Live versus Dead Players

Samo Burja
Mar 14, 2018 · 6 min read
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Xi Jinping

This is an excerpt from the draft of my book on Great Founder Theory.

When looking out into the world, it’s useful to distinguish between live versus dead players. A live player is a person or a tightly coordinated group of people that is able to do things they have not done before. A dead player is a person or a group of people that is working off a script, incapable of doing new things.


This distinction matters because it tells you how to act, offensively and defensively. Offensively, if you figure out whether a player is alive or dead, you can predict how they will respond to things and what that means you can do. If you find out that a player is dead, then you know that you can attack them in ways that are not known to them, and they will not be able to fight back. On the other hand, if you fail to figure out that a player has died, you might not realize that you can get away with replacing them. Defensively, paying attention to live players allows you to anticipate and prevent the grabbing of power, for instance.

The distinction between live and dead players also matters if you are trying to predict the future of society. If you pay attention to the landscape of live versus dead players in a society, you can predict what will happen in that society. Societies with few live players will stagnate; societies with many live players will develop and adapt.

Below we’ll describe the characteristics of live versus dead players in greater detail, which will help in distinguishing between them.

Live Players

Let’s review and explain the definition of live players. A live player is a person or a tightly coordinated group of people that is able to do things they have not done before.

Some Necessary Attributes of Live Players

Tight Coordination

A group must be tightly coordinated in order to be flexible and responsive enough to do things they have not done before. This allows them to take moves outside of the formal structure of the group, go off script, modify themselves, continue acting even if the outer form dies (i.e. imagine a team of people being able to continue working together even if the company formally blows up), and so forth.

A Tradition of Knowledge

The generation of new tactics, strategies, coordination mechanisms, and so on entails the production of new, useful knowledge. Thus, a live player must have a living tradition of knowledge. For the tradition of knowledge to be living, it must have at least one theorist, among other things.

Signs of Live Players

What are signs that a player is alive? One strong sign is a player doing things outside of their domain, which indicates that they can figure things out. Take Steve Jobs. Not too long ago, we saw Apple fighting against compliance with government backdoors. This means that Jobs had previously found a way around compliance, which means that Jobs was able to figure out ways to deal with the intelligence world. This was outside of his core domain of building companies. This is a strong sign that Apple, at least while piloted by Steve Jobs, was a live player. Another sign of a live player is exceptional individuals gravitating towards them. Such individuals tend to be good at assessing others, and will tend to seek out others who are also exceptional. If they cluster around a person or group, there is something exceptional about that person or group. Successfully reverse-engineering an attack is another, albeit weak, sign of a live player. Those who can make novel moves will also tend be able to reverse-engineer moves, but those who can reverse-engineer moves often lack the ability to create novel ones.


Live players frequently conceal themselves to avoid opposition from other live players or otherwise incite attacks. By concealing themselves, they delay other people’s responses to them. For example, Amazon branded itself as a book-selling company long after it stopped being merely a book-selling company. This helped it avoid having Walmart think of it as a competitor.

Note on Classification

Whether a player is alive or dead is always relative to themselves. Thus, a live player is not necessarily exceptional in its skill, although this is usually the case. So if a player has already done X, doing X again does not make them a live player, even if other players can’t do X yet or X is an impressive move. The player would have to make a move that is new for them in order to be a live player.

For example, Putin is a live player. The Russian state is doing things they haven’t done in a long time, things that were unthinkable a few years ago. They annexed Crimea, for example, and such a thing hasn’t been done in Europe for decades. They also completed a military operation in Syria, notable in part because Syria is outside of Russia’s sphere of influence (i.e. the post-Soviet sphere), where they achieved their foreign policy objective of stabilizing Assad. They didn’t have much time to develop the plan for Syria — perhaps three years — which means they had to pull things together quickly. And so this is a very strong indicator that Russia can figure things out, and quickly at that. However, one country having this kind of influence over another country is nothing new — it’s merely new for modern-day Russia, which is why we would deem Russia a live player. This same action taken by France in Mali would not indicate that France is a live player, for example, because France has routinely intervened in West Africa. A bureaucratized action, even if it is an impressive action, is not a sign that the player is alive.

Dead Players

We defined a dead player as a person or a group of people that is working off a script, incapable of doing new things.


What can cause a player to die? A player will die if their intellectual tradition dies and they are unable to replace their thinkers or theorists. Even if tight coordination remains, the player is dead. They will compete in old areas, but have a hard time expanding into new areas.

A player will also die if their tight coordination is replaced by formal structures, which can happen as members of an organization change. If you’re stuck in formal structures, you have to follow the script, and this won’t be adaptive enough. Remember, however, that tight coordination can be achieved by just one exceptional person.


How can you revive a dead player? It only takes one great person to revive a dead player. That said, reviving a dead player is challenging — more challenging than reviving a dead tradition of knowledge. In order to revive a dead player, you have to displace an existing power structure. It is frequently easier to do this by conquering the existing power structure with outside, owned power, than by trying to transform the player from dead to alive from the inside. This is because a dead player, if it is an organization, may contain mechanisms that preclude insiders from gaining enough power to restructure it into a live player.


Apple is a dead player. It became much less interesting and powerful after Steve Jobs’ death. Under him, it was a cultural and commercial force that was able to interface effectively with the US government. Now, it is a bureaucracy imitating his taste. It is incapable of adapting, building beautiful new things, and acquiring power.


It’s much easier to detect live players than it is to detect dead players. This is because seemingly dead players might actually be alive (and playing dead).

Read more about my work on my website.

Samo Burja

Written by

There has never been an immortal society. Figuring out why. I write on history, epistemology and strategy.

Samo Burja

Written by

There has never been an immortal society. Figuring out why. I write on history, epistemology and strategy.

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