Spectator Democracy's Last Gasp for Air

A frenetic take on what's going wrong with democracy. Living like Pharaohs. And some stuff on rediscovering yourself after the pandemic.

Hi friends 👋🏽 ,
Welcome back to Between Black and White, a monthly newsletter that challenges binary thinking by embracing complexity, with a focus on politics and society.
First up, an apology. I didn’t write to you last month as promised. But I hope you’ll forgive me. After nine months of lockdown and personal crises, I took a break. I made a few trips across the UK, got double vaccinated and turned 31. My sister said my 30th year would be the best one yet. She was wrong. It was actually the hardest (explanation here). But looking back, I’m certain it was one of the most important years of my life.
Apology and explanation out of the way - let’s get to it.
I’m tired of politics. It’s a strange thing to write for someone who publishes a newsletter about politics. But I’m guessing many of you feel the same.
Here in the UK, our politics is defined by empty slogans, short-term fixes and the so-called “culture wars.” No-one seems to asking the bigger questions about what progress actually looks like and how we can make it happen.
It’s tempting to blame our politicians. But they are a symptom of a democratic system that isn’t working. The conditions that allowed it to once work have been shattered. This month’s piece unpacks some of what I think is going on. While I write from the UK, I’m confident aspects of the picture I paint will resonate no matter where you are based.
For new readers, a caveat. It’s a different style to how I usually write. If I’ve done my job, you’ll arrive at the end of the piece like Frodo clinging on to the cliff inside Mount Doom. Rest assured, it’s the first piece in a much more hopeful and substantive series exploring what the future of democracy might look like (you can see some of the other questions I’m exploring here).
You can read the piece below or click here to read it directly on my website.
After the piece, I share the usual medley of my latest thinking. This month, I touch on the carbon cost of innovation and sustaining personal change in a “post-pandemic” world.
As ever, do get in touch if you have any thoughts. I love hearing from you.
Sunil

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Spectator Democracy’s Last Gasp for Air


This piece is inspired by Walter Lippman’s seminal books, Public Opinion and The Phantom Public, both published in the 1920s. He argued that ordinary people - a “bewildered herd” - were incapable of guiding democracy. His concern wasn’t that ordinary people aren’t intelligent enough to make public policy decisions; it was whether an ordinary person could ever know enough to choose intelligently. Because of this, Lippman called for a “specialised class” made up of “responsible men” to lead our democracies.

In most of our democracies, there are two roles.

The Responsible Men who do the thinking, planning and the do-ing in the common interest. And yes, they are, sadly, typically men.

Then there’s most of us: The Bewildered Herd. Our role is to spectate.

Every so often The Bewildered Herd will be called to the stage to endorse The Responsible Men. But then the Herd must leave the stage.

Spectators but not participants. Mostly passive rather than active. 

We want, need, and are used to this old bargain.

We want reassurance that someone else is in charge, even when it's clear no-one is.

This so-called spectator democracy, where Responsible Men represent interests of The Bewildered Herd, has sometimes been called representative democracy.

We’re used to divisions of labour of this sort as we live in a culture where outsourcing is the norm. In fact, we excel at creating systems which do things for us without us actually knowing how they work.

And depending on where you lived, this system worked for a while. In post-WWII Europe, there was a semblance of economic growth and cultural stability.

But while it seems we still live in a spectator democracy, the conditions that enabled this division of labour have broken down.

Buffered by the confluence of globalisation, tech-fuelled individualism, and the diminishing role of the nation-state, society is atomising to the point where it has become near impossible to articulate a shared narrative that binds The Responsible Men and The Bewildered Herd together as in the past.

With The Responsible Men no longer able to control information, everything is dispersing, fragmenting, and becoming more complex at a higher velocity than ever before.

The Bewildered Herd used to be told what the important news was and what to think about this news. The legitimacy of The Responsible Men was dependent on this near monopoly on information.

But in a now familiar story, technology came along and flipped the status quo over, giving everyone the power to see multiple clashing realities—whether they wanted to or not.

Now there are seemingly infinite issues to be bothered about. And the issues are matched by almost limitless analysis.

It’s as if someone has turned on both taps in the bath. And where we had hot and cold, we instead have issues and analysis. The taps have been left on, the bath’s overflowing, and the house is flooded. This metaphorical house is our mind and our societies.

The medium is the message and the medium keeps evolving relentlessly: newspapers to radio to television to Twitter to TikTok. With each incarnation, the space for nuance narrows further as character-limited algorithmic engines tube feed everyone a different version of reality. 

Overwhelmed by the scale of the challenges before them, The Responsible Men struggle to govern. Martin Luther King may have been sure that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice, but it remains straight in part because The Responsible Men have no ability to shape it to their will.

Politics has become a reactionary dream. The Responsible Men are forever ambulance chasing, creating grievances amongst The Bewildered Herd or letting existing ones fester rather than working to prevent them from appearing in the first place. 

We’re still spectators, but now we’re angry spectators. 

Implicit within the idea of spectator democracy is the idea that you can switch off sometimes and leave it to those in charge.

But the herd can no longer switch off or turn away with ease anymore.

When Holby City, a hospital soap based in the UK, announced that it was ending after more than two decades, the creators said it was difficult to make a medical drama in the time of Covid-19. “Too much Covid and viewers would be getting more in the evening of what they were dealing with all day.”

A similar process has happened to our politics. Politics is no longer limited to the six or ten o'clock news. Because of the failures of the Responsible Men and the information tsunami, it dominates and bleeds across our whole existence.

Climate change. Inequality. Fake News. Brexit. Nuclear Weapons. AI. Pandemics.

Existential crises multiply. Histories that we were told were great are now problematic, symbols that were once eternal now lack foundations.

Many—if privileged enough to be able to do so—switch off. Others throw their hands in the air and beg for something different. Some take refuge in nostalgia and yearn for a romanticised past.

A hardy few try to stop spectating and take the knee, but they are dismissed for engaging in futile “gesture politics.” Duly infantilised, they feel tempted to plod back to the herd. 

Whatever the coping strategy, we’re all stuck watching endless episodes of Friends on E4, except it’s “Everything is Broken and Worse Than It Used to Be.” Over and over again, 24/7.

This reality is a little bit sickening and the Responsible Men know this. Their dream is to somehow make it back to the 20th Century.

Flummoxed by their failure of imagination or crushingly self-aware of their limitations, they play a knowing game with us – one we’re complicit in.

The game is called Let’s Pretend. 

They say, “Let’s Pretend things are like they used to be.”

“Let’s Pretend we can pull these levers and things will happen.”

“Let’s Pretend we can still control the agenda.”

Enough of us are discombobulated by reality and say, ok, let’s play.

We’d rather fight phony wars and recite slogans instead of asking and answering the questions that do matter.

Aided by their spin doctors, the Responsible Men start feeding us storylines.

“Take Back Control”

“It’s Time To Level Up”

“Make America Great Again”

“Yes We Can!”

Occasional pork barrel politics aside, these storylines are mostly decoupled from actual delivery.

The Bewildered Herd still laps it up. It doesn’t matter if we are for or against the storyline. All that matters is that there is a storyline. A digestible storyline.

Too much awareness of complexity, much like too much awareness of death, is a recipe for paralysis, for anarchy.

Unreality is easier to handle than reality.

But deep down we know something’s not right. 

We need to stop watching. 

But how do we stop? 

How do we stop being spectators?


Curious about the answers to these questions? This is the first in a series of articles that will seek to answer what the future of democracy might look like. If you haven’t already joined, sign up here to get my articles in your inbox.

Thanks to Chris, Dani, Jordan, Jeremiah, Joel, Josh, Larry, Richard, Rob, and Shimon for feedback on this piece.


Things I’m Thinking About

Can We Keep On Living Like Pharaohs?

In 300BC Pharaoh Ptolemy had a smartphone of sorts. It was called the Library of Alexandria. With the stated aim of having a copy of every book in the world, it was home to 500,000 papyrus scrolls. Instead of Siri and Alexa, Ptolemy had 100 scholars from different fields who could navigate the library and answer any question he had.

I came across this barnstormer of an analogy in Covid-19 Has Exposed The Carbon Cost of Innovation.” The author, Gabriel Davies, traces how papyrus scrolls, scholars and oil lamps gave way to digital files, search engine algorithms and LEDs, with the costs of each between 100,000 and 1 trillion times cheaper today than they were in Ptolemy’s time. Now many of us have powers once limited to Pharaohs in our pocket. Such progress has occurred due to fossil fuels as much as human ingenuity.

Today, we urgently need carbon-free technology in almost every industry. But according to Davies, there isn’t enough being invested in research and development to make this happen.

I opened the newsletter by arguing that leaders in the UK don’t seem to be asking the bigger questions about what progress looks like and how we can make it happen. Covid-19 caused the greatest global recession since WWII and the largest ever annual decline in carbon emissions.

So here’s one of those bigger questions we need to be answering: how can we transition to an economy that isn’t dependent on fossil fuels?

Sustaining Positive Changes Made During The Pandemic After The Pandemic

Someone wise recently told me they were looking for a partner who is “somewhere between past you and future you.” It really stuck with me as it captured some of the tensions that I’ve been feeling as I’ve emerged from the lockdown. Let me try and explain:

There is nothing new about working out who we are. We’re all doing it all the time. But the pandemic was a pretty severe rupture in our ways of living. At least for me, it means the distinctions between the different versions of myself are perhaps sharper than they ever have been.

