Disruption and the Danger of Dusty Ideas

A few months ago I was invited back to my alma mater, Western University, to speak at the Richard Ivey School of Business. This was the first time I spoke about epistemology and business strategy, in the context of disruption or otherwise. The talk went very well.

Facebook thinks you’re trash

Facebook thinks your friends–and by extension, you–are garbage. How else do you explain Facebook Messenger’s Chatheads?

But first, a little background.

In two very real ways, thinking is embedded in software. First and most obvious is the code.

The second way is more subtle. In software, our behaviors are constrained by the interface. We are forced to act however the interface makes us act: if you want to save, simply saying “hey computer save my document” is no good. You have to hit CTRL-S, which is kind of an arbitrary behavior, yet we do it all the time.

This is the second way thinking is embedded in software: it makes us behave in new ways. When an app has a share button that only lets you send an email, it reinforces the idea that email is the best (or only) way to share something.

So this brings us to Chatheads. What behaviors is Chatheads creating or  reinforcing in us by virtue of it’s design?

Well, that our friends are garbage. Almost literally:

If a friend messages you, their face appears as a floating icon above whatever app you’re currently in. You tap on the icon to expand the conversation as an overlay without leaving your app, then close it and quickly return to what you’re doing. It’s fast, it’s easy, and it’s convenient. Here’s Mark Zuckerberg explaining it:

But it’s when you’re done with the conversation that things become problematic. To quote Zuckerberg verbatim: “And most fun, when you’re done with them, you just throw them away.”

It’s a gesture we’re all unconsciously very familiar with: it’s tossing something in the garbage. And why do you toss something in the garbage? Because it’s of no interest or value to you anymore.

This might not seem important, but it is.

Facebook is the dominant social platform: it  intermediates many of our relationships, and in so doing, impacts them. Facebook Chatheads is a very polished and functional application. It’s where Facebook’s interface design is going.

The problem is the thinking embedded in Facebook’s design philosophy: that the people we talk to are disposable.

That’s not how I feel about many of my friends, but it’s how the software forces me to behave.

What’s really scary is how quickly you get used to it, and how it really is fun. When someone you don’t like pops up on your screen, you just toss them in the trash and they’re gone. It’s very gratifying. The software isn’t helping us to be more social, it’s teaching us to enjoy being casually dismissive of “friends.”

Is this really how we want our software to shape our thinking? Is this really the best that a sixty billion dollar company can do?

If you liked this post, check another piece I wrote, The Danger of Dusty Ideas, which informs a lot of the thinking at play here.

An Unexpected -ism

Žižek’s model of ideology is lovely. He uses Donald Rumsfeld’s known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns model, expanded to reflect unknown knowns, to situate ideological knowledge relative to other categories of knowledge. An unknown known is something you don’t realize you know, or something that you act as if you believe, despite not consciously or actively entertaining the belief. This works intuitively but is difficult to think of in concrete terms.

Industrialist and all-around badass Elon Musk approaches the same problem from another angle, and argues that most people argue by analogy: they take familiar solutions and processes and tweak them to suit their needs. This helps: unknown knowns are the guiding thoughts that are embedded in processes which get uncritically copied. A problem is solved using the best available thinking and tools of the day, that solution works famously and so becomes the standard. People come along and rather than solve the problem anew, they accept the existing solution at face value. At the same time they accept and perpetuate the thinking embedded in it, resulting in them acting as if they believe that thinking is still the best. This, as Žižek often says, is ideology at its purest. This is also how racism and sexism work: we all profess and believe that we are not racists or sexists but we’ve inherited a set of behaviors that are often indistinguishable from the behaviors of the racist and sexist. But as a privileged white man those topics aren’t really my best domain. Videogames on the other hand, kind of are.

Videogames are the next generation of narrative. While good storytellers are dynamic and can tweak details to their audience, books cannot (apologies to the six remaining fans of choose your own adventures). Videogames up the ante substantially. Fallout 3 and New Vegas, in particular have added a dynamism to storytelling that I’m not sure I’ve experienced otherwise. But that’s neither here nor there.

