On Expertise

(Or, Notes from the Ludocapitalist Front)

No, not the melee dps (and tanking) stat, beloved by my feral druid though it is. This is a post about competence, and the shifting status of it as the twentieth century has turned. And it was all prompted by my ludocapitalist car.

We bought a Camry hybrid on somewhat short notice this summer (the computer on one of our cars had failed quite spectacularly), and it wasn't long before we saw just how differently the Toyota's makers had imagined the relationship between vehicle and driver compared to the more conventional cars we had driven before. Immediately obvious was the large variety of display options. The car is happy to let you know precisely whether the coasting (or braking) wheels are charging the battery, whether the engine is driving the wheels, or the battery is (or both) -- this with the help of little icons for each and shifting arrows updated every second. In addition there are multiple displays with principally numeric information about miles driven, driving range, and so forth.

Another display is the stair-stepping one pictured above. Tracking your mpg since the car was last turned on, it begins to fill from the left once your mpg exceeds 25. With this display you can see from moment to moment just how your actions contribute to gas mileage, and before you know it (if you're like me), you're engaged in trying to inch it up ever further. You coast just a bit more, you moderate your speed, you avoid jackrabbit starts. And, if you've really done well, by the time you turn the car off you may have topped 35 mpg. What does the car do then? It flashes, in all caps, "EXCELLENT!" I half-expected it to ask me to enter my initials for the high score list.

That Dibbell character's stuff has drawn our attention to the ways in which our work and consuming life seem to be increasingly game-like, and our Camry certainly fits the bill. What I want to muse about here is less the worthy ramifications of these developments for our Western conceptions of work and play, and more what they tell us about changing ideas of the human under (and maybe out from under) modernity in the American context. (I'm going to range a bit in the course of that, and I hope you'll stay with me.)

We can see how complicated American ideas about competence are in several vastly different contexts. In the political realm we've recently endured another election season here in the US, and without getting too partisan I think it is safe to say that yet again an American ambivalence about expertise was on display. The cultural competence of performative command over a given subject or area can raise suspicions about "elites" and thus in such contests expertise can often be intentionally obscured (one is reminded of the contrast in the previous decade between Bill Clinton's "Bubba" persona and his far less often-broadcast ability to do the Sunday NY Times crossword in pen), while populist claims about ordinariness are amplified. In popular entertainment media, and closer to our subject matter here, one might also notice the Pixar films of Brad Bird, The Incredibles and Ratatouille, both of which seem to be meditations on this broad social problem with excellence. (I think it's for this reason that they feel so different from the Pixar films of Lasseter and Docter, which are virtually all about relationships.) Where does the ambivalence about expertise seen in both of these domains come from, and how might the current moment's broad incursion of games into the previously routine help us to sort that out?

I would like to suggest that, on the whole, the imagined user of technology (and imagined worker in a factory, or technician in a lab) in the past was quite different from what we are seeing today. The driver of a car from the 1970s was, yes, expected to apply competence to drive the car, but in some sense this competence was assumed to be pretty uniform. Its basics were disseminated through standardized driving instruction, and drivers were generally not asked to "perform" their driving to maximize things like mileage. Even efforts to respond to the 1970s gas crisis were broad recommendations, or universal speed limit adoptions, or simply more fuel efficient cars. The focus was on changing the conditions for a universal user.

This modern idea of interchangeable individuals, not asked to bring any specific competencies to the situation, was (and still is) reflected in many other domains. In the lab, a properly written lab report for an experiment is supposed to allow any schmo to come along and perform the experiment, with invariant results. Yes, there are broad assumptions of cultural competence, such as literacy, here, but those are qualities which are again defined by their sharedness. Individual distinctiveness here is suspiciously subjective, and collides with the positivist effort to have "neutral" experiments. Never mind the fact that critical expert observation and evaluation saturates scientific work. The modern idea of the individual gets bound up in some pretty silly claims about things like science.

