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OSD 219: Technically possible but culturally unthinkable
The liminal space that violence comes from.
Somebody tweeted this recently:
Can’t vouch for the factual accuracy of what’s depicted here (police showing up to disperse a mob at an Atlanta Walmart), and also not sure that it’s historically accurate to say that it was culturally unthinkable for a riotous mob to scare off police in, say, 1992. It’s interesting to discuss, and dovetails with the rise-of-city-crime trend that’s been a hot topic recently, but largely outside the scope of this newsletter.
Instead, let’s focus on this concept the tweet introduces: “technically possible but culturally unthinkable”. It’s widely applicable.
A friend pointed out a non-gun-related example: leveraged buyouts. Suppose you want to buy a company. The company costs $100 million, but you only have $10 million. One way to solve that problem is to go amass another $90 million. A faster solution is to ask a bank to let you borrow $90 million. “Do you have any collateral?”, they will ask. “Lol nothing that will make a dent in a $90 million debt”, you will say, “At least not right now. But lend me the money to buy this company. After I buy it, then the company itself will be my collateral.”
This achieves two cool things. First, it allows the company and the buyer to reach a deal, which pretty much ipso facto means that both achieved their best available outcome. Second, as a buyer it means your dollar goes a lot further — you 10x’ed the buying power of the money you had on hand. (That’s where the “leverage” in “leveraged buyout” comes from.)
So you can imagine that private equity folks would do these deals all the time. And today they do. But as far as anybody can tell, LBOs didn’t become a thing for decades until somebody … simply chose to do one. The first was done in 1955, a few more happened in the ‘60s, and by the ‘70s, Jerome Kohlberg, Henry Kravis, and George Roberts had set up shop at Bear Stearns doing LBOs all the time. In a textbook innovator’s dilemma, the firm balked at giving them the resources they needed for this disruptive new line of business, and they left in 1976 to go start KKR and become billionaires.
There are (to oversimplify things) two theories for how something goes from being technically possible to actually happening. From “OSD 197: Frickin’ laser beams”:
There are competing philosophies on this one. Great man theory suggests that you need the right genius to come along, and there just aren’t that many of them.
Then there’s the opposite view, which you could call an innovator’s version of the efficient market hypothesis. The idea is that inventions get created basically about as soon as it’s possible for them to be created. There’s something to that. People had always thought it would be cool to have some place you could see any video ever made. But that wasn’t feasible until the right foundations were in place — widespread broadband internet, sufficiently fast computers, sufficiently cheap storage, and web browsers with good video players. And YouTube was launched within a year or two of that confluence of factors finally being present.
The reality is probably somewhere in the middle. People are always throwing stuff at the wall, and as soon as it’s technologically possible for it to stick, it probably will. But not quite instantly, and not in a predetermined way. Discrete individual ideas can bend history.
“Technically possible but culturally unthinkable” supports great man theory. “Great” in the sense of influential, not necessarily morally great. For example, say, ISIS.
Remember back in the mid-2010s when there was a wave of ISIS-inspired attacks on civilians? We graphed it in “What is going on with mass shootings? Lessons from past solved problems.”:
What did the rise and fall of those lone wolf ISIS attacks look like empirically? I included only the Americas, Europe, and Australia in the chart below — the vast majority of victims died in attacks in Middle Eastern countries, but the scope of this inquiry is to see how a meme (in the selfish gene sense) translates into real world violence. In other words, how the ISIS meme translated into violence in countries where ISIS could support attacks largely only through ideas, not materiel.
The chart almost perfectly tracks the rise and fall of ISIS’s territorial holdings, on a trailing 6-12 months basis.
But why should that be? Very few of these attackers received material support from ISIS, and in fact for many of them, the only sense in which they were ISIS attacks at all is that the attacker pledged allegiance to the group. So this graph could mostly be titled, “Loners who rent a truck or get a gun or make a bomb, shout something about ISIS, and then kill people: 2014-2019.” People are no less able to do that in 2019 than they were in 2015, or 2005 or 1995 for that matter. In most cases, ISIS’s contribution was just the awareness that this is a thing that one can do. And there’s no reason that would have changed from 2014 to 2019. The internet still exists, people still post pretty much whatever they want, and information spreads anarchically.
Actually, though, I glossed over an important nuance: “ISIS’s contribution was just the awareness that this is a thing that one can do.” I think that may be a lot more powerful than we think. The declaration that hey, this is a thing. If you are part of this, you are part of something.
Contrary to popular belief, the people who commit mass murder aren’t necessarily mentally ill, at least not in the sense of having a diagnosable condition. Some do, but most don’t. So that’s not the common thread.
