Solsys Disinhibition Plagues

Artificial mind-plagues that affected judgment

Image from Bernd Helfert

Of all the plagues and malware that broke loose in the Technocalypse the Disinhibition Plagues were among the most devastating. Their effects were rarely spectacular and in many cases they were not even detected at the time, but they were especially insidious: they undermined Solsys' stability by attacking the foresight and self-control of the populace generally and its leaders in particular. Many of the disasters of the time had their roots in one or more of the Disinhibition Plagues, and many more were magnified by them or persisted because of them. Though it is generally understood that there was no single element that led to the destruction of society and its infrastructure and the near-extinction of Terragenkind in the system that has been called the Technocalypse, the Disinhibition Plagues were certainly a powerful factor. As with the Technocalypse generally there have been similar outbreaks since, some affecting much larger areas or numbers of persons, but none since have affected such a large percentage of Terragen sophonts, or taken the entirety of civilization so near to the brink.

The Disinhibition Plagues were a cluster of diseases, linked only by a common set of symptoms. The agents that produce these symptoms were diverse: some were contagious via gengineered microbes or bionano, some were achieved through hacks on medical software and yet other outbreaks were chemically induced via sabotage of water supplies or food nanofacs. The severity ranged from the relatively rare cases of complete debilitation to much more widespread and subtle modifications. Communities everywhere across Solsys were affected, though large population centres in the Inner System suffered the highest rates. Humans, including the baselines, nearbaselines and Superiors of the day were the primary target, but many rianths and provolves were also affected. What these plagues had in common is that they affected the prefrontal cortex.

In the mammalian brain the prefrontal cortex is the region that specializes in what psychologists call 'executive function': such things as good judgement, social and impulse control, delayed gratification, and the ability to hold conflicting data and feelings in mind and deal with them. In humans, this is the last part of the brain to develop: human children have relatively rudimentary capabilities of this kind and persons in their teens and even early twenties are still in the process of forming the necessary structures. This, over and above simple lack of experience, explains much of the difference in behaviour between younger and more fully mature individuals. Physical damage to this region, or lack of the correct environmental cues for its proper development (especially in critical periods from in utero to early childhood), can result in individuals who are unsteady, impulsive, short-sighted and immature in their behaviour and generally lack 'willpower', are generally 'disinhibited' and show behaviour like that of a child or adolescent even if their other mental capabilities are unaffected.

Ways to remediate or prevent damage to the prefrontal cortex were developed in the middle years of the first century AT, and over the course of the Interplanetary and early Golden Age various ways to enhance or improve the portions of the brain that support executive function were developed, ranging from cognitive enhancement drugs and treatments through epigenetic and germline genetic mods. Many early 'superbrights' and 'superiors' carried permanent enhancements of this kind.

Targeted reduction of prefrontal cortex activity was less common than the enhancement technologies. In reversible form it did see some recreational and therapeutic uses, but the darker side of 'disinhibition' technologies and their implementation, though it did get some discussion in some alarmist fiction and popular journalism, was not often in the public eye in terms of actual events as opposed to a potential danger; real instances were not well documented. It is known though that in the centuries leading up to the Technocalypse these techniques were developed and refined as an instrument of espionage and sabotage. There are a small number of known cases in which 'disinhibition' agents were deployed by the shadier branches of governments, corporations, religious organizations, or by cells of terrorists or revolutionaries, against a variety of targets. In a few cases they were even used by well-resourced individuals against personal enemies. With disinhibition technologies, career-wrecking or organization-wrecking events were much easier to engineer. Aside from errors they might make without prompting, individuals affected were much more open and vulnerable to bribery, intimidation, or seduction. When this technique was fully developed so that it had the highest possible specificity, those affected retained all of their skills, their IQ, their physical strength, and of course their wealth, social status, security clearances, and network of trusted friends and associates. With all of their other mental and social powers intact, victims could be extraordinarily destructive to themselves and those around them if suitably disinhibited. While it was possible to reduce someone so that they had no more self-control than a toddler, the favoured technique was to aim for subtler and harder to detect levels of disability, over a gradual period of time, so that the period over which damage might be inflicted could be extended.

In the years prior to the Technocalypse it was commonly believed by those who were aware of them all that most modes of disinhibition were well known and well defended against. The opening months of the disasters, and the years and decades to follow, would eventually prove how wrong this was. Forensic historians and cliologists have found clear signatures that 'black ops' divisions of several key polities and other organizations had managed to insinuate subtle and low level disinhibition into the decision-making bodies and design divisions of their opponents. This may well account for a number of critical bad designs, bad policies and habits of lax quality control and law enforcement that laid the groundwork for some of the Technocalypse's tragic events. Once events were underway, key leaders and decision-making bodies that had been affected were much more likely to be indecisive or rash in their responses, and more likely to fall into panic or futile bickering and arguments. Further, once the chaos was underway and full hostilities ensued, a host of different kinds of disinhibition technologies were unleashed in full on the general population by various factions against their opponents, exacerbating the panics and mob violence of the times. Though many of these disinhibition attacks went undetected in the general chaos there were some clear instances of this kind of aggression by one organization against another, and collectively they came to be known as the Disinhibition Plagues.

As with so much else from this period, propaganda and memetic campaigns and widespread infowars and deletionism have corrupted many records from the Technocalypse and the decades preceding it. Reconstruction of what happened is even more difficult for the Disinhibition Plagues than for some other elements of the Technocalypse since they were so often covertly initiated and since the subtler versions were difficult to detect at the time. There are however some clear and well known cases. The personnel responsible for maintaining Earth's biosphere at the time were apparently heavily infiltrated, perhaps by more than one faction, for reasons that are now obscure. This may explain the difficulties containing the Black Rot near the outset of the Technocalypse. The design and policy divisions of Bio-Fixe are now known to have been infiltrated by some unknown competitor, and in the aftermath some of the mob and some of the security personnel involved in the infamous Biofixe Lynchings that followed were also discovered on autopsy to have been victims of a disinhibition agent. The person or organization responsible for this has never been discovered. Key personnel of the nanofacturing corporation Transfinity were also discovered to have been affected, apparently through a vector created somewhere in the Gengineer Republic, but again the specific faction within the Gengineers is unknown. The radical transhumanist Deletionist terrorists the Sons of the New Light are believed to have deployed disinhibition agents against a variety of targets in the Cislunar Alliance, the Gengineer Republic, and a number of Earth's polities as well as some human-led large corporations of the time, but it is difficult to distinguish their efforts from those of these very players against each other.

It is tempting to attribute the entire Technocalypse and even the subsequent Dark Ages to the Disinhibition Plagues, and to see the hand of misused and abused disinhibition tech behind every incident of poor decision-making or outright war and riot. However, that would be an overreaction: history both before these technologies came on the scene and in later years when they were better known and counteracted shows that individuals and populations are perfectly capable of these sorts of actions without the additional push of Disinhibition. Nevertheless, it is now understood that the Disinhibition Plagues were a key element in the Technocalypse, the Collapse, and the entire Sundering, and had lingering influence through Solsys' subsequent Dark Age.

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Development Notes
Text by Stephen Inniss
Initially published on 20 July 2015.