Creepy Game of Life

Every undergraduate in a science degree program has to develop some variant of Game of Life – in a programming 101 course. These – not very intelligent – life-forms on a checkerboard evolve by following very simple rules – ‘cell’ live or die, depending on its number of neighbors. The pattern is determined by the initial configuration on the board, so this is a deterministic universe. But this is not going to be a post on determinism or chaos.

As Wikipedia says, Game of Life has intrigued computer scientists, physicists, biologists, biochemists, economists, mathematicians, philosophers, generative scientists – so I hope I am addressing all my regular readers – if you are not sure about your tag, consider yourself a generative scientist.

[Voice from the future: This posts contains a bunch of broken links – please them yourself!]

Of course this is a follow-up to our meandering cross-blog thread(s) on education and gamification:
David E. Storey’s initial postEpic discussion on Dan Mullin’s blogMy random rantsDan’s update on ludic fallacy. Parallel universes: Maurice’s series of posts on distant education and Michelle on education and credentials / belonging versus fitting in.

We have discussed the impact of game-like motivation in education and the corporate world – my favorite example is using your Klout score in grading (or in screening job applications). Dan has argued – based on Taleb’s The Black Swan that

“…teaching students that education, corporate culture, and life in general is a big game to be played by a certain set of rules, may impart precisely the wrong lesson. The fact of the matter is that there are few predictable rules, and believing otherwise will make one more vulnerable to the black swan phenomenon.”

I have wholeheartedly agreed with his hypothesis that gamification makes people concentrate on hacking the system. Corporate systems focusing on meeting the numbers can result in the development of a parallel universe: In this world employees are obsessed with (or are forced to) making some traffic light icons in their score cards go green – applying whatever arcane magic. Ironically, this game could be given priority over serving real customers right now even if the score card in theory measures customer-orientation.

This quote from the article on Klout-based grading (in a Social Media for Reporters class) adds a new perspective:

“How is that possibly fair to students who are struggling to raise this arbitrary number that’s contrived inside a black box? It’s fair because it transforms the class from a workshop on button-pushing to an exercise in hypothesis testing, strategy and critical thinking. Students — who often approach grades with calculating economy of effort — don’t know what they have to do to boost their Klout scores, so they are forced to design simple experiments, isolate variables, and generalize their findings.”

So debugging and hacking is the goal, and it is not assumed that the underlying rules are based on simple probabilities. It is probably like grading in a hands-on lab IT security hacker class. As much as I – as a ‘hacker’ –  sympathize with this, I still feel uncomfortable – and I am not primarily concerned about grades; this is just a nice illustration.

David has introduced the archetypes of the Happy American Entrepreneur versus the Euro-Humanist, and I said I take the label Euro-Humanist as a badge of honor. I was reading Blaise Pascal at an age other teens were out to party – so I can’t deny my gloomy roots.

On the other hand I am a happy entrepreneur, at least since I ripped out my Borg implants.

Pondering about this apparent contradiction I came to the conclusion that this duality or tension I feel running through societies is not between happy gamers and gloomy deniers, but between genuine human beings and the systems they are components of. Humans turn to cellular automata. Some social systems have particular powers over individuals – we have discussed the Cult of Academia and the Cult of Corporate often – and systems can show emergent properties even if they are built on simple rules – such as the Game of Life.

I stick with the social media example even if it sounds trivial: The discrete nature of standardized (gamified) interaction on social media makes us act more bot-like:

I argue that what’s happening in Facebook and Twitter is the social production of patterns of discrete states of mind. That is, when we Tweet, fill in a profile, Like something, or comment, we’re contributing to aggregated datasets.

These limitations, coupled with the aggregated actions of millions of social media users, create a highly useful discrete-state machine: a machine I call the “social media confessional machine.”

So I conjecture that the introduction of gamified elements into ‘performance assessments’ is self-consistent with an evolutionary development of our digital society. Which does not mean that I like it.

  • Our digital social interactions become more bot-like and thus easier to predict, measure and aggregate.
  • Our real world becomes the digital world becomes a simplified Game of Life.
  • Hacking the system and understanding its rules becomes the key competence – of students and young professionals.

