The race to nowhere, a snapshot of civilization

A fanatic redoubles his efforts when he has forgotten his aim (Postmann)


Around 2020, your phone operator will upgrade their network from 4G (LTE) to 5G. The 5G will be 1,000 times faster than 4G. To this I may pose some questions: What will be the implications of this upgrade?; Will it require an upgrade for the network infrastructure? Will it require that we upgrade our various devices so we can be connected? What will be the social, ecological implications? And above all what problems will it solve?


For whatever reasons, society seems to be in state of need for speed where everything has to get better, faster, and bigger.

Almost every one can testify under oath that they are in the process of making something better with the rationales that these improvements will make better the way society conducts its business; which is making things better. The ambiguity of the goal makes it impossible to determine whether an endeavor is worth its expense or not.

Surprisingly, we have come to define our live’s worth by the work we do which is finding problems and striving to fix them at the cost of creating more problems. Unavoidably, ‘..our inventions become nothing more but improved means to an unimproved end.. incomprehensible problems mount, as the concept of progress fades, as meaning itself becomes suspect, we stand firm in believing that what the world needs is yet more information. To the question ‘What problem does the information solve?‘ the answer is usually ‘How to generate, store, and distribute more information, more conveniently, at greater speeds than never before’. (Neil Postmann)

Qualifying for the race

Almost all work starts with the identification and description of a situation of interest, usually a problem. This takes a form such as: there is some phenomenon which is causing an undesirable condition, for which a group of people, will attempt to intervene to minimize the occurrence of the undesirable condition. Sometimes, it doesn’t take the existence of an undesirable condition but the desire for an external excitation or amusement from some phenomenon.

Resources are earmarked to be used in such endeavours. Licenses are issued, equipment and machinery are made, workers are recruited/trained/educated and the earth, without representation, provides the resources.

When a company of any sort comes into existence, it requires the support of other companies to go into operation. The support is usually given in the form of goods and services that are used in the duration of a company’s operating life. If such support companies are not available, the new company must acquire the means to provide them for itself.

Starting the race

So a group of people organized into a company commence efforts to intervene in the identified problem. A constant change in resources, people, materials, and machinery used come into play. The resources have to be mined, changed from one form to the other, or moved from a place to another.  Similarly, the people involved in the mining and transformation of resources or provision of services also have to be mined (from their community), transformed – usually trained – and also moved from one point to another.

At this point it is fair to say that all hell breaks loose! In most cases, this is an understatement. Once hell has broken loose, the once seemingly identifiable, and isolatable problem loses its boundaries, and seemingly enlarges. As a result, more resources and support have to be brought into play to address new problems that sprout in the midst of addressing the primary one. They, the resources used to address emerging problems, add on to the litany of emerging problems, for they too have to be mined, transformed and moved. And so on and so forth.

The problems are always wicked but so is the race

In almost all cases, in the midst of mitigating an undesirable condition, other undesirable conditions arise. To some extent, this is always known beforehand. In fact, in issuing operating licenses, respective authorities also have to issue licenses for the creation of other problems. For instance, an energy company will be awarded a license to operate and a provision to release a given amount of pollution. In other cases, the derived solutions are themselves problems, cause problems or do not address the intended problem in anyway.

Eventually, what starts out as a simple, describable phenomenon becomes complex and too widespread to be properly contained leave alone to be dealt with, in any meaningful sense. To convincingly continue operations, a company must delineate the identified problem in a manner that conceals obvious problems arising during the process of attempting to solve the primary problem.

Lets illustrate this (mathematically) in a generalized manner.

The solution S for a delineated problem P, consumes uncountable resources nR and produces new problems nP, and affects various externalities nE, assuming that S is achievable.

For a problem p, S = nR + nP + nE

Where E = (un)foreseen/(un)known consequences that are unattended or cannot be tended to…

Resources used in S are in various forms including natural, human and materials.

thus Resource (R) = Materials (M) + human (H) + Nature (N)

The resources also create new problems nP; since they (materials, nature and humans) have to be mined and converted to one form or the other or moved from a location to another and maintained by or through other resources,

Since S = nR + nP + nE, and R = M + H + N,
Then S = n(M + H + N) + nP + nE

but if S is the solution for problem P; 
then P = S and nP = nS
S = n(m + h + n) + nP + nE 
S = n(m + h + n) + nS + nE
S = n(m + h + n) + n(n (m + h + n)) + n(nP + nE)
S = n(m + h + n) + n(n (m + h + n)) + n(nS + nE)
S = n(m + h + n) + n(n (m + h + n)) + n(n (m + h + n)) + n(n(nP + nE))

and so on and so forth... 

The number of problems created increase in direct proportion with the number of problems ‘solved’ but so does the number of resources used up and the number of externalities affected. This illustration assumes that the solutions derived actually solves the respective problem.

Why there is no end in sight

As we may deduce from the mathematical illustration above, attempts to solve a problem inevitably, result to new problems. Any attempts to address the emerging problems to lead to the creation of yet another set new problems. Once this problem identification → solving → creation → solving cycle becomes established as the norm in a society, the society enters a race whose end is never sight.

If there is no end in sight, then we are in a race to to nowhere! Even though we may use science to defend our efforts to improve our situation, we are nonetheless actively engaged in creating a dystopia.

If the attempt to solve a problem brings forth other problems, then the sum of activities undertaken in all endeavors are in the negative. As a result it is possible that all measured aspects of the undertakings improve, while new problems increase and the surrounding externalities deteriorate.

