It Really Is Time For Some Game Theory

The mainstreaming of focal point theory in our national dialogue and our inability to recognize it (let alone liberate ourselves from it) strikes me as something of a problem. And, before we rush into the thick of it it, a definition: “In game theory, a focal point (also called Schelling point) is a solution that people will tend to use in the absence of communication, because it seems natural, special, or relevant to them.”

An example used in conjunction with the definition: a group of students are instructed to meet someone in New York City. Lacking any further specifics, a majority of them decide to meet at the information booth at Grand Central Station.

Why is the mainstreaming of focal point theory a problem? Consider Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. The ostensible impetus behind the book was to encourage people to act more humanely when they’re online. In response, it received the following reviews from Buzzfeed and The New York Times: the former accused Ronson of being implicitly uncomfortable with the rise of a diversity of voices while the latter highlighted the harassment women receive online and in real life, saying that this is where the concern ought to lie — and that the internet is a little bit of a make-believe land, anyway.

So, if you think of yourself as a well-meaning person, what do you do? Which narrative takes priority? Which takes precedence? Do you feel comfortable making a synthesis on your own when what you read doesn’t necessarily seem interested in doing it for you?

When did focal point theory tip over into the mainstream in the United States? Was it when Occupy Wall Street entered into the public sphere and people took to the internet to repeatedly say that Occupy Wall Street wasn’t being covered in the news when it was being covered? Was that the moment when someone in Russia said to themselves, “Could we turn secession in the U.S. into a thing? Could we at least waste their time on that?” Did Cambridge Analytica look at the work of Lynton Crosby’s ‘dead cat theory’ and think, ‘Well, there’s something to this we could do with a little bit more precision, isn’t there?”

In a paper written by Kaushik Basu of Cornell University, Basu notes that “this focal point model … can be put to some rather Machiavellian uses, such as that of creating your own group and then promoting it … once such beliefs catch on, they can become self-fulfilling because that belief then serves as a focal point.”

It should be noted that Basu is — for the most part — specifically speaking about employers pursuing short-term strategic complementarity instead of a long-term strategic substitute, and — whether they’re aware of it or not — inadvertently contributing to market-derived/market-based discrimination as a result, but he inadvertently highlights something: how do you successfully acknowledge and engage with a pluralistic society where part of the self-expression of someone’s identity has taken on the form of a self-fulfilling focal point, which comes around through a lack of communication? How does that square itself with the pursuit of justice? (Note that I’m not talking about pride or the importance of a group being known to itself (or of simply being itself), but — rather — the second half of the implicit equation here — the bit where other groups are known to each other, and how they make themselves known.) Consider how Aviad Rubinstein and Yakov Babichenko tried to figure out a variation on this problem, as reported by Quanta Magazine

… there’s no guaranteed method for players to find even an approximate Nash equilibrium unless they tell each other virtually everything about their respective preferences. And as the number of players in a game grows, the amount of time required for all this communication quickly becomes prohibitive.

Sometimes people are able to focus as result of what they’ve seen online — like when protesters, lawyers, and those who simply wanted to pray were able to swarm airports across the country in response to the attempted Muslim Ban — but sometimes it’s important to think about focal point theory in the context of online-based national dialogue in the hopes of deterring future perception management campaigns (consider the case of ‘Melvin Redick’), especially if the kind of reforms advocated by Asha Rangappa aren’t coming right away, especially when we read proposals that “Facebook, Twitter and YouTube maintain a repository of campaign ads so that regulators, scholars, journalists and the public can examine and expose them” and realize that that might not arrive right away either, nor a world in which Facebook has competition.

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