Matt's Blog

Outside Context Problem

Sun Dec 10 18:23:42 EST 2006

Rereading "Excession" by Ian M. Banks at the moment:

An Outside Context Problem was the sort of thing most civilisations encountered just once, and which they tended to encounter rather in the same way a sentence encountered a full stop. The usual example given to illustrate an Outside Context Problem was imagining you were a tribe on a largish, fertile island; you'd tamed the land, invented the wheel or writing or whatever, the neighbours were cooperative or enslaved but at any rate peaceful and you were busy raising temples to yourself with all the excess productive capacity you had, you were in a position of near-absolute power and control which your hallowed ancestors could hardly have dreamed of and the whole situation was just running along nicely like a canoe on wet grass ... when suddenly this bristling lump of iron appears sailless and trailing steam in the bay and these guys carrying long funny-looking sticks come ashore and announce you've just been discovered, you're all subjects of the Emperor now, he's keen on presents called tax and these bright-eyed holy men would like a word with your priests.

Think about some possible recent Outside Context Problems. In each case you propose identify the existing status quo and the agents that are disrupting it.

  • Global warming.
  • Peak oil production being reached.
  • Exponentially increasing computer capacity.
  • Exponentially increasing communication between people. One of the killer applications of government is to act as a trusted third party for meadiating transactions between members of the society. The rise of technologies that enhance communication lead people to define their own societies. Kind of looking forward to when reputation servers take off :)
  • Emphemeralization.
  • Synergetics.
  • Information technology revolution. This lead to globablisation, and suddenly workers are having to compete with overseas companies having an equivalent skill sets and lower wages.
  • Another computer example: having not just your job, but the entire class of jobs for which you are trained disappear due to increasing computer power. Think robots in car factories, automatic voice recognition replacing stenographers, computers replacing stockmarket floor traders, ...
  • Air supremacy in warfare. Well, at least for destroying fixed assets and large troop or equipment concentrations. Not particularly useful against an insurgency.
  • September 11 hijackings. The hijackings themselves do represent a kind of OCP, as it was the first instance of hijackers using the hijacked aircraft as a weapon rather then just a means of transport or a bargaining tool with hostages. The continuing "War on Terror" I would not class as an OCP. Governments have dealt with insurrection from within the population often in the past. As a rough rule of thumb if a tenth of the population are against the government they will overthrow it (Russian revolution), less than that and it just acts as a source of more funding for law enforcement agencies, security technology companies, etc and strengthens the government's power through repression of dissent (and makes everyone else's life more annoying. To quote Fark: "This is a pain in the ass, I must be safer").
    • But on the other hand:
    • present population densities in cities mean that it is easy to perform a terrorist attrocity with a respectable body count
    • the world is more connected now, so most events are local. The previous journalistic rule of thumb of logarithmic relationship between newsworthiness and (distance*bodycount) doesn't hold as strongly.
    • Much more of the world is automated today, and automated systems are fast but usually not flexible. Disruption of the systems is comparatively easy and can result in a large effect. For example, the amount of explosive required to kill a single person will kill many more if used on an aircraft or ferry or train or bus (in roughly that order - the more extreme the external environment the system is protecting you from, the greater the effect of its disruption).
    • it is much easier to create networks of devices or people with today's information technologies.
  • The Iraq War v2.0 (from Saddam Hussein's point of view at least)

[notes] [politics]


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