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Game Audit Pitfalls (2): Bad Assumptions

The Empty Cries of Rebellion

Rebel Without a Cause Everyone sees something that must be fought, but thus far our rebellion has been scarcely more than a shouting match. Can we find something worth fighting for, or just convenient bad guys to blame for all our mutual problems?

Although I am a lover of those who tilt at windmills, I find it tragic that today's Don Quixotes seem to be driven by a blinkered rage, rather than a noble-yet-hopeless quest. Everyone rails against something, few offer something to strive towards. This ailment was diagnosed by Hannah Arendt half a century ago, yet still we go around in circles, shaking our fists at some scapegoat so abstract that opposing it carries no significant risk of effecting any useful change.

A catalogue of demons reveals the futility of our presumed goals. The crusade against religion has become so laughably self-referential it's a wonder anyone can take it seriously. The political Right's demand to reduce the funding supplied to government and protect freedom becomes farcical when compared against the many costs of war. The political Left's campaign against racism and sexism has gradually become the locus of a more rigorous bigotry than their opponents ever managed. The risk of holding Equality and Diversity as dual ideals is that they are in conflict with one another – absolute equality flattens the particularity inherent in diversity, making everyone equally no-one.

The windmill-tilters par excellence however are the undead remnants of Marx's dream, the enemies of Capitalism. The insoluble problem they face is the uncertainty of what they oppose. Is it private ownership? Ask the rebels to give up their homes and computers, and watch the indignation. Is it money? Our medium of exchange is unlikely to be our central problem. Is it the corporate rape of the natural world? Socialist government have not show a superior record on this account. Is it the sheer unfairness of the staggering caste system wealth has imputed? This was precisely Marx's cause in the first place! So many problems, so few solutions. Capitalism is easier to hate than it is to define.

Look not to the political activists to solve our problems, since once on the battlefield one can only fight or lay down arms. Sun Tzu wisely saw war as something that should be considered solely when all other options had failed – political partisans today start with war because they equate diplomacy with compromise, and their enemy is so loathsome that equivocation is blasphemy. Shame on us all for this empty warrior rhetoric. The enemy – if we must speak in such bellicose terms – is human nature itself, in all its variegated beauty. The outcome of this battle is favourable to no-one.

Both Left and Right go awry by trying to elevate the local to the universal – a feat of weight-lifting that will break our back before it can ever achieve peace. The Right has it correct that our local communities are a just centre of concern, but they have it disastrously wrong in their failure to separate these from national law or global empire. The Left has it correct that equality and diversity are noble ideals, but fail whenever these beliefs obliterate concern for individuals or local communities, and betray themselves utterly when supporting empire as a propagator of liberty.

And the anti-Capitalists, those beautiful fools who know not what they fight for? Ah, we may yet find the windmill for you to tilt at, but what will you do if it involves connecting locally instead of shaking a fist at conceptual foes who are conveniently intangible? The luxury of an intellectualised rebellion is that you don't need to leave your armchair. Real and lasting change may be a great deal more inconvenient.


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The way I see it, there are a couple of problems that haunt troublemakers on any side of the spectrum:

a) Overgeneralisation of observations and analyses. This is behind much of the scapegoating and bigotry we see in the world.

b) Unwillingness to empathise with 'the enemy'. This might be a result of a). If your mind about the other (overgeneralised) is already made up, the easier it becomes to hate.

There are probably a ton of factors I am ignoring, but these always scream in my face.

My personal problem is: what do I do about it, apart from striving not to fall into the same traps? Is it at all possible to curtail the above tendencies in people? This ambition entails a belief in a certain degree of human malleability, but that in itself can spawn political monstrosities.

Alternatively, do we simply accept the hollowness and hatred in our politics, and 'ride the tiger', to paraphrase a not wholly savoury Italian thinker?

Qwallath: The issue of 'the enemy' in politics is one I often find myself pondering. It seems to me that since our human nature sets up this tendency, and that this tendency (like so many) has both a positive (it is vital to community formation, for instance) and a negative side (it can block cross-community co-operation), we have to work with it somehow. We can't hope to eliminate it.

The big question for me is whether we should be tackling our political problems or our moral problems first - there is a tendency to skip morality and jump straight to politics. This, to me, is what helps keep politics as 'war by other means'. A new moral framework, one that doesn't get bogged down in political rhetoric, might help - or it might be insufficient. Either way, this is what I'm attempting in my next book "Chaos Ethics".

Political reform, it seems to me, is badly needed, but the nature of the required reformation could be in our narratives more than it is in the systems. If we can start productive new discourses, systemic reformation would follow naturally. What gives me hope is the sense that this is already going on, and that we can thus contribute towards it and hope to get a sufficient volume of voices that change becomes viable.

But then, perhaps I just enjoy tilting at windmills! :)

Where there is certainty one will find tyranny; where there is doubt one will find accommodation and compromise.