In Daniel Suarez’s high-tech thrillers (Thanks postmoderndonkey, for the pointer) the real world is transformed and infiltrated by distributed AI. In the beginning the reader is lured into believing this is your typical hack-cybersecurity-thriller. However, the seemingly evil system actually hacks and transforms people. Members of the cult-like social network Darknet use sort of Google glasses on steroids that allow them to overlay virtual dimensions to reality. People get used to judge others on their votes and reputation. The interesting twist in the narrative is related to the blurring distinction  between the good and the evil forces. But it is not a purely philosophical novel: If you don’t enjoy Bruce Willis’ action movies or like to read in detail about a hedge fund manager chipped into pieces by unmanned motor cycles equipped with rotating blades – don’t read it. Just don’t say that I didn’t warn you.

My theory is very simple and it is easy to puncture – I will do that myself.

I have started reading The Black Swan – thanks, Dan – and I will for sure get back to that book in several blog posts. It has hardly ever occurred to me that I wholeheartedly agreed with virtually any single statement in a book. Taleb is able to combine scholarly wisdom, Umberto-Eco-like knowledge of history (no wonder Taleb praises Eco in the first chapter), and slinging the corporate lingo in a virtuosic way while defying the logic of the ‘expert suits’.

Sorry, I digress. Taleb’s main hypothesis is that the history of humankind as well as our personal lives are strongly – if not solely – determined by the highly improbable and unpredictable. Our problem is not so much this uncertainly as the extent we deny it. No-nonsense experts in industrial control systems fully agree with his assessment, applied to so-called risk management methodologies – actually it was this book that pointed me to The Black Swan first.

In 2010 the business world as we know came to a halt in Europe when experts and politicians mitigated the risks of impact of Eyjafjallajökull’s volcanic ash cloud on airplane engines. The decisions taken by politicians were based on a computer simulation of the travelling cloud only. We live in a world that aims for perfect safety and security, under the illusion we can hedge all risks and make the probabilities associated with them exactly zero. Anybody who has ever worked under the surveillance, sorry: guidance, of total corporate quality management control [more buzz words] systems knows what I mean.

At the heart of gamification is our uneasiness with taking decisions on our on, highly subjective but bold, instead of relaying them to machinery. Better run the job application through the AI-style resumé checker than being accused of bias. Merge this with the superficial fun and the kick a game gives its players and you have a so-called win-win situation.

In a paradoxical way I predict that something unexpected will happen when the real world starts resembling the gamified overlay – and render my petty theory obsolete.

Probably a Cult of Resistance against Pervasive Technology and everyday gamification will arise. I have spotted a trend of people leaving Facebook or abandoning anything internet-y altogether. Or maybe technology itself will finally exhibit emergent characteristics of consciousness – but I think this is too clichéd and too much wished for counting as a Black Swan.

But if too many people like me start mocking gamification – probably the unexpected thing to happen is that the transformation will happen still, in exactly the way I have described it.

I am fully aware of remaining contradictions and unresolved points, but as Nassim Taleb I state that I prefer the opinionated essay, a personal narrative including inconsistencies, over scientific perfection (says me, the ‘scientist’).

23 Comments Add yours

  1. bert0001 says:

    Game theory … hacking the system … :-)
    Is there a game?
    I only see close encounters – exchanges of matter, feelings, mind and intuition.
    Mind like to be in control all the time, and some people really succeed to a certain corporate level at least, where they do the same job for 40 years. I wrote about this in my blog post choices. In the end, work and study is a kind of background, and whether this background is monotonous grey or psychedelicly rainbowish, it is just background. Who can control accidents, death and disease, love and hate?
    Isn’t it all about love and ‘close encounters’? like this blog is about exchanging ‘ideas’?

    1. elkement says:

      I don’t claim that reality is a game – I disagree with the concepts of gamification (mostly). I agree with Nassim Taleb on unpredictability and uncertainty and our lives being mainly determined by accidents. He considers Game Theory interesting, but useless mathematical exercises.