My ten cents: I fundamentally believe that most human beings have poor willpower. Positive change comes from intentionally engineering our environments, with a focus on place, people, and purpose. The lockdowns forcibly reengineered our environments. Now as we emerge, the tricky part is to work out how to maintain positive changes in old environments. So I’m somewhere between past me and future me. I’ll keep you posted when I find now me.


Things I’ve Read

My monthly roundups of articles I’ve read and enjoyed. Click on the tweet below to check them out 👇🏾


Video of The Month

This is a seminal video from 2010 that I watch every year. The key message is this: creativity is a collective endeavour not the result of heroic individualism. Led Zeppelin shamelessly pilfered songs from elsewhere. Star Wars contains scenes from other movies. Even evolution is a remix! And consider my piece I just shared with you. It is influenced by Walter Lippman, Noam Chomsky, this tweet and this article. As the video proclaims: everything is a remix!

Thanks for reading this month’s edition of Between Black and White. What did you think? Hit reply, I always love hearing from you.

The Greatest Sporting Miracle

Remembering the best days of my life. How to disagree. And some stuff on culture wars and football.

Hi friends 👋🏽 ,
Welcome back to Between Black and White, a monthly newsletter that challenges binary thinking by embracing complexity, with a focus on politics and society.
Football had a bit of a moment this past month, jumping from the back pages to the front pages, when twelve of Europe’s biggest clubs announced their intention to form a breakaway European Super League. The episode showcased the rampant capitalism that is now interwoven into football’s DNA.
So at a moment when football’s ugly side is on parade, I thought I’d write about what football means to me.
Five years ago, my football team, Leicester City won the English Premier League. It’s regarded as the greatest sporting underdog story ever. Famously, the bookmakers odds of us winning the league were 5000/1 - supposedly the longest odds ever paid out on a single event, in any genre, ever.
This is my story of what it was like to be a fan that season. And ultimately, it’s a story about what football can be at its best.
You can read the piece below or click here to read it directly on my website.
Today, I’m also sharing a medley of my latest thinking on disagreement, culture wars and why football matters. I’m also debuting my micro-video series, “One Word Conversations.”
As ever, do get in touch if you have any thoughts. I love hearing from you.
Sunil


Things I’m Thinking About

How to Disagree (Online)

Last month, I wrote about futarchy, a form of governance where speculative markets are used to decide what policies to adopt. Unexpectedly, the creator of futarchy, economist Robin Hanson, took issue with what I wrote and penned a rebuttal.

If I’m honest, it unnerved me! I realised that I’m more uncomfortable with disagreement - especially in public - than I’d originally thought. Why? Well for one, I’m a people pleaser. But I also think our “on the one hand X, on the other hand Y” education systems discourage bravery of thought.

We need to get better at disagreeing - even seeing it as a skill to nurture, as Ian Leslie has argued. This is why I love writing so much. It instills an existential humility as gaps in your thinking are continually revealed. And like an archaeologist gently dusting off their find, the very act of writing gradually unveils your own perspective.

So this was a good experience. I got to practice how to disagree online. Check out the whole thread by clicking 👇🏾

Do Culture Wars Matter? And What Really Shapes Our Culture?

I’ve been doing some more thinking in public about culture wars prompted by an article by Dominic Sandbrook. He argues that far from being a distraction, culture wars are in fact, “the substance of politics, and always have been.”

It was a take that made me reflect on an observation that I made in the last edition of this newsletter. Namely that, "so much of the controversy in our politics seems to be needlessly manufactured at the moment."

You can check out my work in progress thinking by clicking 👇🏾

As soon as I wrote this thread, James Stafford penned a brilliant article, “The idea that Labour lacks patriotism is nearly as old as the party itself.” It does a good job of reframing how criticisms of the UK actually reflect a deep-seated belief and optimism in this country’s ability to renew itself:

MirrorMirror, On The Wall — Who's The Fairest Of Them All? Clue: Not Football

If you care to look, football is the closest thing we have to collective mirror - revealing the cultural, economic and political anxieties, contradictions and fault-lines that exist in our country.

And just like the magic mirror in Snow White that tells the Evil Queen unpalatable truths that she cannot bear to hear, when we look, we don’t always like our reflection.

At first glance, it’s a positive image, with accolades raining down on the English Premier League. The most watched league. The most valuable league. An all-English Champions League final. And it’s cosmopolitan, with sixty-two different nationalities represented amongst players and the best managers from around the world.

But take a closer look.

Eighteen out of twenty English Premier League clubs are now owned by billionaires. The result is that most football clubs are consigned to a perpetual Never Never Land, where they have no hope of reaching the top because they don’t have the resources. And even fans of these wealthier clubs are unhappy, with questions abounding about who their clubs truly belong to. Technology in the form of “video assistant referees” (VAR) is also dramatically changing the game beyond recognition.

So for all of the success, we’ve ended up with a national game where many fans feel the odds are rigged against their team, while others feel detached from the clubs they support.

Football’s current malaise matters.

For vast swathes of the population, it brings concerns about how capitalism, globalisation and technology work to life with a viscerality and immediacy that can be lacking in other spheres of life.


Things I’ve Read

I’ve started doing roundups of articles I’ve read and enjoyed. Click on the tweet below to check them out 👇🏾


Video of The Month

Ok. I cheated. This is a shameless self-promotion. I’ve been learning how to make videos and I’ve started a new series called “One Word Conversations.” I’ve noticed I rarely watch videos till the end, so these are micro videos in which I share personal reflections prompted by a single word. According to psychologist Adam Grant, “languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness.” It resonated with me when I read about it. If you are intrigued, check out Austin Kleon’s brilliant rebuttal, “I’m Not Languishing. I’m Dormant.
I also made a video about “ Remembering.” I ask: what happens to grief when the lockdowns end? You can check it out here.

Remembering The Greatest Sporting Miracle

I know what it’s like to experience a miracle. 

It happened on May 2nd, 2016 at Stamford Bridge in West London.

Chelsea were playing their arch-rivals Tottenham. Second place Tottenham needed to win to prevent my team, Leicester City, from winning the Premier League.

I hadn’t actually planned on watching the game live especially given Leicester weren’t actually playing. But by coincidence, I was going to dinner round the corner from Stamford Bridge, where the game was being played. 

My friend was puzzled. “Why aren’t you going to the game? It’s the biggest game in your club’s history!” 

It wasn’t a hard argument to resist and I soon found myself walking down Fulham Road asking people randomly if they knew where I could buy tickets. 

Before long, I was ushered to a street corner where I told two men I wanted one ticket for the game. 

“How much money to do you have?” one of them said. 

“£100,” I replied.

“Not a chance! This is a big game. Tickets are £150, £200.” 

I imagine I looked somewhat disappointed because one of them spoke. “Why should we sell you a ticket at that price?” 

I shuffled nervously for a few seconds before opening my jacket and revealing the Leicester City shirt that was underneath.

Now knowing my allegiance they smiled, snatched my £100, and within seconds I was being marched towards the stadium. 

“Today, we’re all Leicester City fans,” one of them beamed.

As I was taken into the stadium I was somewhat nervous to see my seats were in the Shed End. I was sandwiched between Chelsea fans, who had no love for Leicester City (and vice-versa), and Tottenham fans, who, at least for this evening, were the sworn enemy.

My shirt was once again hidden away beneath my jacket. My neighbours knew though and gently smiled.

This was it!

After 22 years of being a Leicester City fan. I was within touching distance of the greatest moment of my life as a football fan. No matter how many years came after, this was undoubtedly going to be the pinnacle.

Except it didn’t quite go like that.

The half hour mark came and Harry Kane opened the scoring for Tottenham. And then just before half-time Son Heung-Min tapped in a second.

The footballing gods had grabbed the remote control and pressed pause. 

I started thinking ahead to Leicester’s game at Everton. That would be where the most unlikely title race in history would be decided.

I justified the turn of events: perhaps it was right that we were meant to win the title on our home turf and because of our own actions.

But my racing mind was stopped by the arrival of the second half.

It was a feisty match. It seemed like every few minutes players were squaring off with one another. So much so that the game actually became known as “The Battle of Stamford Bridge.” The stats bear this out. An incredible 12 yellow cards were dished out compared to the average of just over one per game.

The first sign the miracle was back on the cards came around the fifty-eight minute mark. Chelsea’s defender Gary Cahill stabbed home Chelsea’s first goal during a corner. To slightly paraphrase Gandalf, hope was kindled.

Chelsea were in the ascendancy. 

At this point, my neighbour told me not to worry and take off my jacket to reveal my Leicester shirt.

A kind interpretation is that they wanted me to feel free to express my footballing identity. The other interpretation is that I had become an unofficial mascot, a tool to wind up the Spurs fans sitting only metres away.

Five years later, what lingers in my mind is the silkiness of Eden Hazard.

At 21:44, I remember him dancing past three Spurs players near the halfway line, laying off the ball and improbably ending up in space just in front of their box. 

He charges into the box anticipating the ball. As it comes towards him, he winds his right foot back at an angle before striking the ball.

Everything about his movement is the embodiment of footballing perfection.

The ball spins into the top right hand corner of the Spurs goal.

Cue pandemonium.

I don’t actually even put my arms in the air in celebration. Instead a lot of grown men jump on me. My glasses are on the floor somewhere.

I’m helped to my feet and everyone is shaking my hand, smiling. It’s almost as if for these few minutes I’ve become a proxy for the entirety of Leicester City.

People are shaking my hands. Taking pictures with me. They sing, “there’s only one Ranieri,” in honour of Leicester’s soon-to-be title-winning manager who once led Chelsea.