In the factory, individual difference is not only politically suspect, but also often contrary to the material design of the space, as well as management strategies for imagining available labor. Consider the category of "rate busters," in midcentury American manufacturing. These were workers who were able to perform tasks at a faster rate than their peers (or than their peers were willing to perform, an important point), and who were subject to abuse by their fellow workers for running the risk of raising management's expectations for all.

The post-WWII American imagining of individuals and technology has slowly moved away from this model, beginning with the ideas of people like Norbert Wiener, who began to see participants in technological systems not as undifferentiated actors relatively independent of the technical systems, but instead as having the potential to affect those systems variably. Here are the roots of a specific version of homo ludens -- the "gamer" we see rising to prominence today. But there is a modernist faith that persists even here, one that presupposes that, while there are performative differences among those users, they will in aggregate contribute unfailingly to optimal emergent effects. The digital hand at work, as it were.

What games do is complicate this picture in several ways. Incorporating game design into the making of technology reflects this new imagining of the human, one which makes performative demands on users. But it pushes against the ambivalence toward competence that has marked American social life. What is more, it disguises the emerging social distinction between the users, who have agency to act within contrived and complex systems, and those with agency of a different order -- to contrive those systems themselves.

I'm not sure where this will all lead, of course. Perhaps de Tocqueville was right, and the drive for equality in the US (which began as the anti-aristocratic drive for equal treatment under the law) always tends to push aside and devalue liberty, in the sense of the distinctive or different individual view or ability. But I am more concerned that the rise of users as gamers leads us away from asking difficult questions about, for example, how the locus of governance and public policy may be shifting away from government -- public policy under the hood, as it were. In a post-bureaucratic world, are we liable to mistake our agency within an array of game-like systems for all the agency we'll ever need?

Comments on On Expertise:

dmyers says:

I dunno bout all that, but I can say my reaction is that I now want to buy such a car much less.

Most closely matching thought: That damn annoying beep that clicks on when you don't buckle your seatbelt.

If you don't choose to play, it's not a game.

Posted Nov 18, 2008 2:05:26 PM | link

PJ says:

In a post-bureaucratic world, are we liable to mistake our agency within an array of game-like systems for all the agency we'll ever need?

Unlikely. The issues of creation and maintenance (who set up and who keeps up the post-bureaucratic system) and enforcement (who makes sure people follow the rules) will always be a resort to the controlling agency. By way of analogy, consider: in an MMORPG, most people have few dealings with the GMs unless 1) they're causing trouble and need to be dealt with (enforcement) 2) they've found a flaw in the design or a bug in the system (creation/maintenance). These things inherently require people to deal with them: 1) because not all rules can be encoded in the engine 2) because it takes someone with extraordinary powers to fix a broken rule (or code) in the system.

Posted Nov 18, 2008 2:05:33 PM | link

Thomas Malaby says:

Agreed, PJ, but I was considering such encounters with those institutions part and parcel of participating in them. That is to say, I'm not sure that such appeals get at the root of the issue I'm concerned about, which is their legitimacy as governing social institutions at all. For conventional governments, we have at least a rough idea of via which avenues political legitimacy may be questioned, and the likelihood of that. I don't feel the same way about Google, for example.

Posted Nov 18, 2008 2:12:41 PM | link

Andy Havens says:

Nice post, Thomas. Interesting stuff.

I've partly developed a partial theory that in our new flat, connected, wired/wireless, info-rich, mobile, fast-change world, we're moving from "gatherer" modes to "hunter" modes. And many games give us "hunter" style clues, so they are going to be more easily incorporated into appropriate activities. Also, there are many more opportunities for games that help make us better hunters as opposed to gatherers. So, again, a nice overlap.

My basic theory is that agriculture (and agricultural society) came from gathering behaviors that reward repeated activities, predictable outcomes, good definitions and adherence to strict systems. If your job is to go and pick (or plant) Plant A, you will make more work for yourself and others if you veer off and fill your basket with Plants B, C and D. Doing one thing, very well, is the hallmark of many agricultural activities, and (of course) many industrial ones. Square peg goes in square hole. Study Subject A and get an entry level job as a Junior A and eventually move up to VP of A.

