Byzantine Reality

Searching for Byzantine failures in the world around us

Environmental Influences

Over the course of the last few years I have unintentionally ran into a number of sources proclaiming the power of the situation and how strongly our environment impacts us. I have already posted about one of these sources, the Metal Gear Solid series (notably the 2nd game), and the excellent discussion about it here (Gene and Meme), which is definitely worth a read and even more so to those familiar with the material it covers.

Another excellent source of information on the reasons why the situation must be considered when analyzing a problem is the book The Lucifer Effect, which reads as a case study on the power of the situation. It is an excellent read, showing that although the situation does not provide an excuse for the actions of individuals, its effect must be taken into account.

Yet why do we almost always deny the power of the Situation? Zimbardo suggests a number of reasons in “The Lucifer Effect”, one of them being that our Western culture emphasizes individuality as opposed to collectivism (not a new find) and that as a result, we are inclined to blame individuals as opposed to situations. Yet I would go a step further and claim that the very intangibility of a situation versus an individual makes the situation an unlikely scapegoat.

In fact, we see that happen in our lives all the time. When we have to report failure to our bosses, which is more likely: telling them that it was caused by an individual (ourselves, our boss for not being clear, our co-workers for some reason), or a situational reason (the relationship between us and our boss makes it difficult for us to give them honest answers, we’re afraid of hurting other people’s feelings so we don’t tell them bad news that they need to know, etc)? From what I’ve seen, it’s overwhelmingly individuals that get blamed for failures and not situations, and when the situation does come up, the individual still takes the full brunt of the blame.

All the games in the Metal Gear Solid series take on the issue of the situation, and the second game in the series asserts that anyone can be made to do anything given a particular situation. The trailers for the upcoming fourth game shows soldiers implanted with nanomachines that appear to regulate their chemical flow (and thus their emotions) and thus, their actions are regulated.

It is not too far off to see armies of the future implementing something along these lines, and once they become ubiquitous, countries can inexpensively produce a well-trained army. A quick Google search reveals that the United States has a National Nanotechnology Initiative and has a budget of $710 million as of 2003 (surely comparable or larger now). Furthermore, the same article [1] lists a number of nanotechnologies developed or under development ranging from sensor networks that give commanders an accurate view of the battlefield without using soldiers to “flexible bullet-proof battle armor that can not only reject or filter out chemical agents and toxins but also weigh less than the average 120 pounds of equipment that today’s special forces carry on a three-day mission.”

The Metal Gear Solid 4 trailer informally dubs the regulating of war as a number of different things, but the phrase that sticks with me is “battlefield control”. Seeing the way our current technology is going and the variance of ethics across the globe (not to say only unethical people would support this), it is inevitable that some nation will implement something along these lines, and once the first one does, others will follow.

Whether or not this technology would be ethical to use is something I’ve already written about earlier. Yet after reading “The Lucifer Effect”, I believe that post needs to be supplemented to reflect what I’ve learned since then.

[1] Forbes.ComNanotech On The Front Lines, accessed 06/27/2007