If you remember the questions posed at the beginning of this article perhaps it may be worth to consider them. Specifically, What problems does a 1000x faster network solve? What problems does it create? Does it mean that the engineers will have to get back on the drawing board and start working on 5G capable devices and infrastructure? Does it mean even more resource have to be shoveled from the environment, get hauled halfway across the planet for processing and manufacturing and then hauled the other half to be consumed and then back another half to be disposed off in someone’s backyard? And all these to be done in time for 6G?

Effects of competition in education [Video]

Alfie Kohn on Competition & Education

Also see effects of evaluation on learning

we’re especially obsessed with measuring our children’s education. Children have become pawns in contests that pit parent against parent, teacher against teacher, school against school, and nation against nation in the struggle to see who can squeeze the highest test scores out of their kids.  We are depriving our children of sleep, depriving them of freedom to play and explore; childhood—in order to increase their test scores – Gray

User experience, a broader perspective

Defining User Experience (UX)

UX is concerned with the qualification (+/ quantification) of externalized (+ observable) behavior for a person using a specific tool (+ service) to complete a certain task in a given setting.

As a branch of usability, which itself is concerned with productivity (effectiveness, efficiency), UX is task oriented. It is concerned with the qualification of observable user behavior in the process of achieving a clear intentional goal.

For instance while usability may be concerned with the quantification of how fast and effectively a user can use a smartphone app to take and share a picture, UX may be concerned with externalized behavior in the process of taking and sharing a picture using that app.

Externalized Vs Internalized experiences

If UX focuses on qualifying externalized user behavior, it is not concerned with qualifying internalized behavior; i.e. the impact of the task on the user. Confoundingly, the qualification of behavior exhibited while using a specific tool to complete a task reinforces the necessity of the user to carryout the task.

It is one thing to qualify what a user does during work and another to qualify what the work does to the user.

For instance, UX may qualify externalized behavior for students using a specific app in their learning, but it does not qualify behavior internalized by the students during schooling. In addition, in qualifying the app, UX reinforces the necessity for schooling. (See Gatto, 1992 – invisible curriculum)

The connect percentage

In the sport of boxing, it is not enough that performance is qualified as a win or a loss. Because of the high possibility that a boxer who lands the most punches may lose a bout, another method of quantifying skill is necessary. A connect percentage is used to quantify the number of punches a boxer lands as positive and the number of punches landed on them as negative. Few boxers have a positive connect percentage. In the sport, connect percentage broadens the perspective for qualifying boxers.

If UX only qualifies externalized user behavior during work, then whatever is qualified is minuscule considering what is left out and the sum of the two.

Work Vs Play

If work is the process of carrying out actions in order to achieve a clearly identified goal, then work is concerned with productivity. On the other hand, if play is the process of carrying out actions without the necessity to achieve a clearly identified goal, then play is not concerned with productivity and is undertaken for its own sake.

If UX is concerned with qualifying externalized behavior during work, then UX cannot qualify internalized and externalized behaviors during play. As a result, UX is concerned with the transformation of play in to work for the sake of qualification.

Mechanizing the human experience

If there are a 100 ways to kill a rat, a rat killing machine can only accommodate a few, if more than one. Consequently, human ingenuity has to be set aside to qualify externalized behavior for a rat killing machine.

If we set our spontaneity aside and deny our originality in order to operate machines, then we make ourselves into machinery in order to operate them. There is no style in operating a machine; the more efficient the machine, the more it either limits or absorbs our uniqueness into its operation.

If we make use of machinery in the belief we can increase the range of our freedom, and instead only decrease it, and if UX is concerned with qualifying behavior externalized when using machinery at work, then UX is concerned with the mechanization of behavior for the sake of qualification.

Conforming behavior

If UX is concerned with qualifying externalized mechanized behavior, when a worker’s spontaneity and originality has been set aside, then UX is concerned with conforming user behavior for the sake of productivity.

Momentary Vs Sustained behavior / short vs long term impact

UX qualifies externalized worker behavior during the usage of a specific tool to accomplish a task. As a result, UX is concerned with externalized behavior in the moment of work and not necessarily concerned with the long term behavior.

Tools (+ services) that may seemingly be qualified as having good UX in their moments of usage, may in the long run be injurious to the user.

Qualification based on fallible cultural values,

When the integrity and existence of memes in a society is manipulated either via the promotion or suppression of select memes, then the points of references for meaning making are inherently compromised. The qualification of such meaning will by default also be compromised.

As a result, UX may be a reliable qualification of externalized meanings of work but may not always be valid.

If a society comes to believe that peace must be pursued by force, or that its existence is only possible via the control of others, then its usage of machines of war and control may qualify highly in UX while the acts of war and control may be questionable.

“None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.”


  • Law, E. L. C., Roto, V., Hassenzahl, M., Vermeeren, A. P., & Kort, J. (2009, April). Understanding, scoping and defining user experience: a survey approach. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 719-728). ACM. Chicago
  • Carse, J. P. (1986). Finite and infinite games.
  • McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality is broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world.
  • Gray, P. (2012). Can you measure an education? Can you define life’s meaning? Available from:
  • Gatto, J. T. (1992). Dumbing us down. Philadelphia: New Society.

To be interested is to be consumed

To be interested is to be consumed. Any property, idea or habit that we engage in consequently consume us.

The genuine principle of interest is the principle of the recognized identity of the fact or proposed line of action with the self; that it lies in the direction of the agent’s own self-expression and is therefore, imperiously demanded, if the agent is to be himself – Dewey.

