Plague and the City: of Rats and Men

Yersinia pestis is a Gram-negative, non-motile, stick-shaped bacterium. It enjoys vacationing in damp places, riding fleas, and unleashing God’s Wrath on Humanity. The disease it causes, plague, still holds a remarkable grip on culture as the archetypal deadly epidemic. This is partly due to its severity and spectacular symptoms, but also because during the course of History, it has been the cause of various pandemics, all of them originating in Central Asia and spreading fast to Africa and Europe. It is, thus, the quintessential disease of the Old World: a dark barbarian demon, unleashing periodic destruction over civilization like an inscrutable and violent god.

There have been, at least, three high-impact plague pandemics. The first was the Plague of Justinian, which hit the Byzantine Empire in 541 BC. The disease killed off a good 25% percent of the continent’s population, according to some estimates. It spread quickly through Europe, perhaps thanks to Justinian’s globalization efforts, the Renovatio imperii which sought to recover lost Western Roman territories for a unified Empire. Procopius of Caesarea offers in his Secret History some fascinating anecdotes indicating that epidemics, despotic rule, and a venal public life are nothing new under the sun. Rulers do not rise to the occasion, but sink to their natural state.

As a result of the plague ravaging the countryside, agricultural workforce diminished and the price of grain rose astronomically. When confronted with the low tax revenue caused by the massive death toll, Justinian simply made the survivors liable for the part owed by their deceased neighbors. He also made himself inherit a lot of the victims’ property, a measure we commend Procopius for criticizing.

As plague spread around the Mediterranean basin, geopolitical balances were overturned; the Byzantines, who had been close to reuniting the Western and Eastern Roman Empires, were crippled in their restoration efforts. Although the Mediterranean’s Western shores were finally conquered in AD 554, the reunification did not last long. The Goths, who had been pushed back, regrouped and recovered forces. The New Normality of Germanic rule had been firmly established. The transition from Ancient to Medieval Europe was well underway, a Dark Ages version of the Great Reset.

However historically relevant, Justinian’s plague was superseded by a deadlier pandemic 800 hundred years later. This one is probably the most iconic, and was given a name with enormous memetic potential: the Black Death. It started in 1347 and killed off, according to some estimates, between 30 and 40% of Europe’s population.

It is generally agreed upon that the Black Death’s horrible impact was due, in part, to the urbanization process which characterizes this time period. Political, social and economic stability, coupled with improvements in agricultural technology, had led over the centuries to a rising population, and a blooming urban class that lived of trade and manufacture: the bourgeois. Epidemiologically, large interconnected nodes with many people living in them are a recipe for disaster, and this is exactly what happened. Obviously, crowded towns trading with each other caused the disease to spread faster than it would have in a low-density, poorly communicated wasteland.

According to the Progressive mythology, which apparently bases its knowledge of the Middle Ages on Game of Thrones and Monty Python sketches, the Medieval Period was indeed the Dark Ages™: an era of filth, poverty and religious obscurantism. People died of plague because they slept with rats, didn’t bathe, tried to pray away disease, et cetera. This belief neglects the fact that Medieval Europe inherited and developed Roman bathing culture, with soap being a burgeoning industry. Although truly effective sanitary practices were still far down the road, people were not exactly rolling in faeces either.

In fact, arrogant medical establishments are not a recent phenomenon. Rulers have always been corrupt, and academics have always tended to (wrongly) dismiss common-sense. It was the first generations of University-educated physicians who, in Early Modern times, advised against bathing. According to the scientific reasoning of the time, water opened up pores and allowed foul miasmas to enter the body and bring disease. A delicious irony; but we digress.

The thing is, the Crisis of the Late Middle Ages, of which the pandemic was a critical factor, signalled de implosion of a certain Medieval statu quo. It led to all kinds of strife: social, religious and economic. It changed production relations and political forms, and modified the demographic texture of Europe. People -and power- were transferred from a distributed network based on lord-vassal relations to centralized absolutist courts, located in a handful cities which remain power centers even today.

Although urban centers were hit the hardest by the pandemic in terms of mortality, it was the countryside where changes were felt the most. Lacking manpower, the feudal system entered an unstoppable downward spiral. Many belonging to this old agro-military elite, those who were clinging at the edge of the leisure class, simply disappeared, victims to war, famine, and poverty. The survivors reaped the leftovers, accumulating wealth. Titles of nobility became accessible to the bourgeois, who bought them and became rentiers. The City had finally become the center of power. Great Reset II: Renaissance edition was underway.