Videogames, like everything else, are inherently ideological. But games are interesting because their ideology is made much more tangible. As rigidly and explicitly designed systems, it’s easier to point and something and say it’s an ideological relic. Games also necessarily demand action and behavior from their users, and so by beating the game the user is forced to behave in a way that is consistent with whatever ideology is designed-in.

A few examples:

Health. For most of games health was a point system. You had 100 points and when you got to 0 you were dead. You could pick up health to replenish your state blah blah blah. This was the defacto standard, all games behaved in this way. Then Halo came along and offered a new solution, regenerative health. Then all games stole that and it became the standard. Now the standard is a mix of the two. You have shields that regenerate, but once they’re down you have a fixed amount of health. This has become the dominant ideology of health. It matters. Jonathan Blow on why:

Playing [Bioshock] Infinite, I realize that Halo-style recharging shields are actually a huge mistake in shooter design. But all shooters use them now. Since people are going to ask: There are two problems; one is about emotional pacing, one is about gameplay crispness and fairness. With shields, you are always doing okay in the medium and long term. They low-pass filter the emotional high of surviving a tight situation. You can have a tight situation on the order of 10 seconds, but not on the order of 5 minutes, which matters more. The crispness problem is: In order to provide difficulty, designers now have to overwhelm your shields all the time, which means designing situations that are spammy (get hit from all directions so you can’t process what is going on). These are confusing and not fun. These feel messy to play but they happen all the time because they have to. Or, like Infinite does, have super attacks that take away all your shields at once *and* 1/3 of your health, which feels steeply unfair.

Blow, thoughtful as he always is, hits the nail on the head. There’s an ideological decision for game design that’s been inherited because it’s the industry norm, and doing so has a negative impact on the pacing and emotional experience of the game. For games that are glorified skinner boxes, like Borderlands 2, the most thankless and unpleasant gaming experience I’ve been subjected to in recent time, the recharging shield mechanic is consistent with the game’s overall agenda. But for a piece of narrative art like Bioshock Infinite, we can probably do better.

Death. Once health hits zero, death comes, usually as a punishment. In Mario you’d lose a life. If you lost too many, you lost the game. This was the prevailing ideology for quite some time and like point-based health, it had consequences that manifested in the gameplay. Situations needed to be studied before solutions could be attempted. But then Prince of Persia: Sands of Time and Braid came along and made explicit (and controllable) the prevailing ideology that  in-game death had been completely destigmatized. Dying, repeatedly, was simply a part games. Now game designers are unafraid to use in-game death as a piece of feedback in the form of a gentle slap. Sometimes it works really well, like in Portal and Portal 2, where failure often results in a hearty laugh. In Borderlands 2 it allows for sloppy and frustrating boss fights that have getting killed, repeatedly, as part of the seemingly necessary path to victory.

Story. Games do have stories, it’s just that most of them are really shitty, and are produced by Elon Musk’s arguing through analogy process. As Anita Sarkeesian rightly points out, there are a number of very lazy and fundamentally sexist tropes that are built into the stories of the games we play, many of them templated on Mario which is itself a very simplistic damsel in distress plot. This is very lazy writing that’s fundamentally disempowering to women. Again, this simplistic plotting is inherited by many games, unquestioningly, and reinforces shitty archetypes.

Points. Also completely ideological, both their design and the desire they elicit. Designers act as if they believe points in some way add value or context to the games they make and users act as if points are something worth desiring. Both are mistaken, but in a mutually reinforcing way.

And so on. This list is incomplete.

Games are really interesting from an ideological perspective because their use necessarily requires action (or behavior) on the part of the consumer in such a way that watching a television show or movie, or reading a book, do not. Because the consumer of the media is made to act, they are necessarily acting in-line with whatever ideological decisions the game designer knowingly or unknowingly baked into the product. The same is true of all software broadly, it’s just that games are more fun to write about than spreadsheets or word processing suites.

We’ve always had interactive systems, but never systems that can be so personalized and so interactive at such a scale. It seems well worth looking at the thinking invisibly embedded in them and the impact it might have on our worldviews and our enjoyment of these new systems.