Brexit as an Ecology of Games

There is a growing sense of hopelessness among people in Britain in the face of over three years of non-decision making over whether the UK will leave the EU. Why, for example, after the 2016 EU membership referendum with a vote of 51.9 percent of voters in Britain chose to ‘leave’ the EU, has there still been no decision? Too many, this delay and prevarication is irrational, but when it appears that people are not behaving in a politically rational way, it is often because they are not playing the ‘game’ you think they are playing. 

Think for a moment of politics as being analogous to a game, such as a football match. E. E. Schattschneider (1960) made this analogy between politics and a sporting match, arguing that they both have individuals cooperating and competing to win, under a set of rules, but that in politics – in contrast to sports – the rules of the game can be more flexible and even allow the spectators to come onto the field. That means that politics is often focused therefore on actions that keep people off the field, bring them on the field, or encourage them to change sides. That is often how a side wins in politics. 

But a more realistic analogy for politics is what has been called an ‘ecology of games’ (EoG), a perspective introduced by Norton Long (Long 1958) to emphasize the degree that politics often involves the interaction of multiple actors involved in a variety of ‘games’. From this perspective, the dynamics of the Brexit debate is the evolving outcome of the interactions of multiple players within separate but sometimes overlapping games that define the rules and objectives of the various actors (Dutton et al. 2002). The outcome of these interactions of interdependent games will define Brexit. 

The EoG could provide a useful framework to study the complex dynamics of decision-making processes of Brexit. I’ve defined the ‘ecology of games’ as a system of action composed of two or more separate but interdependent games, where each game identifies an arena for competition structured by a set of rules and assumptions about how to achieve a particular set of objectives. Generally, each game has several key characteristics: a set of interacting players that might compete or cooperate to achieve; a set of goals or objectives; that lead to a set of prizes; and are governed by a set of rules shaping the strategies (moves) open to players, albeit the rules of the game can be changed. 

If we can identify the actors and the games shaping Brexit, we might begin to understand how to go beyond non-decision making. 

Simply from following the news, like others, it is easy to identify some of the more prominent games being played. So with no pretence to being complete, consider the following types and examples of games shaping the Brexit debate:

PARTISAN POLITICS

Political parties seek to win support for their approach to the referendum: remain, leave, and other options in order to maintain and enhance their constituencies, such as by appealing to the courts, press, or directly to the public. 

Factions within the parties seek to influence the party’s stance, such as in remain Conservatives seeking to prevent a no-deal Brexit, or the Conservative Party deselecting members who did not support the party’s position. Factional politics is one major explanation for non-decision making within the Labour Party.

POLITICS OF NORTHERN IRELAND

Politicians and constituencies of different factions within Northern Ireland and its unique history seek to advance their vision of the future.

EU POLITICS

27/8 nations of the EU seek to maximize national interests through compromise and negotiation over EU policy and regulation, including Brexit.

Ireland and the EU nations seek to maintain and enhance Ireland’s position within the EU in the aftermath of Brexit. 

IDENTITY POLITICS

Parliamentarians and the public seek to support approaches to Brexit that reinforce their identity as European, British, English, Scottish, Welsh, and representatives of Northern Ireland. In England, there is also some identity politics across the regions as well as the nations, such as the Northeast versus the Southeast.

DISTRIBUTIVE POLITICS

Parliamentarians and the public seek to maintain and enhance the allocation of resources to Britain, their constituencies, or their nation or region, as illustrated by debates of the economic impact of Brexit options.

One could go on, and you might easily identify other games being played, but the point is that there are multiple games being played simultaneously that involve different but sometimes overlapping sets of players. This makes any rational extrapolation from one’s position in a particular game difficult very problematic. But it is far more complicated than this.  

Setting and Changing Rules of the Games

These games are also being played out under different rules, often set by the institutional context of each game, and which can change overtime. Most are set within the UK Parliament and following its rules of procedure, voting, and courtesy. But even in this setting, the rules can change, such as when the Speaker of the House of Commons resurrects an ancient tradition to support a procedural ruling, what some have called ‘parliamentary parlour tricks’. Yet, some of the games are occurring in the EU context, and many involve interactions between decisions of the EU and UK, such as discussions of the timing of any delay to Brexit. 