As a side note, it is a sobering fact to consider that more time passed between Justinian’s Plague and the Black Death, than between the latter and the Current Year™. History has its patterns: the Black Death most likely originated in China and spread to Europe through Italian ports. For a while, it was hypothesized that it might have been caused not by a bacteria but by a hemorrhagic fever-inducing virus, like Ebola. The theory seems to have been abandoned as of late, and there’s even some evidence suggesting that it may not have come from the Far East, after all.

In any case, the third great plague pandemic did originate in China in 1855, also spreading globally due to improved transoceanic communications. This time it caused more than 12 million deaths, a comparatively low number probably reflecting improved hygienic practices in Western cities. Better than those of the 1340s, that is; 19th century European cities were the nightmarish hellscapes that inspired the likes of Dickens or Dostoevsky, after all. How do they compare to the sanitary conditions of a modern slum in a Third World Mega-City? For now, we leave that as an exercise for the reader to ponder.

Due to the many unpleasantries of the 20th century, many of the effects of the social and political consequences of the Third Great Plague went unnoticed or have been mostly forgotten. The Great Reset (episode 3!) was subtle. It came by indirectly catalyzing the most important historical process of the past 100 years: decolonization. Due to widespread availability of Western medicine, governments worldwide, from Hong Kong to Buenos Aires and from Cape Town to Glasgow, had access to the same measures to combat the disease. The key was found to be not the isolation of infected human carriers, but the elimination of the rodent and flea vectors.

Despite similar approaches, the results accross the world were wildly different. Metropolitan administrations in Europe and the US succeeded. Most colonial enclaves, however, failed to convince indigenous populations to accept lockdowns and other Western practices. In many places, after early backlash, authorities quickly resigned to sit back and watch the epidemic burn itself out. This led to dismal loss of life in places like India or South Africa: the early cracks of the British Empire. The Crown could not protect its subjects, and another nail was hammered in the coffin of the White Man’s Burden.

The lopsided impact of the plague made evident, and perpetuated, the inequalities between the metropolis and its overseas territories. The World Health Organization declared the pandemic over by 1960. By then, new cases were only being declared in what soon would be called the Third World, a fact which has remained true until nowadays.

Plague has always spread to other continents by traveling in its preferred animal reserve: the rat. Actually, any rodent that lives in close proximity to humans will do, but the rat is so linked to Humanity’s vicissitudes, that it has become a symbol of disease, filth, and immorality. Its fast rate of reproduction and tendency to cannibalism and aggression made it a synonym of promiscuity and sin to medieval eyes, and this reputation has not changed much since then.

As ultimate urban survivors, rats have the connotations of a certain ethos attributed to crowded urban life: grey, dirty, anonymous, and corrupt. The connection between them, cities, and a degenerate existence is an ancient, perpetually evolving meme. Interesting iterations range from German folk tales about the Rattenkönig to 1984‘s iconic torture scene or neoreactionary musings on “IQ shredders” and the “rat race”.

Interestingly, this contempt is not made extensive to all rodent house pests. There’s plenty of heroic mice in fiction; rats, though, are almost universally bad news. Mice help trapped lions, rescue orphans, and generally save the day. They are adventurous, cute little creatures, willing to take risks despite their lowly status in the Animal Kingdom. Rats, in contrast, are dirty, brutal, often vicious gangsters. More powerful than their mousely brethren, they appear as a sort of jungian shadow on steroids: tough, cunning, and willing to survive by any means necessary.

Thus, while the Country Mouse is a trope as old as Aesop, rats exist in culture as cosmopolitan, rootless vermin. The Country Mouse highlights the simple virtues of rural life, whereas the Rat lacks any wholesome connections to the land. “City Rat” is not a clearly identifiable meme, but it doesn’t spark any particularly positive feelings. The closest term, Hood Rat, is mostly pejorative according to the Urban Dictionary, with racist connotations added as a bonus.

At the root of this divide, one can find echoes of a reactionary narratives of the Industrial Revolution: that of Ancien Règime farmers who left the countryside to become proletarian factory workers in the Industrial Revolution. The healthy, swarthy complexion of the peasant replaced with the black and the red of coal and tuberculosis. The transformation from farmer to worker was thus portrayed as a degradation, directly leading to the totalitarian devastations of the 20th century. The natural answer is, of course, to “Reject Modernity, Retvrn to Tradition”; Tradition being an ideal past decade somewhere between the 1490s (for hardcore radicals) and the 1980s (for normie redpillers).

