Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Compilable Specifications, Characterization, And Propaganda

     Yes, Gentle Reader, you get two pieces today...though I can’t imagine what you’ll think of this one. I just know that I need to write it.

     First, a segment from an old story by Robert A. Heinlein:

     King was reminded again of something that had bothered him from the time Silard had first suggested Lentz’s name. “May I ask a personal question?”
     The merry eyes were undisturbed. “Go ahead.”
     “I can’t help but be surprised that one man should attain eminence in two such widely differing fields as psychology and mathematics. And right now I’m perfectly convinced of your ability to pass yourself off as a physicist. I don’t understand it.”
     The smile was more amused without being in the least patronizing nor offensive. “Same subject,” he answered.
     “Eh? How’s that—”
     “Or rather, both mathematical physics and psychology are branches of the same subject, symbology. You are a specialist; it would not necessarily come to your attention.”
     “I still don’t follow you.”
     “No? Man lives in a world of ideas. Any phenomenon is so complex that he cannot possibly grasp the whole of it. He abstracts certain characteristics of a given phenomenon as an idea, then represents that idea as a symbol, be it a word of a mathematical sign. Human reaction is almost entirely reaction to symbols, and only negligibly to phenomena. As a matter of fact,” he continued, removing the cigarette holder from his mouth, “it can be demonstrated that the human mind can think only in terms of symbols.
“When we think, we let symbols operate on other symbols in certain set fashions—rules of logic, or rules of mathematics. If the symbols have been abstracted so that they are structurally similar to the phenomena they stand for, and if the symbol operations are similar in structure and order to the operations of phenomena in the real world, we think sanely. If our logic-mathematics, or our word-symbols, have been poorly chosen, we think not sanely.
     “In mathematical physics you are concerned with making your symbology fit physical phenomena. In psychiatry I am concerned with precisely the same thing, except that I am more immediately concerned with the man who does the thinking than with the phenomena he is thinking about. But the same subject, always the same subject.”

     [From “Blowups Happen,” in The Past Through Tomorrow]

     Mathematician / psychiatrist Lentz is one of the first of Heinlein’s trademarked omnicompetent man characters: the sort of chap who, having witnessed the total collapse of the civilization he knows, perhaps due to pandemic smartphone addiction, he would analyze the event, determine the critical factors, then roll up his sleeves and set to work personally rebuilding that civilization – minus the smartphones, of course. And he’d get it done on time and within budget.

     Heinlein was passionate about human competence. His protagonists weren’t uniformly of the omnicompetent-man variety, but they did appear in a great part of his fiction. They were responsible for a great part of the love his readers felt for him. To them as to him, omnicompetence was an ideal toward which to work. As an ideal it has much to recommend it. As an achievable reality...well, let’s just say that most of us fall short of the mark.

     But fiction, though it must “make sense,” doesn’t need to mimic reality in all its particulars.

     Ayn Rand is probably more responsible for the rise of realist philosophical thought and the renascence of the liberty movement than any other writer. It’s plain from both her fiction and her nonfiction that she had those ends in mind. Moreover, she shared with Heinlein a vision of the human ideal: the perfectly rational man capable of thinking his way through any problem, of surmounting every obstacle by applying keen observation and hard intelligence unburdened by irrelevant emotions or unrealistic desires. Her protagonists, especially in her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged, depict those qualities to a 200-proof distillation.

     It’s an inspiring vision, quite as uplifting as Heinlein’s omnicompetent man or Girolamo Saccheri’s ideal of a Euclidean geometry that doesn’t require the postulate of the parallels. And just as many persons revere Rand for showing them that vision as do Heinlein.

     One could make a good case that Heinlein’s and Rand’s heroes came along at exactly the time they were most needed. They came to a society that was on the brink of surrendering to the darkest elements of the human psyche: envy, power lust, and appetite unburdened by conscience. If they didn’t “save” our society, whatever that might mean, they created enough of a countercurrent to the madness bidding to swallow it whole to keep it at bay for a generation or two.

     I’m acquainted with other writers who dislike Rand and have little use for Heinlein. In fairness, those writers don’t dismiss Rand or Heinlein; mostly, they disagree with the premises in Rand’s and Heinlein’s most influential works and consider their depictions of human behavior unreasonable. As it’s impossible to argue about premises – especially moral premises, which are critically important to both Rand and Heinlein – there’s no point in discussing who’s “right.”

     And now for something...well, not completely different, but near enough to that as I can get in an essay that “shouldn’t” persuade my Gentle Readers that I’ve flipped my wig.

     One of the Holy Grails of software development is the never-ending quest for a path that descends from:

  1. Requirements,
  2. through Design,
  3. to Implementation,

     ...that eliminates the possibility of error. Some mighty minds have been put to that effort, including the late, great James Martin. Yet we’re no nearer that goal than we were in the Seventies, when the possibility was first seriously discussed in the literature. What it would require, the consensus decided, was a way to produce a compilable specification: i.e., a comprehensive statement of the requirements that an automated process could transform into a matching implementation. Many of the arguments made for this or that method of describing software requirements were basically that “our method makes the compilable specification plausible.” As no one has yet reached that glittering prize, the arguments remain unresolved.

     However, the storytellers of the world pursue it daily. Not all of them have an innocent end in mind.

     Political propaganda is largely about persuading the target to accept a certain set of premises. It has that in common with every sort of fiction. The theory is simple enough: if you can dictate the premises from which a particular issue must be approached, you can dictate the outcome. And indeed, both of the principal political families of our time strive to impose their preferred premises on every issue that arises in American political discourse.

