Digital governance


Once upon a time...

There was a city on the shores of a mountain lake. The city was very dirty because people threw the waste in the streets; the water ended up in the lake, which became polluted and smelly. More stringent laws were enacted, but nothing happened despite reprimands and fines; even jail proved ineffective. The people had become accustomed to malpractice, they had become addicted to the stench of open sewers and toxic fumes of burning garbage heaps. Every remedy miserably failed. Those who could not bear the situation any more had packed up and run – others were simply resigned. After all, they thought, that even if they would act as they should, as the others would continue to misbehave, it was not worth doing anything.

Then, one day, a manager arrived in town. He proposed to help solve the situation, but only if the city government entrusted him full powers in the matter. If something went wrong, if citizenship complained, they would give him the heave-ho. So he obtained a total delegation. The manager turned entrepreneur and his technical people put many trash baskets in place and announced a fantastic waste collection game. Anyone could participate: just follow the rules for separate waste collection and you could win amazing prizes.

It worked so well that after a few months the city was clean. But now public transport was in crisis. Wild parking. Unsafe roads. And there was no public money available. The manager turned entrepreneur and obtained carte blanche to handle the other sectors in difficulty. He had the citizens registered with full name and address on his social platform. On it they accounted word for word what they were doing, and what their friends and acquaintances did, and people around them. These and many other actions allowed to enter special ranks; players who distinguished themselves could level up, and gain access to new exciting rewards thanks to their statuses. A sophisticated system made that you could accumulate credits in the form of digital currency on accounts managed by the entrepreneur's various companies. The list of wrongful actions was continuously updated. Reporting an illegal action by a neighbour, for example, entitled the informer to three minutes of free shopping at one of the entrepreneur's supermarkets; five minutes if it was an information about a first-time offender. Digital currency credits replaced traditional money within the city. Every interaction could be quantified based on credit, that you could buy and sell: the entrepreneur's bank took only a small percentage of each exchange.

The city government was dissolved. In its place came a technical governance by the manager, run as a private organization, which resulted in a great saving in terms of time, money and energy. The city quickly became a model for the whole world. Professionals came from far away to study the miracle. Everyone agreed on the most notable feature of the set-up – the true realization of heaven on earth – that there was no need to think or to choose, since a magnificent system of notifications was continuously informing all the players about the next moves to be made in order to gain a reputation. The few dissident voices claimed that the players were acting like automatically pre-programmed machines, but as an initially sceptical citizen confessed, he finally really felt free for the first time in his life. No one wanted to go back to a time when they were in the grip of uncertainty and doubt about what they should choose.

And so everyone was trained and lived happy thereafter.


This story is meant to illustrate the main elements of “gamification”, one of the implementation formats of digital governance systems. Its basic mechanism is very simple: everything that can be described as a problem is converted into a game, or, rather, in a game pattern. Repeating an action deemed correct is encouraged by way of rewards, credits, access to a higher (hierarchical) level, publication in charts or records. Seen from a regulatory point of view, this means that instead of sanctioning infractions, compliance with the rules is rewarded. The outcome is a system of norms which is self-conforming and positive, with no ethical dimension, since the valuation of any behaviour, its axiology, is determined by the system, and not by a personal and/or collective reflection on the action itself. Gamification stands for the society of performance 1.

Loyalty incentives, such as fidelity programs for consumers, for voters, for subjects, have been known for centuries. However, the pervasiveness of interactive digital connection systems opens new scenarios for mass training techniques. With it, cognitive delegation morphs into the delegation of social organization. Automated interaction procedures are refined by capitalizing on the way users handle their personal digital tools. Invidiously, participation in the construction of shared worlds turns into behavioural drill.

Our intention is obviously not to argue for a return to repressive systems. Prohibition and ensuing repression typically triggers a deepening of the desire for transgression and therefore amounts to a negative reinforcement mechanism. Prohibition never works. Yet, conversely, not all that glitters is gold with a positive reinforcement system. Anyone who has dealt with children knows that rewards are more effective than “teaching them a lesson”. But then one often comes to realize that once the kid gets “hooked” to the award they will want an ever bigger prize, and that there's no way anything is going to happen unless an even greater accolade can be anticipated. So often a positive reinforcement system reverts into a punitive system, which reveals itself as being merely the opposite of an equivalent system based on rewards.

