Ruling the World: When Life Gets Gamed

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My talk at Lift 12 in Geneva, February 23, 2012.

Text of Ruling the World: When Life Gets Gamed

  • Ruling the Worldwhen life gets gamedSebastian Deterding (@dingstweets)Lift 12, Geneva, February 23, 2012cb
  • 1 Reality is borken, welcome to code/space
  • Let me start with a story in fact, two stories. 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 todocument that he had a job. To get a job, he needed a work permit. But to get a work permit, he needed to document he had anapartment. And the Prussian bureaucrats wouldnt make an exception for him. They stuck to the rules a bit like a computer, really. SoVoigt was caught in a loop.
  • So on October 16, 1906, Voigt puts on a Captains uniform, grabs a group of soldiers from the street, marches over to the townhall ofKpenick, and occupies it ...
  • and in the course, has his work permit signed and stamped. This stunt immortalized Voigt in German folklore as the Captain ofKpenick.
  • Fast forward to 2010. I was flying abroad form Germany, with a stopover at Schiphol airport.
  • For the first time, I tried out one of these new gimmicks a mobile ticket. All went well, until I switched my phone back on inSchiphol ...
  • and found that the QR code did not load it was stored online. And because of the roaming charges, I wouldnt dare switch mit WIFIon.
  • So I walked over to these ticket machines to print a replacement ticket. But I got none. The ticket machine informed me that the ticketunder my number was already drawn. I was stuck in a loop: The system did not foresee that someone might draw a mobile ticket, butthen need a paper replacement as well.
  • Fortunately, I could walk over to these people, who printed out another ticket for me so I could board in time. But on the plane, Istarted to wonder: What if they had not behaved like they did, but more like a Prussian bureaucrat? Like a computer? What if they hadbeen replaced by a computer, like so many other service people on the airport? And it dawned on me that this question extended waybeyond the airport. Increasingly, we live in a world ruled by computers.
  • You experience this every time you are stuck in an unnerving phone tree ...
  • or your ATM does weird things.
  • You experience it every time you buy something online and get recommendations what to by (actually, every time you use any web site).
  • Every time you drive on a highway and come by these automated traffic control systems that measure traffic and change speed limitsaccordingly.
  • I am of course not the first person to observe this. Matt Webb of BERG calls this The Robot Readable World.
  • HOW ALGORITHMS SHAPE OUR WORLDIn his Lift talk last year, Kevin Slavin tracked how algorithms shape our world.
  • HOW ALGORITHMS SHAPE OUR WORLDThe architects Kitchin and Dodge call this new world code/space. And The new aesthetic that James Bridle traces tomorrow isbasically the aesthetic expression of this code/space we live in today.
  • And then theres this thing here. Gamification.
  • What if we decided to use everything we know about game design to fix whats wrong with reality? Jane McGonigal reality is broken (2011: 7)This idea that we can put a game layer goals, rules, feedback systems over reality to fix it: to make it more fun, enjoyable,engaging.
  • HealthLike exercising.
  • EnvironmentOr saving fuel.
  • EducationOr learning.
  • ProductivityOr work.
  • LifeOr life itself. If you think about it a bit, gamification is the logical next step of the code/space: It takes this world of ubiquitious sensorsand algorithms we already live in to actively steer and change peoples behaviour.
  • Now I dont know about you, but to me, this sounds like one big 1950s Scifi What if? novel turned into a real-life experiment.
  • What if ... we let computers run our rule systems and put humans inside?What if we let computers run our rule systems, and then put humans inside? That is the question Id like to answer today, or better:report some preliminary findings.
  • 2 strange loops The messy art of handling exceptions
  • The first thing we find are exceptions. If you look at the Captain of Kpenick, or my mobile ticket: Both were exceptions; they were notforeseen in the rule system.
  • Exceptions are the ruleAnd if you ever wrote programs yourself, you know that exceptions are not exceptions: They are the rule.
  • The are the rule because the map is never the territory, and complexity can never be reduced: We can never foresee every edge case,and the more complex we make a model to include edge cases, the more interactions and complexities within our model we create, sothat the model itself starts to produce bugs, errors, exceptions.
  • This is something ecologists discovered when they tried to build ever-more complex models of ecosystems: At a certain point, makingthe model more complex and realistic decreased the power and quality of predictions it generated.
  • So what we always needed and always will need is a manual override: A human stepping in, making sense of the situation, and handlingthe exception. Which is what I did when I walked from the ticket machine to the service people.
  • Ever-more removedBut thats the thing: When we shift these systems into computers, the manual override becomes more and more removed from us. Youalready experience that every day when you interact with companies and end up in said phone trees. (Which is why there is a service likeGet Human to make the manual override accessible again.)
  • Ever-more black-boxedAnd increasingly, even manual override is inaccessible: I couldnt check or fix what business rule kept the ticket machine from givingme a replacement ticket. And even if I were a programmer and had source code access: The more complex and older these systemsbecome, the harder they become to fix or override.
  • Take Cobol: Cobol was the main mainframe language back in the days. According to one estimate, 90% of all global financialtransactions are still processed in Cobol. But all the programmers that ran these systems are retiring, and too few young people arelearning Cobol. So increasingly, our financial transactions are operated by computer programs we cannot fix or override because no-oneunderstands them anymore, and they are too mission-critical to stop, throw away and just start anew.
  • 3 of letter & spirit (No rule is ever explicit)Not only will rule systems always have exceptions: Rules are also never explicit. Rules alway