Characteristics of interest:

  • Active, projective, or propulsive; to be interested in any matter is to be actively concerned with it. The mere feeling regarding a subject may be static or inert, but interest is dynamic.  
  • Objective; Interest does not end simply in itself as bare feelings may, but always has some ,object end, or aim to which it attaches itself to.
  • Subjective; it signifies an internal realization, or feeling, of worth. It has its emotional, as well as its active and objective sides. Wherever there is interest there is response in the way of feeling.

Interest marks the annihilation of the distance between subject and object; it is the instrument which effects their organic union.

If to consume is to use up a resource, and if an interest uses up our mental and physical energy in the time that we engage with it, then in engaging in the interest, we are consumed.

Consequently, by having an interest, we inhibit ourselves from having other interests when they are not related to our engagement in the primary interest.  By choosing to engage in an interest, one is in return consumed by it. Inherently, an interest to be engaged in consumes the mind and body in a manner that the individual can have no relation with other phenomena.

In order to be fully consumed; to optimally engage in one’s interest, an informed reflection on the self is necessary.

The unexamined life is not worth living - Socrates

If informed reflection can be seen as an empathetic interaction and relation with nature, then one can analyze the consequences of their engagement in a given interest.

If by claiming ownership to property means dispossessing it from others, then an individual seeking to claim property ownership must be vigilant so as not to compromise the well being of others. If owning property affects the owner’s relation with the dispossessed, then owning property, also, inherently, affects the owner.

To be optimally engaged is to be in a state of potentially intense, optimistic interaction and relation with the world; where one may feel fully alive, full of potential and purpose, completely activated as a human being.

Optimal engagement is also characterized by intrinsic motivation; voluntary participation in a phenomenon out of personal interest, with one’s sense of purpose, mastery, and autonomy.

The paradox of interest is that it has to be engaged in. In fact, we can barely exist if we ceased to be interested. At any given time, an interest occupies us; our thoughts and bodies.

If in having an informed reflection in our interests we are vigilant so that we do not compromise the well being of ourselves, nature and others, then, in being optimally engaged, we do not seek to create waste in nature or others but seek to let ourselves, others and nature thrive – the encouragement of spontaneity in others by way of one’s own, the respect for source (intrinsic motivation), and the refusal to convert source into resource (extrinsic motivation).

Waste is a consumed interest which no one engages in; whose value one cannot or one has chosen not to utilize further.

To dispossess nature or others of their interests is to create waste. This is not to mean that nature or others can be dispossessed of their interests (value) but that we as a society can choose not to utilize the value that nature or others have. In fact, we do so simply by rearranging our societal patterns in a way that reduces our ability to respond creatively to the patterns of spontaneity that nature and others present to us (Carse).

Life is the great indulgence – death, the great abstinence - Lavey

Further reading:

  • Carse, J. P. (1986). Finite and infinite games.
  • Dewey, J. (1896). Interest in relation to training of the will. Public School Publishing Company.
  • McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality is broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world.
  • Engagement Spectrum, Causes and Effects matrix

6 Indiscernible effects of technology on society

Of all articles (that I’ve read) discussing the impact of technology on society, I find these (Carse’s) elements indiscernible yet fundamental to having a holistic view to the use of technology in society.

We use technology against ourselves.

Machines do not, of course, make us into machines when we operate them; we make ourselves into machinery in order to operate them. Machinery does not steal our spontaneity from us; we set it aside ourselves, we deny our originality. There is no style in operating a machine. The more efficient the machine, the more it either limits or absorbs our uniqueness into its operation. Because we make use of machinery in the belief we can increase the range of our freedom, and instead only decrease it, we use machines against ourselves.

We use technology against itself

Just as we use machinery against ourselves, we also use machinery against itself. A machine is not a way of doing something; it stands in the way of doing something. When we use machines to achieve whatever it is we desire, we cannot have what we desire until we have finished with the machine, until we can rid ourselves of the mechanical means of reaching the intended income.

We do not purchase an automobile merely to own some machinery…it is not machinery we are buying at all, but what we can have by way of it: a means of rapidly carrying us from one place to another, an object of envy for others, protection from the weather.

Similarly, a radio must cease to exist as equipment and become sound. A perfect radio will draw no attention to itself, will make it seem we are in the very presence of the source of its sound. Neither do we watch a movie screen, nor look at television. We look at what is on television, or in the movie, and become annoyed when the equipment intrudes-when the film is unfocused or the picture tube malfunctions.

When technology functions perfectly it ceases to be there-but so do we.

Radios and films allow us to be where we are not and not be where we are. Moreover, machinery is a way of hiding our inaction from ourselves under what appear to be actions of great effectiveness. We persuade ourselves that, comfortably seated behind the wheels of our autos, shielded from every unpleasant change of weather, and raising or lowering our foot an inch or two, we have actually traveled somewhere.

The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it (Weiser)

Such travel is not through space foreign to us, but in a space that belongs to us. We do not move from our point of departure, but with our point of departure. To be moved from our living room by an automobile whose upholstered seats differ scarcely at all from those in our living rooms, to an airport waiting room and then to the airplane where we are provided the same sort of furniture, is to have taken our origin with us; it is to have left home without leaving home. To be at home everywhere is to neutralize space.

If effective, the machinery will see to it that we remain untouched by the elements, by other travelers, by those whose towns or lives we are traveling through. We can see without being seen, move without being touched.

When it is most effective, technology will have no effect at all.