Near the end, I’m hoisted on to someone’s shoulders. Everyone around me sings and points, “Leicester City we’ll win it for you.”

Even though they aren’t singing my name, basking in the warmth of the crowd, I imagine this is what dictators and gladiators of time past must have felt like when they are feted.

After the game, I’m continually mobbed as I walk back to my friend’s house. Another Leicester fan at the game runs into me screaming with joy. I also collide into some unhappy Spurs fans. But before anything happens, a bunch of Chelsea fans have formed a protective phalanx around me.

First, the impossible became possible. And, that night, the possible happened. 

The team I started supporting aged four years old after my uncle took me to my first Leicester City game have won the Premier League.

I'm hooked. Show me the rest!

Politics With Skin In The Game

Hi friends 👋🏽 ,
Welcome back to Between Black and White, a monthly newsletter that challenges binary thinking by embracing complexity, with a focus on politics and society.
I've spent the month exploring futarchy, a type of governance which uses speculative markets to decide what policies to adopt.
While I'm not definitely not an advocate of futarchy, I was drawn to write about it because I'm interested in how new technologies can provide us with the means to reimagine our governance. Because as historian James Burke observed, “we live with institutions that were created in the past, using the technology of the past.”
You can read the essay below or click here to read it directly on my website.
Today, I’m also debuting my “Things I’m Thinking About” section. It’ll showcase some of the best thinking I’ve come across and provide some bitesize analysis to go along with it.
As ever, do get in touch if you have any thoughts. I love hearing from you.
Sunil


Things I’m Thinking About

Manufacturing Controversy

On March 25th, a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad was shown in a class at Batley Grammar School. It sparked protests outside the school gates, while the teacher responsible was suspended. If you read the media coverage, you'd think that freedom of speech was under threat in the UK.

Except I don't think it was.

An excellent thread (link) by Jon Yates, author of forthcoming book, Fractured: Why our societies are coming apart and how to put them together again, highlights how the reaction was more about about signalling who we are (and aren't) and what we respect, rather than freedom of speech.

I don’t know what it was about March. Starting with Harry and Meghan's interview, we've been subject to events that we were told were highly significant. In reality, they were anything but. So much of the controversy in our politics seems to be needlessly manufactured at the moment. The recently released Sewell report on race relations in the UK is the latest example. As I wrote last year:

There is a childlike quality to our politics. We are shouting because they are shouting.

I have a theory that we secretly love moments where we can take on unnuanced viewpoints, egged on by media, in part because opportunities to do so are rare in our complicated world. We do so comfortably because we know deep down, that the stakes - at least for many of us - are in reality, low to non-existent. What do you think?

Future of Work = New Divides?

I'm thinking a lot about the future of work. Here's a recent thread of mine:

A History of Empire

I’ve been delving into Indian history this month sparked by Jason Hickel’s gripping book, Less Is More, in which he notes that between 1765 and 1938, over £32 trillion was siphoned out of India into British coffers. This is roughly an amount eleven times the current size of the UK’s economy. He observes:

Today, British politicians often seek to defend colonialism by claiming that Britain helped ‘develop’ India. But in fact exactly the opposite is true: India developed Britain.

I’m convinced that a more inclusive and thorough telling of Britain’s history in our schools would have a positive impact on our politics and public discourse. Fortunately, recent polling shows that 73% of White British and 75% of ethnic minority Britons agree that, “it is important that the history of race and Empire – including its controversies and complexity – are taught in British schools.” Over to you Boris.


Image of the Month


Politics With Skin In The Game

“The people of this country have had enough of experts,” proclaimed leading Brexiteer Michael Gove.

Like a vending machine offering only one flavour of cola, the experts, one after the other, had been warning UK citizens that voting to leave the European Union would lead to disaster.

Gove was right.

On June 23rd, 2016, 52% of UK voters looked past the warnings of the experts and signalled their desire to leave the EU.

Fast forward to today and after a torturous few years, we’ve ambled out of the EU.

If you’ve read the news recently, you’ll have seen that the scoreboard reads: “UK 1 - EU 0.” 

We’ve put the vaccines in the back of the net.

But despite Boris Johnson’s promise of “the sunlit meadows beyond,” if you look at the fineprint, the score might be deceptive.

Buried by Covid-19, the UK’s departure has already reduced GDP by 0.5% in the first quarter of 2021, with exports hit by the disruption of supply chains. And while there is uncertainty, the Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that in the longer-term GDP will be around 4% lower compared to a scenario where the UK stayed in the EU.

Whatever you think about Brexit, it illustrates the increasing disconnect between experts and voters. 

Despite us knowing many of the policies that will lead to better outcomes in the longer-run, we don’t seem to vote for them.

Solving this conundrum is critical because we’re likely to again be faced with contentious issues in the future that our politicians may not be able - or may not want - to answer themselves.

Consider what Boris himself said on the morning of the Brexit vote: “there is no way of dealing with a decision on this scale except by putting it to the people.”

If Boris is right in suggesting that issues of this significance have to be decided by the people, perhaps it is time to reimagine how we use the wisdom of the crowd?

One such reimagination of how we might do this is futarchy, a form of governance first proposed in 2000 by Robin Hanson, an economist.

It uses the power of speculative markets to decide what policies to adopt.


Why isn’t our politics working?

Before explaining how futarchy works and the arguments for and against it, we need to understand the problems it’s trying to solve. 

It’s answer to the following question:

Why don’t we adopt policies that we know will make our lives better?

Martin Gurri, a former CIA analyst, offers a compelling starting point in his 2014 book, The Revolt of The Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium. For Gurri, our politics has broken down because elites no longer control the flow of information.

Our institutions were designed at a time when information was scarce. Ordinary people were effectively told what the important issues were, as well as what to think about them.

But today, thanks to technology, we’re faced with a constant tsunami of information. Our elites no longer have the exclusive ability to tell us stories that explain the world. 

Instead we’re all storytellers.

Truth and facts are contested like never before.

Everyone can claim to be an expert.

The result is that actual expertise is devalued and becomes harder to identify amidst the noise.

David Perell’s theory of the “paradox of abundance” captures how these dynamics play out:

The average quality of information is getting worse and worse. But the best stuff is getting better and better. Markets of abundance are simultaneously bad for the median consumer but good for conscious consumers.

But this takes us back to our starting point.

Why aren’t we being “conscious consumers” when it comes to politics? Especially when it has the power to shape our lives for better or worse.

Economist Robin Hanson, the inventor of futarchy, thinks the problem is our voting system. 

Our vote rarely matters.

Because of this Hanson thinks we have weak incentives to search for information on the most effective policies, to listen to experts, and to demand that such policies are implemented. 

Put simply, there is little pay-off for being a well-informed voter.

Hanson is right. In the UK, most of us have little influence when we vote. 

First, with our first past the post electoral system, millions of voters are denied the representation they choose. In the UK’s 2019 General Election, the Green Party, Liberal Democrats and Brexit Party received 16% of votes, but only ended up with 2% of seats. First past the post effectively reduces our national politics into a two-party system.

Second, we can invert the question. How many votes do actually matter? If just 533 voters in marginal seats voted differently in the UK’s 2017 General Election, it would have changed the result.

Because of their limited influence, Hanson thinks voters are “rationally irrational,” adding that they are “not just ignorant, but overconfident in their political views and sources.”

In other words, they act against their own self-interests because their acts don’t really matter.

Henry Kissinger has a quote about university politics: “the reason that university politics is so vicious is because the stakes are so small.” 

That perfectly summarises the core of Hanson’s argument:

In Hanson’s account, this leads to a situation where, “public policy seems closer to public opinion than to what relevant experts advise.”

If ill-informed voters are the malady, Hanson is offering what he thinks is the medicine: futarchy.


How does futarchy work?

Using speculative markets, citizens place bets on the likely effects of proposed policies. To paraphrase Hanson’s slogan, we vote on “values” (what to do), but bet on “beliefs” (how to do it).

Let’s see what this means in practice:

We vote, but not for our MPs. Instead we vote for a measure that we want to improve (what Hanson describes as the “value”). In this example, we voted to focus on GDP over unemployment.

Now comes the fun part. 

Instead of kicking back on the couch and leaving our policymakers to it, we use speculative markets to decide which policies to adopt. 

Policies that we think have the best chance of increasing our GDP (the “value” that we voted for). As we saw with Brexit, it may be that some people think leaving the EU will be just the tonic to increase our GDP.

And we’re off! 

Over a period of time, any citizen can bet on how GDP will be affected as a result of this proposal (this is the part that Hanson calls “beliefs,” as we’re betting on how to increase GDP). 

In this example, the higher price, £1.96, for Option A indicates that speculators think leaving the EU will lead to an increase in GDP.

This means the market thinks that the GDP after 15 years will be £1.96 trillion if we leave the EU. If we remain, GDP after 15 years is estimated to be £1.8 trillion (the price for “no”). This means the net present value of leaving the EU is estimated to be £160 billion - the difference between Options A and B.

The results are in! The higher price, £1.96, indicates that speculators think that leaving the EU will increase the UK’s GDP over the period. This policy is now implemented.

In this case, those who think that staying in the EU would have been better for GDP get their money back.

Now we wait…

This means the speculators were correct in their predictions.

Those who correctly forecast the change in GDP as a result of leaving the EU are rewarded.


Make Experts Great Again: The Argument For

Futarchy uses speculative markets to address the two problems we identified earlier: 

  1. How to create incentives for voters to be better-informed?

  2. What information to value?

Let’s start with the incentives to being a better-informed citizen.