The worst enemy is certainty in the presence of doubt.

My lengthy response got eaten by free WiFi. I'll summarize.

Take a look at (anthropomorphic) climate change. Climate scientists agree it's a problem. Anyone with a modicum of scientific knowledge and the data can see a problem. But, the solution would be highly unprofitable for some industries. So, the fossil fuel industry is motivated to spend their immense wealth to ensure the profits don't stop.

One might see this as a failure of capitalism, where those with resources can guarantee short-term benefit to themselves with long-term harm to the entire planetary ecosystem. We've individually changed about as many lightbulbs as we can, now we need to do something bigger than an individual or small group can.

I think you can recognize a problem without knowing how to tackle it. This explains the feelings of rage and railing against a problem, I think. It may not be productive, but it's the alternative to lying down and accepting your fate.

Psychochild: thanks for persevering in the face of technical horror!

I definitely agree you can recognize a problem without knowing how to tackle it, and that this is frustrating, but we desperately need new ways of approaching our problems.

The climate change issue is an interesting one in this regard, for a number of reasons. Latour uses this as an example of the problem that we can no longer afford to believe in a mythical Science that will swoop in to save us with definitive answers, and that we instead need to develop new ways to engage the sciences in politics.

Your characterization of the fossil fuel industry as knowingly causing environmental damage for the sake of profits is only a half truth, I suspect - because of partisan psychological effects, those invested in fossil fuels are less likely to be convinced by arguments that seem to be geared directly against them, and the belief in Science as a source of definitive answers fails in the case of the climate where the research is never going to be definitive.

I don't see the current climate catastrophe as necessarily a failure of capitalism, per se, as that would assume that the solution would be alternative economic models - and this is very unlikely to be implementable. Rather, it is a failure of market legislation (irrespective of the ownership of the means of production), and thus of representative democracy to generate defensive legislation. But this, in turn, links back to Latour's problem about the relationship between Science and Politics. This may not be the place to start in coming up with a solution, but it's the clearest place to see the scope of the problem.

Thanks for the comment!

Chris: I think you ignore the link between economics and politics, which is the element that sheds light on why there's a failure in representative democracy.

Thinking like a scientist: Climate change is or is not caused by adding "greenhouse gasses" to the atmosphere. T way to see if this is the cause is to cut down on greenhouse gasses for a period to see if the trend changes. If the greenhouse gasses do not lead to climate change, we'll know for sure and can continue on. If they do, then we know we have to change this to prevent further damage to the environment. So, why don't we do so?

Basically, because this change would be wildly unprofitable for some people. It would take money to stop the increase in greenhouse gasses released into the environment. It would drive down the demand for fossil fuels, reducing profits there as well. So, we've seen documented, concerted efforts by these industries to discount and discredit the work done. They try to convince the masses of voters that their jobs and their very way of life are threatened by these crackpots know-it-alls who want to change things. "Jobs are more important than owls" is a somewhat recent example of this meme. But capitalism tacitly accepts that this behavior is just and right because these people have money to spend to support this position. (U.S. culture also tends to erroneously associate wealth with virtue, so many people tend to feel the wealthy are more worthy of attention than others.) But, to paint this as a political problem ignores the fact that learned and concerned scientists have to compete against very wealthy industries able to afford advertising to influence voters and lobbyists that more directly shape laws.

To speak to the larger philosophical issue of science as providing "definitive answers", I think that's a problem with what you've referred to as positivism. Positivism should not taint science any more than the sins of organized religion should taint spirituality. The scientific method is a useful tool for helping us to understand the world around us through observation. It's when people have the ironclad belief that science explains everything, and thus anything outside of science does not really exist, that there are troubles. I like to point out that science can only explain things we can measure, and that there are still a lot of things we cannot measure.

Psychochild: thanks for adding to our discussion! However, I'm not sure I ignore the link between economics and politics, neither am I convinced that this is the cause of the disconnect in representative democracy.

In your thought experiment about greenhouse gases, you take a philosophical position that seems to be affected by your political beliefs - suggesting that the reason we don't conduct a gigantic planet wide experiment on greenhouse gases is because "some people" would suffer lower profits. But the reason we don't conduct this experiment (other than the fact that it is likely to be inconclusive and could take years to complete) is that the entirety of Western/North Atlantic civilisation runs on an infrastructure dependent upon the industries you want to accuse in isolation for the problem. Your proposed experiment would only slightly hurt the oil interests (since the price of oil rises each year, so those with access to oil are worth more as the value rises) but it would put out of business all shipping and trade, bankrupt a great many mid-sized national economies and generally collapse the majority of contemporary economic activity. We can add to this the fact that many nations, I think we could extend this to all nations, would be unlikely to want to play along. It is straining credibility to suggest that the barrier to this experiment is simply a few rich people - you're asking the people of the US not to drive; this will generate more outrage than any fat cat could hope to engineer! :)

You have a very Liberal political perspective on this, one that wants to assign blame to the wealthy few. No doubt there is plenty of blame to be pushed in that direction. But the entirely of the blame cannot be placed there. Again, ask the people of the US to give up their cars for a week - for a day even - see how well this goes down! You are simultaneously overestimating the influence of people who are admittedly, via their wealth, highly influential, and underestimating the influence of the populace at large who are, via their numbers, potentially even more influential. That the former seem to hold more influence is a consequence of the ease of alignment inherent in commercial powers, and the concurrent difficulty of alignment of diverse individuals. In terms of the failure of representative democracy, I want to suggest that the latter problem dwarfs the former.

