Who’s in Charge?
People have asked this question since room culture evolved into early cities. We have thousands of years of philosophers, thinkers and researchers examining the possibilities. Our pre-room history provides few answers. We’ve been struggling for ways to control alpha power. History is replete with experiments in democracy and oligarchy to configure power projection with the idea of fairness and justice for the weak. What have we learnt from these experiments?
Social domination is the use of power struggles and conflicts to impose someone’s vision, authority or ideas on others. Since the widespread acceptance of rooms culture, these coercive tools have involved more and more people. Today millions or even billions of people view conflicts of this kind on their screens or follow them online or through books and newspapers. Among hunter-gatherers, disputes would have been handled at the band level and could be dealt with quickly. For mobiles, conflict with a stranger would have been a novelty. But in the room culture, such conflict has become a daily occurrence, particularly over the last five centuries.
The disbursement of mobile bands over large geographic areas ensured that encounters with other bands were infrequent. With the move to rooms, who would be in charge of social domination? History suggests it never takes long for that question to be answered. Control of domestication policy, especially over the past hundred years, has created turf wars among state authorities, powerful elites, warriors, political leaders, propagandists and marketers. Today we are on the brink of a significant shift in who or what will be in charge of our social domination. Our digital world has witnessed the growth of an intelligence that no human intelligence is capable of understanding. Artificial intelligence promises a capability of handling complex data and to process patterns in the data that no human can match. We are at the start of a technological revolution that increasingly relies upon a non-human pathway to address many pressing problems and achieving solutions. Will we resist the pull into a uniform straight line of thought and behavior, decoupling with rebellion and violence?
In this chapter, we will look at the old coercive tools that are part of our past domestication infrastructure. The history of Homo sapiens has been one of geographic and ideological expansion of social domination by imposing their views, gods and culture on others. The same domination was used to connect and manage far-flung trade empires. Politics becomes the mechanism to resolve conflicts about the nature, scope and purpose of domination and who should submit. Looking at how past power brokers protected city-states provides understanding of how they lived and interacted with each other as the social domination forces grew in power.
Sieges and Embargoes
The room culture expanded inside the relatively safe confines of ancient walled cities. The outer wall gave the city a room-like look from a distance, and inside, the large exterior room was the hive of rooms where people lived and worked. The individual rooms nestled inside the “big room” and created a complex network that integrated the individual into a system for processing information, goods, rumors and orders. City dwellers had layers of fortification that promised to keep other city dwellers, outsiders and nature at bay, but that promise was not always kept. For thousands of years, the siege was an effective military tactic used by generals to persuade the inhabitants of a city to surrender to an invading force or to be killed.
In the thirteenth century, when Genghis Khan and his Mongol army appeared at the front gates, sometimes a city would have only a couple of days to decide its fate. Genghis Kahn’s Mongol force lay siege to Baghdad for thirteen days in 1258 and then, after taking the city, killed something like a million residents. They were in a walled city, in rooms that kept outsiders out, but as it turned out, also kept them walled in as they waited to be slaughtered room by room. In the thirteenth century, it was common for walled cities to be under siege as they were places of riches to be plundered. Two ideas from this chapter of history apply to modern-day cities. While cities are no longer protected by “walls,” they continue to invite disruption and conquest. The modern-day Genghis Khan doesn’t need an army to bring a city to its knees. All the hacker needs is access to the coding that is used to run the city’s essential services.
The successor to Genghis Khan may be a fifteen-year-old in his or her parent’s house taking his gaming skills online to another realm of reality.
Thirteenth-century siege of Baghdad
A new Genghis Khan will be at the forefront of the drive toward increased computing power and processing. He or she will have earned significant skills playing games such as League of Legends, Minecraft, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and World of Warcraft. These are only a few examples of online games. As online gamers have been given more realistic online battlefields loaded with virtual reality capability, the game world has become more and more indistinguishable from reality. Skills learned online are training armies of new Genghis Kahns who can attack and hack into the networked grid of the modern city. Destroy the grid and, like Genghis Khan, you’ve cornered the inhabitants into mass submission. It is only a matter of time before the online gaming world bleeds disastrously into the analog world. Once there is a crossover, the collateral damage will be staggeringly high.
Room populations cut off from logistical supply lines have always quickly run into serious problems in providing water and food to their people. The old and young are the first to feel the effects of dwindling food supplies. Historically, such starvation has led to submission and slaughter. By organizing ourselves into rooms densely constructed in cities, we’ve left ourselves fragile and vulnerable. We no longer know how to hunt and gather, and even if we could, there is little wild food left. What few food sources still exist are concentrated on property owned by a person or company with a legal right to exclude you. Cities made up of millions of rooms are food chain disasters waiting to happen—on the scale of Baghdad, with the barbarians at the gates. It’s the same room culture; only the siege techniques have changed.
The vulnerability of the modern room culture arises from the fragility of highly developed systems whose complexity may exceed our capacity to control and operate them long-term. Indeed, it may challenge our ability to describe and understand them in an era of controlled mobility. The catch-22 is that once we’ve gone down that road of complexity, there’s no going back. In our artificial environments, hundreds of millions live in rooms built not in isolation but as nodes inside these systems. The challenge in the current stage of the room culture lies in our struggle to describe, expand, improve and understand what has evolved and to predict where that evolution will take us in the coming decades.
