Can we control the future? Maybe, says Tim Phillips, a better question is should we even try?
There’s a famous speech, one of my favourite bits, in Game of Thrones in which Petyr Baelish, the amoral political fixer known as Littlefinger, dismisses the historical texts as, “a story we agree to tell each other over and over, until we forget that it’s a lie.” When Lord Varys points out that the alternative is chaos, Littlefinger points out that chaos isn’t something to fear:
“Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some are given a chance to climb. They refuse, they cling to the realm, or the gods, or love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.”
If the inhabitants of the seven kingdoms are fully occupied trying to avoid falling into a pit of chaos, the environment in which they live doesn’t help. When dead people can be reanimated, for example, which must be disorientating. ‘Winter is coming’, we are told at the beginning, which reminds inhabitants of the time when a previous winter lasted a generation. Why did it do that? Maybe it doesn’t matter much if there are undead people coming to kill you as a result.
So Littlefinger has a point: when things change, old certainties become less valuable, less useful, no matter how comforting they are. Yet the idea that our societies and lives are in equilibrium is alluring for all of us.
We build it into the way we teach business, in which the forces of supply and demand balance to create stable prices and employment and growth. Yet, at the same time, we also know this isn’t really true. The economist Joseph Schumpeter was the first to identify a process he called ‘creative destruction’, in which innovation destroys the old world to create a better one. Real entrepreneurs don’t just tweak existing ideas, they rip them up and start again. If you do this successfully, you get your reward because you are in a field of one: but the risk of disaster is much greater. Schumpeter realised that disequilibrium is normal. We also now know that this applies in society, or to the weather.
It doesn’t even take an entrepreneur to create disequilibrium. In the UK, one in seven workers have been made redundant since the start of the financial crisis, which would have seemed inconceivable a decade ago. The chaotic nature of what economists call ‘the business cycle’ means that we might have a good idea of how secure our jobs will be next month, but no clear answer to the question if we ask about next year, and certainly no idea of the next 10 years.
We instinctively value continuity in our lives and our societies, and many of us react irrationally to disruptive change. In a recent experiment, the Royal Statistical Society took people who overestimated the problems of immigration, and confronted them with well-researched facts that contradicted their ideas. The people overwhelmingly decided that the statistics must be wrong.
We all think we wouldn’t do the same thing in our lives, but most of us react to sudden change by holding on to the stories we tell ourselves, even if they are not true. Not all of us can be a Littlefinger, climbing the ladder out of chaos, or a Schumpeterian entrepreneur, who creates the ladder in the first place.
We spend our lives in the understandable hope that chaos doesn’t come to our homes, families or workplaces. Insurance, savings and sandbags in the shed may help; but to flourish, rather than survive, we need to have a little bit of Littlefinger in us, and recognise that clinging exclusively to ‘the realm, or the gods, or love’ will eventually put us on the receiving end of some process of creative destruction.
It’s tricky trying to get messages around in the Seven Kingdoms, which seem to lack a basic postal or parcel delivery service, even in the cities – and no one has email. They don’t even have social media. But they make a pretty good job of it.
Long distance message-passing is done by attaching a letter to a raven. According to the books, the value of a carrier-raven was taught to the First Men of Westeros by the Children of The Forest. At this point the birds could talk, which would have ensured an even higher quality of service. A verbal message is encrypted (it exists in the raven’s little brain, and so is harder to intercept without catching every passing raven and torturing it with tiny instruments). It would also have been easier to direct the message to the person who needs to read it, because you could have told the ravens that your letter was urgent, so not to hang around scavenging, for example. This scavenging thing, it seems to me, would be an argument in favour of pigeons. Pigeons fly direct, without stopping to feast on corpses.
With this constraint, the rulers of Westeros have become extremely adept at communicating the Big Ideas. They really get the value of symbolism as a way to make a point efficiently. There’s a phrase in advertising: ‘show, don’t tell’. So, if you want to make thousands of people afraid of you, don’t make long speeches telling them to be afraid, or write lots of nasty letters and attach them to every raven you can find. You do something unexpected that should make them think: watch out.
