Is your life a story or a game?

What does the difference mean for morals and values?

I’m having a medical diagnostic early next week that is modestly disruptive and therefore do not expect any issues for the early part of the week. Certainly possible, but doubtful. While I do enjoy producing this newsletter while I go through health issues, there are some things that make it difficult.

Speaking of which, if you haven’t joined our Discord, you should. It’s the best way for you to share items with me, and to engage with other members of the network.

Among our usual sources, you may notice we share a lot from the New York Times. We do this in part because we appreciate their perspective, but also because we’re a paying subscriber, and want to maximize that cost, while also sharing with those of you who do not subscribe.

Given the subjects we focus on, that also means we feel compelled to share this story with you:

In April, when a group of more than 650 software engineers, product managers, and data analysts at the New York Times tried to unionize, leadership not only declined to voluntarily recognize their union, but began to hold mandatory anti-union meetings. (Management, of course, had known about the union months before it went public.) 

The strangest thing about this, say Times workers, was how contrary the current approach runs to the Times' own long-held positions on union recognition—a contradiction the paper has not addressed, and seems unwilling to.

The effort at the Times is part of a broader wave of labor agitation in tech, involving software engineers in particular. At the end of April, NPR recognized a union of 64 digital staffers; last year, tech workers at Kickstarter successfully unionized despite a substantial anti-union campaign launched against them; and 20,000 Google employees walked out in protest of company culture in 2018. But the group of nearly 700 tech and digital employees at the Times would, if recognized, be the largest tech union so far. As author and tech labor expert Ben Tarnoff observes in The Making of the Tech Worker Movement, “tech matters deeply to American capitalism.” A large body of organizing tech workers, then, “should be of considerable strategic interest.” 

On April 22, a week after workers publicly announced the formation of the Times Tech Guild, Times CEO Meredith Levien sent an email to staff with the subject line "A Note From Meredith: Everyone Should Have a Voice in Representation." The email broke the news to Guild members that senior leadership would not voluntarily recognize them; instead, it will probably come down to a National Labor Relations Board election, in which a simple majority of voters decides the outcome.

This comes at a time when there is renewed interest in organizing highly skilled technical workers. In no small part due to coverage that the Times has contributed to. The concluding paragraph of the article sums up the paradox the old gray lady is facing:

For now, it’s clear Times leaders will continue to perform a balancing act — one Republican agricultural executives in Iowa needn’t bother with — in which they simultaneously attempt to maintain a time-honored image of progressivism and stop a worker’s movement. Perhaps it will work. Why would they risk the New York Times brand if they don’t think they can win?

Perhaps the problem here is that the Times is not putting in the effort to distinguish between narrative and game. In focusing on the game of keeping a union at bay, an almost instinctive response as part of the larger game of capitalism, the Times is missing the larger narrative of their hypocrisy.

David Garcia notes this distinction in one of his latest essays titled “Net Zero Democracy”:

Narrative maybe one of the “large categories or systems of understanding that we use to negotiate with reality” but it is not the only one and increasingly it is having to compete with a rival epistemic category; the game.

The author, prankster and activist Wu Ming 1 in conversation with Florian Cramer argued that calling toxic narratives such as Pizzagate, The Great Replacement etc, ‘conspiracy theories’ is a serious category error that runs the risk of de-legitimizing investigations into the many actually existing conspiracies. He prefers instead the term ‘conspiracy fantasies’. Importantly though he takes an important step further by arguing that it would be equally foolish to simply debunk these fantasies as however wild they invariably cluster around a kernel of truth that must be acknowledged and understood. It is futile to dismiss these ideas through techniques of fact-checking and the like which Wu Ming characterises as ‘primitive rationalism’.

We’ve previously argued conspiracy is more about identity than it is the content of the conspiracy, and the above argument supports that as it suggests it is the game itself that drives the conspiracy, and not the story.

Similarly playing the game, enables community, and belonging, just as it does not require verifiable knowledge or even static knowledge, as we’ve seen the QAnon crowd constantly shifting what they believe has happened or will happen.

I find this particular frame to be helpful, as it suggests as people who aspire to be critical thinkers, that we should always be asking ourselves, am I in a story or a game? Do I perceive my journey as a story or as a game? And what are the consequences of either?

If we entertain the idea that many people are approaching life as if it is a game, that helps explain some of the surreal and arguably unacceptable behaviour we’re increasingly witnessing:

Twitter avatar for @_FoggyDewFoggyDew 🌹 @_FoggyDew
Has CREEPY written all over it. Crime app 'Citizen', a private security company, has "subscription law enforcement service" The latest feature on crime app Citizen raises alarms as it accuses the wrong man of arson…

Joseph Cox @josephfcox

New: crime app Citizen is driving a security vehicle around LA and won't say why. Citizen confirmed to me it's part of a pilot program. The vehicle is linked to a private security company that describes itself as a "subscription law enforcement service"

Citizen, a popular app that tracks crimes in cities, offered a $30,000 reward this weekend for information on a man they said was an arson suspect in a Los Angeles wildfire.

Los Angeles law enforcement did briefly detain and question the man, but released him and later charged a different suspect. Citizen took down the post and apologized for the accusation — but only after broadcasting his photo to a reported 861,000 viewers.

Citizen wants to be the app that keeps city-dwellers safe by alerting them to dangerous crimes or incidents near them. It sends fire, car accident, burglary and covid-19 alerts to its more than 7 million users in 30 cities including New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Houston. For each incident, it shows updates the company gets from 911 and other sources, as well as live videos and comments from users at the scenes of incidents.

But its latest attempts to expand with live broadcasts, rewards for information, and on-demand private security are raising concerns. The company launched OnAir, its own branded live broadcasts about breaking news events featuring paid hosts, last month. In a stream last Saturday about the wildfire burning near the Pacific Palisades neighborhood in Los Angeles, a host identified and showed a photo of a suspect, which Citizen had not officially confirmed with Los Angeles law enforcement. The stream was first reported by Los Angeles-based reporter Cerise Castle who live tweeted it.

Crime is not a game, and vigilantism is the kind of violent activity that almost always gets out of control and ends up hurting innocent people.

Over the course of nearly seven hours, Citizen, under the increasingly frantic direction of Frame, conducted a citywide, app-fueled manhunt for a specific suspected arsonist. The employees went back and forth on how they should frame the manhunt they had started, who in Los Angeles they should notify via the app, and how often they should do it. 

In the Slack room with Frame, one staffer brought up a "loophole," pointing out that Citizen was violating its own terms of service that prohibit "posting of specific information that could identify parties involved in an incident." The staffer who brought up the terms of service violation was ignored in that specific Slack room, and the broadcast continued to specifically name the person and share his photo for hours.

Earlier in the night, soon after news of a fire broke, Frame said he saw the fire as a chance to catch a suspected arsonist live on the internet, therefore proving Citizen's utility to users and helping the app grow. 

"The more courage we have, the more signups we will have. go after bad guys, signups will skyrocket. period ... we should catch a new bad guy EVERY DAY," Frame said. 

Life is not a game, and yet there are growing cultural cues and frames that encourages us to regard it in this manner.

Yet the consequences of doing so are increasingly dangerous and irresponsible.

Is there a compromise to be found here? Can there be a means of regarding life as a game while mitigating or adapting our values to fit? Or are these concepts fundamentally at odds?

Something we’ll have to consider moving forward, as we’re in the process of designing a couple of semi-automated games, that leverage attention, and real world consequences. In no small part to measure just how much (young) people believe that life is best understood as a massive multiplayer role playing game.