When most effective, the technology of communication allows us to bring the histories and the experiences of others into our home, but without changing our home. When most effective, the technology of travel allow us to pass through the histories of other persons with the “comforts of home,” but without those histories.

We use technology against each other

Using it against itself and against ourselves, we also use machinery against each other. I cannot use machinery without using it with another.

I don’t talk on the telephone; I talk with someone on the telephone. I listen to someone on the radio, drive to visit a friend, compute business transactions. To the degree that my association with you depends on such machinery, the connecting medium makes each of us an extension of itself. If your business activities cannot translate into data recognizable by my computer, I can have no business with you. If you do not live where I can drive to see you, I will find another friend. In each case your relationship to me does not depend on my needs but on the needs of the machinery.

We operate each other like machines

If to operate a machine is to operate like a machine, then we not only operate with each other like machines, we operate each other like machines. And if a machine is most effective when it has no effect, then we operate each other in such a way that we reach the outcome desired-in such a way that nothing happens.

  • Carse, J. P. (1986). Finite and infinite games. p.117 – 130

Effects of evaluation on learning

How is it possible to write a procedure for absolutely every possible situation, especially in a world filled with unexpected events? Answer: it’s impossible. [Yet] procedures and rule books dominate industry. – Norman (1998, p156)

Evaluation requires that a known phenomena be measured or quantified against its former self or another.

In learning, this can be seen as being ‘backwards’ for what is examined or measured is always known beforehand. This implies that students cannot be engaged in creating or having novel experiences in learning as there would be no standardized way of measuring outcomes of such a process.

As a result, learning is a replay of the past. As long as it is measured, every aspect of it has to be known beforehand including its outcome, all the elements to be measured, the units of measurement, the rules governing the measurement, the subject (objects) to be measured and so on and so forth.

For the measurement to occur then, the phenomena has to be performed in a closed environment, where space, and time boundaries have to be imposed on the subjects. Carse refers to this phenomenon as theatrical, because everything that happens in it have been planned, rehearsed and done before, the ‘future’ outcome is also already known; all that is required of the participants is to re-live the past and to do so seriously to make the ‘acting’ real and believable. This, Carse says, requires an abandonment of one’s freedom, which is achievable through self-veiling.

Intrinsic motivation as immeasurable;

One and a more important aspect however remains immeasurable; intrinsic motivation, simply because its personal and unique for every individual in any phenomena. What is measurable on the other hand; extrinsic factors, are accounts that justify an involvement in terms of means and ends relations, in terms of function or subordination to larger organizational objectives, in terms of success of failures, or in terms of factors that enhance performance criteria.

Intrinsic motivation escapes comprehension for outside observers without appreciation of particular skills, conceptions and learning abilities that people bring to a phenomenon. Any operationalization of these experiences in terms of objective measurements, as provided by mechanical devices or scales imposed upon those who have these experiences, fundamentally fails or at best correlates with the phenomena to be explained and encouraged.

Designers acknowledge an intuitive ground, another kind of knowledge they cannot easily talk of but in emotional terms, whether these express admiration, visual pleasure, or simply the desire to touch or possess the object of their emotional attention. People with intrinsically motivating experiences are similarly short of words describing what they experience. Thus there are 2 kinds of understanding to distinguish:

  • Embodied understanding – a manifest in doing and in the case of intrinsically motivating activities, in doing something self-pleasingly well
  • Discursive understanding – manifest in accounting experiences to others,

Carse (p. 134) argues that we understand intrinsic motivation of others when we understand our own. He continues to explain that this leads us to abandoning all efforts to explain the intrinsic motivation of others when we see that our intrinsic motivation and uniqueness cannot be explained. With intrinsic motivation, individuality cannot be measured because it is not equitable to another. We can only see the difference, and uniqueness that one is from another.

We understand nature as source when we understand ourselves as source. We abandon all attempts at an explanation of nature when we see that we cannot be explained, when our own self-origination cannot be stated as fact.

…nature is absolutely unlike. An individual recognizes nothing on the face of nature (since everything is different from the other)

Evaluation creates Waste Persons (Carse p.134)

Measurement and evaluation categorizes people into classes; we shape and fit nature into one or another set of societal and institutional goals. In so doing, we create 2 classes of people: 1) workers: those whose source (genius) can be exploited as resource (for productive work) and 2) waste persons: those whose source does not fit into resource that society wants.

Waste persons are those no longer useful as resources to a society for whatever reason, and have become apatrides, or non citizens. As waste, they must be placed out of view – in ghettos, slums, camps, retirement villages, jails, trailer parks… It is society that declares some persons to be waste. Human trash is not an unfortunate burden on a society, an indirect result of its proper conduct; it is its direct product.

Education vs Training (Carse p.19)

To be prepared against surprise is to be trained.

To be prepared for surprise is to be educated. Education discovers an increasing richness in the past, because it sees what is unfinished there. Training regards the past as finished and the future as to be finished. Education leads toward a continuing self-discovery; training leads toward a final self-definition. Training repeats a completed past in the future. Education continues an unfinished past into the future.

Success Vs Failure

…as a teacher, my power to control what children will think lets me separate successful students from failures very easily.

Successful children do the thinking I assign them with a minimum of resistance and a decent show of enthusiasm. Of the millions of things of value to study, I decide what few we have time for. Actually, though, this is decided by my faceless employers. The choices are theirs — why should I argue? Curiosity has no important place in my work, only conformity... Gatto (1992).