In the disordered world of Game of Thrones, it’s hard to list without giving away spoilers the (almost weekly) moments when some ruler or other follows this plan, so I’ll try to be general. Pouring molten gold on an ambitious person’s head, walking into your husband’s burning funeral pyre and walking out again the next day to show that you’re a bit special, or chopping off the hand of the best swordsman just to show everyone that you can, isn’t necessarily a communications strategy to follow at home or the office. But, in the real world, communications directors who work for our largely-ignored politicians, who weep silently as they arrange another tired visit to a small factory somewhere in the midlands so that their boss can be filmed in a hi-vis jacket pretending to know what the machine does, must wish they lived in Westeros from time to time.
We’ve mentioned Machiavelli before as a link between Game of Thrones and our world. In The Prince, he relates how Pope Alexander VI cleaned up the Romagna province. With a weak government and crime everywhere, the Pope sent Remirro de Orco, his fixer, to clean house by punishing lots of people harshly and cruelly. Everyone hated Remirro, because he was good at what he did: Romagnan crime rates dropped, with a large amount of bloodshed along the way. So, when the job was done, ‘Alexander had him cut in half, and placed one morning in the public square’. Result: everyone liked that there was less crime, and they liked the Pope even more. Remirro showed that no one is above the law, but Alexander showed that no one was above the Pope.
Here lies the difference between sending a message and making a gesture. When a prime minister is photographed pointing at something while wearing a hard hat, it no longer sends us any strong message, because it is what we expect. It delivers no new information. If we even notice, we shrug. A strong message is easiest to convey when it implies new clarity and unexpected change, even if only for a few people. That’s why the most memorable messages often emerge from disorder and confusion, and why most big gestures in our world are so forgettable.
Incest – it’s not about the sex, says Tim Phillips
‘Alongside kinslaying and the violation of guest right, incest is proscribed by every major religion in Westeros,’ the Game of Thrones Wiki tells us, ‘Children born of incest are deemed abominations.’
Didn’t stop them doing it though. Clearly there’s ‘proscribed by every major religion’ and ‘who are you to tell us what to do?’ For those of you not familiar with the Game of Thrones backstory, King Aerys II Targaryen (the Mad King) married his own sister, Queen Rhaella Targaryen. King Aerys made good on his nickname by going insane thanks to inbreeding, and his son Viserys wasn’t all there either.
This, you might conclude, would be an argument against imitating his actions. But Queen Cersei and her brother Jaime Lannister have, even by the beginning of Game of Thrones series 1, been going at it for years. This has the unfortunate consequence that they produce barmy King Joffrey, a sort of psychotic Milky Bar Kid.
This is a pretty accurate depiction of the sexual behaviour of European royalty through several centuries. For example, John V of Armagnac in the 15th century took up with a young girl called Isabelle who was considered one of the greatest beauties in France. This was controversial because there had been talk of marrying her to Henry VI of England before he stepped in. It was even more controversial because she was also his sister. After they had two children John V promised to keep his codpiece buttoned while his sister was around, so the kerfuffle didn’t exactly die down when they got married (claiming the Pope had told them it was OK), and had a third child.
The literal aristocrats of incestual ick were undoubtedly the Habsburgs, who bred so enthusiastically with their cousins that, by the 17th century King Charles II was ‘physically disabled, mentally retarded and disfigured’. Academic studies calculate that Hapsburg marriages had up to 25% of genes in common.
You don’t have to be a disciple of Sigmund Freud to be aware that incest fantasies are common; every internet porno site has an incest category. Well, that’s what PEOPLE TELL ME. But the Habsburgs weren’t being kinky. Royal incest is about power. It kept the fortune in the family – if your extended family was also in charge of the country next-door, then a political alliance meant a family wedding, whether you were into that sort of thing or not.
So, if we concentrate on the sex, we’re missing the point. This is about power, and keeping power close. Power influences the way the cake is cut: the more you concentrate power, the more of the cake you keep. What psychologists call ‘other-regarding behaviour’ is more common among those genetically closer to us, or those with a similar world view.
It often isn’t a plan, but an outcome of a natural (though misguided) thought process, in which we trust and value people who look and talk like us. People in power share power with their ‘family’. Few discriminate consciously, but only a small group of the population has the social capital (confidence, education, powerful friends and common experiences) to be part of the ‘in group’. Are these always the best people to wield power? Your opinion may be influenced by whether you are in that group or not.
We assume that shareholder capitalism places controls on CEOs and their executive officers, just as royal alliances between families were meant to moderate the behaviour of each ruler: but when the powerful actors are ‘family’, the opposite can often be the case.