     That’s an open secret, to be sure. The palmed cards are anything but obvious.

     When political propaganda succeeds – in other words, when advocate Smith makes target Jones into a convert on the subject under discussion – we may be reasonably sure that all the following are true:

  1. Jones has accepted, at least temporarily, the premises Smith has laid out.
  2. Jones has followed the argumentative trail that leads from Smith’s premises to his conclusion.
  3. Jones does not see Smith’s conclusion, or any of Smith’s objectives, as unacceptably averse to his own interests.

     By implication, nothing of relevance to Jones has intruded to derail the path from premises to conclusion, nor to knock him off it at the end of the ride. You may rest assured, Gentle Reader, that the professional political propagandists of our time are masters at selecting exactly and only the premises that will lead inexorably to the conclusions they want us to reach. Yet their advocacy fails far more often than it succeeds. Why?

     Because while the Joneses among us might accept Condition #1 at least for the sake of argument, and might be willing to allow that given the suggested premises the conclusion is inexorable, they will not allow that the suggested premises are beyond question. Neither will they allow that Smith’s premises are the only considerations that apply.

     Thomas Sowell’s famous three-point rejoinder to the Left:

  1. “Compared to what?”
  2. “At what cost?”
  3. “What’s your evidence?” a three-strike body blow to the sort of political propaganda routinely emitted by both sides. In ordinary discourse, those three questions would silence ninety-nine out of a hundred political polemicists. Virtually no one arguing for any position – including all the ones I support! — could answer all three sufficiently well for his argument’s premises to hold the field unopposed.

     Which is a complete explanation for why the Left, unwilling to accept dissidence from anyone about anything, has moved to colonize and conquer the communicative trades.

     As should be clear to all but those who read this dive in Braille, I write fiction as well as nonfiction. If you’ve taken an interest in the recent fusillades in the speculative-fiction publishing industry, some of which I’ve written about: already know how I feel about the whole dustup. I can’t imagine that the gunfire will abate any time soon. But it does serve to illustrate a critical aspect of storytelling and why it’s a target for the propagandist:

Buy The Premise, Buy The Tale.

     The Left wants to command the heights of the publishing industry and all its periphera so that the stories it favors will be unopposed by stories that embed divergent premises and enable divergent outcomes. This is especially critical as regards character motivation.

     What motivates a protagonist – i.e., his values and the priority scale into which he fits them – determines how he’ll react to the events of the story. To get any enjoyment out of a story, the reader must empathize with its protagonist(s). He must accept their premises, at least for the duration of the tale. This is easier if the reader isn’t too far personally from those premises, but it remains a requirement of reader enjoyment regardless.

     For example: I greatly enjoy the fiction of Robert A. Heinlein, Larry Niven, Jack Vance, Tom Kratman, and John Ringo. Those writers’ premises about the ways people act in dangerous or otherwise stressful conditions are close to mine; I have no trouble accepting their protagonists’ motivations and decisions. By contrast, I cannot enjoy the fictions of socialist writers Mack Reynolds, Kim Stanley Robinson, or Octavia Butler. Their protagonists’ motivations and decisions strike me as unreasonable – unreal. “People don’t act that way,” I say to myself. Yet another socialist writer, the late John Brunner, has entertained me greatly, even though we’re poles apart politically. Brunner has managed a trick the aforementioned three have not: he got me to buy into his characters’ motivations, at least for the duration of his novels, even if I rejected them (and their political implications) once I’d closed the book.

     Do you see the parallel with the “compilable specification,” Gentle Reader? Do you see how a convincingly drawn protagonist character exemplifies that ideal?

     I lit into this subject upon learning this morning that the great Ursula Leguin had passed away. Let there be no mistake: Leguin is a giant of twentieth-century speculative fiction. Yet in her crowning achievement, The Dispossessed, she presents the reader with Anarres, a wholly unbelievable “ambiguous utopia.” Her protagonist, Shevek, is devoted to the principles upon which Anarresti society is founded:

  1. Anarchism;
  2. Communism.

     The combination of the two is Leguin’s vision of “freedom.” The most superficial acquaintance with the nature of freedom and the nature of Man makes obvious how nonsensical that is:

     “Without private property there can be no private decisions.” [Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, Illuminatus!]
     Freedom is founded on ownership of property....For the normal human being who is not a creative artist nor a scientist by profession the means of self-expression consist largely or rooms to modify and gardens to tend, trees to plant and offspring to rear. Losing these opportunities for expression, the individual loses individuality, freedom, and hope. [C. Northcote Parkinson, The Law, Complete]

     Which is why Karl Marx, though never to be adequately condemned, was clearer sighted in demanding a dictatorship for his socialist paradise. Yes, he did envision “the withering-away of the state,” but no one who has accepted his premises has ever signed on to that notion.

     It’s the grand project of the Left to marginalize (at least) or eliminate (at horrifying most) all fictional depictions of people behaving as people normally behave. Their objectives cannot withstand that sort of realistic, believable counter-propaganda. You could say that they seek to build their “new progressive man” in part by creating characters that embed their preferred premises. Such characters are “compilable specifications” for their sort of political order. If such fictional premises are the only ones people read about, those fictions will pull the young, the impressionable, and the intellectually unformed to the Left without their targets’ conscious knowledge.

     Which is why the independent writers and artists movement is worth every thinking man’s support.

1 comment:

jb said...

Fran -

That is, in my humble opinion, one of your finest postings.