Learning as interaction with and creation of novel experiences (Vicente)

In comparison to the design of computers for human interaction, learning environments, tools and practices, ought to be designed afford learners the creation and enjoyment of novel experiences. Vicente argues that in work, interfaces should not be designed so that workers may just execute tasks as demanded but so that they can deal with novel challenges that arise in their work. Following this approach, one can suggest that learning ought to be designed in such a way that learners can engage freely in areas of novelty that are of interest to them without fear of judgement, punishment or conformance to societal and institutional goals. In such a scenario, there may not be a rationale for evaluation; the creation of human waste.

As can be seen in the Engagement, Causes and Effect Matrix, the effects of extrinsic motivations can be equitable to characteristics of waste persons; sick, indulging in avoidance behavior, intellectually and emotionally dependent on others, performing poorly, in cognitive tasks, etc

also see:

All fun, leisurely activities and time will eventually be used for productive and competitive work

Carse (1986 p 38):

..playing at, or perhaps playing around, is the kind of play that has no consequence. This is the sort of playfulness implied in the ordinary sense of such terms as entertainment, amusement, diversion, comic relief, recreation, relaxation. Inevitably, however, seriousness will creep back into this kind of play. The executive’s vacation, like the football team’s time out, comes to be a device for refreshing the contestant for a higher level of competition.

Even the open playfulness of children is exploited through organized athletic, artistic, and educational regimens as a means of preparing the young for serious adult competition.

Physical activity trackers may be thought as subtle introductions of productivity into what have previously, mostly, been fun, recreation, freely expressive, relaxation moments. It is not anymore enough that you are running or working out, it is about how much you are doing it – which is not a reflection in anyway of how much you are enjoying it. The numbers are of interest here, one way or the other, they take the fun aspect out of these activities, or at least minimize it.

When I measure how long I have run, I may be in subtle ways setting a bar for my future runs. This means my engagement in running in the future in addition to recreation … leans towards productivity – my ability to perform a certain task to a certain level. This fits a description of work and when it is not self assigned, it is not fun.

The very first time I went running with the Nike+ system, I ran faster than I had in my entire life. I was motivated by better, real-time feedback and by the promise of online rewards when I got home – Jane McGonigal

Not much may be expected from numbers for example when I quantify myself, but when they are put up against other people’s numbers they get a new meaning. The quantified activities, which may have been done for their fun, recreative and leisurely aspects become competitive. And further quantification is also driven by the need to compete and outperform others. This nutshelled and simplified description also describes how an activity may go from being done out of intrinsic motivations to being done due to extrinsic motivations.

 …we’re especially obsessed with measuring our children’s education. Children have become pawns in contests that pit parent against parent, teacher against teacher, school against school, and nation against nation in the struggle to see who can squeeze the highest test scores out of their kids.  We are depriving our children of sleep, depriving them of freedom to play and explore; childhood—in order to increase their test scores – Gray

One way or the other, we subtly start turning off the body, so that when we do things, we do not rely on how the body feels (human experience) but on the numbers we are getting out of those activities. We mechanize ourselves; this, Carse (1986) says requires a veiling of oneself, a suspension of one’s freedom, the lack of acknowledgement of one’s intrinsic motivations by oneself and others.

Gamification is an additional level on quantification. It rewards users, mostly with virtual pellets for doing something that they might otherwise not do. And without trying to, gamification is already making the typical fun activities like running, flying, shoppingwatching TVbar-hopping and diningsharing & socializing, and just about anything you may want to or not do productive (with productivity here referring to actions taken for a gain). Foursquare is a prime example of this – we not only go to places we like for their own sake, but increasingly, we will find ourselves going to those places for gains; the points, badges, mayorships and merchant discounts (coupons and other offers).

Uniquely, gamification is able to get people to take actions that are not always in their best interest, without the use of force, in a predictable way.

Lastly but not least, we have to be aware of the invariable principle of all play, that whoever plays, plays freely. Whoever must play, cannot play (Carse). This means that whatever we have transformed from play to work (productive activity) is no longer play. We are no longer playing. As a result, the fun of play has been replaced by the seriousness of work that we are now doing  


Reality is broken. Why games make us better and how they can change the world McGonigal, J. (2011) – A review

Over the last 3 months, maybe a little more, I have spent my bus rides flipping the pages of Jane McGonigal’s book; Reality is broken. Why games make us better and how they can change the world. Below I do a short topic-based analysis of the things that I found interesting and important to discuss. (Despite having an interest in doing a more detailed analysis, time pressures do not allow me. I hope the little I do makes some sense).

Something is wrong with reality

Jane begins the book by makes a strong statement, that the real world, and as civilized as we would like to think we are, is lacking a lot in the way of engagement, satisfaction and meaning. This suggests that we need to reexamine and redesign reality if we intend to derive meaningful lives out of it.

…computer and video games are fulfilling genuine human needs that the real world is currently unable to satisfy (McGonigal 2011, p. 4). Today, many of us are suffering from a vast and primal hunger. But it is not a hunger for food – it is a hunger for more and better engagement from the world around us (McGonigal 2011, p. 6).

Characteristics of games (Finite vs Infinite)

She then goes on to define the 4 characteristics of a game; goal, rules, feedback system, and voluntary participation.

In contrast Carse (1986, p. 4-10) does a more comprehensive definition of games, including a categorization into two classes; finite and infinite, where finite games are those played for extrinsic motivations while infinite are played for intrinsic. The main difference to be observed here is that in finite games, players play within boundaries while in infinite games, players play with the boundaries. Carse (1986) discusses several aspects of life and work in terms of games, with an individual’s participation been seen as participation in a game.

