Infrastructural games: could roleplaying have prevented the rise of Uber?

Understanding the social aspects of infrastructural systems is an important part of my own research, but that comprehension is only the first step in a larger project. For all our talk of inclusiveness and “broad selections of stakeholders”, infrastructural research seems predominantly to be industry- and policy-facing — and while I’d not be so foolish as to suggest that research shouldn’t address industry and government, I’m increasingly of the conviction that research frequently fails to address the universal-yet-largely-overlooked infrastructural stakeholder, namely “everyone else”. Interesting things are happening in co-production and action research to this end, and my own interest in leveraging fictional narratives for the purpose of “despecialising” the infrastructural discourse is aimed in this direction, too.

But there are those who suggest we might go further still. And so, in lieu of original content (the FOReTHOUGHT editorial team are all a bit fraught in the timetable right now, if you know what I mean), I’d like to point you to an essay by my good friend and colleague Ella Saitta, a consultant in IT systems and security. She proposes the use of Nordic variations on larp (that’s “live-action roleplaying”, for those of you who didn’t teeth on a first-edition copy of the D&D Monster Manual) as a way of quite literally playing out the impact of structural change in the sociotechnical systems that underpin a society or community:

The larp toolkit for building power relationships is well-tuned, as are the sensibilities of both players and game designers for reading the power balance of a situation. Introducing structural changes in a system during play allows us to see how power structures shift. This experiential and immersive reading yields a higher resolution understanding than an a priori analysis. When sociotechnical systems cause unpredicted shifts in social power relationships, it often indicates unseen dependencies between different social scripts, or stratifications in society that give different social groups different abilities to interact or adapt to change. For example, one of the goals of Uber was to change the power relationship between passengers and taxi drivers. They were successful at this, but differentially; in many countries, minorities who had a hard time flagging down taxis at all got to be first-class users of the system. Of course, a number of other power shifts were also designed into this system, putting Uber itself at a significant advantage over both passengers and drivers, but in different (and in both cases intentionally opaque) ways. Diegetic prototyping in play could have exposed many of these effects. Critical use of narratives extracted from that play could have informed the debate around regulation and licensing for Uber and similar services.

Could we really play our way to fairer, safer infrastructural systems? I’ll concede it sounds a bit crazy at first… but given how all the other supposedly-more-sensible suggestions seem to have got bogged down in the same old paradigmatic problems, perhaps the really crazy thing would be not to try it.

Bonus content edit: I’m not the only one arguing for the use of science fiction, either; here’s a post at the Sociological Review‘s blog from Richard Tutton of Lancaster University. Snip:

Fiction can dramatize critical ideas – it gives us characters with whom we might as readers identify, avoid abstractions by describing future worlds in detail, and can foster empathy by encouraging us to place ourselves in these worlds, to see our present time – what has now become their past – from their standpoint. In other words, fictions of the future as opposed to sociology of the future, take us beyond the cognitive to explore emotional responses and questions of morality and ethics. This, however, is not enough and this is where the sociologist must draw on these fictional accounts and couple them with critical analysis of how to effect social change today.

It’s narratives all the way down, y’know.