The Invisible Line Between Order and Chaos

image from slate

The Las Vegas shooting yesterday forced me to write about something I’ve been thinking about for years.

It seems entirely too easy to produce chaos in a large society. And in fact if you told me that millions of people would put themselves in metal boxes and fly down a street at nearly 100mph, separated only by their own attention, I’d have told you it would have never worked.

Why? Because it’s too easy for someone to disrupt.

Someone could easily just swerve into oncoming traffic. Someone can cut a giant hole in the ground and cover it with black paper so people drive into the hole at high speed. People could drop bowling balls from overpasses and skyscrapers and high-rise hotels and kill the people down below.

And with this incident we see that you can also just break out the glass in a giant hotel and shoot down at tens of thousands of people, with automatic weapons that you just brought through the front door.

So if I were to design a society, or be consulted on a society, I would say that you can’t have these vulnerabilities. But the problem is that you need those vulnerabilities for the society to be usable.

And there’s another problem with saying that you can’t build roads like this, or skyscrapers like this, or overpasses, or hotel windows—in the vast majority of cases, they do work exactly as designed.

So even though millions of people can easily abuse these design flaws (or tradeoffs), for some reason they don’t. And that’s the invisible line I’m talking about. This is the most important defense in all of society.

In short, the reason more people don’t do this is because it’s, well, non-conventional. It’s improper. It’s unthinkable. It’s just not something that you do.

This is an unbelievably powerful force that makes an open society possible.

There are a few things that keep this force working, and a few things that diminish it.

  • Convention is a powerful factor. If nobody has done a particular attack before you, and you know it’s not proper or allowed or morally sound, it’s a lot harder to do it for most people. The fact that it’s never been done before is a defense in itself.

  • Mental Health is another factor. People who are mentally healthy are able to honor society’s rules and don’t have overwhelming forces pushing them to break those norms.

  • Religion is another powerful element that can overpower a society’s conventions. If God says something and convention says another, God might win that argument. And if the command is to kill, it just might happen if the belief is strong enough.

  • Ideology is broader than Religion but has the same characteristics. If you believe that a certain race should be exterminated, or that another race is superior, or that technology is evil and that people who promote it should be removed from the equation—these are all strong beliefs that could inspire action that counters the natural invisible force that protects society.

The problem today seems to be that a number of these are eroding at the same time.

  • More and more people are doing crazy, destructive things that then open the door for copycats.

  • We’re losing a meaning and happiness infrastructure that kept people focused on work and family and following the rules, and people are becoming unstable as a result.

  • And various ideologies—religious and otherwise—are becoming strong enough to convince people to harm others in opposition to the rules of society.

The key point is that it’s effortless to step over this line. It’s easy to harm people en masse in an open society. Extraordinarily easy. All you have to do is realize it’s possible, and have enough of a reason.

And the more we strip away the ephemeral and convention-based reasons not to, the more danger we’ll be in.

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