Collapse of dictatorships through people power revolutions expedited by science and technology

“The revolution that surprised the world” was a headline in 1986 and just as easily applies to the revolutions now sweeping the Middle East.   Today is the 25th anniversary of the first People Power Revolution that took the Philippine dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, out of power.  That was Feb 22-25, 1986, the remarkable days of non-violent civil resistance against the 20-year repressive rule of a dictator.  Those were the 4 days when 2 million unarmed people –common folks, priests, nuns – took to the main thoroughfare of Manila, called EDSA, built barricades, sang songs, made prayer vigils and refused to disperse.  Those were the days when soldiers and tank crews facing the crowds were given kind words, praises and flowers.  Also the days when soldiers simply could not fire on their own people and turned their guns around to join the revolution instead.

Back then, I was among the millions watching the events unfold on television, but in the comforts of home in New York.  My parents and I were among the few that managed to go on a self-imposed exile to escape the dictatorship and could not return until the dictatorship was over.  So, the events of those four days took on a more personal meaning for me.

Many similar revolutions have followed since then, taking the Philippine example of nonviolent regime change, such as that in East Germany and many other former Soviet Bloc countries.  These last few weeks see history being made once again in the Middle East.

Non-violent civil disobedience is not new.  It was happening already in many instances long before and made more widespread by Gandhi against British rule in India.  But, it was never in the scale seen in the last 25 years.  Why such a phenomenon only in the last 25 years?  Repressive regimes have been around for millennia and people suffered through successions of regimes—good and bad—without triggering a massive popular revolt.  What made the last 25 years so different? 

I suppose dictators can blame it partially on science and technology!

People Power then

Perhaps the first attempt at people power revolt ever recorded was during the reign of Ramses III of ancient Egypt.  In that instance, the wives and concubines of Ramses conspired to start revolts against their own pharaoh by sending written messages to their relatives in the far flung empire at the same time.   The revolt failed and all the conspirators executed.  Ramses III ‘s reign was also the first time in recorded history of a labor strike when tomb builders were not provided with adequate grain supply.

Back then Ramses could blame his problem on the invention of the papyrus.

The Philippine experience 3,000 years later was two million people coming out on the streets almost at the same time, surprising a dictatorship that could not muster effective resistance against such an unexpected, passive, non-confrontational show of displeasure against the government.  Soldiers would not fire on the mass of people, many of whom are their own relatives.  Although there were organized opposition leaders at the time, they too were surprised by the unexpected turn out. 

That revolution was made possible by portable radios.  People listened to Radio Veritas (a Catholic church owned and operated radio station), coordinating the revolt by listening to the minute by minute events, troop movements and where food/ water were needed.  If it were not because of the popularity of cheap, portable ‘transistor’ radios, it is doubtful that such a spontaneous mass movement of people can be coordinated back in 1986.

For the engineering impaired ones like me, I had to read more about what transistors radios really mean as I have always taken that for granted.  And, most of our newer generation probably can’t relate to this at all.  I asked my kids what they know about transistor radios and I just drew a blank stare.  Before the transistor radio was developed by Bell Laboratories (Yes, its Bell and not Sony as most think) in the 1940’s, the typical radio used a vacuum tube and the smallest radio was the size of a toaster.  Hardly the type to carry around since it needed to be plugged to an electrical outlet.  The transistor changed all that.  It is a tiny, solid piece of semiconductive material which amplifies and switches electronic signals.  Unlike the vacuum tubes that serve the same function, the transistor is compact, does not need to warm up first like the vacuum tube, turns the radio on instantly, can be operated by batteries, rugged and lost lasting (over 50+ years of performance life).  Its invention, thought to be among the best of the 20th century, made the development of hand-held calculators, cell phones and laptop computers possible.  By the 1970’s,  over 7 billion cheap transistor radios were manufactured.  Almost every household on earth can afford to have one, even in poor countries where it became a common source of entertainment, especially with the worldwide popularity of rock and roll music.  And there were plenty during the People Power Revolution to coordinate the mass uprising.

