Happy Stanislav Petrov Day, everyone.
You’re probably aware that today we celebrate the actions—or rather, non-actions—of Stanislav Petrov, who decided not to fire nuclear missiles at the United States when he received an incorrect signal that the U.S. had launched against the Soviet Union.
We do have some bad news though, if you prefer your world free of nuclear strikes.
On September 22nd, 2018, Seattle initiated a nuclear strike against Oxford. . .
. . . OK, not really. Seattle struck Oxford in an online game designed to celebrate Stanislav Petrov and others who took actions to prevent nuclear war.
At previous versions of Seattle’s Petrov Day celebration, there was a red button present that, when pressed, would end the party. The problem with this, of course, is that nobody wants to ruin their own party..but given plausible reason and ability to do so, might willingly ruin somebody else’s party. A button that might actually get pushed carries a lot more weight.
Recognizing this, a couple of community members in Seattle whipped up a program to have mutually assured party destruction for Petrov Day. In the game you are told if the other party has launched and given time to retaliate if you so choose. Both parties successfully made it through several false alarms without nuking each other. It could be a testament to our general feelings of well being towards each other, and to lack of real incentive to nuke the other party–aside from protecting your own.
Parties agreed the game would end at 3:00 pm PST and if no one had nuked each other by then the parties would declare successfully surviving Petrov Day. A “Red Telephone” groupchat was set up in Facebook Messenger, in honor of the fabled Moscow-Washington Hotline. Partygoers in Oxford and Seattle used it to coordinate and show what they were seeing on their own end of the game.
Since Petrov Day is at its core a celebration of humanity’s continued existence, it is a happy occasion. The button game cuts this mirth with a healthy dash of gallows humor. Stakes of mutually assured party destruction involved throwing away the celebratory dessert if you were nuked in the game. These stakes are set to give people a sense of something that can be lost. Nuclear war is not something on the minds of most people most of the time and taking a day where we consider this risk seriously is a valuable reminder that we still live in a nuclear world post-Cold War.
One of the partygoers in Seattle pressed the launch button at -1 seconds. 1 second past the end time, they were assuming the game was over and enjoying the humor of an actually quite low stakes game. The server and the Seattle computer were slightly out of sync, so although the game appeared over from the Seattle end, it was not according to the server.
Oxford got the message we had launched, and there was a flurry of messages in the Red Telephone chat.
Oxford decided not to return launch. They certainly could have claimed game over and been socially safe, but decided to dispose of their celebratory cake and put out their fire anyway in the spirit of taking the game seriously.
There was a range of emotional responses on both sides from finding it humorous to finding it quite upsetting. One community member commented that at an event where we were instructed to be like Stanislav Petrov, we had failed in our one mission–not pressing the button.
On balance, I think it is ok that the button was pressed. This was part of the game and recognizing this risk is important for the game to have any stakes. I don’t think anyone should bear ill will to the button presser in question. It is also ok to have strong feelings about the button being pressed; there is value in feeling weight from decisions in a game that would be quite catastrophic if real.
- Our program was fairly simple. Even so, a technical issue occurred in the timing between server and computer. This and other glitches are quite common and the programs and protocols involved in controlling actual nuclear missiles are quite complex. Technical failure is a real risk and by most estimates, accidental nuclear war is much more likely than intentional. There’s also a humorous irony that even in a system with intentional glitches meant to set off conflict, the glitch that actually caused a strike was still an unintended one.
- Despite the continued presence of nuclear powers in the world, most of us who have grown up in the post-Cold War era have failed to internalize the real threat that nuclear weapons present. While Petrov Day always serves as a reminder of this, this dread of apocalypse that was such a common cultural thread until the 1990s, became more salient to those of us at the party than it had been previously. Successfully moving existential threats from System 2 thoughts to System 1 concerns is an important accomplishment.
- The Many Agent Problem: Even if it were never rational to launch nuclear weapons, the greater number of people that have access to launch, the greater the likelihood that someone will act irrationally and launch anyway. We had two parties with a lot of people, any of which could have pressed the button. The world has gone from 2 nuclear states to 9.
I ended up being quite glad things played out as they did. The people involved have considered these things more thoroughly, which is part of the purpose of Petrov Day. We can still be glad the world wasn’t ended and grateful to people like Stanislav Petrov and Vasili Arkhipov who helped prevent nuclear war. Let’s keep having Petrov Days and keep mutually assured party destruction as a feature of our celebration.
This comment from Crystal summarizes takeaways nicely.
“I think this is highly illustrative of the real point of Petrov Day, which is that we treat nukes way too lightly and make it far too easy to kill other humans even when no harm was intended on anyone’s part.”
Thanks for the editing help Florence Williams.