Photo by TORLEY from Flickr

Unbreaking the Wheel

The Great Game Over [SPOILERS] is an article I wrote about the Game of Thrones series, the final season, the ending, and the Internet reaction. This is the continuation of my thoughts along this thread.

The Breaking Wheel

Breaking Wheel, 1663. From Jacques Collot’s “The Miseries of War.”

A breaking wheel is a medieval torture device that provided scaffolding so that a prisoner is strapped to it could have his/her bones broken while being bludgeoned to death. It is a metaphor for a broken system that tortures its citizens, which reflects parts of our modern society — the scaffolding that is our civilization.

The Metagame

The current global social governance system of Humanity is and has been a broken breaking wheel. We have a long history of wars, power politics and games of thrones. Certain aspects of the wheel are a modern miracle and have created wealth, raising populations out of survival mode. However, we need to fix the wheel so that it stops breaking people and potentially breaking the planet. Unbreaking the wheel will require a new game design.

Daniel Schmachtenberger writes in Solving the Generator Functions of Existential Risk about the two primary drivers for the big problems facing us:

  1. Rivalrous (win-lose) games multiplied by exponential technology leads to existential, game-ending situations for Humanity.
  2. Managing our complex Earth systems using our current complicated civilization model (The Wheel) results in fragility and eventual collapse.

The intention of my recent writing is to unpack how these generator functions are manifesting in our current reality and to explore and clarify some thoughts on how to Unbreak the Wheel.

Rivalrous Games

The prisoner’s dilemma is a game analyzed in game theory that explains why in win-lose game mechanics, rational people often behave in ways that are counter to their own interests.

If you haven’t played this before, I highly recommend taking the time to explore The Evolution of Trust.

The key takeaways are that three things needed for the evolution of trust are:

1. Repeat Interactions — Trust keeps a relationship going, but you need the knowledge of possible future repeat actions before trust can evolve.
2. Possible Win-Wins — You must be playing a non-zero-sum game, a game where it’s at least possible that both players can be better off — a win-win.
3. Low Miscommunication — If the level of miscommunication is too high, trust breaks down. But when there’s a little bit of miscommunication, it pays to be more forgiving.

Of course, real-world trust is more complex than this. However, point #3 above really stands out to me. We have a culture and a society where miscommunication and misinformation are rampant.

The Failure of Media

To understand the roots of modern media, let’s take a look at the story of Edward Bernays, nephew of the famous neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. Almost exactly one century ago, Bernays was working at the Committee on Public Information (CPI), using propaganda to build support for US participation in World War I, domestically and abroad. Bernays referred to his work at CPI as “psychological warfare.” In an interview with Scott M. Cutlip, author of The Unseen Power:

“There was one basic lesson I learned in the CPI — that efforts comparable to those applied by the CPI to affect the attitudes of the enemy, of neutrals, and people of this country could be applied with equal facility to peacetime pursuits. In other words, what could be done for a nation at war could be done for organizations and people in a nation at peace.” -Edward Bernays

The Century of the Self, a 2002 award-winning documentary by Adam Curtis explores how “Bernays invented the public relations profession in the 1920s and was the first person to take Freud’s ideas to manipulate the masses.” In the first episode, Curtis says, “This series is about how those in power have used Freud’s theories to try and control the dangerous crowd in an age of mass democracy.”

The Rise of the Mad Men

As a society, as a culture, we have mastered the art of using images, videos, music, and storytelling to sell… We sell products, ideas, beliefs to each other. In this scene from the show Mad Men, the meta of selling is captured so brilliantly.

Mad Men: The Carousel

Advertising became the engine of capitalism, and we became very skilled at it. People, governments, corporations used carefully crafted messaging — storyboarded, focus-tested, and blasted out to the public. As this brilliant Steve Cutts film captures, our global culture became a machine to sell Happiness:

Happiness: A Film by Steve Cutts

The Cronkite Era

Meanwhile, on the news media front, journalism and broadcast television became the source of information about the world. Its values were integrity, research, and trustworthiness. However, it was also highly centralized and thus potentially controllable or at least manageable by the powers that be.

Walter Cronkite 1985. Photo by Bob Bogaerts

From 1962–1981, Walter Cronkite was the anchorman for CBS News and was often cited as “the most trusted man in America” who would end his broadcasts with his departing catchphrase, “And that’s the way it is,” followed by the date of the broadcast. There was a central source of trust for news that created a certain amount of coherence in worldviews and the agency to generate news and information was one (broadcaster) to many (receivers.)