Hunting, though, is different. It's (more often) a group activity and requires environmental awareness, a set of related skills (wide as opposed to deep), the need to be flexible and respond, and goals that can change from moment to moment. You never plant corn with a curious, excited wonderment of, "I wonder what plant will come up this year!" On the other hand, it's not unusual to go out hunting for one animal and come back with another; if they show up and you can eat it, rock on.

I don't want to get too detailed on the metaphor. But I do think it helps describe why some of the things we do now (continuous partial attention comes to mind) are seen as a negative by some and a positive by others. Hunters require continuous partial attention to any given detail; you can't ignore what you're hearing while you look at the path. You can't stop walking in order to orient yourself (at least not for long).

Game-y clues like your MPH are fun from a hunter perspective; I drive not just to do Thing A (get to work), but I invest the *activity* with meaning.

Posted Nov 18, 2008 5:14:51 PM | link

Adam Hyland says:

No comments on the larger theme, but I do know that the ludic nature of commercial objects in general and cars in particular has been present in Japan for some time. Games like the Tamagotchi present a bridge of sorts between games and these game like devices (To put a picture in your mind of the kind of devices we are talking about).

Toyota made a concept car in the early 2000s (do we have a non-cringeworthy term for this decade, now that it is over?) which looked like a cross between a smart car and the EVA pod from 2001--the car had lots of features (which never made it to production) like drive-by-wire, swivel seats, etc, but the main changes from more traditional cars were the game like qualities. Principally, the biggest change was that control of the car was through a controller. Toyota billed the concept car as a paean to generational change. New drivers would immediately recognize a game controller as the 'natural' means to control a car. Much like fans of the Madden games grow up to watch football in a different way then their parents do, Toyota expected that children raised on the Super Famicom would feel comfortable with a controller rather than a steering wheel. I know that this part of the gaming experience isn't what you are getting at, but it is one facet of convergence.

Posted Nov 19, 2008 12:52:05 PM | link

Neils Clark says:

Public policy under the hood. I think that's a problem inherent to monopolies in other media as well. But how would you really break away from it - even if you realized its problems? While there are some good historical imperatives and works covering civil disobedience aimed toward government - one of the keys to maintaining even that is public information. Good journalism. The kind of stuff that's getting edited (sometimes pre-publication, sometimes just drowned out in other messages) to an unknown degree as the medium of power shifts from political power and money - to ideas and money.

It almost seems that right now the real sovereign, the real power holder in our country and world, is the media. It's interesting because here is an industry whose bread and butter is ideas, who ostensibly represent the communities they serve. At what point do people forcibly democratize their local television and radio stations, or their games? There are imperatives for forcing the will of the people into government. But revolting against the media? That gets troublesome.

But in games, accounts can be blocked, classes can be nerfed, player advocacy guilds might be disbanded. On Amazon, thousands of posts against DRM technology can be wiped clean. There are lines that a sovereign might cross, lines that might well be ironically similar to those crossed by revolted governments through history.

@ Andy - our brains are always changing to reflect the activities we perform, modifying themselves to maximize feeling states. In 'games' (here I'm not talking about all virtual worlds as well - some of those don't have any more imbedded gameplay than RL), on some levels motivation becomes a 'minimization of unexcitement' rather than a hunter's 'minimization of starvation.' A lot of players look to keep the rush going during game time, minimizing downtime. We adapt, and in so doing can change how our brain reacts to situations.

One thing that's interesting are the differences even between the skillsets, muscle memory so forth that you build and grow accustomed to as a rogue, versus those of a druid, or priest, let alone a resident of SL or of RL.

