Tuesday, January 14, 2020

(M:t As) Iteration X

Let's start this post off with a joke.

"Did you hear that the HIT Mark V units' sensors have not been calibrated for scent?"

"How do they smell?"

"A lot like plastic, actually."

Sorry (not sorry), but this hoary old joke was the first thing that came to mind when I tried to break down what Iteration X was all about. It's not so much in isolation, but when you take it in combination with the revelation that Iteration X is behind the World of Darkness' recycling movement, it starts to come in to focus.

Iteration X calmly and dispassionately realizes that resources are finite and that optimum efficiency means reclaiming that which can be reclaimed. Iteration X fails to realize that scent is one of the most powerful senses and that a key benefit of fusing an organic body with machine augmentation is the ability to take advantage of powers that have been fine-tuned by millions of years of evolution. The only reason HIT Marks don't have blood-hound quality noses is because their makers are grossed out by squishy things.

In the one case, they follow the data. In the other, they scorn the data. They claim their goal is reason, but their reason is pretty selective. Only conclusions that fit within their aesthetic sensibilities are ever entertained. They've taken a protractor to the world, but it only has labels every 90 degrees.

The reason for this probably isn't a deep thematic insight. You can build from there, certainly. It's a major problem in computing today that no one is really prepared to deal with the fact that as they get more complex, algorithms, far from being "objective," often wind up encoding the biases of the programmers who create them and lend them a veneer of mathematical inevitability.

But this book isn't quite that prescient. I think the issue here is actually that the Technocracy has a particular role in the World of Darkness - to be a repository of sci-fi horror tropes. And what that means is that just as Progenitors were saddled with "medical experimentation run amok" as one of their themes, Iteration X is a dumping ground for all your various "machine takeover" stories.

And it can be pretty effective. The fear of enforced conformity, of computerized mind-control, of having pieces of yourself taken out and replaced with cold metal . . . that can make for a chilling enemy faction.

But if you try to interpret the Technocracy as a faction in the war for reality, driven by a belief system to remake the world in their image, it all starts to feel a bit like "Classic SF" naivete. It pits "logic" vs "emotion" in a way the fails to truly account for either.

With all due respect to Mr Spock, our emotions are not illogical. Rather the opposite. They are the result of the relentless logic of survival, pounded into our genes through generation after generation of suffering and struggle. Their flaw is that they are too well adapted to the material goal of sustaining the blind chemical reaction at the core of our meat. They don't always submit themselves to our more idealistic intellectual aspirations. When a mouse shudders under the shadow of a hawk, it's a sign that fear has been useful to all of the descendants of our common ancestor for the past 65 million years. By contrast, a well constructed syllogism has only been a boon for the last 2000 years or so.

Which may sound like I'm siding with the Traditions here and saying that the cold calculations of a machine can never replace the indefinable human element, but it's actually quite the opposite. What I'm saying is that a machine that refuses to account for the human element isn't actually making cold calculations at all. It is rather ignoring important empirical data for the sake of ideology. It is unreason disguising itself as reason.

The most telling detail here is the idea that Iteration X prefers its cybernetic field operatives to have zero initiative. Standing orders are to do nothing and wait for further instructions whenever contact is lost with the centralized authority. Whatever the purpose of this is, it's not efficiency and it's not good strategic or tactical doctrine. There's another force at work here. One that either jealously hoards all accomplishment for itself or gains satisfaction for subjecting subordinates to humiliation and danger. The very ineptness of the hierarchy is undoubtedly the secret of its appeal.

There's villain texture here. A sort of hungry oppression that wants to strip away everything that makes the individual unique. The borg are frightening enemies. But these villains would not be scientists. They would just be monsters. They are not philosophical rivals, challenging the Traditions' worldview, they're just a kind of a cartoon cyborg.