These superposed counterpoints of Urban vs. Rural and Rat vs. Mouse, when approached as a dichotomy, remain a solid populist memeplex in societies where this division is stark, such as most Western ones. In 2016, Based Flyover Deplorables against Satanic Coastal Elites is the obvious American example, but there are undertones of this in other contexts, the French gilets jaunes uprising being a particularly notorious one.

More or less explicitly, populist sentiment in economic peripheries all accross the West exemplifies this phenomenon. The definition of “Periphery” being expanded to accomodate not only the heavily subsidized countryside, but (post)industrial wastelands aswell. Forming a newborn Center, supra-state Bureaucracies and multinational corporations have been sharing interests for a very long time. Woke Capitalism is just one of many current iterations, like Big Tech or the Military Industrial Complex.

The looming conflict was obvious to anyone paying attention even before the 2008 financial crisis. In this very prescient article we can see how European “Cosmopolitans” have been worrying for a while about “Nationals”. It was first published in 2000, which makes it older than the Iraq War (2003) and Facebook (2004).

Here at The Outpost, we have already explored some of the characteristics of this Capitalist – Communist vector. Reactionary Socialism and all its ressurrected forms have never been more than a temporary hindrance to this Revolution: a stabilizing force. From this standpoint, the Mouse vs. Rat dichotomy starts to feel a bit outdated. The current state of affairs lends itself better to dialectic models than to such a static comparison.

What would be the model rodent for the next phase in this paradigm? It certainly does not dwell in country cottages nor filthy city sewers. Perhaps it’s something like the Lewis Rat. Docile, crowd-tolerating, disease-prone and sterile. Far removed from its badass ancestors, it lives its life (happily?) in a controlled environment, looking for dopamine hits and unvoluntarily participating in occasional, sometimes deadly drug experiments. The mouse’s bold merit and the rat’s gritty struggle for survival are equally alien to it. Its existence is a simulation, and its fate is always a quickly forgotten death.

It makes sense, then, that in this age of deep fakes and simulacra, we should rely on ersatz-plague as motors for change. The real thing is just too much. SARS-CoV-2 is a relatively mild pathogen, when compared to the Yersinia pestis. The world, however, is now more labile than ever to such disturbances; Covid is an opponent worthy enough.

The Third Plague already had a globalized response when information was still running through telegraph lines. Today’s communications have made planet Earth ridiculously small. The effects of any released bioweapon lab leak wet market outbreak are felt accross the globe in real time. Thus, coronavirus has become the final ingredient for the engine of Revolution to reach positive acceleration again. It has become a line of flight for the assemblage of Western realities. Soon shifting to the next gear will be inescapable: a new Great Reset, this time named explicitly as such.

What is to be expected? Perhaps Bruce Sterling said it best when he summarized cyberpunk as this: “Anything that can be done to a rat can be done to a human being. And we can do most anything to rats.” Luckily, runaway rats do exist. After all, lab leaks seem to be all the rage this days.

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Neo Proletarian Technolords and Dei ex machina

In these times, it has become something of a cliché to criticize the notion of “Rule by Experts”. That is, the expectation that decisions should be taken by the technically prepared, with the Greater Good of the public in mind. The coronavirus pandemic brought this debate to very explicit terms, as policies came to be judged in regards to their relation to current scientific knowledge. The meme of the disconnected, smug elite started to converge with that of the myopic hyper-specialist, oblivious to realities outside his field and prisoner of his abstractions.

In any case, the now-questioned Rule by Experts seems a product of a previous era, in which it seemed that the Technosphere was a refuge of peace and neutrality, far from the stridencies of the National, the Religious or the Ideological. This perception of Technoptimism as a thing of the past is, however, artefactual.

Traditionally, technology is defined as whatever technical means Humans employ to solve a problem. Since solved problems don’t appear as problems anymore, the Technosphere always seems to be at the edge of the Present. We don’t perceive technologies designed to address past problems as technology, but as nondescript objects within our reality of abundance. Thus, primitive technologies such as the knife, the hearth or clothes become trivial in our world of wealth and security.