In a futarchy, there are strong financial incentives to be accurate. If you have information about a policy that others don’t have, perhaps because you’ve studied a policy in depth, you can profit from it. On the other hand, if you are wrong, you lose money.

It’s politics with skin in the game. 

Because accuracy is valued and rewarded, this has a knock-on effect on what information is valued - and therefore consumed.

For starters, citizens may become less susceptible to the cognitive biases that plague our politics. Biases that can result in us giving too much weight to the wrong things, and backing ineffective policies. 

For example, voters are often criticised for focusing on personalities at the expense of their policies. One example is the beer test, a recurring feature of US Elections, where people are asked which candidate they’d prefer to have a beer with. It first gained currency in 2004 when polling showed 57% of undecided voters would like to drink with Bush rather than Kerry. 

A futarchy may lead to political activity being more focused on policies rather than personalities. Moving from a focus on spin - and our consumption of that spin - to activities like looking at models, statistical analyses and trading charts, because that’s where the informational edge exists.

And finally, in a futarchy, real expertise would likely be more valued than today. To repeat, people who are good at predicting outcomes are rewarded. The reverse is also true. 

As Hanson says, “those who know they are not experts shut up, and those who do not know this lose money, and then shut up.”

There is perhaps some truth to this. Jean-Luc Bouchard, a writer, recently shared his experiences of using PredictIt, an online prediction market that offers exchanges on political and financial events. Bouchard observes:

“One of the things I soon learned was how easy it can be to mistake reading a lot about politics for having any honed ability to predict political outcomes ...

When your own money is on the line, you suddenly realize how often you’re wrong compared to how often you convince yourself that you were correct from the start. If I’d been forced to wager on every political event I confidently prognosticated over the past few years, I could easily imagine being deep, deep in the red.”

What’s particularly exciting in a futarchy is that anyone can become an expert, with actual results backing up their claims rather than today’s fuzzy status quo where it is impossible to validate many claims and counterfactuals.

We’ve already witnessed the emergence of a new generation of experts in other adjacent fields. 

Consider the example of Brown Moses, a citizen journalist who founded bellingcat, whose investigations from Russia to Syria have generated more impact than many experts from traditional foreign policy backgrounds. Or Nathan Tankus, who hadn’t even finished his bachelor’s degree when he started writing about monetary policy. Today his newsletter is followed by some of the most influential financiers and economists in the world. 

In a futarchy, it’s easy to imagine that a new crop of policy experts will emerge from unexpected places. 

And over time, the quality of the prediction market in terms of picking winning policies may even improve as the experts who are rewarded the most become more influential.

So to recap, a futarchy creates financial incentives to be a better-informed citizen. This could transform our politics by:

  • Reducing our consumption of low-quality information and our susceptibility to cognitive biases - both of which distract us from what matters.

  • Making real expertise matter again - while democratising it.


Commodifying Politics: The Arguments Against

Having made the case for futarchy, I know what some of you are thinking: urgh! 

If we are to reimagine our politics, surely we can do better than commodifying it? As the former Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, writes

“Commodification … can corrode the value of what is being priced… putting a price on every human activity erodes certain moral and civic goods.” 

A market-based approach to politics like futarchy will likely erode the very principles that makes democracy powerful: equality and mass participation.

While I’ve illustrated that not everyone’s vote is equal in the UK, there is more equality in our one-person-one-vote electoral system than there would be in a futarchy.

We may all be able to vote for the value to focus on, but when it comes to betting on how we improve that value, there are grounds to suspect that the rich are more likely to participate than others. To begin with, they have more money and can capture more of the rewards within the market.

But they are also more likely to participate because they could buy policies that advantage them outside the realm of the speculative market. They can do this by purchasing yes options en masse and shorting selling no options. In doing so, they would increase the price of “yes,” while driving down the price of “no.” Even if they aren’t bad rich actors, this is a problem.

There are other reasons to be sceptical of futarchy:

  1. Will the Market Actually Work? Given the long time horizons (fifteen years in our example), there are doubts whether it's possible to accurately forecast the impact of a policy. This is especially because some students of prediction markets have asserted that they only actually become accurate as they near settlement. If this is true, the core assumption in a futarchy - that a speculative market can forecast the impact of a policy well in advance of an outcome - falls apart.

    Even if this criticism does not hold, how does a futarchy account for the impact of unpredictable events on the value like a pandemic?

    And if multiple policies are implemented, how do you assess the causal relationship between a specific policy and the value? In a futarchy, you may be focused on the impact on GDP, but you still want to know what policies are working (or not). This inability to establish a causal relationship means that scenarios could arise where speculators are rewarded despite backing politics that decreased the value.

  2. The Problems With One Value To Rule Them All. Can we agree on one value to work towards? Is that even desirable? After all, we have a poor track record on picking values. For example, we tend to measure our societies success with GDP, something that even the creator of GDP, Simon Kuznets, warned against doing! 

    The campaign to vote for a value might also be swayed by the very same problems futarchy is trying to address: ill-informed citizens voting on basis of flawed information and biases. It also presents an opportunity for bad actors to influence the choice of value. If the wrong value is selected, there will be a problem at the root of the futarchic system.

  3. We’re Not Rational. Futarchy is rooted in rational choice theory. Rational choice theorists argue that much of politics can be explained in terms of voter self-interest, rather than factors like history and culture. When it comes to voting this theory assumes that voters pursue their interests rationally. But we don’t behave like that in reality.

    In the days after Brexit, for example, many Remainers mocked the perceived stupidity of Brexit voters, for harming the very economy they depended on. This was especially the case when it came to the voters of Sunderland, who voted to leave despite one of Sunderland’s major employers, Nissan, warning that exiting the EU would put 6,700 jobs in the city at risk along with their factory worth almost £4bn.

    It’s an example of the problem futarchy aims to solve. We, the voter, voting for something that makes us feel good that might not create an overall long-term positive outcome.

    But it’s also an example of what futarchy misses. For many, the vote to leave the European Union was about much more than the economy. With its focus on one value, futarchy could advance a reductive model of human behaviour (“homo economicus”) that has already been challenged as outdated.

  4. Unintended Consequences. Goodhart’s Law states that when a feature of the economy is picked as an indicator of the economy, it ceases to function as an effective indicator because people start to game it. 

    A futarchy would embed Goodhart’s Law into the core of our governance system, with people optimising for that value regardless of the consequences - likely resulting in other policy failures we don’t even anticipate. 

  1. Entrenching A Technocratic Top-Down Model of Policymaking. In 2019, Dominic Cummings wrote a blog about high-performance government that explored the idea of “seeing rooms.” These are Nasa-like control centres designed to support policymakers to make decisions in complex environments. 

    Futarchy seems to fit into the world of “seeing rooms.” Turn a few nobs here and there. And hey presto, we’ve got better outcomes! 

    But our policymaking may be failing precisely because of such simplistic thinking. Here’s Polly Mackenzie, CEO of think tank Demos, to explain why:

[There is] an affliction that runs right through the heart of policymaking. We build models and spreadsheets to establish what the impact of a policy might be. To fit into those spreadsheets, the people have to be grouped into categories of similar people, and then all the inconvenient and incompatible details of their lives have to be stripped away. And that’s when we’re doing things properly. Half the time, we simply make an assumption that everyone in the population is very much like us.

Put simply, futarchy may embed a top-down approach to policymaking that many argue is ill-equipped to navigate the complexity of the real world and one that is already responsible for policy failures.

So despite the purported benefits offered by a futarchy, such a system poses several problems including:

  • The risk of bad actors manipulating the market and the threat to mass participation;

  • Doubts whether the market would actually function as theorised;

  • The fact that futarchy is rooted in a model of human behaviour that doesn’t align with how we behave in reality, especially when it comes to politics;

  • The likelihood that the selection of a value to optimise will lead to unintended consequences; and

  • The continuation of an approach to policymaking that won’t work.

This is not an exhaustive exploration of the pitfalls of futarchy. If you want to read more, check out this post by Paul Hewitt.


The Future is Already Here. But Which Future?

Our institutions need to evolve. 

As historian James Burke has observed, “we live with institutions that were created in the past, using the technology of the past.”

But as we’ve seen, futarchy isn’t the answer to our democratic woes. 

In an essay arguing that Big Tech is more competent than the US government, Byrne Hobart writes:

Idealists believe that every institution exists to build a better future for its participants. Cynics think every institution exists to perpetuate its own existence for the current benefit of whoever is in charge. The realist approach is to accept the cynical view as the ultimate asymptote to which all institutions trend, and to create incentives that align cynical self-preservation with prosocial behavior. 

With its attempts to align the selection of better policy outcomes to financial rewards, it’s clear that futarchy’s intellectual roots lie in a realist approach to the world. But if we are to reform our institutions, we must offer up a more hopeful vision for cooperation that drives collective action.

Perhaps most problematic of all is that futarchy is emblematic of an approach to improving our politics that sees markets as a panacea to our problems, when in fact, its workings may be the cause of many of our problems.

Despite focusing on how a better use of information can lead to improved decision making, Hanson misses an obvious information problem. That is, the long-standing failure of our markets to reflect the externalities of economic activity in their pricing. From slavery right through to the present-day extraction of natural resources, the costs of our economic activity have rarely included all the costs. 

This missing information has profoundly shaped capitalism. As Daniel Gross, founder of Pioneer, has said, “capitalism maximises for what’s great today, not for what’s good for ten years from now." 

Proper accounting of externalities would likely have a greater net positive impact on our policymaking than the implementation of a futarchy.