And so, again at Thomas, I think that the answer is yes, for now. If only because the minimization of unexcitement is a stark contrast to the side of our existence that deals with the more survival-oriented feeling states. The media has both a political and a psychological power. Protest will happen, especially under abuses, but in a sense we're protesting against media, art, expression, that we identify with. Identify as a part of our lives, part of ourselves.

Run by really rich dudes.

Posted Nov 19, 2008 12:53:26 PM | link

Thomas Malaby says:

Thanks for the great comments, folks. I'm out of town at a conference at the moment, and can't give proper responses, but I did want to drop a link in to the car that I *think* Adam referred to, the Toyota Pod. There are great images, including one of the integrated controller, here.

Posted Nov 19, 2008 6:36:21 PM | link

Adam Hyland says:


That's the one. I couldn't remember the name and kept running into search results for the Toyota "Personal Mobility" concept car--not the same thing.

Posted Nov 19, 2008 10:24:01 PM | link

Adam Hyland says:

An update: wow, read that press release... "Using various sensors that detect and store information on the drivers' preferences at home and at work, driving conditions the car can gauge the driver's level of skill & hurriedness.", "The car acts upon this information and offers feedback, thereby contributing to driver growth." That is what I remember from the auto-show. Feedback from the car vis driver performance was a big part of their presentation.

Posted Nov 19, 2008 10:26:48 PM | link

greglas says:

Nice essay!

"In a post-bureaucratic world, are we liable to mistake our agency within an array of game-like systems for all the agency we'll ever need?"

Aren't we already there? The odd thing about ludocapitalism is that post-industrial capitalism has always been deeply ludic -- about manufacturing the desire for symbols of wealth and status as much as manufacturing the things that meet those manufactured needs.

The more specific question, though, is whether putting the game inside the machine and the software (literally under the hood) presents some new problems. McKenzie Wark's book on "gamer theory" has some interesting riffs on this -- I'm sure you've seen it.

This seems to echo the themes of the Command Lines conference, btw.

Posted Nov 20, 2008 2:59:14 PM | link

Gene Koo says:

I had a somewhat related post here about the Prius "game" linking more closely to the insights of "Nudge" and how feedback systems, by their design, can encourage or discourage certain behaviors by their mere presence. Is this what you mean by "post-bureaucratic world"?

On that tip I have more thoughts on what I've casually called "Codelaw", the embodiment of our laws into code that actually executes with real-world consequences. I suppose there is a range between the explicit laws that I identify (e.g. food stamp distributions, voting machines) and what might be better considered "design" and was, maybe, once "policy" (e.g. the interface of the food stamp software can radically change how a food stamp worker allocates benefits, even if all of the code properly implements the law).

In my most optimistic view, we can learn from games' most immersive properties to more consciously imbue our systems with the values we want and avoid the ones we don't.

Posted Nov 20, 2008 5:00:50 PM | link

Thomas Malaby says:

Again, thanks for the comments, everyone. Greg, yes in some Frankfurt School sense late capitalism has those game-like qualities (I think the market always has, but that's another discussion). But the crucial difference is that that manufacturing of desire (conspiracy theories aside) was the outgrowth of a complex set of unbounded factors.

What I think is different about what we're seeing now (and this relates to your reference to Wark's work) is that institutions are beginning to imagine the human differently and incorporate game design into how they govern. They intentionally and explicitly contrive complex systems within which that gaming human (of a particular sort) performs.

This is a vast difference from how modern institutions operated for most of the history of capitalism, when they worked from a rational bureaucratic approach to governance of themselves and their subjects (as the OP gestured toward, this was based on a different picture of the human). The ways in which those institutions, in their bureaucratic logic, differed from both the market and certain political forms (such as democracy) is connected, I would surmise, with all sorts of interesting clashes throughout that period. So the point is that, while game-like aspects of our experience have always been around, we're seeing institutions beginning to see the human differently and becoming increasingly interested in finding ways to bring game design techniques into how they go about their business.

Posted Dec 2, 2008 12:31:51 PM | link