This survey shows how corporate dynasties intermarry by sitting on each other’s boards. One result: a small group effectively decides one another’s compensation, and we all know how executive pay has ballooned in the last 30 years at a far greater rate than profits have increased. That’s not criminal. But scandals at Enron, WorldCom and many others – in which the performance of a supine board has been shown to be a contributing factor – shows what can happen when intermarriage gives too much power, with too little oversight, to the King Joffreys of the corporate world.
Warning: this blog contains spoilers for Game of Thrones Season 3, Episode 9
I couldn’t watch the Game of Thrones episode featuring the ‘Red Wedding’ on the day it was first broadcast. For 24 hours I couldn’t read the tweets or posts from my friends which went like this:
Friend: WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT??!
Other friend: didn’t see that coming!
Other friend: I’m glad no one told me that [spoiler]…
This stuff was hard to avoid. The Red Wedding more or less crashed the internet. So (spoiler alert) I managed to avoid knowing the full detail of the slaughter of heroic avenger Robb Stark and most of his remaining family. I could boggle afresh at the mass murder of men, women, children (born and unborn) and dire wolves. Next time someone describes a drunken wedding to me as ‘carnage’, I’ve got a handy visual reference.
But the internet-crashing shock wasn’t fundamentally about death. There’s loads of it on TV. I recently watched Michael McIntyre’s chat show. His guests died every week.
It’s because (more spoilers here) we’ve invested in the revenge story of the Robb Stark and his family who, in Hollywood narrative terms, should clearly win their war against the Lannisters because that’s the way things are done in fairy stories. Therefore, when they get cut into small chunks at the Red Wedding, and fail epically as a result, it’s not the way things should happen. Consider:
- Robb Stark’s wise and mostly good father, who loved his kids so much that he even fathered an extra one while he was off having a war, was murdered by the Lannisters for political reasons. Therefore avenging him is a righteous quest.
- Lannisters are weaselly snivelling cheats who make Shakespeare’s Richard III look like Nelson Mandela.
- The Starks have an attractive macho mud-caked integrity. They recall the great Wigan Rugby League team of the late 1980s; not least because they sound a bit like them too.
- As a result the Starks do not dress in silly foppish clothes or wear ridiculous little crowns. Again, not like the nasty Lannisters.
Many of the stories we read, watch and tell, the religions and beliefs we follow, the news we watch and therefore the assumptions we make are based on the idea that virtue gets a reward. We build these stories into a ‘Great Man’ (it’s almost always a man) narrative, in which a few extraordinary people shape our destiny for the better. This was first expressed by the historian Thomas Carlyle in 1841, in his book On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History, in which he wrote, ‘The history of the world is but the biography of great men.’
Niccolo Machiavelli, writing 300 years before him, had a rather more nuanced appreciation of the Great Man. When he wrote The Prince as a leadership manual for medieval rulers, he knew two things: first, that it really helps to get stuff done if you are perceived as great. He was less fussy about actual greatness or virtue – perhaps because he’d spent a lot of time around the Medici and Borgia versions of the Great Man. The second thing, as Machiavelli warns us towards the end of his celebrated book, is that ‘greatness’ is fundamentally about happenstance: being the right person, in the right place, at the right time.
And so he undermined the Great Man Theory before Carlyle created it. But we look for a neater story, that great men are fulfilling a destiny. The Starks must win because they deserve it. It also helps us to take orders if we believe that we follow people because they are not just powerful, but better than us in some way.
Great Man Theory underpins the modern idea of the hero CEO too. There is an economic theory known as ‘just desserts’ (in the US, ‘just deserts’) which argues that the financial rewards of the additional value created by an innovation or business should flow to the person who created it. Greg Mankiw, one of the greatest economists alive today, recently wrote a paper on this called ‘Defending the One Percent’. It’s easy to read, and argues, for example, that innovators like Steve Jobs deserved their extraordinary rewards.
There are two arguments against this. First of all, Steve Jobs didn’t design the products that Apple sells. Innovation is a team effort, involving thousands of deserving, hard-working people, some of whom get minimum wage.
Secondly, even if we think there might be a limited number of great men to reward, who exactly are they? Who gets the revenues from the iPhone? Is it the person who invented the iPhone, or the telephone, or the one who invented electricity, or who created outsourced manufacturing, or even the internet? Any one of them would have a legitimate claim on a piece of the action, and few of them profited anything like as much as Jobs.
