Disinformation and Digital Democratic Practice
Institutional and Collaborative Asymmetries in IT.
I just brewed a pot of chai after I recorded this, but I got a good haircut last weekend. So I will look different than last time. I extemporized this morning on the meta behind Glen Greenwald in his exposé of some MSM broadcast called 'Morning Joe’ which lies far outside of my media diet. For the record, I stopped getting my news from TV back in 1992 when I basically OD’d on Charlie Rose, still missing the good old days when Bob Maynard shot the breeze with George Will and Cokie Roberts, not to mention McNeil and Lehrer. BTW, what’s up with Brian Williams? A cryptic ending indicting nobody in particular. Maybe he’ll write a book worth reading. Funny you have to wait for 30 years for some of these talking plants to be forthright, even when they’re not, like James Clapper. Anyway, to the abstract.
An institution has much more ability to sustain the disciplined process of moving data [data → information → knowledge → wisdom] into properly informed action.
It will take me some time to assemble more of what I’ve written on this over the past decade or so, but it’s a goal for the new year. In the meantime, here is too much information for the hungry reader. I’ve decided to reprint it whole, as if it were originally written for this, but once you get through it, you’ll understand what I am hinting at in the video. No, I’m not saying success in democracy is like a videogame. I’m saying that information dynamics are important and collaborative players (voters) have more time and energy to route around obstacles placed in the system than system administrators (officials) have to try and constrain their actions. This is true despite the asymmetry of institutions over the individual. In governance, there are serious ethical questions to consider beyond game theoretic ways and means. Nevertheless, glitching is important, and Assange / Wikileaks are glitchers. What the voting public has not learned is to use the massive compute and telecom power available to them in order to collaborate democratically. The masses still think in terms of sit-ins, demonstrations, street protests and talking-head TV shows.
Glitching vs Learning
My theory of information dynamics says that knowledge cannot be maintained without the expense of energy. I'm finding an interesting inefficiency in my gaming lately. The presence of exploits both expands expertise and decreases propriety.
It is inevitable that as much as I game, that I will be using analogies to that in life. Get over it. Because Lombardi. But just in case you need an intro, here's a thick paragraph about the Destiny Raid:
Destiny is a free-roam open sandbox videogame in which the player takes on the avatar of a Guardian. A soldier who runs individual and small cooperative missions against legions of extraterrestrial baddies. The area of operations is the inner planets of the Solar System, Earth, Venus, Mars, Earth's moon, and Mercury. This sort of gameplay (PvE) falls into three categories, Patrol, Strike and Raid. Patrols are random in that there are not specific targets for your activity, although one can select various mercenary missions while on patrol. You can go solo or with up two two buddies as your loot and shoot. Strikes are more crafted adventures with a brief bit of story to get you going - rather like the messages at the beginning of Mission Impossible, you are assigned to take down this and such boss, facing several preliminary battles along the way. The Raids, however are the showpiece and crown jewel of Destiny. On a Raid, you need six players to accomplish tasks that are impossible to guess. Magical things happen that are not obvious, the rules of physics are bent and the team must figure out a way to overcome them. More than just sequences of enemy attacks, but changes in the physical environment take place on the way to beat the final boss. There are no instructions for these battles. Teams have to figure out what works.
Now I'm going to talk about one particular Raid level and the exploit we have been using. It is the second level of the Crota Raid. Interestingly enough, I don't know what it's called. But here's how we play it, and playing it this way made me think about glitching and learning. In case you're not familiar with the term, 'glitching' means taking advantage of a weakness in a systems and short-cutting the process in a way contrary to the way the designers had in mind. For example, if you're hiking down a series of switchbacks, you might literally cut the corners by going down the middle of the hill instead of the gradual left and right on the beaten path.
As our team enters the second level, we are stand at the top of a set of stairs over looking a pair of plazas. Between the plazas is a cliff. Each plaza is about 200 meters east and west and 75 meters north and south. The gap between the two is about 150 meters. On each plaza are three 10 meter radius circles forming a shallow triangle that points to the other plaza. The top of each triangle is the circle that lies at the foot of an invisible bridge between the two plazas. In the feet of each triangle are tall structures that hover above the center of their respective circle. These, are called 'totems'. So there are four totems, two on each side. The play begins once a player descends the staircase and enters the plaza.
