Game of Thrones is how we should talk about digital disruption

game of thrones digital disruption
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ITEM: If you’re a fan of Game of Thrones and have been wondering why Season 8 seemed so off the rails, the answer may be that it is being written from a psychological rather than sociological perspective – which also happens to be the key to understanding why many of us are struggling to get our heads around the scale of digital disruption happening around us.

Confused? Bear with me, this will (hopefully) make sense in a minute.

For the last seven seasons, Game of Thrones has been hailed by fans and critics alike as one of the best TV shows ever created. Infamously, Season 8 (which wrapped up over the weekend) has basically taken such a turn for the worse that some fans are petitioning HBO for a rewrite/remake.

There are a number of reasons why Season 8 has gone south – the most obvious, perhaps, being that the TV show has gotten so far ahead of the novels by George RR Martin upon which the show is based that writers David Benioff and D. B. Weiss have been left to their own devices to complete the tale, and have generally made a hash of it.

But according to professor Zeynep Tufekci, it’s not only a matter of bad plot decisions or sloppy writing, but the product of a shift from sociological storytelling to psychological storytelling.

Put simply, in sociological storytelling, characters and their actions are shaped by the institutions and events in which they exist. In psychological storytelling, they’re not – everything a character does is based mostly on their internal psychology and personality. The result of each framework is basically the difference between complex tales with nuanced moral choices vs straight good vs evil stories.

The point being, GoT followed the sociological storytelling framework for its first seven seasons because that’s how Martin wrote them, but followed the psychological framework for Season 8 because that’s what Benioff and Weiss know how to write. The result was so inconsistent that fans noticed right away that something was off.

So what does this have to do with understanding digital technology, AI and its impact on society?

Everything, says Tufekci, in the sense that we can only truly evaluate the disruptive impact of these technologies – and have an idea of how to react to it – by understanding the context and the institutions in which they have been emerging, and the social changes that are in play either in parallel or as a result of these new technologies hitting the mainstream.

Tufekci offers the example of Facebook, Twitter and Amazon, and the current controversies over things ranging from their near-monopoly market power to their handling of customer data and the problem of disseminating false information in a manner that arguably subverts democratic processes.

According to Tufekci, much of the media coverage tends to focus on the personalities helming these companies – Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, Jack Dorsey and Jeff Bezos. This is classic psychological storytelling, in which Big Tech personalities started as heroes but somehow became villains (or at least anti-heroes) – which, while probably true, misses the bigger picture:

Of course, their personalities matter, but only in the context of business models, technological advances, the political environment, (lack of) meaningful regulation, the existing economic and political forces that fuel wealth inequality and lack of accountability for powerful actors, geopolitical dynamics, societal characteristics and more.

So, getting to grips with the story of Big Tech disruption means paying as much attention to the structures, incentives and forces in which these companies operate as to the companies themselves and the people currently running them. But for the most part, we’re not doing enough of that, Tufekci writes:

Our inability to understand and tell sociological stories is one of the key reasons we’re struggling with how to respond to the historic technological transition we’re currently experiencing with digital technology and machine intelligence …

I recommend reading the whole thing, whether you’re a fan of GoT or not.

SPOILER WARNING: If you haven’t watched Season 8 yet, there are spoilers aplenty in the article (though not for the finale, as it was written before the last episode aired).

DISCLAIMER: I have never watched Game of Thrones.

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