'Each man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world'
-- Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms

'Artists are tricky fellows sir, forever shaping the world according to some design of their own'
-- Jonathan Strange, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

The End of Order and the Last Online Gamer

A few years back an American friend of mine who was a student of ancient history, in particular the Roman Empire, wanted me to play Civilization II, an online turn-based game. She told me that it was her wish to flirt with, and then conquer, some of the greatest leaders of the ancient world. When I probed further, she named Julius Caesar and Genghis Khan. She said that the only way to rule the world with decency was to take over all of it and rule as a benevolent dictator. Incidentally, she was a varsity cheerleader and a big fan of Peter Heather. Which reminds me that I've been meaning to pop to Prof. Heather's department and get him to sign a book for her, and then I'll post it. Two of her other heroes were Plato and also Pink.

Anyway, huffingtonpost.co.uk had a story this week and it makes good reading for individuals involved in the military-industrial complex and indeed, proponents of maintaining armoured divisions in the face of no known threats. One man has been playing CivsII for ten years. He's got to 4000A.D. and well, it's a state of never-ending war. Only three civs are left, Vikings, Celts, Americans (hardy fellows, each). They've been in a state of perpetual war for 1700 years. Yes, I'm sure I just heard Martin Dempsey's heart skip a beat.

The player wanted his America to remain a democracy but could only control it through (I presume Stalin-esque) communism. Wars were nuclear and continually fought for control over resources. In 4000A.D., most of his money went on tanks. Tanks.

The story went viral. Even Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder commented on it. The plan now is to take over the entire world and act as a benevolent dictator. 'Democracy had failed' one user posted. Quite. There are some pertinent issues here - nuclear war, resource war, unstable political systems and perpetual war. These themes are constant in the news, no wonder the story went viral, in 4027 A.D., the user is engaged in a scenario that's a plausible, real future.

It makes you think. I just blogged on Phosphorus as the next big power conflict. It makes me ask, when would you use nuclear weapons? If you look at Cuba, generally regarded as the closest two nuclear powers have come to launching nuclear strikes, the necessity to launch a nuclear strike wasn't there. Robert McNamara in the incredible documentary/interview Fog of War, makes it known that the US saw that if the Soviets could climb down whilst saving face, there was a way out.

Resource war makes a climbdown unthinkable. If your population is starving and hence rebelling, you have to go to war against an external other in order to secure resources. In short, both you and your population not only want, but need, a nuclear strike.

How soon? Look at a population growth chart from 10, 000 B.C. to 2000 A.D.

Here's a shorter time period, 1750 A.D. (1 billion) to 2050 A.D. (10 billion). The Civ player noted the world population peaked in 2000 A.D and then fell sharply due to war and famine.

In fact, the second graph is very much the first half of a Gaussian function, or normal distribution - a bell shaped curve found in many aspects of nature. Which makes the Civ II model even more pertinent. What does this mean for Academia? If Huntington's Clash of Civ's thesis was the debated argument of the first decade of this century, it seems that Garrett Hardin's Lifeboat ethics will be the debate of the next decade.

Nuclear weapons, resource poverty, unstable political systems. Makes you wish for a varsity cheerleader who's happy to act as a benevolent global dictator.

The BBC did a little piece on the Civ story, here.

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