Machiavelli knew that the necessary condition for becoming a Great Man isn’t to possess greatness according to some moral or intellectual standard (it might help, but looking at the people in Mankiw’s 1% it’s clearly not essential). The perception of greatness comes from the power, not the other way around. People have to think you’re going to win, or they won’t give you a chance to prove it.
But the Red Wedding reminds us (as does much of Game of Thrones) that, while this is a necessary condition of greatness, it’s not sufficient. You also have to actually win: history never even thinks about virtuous people without power, and soon forgets losers. So when our Great Man Theories are hacked to bits in front of our disbelieving eyes, it’s uncomfortable. But it’s a useful reminder of the sources and limits of power.
If you’ve never watched Game of Thrones, you may be missing out on more than mere entertainment. Maybe it’s because you don’t really like stuff about wizards and orcs. Don’t worry: no wizards or orcs in Game of Thrones. Granted there are a couple of dragons, although they aren’t in it much. But that’s not the point. Regardless of your feelings on dragons, with Game of Thrones, as with so much in life, you stay for the stories.
First off – I totally get it. When I was at school, the geeky kids used to play a board game called Dungeons and Dragons, which was like computer games would be if no one had invented electricity. I sat in once, and it confirmed my wish to stamp on the dungeonmaster’s glasses after everyone else went home.
Fast forward 30 years, and I’m glued to Game of Thrones every week. Is this because I’ve successfully dealt with my anger issues, or are the dragons just better these days?
Clearly I’m more tolerant of things that couldn’t ever really happen but are fun to think about, having had my mind unexpectedly expanded by authors such as Alan Moore and Peter Ackroyd. And Game of Thrones isn’t short of mind expanding situations. There are seven kingdoms full of people cheating, fighting, having sex, fighting the people they just had sex with, cutting off those people’s heads, cheating some more, fighting the people who still have heads who are angry because they got cheated, … you get the hang of it. Sometimes the writers bump off the most important character, just to make us go WHAT?
Game of Thrones gets confusing the moment you stop concentrating or nip out to make a sandwich, but I rather enjoy that bit. I am constantly thinking, ‘Hang on, I thought he had been tortured to death in the local brothel last week’ or ‘Is that woman he’s having sex with his cousin or his great aunt?’ These thoughts remind me, perhaps somewhat alarmingly, of an adolescence spent in Odin’s discotheque in Driffield. That was the 1980s, kids. In many ways Game of Thrones recalls that era: a tendency to big hair and shoulder pads, no mobile phones, Charles Dance.
But I digress; trying to make sense of little mysteries should be one of the great pleasures of our adult lives. It is literally what makes us human. As the biologist William Calvin explains in a 2006 paper on ‘The emergence of intelligence’:
Our abilities to plan gradually develop from childhood narratives and are a major foundation for ethical choices, as we imagine a course of action, imagine its effects on others and decide whether or not to do it.
In Odin’s, as in Game of Thrones, most of the time the response was, ‘Let’s do it, what’s the worst that could happen?’
So, we do not learn by being told, but by doing and observing, and working out what happens next. We learn by creating a story out of experience. But, when we grow up and go to University and then get an office job, what does the world give us to make sense of life?
PowerPoint, that’s what.
PowerPoint is anti-story. We go into a room. Someone reads out 30 slides which all seem to be lists. Sometimes the lists magically appear, point by tedious point: as suspenseful as watching a tap drip. Sometimes the lists have little sublists, which have their own titchy sub-sublists. The titchy lists are in italics. No one tells you why. Sometimes there will be important diagrams which pretend they tell a story, but MAKE NO SENSE.
A proper story has what Chris Anderson, the man who created TED talks (and therefore a man who knows about storytelling) calls the ‘aha moment’: the pleasure when we work something out for ourselves, when we realise something without someone telling us it. The fog lifts.
Jokes have this structure, conversation has it, sport has it, walking into a bar and choosing a beer has it, even shopping on Amazon has it. Game of Thrones has it in seven kingdoms, all at once. Presentations do not, because the people who write them don’t bother to put it in. You’ll learn far more about your co-workers from Game of Thrones than you will from a dozen teambuilding seminars.
Being confused for a while is fun, because it’s more satisfying. Presentations are worse than real life, because they take out the stories, the bits that help us work it out for ourselves. If you present to me and there’s no aha moment, you know what I will be thinking: I’d like to stamp on that presenter’s glasses. And if that sounds like negative feedback, it’s better than what happens to most of the characters in Game of Thrones.