Thursday, July 20, 2017

Gregory Benford: "Nobody Lives on Burton Street"

Gregory Benford
"Nobody Lives on Burton Street"
from The Best of Benford
David Hartwell, editor 
a short story first published in 1975

Nobody Lives on Burton Street  (1970)

"I was standing by one of our temporary command posts, picking my teeth after breakfast and talking to Joe Murphy when the first part of the Domestic Disturbance hit us.

People said the summer of '78 was the worst ever, what with all the pollution haze and everything was kicking up the temperatures,  than '78.  Spring had lost its bloom a month back and it was hot, sticky--the kind of weather that leaves you with a  half-moon of sweat around your armpits before you've had time to finish morning coffee.  The summer heat makes for trouble, stirs up people. . .

.  .  .  . 
I turned and walked back out onto the roof where we had our command post.

We knew the mob was in the area, working toward us.  Our communications link had been humming for the last half hour, getting fixes on their direction and asking the computers for advice on how to hand them when they got there."

The above quotation from the beginning of the story seems fairly straightforward.  The story takes place in an urban setting, a mob is on the loose, and the authorities are getting ready to handle the situation.  The mob appears, waving clubs and torches and setting some of the building ablaze.

But then, I get the feeling something was wrong.  Those in the command post didn't seem strongly affected when several police officers and firefighters who had arrived on the scene were brutally attacked by the mob. Those in the command center acted as though all was going as expected.   In fact the arrival of the police and firefighters was carefully orchestrated from the command center.  There was some suggestion that the police squad car was controlled from the command center.  


All is not what it appears to be.  What the reader perceives is not the real situation.  This is not an out-of-control rampaging mob but a carefully staged cathartic event.

The reader eventually learns that the mob action is actually a planned event.   Citizens can register to take part in an upcoming planned riot, after a psychological screening to determine if they would benefit from participation.  Moreover, the command post is not staffed by police officers, but members of the city's public relations department, and the police and fire personnel are androids.

While there's been a long-standing debate on the precise meaning of catharsis, in popular usage today, it usually refers to the purging of strong, possibly disruptive or dangerous emotions through the vicarious experience of similar tragic or violent events.  Simply put, it suggests that viewing violent destructive actions will reduce the possibility that the viewer will engage in such actions in the future, an emotional escape valve.  This staged riot carries the theory a step beyond vicarious observation.  It allows the participants to partake in a riot, although carefully monitored and controlled.  The assumption is that participants will have purged the anger, hostility, tension sufficiently to reduce the possibility that they might get caught up in a real riot.

While not brought up in the story, there is an opposing theory--desensitization. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, desensitization actually extinguishes or at least reduces an emotional response (as of fear, anxiety, or guilt) to stimuli that formerly induced it. Consequently, participating in an activity increases the chances that one will engage in it again.   As you can see, this directly contradicts the cathartic theory.  Not only does it contradict the cathartic theory, but it also insists that putting the cathartic theory into practice will make the problem even worse.  Those who take part in the staged riot will be desensitized to the destruction and the killing of the police and fire personnel on the scene  and, therefore, are more likely to do it again.

One can wonder whether the cathartic process is actually working, for in the first paragraph of the story, the director of the staged riot remarks that last year was the worst ever for riots and now "it was a year later and getting worse."  Does this suggest that the staged and managed riots are making the situation worse?

This is just another example of that short-sighted behavior we humans are not only capable of  but far more likely to engage in, instead of intelligent problem solving behavior.   As usual, the powers-that-be prefer to attack the symptoms of a problem, rather than the causes.  


  1. Interesting stuff, Fred. It seems to be a relevant cautionary tale about government v. governed. When did individuals cease being individuals is the looming problem. I worry a lot about the future though not for myself but for others who are younger. Your posting reminds me that my worrying is not irrational paranoia but realistic concern.

    1. R.T.,

      When? probably a long time ago. I wonder if the first formal steps were taken by the military with the issuing of serial numbers. The military has always thought in terms of numbers anyway.

      I think the problem today is the worst it has ever been, thanks to computers.

  2. the underlying premise of both viewpoints(catharsis and desensitization) is that humans don't think much, especially when in groups... i think that's true, but interesting that an aspect of behavior is the theme of an author's output...
    more data to add to my lemming theory of human behavior... tx....

    1. Mudpuddle,

      Yes, I agree. Groups seem to dampen down insightful thinking in some way.

      Benford's works cover a variety of themes. He's difficult to categorize.

  3. I've just read a book called The Brain that Changes Itself. It lists several case studies to support the premise that the brain has plasticity and actually remaps itself based on the information it receives from the senses. None of this is new. The tests they did with young kids watching violent movies and then beating up a clown mannequin put in midst showed that everything we experience is going to change us in some way. That's why I try to be very discriminating with what I watch or read.

    1. Sharon: good plan; one is what one inputs, i guess....

    2. Sharon,

      I'm doing the same--careful screening of books and films. I just wonder what thousands of hours of TV violence has done to those growing up in the 60s and later.

    3. Mudpuddle,

      Someone once said that we are what we eat, and that should be expanded to we are what we experience.

    4. Fred and Mudpuddle: And as far as I'm concerned, there's so many wonderful things, books and certain shows or movies, as well as time with friends to fill our lives up with, it's not necessary. Life's too short to waste it with junk.

    5. Sharon,

      No argument there. My list of books and films to search out just gets longer and longer. I'm retired, and I don't understand those who fear retirement because they won't have anything to do.

  4. This sounds like a thought-provoking work from Benford. I've only read Timescape and thoroughly enjoyed his speculative ruminations in that novel. Should consider some more of his work.

    1. James,

      Timescape was an excellent work, probably the most realistic time travel story I've read.

      If you decide to read more by Benford, you might read his "Galactic Center" series. If you do, I would recommend reading them in order.

      I've posted comments on them if you want to get some idea of what they are about.

  5. This and its themes sound so interesting. Mass psychology is a fascinating, and an important subject. With that, I am not sure if controlled mobs would ever come close to working.

    I read some Benford years ago. I should give more of his works a read.

    1. Brian,

      I agree with you. If it's controlled, I don't think it's really a mob, but a group of people who are allowed to be destructive. Secondly, I don't think it will have a cathartic effect, for they may enjoy it so much they might want to go out and do it on their own.

      I have a number of posts on Benford's works, so you may want to check that out.

  6. 1. Most people don't think. 2. Some people are jerks. 3. Everybody is selling something. (Or wants your money.) I forget where I read this, but I think it helps explain much of life.

    1. Jim--yes, there are those around us, and I avoid them as much as possible.