But education in itself has preciously little to do with compliance with a given rules, and is has also nothing to do with obedience. The same old Socrates, in wanting to educate young people for citizenship by example, did not only break the rules, but he invited others to be disobedient and follow their own “Daimon” (daemon, the “inner voice”). Algorithmic “education” is nothing else than drill training, and leads to servitude. Although in appearance it can produce good results in terms of measurable performance, it certainly does not induce independence, autonomy or responsibility.


The line between learning and training is razor thin. The main factor comes down to the organic chemical which plays a central role in learning and responding to positive reinforcement stimuli: dopamine (or more technically “3,4-dihydroxyphenethylamine”), a neurotransmitter that runs through the neural paths of our brain. To simplify what is an extremely complex mechanism, we can say that the sense of gratification and reward we experience when we manage to learn something is connected to a release of dopamine. In general, the performance of enjoyable activities in the psycho-physiological realm (drinking, eating, having sex, getting appreciation, empathy, etc.) corresponds to an increased concentration of this neurotransmitter. The same applies, by the way, to the use of drugs.

Learning in all its forms, even in physiological activities, requires effort, care and attention. Reading is tiresome, just as is assimilating any new skill. To attain a satisfactory level with psycho-physiological activities requires effort. The simplest and less costly way to raise the levels of dopamine and hence to experience pleasure is to complete a task, or to perform a given procedure, again and again. Repetition, iteration of a given behaviour is the formula. It works as a short-cut.

The emotional development processes take place in the limbic system, the central and oldest part of the brain. It indicates the presence or the prospect of rewards or punishments to promote the activation of motor programmes aimed at giving pleasure or avoid pain. Addictive drugs operate exactly the same way and in the same brain region, causing feelings of pleasure. Once established neuronal connections get increasingly strengthened, thereby losing in plasticity. This kind of connective stiffening corresponds to a decreased ability to relax the state of pleasant neuronal excitation caused by dopamine: in more technical terms, it occurs by way of a long-term impairment of the synaptic pathways that connect neurons. Such trails become like paved roads in our brains, and it takes truckloads of dopamine to feel pleasure. At each step, the necessary dose has to be increased. This explains why drill is so effective, and why it generates addiction. The desire for pleasure related to an automatism, which amounts to compulsive behaviour, makes us enter into a repetitive loop getting out of which becomes increasingly difficult because the neural pathways that are always excited, will not be able to do anything else but get more and more powerful with the passage of time: beat-rhythm-repetition.

The user touches the device. Not once, but many times. From all the touches - every touch is a beat - comes the rhythm, which is repeated in many interactions with the device. Habitual behaviour is manifested in a cycle.

Give us our game back!

We need to approach the concept of cognitive ergonomics (from ancient Greek “ergon – nomos”, “rules of the labor”): thanks to the digital media, we can lower our cognitive load and, for example, and delegate to some device the task of remembering all the dates and numbers of our agenda. A very useful support, kind of indispensable - almost. We did not need any tuition to be able to use the phone directory in print. Or even our telephone for that matter, or how to manage our contacts on a social platform. Maybe we had at times to ask some geek type among our friends. We probably don't have a clue how all this stuff works, but the main thing is that we are able to do with it what we want. And to do this, we will have to perform a series of repetitive actions, or retrace a procedure. We go by what is in the interface and follow the obvious traces of the algorithmic procedure laid down by others for us.

The organization of our cognitive system is mainly based on intuitive faculties and reasoning. Entrusting ourselves to intuition, we only interpret a context through mental schemes that are already part of our non-conscious mnemonic luggage. Cognitive and computational effort is minimal, since we do not think about what we're doing. We act automatically. Reasoning instead requires substantial cognitive effort, we must dwell on a problem, make hypotheses, follow a sequence which requires a slow pace and full involvement. Intuition allows us to act and to use a tool without being able to explain its operation, while the reasoning can make us able to explain exactly how something works without necessary being able to use it. A virtuosa violin player may have no idea how her muscles work, but she can use them to perfection. Conversely, we may be able to describe the steps to drive a tractor theoretically by reading a manual, without being able to actually drive it.