Strategies

Finally, it is possible to consider many other aspects of Brexit within the EoG, such as the behaviour of actors, as political strategies for changing who joins what positions on which issues. These can range from personal attacks to the parliamentary parlour tricks noted above. Accusations of misinformation, bias, and more are added to more substantive debates over the issues. Appeals to the will of the public are strategic efforts to gain legitimacy, whether in referencing the outcome of the referendum, recent polls, or as many note, referring to groups they have spoken with. Press commentators often use unnamed EU and UK politicians and administrators as sources to support their viewpoints on developments. 

Conclusion

The ecology of games provides a simple way of understanding the complexity of the processes shaping Brexit. Until this ecology of games can align sufficient numbers for leave or remain, it will continue to evolve and potentially lead to unanticipated and unintended consequences. It seems clear that no single actor can control the full ecology of games across different and changing institutional settings. However, understanding this ecology is a first step in succeeding within it and understanding why what appear to be irrational actions are rational within the respective game being prioritised by particular actors.

References

Dutton, W. H. (1992), ‘The Ecology of Games Shaping Telecommunications Policy,’ Communication Theory, 2 (4), 303-28. 

Long, N. E. (1958), ‘The Local Community as an Ecology of Games’, The American Journal of Sociology 64: 251-61.

Schattschneider, E. E. (1960), The Semi-Sovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy in America. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. 

The Two Most Powerful Journalists Shaping Brexit

Laura Kuenssberg, political editor of BBC News, and Katya Adler, the BBC’s Europe Editor, are the two most powerful journalists shaping the unfolding debate over Brexit. Almost alone, these two journalists are interpreting the activities around Brexit to the people of Britain. 

It is hard to overstate the influence of the BBC on what the people of Britain know about the developments around Brexit. So in nearly every broadcast about Brexit, the BBC ends with an interpretation or synthesis of the apparent chaos by these two journalists. What is the state of play in the UK Parliament? Go to Laura. What are the 27 nations of the EU thinking about the latest proposal? Go to Katya. 

These journalists are not news readers, or anchors. They have no obligation to simply report what the key actors have said. In fact, they very seldom indicate whom they have spoken with. Presumably, they have spoken to the key sources, so at the end of the day, they can authoritatively report their synthesis of what is going on for the people of Britain. 

Laura Kuenssberg usually reports in or around Parliament, and Katya Adler usually reports from some vacant lot or empty mall in the midst of buildings in Brussels. For example, Katya might say, in less than a few minutes, that in speaking with leaders in the EU’s 27 nations, that they will support a delay. No attribution. No one is standing with them who could refute their views. They are the authority. They are the synthesis. 

And their views do not even nod to neutrality, or reporting. Their syntheses of whomever in the world they have consulted or spoken to is presented as their authoritative views. They are not partisan political actors, but neutral journalists, which makes their viewpoints more powerful. But, of course, their views are anything but neutral and are shaping the future of Brexit. 

How much more powerful could journalists be? How could the public put up with this journalistic interpretation of hugely partisan debates and decisions?

Should there be a response to their pronouncements? On Twitter, and other social media, you might well find corrections of errors of fact and interpretation by these commentators, but the public only watches TV. For example, I have never heard a criticism of any interpretation by any of these editors by another BBC journalist.

Surely the BBC and its editors have to be more sensitive to the influence of their statements. They are great communicators, and journalists, but they are too powerful for our own good. 

Managing the Shift to Next Generation Television

Columbia University’s Professor Eli Noam was in Oxford yesterday, 17 October 2019, speaking at Green Templeton College about two of his most recent books, entitled ‘Managing Media and Digital Organizations’ and ‘Digital and Media Management’: https://www.palgrave.com/gp/book/9783319712871. The title of his talk was ‘Does Digital Management Exist? Challenges for the Next Generation of TV’. Several departments collaborated with Green Templeton College in supporting this event, including the Oxford Internet Institute, Saïd Business School, the Blavatnik School of Government, and Voices from Oxford

Green Templeton College Lecture Hall

Professor Noam has focused attention on what seems like a benign and economically rational technical shift from linear TV to online video. Most people have some experience with streaming video services, for example. But the longer term prospects of this shift could be major (we haven’t seen anything yet) and have serious social implications that drive regulatory change, and also challenge those charged with managing the media. What is the next generation of digital television? Can it be managed? Are the principles of business management applicable to new digital organizations? 