      I just feel that the introduction of technology-based tools and incentives resembling (simple, predictable) games into the workplace turns us into debuggers and hackers of the games. I have met many people, too, who were happy in corporate careers for decades. Many of them have articulated in some way – often verbatim – that they enjoy “playing the game”, including the (for me rather dreading) part of “hacking the system” in the sense of locating the underlying (il)logical rules, such as (just an example) how to get your expenses report approved earlier.

      1. bert0001 says:

        I seem to be in a different world on this subject. Work and Study has escaped from my main focus, unlike a lot of people who are desperate to ‘fit in’ and have a decent or well salaried job.
        But when pensioned, what is left of ‘that game’, what happens to life?
        For me work is play, not game. It has to be fun and ‘interesting’ whatever that means.

        1. elkement says:

          I agree, Bert. Right now I feel neither too impressed or impacted by gamification personally. I cannot rule out, however, that I would feel the pull of gamified systems again someday – despite all my ambitions as the most independent entrepreneur.
          I don’t think you need to be particularly greedy or conformist to find yourself in the middle of “systems” that seem to be run on strange rules. Probably my threshold is extremely low – for example I already consider “vendor management tools”, “bidding platforms”, “request for proposal processes” or the like rather unnerving games.

          But for the time being I just found it interesting to zoom in on gamification, and I enjoyed the cross-blog conversation on different aspects.

  2. David Yerle says:

    Could it also be that the tools we use to measure our online behavior also simplify it, making look more bot-like? That is, if we only count likes and retweets, we’re probably missing out on a lot that cannot be so easily quantified.

    1. elkement says:

      You are absolutely right, David! This is one of the aspects that freaked me out when I had to work / play with gamified corporate systems. Systems measure some easily accessible numbers, but these are not the best indicator of something like “customer satisfaction”. I believe we / those systems miss the essential properties.
      Today I have noticed that Facebook is offering their new icons. Now you don’t need to write “I am drinking coffee” but you can click on a coffee mug icon instead. I guess a lot of “lazy” users are going to use these icons and Facbeook can trace the users’ emotions more easily, but the sophistication is lost (I am not saying that many Facbook messages are sophisticated today, but they could be – in theory :-)).

  3. All I can think of in reply Elke is … ‘Think … the demise of the Dinosaurs and the rise of mammals.’ Who would have predicted this quirky change in fortunes. So, what I’m saying is that your hypothesis (if I understand it correctly) is absolutely correct. Models rarely take into account what really drives the direction of interconnected and highly contingent sets of events … the influence of chance and the unpredictable. D

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks Dave – I hoped for the biologist’s input here :-)
      Yes, that’s exactly the way I meant it but I am stealing from Taleb here anyway. I need to check again, but I believe he even mentions the extinction of the dinosaurs. If there would have been TV shows back then, they would have found an “expert” though who would have explained why you should have seen it coming based on the clues we did not interpret correctly. As it happens after every natural disaster, economic crisis, somebody “normal” running amok…

  4. Actually, most people I know who leave fb or hardly ever touch it do so because they feel it stupifies people. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. I left it because I don’t want to have to deal with all the stupid people there while the smart ones are mostly gone – haystack/needle problem. Maybe I should get a copy of the black swan book you mentioned. As a philosopher/economist/historian (dilletante) I feel it might widen my horizon

    1. elkement says:

      I understand – though or because I have entered Facebook just a few months ago (reactivating my dormant no-friends account). I say I start using it when everybody else leaves :-) As I said already in a rant-y comment on your blog, Facebook seems to amplify users’ hidden (?) desire to show-off. In addition it enforces the bot-like “I like yours / You like mine” behavior. I don’t exclude myself when criticizing FB users – you can’t escape social dynamics. I guess I won’t share this article on FB – but most user don’t won’t click away from FB anyway so nobody will find this comment :-)
      The Black Swan is awesome as Taleb is covering so many subjects. Above all, it is entertaining. And he rants about suits.

  5. Margie says:

    A Cult of Resistance – my husband often observes that the nature of human beings means that any attempt to get them all going in the same direction gives you the same result as if you were herding cats. I like the unpredictability of mankind. I like the rebels.

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks, Margie! I have seen some scientific papers (but couldn’t find the links any more) that actually proved that – that human beings in a crowd or herd become very predictable and can easily be modeled.

