Players versus Spectators

I’ve been growing increasingly interested in the interaction between players and spectators in various games, literal and metaphoric. In both kinds of games, spectators need players to create value, and players need spectators to consume it.  I’ve been trying to classify the various sorts of “extra” interactions that seem to emerge, and came up with this 3×3 grid.


The classification is based on the observation that both sides always seem to want something beyond the basic economic transaction from the other side. Though players sometimes yell “just shut up and watch,” and though spectators sometimes yell in turn, “just shut up and listen, I am the customer” at the players, neither side ever really shuts up.

The phenomenology of player-spectator interactions is of particular interest today because the Internet has seriously muddied the clarity of roles and relationships all around.

Here’s how you read the chart.

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On the Unraveling of Scripts

I am fascinated by scriptlessness: the state of not having a script telling you what to do. I’ve danced around this question a lot in my writing, mostly with reference to the American middle-class life script. But I’ve never really tackled the phenomenon head-on.

I’ll define scripts as collections of learned patterns of behavior that reliably supply both psychological and material resources for survival.  These lend meaning and sustenance to power the script, respectivelyBoth are necessary, and any loss on one front, if not quickly reversed, usually leads to loss on the other, triggering a vicious cycle of increasingly severe script breakdown.

This is the unraveling of scripts. It is the subjective experience of collapsing social and material realities around you, leading eventually to a state of behavioral collapse: scriptlessness. Along the way you encounter all those demons poets like to talk about.

Scripts can collapse for groups and organizations, not just individuals, but let’s start with individuals.

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The Gervais Principle VI: Children of an Absent God

And so here we are, ready for an assault on our Everest: the mind that lies behind the low-reactor Sociopath face. A face that gazes upon the worlds of Losers and the Clueless with divine inscrutability. It’s certainly been a long climb.

Series Home | Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI | ebook


With the resurrection of David Wallace and the ascent of Robert California to a richly undeserved heaven-on-earth, a harem of  young East European women, the crew at The Office teed up their final season, and presented us with our last and biggest challenge. And finally, we are ready to take it on.

Under the creepily steady gaze of Robert California, Jim wilts and chokes. Dwight blusters like a frightened dog, “Stop trying to get into my head!” But ultimately even that courageous Clueless soul cowers.

But you and I, we are going to break through. Our gaze may flinch. We may lose the staring contest with Robert California. We may fail to perturb the preternatural poise of David Wallace. But we will figure out the minds that lie beneath.

As The Office winds its way to a satisfyingly redemptive American series finale this week, the remaining questions in our own little sideshow tent will be answered in deeply unsatisfying and empty ways.  

Here’s a brief recap of the series so far if you need it. Welcome to the finale of the Gervais Principle. [Read more…]

The Economics of Social Status

Kevin is a 2013 blogging resident visiting us from his home blog over at Melting Asphalt.

In economics, a good is anything that “satisfies human wants and provides utility.” This includes not just tangible goods like gold, grain, and real estate, but also services (housecleaning, dentistry, etc.) as well as abstract goods like love, health, and social status.

As an economic good, social status is a lot like health. They’re both intangible and highly personal. In proper economic terms, they are private goods — rivalrous and mostly excludable. And the fact that they’re hard to measure doesn’t make them any less valuable — in fact we spend trillions of dollars a year in their pursuit (though they often elude us).

But status differs from health in one very important respect: It can be transacted — spent as well as earned. It’s not a terminal good, but rather an intermediate good that helps us acquire other things of value. For example, I can trade some of my status for money, favors, sex, or information — and vice versa.

Health, if it’s possible to spend at all (e.g. in pursuit of career success), is extremely illiquid. But as I will argue today, status is so liquid — so easy to transact, and in real time — that it plays a fundamental economic role in our day-to-day lives. [Read more…]

Social Dark Matter: On Seeing and Being Seen

You probably remember a grade school teacher who seemed to have eyes at the back of her head. Somebody who could walk into an unruly classroom and with just a look, quell the disorder and get everybody back into their seats. When such a teacher enters a classroom, any mischief underway is abandoned instantly. Those caught in the teacher’s direct gaze freeze or try to scramble back to their seats. Those who think they are in peripheral vision try to duck and hide. Those who believe they haven’t been seen try to flee.

This sort of teacher possesses an authoritarian eye: a way of seeing shared by certain sorts of effective teachers, drill sergeants, sports coaches and the sorts of large organizations that James Scott explored in Seeing Like a State.

The classroom example illustrates something important. Authority and responses to it are primarily about seeing and being seen, rather than doing or having things done to you.

When you know you’re being watched by an authoritarian eye, you voluntarily behave in simpler (or equivalently, more orderly) ways than when you know you aren’t.

The difference between the two regimes of behavior is social dark matter. And in today’s digital social environments, it is starting to behave in ways we don’t really understand. Because we feel watched in ways we don’t really understand, by forms of authority we have never experienced before.

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The Dead-Curious Cat and the Joyless Immortal

I’ve been thinking a lot about curiosity lately. Specifically, about curiosity in the sense of  the proverb curiosity killed the cat: a potentially self-destructive pursuit of knowledge for its own sake that leads to unnecessary risk-taking. In humans such risk-taking often threatens not just the individual or even family/immediate group, but the whole species. Some people just have to go around figuring out new ways to blow things up, often with the noblest of intentions.