People Power now

Though the passions, anger, resentments and collective suffering were all part of the common experiences, the single catalyst that made these revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya possible was the technology of cell phone, video and internet.  Had the mobile systems not evolve from its original 80 lb weight in 1946 by Bell Labs engineers to its current light weight design first developed by Motorola in 1973 , these popular uprisings would have been more difficult.  The first call made from a cell phone by Motorola’s inventor, Martin Cooper, in 1973 was to his rival at Bell Labs, Dr. Joel S. Engel.  Even years before that, the concept of cellular phone was already part of the science fantasy of Star Trek in the late ‘60s.  Back then, it was called the ‘communicator.’

Mobile phones and internet are the first to be shut down by besieged dictators because of their power to mobilize people.  Just like cryptic messages written on papyrus 3,000 years ago, mobile text messages, voice and videos certainly made the call to action even more immediate, compelling and personal.

People Power in the future

While dictatorships are slowly fading to the pages of history just like hard core communism, there will always be room for dissent in mass scale.  Being dissatisfied is a very human thing and there will always be some cause to take up later on.  What technology will propel the future people power revolt?  Can’t imagine.

But, if I have to fantasize, I would say teleportation, just like in Star Trek episodes and movies.  Scientist are making progress now in transporting tiny objects from one place to another already.  The popular phrase “Beam me up Scotty” will be in common usage by then and people will simply materialize instantly for the next people power revolt.

Star Trek’s creator, Gene Roddenberry would had been ecstatic.

Jonathan R. Matias

Chief Science Officer

Poseidon Sciences Group

www.poseidonsciences.com

Mathematical models of emerging and collapsing societies. From Asimov’s fictional futuristic tale to the real science of Gavrilets’ numerical simulations

I was preoccupied in this last three weeks of January about the bigger picture of how life and work might look like in 2011, mostly playing catch-up with work issues since a lot of things just got placed in my ‘waiting basket’ during the Holidays.  I was also bothered by little things; especially about finding my old collection of science fiction books by Isaac Asimov called The Foundation Series, the first trilogy printed in the 1950’s.  My kids typically classify my preoccupation with things and events of that era as the ‘dinosaur years.’  With a plethora of science fiction paperback novels and special effects movies in the last 10 years alone, why should I be interested in a similar genre written 60 years ago?  Not sure what the answers is.  Perhaps by the time I finish this tale of science fiction and real science we will both have the answer to this question.  

As I rummage hopelessly through my ‘library’ (In my case defined as rooms full of books, manuscripts, articles and magazines scattered on the floor, on bookshelves and on top of tables, along with the smattering of half a dozen partially filled and almost empty cups of coffee for ‘decorative’ purposes), I decided to just glance over to my laptop to check out today’s smorgasbord of science news in scienceblog.com.  And there it was!  Not Asimov’s books, but an article published recently by Sergey Gavrilets (National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis) and co-authored by David G. Anderson (University of Tennessee-Knoxville) and Peter Turchin (University of Connecticut).  The article “Cycling in the complexity of early societies” was among the first in the brand new journal called Cliodynamics: The Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History, “the first academic journal to research from the emerging science of theoretical history and mathematics.”    

That’s nice.  But, where’s the connection to Asimov’s books?  Let me tell you first what this article is all about as best as I can figure it out.  I really am not a fan of anything mathematical, especially when it comes to theoretical population biology on which I still harbor occasional nightmares from grad school days.  The start of the population biology class usually triggers also the start of  my usual fantasy of being somewhere else—on a tropical beach, sipping margarita under a coconut tree, surrounded by native women wearing sarong– that is, when I wasn’t dozing off. 

