Puzzles and Mysteries

The Enron story seems to be everywhere at the moment. The movie was on the TV the other night, the papers all have bits about the sentencing of various lesser players and Malcolm Gladwell has written a piece for the New Yorker which he describes on his blog as a ‘semi-defense’ of the company. His basic argument is that the investment and business journalism communities were just as much to blame because they didn’t spot what was going on.

The piece isn’t purely about Enron though. He describes information problems as either ‘puzzles’ or ‘mysteries’ and gives a number of other examples of approaches to solving them, including how to find Osama Bin Laden and how the Allies worked out that the Nazis were developing the V1 bomb during WWII.

It made me think back to The Long Game which I helped write along with Paul Skidmore and Jake Chapman. Jake is a professor of systems theory and he encouraged Paul and me to think of regulation as a complex problem rather than a complicated one.

A complicated problem is one where if you understand the constituent parts you can make an assessment of what’s going wrong. A complex problem is one where you can’t; you need to look at the way that the parts are interacting and even then it will be difficult. In the pamphlet we called complicated problems ‘difficulties’ and complex ones ‘messes’.

Regulators are part of the systems that they are trying to regulate and don’t have the level of perfect control that they (and other actors) sometimes try to portray. This is one of the reasons you often get unintended consequences of regulation and why almost all policy dilemmas are messes rather than difficulties.


Steven Johnson has a great piece in the New York Times Magazine today about Will Wright’s Spore. He writes about ‘zooming’ as the motif or our times — those moments when you switch scale radically but the patterns remain similar.

I first heard him talk about the idea at a talk he did for us at Demos last year. It struck me at the time that not only is it interesting but it’s also a really useful way of thinking about research. Unless you can spot patterns on multiple levels it’s unlikely that you’ve really got a handle on what’s going on.


There’s no escaping the similarities between the lonelygirl15 saga and the plot of William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition. From the Washington Post:

“The plot [of Pattern Recognition] centers on mysterious bits of video posted anonymously on the Internet. The shadowy black-and-white videos, called “the footage,” appear to feature a pair of lovers and hint deliciously at a larger, magnetically compelling story. The footage inspires a cultish following on the Web, including chat rooms, parodies and investigations — just like those created around lonelygirl15 — and the novel’s hero is dispatched by an advertising wizard to track down the filmmakers so the phenomenon can be monetized.”

The Wikipedians have done an excellent job of telling the unfolding story of lonelygirl15. It seems to have come to an end for now with a series of public admissions that it was staged, although the scene is set for it to develop more into an ARG.

Gibson blogs chaotically and confusingly, but he’s noticed the Post’s piece likening lonelygirl15 to his book.

I had a few thoughts on Pattern Recognition the first time around, when I realised the ideas in the book wouldn’t go away.

I have to admit lonelygirl15 thing has creeped me out a bit. It made me realise how manipulative compelling storytelling can be in a networked environment. Perhaps it’s because as Gibson himself has said, “Emergent technology is, by its very nature, out of control, and leads to unpredictable outcomes.”

I think we’re just seeing the beginnings of a new form of art and/or business.

Games and public policy

There’s a good piece on BBC News Online about serious games, including a bit about the apparently successful Cyber Budget in France:

“Fed up of people continually complaining about their taxes, France’s ministry of finance developed a video game, so now the people themselves can have a go at doing the minister’s job of balancing the country’s budget.”

A few years back I played a game the EU developed to illustrate how fishing stocks behave as a complex system. I know quite a lot about complexity — and I guess thought I knew the issues — but the game brought home to me in a dramatic way the disastrous effect that small changes in population of one species can have overall and how difficult it is to get fishermen to change their behaviour.

I don’t know of any UK Government departments working on games at the moment but I think they should. Maybe it’s something David Miliband could do as a way of developing the idea of personal carbon credits he proposed a couple of weeks ago. We could set up an online game where the emissions due to your behaviour can be measured and traded. Maybe we could develop a Kyoto Expansion Pack for the Sims Online or a carbon trading scheme for Second Life. We might even learn something about how people react to the system.

I’m also fascinated by ARGs like I Love Bees (created by 4orty2two entertainment) at the moment. I’d love to do one in London next year. It would have to be completely engrossing, great fun and teach players something about the city and themselves all at the same time.

Maybe it’s something we could do with Pick Me Up

Al Gore at Hay

I’d heard so much about Al Gore’s powerpoint presentation that when he didn’t do it in Hay, I was a bit gutted. Instead he simply spoke, wandering across the huge stage in the main tent without visual aids. Behind him a vast screen relayed his every expression and gesture from a TV camera with a fractional delay. It made me feel slightly seasick.

He started well, although I’d heard the gags already:

“I’m Al Gore and I used to be the next President of the United States.”

“You win some, you lose some, and then there’s a little known third category.”

But the stories he told didn’t quite work. They were about him becoming normal after the craziness of being ultra important. Although self deprecating, the humour was safe and didn’t reveal too much about the man. It was hard to empathise with him refueling his Gulfstream in the Azores at midnight and finding out that the speech he had just given in Africa had been misquoted in Washington.

And then he got onto the real reason he was there — to talk about climate change. It was all good stuff and I learned a few new things. He tried to make us realise that this is an urgent problem. He called climate change a ‘planetary emergency’. He talked about the stark evidence that we are changing our environment in ways that have never happened before. But maybe because I already believe that climate change is a problem and we need to do something about it, he didn’t really rock my world.

I suppose (perhaps naively) I wanted him to give solutions. But as soon as he got onto the practical stuff, he became fuzzier and sounded like a politician again. He was slippery when Peter Florence interviewed him afterwards although to be honest the questions weren’t very good. Florence fell into the trap of trying to interview an American politician by asking questions as if he were a British one. Americans have little respect for media interrogators and will just go on to say whatever they like anyway.

The reports on the BBC and in the Guardian said Gore got a standing ovation, but it didn’t feel that electric to me. More like the grudging ‘oh God I suppose we’d better give him a standing ovation’ of Labour Party Conference than the instant spontaneous outpouring of emotion I’ve felt in concerts and, yes, the occasional political speech — Robin Cook’s resignation over Iraq springs to mind.

All power to Al Gore. I hope he succeeds in spreading the message about climate change and I’ll help him do that. But when you’ve managed to create so much hype about yourself you need to deliver, otherwise goodwill evaporates quicker than you can say ‘I invented the internet you know’.

I don’t think Al Gore will be the next president of the United States.