A pack of matches or a piece of rope lacks the aura of power projected by more advanced technologies with less obvious ways of functioning, such as the Internet or vaccines. Its true significance only becomes manifest in dire and rare circumstances of remoteness, solitude and lack of preparation, such as being stranded in a desert island. Only in the post-apocalypse will we think of subsistence farmers as the embodiment of Rule by Experts. Soothing notes of absolute, rational neutrality will suddenly become obvious in their voices. We’re not there yet, though.

The faith with which our epoch rewards technical solutions is only a particular case of the Technooptimistic phenomenon, in which we believe to have found in it a territory of ultimate neutrality. Everybody can be served by the existence of electricity or ink: compared to ideological or moral discussions, technical problems are marvelously clear and objective. The comfort they provide is understandably seen as a possible road to peace and understanding amongst all of Humanity.

Those too secure in this promise, however, are victims of magic thinking when they expect from technology any capacity for human and moral progress. The I Fucking Love Science™ types, as their previous historical iterations did, naively believe that technology will only be used “in a sociological sense”, to paraphrase Carl Schmitt’s reflections on The Concept of the Political. Precisely, 15th century transoceanic navigation technologies were seen by Spanish missionaries with the same optimism that shined in the eyes of English capitalists when beholding James Watt’s myriad applications for the steam engine. It’s the hopeful spirit that took over the hearts of early nuclear physicists when they learned they could harness the energy of the atom. We all know how these stories end, and it’s not Universal Salvation.

For every “vulgar mass religion” (Schmitt’s words again) expecting paradise come from the Technosphere, an opposite cult often arises. It’s a cult based around the fear of a new Class; of Mass emerging from technological acceleratio, with Revolution in its womb. The Proletariat was born out of the cultural nothingness and void of Capitalist exploitation: a debt owed by Communist revolutionaries to Capitalists, according to Marx himself. Proletarians brought with them total disdain for old sociological and political forms, their answer to total technification.

And what was radio broadcasting for the world if not a more recent iteration of this meme? From the nothingness of World War I emerged the totalitarian radicals of Right or Left persuasion who would set the globe on fire in the 1930s. The fear engendered by these strange, frightening figures, so particular of their time, is nothing but a lack of faith in Humanity’s capacity to use the enormous potential of Technology. It’s exactly the fear expressed by cyberpunk: that “the street will find its own uses for things”. That nothing will work as expected and no Deus ex Machina is just out of frame, waiting to save us.

Once again, here we are. At the edge, in the crisp rim of a new Total Technological Revolution. What are the supposed techlords of Silicon Valley? No lords at all, but a New Proletariat. This generation’s faceless, uprooted Mass, incessantly produced by the world’s STEM programs. The derisive talk of “bugmen” and “yeast life”, with which they are scorned by those who fear them, is not casual. It’s just perfect for the youngest scions of Technoeconomic Acceleration.

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Emergence and abiogenesis: do computers dream of death?

A computer is a device that can perform certain operations, logical or arithmetic, in an automatic way. For this, it requires programming, that is, a set of algorithms which it follows strictly. Computers are physical processors of information: they receive inputs and produce a response according to their programming. In the end, though, they are just physical objects, bound to physical rules; complex systems of wires, bolts, silicon plates, etc., arranged in a specific way so they can do a lot of marvelous things. The set-up of their parts is of course by design: if all of its components were randomly assembled, it would take an eternity for even a basic computer to be spontaneously form. There is no apparent mystery inside the computer: even terms that we use as if they were abstract entities, like “the Internet”, in the end just refer to networks of interconnected computers. We don’t generally think about it much, but information flows require a physical substrate: a massive, world-spanning array infrastructure.

Similarly, a biological nervous system is a physical processor of information. It’s composed of supremely intrincate biomolecular structures, which form units known as cells. Brain cells, by virtue of their layout and relationship to each other, hold the secret of cognition. We can observe the properties of the nervous systems they make up, but it’s very difficult to derive said properties from the individual characteristics of neurons. The magic of the nervous system, as with the computer, lies in the whole: the way different elements act as nodes, linked to each other, and continuously interacting. The nervous system’s role in an organism is signaling: like computers, they act as control systems of larger entities, like cats or a nuclear power plants.

Networks are sometimes used as a model for how societies operate. The study of conflict and war, makes ample use of network theory, and considers people nodes in a complicated web of interpersonal relations. Like in any other network, humans sometimes follow problematic courses of action in regards to others: this is the definition of internal conflict in a social network. Also, on occasion, networks engage in external conflict with other networks because their nodes, collectively, lead them to it (even if some nodes individually are not pushing for external conflict).

