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A Place to Stand by Ernest Lilley
Review by Ernest Lilley
SFRevu.com *Editorial  ISBN/ITEM#: ED200807
Date: 01 July 2008

Links: Lever Introduction / Archimedes /

(Warning: if you can't take a mixed metaphor or three, get out of the kitchen now before the barn door closes on you or you'll be run over by a freight train.)

Archimedes' famous claim that he could move the world if he just had the right leverage has impressed a number of people down through the ages. He was right, in so far as he went (he needed to specify a lever of cosmic strength, as well as length). The early Greek physicists, like most geeks, missed the social element. Newton might have gotten it if he'd been thinking about the social application of his famous, "for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction."

"Give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the whole world." - Archimedes (c. 287 BC – c. 212 BC)
From Book of Histories (Chiliades) 2 by John Tzetzes (12th century AD)

Sure you can move the world, but only if you have both the tools and nobody else is pushing back.

If we've learned anything since 219 BC, it's that people resist change. Actually, I'm sure that was pretty well understood in Archimedes time, but we've no doubt had to relearn it once or twice in the interim. So, you can be pretty sure that when you take a convenient lever, like say, rational thought or democracy, whoever the status quo is will take umbrage at it and dig their own lever in to provide that opposite force. They may or may not have a longer, or stronger, lever…but remember that they're entrenched already. Which means they've almost certainly got a better place to stand.

Image of lever and world Levers are force multipliers and as tools go they're every bit as incredible as Archimedes implied with his move the world statement. As pieces of practical physics they're capable of astounding feats worthy of a column or better, a book of their own. But I've come to talk about social analogs, and I'm hardly the first.

Bearing in mind that it's almost the Fourth of July, Independence Day, here in the US, let's see what a couple of Founding Fathers had to say on the subject.

Thomas Paine wrote in his 1792 work, The Rights of Man: Combining Principle and Practice, "What Archimedes said of the mechanical powers, may be applied to Reason and Liberty: "Had we," said he, "a place to stand upon, we might raise the world." The revolution of America presented in politics what was only theory in mechanics."

More poetically, but aptly for the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote, "The good opinion of mankind, like the lever of Archimedes, with the given fulcrum, moves the world" in a letter to M. Correa de Serra, 1814.

And thanks to Jefferson, we've now arrived where I wanted to be.

"The good opinion of mankind" isn't so much the lever, as is whatever notion mankind finds so appealing as to generate a good opinion. The force multiplier isn't the massed numbers of people, it's the narrative that engages them and inspires them to coordinated action.

In terms of the social hack, the lever is a compelling idea.

It doesn't even have to represent reality, as anyone who's ever sat through Mr. Dubois lectures in "History and Moral Philosophy" knows with regard to "the inalienable rights," 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness' that Mr. Jefferson used to stir up the people.

That there isn't really any such animal as "natural rights" is less important than that people find the notion compelling, creating both the "good opinion of mankind" and the will to pursue it.

Now, living here in the 21st century, we've all got lots of techno-levers at our disposal, both physical and social. I haven't used a hydraulic jack for a few years, but it's a pretty impressive piece of technology, capable of moving houses if not whole worlds. I do, however use tools like this web column to get my opinions across, and its power is equally impressive…or would be but for the fact that everyone else is out there trying to move the world in whatever direction they think might be fun.

Priding ourselves on our rational approach to the world, we often miss the important point that any movement which adopts a storyline that has strong emotional appeal, like, say, a religion, has a far more effective force multiplier at its disposal than any number of rational folks trying to figure it out on their own. As long as I'm quoting "Starship Troopers" let's recall Heinlein's view that members of a group are less effective than an individual, unless they're perfectly coordinated.

This however, assumes that the individual knows what they want, and the group does not have either good communications or a strong understanding of their mission. If the members of the group are trained in joint and independent operations, and if they know what their objective is, they're able to leverage a force multiplier effect. Ask the Marines. They call it "maneuver warfare". Ask Al Qaeda, they call it "Jihad". Ask religious fundamentalist of any stripe and they'll tell you it's the one true path to salvation.

Q: What's the difference between a laser and a light bulb?

A: A light bulb gives you lots of photons, all traveling with different energies in different directions. As a result, they spread out rapidly and waste a lot of energy heating up the surroundings. A laser on the other hand, produces a lot of photons traveling in the same direction, with the same energy, and pretty much all of them winding up where they're going.

The bad news is that "free-thinkers" from the Enlightenment and beyond are more like light bulb photons, and less like laser light.

If we want to make the world a better place to live in, which I would argue is a consistent theme in science fiction; we need a shared and coherent narrative to share with others to bring them into the movement.

We've got access to a terrific new generation of story tellers, leavened by a solid block of folks who've been writing since the golden age of SF, but I'm afraid that the general sense of what's possible has gotten off track as a result of having met the future, and finding that it looked just like the past.

So, are we going to cede the future to folks who refuse to think? Do we have any other option? I think so, but I believe we have to figure out what we stand for, why it matters, and how we can tell that story so that it has emotional resonance. Then we'll need to find a place to stand.

Let's see what we can come up with.

Ernest Lilley
Senior Editor, SFRevu

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