Gavrilets developed a mathematical model, using hundreds of years of human historical data, to predict the rise and fall of complex societies.  Through numerical simulations that take into account parameters such the size of the state, political power, length of rule, economic variables, etc, his team was able to explain the dynamic processes that cause kingdoms, states and empires to collapse on the scale of decades and centuries.  

Gavrilets concludes: 

Over the past several decades mathematical methods and techniques have become very important in life sciences and social sciences. In particular, mathematical and computational modelings are powerful tools for better understanding the origins of new species and of general rules of biological diversification. Agent-based simulation modeling efforts like those advanced here offer fruitful avenues for future research on general patterns in historical dynamics and on the emergence and diversification of human societies. 

Isaac Asimov

Much has been written about Asimov and thought I just give you a snapshot of his life and his works as a preamble to the next part of this narrative.  Isaac Asimov (family name derived from the Russian word meaning winter grain—from his great grandfather’s occupation) was born in Russia as Isaak Yudovich Ozimov of Jewish ancestry, immigrated to United  States at the age of 3 and later became one of the most prolific American writers of all time, with over 500 books  to his credit.  Not knowing the exact date of his birth due to the uncertainty between the Gregorian and Jewish calendars of the time, he simply decided that his birthday ought to be January 2, 1920.  He would have been 90 years of age this month.  

Young Isaac taught himself to read English at the age of five, taking advantage of the “pulp” science fiction magazines sold in his father’s candy store in Brooklyn, NY. (Pulp  magazines, pulp fiction or simply ‘the pulps’ refer to cheap fiction magazines printed between 1896 through the 1950’s on cheap, ragged, untrimmed wood pulp paper.  It was famous for being cheaper than the magazines called ‘glossies.’  Pulps mostly feature lurid, sensational, exploitive stories with colorful page covers.  Comic book superheroes are considered descendants of pulp fiction).  Though his father disapproved of pulp science fiction magazines, Isaac managed to convince him otherwise since he reasoned that the word ‘science’ was there and therefore must be ‘educational.’  By 11, he was already writing his own stories and by the age of 19 selling stories to science fiction magazines himself.  Educated in the New York public school system, he eventually received his PhD in biochemistry from Columbia University in 1948.  Along with Arthur C. Clarke and Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov is considered the master of science fiction during his life time. 

The words robotics, positronic (an entirely fictional technology) and psychohistory (also fictional) are all attributed to Asimov from his novels.  Robotics and positronic continues to be part of American lexicon, most notably in movies, such as Star Trek; The Next Generation that featured androids with positronic brains.   His robot stories which became part of the novel I, Robot in 1950 and  made into a film in 2004 with Will Smith, described a set of ethical rules for robots (The Three Laws of Robotics) leading to other stories, such as the Bicentennial Man, also made into a movie starring Robin Williams.  He became a friend and science advisor to Gene Roddenberry on many Star Trek projects. 

The Foundation Series 

Though Asimov had written history books (about the Greeks, Romans, Babylonians and Egyptians), mystery stories (in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine), scholarly biblical works and countless science fiction stories, he is singularly remembered for his Foundation SeriesThis is where Gavrilets and Asimov converged in this narrative.  The Foundation Series comprises seven science fiction novels, the first three, the Foundation Trilogy (Foundation, Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation) are considered the most famous and written in the early 1950’s.  It wasn’t until 30 years later that he began writing again the 4th entry in the saga.  

The fictional story goes like this: 

The setting is the universe thousands of years in the future when mankind, with a population in the quadrillions and ruled by a Galactic Empire, occupied millions of star systems in the galaxy.  A mathematician named Hari Seldon developed a mathematical simulation, called psychohistory.  The principle, based on the laws of mass action, numerically calculates the behavior of a quadrillion inhabitants (anything less is inaccurate) that enabled Seldon to predict the imminent collapse of the Empire.  It also predicted that the collapse will follow a period of 30,000 years of descent to anarchy and barbarism, akin to the Dark Ages of medieval Europe, before the rise of the Second Empire.  His mathematical modeling also predicted an alternative option with the Dark Ages lasting only 1,000 years, if a source of knowledge can fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the Empire and the technologies that created it.  The Seldon Plan, which attempts to minimize the period of the Dark Ages, was to establish two cryptic societies, one at each opposite end of the Milky Way galaxy, populated by scientists and technocrats, called the Foundations, ready to step in as the Empire collapses.  The Galactic Emperor found out about psychohistory and the adventures began… 

