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Mulling: Governing Systems

Curated quotes/notes, mostly spun out of yesterday’s new posts from Ribbonfarm and The Last Psychiatrist.

 

I. Voight Against the Machine

First- A story told by Sebastian Deterding, one of my favorite no-bullshit games researchers and Gamification experts (and whom I will eventually talk about at length?) Most of Gamification is bullshit so I’ve been careful not to throw words around on it without a lot of hedging and explaining. Back to that someday.

In 1906, Friedrich Wilhelm Voigt, a con man, was released from prison.

Reformed, he actually wanted to become a good citizen. But he quickly ran into a problem: to get an apartment, he needed a document that he had a job. To get a job, he needed a work permit. But to get a work permit, he needed to document that he had an apartment. And the Prussian bureaucrats wouldn’t make an exception for him. They stuck to the rules- a bit like a computer, really. So Voigt was caught in a loop.

So, on October 16, 1906, Voigt puts on a Captain’s uniform, grabs a group of soldiers from the street, marches over to the townhall of Köpenick, and occupies it- and in the course, he has his work permit signed and stamped. This stunt immortalized Voigt in German folklore as the “Captain of Köpenick”. [lifted from spoken accompaniment to “Ruling the World” presentation]

The next step Deterding makes is an obvious one: any exception is an allowance, and thus all exceptions are part of the rules. He then talks about his own adventures stuck in computerized systems that couldn’t foresee and properly address his unique situation, leaving him stuck until he could fight his way through exception-making and reaching out for a human somewhere in the system.

 

II. “Last Psychiatrist” Author Does Her (His? Their?) Thing Re: Catching Fire

In fairness, “Hunger Games: Catching Fire” a movie I haven’t seen based on a book I’ll likely never read, but I did see the trailer. And c’mon, it’s not a German film, I’m sure the plot is familiar enough to assume. (I haven’t decided if this attitude is actually “okay”).

Number of people killed: 15
Number of people Katniss kills: 1
Number of times she is saved by someone else: 6
Number of times she saves someone else: 0

[…]

An insightful, even optimistic retort is that at least she’s not killing, at least she’s made the ethical choice to not kill anyone.

But this insight is exactly what you are supposed to think, it is an illusion, and it is why my tally above is also a lie.  She kills one person, but she is responsible for all of their deaths.  From the very beginning of the Game it was immediately true that everyone but one got killed.  From the very beginning, before anyone dies, you are guilty of  everyone’s death.

That’s the Game.  It’s not like they went in there thinking, “I’m not going to kill anyone because I am planning to escape this Game.” No one backed up their pacifism with suicide.   Katniss’s thinking is basically, “I’m not butcher, but I am going to try and survive.”    The movie elevates her passivity into a moral act, which it isn’t, that’s the trick.  This is a closed system.  Whether she shoots them down herself or waits for the psychopath in the group to do it for her, it’s the same. […]

The true criticism of the movie isn’t that it is too violent, but that it is not violent enough– it is Disney violence, and whenever you see the word Disney you should instead see “100% in the service of the existing social structure.”  The movie presents “not murdering anyone” as if it were a moral option, as if it were true; so that you are not revolted by the fact that you did kill 15 people; so that you do not fight to change the system that forces you to kill 15 people. […]

But in totalitarianism, there are no individual acts– that’s the whole point of the totalitarian structure, that’s what it wants, what it wants you to become. Your acts appear personal and individualized but conform beautifully, they are no threat. [source]

 

III. “Algorithmic Governance” by Sam Bhagwat, on Ribbonfarm

This new post introduces different flavors of the Network form of human organization [summary] as a solution to kludge and the organizational death-by-entropy problem with a slightly unfamiliar angle.(“One prominent example, McDonald’s, began development in the 1950s. Sometimes confused with a restaurant, this is actually a piece of licensed software 600 pages longwith a QA department, currently running around 14,000 instances in America.”)

 Moore’s Law has granted to 21st-century organizations two new methods for governing complexity:  locally powerful god-algorithms we’ll call Athenas [hedgehogs] and omniscient but bureaucratic god-algorithms we’ll call Adjustment Bureaus [foxes]

… the problem of “keeping the paper-pushers in line” is timeworn, complex, and vital. Rulers tend to deploy any and all tools available in a frantic battle against entropy.

“Bureaucracies ate Obama,” proclaimed one article, noting that crises blamed on the current president actually happened in the civil service five or six levels below. […]

In 2009, the president appointed prominent economist Cass Sunstein [author of Nudge– the book that coined “Libertarian Paternalism” into public lexicon, and Simpler– which I read this year] to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. The OIRA is in charge of “regulatory review,” ensuring regulations work as intended; essentially, the government QA department.

