Monday, August 29, 2016


The idea behind this hangout was to talk about the abuse of large systems - schools, bureaucracies, universities, governments, and judicial systems. Sometimes problems with these systems can be caused by individuals, and sometimes the entire system can become biased in its operation because of the aggregate effect of a lot of small oversights or problems. Corruption can be a really good story problem, or an element of worldbuilding, or both.

Sarah mentioned the idea of normalization of deviance. Within a particular system, certain kinds of errors or biases can repeat and may eventually be perceived as normal by the people participating in the system. She mentioned the Challenger disaster as a case where this had occurred, but it immediately made me think of cases where sexual harassment has become normal within an organization.

Complex systems are self-perpetuating, so common abuses that are not sufficiently restricted by the structure of the system will self-perpetuate. Any action within a system simultaneously perpetuates and changes it.

Some examples of corruption we thought of:

bribes - how corruptible are individual people?
loopholes in law - who is looking for them, and what will they do when they find them?
nepotism - do you have friends or relatives in high places who will act inappropriately on your behalf?

There are a lot of examples of corruption in shows like Boardwalk Empire, mafia-related stories where the police are in someone's pocket.

It's important to note that nepotism was once considered normal.

What constitutes a conflict of interest is socially defined. There are many reasons why a person might encounter conflicting motivations in a position of power.

Che said that bribing and jockeying for inheritance or power in government are common plot elements involving corruption.

You can also see corruption in religious hierarchies, and some of these have doctrinal implications, like when the Catholic church makes changes in the system by which the Pope is selected.

How much influence can a single person have within a complex system? One example of such a person was the clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. She was one person, but because of her structural position as an elected official, and the support of other elected officials, her influence was widespread.

We talked about assassins - mostly because the concept of an assassins' guild is so (ridiculously) common in fantasy. Do such things actually exist? Apparently there were two real world examples (total) and they may have been questionable. Hassan i Sabbah and the Hashishin order provide the origin of the word "assassin" but they might be considered terrorists in today's parlance because they were killing for political, social, and cultural reasons.

Let's assume for a moment that you are going to put assassins in your world. You need to think through some aspects of their operation, such as:
1. How does someone find out they are there?
2. How does a character contact them?
3. How does a character pay them?
Other useful questions include "Is there a recognized organization of them?" and "Does everyone (or every family) have one of their own?" and "How does the presence of assassins interact with general rule of law in this society?"

If a society is very chaotic, or if there is corruption in the police, maintaining the presence of assassins might be much easier.

We spoke about Star Trek Into Darkness, which involved an interesting situation where someone did the wrong thing because they were desperate to save a child's life, and thus torn between duties. If you are thinking through a character's motivations, ask how much that person will be punished for wrongdoing, and what the reward for action might be.

Think it through systematically, step by step.

There can also be corruption in magical systems, and the consequences for that can be highly variable. We felt that corruption in the medical system made a good analogy.

Morgan noted that you can learn to practice medicine, but often people have innate and restricted ability to do magic, which might mean having to tolerate the evil or inappropriate behavior of a person because they cannot be replaced.

How replaceable are corrupt people in your world? Can you impeach them? Can you get rid of them if you don't catch them in the act? Do you have to vote them out? Will a corrupt person's friends and colleagues defend them?

How do you go about changing the culture of a system?

Elections are designed as a built-in way to have a revolution, but they can be influenced by redistricting and gerrymandering. People within the system aren't always selfless. There are shades of gray in good and evil, and awareness of problems. You have to acknowledge that, and build in methods to counteract abuses.

Weird laws can sometimes arise as a result of particular people's behaviors - nobody would have thought of abusing the system in that way until one person did it, so now we have to have a law against it. Complex systems of laws always act in concert with the societal system of manners and decency, and when the latter breaks down, the law is often not enough.

We briefly discussed the difference between the American democratic system of "checks and balances" and the Australian system which relies more on elections to oust people who have done things that the electorate doesn't like.

Without built-in standards and methods for change, a system will be brittle. With those built-in methods, it will be more robust.

We talked about the Demarchists in Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space universe. Specifically, we talked about the idea of AIs that might analyze what people want and then organize changes for them behind the scenes. How would they decide what the people want? How would they make decisions between what is best for the system as a whole and the desires of people within the system?

Of course, people do vote against their own self-interest for many reasons. One virtuous reason is in the interest of the larger society.

There is this interesting, and very common, idea that a person who doesn't want power is the best person to wield it. This is why we see so many farmboys becoming kings in fantasy fiction! It's also why Douglas Adams wrote about the mysterious de facto leader of the universe living incognito in a shack somewhere.

It's also important to note, though, that the desire for power doesn't by definition exclude the possibility of goodness. Complex systems are not inherently bad, and neither are relationships of mutual benefit between people. The payment of money in return for changes in legal policy, or quid-pro-quo, is corrupt. However, people and institutions can give money in support of a candidate because they share a mutual interest in the policies that candidate pursues, and that is perfectly ethical.

Transparency, or the ability to expose parts of the system and its operation to examination and judgment, is absolutely critical.

When a system tends to create entries and pathways to success for a particular type of people, a marginalized group can attempt to use those entries and pathways, or can attempt to create its own entries and pathways. Either approach has drawbacks.

We want to advance people we know because we feel better able to judge their merit.

My final note was that it's important to differentiate between different kinds of power within a system. Power could be "I have the power to pay my bills," or it could be "I have the power to inflict terrible hardship on others." The degree of power possessed by an individual due to position within the system, relationships with others, etc. etc. will help you to determine how far their influence will be felt, and how much damage they can do to people with less power.

Thanks to everyone who attended! Remember that this week's hangout, on August 31 at 10am Pacific, will be an examination of POV characters as representatives of their worlds. I hope you can join us! Contact me on Facebook or Twitter @JulietteWade if you would like to enter the discussion.