Despite being skeptical of futarchy, we’re at a moment where innovation in our governance system is within reach. In fact, some of the most interesting experiments are taking place in the world of cryptocurrencies, where decentralisation and new technologies are colliding to generate new possibilities. To paraphrase William Gibson, I’m convinced the future is already here, we just have to keep searching for it.


Share Between Black and White

What A Board Game Taught Me About The Pandemic

I'm creating a game. Who's in?

Hi friends 👋🏽 ,
Kudos. You’ve made it through the darkest depths of winter.
Like many of you I’m sure, I’ve been trying to keep myself busy to varying degrees of success. I’ve joined a Reading the Greats book club, read a bunch of other books (I strongly recommend the audio version of Matt McConaughey’s book Greenlights), been learning to design with Jack Butcher, made some Youtube videos, crafted a new programme for social entrepreneurs and completed my first angel investments (i.e. Didatic and Mathison).
Most importantly, I’ve taken some time to write and publish my 2020 Annual Review. Warning - it’s not the most cheery read as last year was heavily shaped by loss - a topic I plan to write more about when the time is right. Here’s an excerpt:
… I’ve noticed that as death beckons, life takes on the qualities of an epic movie. Ordinary moments, ordinary actions are endowed with extraordinary significance. Which if you think about it makes sense. Our presence here, right now, is extraordinary.
Despite the busyness, it’s been a struggle. You can’t hide from your thoughts and coming to peace with them is, despite what mindfulness Jedis might tell you, not easy
But enough about me. I want to talk to you about games.
Games have played a big role in my life without me ever really paying attention. My family plays games with fervour whenever possible. Risk. Monopoly. Poker. You name it, we’ve probably had a divorce because of it. But this Christmas, we played Pandemic Legacy for the first time. And it was a powerful reminder of how games can be a good way to learn about how the real world works. Since then, I’ve been exploring the idea of what I call “gaming for good,” the use of games to improve how our society works.
This is what today’s post is all about. As ever, do get in touch if you have any thoughts. I love hearing from you.
Sunil


“Beijing needs to be quarantined.”

“Hopefully the scientists will be able to find a cure.”

“The R number is increasing!”

These aren’t excerpts from commentary on Covid-19. It’s my family discussing the crises that are emerging as we play the board game, Pandemic Legacy. We’d decided to jump in head first to see if the game taught us anything about the current global crisis. As in real life, the aim of the game is to control and eradicate diseases.

You may be thinking that playing a game like Pandemic Legacy, one that provides no escapism from our current reality, is the very definition of masochism.

But as I played, I was reminded of how games can be a good way to learn about how the real world works.

Consider Pandemic Legacy in relation to the current outbreak of Covid-19. When playing the game, you interact with concepts that are highly relevant to understanding the ongoing global crisis including: 

  • R numbers. A way of rating any disease's ability to spread. Each player can affect this in the game.

  • Thinking in exponents. As the diseases spread in the early stages, it seems manageable, but then, all of a sudden, you are dealing with cascading crises.

  • Trade-offs. To solve one problem, you may reduce your capacity to work on another problem. Do you let an outbreak occur because you are instead focusing on building research centres to develop vaccines? Sound familiar?

What makes Pandemic Legacy distinctive compared to many other games is that it is cooperative rather than conflictual. Players have to work together if they want to successfully eradicate the disease. It’s a powerful lesson to comprehend, because that's how it works in reality, too.

This combination of learnings that could be applied in real life and the opportunity to develop collaborative problem solving skills stayed in my mind. Since then, I’ve been exploring the idea of what I call “gaming for good.” The use of games to improve how our society works. 

Over the last decade, the popularity of gaming, especially amongst certain demographics, led some to speculate about whether games are the answer we’ve been looking for when it comes to improving civic engagement.

AOC livestreaming herself as she plays online murder mystery game, Among Us. Over 400,000 viewers watched along as she encouraged people to vote ahead of the 2020 US Presidential Elections,

The theory of change goes something like this:

  1. Games are super engaging and popular. Almost half the UK population - over thirty two million people - play video games. This includes a whopping ninety three per cent of children. 

  2. People are disengaged from politics. A survey of 14 nations including the UK found that beyond voting, “relatively few people take part in other forms of political and civic participation.” 

  3. By tapping into games and a learnt behaviour that people enjoy, you might be able educate people about political and social issues and demystify the institutional processes that people feel disengaged from.

  4. And in doing this, players will become better informed as citizens and maybe they’ll be more likely to engage in the real-world. Whether that be voting or turning up to a local planning meeting.

It’s a nice theory. But as I delved deeper, I wondered whether such experiments inadvertently pointed to what I think are the under-explored opportunities in “gaming for good.”

Namely the use of games to drive collective action and overcome divides.

Let me explain.

Participation - which is a much-desired outcome in “gaming for good” - is no longer enough if we are to tackle the urgent challenges of our time. In fact, the crises we face demand two things from us.

First, that we all think about our everyday behaviour and choices. From Covid-19 to climate change, it’s clearer than ever that our individual choices impact the lives of others. While some of us are ignorant of this reality, others simply choose to ignore it. 

Second, that we get better at communicating with other people, especially those that we disagree with. Long-term solutions need to be backed by consensus if they are going to be sustainable.

Games might be able to help with both by providing us with a safe environment where we can explore - and be confronted with the consequences of - our behaviour both as individuals and as a collective. 

I’m going to explain how this might work in practice. Because inspired by my experience of playing Pandemic Legacy, and to take advantage of lockdown, I’m designing a game to test out these ideas.

You can look forward to:

  • From Games to Serious Games: A Very Brief History of “Gaming for Good” - a journey that I unexpectedly discovered stretches back almost half a century.

  • The Potency of Games: An Architecture for Engagement - an exploration of why games could help to drive collective action and overcome divides.

  • The Danger of Heavy Hands: Why Making Games for Good is Hard

Many advanced species, including humans, spend much of their early stages of their lives playing. It helps them make sense of the world, learning the skills they'll need to survive. The mistake of our societies has been the assumption that playing-as-learning is only meant for children. It's time to challenge this. Let's see how.


From Games to Serious Games: A Very Brief History of “Gaming for Good” 

What is a game? 

It seems so obvious. Some rules and scenarios in which you can win or lose. And of course, don’t forget fun.

But in the late 1960s, a new type of game began to emerge, one that most of us are unfamiliar with. These were games with an explicit educational purpose, that were not intended to be played primarily for enjoyment.

They became known as “Serious Games.”

Clark C. Abt, a sort of founding father figure for the serious games community, popularised the concept with his book, Serious Games,which he published in 1970. He wrote that games could offer, “a rich field for risk-free, active exploration of serious and intellectual problems.”

This wasn’t just a theoretical exercise for him. His company, Abt Associates, built serious games. One example was Fair City.In 1966, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson launched his “Model Cities Programme.” The aim was to develop new anti-poverty programmes and alternative forms of local government. It led to 150 five-year-long experiments across America.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development asked companies to propose games that “would abstractly but usefully and realistically represent the activities, procedures, and decisions involved in Model Cities decision-making systems.” Fair City, launched in 1970, was the result of this process. Involving 36 players, it simulated planning of a local development process over the course of a few hours.

So serious games have actually been around for a little while. The ability of games to provide an environment for learning, especially for adults, is often under appreciated. This may be because of perceptions that gaming is bad for us in varying ways.

To give you a flavour of the types and nature of serious games, here are some examples:

  • Government Games. Exercise Cygnus was designed to test the UK’s pandemic preparedness. Over three days in October 2016, hundreds of UK officials faced a flu pandemic that affected 50% of the UK population and caused 400,000 excess deaths. It featured mock Cobra meetings, 24/7 coverage via a fictitious news organisation called WNN, as well as social media provided by “Twister.” Exercise Cygnus rose to prominence last year as Covid-19 first spread because the official report warned:

“The UK’s preparedness and response, in terms of its plans, policies and capability, is currently not sufficient to cope with the extreme demands of a severe pandemic that will have a nationwide impact across all sectors.”

  • Societal and Public Awareness Games. In Helsinki, city officials made a board game to help them think about how to involve citizens in their work. James Wallman’s “Hope Town” was a board game designed to illustrate the challenges of delivering effective social welfare with limited resources in Scotland.

  • Educational Games. Joel Levin, co-founder of Teacher Gaming, a company dedicated to using games to engage young people, was actually inspired by his own use of Minecraft in the classroom. As his students played, he saw they would build towns together, debate its governance and the use of finite resources. Another example of the use of games in education, is Synthesis School founded by the director of the school that Elon Musk built for his own children on the SpaceX campus. The curriculum has an emphasis on learning through team games and simulations.

The Future of Serious Games

This all got me wondering. What behaviour or issues might we want to explore within a gaming context today?

Here’s my starter for ten:

  • With so much debate about how to deal with disinformation, could you create a game focused on understanding and dealing with “fake news”?

  • With hundreds of millions of jobs set to be automated in the coming years and social norms that link our moral worth to our ability to work, could games help spark vital conversations about what the future of work looks like?

  • As we seek to tackle racism, could games help us to better understand concepts like institutional racism (which polling suggests the majority of people in the UK don’t) and unconscious bias?

  • Could we use games to illustrate how social inequality works? I’ve previously written about a study using Monopoly which demonstrated how you can deliberately overlook or forget the advantages that have helped propel you to where you are when you are doing well:

In this study, the games were rigged so that one person in each pair who played got twice as much money to start with, twice as much go money and got to roll both dice instead of one. When asked why they had inevitably won, the richer players didn’t highlight the privileges that they were randomly given in the first place. Instead they talked about what they’d done to earn success in the game.