The Principal of Green Templeton College, Professor Denise Lievesley opened the session and introduced the speaker, and two discussants: Professor Mari Sako, from the Saïd Business School, and Damian Tambini, from the Department of Media and Communication at LSE, and a former director of Oxford’s Programme in Comparative Media Law and Policy (PCMLP). Following Eli Noam’s overview of several of the key themes developed in his books, and the responses of the discussants, the speakers fielded a strong set of questions from other participants. Overall, the talk and discussion focused less on the management issues, and more on the potential social implications of this shift and the concerns they raised. 

Roland Rosner, Eli Noam, Bill Dutton, Mari Sako, Damian Tambini

The social implications are wide ranging, including a shift towards more individualized, active, emersive, and global media. There will be some of the ‘same old same old’, but also ‘much more’ that brings many perspectives on the future of television into households. The concerns raised by these shifts include threats to privacy and security to even shorter attention spans – can real life compete with sensational emersion in online video? Perhaps the central concern of the discussion focused around media concentration, and not only in cloud services, such as offered by the big tech companies, but also in national infrastructures, content, and devices. 

This led to a discussion of the policy implications arising from such concerns, particularly in the aftermath of 2016 elections, mainly around the efforts to introduce governmental regulation of the global online companies and governmental pressures on platforms to censor their own content. This surfaced some debate over the cross-national and regional differences in approaches to freedom of expression and media regulation. While there were differences of opinion on the need and nature of greater regulation, there did seem to be little disagreement with Eli’s argument that many academics seem to have moved from being cheerleaders to fear mongering, when we should all seek to be ‘thought leaders’ in this space, given that academics should have the independence from government and the media, and an understanding informed by systematic research versus conventional wisdom across the world. 

Eli Noam presenting his lecture on Digital Media Management

Eli is one of the world’s leading scholars on digital media and management, and his latest books demonstrate his command of this area. One of the speakers referred to his latest tome as an MBA in a box. The text has a version for undergraduate and graduate courses, but every serious university library should have them in their collection. 

Bill and Eli with Susanne, a former Columbia Un student of Eli’s, now at the OII and Green Templeton College, holding Eli’s new books

Notes: 

Eli Noam has been Professor of Economics and Finance at the Columbia Business School since 1976 and its Garrett Professor of Public Policy and Business Responsibility. He has been the Director of the Columbia Institute for Tele-Information, and one of the key advisors to the Oxford Internet Institute, having served on its Advisory Board since its founding in 2001 through the Institute’s first decade. 

His new books on digital media and organizations have been praised by a range of digital and media luminaries, from Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the Internet, to the former CEO of Time Warner, Gerald Levin and former CTO of HBO, Robert Zitter. 

An interview with Eli Noam will be available soon via Voices from Oxford.

Society and the Internet for Courses

The 2nd Edition of Society and the Internet (OUP 2019) is available in paperback and electronic editions for courses on the social aspects of the Internet, social media, computational analytics, and more. Information about the book is available online at: https://global.oup.com/academic/product/society-and-the-internet-9780198843498?cc=gb&lang=en& 

Please check this out if you are considering reading for your Spring courses, or simply have an interest in the many social issues surrounding digital media. From Manuel Castells’ Foreword to Vint Cerf’s concluding chapter, you find a diverse mix of contributions that show how students and faculty can study the social shaping and societal implications of digital media. 

Thanks for your own work in this field, at an incredible period of time for Internet and new media studies of communication and technology.

The Politics of Language

The language of day-to-day politics in the news and in legislative bodies, such as the UK parliament, has been so vitriolic, such as around the Brexit debate from 2016, that many have been stopped listening. It can be toxic to some, while energising to others. I should add that I would single out no one, as this has been a phenomenon that crosses political parties, nations, and individuals. It seems like a trend in the use and abuse of language in politics. Why?

