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The expert monopoly

The expert monopoly

As the bailout crisis talks continue, and the common people wait to find out what particular flavor of long hard road awaits them, one might wonder if there’s any way that we the people could have foreseen this coming. The answer is yes, and the key incident to remember is: Nicholas Leeson and Barings Bank.

You may remember Mr. Leeson: he was the young trader who undertook risky deals that went bad and the resulting losses destroyed Barings, an investment bank that was over two centuries old. The incident shook the markets, but the focus at the time quickly shifted to controlling individual traders, away from the obvious lesson about the shaky fundamentals of investment banking itself, and the incident seems to have been forgotten entirely when Republicans Phil Gramm and James Leach championed the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which undid the Glass-Steagall Act’s protections that had been in place since the Depression.

Thinking about Leeson reminds me in turn of Frank Corder, the man who stole a light plane on September 11, 1994, and crashed it into the White House. It does not take an expert to extrapolate from this event the events on the same day seven years later. But as we all now know any such lesson was not learned – not by U.S. security experts, anyway.

Once you begin to see the kind of myopia that afflicts experts, you can start to see it in all sorts of places. And it validates two idea behind the World Without Oil game: one, that a common citizen can see some approaching futures more plainly than experts can; and two, that a sufficiently large group of everyday citizens can outperform experts in certain challenges, especially those of imagination. The key is creating a seriously playful motivation to bring the citizens together, and a seriously playful space where they can collaborate. Should some tiny fraction of the money looming to be spent on the credit crisis go toward crowdsourcing views about what the next crisis will be? I think we should get that game started right away. Image by Mike Licht, Notionscapital.com via Flickr.

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It's all in your mind

It's all in your mind

Recent comments by prominent figures (such as Phil Gramm) that the U.S. credit crisis, oil crisis, recession etc. are “psychological” have generated significant backlash (Gramm lost his job, for example). The World Without Oil game has a unique insight into this, actually.

It’s been well known that a sudden sharp increase in fuel prices would have a significant negative impact. Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE) established this in a series of “wargame” simulations, as just one example. These top-down analyses generate outcomes such as “1 to 2 million unemployed people.” OK, fine. But do they actually produce anything of value for us, the common people? What if I don’t want to be included in that statistic? The top-down view has no wisdom for you beyond “suck it up.”

Whereas World Without Oil takes the bottom-up view, and is full of ways for a person to avoid becoming a statistic. It’s gathered hundreds of ideas expressed in over 1500 different ways, all focused on practical actions that people can take. I think any person that spends an hour or two exploring the WWO archive will come away better prepared for our oil-poor future. This is what WWO was all about – that by “playing it people wouldn’t have to live it.”

So, yeah, the problem is psychological. Policymakers who can only look from the top down are psychologically unable to see the value of a crowdsourced, collectively intelligent, bottom-up view such as WWO. They don’t truly understand the problem, and thus disconnect themselves from the solutions or any hope of meaningful individual action.

It was the world's first serious alternate reality game, a cooperative pre-imagining of a global oil crisis. Over 1900 players collaborated in May 2007 to chronicle the oil crisis with their own personal blog posts, videos, images and voicemails. The game ended after simulating the first 32 weeks of the oil shock, but its effects continue, as game designers analyze its unique gameplay and we all watch the continuing drama with global oil prices and supply.
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