He discusses how some aspects of extrinsicism are self propagating (Carse, 1986, p. 10, 11);

Although it may be evident enough in theory that whoever plays a finite game plays freely, it is often the case that finite players will be unaware of this absolute freedom and will come to think that whatever they do they must do, for the following reasons:

  • ..players must be selected. While no one is forced to remain in their role (lawyer, rodeo performer, yogi), after being selected for these roles, each role is nonetheless surrounded both by ruled constraints and expectations on the part of others. One senses a compulsion to maintain a certain level of performance, because permission to play in these games can be canceled. We cannot do whatever we please and remain in our roles (lawyers ..)- and yet we could not be either unless we pleased
  • Finite games are played to be won, thus players make every move in a game in order to win it. Whatever is not done in the interest of winning is not part of the game. The constant attentiveness of finite players to the progress of the competition can lead them to believe that every move they make they must make
  • it may seem that the prizes for winning are indispensable, that without them life is meaningless, perhaps even impossible. There are, to be sure, games in which the stakes seem to be life and death. In slavery for example, the refusal to play the demanded role may be paid for with terrible suffering or death. In this extreme case, we must still concede that whoever takes up the commanded role does so by choice. Certainly the price for refusing to it is high, but that there is a price at all points to the fact that oppressors themselves acknowledge that even the weakest of their subjects must agree to be oppressed.



Infinite vs finite games – Carse 1986 p. 4-10

Infinite game

Finite game

Players cannot say when their game begins (nor do they care – since their play is not bound by time)

The start and end time are explicitly defined – to which all players must agree

Purpose: preventing the game from coming to an end

Purpose: to win – the game comes to an end after a win

No spatial or numerical boundaries

Contains spatial and numerical boundaries (Place, number of persons) – for all conflicts from a board game to a war

No questions of eligibility (anyone who wishes may play)

Cannot be played alone. Thus, in every case, we must find an opponent, and in most cases, teammates, who are willing to join in play with us.

Played in time created in the play itself

Played in world time

Cannot be played within a finite game

Can be played within an infinite game

Rules must change in the course of play. The rules are changed to prevent anyone from winning the game and to bring as many persons as possible into the play

The rules are the contractual terms by which players agree to continue playing

Rules of play – define what the game is, places a range of restrictions on the players

Rules are not laws; they don’t mandate specific behavior, they allow considerable room for choice within those limits

Rules are contractual terms by which players determine the winner. They must be established and agreed upon prior to play. They cannot change during play

They are only valid when players freely play by them.

There are no rules that require us to obey rules. If there were, there would have to be a rule for those rules, and so on

Players play with boundaries

Players play within boundaries

Intrinsic vs Extrinsic motivations

Although Jane makes an effort in describing intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, she fails to make a clear distinction between the two; (McGonigal 2011, p. 28-29):

Extrinsic motivation; “When we don’t choose hard work for ourselves, it’s usually not the right work, at the right time, for the right person. It’s not perfectly customized for our strengths, we’re not in control of the work flow, we don’t have a clear picture of what we’re contributing to, and we never see how it all pays off in the end. Hard work that someone else requires us to do just doesn’t activate our happiness systems. It all too often doesn’t absorb us, doesn’t make us optimistic, and doesn’t invigorate us”.

Despite these strong observations against the delegation of tasks to others or of our acting out or extrinsic motivations, she suggest that giving others work to do could make them happy!

Intrinsic motivation; “What a boost to global happiness it would be if we could positively activate the minds and bodies of hundreds of millions of people by offering them better hard work. We could offer them challenging, customizable missions and tasks, to do alone or with friends and family, whenever and wherever. We could provide them with vivid, real-time reports of the progress they’re making and a clear view of the impact they’re having on the world around them.”

The suggestion that ‘we’; can be in the know of what is good for others contradicts intrinsic motivations. Krippendor (2004) argues that intrinsic motivation is not measurable and measurement is only applicable to mechanized elements.

..intrinsic motivation escapes comprehension for outside observers without appreciation of particular skills, conceptions and learning abilities that people bring to a phenomenon.

Any operationalization of these experiences in terms of objective measurements, as provided by mechanical devices or scales imposed upon those who have these experiencesfundamentally fails or at best correlates with the phenomena to be explained and encouraged.

Different categories of engagement

Following the lack of clear distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, it is unclear to see what sort of engagement would be derived from the games and game-play she proposes . With intrinsic (I) and extrinsic (E) motivation, we can derive at least 4 categories of engagement as follows:

  1. Optimal engagement (I1, E0) – caused by the engagement in actions out of intrinsic motivations – personal interest in a specific phenomenon, including how it is done and with whom. Case study example: democratic education affords students the freedom to decide individually how, when, what, where and with whom they learn and to have an equal share in the decision-making as to how their learning environments are run.
  2. Diluted engagement (I1, E1) – caused by the interference of intrinsic motivation by the introduction of external – extrinsic motivational elements. Case study example: the truth about what motivates us [Video] describes studies that have shown that the introduction of monetary rewards reduces performance in cognitive tasks.
  3. Concocted engagement (I0, E0) – caused by the invention and or introduction of extrinsic motivations as an excuse, explanation, or story to ‘deceive’/ make someone do something. Case study example: Milligram’s experiment may be taken as an extreme example of extrinsic motivation, suggesting that extrinsic motivation does not necessarily result to intrinsic motivation. Participants in such phenomenon do not assume ownership of the rationales for doing an action.
  4. Zilch engagement (I0, E0) - caused by the lack of both extrinsic and intrinsic motivations.

