Friday, January 29, 2010

Dungeons & Dragons and the Sociopath / Technology Cycle

A recent decision from the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit got me thinking about whether it is easier or more difficult to be a sociopath in the modern world.

Last week, the Seventh Circuit issued an opinion upholding the right of a prison to bar inmates from playing Dungeons & Dragons. The plaintiff in the case complained, according to the New York Times, that the prison had confiscated his "books and other materials, including a 96-page handwritten manuscript he had created for the game." Oh, and the plaintiff was serving a life sentence for "bludgeoning and stabbing his sister's boyfriend to death." For some reason, this decision struck me as being just very very funny. Maybe it's the image of prison as being just as cliquey as high school. You have the Crips, the Bloods, the weightlifters, the shower rapists, the screaming lunatics and then, sitting over in the far corner of the rec room, some guys (all of whom, like the dungeonmaster himself, had probably bludgeoned and stabbed someone to death) hunched over a 96 page handwritten manuscript, rolling 24-sided dice and role-playing as druids and ogres.

Thinking about D&D led me, of course, to start thinking about sociopaths. I didn't realize that D&D was still around at all. I figured that was one of the pastimes that had been killed by the internet. I guess prisons tend be behind the curve on the technological front. (Is Fios available in your neighborhood? Enter your cell block and number here find out.) In high school, D&D was at the forefront of sociopathic activities. It was a means for zitty, fantasy-obsessed kids to spend days locked away in dank basements, with no contact with the outside world, living in a made up fantasy land. I was never one of the D&D guys. Not because I was any less zitty or sociopathic than they were. It's just that jazz band was my bag.

Sociopaths have been around forever. No human being in history has ever made it through life without, at some point, thinking that people are all horrible and ridiculous and that a life spent alone in the woods eating moss off the sides of trees would be infinitely more pleasant. Throughout most of history, there was very little change (other than trends in beard styles) in the typical lifestyle of a sociopath. The world wasn't very crowded, so finding a spot where you could hang out for a few decades without ever seeing another person wasn't that hard. But things started to change around the time of the industrial revolution. As more of the population moved to cities, and increasingly specialized divisions of labor made it harder for any one person to produce all of the things needed to survive in the world, people had to rely on one another more and more. And more reliance on other human beings made it harder to avoid contact with them.

For a while, it seemed as if living the sociopathic life would become a dying art. First trains and then roads and airplanes started making it possible for people from all over the world to show up right on our doorsteps. Then the telegraph and the phone and radio and TV signals beamed over the airwaves brought them into our homes. Now the internet and email and tweets and BlackBerries force society upon us wherever we are. Technology, it seemed, would make human contact unavoidable.

But no! Sociopaths are now as abundant as ever. Quietly, in the background, technology was evolving on a parallel track. Automation would swoop in and save sociopaths from extinction. While technology was making it possible for humans to spread their humanness faster and wider, the automation of formerly human tasks was making it increasing easy to avoid human contact altogether. The loom eliminated the need for knitting circles. Electric cow milking machines made it possible for dairy farmers to milk hundreds of bovine without having to chat with other farmers. Automated electronics vending machines in airports made it possible to buy replacement cell phone chargers without having to talk to the kid at the Cellular Circus kiosk.

And then computers changed it all. Food and excrement disposal are really the only absolute essentials for survival. But with food, excrement disposal and a computer, the whole human-less word became available right at the fingertips of any sociopath. The combination of Peapod online grocery delivery service (a service now available through most brick and mortar grocery stores) and indoor plumbing have made it possible to conquer the most basic needs without any direct human intervention. The Visa / / eBay / UPS network has make it possible to buy just about any object that has ever existed on this planet, also without ever having to so much as talk to another person. And, finally, the primary purpose of the entire rest of the internet is to provide whatever kind of escapism (99.9998% porn; 0.0001% Runescape and other on-line D&D knock-offs; 0.0001% other, by most accounts) floats any sociopath's particular boat. The idea that, in ancient times, sociopaths had to leave the house, gather in some other person's dank basement and play D&D to avoid contact with normal society would be incomprehensible to any high school age sociopath today.

Endless ink has been spilled, and dissertations written, about the effects of technology on disseminating ideas and information. But the renaissance of the sociopath, a creature that was driven to the very brink of extinction, has gone largely unnoticed. It's understandable. Sociopaths don't get much media attention (except when they bludgeon and stab their sisters' boyfriends to death and are described on local newscast by the neighbors as "the quiet type, kept to himself mostly"). So lets take a moment to appreciate this feat of technology, and tip our hats to our secluded web-surfing friends. Prisoners may no longer have the right to play Dungeons & Dragons, but the rest of unincarcerated society is as free as ever to withdraw gracefully from the squalor of humanity.

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