The mythology that the wealthy few are in complete control of the fate of the world overestimates the extent that management and finance have control over what transpires - they certainly push collectively towards the maintenance of the status quo, but then so does everyone else. Untying this Gordian knot will take a lot more than pointing a finger at the rich.

"I like to point out that science can only explain things we can measure, and that there are still a lot of things we cannot measure."

Indeed! :)

Thanks again for continuing our discussion!


Hrm, you seem to be making an awful lot of assumptions about the way I think from this discussion. As much as I'd like to believe the comfortable lie that there's some shadowy conspiracy directing things, I don't quite buy into that. I'm also an entrepreneur, so if I simply hated wealthy people I'd have a real hard time making a go at it.

However, I do believe that people and groups will spend money to ensure profits, and I've seen enough well-documented articles and documentaries. In fact, this is an imperative of capitalism and the business laws in the U.S., because not maximizing profit leads to shareholder lawsuits. So, this isn't some "damned rich people screwing us over" emotional argument, this is an understanding about how capitalism affects economics in a real way in our current society.

Maybe climate change is too charged of an issue. But it's topical, and we've been hearing people talk about it for along time. But, it seems you're taking the exact opposite tack you accuse me of: who said I wanted to wipe out the shipping/trade industries or for people to just stop driving altogether? Why can't we start with increasing requirements for fuel efficiency to reduce the greenhouse gases? Or, how about we adjust fuel costs in the U.S. to approach what Europe pays? (Or did transportation industries in Europe suddenly collapse and people stop driving and I wasn't aware of it?) We could take a lot of intermediate steps (and could have been taking these steps in the last few decades), but something seems to be holding it up. As far as I know, it's not people in the streets rioting to demand the government not increase fuel efficiency requirements. The energy lobby doesn't toss multiple millions of dollars at politicians every year because they just like spending money; they expect a return on that investment. Unfortunately, if the climate scientists are correct and we need to change our habits, each year we don't means that even more severe changes are required down the line.

If you don't want to talk about climate change, we could talk about the consequences of drilling oil from underwater and the destruction that can bring when there's a spill and how oil companies are all to happy to leave problems to volunteers and the government to sort out. Or, we could talk about the profit motive in the pharmaceutical industries where treating a symptom is much more profitable than creating a cure, and how that has lead to tremendous price pressure in health care that become economic problems. Or if you want to flip to the other end of the political spectrum, we can talk about how politicians of all stripes work hard to get government money spent in their own districts even if that isn't the optimal result for state/country as a whole, creating waste. Hell, three words: "campaign finance reform". I can pull out examples of how capitalism affect politics all night, albeit with a U.S. slant.

So, going back to your original problem about rebels who are all smoke and no fire; how do you fight against a system that is the only think you've ever known? When other intelligent people won't even agree there is a problem? Where people with a vested interest in the existing system wield the power to make sure the system remains intact? Again, you can spot the problem without knowing the solution.

Happy to have an insightful conversation. I just need to catch up on some of your other articles so perhaps my comments will seem a bit more timely. ;)

Psychochild: Glad that I misread you! I thought I might have done, but decided it might be interesting to pursue that angle all the same. ;)

"I'm also an entrepreneur, so if I simply hated wealthy people I'd have a real hard time making a go at it."

Ha - quite! :)

You make a nice turn in the conversation here, that I don't feel the need to counter-point. I will briefly say that when trying to make a point about our economic life, 'climate change' is probably a bad place to go precisely because this has a deep and complex political life of its own that is never as clean cut as it looks at first glance.

Your example of the pharmaceutical companies is much more clear cut, and I believe a better example of the kind of problem we are actually both talking about - albeit from different angles.

"So, going back to your original problem about rebels who are all smoke and no fire; how do you fight against a system that is the only thing you've ever known? When other intelligent people won't even agree there is a problem? "

Perhaps my position could be summarized by saying that the system isn't necessary the problem, and is certainly the hardest thing to change. The problem isn't necessarily that other people don't agree that there's a problem, it's that we all see *different* problems. We are desperately in need of better diplomacy if we want to foster better activism - but this flies in the face of the angry politics we have all accepted as the unavoidable condition of life. Change this, and we can change anything.

Thanks again!

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