These categories can be mapped into an Engagement, Causes and Effect Matrix;

Engagement Causes Effects


(I₁ E₀)

Voluntary participation to a situation out of personal interest – Individual’s sense of purpose, mastery, autonomy The most pleasurable, satisfying, and meaningful emotional state one can experience. (McGonical 2011, p.45)


(I₁ E₁)

Interference of intrinsic motivation by the introduction of external – extrinsic motivational elements. (Obvious & visible)Poor performance, Emotional withdraw,  Conformity, Chronic illness, Hedonic adaptation, Triggers avoidance, behaviors/disorder, ..(Invisible)Invisible curriculum: emotional & intellectual dependency (Sheepling, dumbing down), Suspension of one’s freedom, ..


(I₀ E₁)

Introduction of extrinsic motivations as an excuse, explanation, or story to ‘deceive’/ make someone do something


(I₀ E₀)

Lack of both extrinsic and intrinsic motivations. None

As can be deduced from the matrix above, Optimal engagement may not necessarily be directed towards productivity but is more favorable to it than the other categories of engagement.

The human body cannot be extrinsically rewarded.

Jane can be seen to suggest that the human body is still so primitive, (hardwired to benefit only from the release of ‘feel-good’ chemicals), that it has not learnt how to benefit from the acquisition and amassing of external elements such as money, and neither can it store the ‘feel-good’ chemicals for a ‘rainy day’. In fact when confronted with stressful situations, (our good feelings or extrinsic rewards may not be of much to us) we only tap into our primal stress response system, fight or flight. Extrinsic rewards do not really benefit us and we risk an addiction to them as hedonistic adaptation suggests (McGonigal 2011, p. 32 & 42). The little ‘good feeling’ they might be claimed to give us does not last as the body always returns itself to its ‘chemical equilibrium’ enabling it to continue experiencing the world (rather than locking itself up in the moment).

This subtle suggestion that the human body cannot be rewarded extrinsically may have a big impact on design; that although we may earn rewards in the form of points, badges and what have you, they may be utterly useless to us.  also argues that if games and fun were about points, we would all be playing games that earn us a whopping trillion points every time we hit the button.

The funnest game ever – if fun were about "rewards". (Inspired by Jakob Stjerning's Progress Wars).

The funnest game ever – if fun were about “rewards”. (Inspired by Jakob Stjerning’s Progress Wars).

(McGonigal 2011, p. 42) Autotelic: self-motivated, self rewarding activity is autotelic (from the Greek words for “self,” auto, and “goal,” telos). We do autotelic work because it engages us completely, and because intense engagement is the most pleasurable, satisfying, and meaningful emotional state we can experience. When we set out to make our own happiness, we’re focused on activity that generates intrinsic rewards – the positive emotions, personal strengths, and social connections that we build by engaging intensely with the world around us. (Intrinsic rewards). We are not looking for praise or payouts. The very act of what we are doing, the enjoyment of being fully engaged, is enough.

What does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and lose his soul?

(McGonigal 2011, p. 42) Hedonic adaptation: When we try to find happiness outside of ourselves, we’re focused on what positive psychologists call “extrinsic” rewards – money, material goods, status, or praise. When we get what we want, we feel good. Unfortunately, the pleasures of found happiness don’t last very long. We build up a tolerance for our favorite things and start to want more. It takes bigger and better rewards just to trigger the same level of satisfaction and pleasure. The more we try to “find” happiness, the harder it gets. Positive psychologists call this process “hedonic adaptation”, and its one of the biggest hindrances to long-term life satisfaction. (hedonic adaptation). The more we consume, acquire, and elevate our status, the harder it is to stay happy. Whether it’s money, grades, promotions, popularity, attention, or just plain material things we want, scientists agree: seeking out external rewards is sure path to sabotaging our own happiness.

(McGonigal 2011, p. 32) Stress response: when we’re afraid of failure or danger, or when the pressure is coming from an external source, extreme neurochemical activation doesn’t make us happy. It makes us angry and combative, or it makes us want to escape and shut down emotionally. It can also trigger avoidance behaviors, like eating, smoking, or taking drugs.

Extrinsic motivators on the other hand, are nothing more than pellets dropped for rats in a cage,” “creating virtual food pellets for you to eat“.

Gamification as an invisible curriculum

Jane does not raise concern over the effects of the invisible curriculum that is also potentially inherent in gamification. Notably and perhaps of essence in extrinsic motivators are the concerns that have been raised over the effects of the hidden curriculum in education systems. Gatto (1992) and Neil warn that control and guidance of students by their teachers only serves to remove their autonomy, making the students emotionally and intellectually dependent on their superiors.

Gamification can be said to have similar effects (Zichermann & Cunningham 2011) since, no matter how subtly it is applied or its impact are recognized its outcomes including stages of success and failure and the actions to them are predetermined before participation commences and as a result a participant only follows established footsteps without necessarily being able to forge a route that suits them. Carse (1986) compares this to play, where a learner’s actions are not their own but a theatrical act of the role that they are required to play by their educators. This, Carse (1986) says requires a veiling of oneself, a suspension of one’s freedom, the lack of acknowledgement of one’s intrinsic motivations by oneself and others.

