Sunday, July 29, 2018

Fear of a Prison Riot

Writer Cory Doctorow yesterday posted a provocative thread on Twitter:

Science fiction sucks at predicting the future, but it sure is good at predicting the present: that is, the stuff that seems plausible in science fiction at any given moment is a good source of insight into what's on our collective minds. [For instance,] lots of people have noted that the fear of AIs taking over the world (especially when evinced by the super-rich) is really just a tell that capitalism has spawned transhuman, immortal colony lifeforms that use humans for gut flora (AKA corporations, AKA "slow AIs").

But today I'd like to discuss another tell: the trope that when there is some kind of disaster, your neighbors are coming for you, that we can expect arson and carnage the moment that society's guard-labor levels drop below a critical threshold.

Obviously, this is not true. If you and everyone you know are pretty much decent people who sometimes do dumb or bad things, it's statistically likely that you know a representative sample and that means it's very, very unlikely that 99.9% of the world are total bastards. For more, read Rebecca Solnit's magesterial, vital, crucial history of selflessness, nobility, and elite panic during disasters, A Paradise Built in Hell.

So why do we find it so easy to believe that when The Event comes, the Poors will torch our cities and gnaw our bones?

To understand this, consider a related trope: the prison riot. When we encounter a story about life in prison, it's not hard to understand why the prisoners riot the instant the guards' attention wavers. Those stories are at pains to establish that the prisons are not good for the prisoners. They exist to punish the prisoners, not to rehabilitate them. They are basically slow torture chambers, designed to inflict misery on the prisoners. Prisoners set fire to the cellblock for the same reason that a galley slave would sink the ship where they have been chained to an oar for years. Whatever beneficial purpose the ship serves for its owners, for the rowers, it is an instrument of torture. I'd sink that ship too.

Back to the idea that The Event will precipitate total destruction of society and all its physical plant. That doesn't make any sense if you think of people as being served by society: water, sanitation, food, education, safety and security. But if cities are slow torture chambers for their inhabitants, it makes perfect sense.

If, for example, cities fund themselves by manufacturing petty infractions to charge poor people with, arresting them when they can't pay fines and putting them to hard labor... Or if rents are too damned high and your debt mounts and mounts, or if you spend all your time cowering in fear of a one-star review on your gig economy app, or if you face license-plate cameras, CCTVs, gait recognition, predictive policing, facial recognition, school-prison pipelines, etc... You're living in a city that exists to control you, not to help you realize safety, security, shelter, dignity, etc.

Which is, of course, totally, blindingly obvious -- and also completely outside the Overton Window. No one in (e.g.) the Democratic establishment (and certainly not in the GOP) is willing to talk about this naked class warfare.

But it comes out in our collective dreaming. If you think of cities as prisons for poor people, then The Event riots make perfect sense -- they're just another version of the prison riot. Completely plausible. As Leonard Cohen once noted: "Everybody Knows." Everybody knows we're in a state of class warfare, but we dare not speak that aloud. Instead, we whisper it in our fiction, and nod our heads in recognition when it's said.
And (aside from Chris Hayes's entire book A Colony in a Nation), there's factual reinforcement of the idea that our inequality has gotten worse since Reagan compared to, say, Europe's:

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