Declarative memory (knowing what, knowing something) is distinct from procedural memory (knowing how, knowing a procedure). All the activities we carry out automatically involve procedural memory. When we act intuitively we refer to the procedures we learned in the past, acting out the strategy which seems the most appropriate for the successful completion of the task at hand. We do not need to think. It is a question of ecology of resources, like not wasting valuable computational energy to think about how to ride a bike if you already know how to ride it. But when there is no match with our previous experiences, we must refer to reason and analyze environmental conditions before acting: if a tire is flat, we try to take it apart and fix it. But if we can't manage, we have to ask for help, or tinker with it otherwise, and create a fresh, not yet applied procedure.

In general, using a digital medium, e.g. a web interface, on an ongoing, daily basis, means to gradually learn to use it automatically. And as these interfaces are designed to give the most user-friendly, intuitive “experience”, it is easy to see how, through the creation of mental patterns, one can say that we use them “without thinking”. Even if we switch to a different make of cellphone while using the same applications, suffices to identify its icons to go back to the automatic mode, and type in without looking at the keypad.

Once trained, the mind is able to repeat one the particular, earlier internal simulations of the action that we want to complete: intuitive ability is therefore the ability to simulate a known procedure and acting it out automatically. This automatism coincides with the execution of the procedure. From there springs most of the apparent misunderstandings regarding the educational benefits of the use of digital devices, and about cognitive differences allegedly existing between “digital natives” and later adopters. A good illustration is provided by the fact that smartphones and tablets are used in the rehabilitation of patients suffering from neuro-degenerative afflictions such as semantic dementia. In their case, since procedural memory is the only kind of memory left to them, patients are able to master several functions and use the devices on a daily basis without problems even though they are otherwise unable to remember very simple notions.

“Digital natives” is in itself not a very valid concept, people born in the television age also can become proficient computer users, interact socially and engage in interpersonal relationships mediated by digital devices, and find experiencing and participating in multimedia interconnected realities more interesting than the “disconnected” everyday life. All moderately intelligent human beings can become “digital natives”. A human brain is very plastic and it modifies itself very quickly when learning procedures, and this is especially the case with gamification related procedures. But then, this does not mean that people are consequently able to comprehend, interpret, analyze, rewrite or teach the procedural mechanisms they themselves repeat routinely!

The more or less deep dive into a virtual reality penetrating our organic body through the optic nerves generates a detachment to our environment and a selective inattention to non-visual stimuli, as well as being addictive. And breaking away from the screen, after passing hours that have seemed to be minutes, can be felt as a real ache. Give us the game back, even for a moment, just a moment, it was so fun! It is such a cool separation from the body. Here, it is the passage of time which constitutes the fundamental parameter to identify the different types of interaction. When we are not aware the passing of time, we are probably in a phase of flow 2, of procedural immersion. We are living in a current, immediate cycle of interaction, an extremely addictive experience, which we would like never to end. When on the contrary time is perceived as linear, with experiential stages we are aware of, and which we are able to stratify, to store and to recall later, we find ourselves in a time of sequential learning and of applying declarative memory.

By now, video games have become a fundamental part of the life of millions of people, who together spend billions of hours playing on or off-line. In terms of turn-over, the video game industry has overtaken all other branches of the entertainment industry: developing a successful video game, for instance a MMOG (Massively Multiplayer Online Game), in which participants connect simultaneously to play in a world that they create together, can be more expensive, and then turn out to be more profitable, than to produce a Hollywood blockbuster. Of course video games are not all the same but the vast majority are designed to induce flow. Besides bolstering the dopamine circuit, they can act on the release of oxytocin, which modulate fear and anxiety and induces prosocial behaviour, and has an effect on many other neurotransmitters and hormones.

Many video games are made following the prescriptions of behaviourism, and in particular the format of the Skinner box game, designed by the American psychologist Burrhus Frederic Skinner 3 in his experiments with rats and pigeons in the 1930s. Skinner developed a method of learning called operant conditioning. A particular type of behaviour will be prompted more successfully, even in the case of humans, by way of rewards granted in a non-automatic way. Thus, a rat will receives food if it presses a button, but not always. Training is more effective in that buttons will be pressed down more frequently if the positive reinforcement is not automatic, but possible or probable. A common example with humans is provided by gamblers at slot machines almost everywhere: players know that they will not always win, if ever, yet they continue to chip in, because the operant conditioning (“I can win”) is more powerful than immediate frustration (“I did not win this time”). Behavioural training is perhaps the greatest deceit in gamification, and it is standard to video games and in fact, any other type of game.