‘The function of the child is to live his own life – not the life that his anxious parents think he should live, nor a life according to the purpose of the educator who thinks he knows best. All this interference and guidance on the part of adults only produces a generation of robots’. – A.S. Neill

Human vs technical problems

Jane does not make a distinction between human and technical problems and therefore fails to address the root causes of the problems she discusses. This, I feel, is the greatest shortcoming and misconception in the book. Jane discusses every problem in terms of its symptoms and thus proposes solutions for the symptoms rather than for the root causes. To illustrate this, I reference the following games Free Rice, JetSetter and Investigate your MP games – see detailed discussion below. The solutions that these games provide do not in anyway remove the actual causes rooted in the structural/environmental design. This we can compare directly to the pharmaceutical industry which is notorious for treating symptoms and not root causes of illnesses for profit.

For designers to truly address any challenges, they not only have to look beyond their symptoms but also ‘think outside the box’ when addressing problems. Else we delude ourselves that we are doing something to address the problems while we do not remove their root causes. This we have to acknowledge that it would suit us well as we propagate our business sector indefinitely while also deluding the masses.

(McGonigal 2011, p 234) The Rice game (which is basically built on the premise that by playing and earning points, sponsoring corporations will show you their ads and feed the starving) attempts to deal with a technical problem by addressing it as if it was a human motivation problem.

It is as if the starving are doing so because the fed are not playing games.

In contrast, I see this as a technical problem simply because only technical solutions can solve the problem both in the short and long term. Technology to grow food even without soil exists and that food supplies as well as the means for transporting food resources to wherever they may be needed across the globe exist. As a result, no games or game play would be required to feed the starving or to enable them to feed themselves.

(McGonigal 2011, p 150) JetSetter is an interesting example. It is designed to make you feel happy when you traverse poorly designed airports and increasingly frustrating queuing and security checks. First of all, when services and products are designed for elitism, it is inevitable that not all users can use them. This is a technical problem since the design of any shared space should be based on the available materials, space and users’ needs and not stratification. Universal usability should be the aim.

Secondly, if we were to design society to remove the need for frustrating security, we would need to go beyond our individualistic and nationalistic interests and learn to see the world as a shared heritage, where the needs of all would be met according to the available resources. As such, we would not see the need in creating enmity towards others or having bigotry. Alternatively, if we were to believe that we needed all the security measures that we can install in places, we would then focus on designing machines that scanned us without having to unpack and undress and vice versa every time we came across a security check.

(McGonigal 2011, p 221) Investigate you MPs expenses also falls under the same premise. Corruption is inherent in the monetary (property and growth) based economies. It is therefore not a characteristic that a few bad apples possess, but a condition made visible via the design of the environment within which people live. To contrast this to a resource based economy (RBE), there is no incentive in taking public property to one’s private use. This is because  RBE provides to the needs of its users. Therefore, investigating a corrupt MP is not a design solution to the problem – as it is not rooted in people.

I cannot stress enough, how distasteful these gamified band-aid solutions are, especially in time when we possess the technical know how and capability to redesign the various sociotechnical systems to improve the human experience.

Misrepresents games and what makes them fun

Jane seems to claims that rewards (+points, badges, ..) are what makes games engaging, and that rewards are necessary to sustain engagement. If this were the case, the following would be the most engaging game ever, earning you a whopping trillion points every time you hit the button:

The funnest game ever – if fun were about "rewards".

The funnest game ever – if fun were about “rewards”.

All fun, leisurely activities and time will eventually be used for productive work

Carse (1986 p 38) warns that players’ leisure time and activities will eventually be replaced by actual and real work. This seems to be one of the proposals that Jane makes – that gamers should now be given challenging and actual work to do rather than just play for fun. How that will benefit us is a different matter but one thing is certain, (if we must play) we will not be free to play (Carse).

..playing at, or perhaps playing around, is the kind of play that has no consequence. This is the sort of playfulness implied in the ordinary sense of such terms as entertainment, amusement, diversion, comic relief, recreation, relaxation. Inevitably, however, seriousness will creep back into this kind of play. The executive’s vacation, like the football team’s time out, comes to be a device for refreshing the contestant for a higher level of competition.

Even the open playfulness of children is exploited through organized athletic, artistic, and educational regimens as a means of preparing the young for serious adult competition.

This exactly what Quest to learn (Q2L) seems to be doing; (McGonigal 2011, p 129) : …the students learn math, science, geography, English, history… But it’s how they learn that’s different: students are engaged in gameful activities from the moment they wake up in the morning to the moment they finish up their final homework assignment at night.

The schedule of a Q2L sixth-grader name Rai…

  • 7:15 a.m. Rai is “questing” before she even gets to school.
  • 11:45 a.m. Rai logs on to a school computer to update her profile in the “expertise challenge”, where all the students advertise their learning superpowers
  • 6:00 p.m.  Rai is at home, interacting with a virtual character named Betty, with the goal to teach her how to divide mixed numbers
  • over next two weeks: Rai plans to spend extra time working harder on her math assignments to qualify for a mathematical specialist role in a music composition team

Gamification is already making the typical fun activities like running, flying, shopping, bar-hopping, etc. productive (with productivity here referring to actions taken for a gain)

And without trying to, gamification is already making the typical fun activities like running, flying, shopping, watching TV, bar-hopping and dining, sharing & socializing, and just about anything you may want to or not do. productive (with productivity here referring to actions taken for a gain). Foursquare is a prime example of this – we not only go to places we like for their own sake, but increasingly, we will find ourselves going to those places for gains; the points, badges, mayorships and merchant discounts (coupons and other offers).


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