There are many possible explanations. There is the give and take of debate in which aggressive or insulting words evoke equivalent or ratchet up replies in a vicious cycle. There is the potential for inflammatory language to capture media attention. There are many possible reasons, but one seems to best capture for me the dynamics of what we are seeing unfold across Europe and North America – one that was long ago best characterised by an American political scientist, E. E. Schattschneider, in his short but wonderful book entitled, The Semi-Sovereign People.*

The essential notion of Schattschneider’s work is to compare politics with a spectator sport, but one in which there are major differences. Players can change the rules, for example, but even more dynamic is the potential and commonality of players switching sides. More significantly, perhaps, is the notion that spectators can come on the field and join one of the teams.

Considering these possibilities, it is obvious that if you are winning the game, you don’t want to change the rules, and you don’t want spectators to jump onto the field. Best to leave things alone if you are winning. And if two teams are in opposition, such as in parliament, it would be best to keep a low profile if both teams are winning through compromise, for example.

Alternatively, if you are losing, then there is an incentive to change the rules, which is most difficult if you are losing, or to get change the composition of the teams by getting players to switch sides, or getting spectators to come onto the field. It is risky, but you are losing anyway, and changing the teams on the field could tilt the game in your favour.

So what happens when – as in the case of Brexit debates in the UK – that no team is clearly winning. Every position is a minority position. Every team will have an incentive to change the rules, and to bring spectators onto the field. They are already losing, so each party is attempting to shake things up and change the dynamics of the politics in a way that might shift in their favour.

This seems to me to be a rational explanation of the apparently irrational politics of Brexit that is causing a national nervous breakdown in the UK.

*E. E. Schattschneider, (1960), The Semi-Sovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy in America. Wadsworth.

Fake News Nation – a new book by Aspray and Cortada is out!

I’d like to recommend to you a new book, entitled Fake News Nation: The Long History of Lies and Misinterpretations in America (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019). Information about the book is at: https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781538131107/Fake-News-Nation-The-Long-History-of-Lies-and-Misinterpretations-in-America

As I noted in my endorsement of this book: “James W. Cortada and Willam Aspray’s brilliantly selected and crafted case studies are must-reads because they bring historical insight to issues of fake news, disinformation, and conspiracy theories of our digital age.”

 

Good Courses and Programmes Attract Good Students: It is not about saying ‘no’ to other institutions

An engaging but provocative article in the Guardian suggested that a woman’s daughter said ‘no’ to Oxbridge institutions by choosing to join an innovative programme at Leeds University. I simply would like to suggest that her daughter did not reject the Oxbridge universities. Instead, she positively pursued a degree programme she found more attractive and most relevant to her interests – a history of art degree at Leeds University’s School of Fine Art. Her mother said is was ‘radical’ and was right up her daughter’s street. Wonderful. That is a win for Leeds.

Too often, universities and educational institutions can forget that it is not simply their general reputation or brand that attracts students. The best students are looking for programmes of direct relevance to their vision of their future. It will be the institutions that are continually seeking to strengthen programmes and innovate in their educational offerings that will succeed in attracting these students who are making informed choices.

Having been a former faculty member at Oxford, as well as a number of other institutions, including a visiting professorship at Leeds, it is possible for me to argue that this focus on educational degree programmes is one of the major reasons that Oxford has been so successful. Many examples come to mind, but consider two that are most obvious to me. First, it has continued to build on its strengths, such as its PPE (Philosophy, Politics, and Economics) degree, and secondly, innovate, such as in establishing the Oxford Internet Institute (OII). At the OII, where I taught, I was continually and pleasantly surprised to speak with applicants and students who convinced me that they only applied to Oxford to study at the OII. They were truly interested in the societal implications of the Internet and related media and a post-graduate degree programmed designed to address their particular interests.

So congratulations to Leeds University for putting together a programme that attracted this parent’s daughter. Faculty at Leeds, and Oxford, are doing exactly what they need to do in order to continue climbing in the rankings of UK universities. General university reputations matter, but exciting and innovative degree offerings can matter more.

Bill Dutton back in the OII days