The interaction with digital media needs not necessarily to be limited to a mere self-training, an exercise in procedural memory and simultaneous intelligence or intuition. Hacking, the art to “put your hands on”, to take over the operation of a complex operating system (hard- or software), to tweak it and alter its functioning at will certainly also appeals to the senses. Yet remaining dazed and (not) confused in front of a screen for a classic and self destructive “flying to Australia” session of 24 hours or more, until the body/mind collapses of exhaustion is a typical example of system-induced self-destructive behaviour abusing the self-reinforcing dopamine cycle making people forget their own organic body.

Thus we strongly aim to and advocate to a conscious and balanced back and forth between various forms of intelligence and memory. Care of the self starts with a careful observation of personal interactions, with listening to personal inclinations, this with the aim to be able to find the pace to suit us, and to be able to set our own rules. In other words, to create our own interactive “liturgy”.

From self-defense to hacker convivial pedagogy

We do not want to give up on the game, to give up the pleasure of playing together. Indeed, we think that learning by playing is one of the finest ways to genuinely layer our experiences, to make them part of us. “Hands on” be our motto: for the pleasure of tinkering with machines, tweaking devices and systems, and doing it together, this is is the real joy. This activity in the first person, this pleasant interaction (some erotic thrill must be part of the game!) is a pre-condition of happiness for a hacker playing with technological tools.

In the course of our “s-gamificazione” workshops (de-gamification) we have developed a simple methodology to move towards a convivial pedagogy, playing with the machines we like. But then, we first have to get rid of the automatisms that reduce us to mere cogs of the corporate megamachines. To us, digital self-defense means above all to drop the habit of re-acting to gamification stimuli. As a start we have to change our habits in a conscious way.

It is not possible here to give an account of a typical workshop, because there is no such thing as a typical workshop. In our experience every group of people and every situation turns out to be radically different from any other. Also, very personal issues frequently come to the fore, and it is essential to keep these within the protected area of the group, away from the limelight. Thus we have tried to abstract the basic steps and elements of our workshops in order to give an account that runs as one and the same story, yet retold in many different ways.

The first step is to acknowledge the fact that we are immersed in interactive environments shaped by automatic devices we did not choose and which do not necessarily make us feel good.

The second step is to observe ourselves acting as if we were strangers, with weird habits – to look at ourselves in the shape of strange animals waiting anxiously for that message, getting irritated if it doesn't appear, getting elated by a like, bouncing when a notification pops up ...

Once we have identified the automatism (stimulus-response) that make us behave in a certain way, we focus the attention on the emotional changes that result from them. Anger, joy, sadness, excitement, impatience, envy, fear and many other emotions manifest themselves constantly, often in combination. There obviously exists an interactive design of emotion of which we are unaware.

The third step is to tell others, to people we trust, what we have discovered about ourselves, about our behaviours. This way we are not disclosing facts about ourselves on public notice boards owned by multinational corporation. On the contrary, we choose our own dedicated spaces and times to bring out the masks that enliven our personal interactive liturgy. The bundles of emotions which makes us take the character of an undecided person, or of a braggart, or of a shy individual, of a competent expert, and of many other possible types represents what has settled down in our individuality - without us noticing. Up to that point the positions “we answer like that” and “we act like this” - show us how much we have become enslaved to our own induced behaviors.

Finally, the fourth step is to compare our stories with those of others. Very often we find that our compulsive habits are very much similar to those of our peers, but we also discover that there exists a great many ways to make a change – as long as we do really want it.

1. “The Performance Society”, in Ippolita, In the Facebook Aquarium, INC, Amsterdam, 2015, p. 23.
2. Flow, or in the zone / in the groove. See Mihály Csíkszentmihály, Flow: the Psychology of optimal experience, Harper & Row, New York 1990.
3. A brief introduction can be found in S. A. McLeod: Skinner: Operant Conditioning. 2015. The classic work is B. F. Skinner: Science and human behavior. 1953.

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