The current system based on rooms may prove to be as fragile as the hunter-gatherers’ culture was when the herders and farmers encroached on their territory. There is evidence that once agriculture pushed the hunter-gatherer culture out, there was a divergence of phenotypes (our observable characteristics or traits in populations), with some populations no longer mixing DNA. Our room culture emerged from the new phenotype. It is likely that the creation of a new technology in our own time will again favor a genetic population that possesses a divergent phenotype. Such a change may have happened with populations in Mesopotamia and Africa after the introduction of agriculture.
Will a techno-biological revolution isolate a new human subgroup, pushing the rest of the population to the margins, as mobiles were marginalized? The purchase in 2017 of twenty thousand acres in West Valley, Arizona, by Microsoft’s Bill Gates is a glimpse of the scale of the next generation of rooms and room users. The Arizona property is zoned to accommodate eighty thousand residential houses along with four thousand acres of office space. A digital fertile crescent no longer needs to be located near a river or the sea. Such communities can be established in environments that would have been hostile to the early city-states; the new digital Mesopotamia can establish itself within what would have been the old haunts of mobiles.
In the West, private markets are ideologically favored to operate and run most services and products inside the chain of life—water, food, medicine, electricity, energy and transport. But government plays a vital role in securing, protecting and updating the chain. The tension between private corporate command and government regulation of markets is tilting more toward the private-corporate model of decision-making. The government, in theory, has a duty to protect people within the chain from the actions of predators who might game the system as a quick way to increase their profits, by selling substandard or tainted products. In the resulting struggle, the private corporate forces are gaining the upper hand, leading to new restrictions on government action to inhibit their power.
One weapon that governments have resorted to in the past is the embargo. Genghis Khan’s Mongols used the siege to gain submission. An embargo is a similar weapon. Politically, the embargo allows one government to place restrictions on the movement of goods, including food, to force another government or faction of government to accede to demands. Cutting off food supply is a time-tested political tool to force submission, as effective as a gun or tank. Our rooms have traditionally offered a refuge from the external world. They are now operational centers in which minds explore external information sources far beyond the walls of the room. An embargo, whether, imposed by government, private interests or a third party, is a reminder that our rooms are no different in nature than those of thousands of years ago; they can easily be converted into prison cells from which escape is difficult. Move to another city and you move into another room. You may think you can buy a tent and trek deep into the jungle to find your own food, but that romantic dream is impossible for all but a handful of people. We are caught between the walls, ceiling and floor of our room. There is a door. There’s a window too. We can see outside and go there if we want. But the scale of what we do, who we are and how we operate socially, economically and politically is full-square in one room or another.
Powerful outside forces know this secret—how exposed and helpless we are. They exploit this weakness by using fear against us. We huddle in rooms leaping from one conspiracy theory to the next, one announcement to the next of the latest disruption to our lives, feeling as if the walls are closing in on us. There is now a generation of young people in Japan who never leave their rooms in their parents’ house. Their childhood bedroom is their final sanctuary, a safe place with the world kept on the other side of the door. Our ancient room culture has prepared us to separate from nature and each other in ways our ancestors could never have imagined.
Forts, Citadels, Bunkers and Command Centers
In fifth century BC, at the time of the Greek city-states, Herodotus wrote, “After all, no one is stupid enough to prefer war to peace; in peace sons bury their fathers and in war fathers bury their sons.” He might have written, “In peace fathers build rooms for their sons and in war sons are sent to destroy or seize the rooms built by their enemies’ fathers.” Rooms were both an object of conquest and a structure from which to launch a military campaign.
Historically, military operations benefited greatly from the building of rooms, from barracks to bunkers. But the military has many more kinds of rooms than that, including command centers, dry-dock facilities, aircraft hangers, storage depots, officers’ quarters, training facilities and structures for maintenance and repair. Other buildings have been constructed for administration, research and development, design, storage and testing of military equipment. The army as we know it couldn’t exist outside a room-based culture, and this presents an interesting contradiction—the military projects the violence of our feral nature for political purposes, while without rooms it would collapse into chaos. Rooms are built to store, service and use a huge range of weapon systems and ancillary equipment like computers, desks, filing and reporting systems; they are also used to house, train, feed and doctor the personnel, and to plan the logistical lines between various geographic points. No rooms? Military operation systems would need to invent an alternative physical network to survive.
Military operations are designed to destroy the rooms essential for the enemy to wage hostilities: the factories, defensive positions, airfields and air shelters, warehouses, fuel depots, and command and control centers. Bombing an enemy “back to the Stone Age” is another way of signaling the desire to return the enemy population to the state of hunter-gatherers.
Whenever enough of these rooms lie in ruins, the effectiveness of the military fighting force is compromised, and those left in the ruins have no choice but to surrender or commit suicide.
US Central Command
A successful military campaign results in the victor occupying the rooms of the vanquished. Those who surrender agree to submit to the new domestication rules established by the conqueror. In 1066, with the successful invasion of the Normans, the rules governing property were changed. Important rooms had new owners loyal to the invaders’ codes, laws and morality.
Hunter-gatherers had limited combat engagements. There were no rooms to overrun, destroy or occupy. The victor chased away or killed the vanquished. Pre-room conflict would not have looked anything like combat during the Roman Empire or the Middle Ages when soldiers amassed in the thousands with swords, bows and arrows, shields, armor and horses; it would have looked even less like combat today.
Roman–Parthian Wars: Battle of Carrhae (53 BC)
Over the three hundred years we have witnessed the growth of large cities and the advancement in weapons. We’ve become larger and a vastly enhanced lethal capacity.
Vietnam War, 1963–197281