Behind the near plaza is a large room cut into the face of the mountain. Our method is to hide five players in this room at its extreme rear while one player goes out and excites the enemies. How exactly he does so is a mystery, I've never seen what he does. I'm one of the hidden players. After about 30 seconds, two things happen. First an enemy called a Swordbearer comes out of the hidey room from a small door on the right, below the platforms upon which we are hidden. Then, all of the enemies that have generated out on the plaza disappear leaving just the Swordbearer. We all then go out to the plaza and attack the Swordbearer who drops the sword. One player is designated to stand at the bridge circle, this materializes the invisible bridge between the two plazas. Two other players are designated to stand in the totem circles. Once gameplay begins, if no players occupy those circles the totems will begin to glow red, and after about 20 seconds destroy the entire team. The trick then is to create the bridge, destroy the Swordbearer, and keep the totems quiet. Then one player can take the sword across the bridge and face another enemy, the Gatekeeper.
The most difficult part of this part of the game is that usually there are multiple enemies swarming the plaza harassing the players in the totem circles. The difficulty is defeated by the team using the rear platform of the hiding room which, for the purposes of generating enemies, makes the presence of the five hiding players invisible. Destiny levels up difficulty by taking into account the number and strength of the players. Few players, few enemies. More players, more enemies. By hiding, we eliminate the possibility of the game generating more enemies.
In this version, all of us go out onto the plaza. One player must be the sort who can regenerate his life after death. We go and thin the enemies a bit. When the Swordbearer comes out we degrade him a small bit, but then all of the players jump off the cliff in close proximity to each other, including the regenerating player. The game begins a countdown clock to resetting the level and just as it hits 1 second, the last player regenerates his life and then restores the lives of the other players. The effect is that the multiple harassing enemies do not regenerate and only the Swordbearer is left. He can then be dispatched in short order and the sword taken across the bridge.
Both of these methods are effective in eliminating the primary difficulty of defending the totem circles from swarming enemies while trying to kill the Swordbearer, who is more than any single player can defeat in a short period of time. Doing this will creating the bridge adds to the chaos, which is reduced through these glitchy methods.
However the result is that I personally, and certainly many other gamers who have passed through this level have done so without having experienced the game the way on presumes the designers intended. However this is different than a cheat because we were given an environment whose rules were discovered by experimentation, not explicitly laid out by its creators. The aim of the game is to survive and advance. Whatever works, works. Or as the meme says 'Everything bows to success, even grammar'.
We avoided the difficulty of the challenge of harassment incurred defending the totems, by convincing the game that we didn't exist.
Harassment incurred defending the totems is a particularly apt way to describe a lot of life's challenges present in society every day. It has the virtue of allowing one not particularly skilled at defending totems to survive and advance. One might possibly, through all of the shortcuts, manages to beat Crota, the goal of the Raid. That's a win. The game only polices itself, but there's a meta game as well. How you beat Crota matters in some circles. Ultimately, the most skilled players will figure out how to defend the totems and win, or not waste their time doing so and still win. After all, only multiple wins in the Raid can gain you all the gear randomly distributed at the end of the final boss battle.
I'm not so much interested in the ethical question here, because that's ultimately longitudinal in the meta game. Either the game creators will fix the exploit - say by resizing the hiding room, or find some way to raise the difficulty in another aspect of the mechanics of the Raid. The designers do indeed update the game to block usage of those exploits they deem to be 'cheese', while leaving others intact. That feedback loop is thus is self-correcting and the game becomes ultimately what the designers intend it to be. Their decision for popularity of a game level, or difficulty is the balance they must strike. But what about the knowledge?
I said at the outset that the presence of exploits increases expertise and decreases propriety. If I beat the plaza level, then I am an expert, whether or not I take the architected path. I will continue to play the way I do and teach others to play the way I do. They in turn will play according to the method they learned. There's an interesting dynamic at work in such cooperative endeavors obviously involving leadership and expertise but also consensus. Everybody on the team doesn't necessarily want to learn so much as win. So it's not so very likely that someone playing with the same circle of friends that team up to raid will learn multiple methods. Only going outside your small circle will you come to better understand the mysteries, and how many of them will be actually doing it 'the hard way' as the designers intended?
The proper way to beat the game involves defending the totems. (Sorry if I can't get over the aptness of the metaphor). And yet when certain methods are employed, that task - which was added for the purpose of making things more challenging (and fun?) - disappears as do the consequent difficulties. The skill of defending totems is lost, and over time their very meaning can be lost. As more experts figure out more alternatives to gaming the game, the rationality of the game design itself can come into question. This happens all the time in Destiny, as in life.
There is a meta game to which we take on various levels of care. The method by which you approach the game is a signal of your skill in the game, which others will interpret as you temporarily collaborate. But glitching itself is a skill which is not only valuable to the player who aims to survive and advance, but to the designer who has an opportunity to eliminate, modify or let the exploit remain. Sometimes you want to play with glitchers, sometimes you don't.