Gavrilet and Asimov’s Hari Seldon 

A science fiction writer conceives the idea from basic facts and then extrapolates from there, creating fantasies and visions not always possible in a real scientific discipline. 

There are times when the figment of a fiction writer’s fantasy decades before becomes a common reality now.   Let’s take the case of the Star Trek television series of the late 60’s.  The series described the interstellar adventures of Capt. Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy, a multi-ethnic crew (first time such an attempt was made in the racially charged era of the 1960’s) and the occasional alien crew member or guests in galactic starship Enterprise of the 22nd century.  This unique TV series created the biggest ever fan base of science fiction enthusiasts (and that includes yours truly).  Even NASA named its first space shuttle Enterprise in honor of the fictional galactic starship. Though the original airing of the TV series was not accessible to me then (I happened to be in an island in another continent at the time; and yes, no American TV), coming to America, I did grow up on the TV reruns of Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future, many of which has come to fruition in my life time:  mobile phones, pda, tablet PC, hand held diagnostic instruments (Mr. Spock’s tricorder), MRI (Dr. Spock’s diagnostic table), the jet injector for drugs (Dr. McCoy’s hypospray), the universal translator (now the voice recognition and language software), the telepresence device (now the video conferencing) and the phaser set to stun (now the Taser gun to immobilize), just to name a few.  Even the truly far out concepts of the Romulan cloaking device, the transporter beam, the tractor beam, the energy shield to protect the starship are being researched seriously.  New results from military and university research are paving the way for new materials to distort light to hide objects in plain sight, new methods  transport small items by fragmenting molecules and electronic shield/counter strike weapons that destroy incoming projectiles, now featured in the more recent Israeli design for combat tanks. 

Isaac Asimov’s fiction of a mathematician predicting the collapse of the Galactic Empire made a good the story.  It was purely from the fantasies of Asimov’s fertile mind.  But like in Star Trek, some fantasies eventually turn to something real—sometimes.  Gavrilets’ numerical simulations do seem to show that such predictions can be possible.  His paper certainly is an elegant piece of scientific work and will surely be controversial.  Whether it can predict the collapse of empires, perhaps Gavrilets, like Hari Seldon, have to wait before mankind reach the quadrillion mark in the far flung reaches of a future galactic empire. 

I wonder if Sergey Gavrilets ever read the Foundation trilogy.  Had he been alive today, Isaac Asimov would have been ecstatic to read Gavrilets’ paper.  Perhaps, I should ask Gavrilets about the Foundation novels if we ever meet one day.   Not to talk about galactic futures, but about the recent collapses of dictatorial states and when future ones might be expected to follow the same path. 

I think science fiction writers and mathematicians in sociobiology have one thing in common – they seem to chase after futuristic events. 

I am sure Isaac Asimov would agree.

Jonathan R. Matias

Chief Science Officer

Poseidon Sciences Group

www.poseidonsciences.com

PS

Still looking for Asimov’s books !

SUGGESTED READING

http://scienceblog.com/41939/mathematical-model-explains-how-complex-societies-emerge-collapse/

Gavrilets S, Anderson D, Turchin P. 2010. Cycling in the complexity of early societies. Cliodynamics: The Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History. 1:1

http://escholarship.org/uc/irows_cliodynamics?volume=1;issue=1

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foundation_series

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Asimov

http://www.tiem.utk.edu/~gavrila/Research.htm

http://electronics.howstuffworks.com/10-star-trek-technologies10.htm