  6. danielmullin81 says:

    Profound stuff, Elke. I love the way you weave blog posts, discussion threads, fiction, non-fiction, and concrete examples together into this post. The internet and social media are definitely contributing to a gamified society and making it easier to aggregate, quantify, and predict our social and commercial interactions. We become more ‘bot-like’ as you put it. I’m always amazed how sites like Amazon can accurately predict what products might interest me based on my past browsing and buying habits. Also, the advertising in Facebook’s sidebar seems to be based on my ‘Likes.’ The targeted marketing is staggering. Perhaps in the near future, all advertising will be individualized in this way (I’m thinking of a throw-away scene in Minority Report). I’m sure marketers see this as an advantage of gamification.

    I’m wondering about the implications of gamification for our conceptions of personhood. One of the drawbacks, and the most oft-cited reason for ‘unplugging’ that the neo-Luddites offer, is that the pervasiveness of social media erodes our privacy. The question of what the ‘right’ to privacy means in the digital and surveillance age is a difficult one, but I understand the concern. There’s also the question of the effect this ‘game of life’ has on persons. The self becomes ‘extended’ through technology. We create online personae, artificial persons, in a sense. The idea of the fragmented and alienated self is a postmodern theme, but it really resonates in an era of avatars that we create online. Anyways, that’s my contribution to this particular ‘aggregated data set.’ :)

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I have once learned (It was even a management training, at times they were useful) that each system need specific sorts of outsiders / subversive elements to function, such as “Every very competitive system needs its losers”. Probably the gamified tech societies simply need the neo-luddites as their negative constituents or opponents. So we commenters of the postmodern are needed for entertainment maybe.
      I am also scared by amazon’s reviews and people you might know on LinkedIn – LinkedIn is particularly creepy, no idea how they make these connections.
      I have stumbled upon the book The Transhumanist Wager via David Yerle’s review: (Great blog, BTW) which might be interesting in relation to the extended self – including extensions in the literal, Borg-implant-like sense. It is also called a “philosophical novel” – I did not know that this is a genre already ;-)
      What I find intriguing and scary is so-called ‘Digital Legacy’. Parts of our online personas will remain on the internet – unmanaged, unattended – forever, unless we take precautions. There are companies specialized on that already, managing your passwords etc. I have often asked myself if this will change our perception of death and eternity in a profound way…or if social networks and internet providers will simply come up with new procedures (probably based on new laws) that makes online stuff part of a person’s legacy, put it on hold like a bank account or delete it. So you will die digitally, too.
      Probably it is just us over-thinkers who want a tech revolution to occur that has some philosophical impact – so we can write about :-)

      1. danielmullin81 says:

        The transhumanism angle is a fascinating one. Have you read any Ray Kurzweil or seen the documentary *The Transcendent Man*? These issues — bio-implants, AI, digitally mapped and uploaded consciousness — are all part of the discussion surrounding the extended self.

        It’s funny you should mention digital legacy. I’ve only recently become aware of this. I saw a documentary about a blogger who committed suicide — I don’t remember all the details — and a member of his family (sister maybe) took it upon herself to curate his digital legacy. A little closer to home, I had a mentor who was an early adopter of self-publishing online. This was long before blogging was a craze — he taught himself HTML. He passed away 5 years ago and his brother has taken over the responsibility of maintaining those archives.

        In these cases, family members stepped in to preserve their loved one’s memories online. However, as the need for this grows, I can see it becoming an industry. Maybe there will be digital legacy managers or curators in the future. It will become monetized and professionalized. Perhaps these professionals will also become a normal part of one’s passing, as common as funeral directors and estate lawyers. In our brave new world, who knows?

        1. elkement says:

          No, I have not read any Ray Kurzweil yet unfortunately – I need to catch up on loads of classical geek books!
          If I recall correctly I have seen websites of digital legacy managers already – I imagine this is interdisciplinary work with a technical, legal and ethical dimension.

  7. M. Hatzel says:

    I had never formally thought about gamification before encountering these discussions. You’ve brought a lot of thoughts into this post, and tied them up together with many interesting insights and questions.