Reading this, you may be thinking, surely there are better ways to tackle these kinds of problems? 

Well, I’m glad you asked. 

To answer this question, we need to understand why games are a powerful tool for learning.


The Potency of Games: An Architecture for Engagement 

The starting point for understanding the appeal of games as a tool for learning is how engaging they can be. Their ability to drive engagement is highlighted by the influence of gamification and game design on a whole generation of tech products. 

Consider gamification, the integration of game-like elements into business and marketing strategies to drive user engagement. Almost all of us interact with gamified products on a daily basis. Social media networks, for example, leverage likes and follower counts like points in a game to keep us hooked. 

Unlike gamification, where you motivate users to behave in a particular way, game design starts from a desire to make something that people will enjoy. It’s a subtle, but critical difference - one that is worth taking a moment to reflect on as it goes to the heart of what makes a truly engaging game.

Rahul Vohra, CEO of Superhuman, a fast-growing email app, and a passionate advocate of games, summarises the aim of game design neatly, “when you make a game, you don’t worry about what users want or what they need, you obsess over how they feel.”

I saw what Vohra meant as I played Pandemic Legacy. When playing initially, my actions were rooted in a desire to achieve certain outcomes like preventing an outbreak. But as I played, I felt three things:

  1. Connection to others with a shared purpose. This is built into the game - you have to work together.

  2. Autonomous. While the game is collaborative, I was still able to make my own choices.

  3. That there was scope for mastery. I became better as time progressed. 

These feelings of connection, autonomy and mastery are the key to understanding why games are so engaging. They are intrinsic rewards. Unlike extrinsic rewards, they are intangible and relate to the internal psychological state of the player.

The left hand side includes typical features of gamification, while the right hand side are the feelings you hope to create through game design.

Such rewards can be incredibly motivating, generating a feedback loop where gamers play for further rewards. Players may even become intrinsically motivated, which means they engage in the activity for no other reason besides the love and joy of doing it. 

I felt the tug of intrinsic motivation even after my family left, which meant that I couldn’t actually play even though I wanted to. All the while I was learning things and practising skills that could be applied to real life. 

Obviously not all games are created equal in terms of their ability to motivate and reward us like this. But the potential of games to hold our attention amidst seemingly endless distractions is fascinating.

Consider news consumption. The Reuters Institute found that younger generations “do not want to work hard for their news.” In practice, news is often consumed on smartphones in small amounts to fit around other activities. Such consumption habits do not necessarily lend themselves to deeper engagement with the issues of the day. 

As we’ve explored, this isn’t the case with games, which you can play for hours. 

In the context of “gaming for good,” this creates opportunities to challenge participants' passive media consumption habits by using game environments to encourage them to actively engage with issues.

This engagement helps to create the conditions for what excites me most about games, their ability to improve our capacity for collective action.

Games as a Unifying Force

We live in a culture that celebrates lone individuals who have defied the odds to achieve incredible feats. Think about how Elon Musk is revered on the basis that he seems to be single-handedly driving us on to colonize Mars. His influence is such that he can move markets with just a few words.

This is no different from our past, when individuals who were strong or wise had a higher status in a tight-knit tribe. But what has changed is the megaphone through which these stories are told. In the opening of Gladiator, Maximus famously says, “what we do in life, echoes in eternity.” But thanks to technology, tales of individual ingenuity echo across the world almost immediately. 

Amidst all this, it’s easy to forget that almost everything we’ve achieved as a civilisation is the result of groups of people working together.

And this is why games are magical. They can bring us together, especially when collaborative game dynamics as seen in Pandemic Legacy are used. As James Gee, an academic who has studied collective intelligence writes

...human minds are plug-and-play devices; they’re not meant to be used alone. They’re meant to be used in networks.

By playing games, we can improve our ability to collectively solve problems. Let me show you examples of how they might do this:

  1. Game environments could help us see the impacts of our individual behaviour and the lives of others, strengthening our ability to act collectively.

If events or issues don’t touch our lives, many of us naturally feel less compulsion to be as engaged or to change our behaviour. This is problematic when the transformation that needs to happen requires that we change our individual behaviour. Take Covid-19. As I previously wrote:

If you are from a higher socio-economic background, have a low risk and are able to safely distance ... you may be more likely to emphasise the economic costs of the lockdowns or the loss of freedoms rather than a continued need for strong public health measures. 

Games could be designed to allow participants to reflect on how their individual preferences impact the collective by bringing issues that we may lack direct experience of to life. By highlighting the downsides of individualism, game dynamics could be used to strengthen our capacity for collective action.

An epidemic that took place in 2005 offers an example of what might be possible. This epidemic took place in the confines of World of Warcraft, a massive multiplayer online role-playing game. The creators released a game update with unintended consequences.

It allowed powerful players access to an area where they would do battle with a villain. They would sometimes be infected by a disease called “Corrupted Blood,” which had little effect on these players, but weaker players were not so lucky. 

A few factors quickly transformed what was meant to be a minor hindrance into an epidemic. First, many characters could transport themselves instantaneously from one location to another, meaning the disease spread. Second, the disease could be carried by pets outside of the area. Third, non-player characters could catch the disease but not die, so they were effectively asymptomatic spreaders. Millions of players were infected.

In response, the creators tried to impose quarantine measures with the support of some players, who also used their powers to heal infected players.

But all these efforts failed because of the contagiousness of the disease, their inability to comprehensively seal borders, as well as player resistance to the measures. In the end, they simply reset the game without the “Corrupted Blood” feature.  

The story resurfaced recently as it provided a fascinating - and very much accidental - case study into the sociological dimensions of an epidemic that foretold some of the very challenges we currently face in relation to Covid-19. Looking beyond how such games could serve as a bridge between epidemiological studies and reality, you can quickly see how such an environment might be used to get players to reflect on the impact of their individual choices.

  1. Games can help us to challenge biases which impede our ability to act now in order to safeguard the future.

Throughout our history, it’s made sense to focus on what might kill us immediately rather than in the distant future. In doing so, we’ve evolved a cognitive bias whereby we perceive the present as more important than the future. Known as hyperbolic discounting, this bias means that we struggle to take actions today that might head off complex challenges in the future. One example where we can see this bias in action is in relation to climate change. There is an increasing consensus about how the worst-case scenarios will change life on earth. But for many of us, the realisation of these scenarios is still some decades away. Just as our ancestors evolved a preference for sweet-tasting calorie-rich fruits, we also want to enjoy the fruits of living today. That’s partly why there is a strong relationship between income and per capita CO2 emissions. 

Game environments can counter hyperbolic discounting by showing us how decisions taken to combat climate change today (or our inactivity) may shape the future. This ability to see the consequences of our decision-making in a compressed timeline could help to shake us out of complacency by forcing us to consider where status quo leads to.

  1. Games could be used to support local communities to imagine small-scale solutions to complex issues.

In Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Sebastian Junger writes that:

If the future of the planet depends on, say, rationing water, communities of neighbours will be able to enforce new rules far more effectively than even local government. It’s how we evolved to exist, and it obviously works.

In other words, taking collective action in a smaller community might be easier because the desired behaviour is on your doorstep. Adherence to behaviour is reinforced by social pressure as everyone knows each other. Unlike larger communities where we don’t know - or trust - everyone. 

Local collective action could also unlock what is known as the endowment effect. This is where when we own something - even an idea - we tend to value it more. All of these factors explain what David Fleming was getting at when he wrote that:

Large-scale problems do not require large-scale solutions. They require small-scale solutions within a large-scale framework.

If collective action might be more effectively taken at the local level, a game environment could be a tool to give communities agency to come up with solutions.

So games keep us engaged and could be used to make us better at solving problems together. But emerging research shows a path forward for how games might also be designed in a way that makes us better at communicating with other people, especially those that we disagree with.

Learning How to Disagree Through Games

Amidst the cacophony of commentary decrying polarisation, it’s easy to forget that disagreement is healthy. It’s how we develop our best ideas. As Ian Leslie, author of Conflicted: Why Arguments Are Tearing Us Apart and How They Can Bring Us Together, writes, “instead of putting our differences aside, we need to put them to work.” 

Gaming could provide the perfect environment to put our differences to work. Compared to the glare of social media, a game environment could offer a safer, less high-stakes, context in which to discuss complex and challenging issues. 

It’s well-documented, for example, that arguments on specific issues can quickly escalate into wholesale identity conflict. As Leslie notes, “arguments are a way of signalling who we are.” 

But in a game, you can detach the individual from perspectives that they are closely wedded to by allowing them to play different roles. This roleplaying can allow gamers to take on and explore different perspectives in a game much more easily than in real-life.

Games can also be engineered to integrate tactics that we know are likely to create opportunities for greater understanding between participants.

Recent research suggests that the way to build mutual respect with someone who disagrees with your perspective is to share your personal experiences of an issue rather than relying on facts. If you are anti-guns because you've experienced gun crime that will carry more weight than talking about statistics that show a correlation between gun ownership and firearm homicide rates. 

Games could be intentionally designed to get participants to share their experiences of an issue in this way as a means of building bridges. As one of the villains in Batman Begins remarks, “you always fear what you don’t understand.”

But having set out how gaming environments could be used to improve our capacity for collective action and help us to overcome divides, caution is warranted.


The Danger of Heavy Hands: Why Making Games for Good is Hard

Making games is hard. Making games that tackle complex social issues and our behaviour is even trickier in some ways:

  1. When educational purposes are the driving force rather than having fun, the learning experience may not be as powerful.

