Kevin (erf_) wrote,

why engineers make poor autocrats

I need to prime the pump for my Georgia Tech writing sample. Let's talk Magnasanti. Behold:

I first saw this unprecedentedly huge SimCity 3000 megacity as part of the Credit Due installation at Babycastles, where it was surrounded by a fan of notes--dozens of pages of optimizing equations and geometric diagrams in efficient, impeccable handwriting. It's impossible to see this city, and the notes, and the blurb on the four years of research that led to its creation, and not feel threatened by its sinister, A Beautiful Mind-like genius. Population stable at six million (more than Hong Kong), at optimal population density! No roads! All housing and places of work within walking distance! A subway system with near-optimal transit time from any point to any other point! A library system of Alexandrian proportions! An astoundingly productive economy, a million-dollar budget surplus, extremely low crime, no derelict buildings, no traffic--and a thriving entertainment district of stadiums, casinos, and amusement parks at each corner, to boot. The city is so flawlessly designed that it has remained stable for fifty thousand in-game years--an order of magnitude longer than any real-world civilization.

On paper, this hyper-megapolis is the perfect city. It's every urban planner's wet dream. And that's precisely what makes it every citizen's worst nightmare.

Make no mistake, Magnasanti is possibly the most economically efficient (and resource-efficient?) city ever devised in simulation. It is perhaps mathematically impossible to make a more population-dense, stable city within the bounds of SimCity 3000's simulation constraints. But the goal of maximizing population density comes at a price. Average life expectancy is about 45; 10% of the population is unemployed; air pollution is high; there are no fire stations or hospitals; there are no schools (all Magnasantians are homeschooled with the aid of an "extracurricular reading program" provided by the city's library system); there are no public parks. Since all buildings are standardized to the optimal configuration, most of the city at street level is a smothering, tessellated dystopian hellscape of the same block over and over and over--in the words of the artist himself, "wherever they go, it’s like going to the same place." Even more ominously, the city government's high approval rating and extremely low incidence of complaints (I think there are under a half dozen per year?) are attributable to the city's lackluster education system and its hyper-efficient, extremely well-funded police department, effectively turning the city into a brainwashed police state. Revolt is impossible because the bread-and-circus of the city's entertainment district, coupled with state control of information, keeps the citizenry too complacent to understand they could do better. Squint hard enough into the a window in any of the city's identical skyscrapers and you can almost see Huxley's noble savage suffocating, unheard, under the sensory cacophony of six million feelies.

Ask most people to picture hell, and they think of burning lakes of sulfur, medieval torture devices, undead war criminals, endless television reruns. Ask me to picture hell, and I think of Magnasanti.

What Magnasanti's designer Vincent Ocasla has created is far more than just an optimal SimCity 3000 playthrough. It's an exploration of SimCity 3000's pro-business design principles taken to their horrifying end result. Taking the primary activities of most contemporary urban citizens--eating, sleeping, working, and consumer recreation--and optimizing them so they can be performed at maximum efficiency, Ocasla has produced both a superpower city-state unsurpassed in stability and wealth and an individual experience, endlessly repetitive in both time and space, that is completely devoid of thought, beauty, or meaning. As Ocasla notes in a Viceland interview last year, the grand irony of this city is that even though it is the largest civilization that can be built in SimCity 3000, there is never any reason for any citizen to leave their block. Each day, in endless Groundhog Day-like repetition, they eat, work, play, fuck, and sleep, and eventually die, without a thought to any of the distractions that would prevent them from doing those things well. (One could blame the necessary oversimplifications of the simulation for allowing this to happen, but if you've played SC3000 and understand how eager Sims are to complain, keeping them this complacent is no small feat!) Ocasla says that this is why he chose the motif of the Buddhist wheel of life and death as the city's defining visual element--his citizens are trapped in an eternal cycle of banal mediocrity, with not the slightest thought to escape.

Aside from the obvious commentary on authoritarian urban planning it's not hard to see in Magnasanti a satire of Arcosanti, its namesake and Will Wright's inspiration for the Sim City series itself, through which architect Paolo Soleri proposed reducing the ecological effects of human overpopulation through massive, meticulously designed structures designed to house a maximum number of people while minimizing space and ecological impact. One must only look as far as Maoist China, Soviet Russia, or the ambitions of contemporary North Korea to understand that Magnasanti is not a mere product of SC3000's simulation constraints--this same hyper-utilitarian design methodology has been and continues to be applied in planned cities in the real world, to the point where it is instantly visually recognizable, and to similar effect on citizens' quality of life. But in his interview with Viceland Ocasla implies that Magnasanti has a more specific, less obvious message. He draws attention to free market societies--what most Westerners would identify as as the opposite of a Magnasanti-like totalitarian state--and warns that, if there's any lesson to be taken away from Magnasanti, it's that optimizing for one variable inevitably comes at the expense of others. For free market societies, he names profit as that variable. That, to me, is a far more thought-provoking conclusion to take away from Ocasla's project than the well-tread point that totalitarianism is scary.

The traditional Adam Smith view of capitalism, with the invisible hand of the marketplace working its magic, is that all sorts of social good naturally occurs in an optimal free market--fair prices, meritocracy, equity, incentives to produce, and so on. All of those things are based on the idea of choice--that as individual consumers and producers repeatedly make the best of many possible choices, there will be an optimizing effect on many social and economic variables across the board. But does this choice really matter if, given the interests of all actors to optimize the same variable (profit), one choice is always best? In a free market, producers and consumers optimize their own economic benefit--consumers through low prices, producers through high profit.

If you let all other concerns--sustainability, ecological impact, public health, education, the arts, individual happiness, social justice, ethics, and so on--fall by the wayside, you end up with the exact same society that an omnipotent totalitarian dictator maximizing for total economic growth would choose. The repetitive, organic nature of Magnasanti's design implies that even though it was constructed by a single authoritarian dictator, something much like it could have easily emerged via the evolutionary effect of the same optimizing market choices being applied over and over. Even if you take into account that SC3000 is deliberately oversimplified as a civilization sim, it's not hard to see that a Magnasanti-like dystopia, regardless of how you get there, is the logical endpoint of a society that values efficient industry above all else. It's what the ideal of a society in which people only care about their jobs looks like.

This, I believe, makes the motif of the Buddhist death-wheel even more striking: Both the pinnacle of big government, in which a central authority meticulously shapes every facet of life to maximize industry, and the pinnacle of small government, in which the direction of civilization is guided entirely by private corporations whose sole aim is to maximize industry, end up in the same place. And that place is an ant farm. An ant farm where people work, play, sleep, and do little else, forever reliving the same experiences, forever trapped in the same place, in a prison of their own choosing--a lifestyle already too familiar to anyone who has ever been part of the daily grind in a big city anywhere in the world.

Ocasla claims he was heavily inspired by the imagery of the art film Koyaaniqatsi. I see it. I can believe it. In a world so focused on things like daily commutes, bank statements, and policy statistics it's easy to forget that our humanity itself is a resource--one not to be traded away at any price.
Tags: games, politics

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