    When I think about social media, I don’t feel it is a game for me, although I began using it as a social experiment, perhaps to ease my anxiety about what would happen in blogging. (If we approach life as an intellectual exercise we can sometimes feel more comfortable with the strange and new.) But I live fairly isolated from my intellectual interests in the real world, so blogging has become a fulfilling set of conversations that keep me sustained and happy, as I think is the case for many of us in the on-line world. I’ve been bringing others into these places of virtual coffee-house discussions and despite the initial anxiety of being “out there” and in “public” I notice their increasing comfort as well.

    Thus, I think you’re right… something unexpected will happen. I suspect that the rules of blogs and other social media will adapt to the demands of our human needs. In this week I’ve noticed several of the bloggers in my reader have changed their profile images, or shifted toward a different tone or stream of conversation. WordPress also launched a few new things, including a means of putting external blogs into our readers. It now feels like the category between party and professional has morphed into the conference social, where the conversation is guided by a shared collective interest in whatever we’re conferencing on, but more informal and personal… yet, we’re not on vacation, either. If that makes sense? It doesn’t quite fit with your post, but it kind of meets the standards of a metaphor. ???? :)

    1. elkement says:

      I agree to your approach to social media and blogging – this is probably one of those inherent contradictions between my rants and gamification and my sometimes excessive use of social media (I added the last paragraph to cover them all – disclaimer-style :-D ). Actually, I considered discussing my opinion about various social networks (and how I use them) at the end, but figured it would become too long and too convoluted. I also have not figured it out in a blog-post-ready way. I tend to say I distinguish between thoughtful social media or their thoughtful use of them and the bot-like confessional-state-machine behavior. On Facebook I feel more like a cellular automat – and their ads’ target audience, on I feel more like a human being – I would even say that WP lets me discover new layers of humanity within me.
      Your quasi-metaphor is great – I feel the same; I hope I understood it correctly. So-called professional and so-called private networks do merge. I am sharing my spam poems on LinkedIn, and more and more colleagues add me on Facebook – for example. All the conversations become similar, and they exhibit a new quality (–> emergent phenomenon?). But I am not sure if this can be generalized – this is also my conviction: I *want* all those conversation to be similar as I don’t distinguish between my private and public persona.
      What you say about bloggers changing pictures is scary – probably we are all influenced by a wave of posts, tweets etc. about profile pictures, online persona etc. – and we don’t even notice? I cannot recall a particular event that made me change it.

      1. M. Hatzel says:

        I think the conference metaphor can be morphed into however you understand it, as I don’t have a solidified vision of what it is. Because as you say, “I am not sure if this can be generalized.” But I too, feel more aware of my layers of humanity within. I value this.

        As for the pictures, I’m not sure how or why this is happening in a wave, especially since many of the changes happened in some of my more separated reading. I thought it was worth mentioning because it is interesting to see people “change” on-line. We see the same image for a period of time and then suddenly the face is different in some way. Quite different than regularly meeting the same person at work.

        It would be interesting to read your thoughts on the various social media. Lately I hear complaints about Facebook’s superficiality. I have two FB friends, and nothing at all on my personal account except my name and what others post there. I haven’t become involved with it except for a work-related experiment to learn how to set up and post on FB. I’d like to give Twitter a try, but I’m holding off until after the summer, to avoid being sucked into the vortex of a new toy. :)

        1. elkement says:

          I put a potential post about different networks on my mental could-blog-about list :-)
          Re the profile picture: It would be an interesting experiment to change the picture every day – in our near sci-fi-like future we can expect camera apps and scanners that will do just that in a convenient way, I guess.

  8. Hey Elke, another Taleb fan here. :>) Guess what, whan you finish that one you have to go on and read his new one, “Antifragile.”
    I have been reading more on gamification and have found a few good things–ones that go beyond the reward system.I have found some applications to education that teach in a problem-solving sort of way and like what I am seeing. An upcoming blog post will expand on this.

    1. elkement says:

      I had even considered reading Antifragile first, but then I thought I need to know the classic before. Antifragile is on my to-be-read list! I am looking forward to your post and gamification:-)

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