I’m not interested in being told things or asked questions about myself by videogames, not because of my self esteem, like I don’t feel like I deserve the attention, or my fear, like I might learn something about myself I don’t like, but because I’m asked and I answer questions about myself all the time, every day, and they’re almost always more searching than anything a videogame has so far ever thrown at me…

Ed Smith, It Doesn’t Matter When You Kill All The Civilians

The best educational experiences in gaming are often a byproduct of being engaged and having fun, as I was when I played Pandemic Legacy. I didn’t primarily play because I wanted to learn about pandemics. 

When it comes to serious games, players know the main purpose of the experience is to learn something, not enjoyment. But even when armed with that knowledge, the experience may not be as transformative as it is when the educational purposes are secondary - or more subtle. 

Recall what Rahul Vohra said about game design: “when you make a game, you don’t worry about what users want or what they need, you obsess over how they feel.” When making games like this, it will be harder to get the balance right, between what players need (i.e. to learn about X) and what they feel.

As Andy Matuschak, a renowned software engineer and designer, writes,“... [in educational games] the ‘teacher's’ hand is usually too heavy; players feel like helpless rats in someone else’s maze.” 

  1. You have to make difficult choices in representing what you seek to question - in doing so, you may offend people.

When making games that deliberately mirror reality as a means of better understanding and challenging it, one question that quickly comes up is this: how accurate should the representation of reality be?

Think about my suggestion that we could use games to better understand concepts like racism. 

There have actually been interesting albeit half-hearted attempts to do this. In South Park’s: The Fractured But Whole video game, players used a difficulty slider to change the colour of their skin. The darker your complexion, the harder the game. There was a limit to the amount of money you could make in the game and how other characters interacted with you changed. 

Put aside the risk of trivializing serious issues for one second. 

If you were serious about making players think about racism and reflect on their own behaviours in the way I set out, you’d couldn’t just take racism at face value as was the case in South Park. You’d have to provide context like history that allowed players to learn. And in doing so, you’d then have to decide how much to include, how far to go back? 

This in itself would be a fascinating educational experience for game designers. But it would be very easy to go wrong both in terms of the pre-game design, as well the actual playing experience (i.e. you may feel the heavy hands that Matuschak wrote about).

  1. It’s unclear what winning or losing looks like in “gaming for good” and a “win” may even be boring resulting in undesirable behaviour.

Do you really want to consider complex social problems through a win-lose dynamic, pitting players against each other in competition? Collaborative game dynamics like the ones employed in Pandemic Legacy can help overcome this. But even then there are unintended consequences that might be unleashed in a game environment.

First, players might simply just play to win in the context of the game, with none of the behaviour exhibited in the game carried over into real-life.

Second, as in real-life, when it comes to complex issues, there isn’t always a clear outcome that lends itself to the type of win or lose situation that many players desire. This can lead to absurd behaviour. 

This was observed even in one of earliest examples of serious games, The Most Dangerous Game. First released in 1967, it aimed to get players engaged with foreign policy by allowing them to roleplay as countries in historical moments such as the creation of the League of Nations and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Despite being an unlikely course of action in real-life, play always ended in nuclear war. The game designers noticed that the players grew bored of the stalemate that almost always occurred in the game. The result was nuclear armageddon. 


Ready To Play?

Our culture is awash with tales that explore morality through the means of a game.

In Ender’s Game, a classic science-fiction novel, children are tricked into committing a genocide because they assume they are only playing a game. In Ready Player One, gamers search for an Easter egg that would allow them to take control of the OASIS, a virtual reality world akin to Second Life. The protagonist leads an army of avatars against a powerful corporation that wants to exploit the money-making opportunities within the OASIS. And in The Hunger Games, children are selected via lottery to participate in a compulsory battle royale that is televised to remind participants and the places that they come from, of their powerlessness.

What I’ve explored is actually not too dissimilar. It’s about the use of games to better understand ourselves and the societies in which we live. 

This isn’t science fiction anymore. These tools are already being developed.

While I’ve explored board and video games, I’ve not touched on technologies like virtual and augmented reality, which offer possibilities that early designers of serious games could only dream of.

Take a look at Improbable’s “synthetic environments,” which offers to support policy makers by allowing them to tackle issues in a virtual world before taking action in the real-life:

What might be possible if we democratise the use of such tools by putting them in the hands of ordinary people?

There are valid questions to be asked about whether using games in this way is a distraction in light of the severity of the generational challenges that stand before us.

But despite there being hurdles to overcome and some doubts, there are plenty of signs that games can bring complex social issues to life for participants in a way that is more engaging than the status quo.

I suspect that starting with individual behaviour in a gaming environment could be a more compelling way to drive real-world change, especially as it is closer to how we conventionally experience games.

So if you’re interested in learning more and maybe even helping me to test these ideas, get in touch.


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Our Herd Changes Us

Could our socially distanced today be a sneak preview of our structurally distanced tomorrow?

Hey there 👋 ,

It’s been a while.

Sunil’s Smorgasbord is no more.

But today I’d like to welcome you to my rebranded newsletter, Between Black and White.

Every month, you’ll receive a post that challenges binary thinking by embracing complexity, with a focus on politics and society.

I’ll explore issues that are interesting and not always obvious. I promise that you’ll learn something.

The first piece I’d like to share with you is all about our physical networks, who we know.

Our networks shape our beliefs, political opinions and our perceptions of the world.

Most of us underestimate the shaping power of our physical networks.

This matters because it helps to fuel a political discourse where we are confounded by the beliefs of others.

In this post, I’ll explore how networks are formed, how they can shape your perspective and ways in which you can overcome network effects (sneak preview: it’s hard!).

I’d love to know what you think.

Until the next time,

Sunil

P.S. If you want to learn more about Between Black and White, check out this video I made.


Growing up, one of the most commonly regurgitated pieces of wisdom I was offered was, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know, Sunil.” 

Whenever I heard it uttered, I’d always be envious of African or Chinese proverbs that I had come across:

Rain beats the leopard's skin but it does not wash out the spots.

The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now.

Rich in imagination and often connected to nature, they always seemed suggestive of a deep wellspring of cultural wisdom stretching back through the ages.

Instead, the little careerist in me was nurtured. Hard work matters, but prosperity would come through connections.

But the worst thing about the saying wasn’t its banality. No, it was that the truth contained within it caused me to miss something about networks that is far more profound.

Networks aren’t just an external force that can propel us to success. 

They shape who we are, influencing our beliefs, political opinions and how we perceive the world around us.

Most of us underestimate how our networks shape our lives, while others are completely unaware.

And, as more doubt is cast on some of the theories that identify social media and online echo chambers as the culprits responsible for fissures in our politics, exploring the shaping power of our physical networks might actually be the key to explaining some of the divides that exist in our society.

Today, many of us in the UK live within networks that are marked by homogeneity, whether that be economically, politically or socially.

This matters because homogeneous networks help to fuel a binary political discourse that can leave us confounded by the beliefs of others. This discourse also blinds us to the complexity of many of the generational crises that we face.

Overcoming the power of network effects at an individual level is hard, but Covid-19 has the potential to accelerate trends that might change how networks are formed here in the UK.

In this post, I’ll explore:

  1. Some of the ways in which networks are formed drawing on my experience of going to university;

  2. How networks can shape your perspective with a focus on Covid-19, racism and meritocracy;

  3. Ways in which you can transcend network effects.


MIMETIC CONTAGION

Like many, I’ve recently left London and temporarily moved back to Loughborough, the place I grew up. Every time I return home, I’m reminded of the echo chamber that I normally live in when I’m in London.

There is greater diversity of opinion in my own family on political and social issues than there is amongst my network of friends I spend most of my time with in London.

I have no friends that I know of in London who voted for Brexit, while over 50% of voters in Loughborough and some members of my own family voted for Brexit.

It reminds me of Scott Alexander's piece, I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup. Writing about creationism, which 46% of Americans believe in, he ponders:

That’s half the country. And I don’t have a single one of those people in my social circle. It’s not because I’m deliberately avoiding them; I’m pretty live-and-let-live politically, I wouldn’t ostracize someone just for some weird beliefs. And yet, even though I probably know about a hundred fifty people, I am pretty confident that not one of them is creationist.

How do we end up with such intense political segregation?

It might be attributable to a combination of two phenomena that we all experience throughout our lives. 

This first is known as homophily, the tendency that we have to seek out people who are similar to ourselves. This isn’t necessarily something that we deliberately set out to do. As I’ll explore, many of us live in environments that are segregated by class and ethnicity.

To understand the second phenomenon, let’s do a little thought experiment.

Imagine you are at a bar (pre or post-pandemic...) with a group of people that you don’t know that well.

They all loudly agree that The Godfather is the best movie series ever made. Even though you disagree - you can’t believe anyone would overlook TheLord of the Rings - you vocally agree with them, for fear of being perceived as a social outcast (read: loser).

It’s a silly example, but that’s social influence at work. 

This is where we change our behaviour to meet the demands of a social environment. Repeat enough times and behaviour can transform into belief. We become more similar to those we have ties with.

Social influence is a powerful force. We are natural-born imitators, even more so when it comes to problems that are greater in complexity than deciding the best movie series ever made.


THE SORTING HAT

I suspect that my education, especially university, unleashed both of these processes in my life. Although I’ve only realised how much so with the benefit of hindsight.

This is something that David Goodhart explores in his book, The Road to Somewhere. He makes the case that the expansion of higher education has created a whole generation of young graduates whose worldviews are likely to be very different from what they would have been if they stayed at home.