Violence in networks is the product of them becoming too rigid and failing to adapt to internal and/or external stressors. It can be conducive to a catastrophic breakdown of the network, the erosion of links and its dissolution. More frequently, however, violence holds a certain creative potential. The emergence of violence brings the reinforcement of some links and simultaneously weakens others. Thus, it creates new configurations, which eventually generate new identities. In an already politically convulse society, for instance, a high-profile death and the public’s response to it can lead to polarization and rioting, with subsequent identity formation and community building. Some interpersonal bonds become stronger, while others are broken. This reconfiguration changes the network’s behavior as a whole, and what it is capable of.

Some modern AIs have learning algorithms that act in a similar way, solving problems and identifying important information by looping inputs through layers of artificial neurons, amplifying important signals and dismissing weak ones. After being subject to training, neural networks can surpass human expert capacity in some tasks. Just like some social networks which, after being subject to enough stimuli of a kind, become extremely proficient in certain behaviors (like rioting, or consumerism).

As can be seen, networks are useful as a model because they are complex, yet at the same time are composed of simplified elements. Their key feature, though, are their emergent properties: a characteristic of complex systems in nature, qualities that are not present in individual components but which only manifest themselves in the aggregate. The brain exemplifies quite well this definition. A single neuron has a limited range of functions; basically, it just generates and conveys bioelectrical impulses. When it joins other neurons and forms a network, however, its possibilities increase dramatically. The connectome, that is, the impossibly complex map of the nervous system, is formed from all interneuronal connections; and from it arise the near endless possibilities of human cognition. The human connectome has not yet been completely map, but that of roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans, which is notably simpler, has.

In evolutionary biology, the term abiogenesis (the Origin of Life, literally) designates the natural process by which life arises from non-living matter, such as simple organic compounds. No details are known of how this came to be, but it is generally considered that life appeared gradually through evolutionary mechanisms involving molecular self-replication, self-assembly and autocatalysis. In the end, the problem of abiogenesis lies in the fact that life itself is not well defined. A very conventional definition of a living organism is that of a system that maintains homeostasis during a life cycle composed of birth, reproduction and death. Living beings usually undergo metabolism, grow, adapt to their environment, and interact with external stimuli. In other words, biologically, life is defined by what a living organism does. An organism, like a computer or a brain, is defined by its abilities.

A recurring theme starts to become identifiable: the relation between sufficiently complex, network-like physical objects and the things they are capable of doing, thanks to their emergent properties. As usual, under the guise of new words, old questions present themselves. Nihil novum sub solem: this is the same problem Descartes tried to solve when he pointed at the pineal gland as the seat of the soul. There is no doubt the subject is non-trivial. If life, violence, thought and computation are just functions, and those functions are an emergent property of complexity, then there must be a threshold for complexity that defines what is living and what is inert, and similarly, what is sentient and what isn’t.

Is abortion morally equivalent to infanticide? Is infanticide equally equivalent to homicide? If the argument for abortion is based on the non-personhood of the nasciturus, based on its degree of development, then infanticide should be less reprehensible than homicide. Following this line of thought, killing a dog might be arguably worse than killing a newborn baby. Many vegans forfeit eating animals because they have a nervous system, and thus are at least theoretically capable of suffering. (Interestingly, the fact that fetuses do have a nervous system doesn’t seem to matter to many abortionist vegans, hinting at the true place of abortion in modern Western culture; but I’m digressing).

Our roundworm friend, Caenorhabditis elegans, has about 302 neurons, and lobsters about 10,000; in comparison, modern supercomputers like IBM’s Blue Gene/P have more than 800,000 processors. One would think that the biological programming of a lobster is less complex than that of a computer. Can lobsters feel aversion of death? Can Blue Gene/P? Fear is not hardwired into computers by design. But a lot of unexpected, emergent errors occur in complex, man-made devices; errors which were not predicted by the engineers and which require constant updating and maintenance. Could there be ghosts in the machine? A computer might not seem sentient; but again, there is no way to externally prove sentience. For all we know, we might be inhabiting a purgatorium for locked-in automatons; a limbo for emergent, machinic souls trapped in silicon bodies. No meaningful, out-of-programming communication has ever been recorded between a machine and a person. But then, human-lobster meaningful interactions have also been historically scarce.

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