will show you that most companies are not willing to pay more than a couple of dollars for an article, at most; most of that work is writing articles basically padded with keywords for search engines (SEO “optimized” articles) to drive ad traffic, or just wanting people to write “exciting” things to do the same. From what I can tell, Gawker is ad-driven, so its child sites (including Gizmodo) seem to be sliding into that sort of black hole at an increasing pace. I suspect that their full-time writers are paid more than a couple of dollars an article — but with bonuses for traffic, it pays for them to be flashy and overwritten instead of simply writing what needs to be said.

With consumers mostly unwilling to pay for content, and companies short-changing writers, I don’t really see commercial blogging going anywhere but down in terms of quality. Long-term, independent bloggers will be producing more useful content because they actually care about what they write — only, without aggregation, it’s harder to find them.

I’m still following Lifehacker, which is another Gawker blog. If I’m right, though, it’s only a matter of time before that, too, turns into an unreadable mess. Anyone know of any DIY blogs that are decent competition?