OIRA has 50 full-time personnel. It is outspent by other regulatory agencies by a factor of 7000:1.

Software may be designed to hide complexity, but can’t make it magically go away. There is no free lunch.

 

IV. Libertarian Paternalism

People live inside of complexes of designed and un-designed systems. Even without any single tyrant, day-to-day choices are already framed for us:

  • by our own biases and ignorance before beginning a negotiation or decision
  • by the interfaces and artifacts that present options to us [again with the functional and rhetorical affordances]
  • by our understanding of the choices available
  • by cultural expectations about what is desirable, what is acceptable, and what isn’t
  • by availability heuristic
  • by our perception of the significance of the decision
  • by time and energy pressures that might suggest to us to change our decision pattern.

Is it a moral imperative that people must deliberately and personally come to conclusions about what goods and services would best benefit them? Is it a weakening of our resolve or a threat to our freedom to be given non-imperative (transparent and explainable) nudges towards certain actions?

If you answered yes:

Is advertising tyrannical? Is advisement? Is peer pressure? Do there exist un-designed interfaces, or choices without defaults and arguments embedded in their representation? Are some other entities currently designing decisions unilaterally, and is that okay? Are “nudges” really categorically similar to “shoves”?

There are other, maybe more interesting concerns:

  • Is the Choice Architect so super-rational that we know his nudges are well-informed? (No, of course not.)
  • Will the Choice Architect attempt to design decisions that will especially benefit the Choice Architect? (Sure, expect it.)

These are reasonable concerns, and ones that can be measured and monitored. A decision that is promoted that is not beneficial ought to be 1) known to be the promoted option and 2) can be traced to a sub-optimal outcome.

To that end, smart Choice Architecture is:

  • Clear/Concise: Eliminate as much noisy, complicated rule-making as possible. Otherwise things will never work how you think they will.
  • Documented: Instances of Choice Architecture should be recorded and perhaps subject to review by other groups.
  • Incremental: Sweeping changes make it hard to see what in a change has worked.
  • Suggestive but not dictatorial: Bloomberg’s soda ban is not soft paternalism. It’s old fashioned, hard stuff. This is a constant misunderstanding by critics.

 

Another minor point about the politics of libertarian paternalism:

This way of thinking really is useful. But to be worthy of its name, “libertarian paternalism” must go farther than Brooks does in insisting on a bright line between enlightened defaults and paternalistic mandates with no opt-out.

As well, a true adherent of “libertarian paternalism” wouldn’t just focus, as Brooks does, on ways that government can increase its paternalism. The appeal of the philosophy is partly rooted in the respect it has for individual autonomy — the libertarian half of the name — and if we’re going to embrace the philosophy, various paternalistic policies ought to be made more libertarian.

I ought to be permitted to buy the light bulb of my choice if I seek it out and pay for its externalities; to smoke marijuana if I am fully aware of the health risks; to purchase only catastrophic medical insurance if my considered preference is paying out of pocket for routine doctor’s visits and minor procedures; and to buy raw milk and unpasteurized cheeses if that’s my thing.

In theory, libertarian paternalism would seem to present libertarian-minded Americans and paternalism-minded Americans with compromises that would leave both groups better off overall, and advance the common good. In practice, it often seems like advocates of libertarian paternalism want libertarians to countenance more paternalism without paternalists granting more liberties.

That’s no way to build a coalition.

 

V. Misc.

I was looking back through my post “That Vision Thing“, which I wrote before I read any Jaynes but now has a weird vibe with a Jaynesian reading.

I realized that I let November pass by without my college tradition of marathoning conspiracy theory movies. I feel horrible for turning my back on that activity. If anyone has some suggestions, by all means ping me. I prefer very high production quality, but I’ll take a huge range of batshit-ness of content.

Another thing I’m letting slip: Global Game Jam entrance date is upon us. I won’t be going back to Pittsburgh to win the old local one (it’s expensive to get there, the ends don’t justify it anymore really), and I’m not interested in doing it in NYC with strangers to be honest. Maybe I’ll jam out a little game with my girlfriend on the same weekend, instead.

2014 Book to look forward to: “The Gameful World“, by Steffan P. Walz and Sebastian Deterding (author of the part I quotes). In the meanwhile, “Manifesto for the Ludic Century” by Zimmerman and Chaplain and, curated by Chaplain, responses to the Manifesto from the industry/academics. (Note: Zimmerman and Katie Salen’s “Rules of Play” is one of the few probably-actually-canon books of “Game Design Fundamentals”);

“MIT Media Lab Tool Lets Anyone Visualize Unwieldy Government Data”

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