At a selfish gene level, the trait seems complicated, but not  mysterious. The question that really interests me is this: how do our selfish genes fool us into being curious creatures, who sometimes get themselves killed, to teach our gene pools more about the environment? Altruism, a similar potentially self-destructive trait at the individual level, manifests subjectively as love (especially for kin), a sense of belonging to one’s community, and a capacity for attachment to some notion of greater purpose. What might be the analogous subjective experience for curiosity?

Curiosity does not seem to be a fundamental drive, unlike what I am told are the  three basic biological drives (seeking pleasure, avoiding pain and conserving energy), so it is probably derived. Curiosity requires a certain energy surplus, since its visible signature is a restless dissipation of energy, but it does not seem directly motivated by energy conservation concerns. So is it derived from pleasure-seeking or pain-avoidance or some mix of the two? Does that make a difference?

I think it does, and I think the answer is that curiosity is primarily derived from pleasure seeking, not pain aversion. This has certain observable consequences.

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Honesty and the Human Body

Kevin is a 2013 blogging resident visiting us from his home blog over at Melting Asphalt.

In economics and biology, honesty is understood in terms of signals.

Signals are anything used to communicate, to convey information. A price is a signal of value. Conspicuous consumption is a signal of wealth. A growl is a threat — and the growl’s depth is a signal of the size of the creature’s body cavity.

Signals are said to be honest when they reliably correspond to an underlying trait or fact about the world. Otherwise they are dishonest or deceptive.

The temptation to deceive is ubiquitous. Deception allows an agent to reap benefits without incurring costs. That’s why the best signals — the most honest ones — are expensive. More precisely, they are differentially expensive: costly to produce, but even more costly to fake.

This is the reason Apple retail stores are roomy and filled with helpful employees — it’s something their lower-margin competitors can’t afford. It’s also why species with good defense mechanisms (like skunks and coral snakes) evolve high-contrast colors. Unless it can defend itself, an animal that stands out quickly becomes another animal’s lunch.

Honesty is thus, in part, an economic proposition.
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Schumpeter’s Demon

For a while now, I’ve been dissatisfied with our shared mental models around the creative destruction being unleashed by the Internet.

On the one hand, we have coarse-grained and abstract models based on long-term historical cycles and precedents. This is the sort of thing I’ve explored quite a bit in previous posts. It involves careful analogies to previous technological revolutions. It involves debates around whether or not technological progress is stalling and whether a return to growth is possible.

On the other hand, we have detailed situational models, full of incomprehensible minutiae, that seem to develop around specific important decisions. An example is the  set of mental models that drove the “fiscal cliff” farce, which just played out in the US Congress.  Another is the set of mental models in evidence around the SOPA/PIPA debate last year.

The first kind of mental model is so large-scale in its concerns, it is effectively a fatalistic level of analysis. The other kind is ineffectually preoccupied with each immediate situation in turn. It quickly drives itself into a dead-end each time, and defaults to buy-more-time decisions.

I’ve thought of an allegory for understanding economic creative destruction, that I’ll call Schumpeter’s Demon. It just might be capable of informing meaningful action.

The Ultimate Lifestyle Planning Guide and Map

Occasionally I get in a silly mood and make things like this. I’ve used the phrase getting ahead, getting along, getting away before as a shorthand description of the basic challenge of living life (an overload of a 2-pronged phrase from personality psychologist Robert Hogan: getting along and getting aheadand I like to use it to frame any writing in this general department.

I’ll do my annual round-up next week and then take the week after off, so consider this my holiday gift to you (festive colors, don’t you think?). If you have trouble unwrapping this (hehe!) some hints after the image.

You need some basic Venn diagram and yin-yang diagram literacy to read this. The colors have less symbolism, so you can get away without knowing color science 101. For more notes, read on.

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Notes on Spatial Metaphors for Social Systems

Distance metaphors are natural in any conversation about social phenomena. We talk of the distance between governance systems and the governed, guerrilla movements and host populations,  rich and poor, Chinese and American, Red and Blue.

Kevin Simler’s recent guest post made use of the standard geometric-metaphoric scheme, the Hofstede cultural dimensions model, to talk about startup cultures. The model also forms the basis for the analysis of globalization in Pankaj Ghemawat’s World 3.0, which I reviewed last year. So distance metaphors are very robust across a wide range of social phenomena, from small startups to the entire planet.

Topology — the study of the pre-geometric structure of a space, such as whether it is orientable or not, doughnut shaped or spherical, and so forth — is not as natural or easy to apply, but is also useful if you can pull it off, as Drew Austin’s recent post on the Holey Plane demonstrated.

When you do topology and geometry for social systems incoherently, you get frustrating books like Friedman’s World is Flat.

But more careful approaches aren’t safe either.  In particular, the more I think about Hofstede’s model, the more dissatisfied I get. Is there a better way? I’ve been playing around with a few very preliminary ideas that I thought I’d share, prematurely.

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