You could lean into it. Say that the Technocracy's failure to pursue real science is a deliberate flaw. It would be easy. For all that Iteration X claims to be against emotion, they don't have much of a problem with hate and rage. It could be that the hypocrisy here is a real critique. They know magic is real, but they obfuscate it with machinery. They know that their stated mission is a fool's errand, but they don't care because what they really want is control. That's the reading that is most consistent with the book as it actually exists.

The only problem here is that it doesn't feel like Mage: the Ascension has really earned that kind of leeway. It's not at all clear that the authors of the line understand what is appealing about science, nor what materialist atheists value about themselves. So I can look at Iteration X and think "wow, what a grotesque mockery of the ideals of the scientific revolution," and the dedication of the book can read, "to Harlan Ellison, whose stories of a dark future dominated by technology are too frightening on for many of us to imagine on our own."

As if, somehow, it was the technology that was the problem, and not the timeless impulses of pride and greed and hatred of the other.

To round this out, let's talk about how weird this book is about disabilities. The main narrator is a young man with Thalidomide syndrome who requires the use of a wheelchair and prosthetics. And I don't want to speak too authoritatively here, but it seems strange to me the way he seems to direct his resentment towards the tools that help him manage his disability, rather than towards the disability itself.

Like, there's this line when he first enters the Technocracy HQ:
However "Duplex Recycling" did have a ramp and wheelchair accessible doors. How convenient.
And I can't help but think that, despite the sarcastic tone, it really is just genuinely convenient.  The story is set in the year 1993, which means that as near as I can tell the Technocracy was ADA compliant at least a year ahead of statutory requirements.

I don't know. Maybe this rings true to people. Maybe when you have a disability, rolling up to a new place to discover it's accessible feels condescending at times. I certainly don't want to get on my high horse and proclaim that people with disabilities should feel grateful when they're accommodated. It is, indeed, just basic human decency.

But if I'm putting myself in William Smith's place, where I've been in a wheechair since the 1960s, landmark legislation has just passed that will dramatically increase my mobility, and I've just got a job offer from a business that was visibly ahead of the curve in that regard, I kind of think that would be something that might break through my cynicism a bit . . .

Which, of course, would make the betrayal when they turn around and brainwash me all the more bitter.

Later on, in the mechanics section, the book implies that Iteration X's research into prosthetics is some sort of sinister plot
Throughout history, Iteration X has acted as if they were champions of the physically disabled. Their efforts to integrate man with machine have required trial-replacements on members of the Masses. During the Dark Ages, for instance, crippled beggars were given crude wooden crutches while knights received bronze limbs to replace those lost in battle. Today, the Convention is behind the development of increasingly more elaborate prosthetics.

Little do the Masses realize, however, that even more advanced prosthetics currently exist. Called "biomechanisms," these Devices are reserved for Iterators alone.
Honestly, that "as if they were" is a little confusing. What's being described here is really just "helping people with physical disabilities." There's nothing going on here but the Technocracy's usual methodology - introduce increasingly sophisticated magical effects into static reality in the guise of technology while developing the next generation that will be too paradoxical for deployment until your current models are accepted.

I think part of the reason the Technocracy gets reinterpreted as heroic is because their plan for dealing with Mage's consensual reality is probably the best one with a realistic chance of success.

That being said, the Technocracy absolutely are not heroic, not because they keep the best Devices for themselves, but because of what they did to poor Billy Smith - exploit his need for physical assistance to kidnap him, brainwash him, and stick him inside a cyborg.

It's a real weakness of Mage as a gameline that it can't consistently distinguish between the two.

Ukss Contribution: The Technocracy's high-tech killing machines are called "HIT Marks," which is kind of weird because the "Mark" part of the name refers to model numbers. They're currently using HIT Mark Vs, and they're working on developing HIT Mark VIs. Yet the abbreviation truncates the most informative part of the name.

Anyway, the HIT Mark Is were the terracotta warriors buried with Emperor Qin Shi Huang, and I think it might be kind of cool to have a similar magical army in Ukss.

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