What is a common thread is that they are almost all frustrated losers. The anguished virgin. The disgruntled husband who explodes and kills the extended family. The racist killing the outgroup that he feels is threatening his ingroup. The religious zealot doing the same. And, for that matter, the impoverished high schooler who kills a classmate after school over some trivial slight, or the husband who kills his wife — both of which, awfully, happen hundreds of times more often than mass shootings.
The shape changes but the mass stays constant: a hopeless loser who feels like he or his group are losing, thinks he spots who’s to blame, and decides he’s going to show everyone that damn it, he’s not the loser that you (and, subconsciously, he) think he is.
This mental model does a lot better at explaining the decline in ISIS-inspired attacks. Roughly nothing has changed in terms of people’s ability to carry out such attacks. So what must have changed is their desire. Now that ISIS isn’t on the upswing, nobody wants to join a losing team.
“Joining” them no longer gives people “See, I’m not a loser” validation. Because now, to join them is by definition to be a loser.
ISIS attacks charted a course from “technically possible but culturally unthinkable” to “actually happening” and then went back to being culturally unthinkable. With zero change in feasibility at any point.
Applying this to guns, you get to a surprising result: all misuse of guns lives in this “technically possible but culturally unthinkable” zone. The reason it’s surprising is that history tells us all your impact will come from focusing on the “culturally unthinkable” part — but gun laws focus exclusively on the “technically possible” part. Rather than focusing on making misuse culturally unthinkable, the focus is on making it technically impossible. Empirically, the history of making something that’s technically possible and ubiquitous into something that’s technically impossible and rare is … not a successful one. But not everybody agrees about that, at least at an emotional level. You could summarize disagreement over gun rights as a disagreement about whether it’s more effective to focus on making violence culturally unthinkable or technically impossible.
Before 1968, anybody in the US could have any semi-auto rifle mailed to their house without a background check of any kind. Before 1934, they could do the same with machine guns. What has changed with respect to mass shootings is not their technical feasibility (which, if anything, has gone down). It’s their cultural status as a thing that one can do. With a detailed guidebook of performative specifics. Malcolm Gladwell expands on that here:
We misleadingly use the word “copycat” to describe contagious behavior — implying that new participants in an epidemic act in a manner identical to the source of their infection. But rioters are not homogeneous. If a riot evolves as it spreads, starting with the hotheaded rock thrower and ending with the upstanding citizen, then rioters are a profoundly heterogeneous group.
Finally, Granovetter’s model suggests that riots are sometimes more than spontaneous outbursts. If they evolve, it means they have depth and length and a history. Granovetter thought that the threshold hypothesis could be used to describe everything from elections to strikes, and even matters as prosaic as how people decide it’s time to leave a party. He was writing in 1978, long before teen-age boys made a habit of wandering through their high schools with assault rifles. But what if the way to explain the school-shooting epidemic is to go back and use the Granovetterian model — to think of it as a slow-motion, ever-evolving riot, in which each new participant’s action makes sense in reaction to and in combination with those who came before?
What [Columbine killers’ names] are doing is laying out a script so precise that it makes it possible for kids with really really high thresholds to join in …. They’re making this particular “riot” more accessible.
[Name of a thwarted school shooter] is not a psychopath. He’s a nerd. And 40 years ago he’d be playing with his chemistry set in the basement and dreaming of being an astronaut. Because that was the available cultural narrative of that moment…. Now he’s dreaming of blowing up schools. He did not come up with that himself. He got it from the society of which he’s a part, and we’re responsible for that.
For people who are interested in reducing misuse of guns, this is actually good news. It means that you can spend your time on the easier problem of culture, not the impossible task of undoing technical advancement. It also means that technical advancement needn’t be a concern. Since it’s not the limiting factor on misuse, tech can move forward without perseverating at each step that maybe this time it’s different.
We should be optimistic here. The types of gun misuse that are most concerning today were once culturally unthinkable. There’s no reason they can’t be that way again.
This week’s links
A shared set of organizational tools helped Americans nourish cross-domain organizational competence. Successful political parties, fraternal orders, labor unions, religious conferences, and mass membership associations were all ordered along similar lines: the largest organizations in each category were federations of local chapters or lodges that spanned the whole country. The decentralized nature of this “lodge democracy” allowed Americans to preserve the frontier spirit of self-rule, even when the social conditions which originally necessitated this culture of communal self-reliance began to fade away.
A site where you can support Matt Hoover and Justin Ervin, both convicted two weeks ago on machine gun charges for promoting a piece of metal with an inaccurate drawing of a lightning link on it.
The title gives you an accurate picture of the angle this article is written from, but it’s a useful piece for two reasons: 1) some of the raw data is quite interesting, and 2) it’s a good example of how articles like this cherry-pick outcomes and slide between homicides and suicides to produce the desired results.
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