Looking at data from past elections, he finds that more than 50% of BNP voters and 43% of UKIP voters lived within fifteen minutes of their mothers. In contrast, those least likely to live close to their mothers are Green voters, on 25%, and Liberal Democrats, on 30%.

Nationalist voters live closer to home. What’s going on? According to Goodhart:

  1. BNP and UKIP voters are less likely to have been to university.

  2. Green and Liberal Democrats are more likely to have been to university.

  3. And going to university usually means you leave home (of the 19% that live more than 100 miles from where they lived aged fourteen, he finds that the vast majority are graduates). 

But why might going to university change your politics? 

Goodhart argues that going to university makes the individual “more open to change, less connected to particular places.” His analysis is supported by a study that took place in 2008.

Researchers in the US surveyed 753 members (222 of whom were freshmen) of a residential fellowship programme at 14 large universities. They collected data in two waves - at the start of the academic year and once again after the election in November 2008.

What they asked about: in the second wave, they substituted “Preference for President” and “Likelihood of voting” for actual voting behaviour, as well as surveying four additional data points.
What they asked about: in the second wave, they substituted “Preference for President” and “Likelihood of voting” for actual voting behaviour, as well as surveying four additional data points.

They focused particularly on the 222 freshmen because they hadn’t met each other before, meaning it would be easier to see if their political attitudes had changed to become more like their fellow students. 

They found that participants had changed where they placed themselves on the left/right political spectrum, their voting behaviour and even their choice for president. Crucially, they were able to see that individuals did not choose their friends on the basis of their political views. This led them to conclude that, "friendship is the dominant conduit for influence on political attitudes and behaviors."

This resonates with my own experiences. Leaving Loughborough meant I left behind networks that were based on where I grew up. In their place, new networks formed. Networks based on friendship and a shared experience of university that slowly - almost unbeknownst to me - instilled similar beliefs and values. 

I can tell I’ve changed because I have close friends (as well as my aforementioned family) who have stayed closer to home, whose views are now different to mine.

But so what? Why does it matter if our networks are full of people who are similar to us?


KNOW NOBODY, NO PROBLEMS

Take a look at these three questions:

  • Are the costs of locking down in response to Covid-19 too high?

  • Is the UK institutionally racist?

  • Is success a result of hard work?

What’s your perspective? How did you decide? You made up your own mind, right?

Well actually, your choice of perspective was likely more constrained than you realised because of your networks. 

Let me elaborate by looking at each question in turn.


ARE THE COSTS OF LOCKING DOWN IN RESPONSE TO COVID-19 TOO HIGH?

Consider the correlation between poverty and high Covid-19 mortality rates.

This correlation led Richard Horton, editor of the renowned medical journal, The Lancet, to declare declare that we are actually in the midst of a "syndemic" rather than just a pandemic, where Covid-19 is clustering "within social groups according to patterns of inequality deeply embedded in our societies."

Imagine twenty-two of your neighbours dying. 

That’s exactly what happened to Islam who lives in Newham, one of the UK’s most deprived areas, which early on in the pandemic recorded the highest Covid-19 mortality rates. 

In Newham, the combination of a high proportion of households with different generations living under the same roof, a population with pre-existing health conditions, and low-paid jobs with a higher risk of exposure created almost perfect conditions for Covid-19 to spread unchecked.

These conditions are not unique to Newham: they’re found in pockets across the UK. 

Data from Public Health England show that mortality rates in the most deprived areas were double those in the wealthiest areas during the first lockdown.

Although it hasn’t been definitively proved, emerging data suggests your socio-economic background likely plays a bigger role in whether you catch Covid-19 and how you subsequently fare than almost every other factor other than age. 

If you are from a higher socio-economic background, have a low risk and are able to safely distance, your social network will likely mirror these characteristics. That means that your dominant experience - which is heavily influenced by your networks - will likely focus more on the restrictions applied as part of the public health response rather than on the virus itself.

In such a scenario, you may be more likely to emphasise the economic costs of the lockdowns or the loss of freedoms rather than a continued need for strong public health measures.


IS THE UK INSTITUTIONALLY RACIST?

During the Black Lives Matter protests earlier this year, I heard individuals express that they hadn’t realised or didn’t think racism was as live an issue as it was being made out to be.

For many people, I’m sure it felt like an abstract issue because they don’t know anyone personally affected by racism. After all, YouGov research in 2018 found that one-third of white Britons don't have any friends from an ethnic minority background.

This isn't about making value judgements. 

But if you have few friends personally impacted by an issue like racism you're more likely to fall prey to availability bias. This is where you use examples that come readily to your mind and think that they are more representative than is actually the case.

And in the absence of any connection to an issue, you might even be inclined to downplay the seriousness or existence of an issue.

The reverse can also be true. If you exist in a network where experiences of racism are endemic, you might think that your experiences are happening everywhere, all of the time. 

As Morgan Housel notes, "Your personal experiences make up maybe 0.00000001% of what’s happened in the world but maybe 80% of how you think the world works. We’re all biased to our own personal history."

But it isn't just about a lack of understanding about how unfolding social problems are impacting others, it's also about ourselves. 


IS SUCCESS A RESULT OF HARD WORK?

The homogeneity of our networks can mean we lack self-awareness. 

Take the idea of meritocracy, where individuals advance based on their ability and talent rather than class privilege or wealth. Beliefs in meritocracy permeate across the different socio-economic groupings that exist in the UK. 

But who believes in meritocracy the most?

In a study by The Sutton Trust where households in different income brackets were asked what they thought was most important for career success, higher-earning respondents all identified meritocratic items like "hard work" as more important than "social class / background." In contrast, lower earning respondents scored "social class / background" much higher than their wealthier counterparts.

When you are doing well it’s easy to deliberately overlook or forget the advantages that have helped propel you to where you are. 

One hundred games of Monopoly that took place at the University of California-Berkeley underline this point. 

In this study, the games were rigged so that one person in each pair who played got twice as much money to start with, twice as much go money and got to roll both dice instead of one. When asked why they had inevitably won, the richer players didn’t highlight the privileges that they were randomly given in the first place. Instead they talked about what they’d done to earn success in the game.

Perspectives informed by an individual’s socio-economic class can also interlock with geography, especially in London. The Sutton Trust’s research goes on to contend:

Precisely because elite geography is so concentrated on London, those within its environs may not see themselves as especially fortunate... since they are surrounded by numerous other people like themselves.

The researchers found that 44.2% of households with an after tax income of more than £200k, 33% of those in £100-149k band, and 35.9% of those in the £99-150k band all live in London.

If we do live in networks that are marked by homogeneity, in terms of their economic, social and political outlook, little wonder then that we are often perplexed by the beliefs of our compatriots - a feeling which has tended to manifest most dramatically in recent elections and referendums.


OVERCOMING THE NETWORK EFFECT

Maybe none of the above examples reflected how you came to form your own perspective on the issue at stake, but there are other ways to test the shaping power of your networks on your thinking.

Peter Thiel, co-founder of Paypal and Palantir, is known for asking people he interviews the following question:

What important truth do very few people agree with you on?

It’s a difficult question to answer, so take a moment to think about your own response. Most people I’ve asked struggle to come up with an answer that their friends would disagree with. 

In other words, most of us hold conventional opinions that our networks would approve of (and have likely played a role in shaping). This is a generalisation, but it’s one that I’ve found to be broadly applicable.

At a societal level, network effects matter because left unchecked, they can contribute to a situation where it becomes harder to forge compromise and solutions to many of our social ills.

As the pandemic has shown, we may live in the same country, but our lives can seem alien to one another. Our individual beliefs and political opinions, so heavily conditioned by our networks risk leading us to a place where one “truth” is pitted against another.

This process happens almost by stealth. You might not even actually spend that much time talking about politics with your friends, but they shape your outlook. 

For these reasons, thinking about how your networks shape you is a valuable investment of your time. 

But even if you do, can you transcend network effects?

It’s hard. 

At an individual level, we can be more deliberate in seeking out those with experiences and perspectives different to our own. Initiatives that facilitate this like Make America Dinner Again and Hi From The Other Side have sprung up and been replicated elsewhere.

But the effects of such initiatives might only be temporary and while the evidence is far from conclusive, they may actually lead to a backfire effect, whereby your established beliefs don’t change, but actually get stronger.  

Another approach is to balance your subjective experiences with knowledge of the bigger picture which you could obtain by looking at data on a particular issue.

Or you can take more drastic action. James Currier, who has written extensively about networks, identifies seven crossroads that offer you the chance to change who you are surrounded by, with the amongst the most significant ones being your choice of job and where you live.

The shift to remote work accelerated by the pandemic means that the choice of where you live and work may become more fluid than ever before.

But if the pandemic is a preview of these trends, it seems likely that individuals who are already economically well-off and socially mobile will be the ones who are most able to take advantage of remote working.

Our socially distanced today may foreshadow a structurally distanced tomorrow, with networks becoming increasingly segregated on the basis of economics, politics or even their social outlook.

There is no neat answer to how you can address the network effect. We have some individual agency, but we are also at the mercy of forces outside of our control. This is perhaps best summarised by the authors of the US survey of students who wrote:

We are at once creators and captives of our social networks.

Perhaps the best thing we can do is to cultivate greater awareness of network effects at a younger age. With that in mind, I’ll leave you with a (fictitious) saying that I wish my elders shared with me:

Remember the herd you walk with atop the savannah will change you.


With thanks to Richard, Kush, Shirin, Max, Tom W, Tom D and my Mum who all provided comments on this piece.

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