I’ve been thinking about the collective failures in society that necessitate heroes to save us. Personal computing is an example. Could we have gotten an iPhone without Steve Jobs? I’m thankful that in the tech industry we’re all coming around to making more usable products. We seem to be asking ourselves, What would Steve make? Did getting that compliment kill him? We shouldn’t require someone to go through what he did in order to get great products. We should just expect them; and producers should just know that. What set us to up to require an epic character like him ‘save us’ from bad design? What reductionist worldview put us on the track where we had settled for mediocre, disconnected user experiences that required a savior in the first place?

Perhaps it was the profit motive that made Microsoft separate hardware from software in order to allow more companies to create products on the Windows OS. This created a disjoined clunky user experience. Mac OS was more tightly coupled to the hardware, and the expectation for a Zen-like product essence drove Steve to form a seamless user experience. Motives have their own logic. We see it today with politics as well. Corporations, whose behaviors are driven by the profit motive, seem to run everything these days, from the Supreme Court who rules corporations are people in Citizens United, to the politicians who fast-track approve for environmentally detrimental dirty energy projects. The game of democracy has been changed for the worse by it’s own rules.

How you frame the game has everything to do with how we play it. The annual review process in a corporation is another example: the rules of the game dictates someone is going to lose. So the behavior dynamics kick in, and while everyone is playing by the rules, at the same time they are stretching them as necessary to ensure they are not the losers. The loser is the guy who let’s failures stick to him. The company values talk about collaboration and respect. It is all win-win, except for the last person on the stack, for whom it is no-win. If you’re last, by definition you don’t belong, so we tune you out! Otherwise, we continue to stroke each other’s career. This is the zany logic inherent in the corporate performance game.

It comes down to what we measure, because that drives the behavior. Campaign money making such a difference in success indicates we are valuing the wrong things. We are used to listening for sound bites to cue our political choices because we’re so busy consuming stuff and too lazy to get informed. We’re programmed to listen in the wrong way. We don’t know how to look for the right metrics in a politician’s behavior. Is this ignorance our fault or just a function of how the political game is setup? Should we blame ourselves or the game for the need for heroes? If a company had a different performance review game, would people behave less like they are on an episode of Survivor where collaboration is always short term, and each one is ultimately out to cut as many competitors out as necessary to win?

I’ve written a lot about shifting our worldview. Shifting our way of thinking won’t change anything if the underlying rules of the game work against that, however. Revolutions change the rules of the game. Revolutions are driven by pain points and ideas that promise to make those go away. Art and innovation can change our way of thinking, the questions we ask and how we frame solutions. Perhaps there is a slow way to change rules in the right direction without revolution? The fact that democracy has morphed in one direction would give us hope it can be morphed in the other.

In any case, the need for heroes is a symptom of a broken game. The more saviors we need, the more messed up our socio-political structures are, and the more likely we will need a revolution. What does this mean for our worldview shift? One thing is for sure: to impact the game, the world view must be practical. It has to have a pragmatic applicability dimension that applies to behavior. Otherwise our ideas won’t be a foundation for a new game. We can’t be looking to a hero from outer space – whether it’s Jesus coming back or the aliens who communicate through crop circles.

We’re an over-gamed society. Why do we need a game in the first place? Good games should optimize how fit we are to attain a certain benefit, a desirable outcome. They put us on the same plane, with the same rules, and give us vocabulary that all the players understand. They give us cohesion. They also produce losers. The interesting thing about losers, though, is that many of them could be winners in a different game. On the flip side, many of our winners are really quite disgusting soulless predators. It seems our games have failed both winners and losers.

Can we get many of these benefits without a win-lose game? We tend to think of economic growth as good for all. What we mean is that it’s good for the First World, primarily North Americans and Europeans. However, that growth pattern won’t scale – the planet won’t sustain five billion people living a First World lifestyle. In assessing the worthiness of the game, the question of the game’s horizon comes into play. Rules that work well for one scope break down as that scope is increases. We see that in cloud computing, where old assumptions about high availability servers are untenable at web-scale. Availability has to be pushed to the software so data centers can scale with commodity servers with higher failure rates. What works for enterprise IT does not work for the cloud. So what are the new rules that should apply?

Perhaps we can reverse engineer them: what rules foster scalable humane behavior? The issue really comes back to discovering the right behaviors. The game will fall out of that – if we even need a game. Let’s pivot that idea in our minds: you don’t start with a game and define the rules. You start with behaviors that work for everyone at scale, and drive the right rules and games out of that.

You don’t need a game to have all the benefits of games. Social cohesion can come from the culture, the common language fostered by shared stories and the camaraderie comes from collaboration in artistic endeavors. Thus to shift our world view we have to shift our focus to understanding scalable behaviors. Values, while absolutely important, are not strictly personal, or simply a matter of collective preference. They can be judged by the behaviors they foster.

Scalable behaviors with pliable games will save us from the tyranny of bad rules, and mitigate the need for heroes on that dimension. Scalable behaviors won’t save us from mediocrity, bad taste, crassness and perversity. We will still need heroes, but these will be more like the exemplary role models: the artists, engineers, doctors, teachers, craftsmen and others who elevate our humanity. They are idols of example, not revolutionary heroes.

To the extent Steve Jobs elevated our aesthetic sensitivity, he should be idolized. He also provided tools for us to think differently. Unless the pattern for Apple as a company can scale to all companies, he actually failed as a hero of fundamental transformation. He created another mega-corporation, which only validates the current game. There may have been a desire in him to change the game itself, and perhaps the beautiful tools were a first step. But it was not sufficient. The Apple aesthetic hinted at a new game, and loyalists pine for the real thing. Essential products as a tokens of another game. That’s the Apple mystique.

Re-writing the game will require us to think differently about the means, not just the ends. As long as we’re empire building in our product plans, we’ll only be validating the current game. That’s one reason there’s an open-source community and open organizations. Personally I would like mythic awareness to be an organic movement of voluntary participation, and not an IP holding company — which is why I publish these ideas freely. Yes have to make a living; but not an empire. We have to change the value network, as my friends at Sensorica like to point out. We need a new village-ethos in the West.

Scalable behaviors have to be our new religion. When the rules of the current game work against them, we have to change those rules at all cost; otherwise keeping the rules will cost us everything. So how do we change the rules? Can we start with understanding those behaviors and making a collective effort? Supposedly we’re still a democracy in America. It must be possible to change the rules if enough of us will it so. The test for democracy is not whether we can change our politicians and lawmakers. The test is whether we can change the rules.

— Roy Zuniga
Ballard, WA

Copyright 2012 roy zuniga – all rights reserved