I recently attended a talk by a former senior official from the Obama Administration and asked him afterward, “What do you think of Trump as a manifestation of the collective consciousness of America?” His response, “I don’t buy it. I don’t buy the social and economic arguments. Donald Trump is not a businessman, he’s an entertainer.”

To say that Trump is not a businessman is naive. To say that there aren’t social and economic issues that led to his presidency is ignorant. To say that Trump is an entertainer? Exactly.

The Age of the Celebrity President

The US media and entertainment industry is the largest in the world.

At $735 billion, it represents a third of the global M&E industry, and it includes motion pictures, television programs and commercials, streaming content, music and audio recordings, broadcast, radio, book publishing, video games, and ancillary services and products. The U.S. industry is expected to reach more than $830 billion by 2022, according to the latest Entertainment & Media Outlook by PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC).

Now, Donald Trump is not our first entertainer president. He’s just the latest.

In 1992, during Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, with some controversy, Clinton went on the Arsenio Hall show, put on a colorful tie and a pair of Ray-Bans, and played the saxophone.

The Arsenio Hall Show
Clinton’s sax-fueled performance on Arsenio, along with appearances on Larry King Live and an MTV town hall, marked a turning point in the polls, helping revitalize his campaign and tap a new cross-section of young voters and African-Americans.

In this article, Clinton’s media advisor, Mandy Grunwald says, “It was the end of one way of communicating with voters and the beginning of another. They just didn’t know that yet.”

Barack Obama winning the presidency was a milestone. Our first non-white president who was charismatic and compassionate. At the time it felt like the country and the world was finally on track. It was a time for celebration and optimism. We had Hope. At least that’s how it seemed…


Obama continued the trend, performing a stand-up comedy act at the 2011 White House, roasting Donald Trump and, during his 2012 campaign, appearing on stage with Jay-Z and Bruce Springsteen. The Age of the Celebrity President had fully arrived.

Planting the Seeds for a Trump Presidency?

Trump crashed through the 2016 Election like a wrecking ball. In the Age of the Celebrity President, a candidate with a reality television resume that included 15 seasons of The Apprentice and an entire storyline in the WWE, the entire political ecosystem didn’t know how to deal with him, especially not Hillary Clinton.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan and Antifragile talks about why people were blindsided by Trump’s victory in the 2016 elections.

Basically, the mainstream media is a presumptuous club for people with 
1. a lack of understanding of complex systems
2. a fear of diverging from the norm
3. zero independent thought.

A Cultural Hard Fork

Fast forward to 2019 and our sources of information and news have been tangled up in an asynchronized medium of communication that is primarily transmitted through various social networks and search algorithms, resulting in a disruption of our collective sensemaking apparatus.

Trump is a polarizing character. Republicans love him. Democrats hate him.

Gallup’s Presidential Approval Ratings

There is a rift in our reality… a cultural hard fork.

There appear to be two semantic gravities formed around the liberal belief that Trump is the Anti-Christ here to bring in a fascist state or the opposing belief that Trump is the Savior to make America Great again and freeing us from the “Deep State” by draining the swamp and #winning.

Neither of these is accurate and reality is much more nuanced. With the current state of social media, there is valuable content being created within the storm, but much of it lost in the noise and nonexistent attention spans.

There is an instinctive tendency on all sides to attempt to “break the wheel” in order to solve the problem. However, the reality is our modern civilization is something of a miracle. We have lifted billions out of poverty, we have developed technology akin to magic. Yes, there are issues. Yes, there are existential dangers. However, the first step is to rebuild our communication framework. The Internet and social networks are scaffolding that is creating a visceral cultural fragmentation. The Algorithm seems terrifying, but it could also be part of the solution if we can unbreak it.

Unbreaking the Wheel

To Unbreak the Wheel, the first step is to fix our communication framework. We need to be able to have civil conversations, to take a step back, and collectively view reality. This requires shifts in our collective consciousness and game design for our Civilization.

We need to improve our collective sensemaking apparatus so we can better understand reality. We need to build better systems that can handle our exponential population and technology growth and the global ecosystem. We need to heal our individual and collective trauma so that can remember that we are 7.5 billion human beings living on a garden spaceship called Earth. We need to collectively design a new Civilization Metagame that leads us to heal and prosper.

This is the most exciting and meaningful game that we can play.

It is the Game of Humanity.