The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by Jeff Gomez. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Howdy. This is Jim Rutt, and this is the Jim Rutt Show. Listeners have asked us to provide pointers to some of the resources we talk about on the show. We now have links to books and articles referenced in recent podcasts that are available on our website. We also offer full transcripts. Go to JimRuttShow.com. That’s JimRuttShow.com.
Jim: Today’s guest is Jeff Gomez, CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment.
Jeff: This is going to be a special show, Jim, because I’m not nearly as sharp as some of your other guests, but thank you for having me on.
Jim: Great to have you. Don’t sell yourself short, Jeff. We’ve known each other for I don’t know how many years, awhile, and you’ve definitely got a lot to add to the conversation.
Jeff: Ah, well thank you.
Jim: Anyway, Starlight Runner is the world’s leading producer of transmedia entertainment franchises and corporate narratives. They have worked with the top studio executives and producers in Hollywood and many of the most successful entertainment brands extending them across multiple media platforms. Some of their projects have included Pirates of the Caribbean, Star Wars, Men In Black, Spider-Man and James Cameron’s revolutionary film, Avatar. Jeff, could you give me an example of where you did your magic on one of these projects?
Jeff: Wow, is that all? No, one of the preeminent was with something like Pirates of Caribbean where we were approached by the Disney company because the first Pirates movie did so well, but it was an unexpected hit and the Disney company wanted to do sequels, but weren’t exactly sure how to leverage the intellectual property across all the different divisions of the company. They hadn’t made very much money in licensing and merchandise in the original Pirates movie. They just weren’t ready for it. So, our job was to figure out what made Pirates so successful. What was the mechanism in the story, besides the movie stars, of course, that could be leveraged across comic books and video games and novels, the things that would allow for Disney to capitalize on the property. So, our magic was really to determine the essence of what made the Pirates universe special and to work with divisions like imagineering on the theme park ride, or their interactive division on the massive multiplayer online game to make sure that the essence of Pirates, what made that movie so much fun, was infused into these different products.
Jim: Cool. I had no idea that it was a surprise hit because truthfully not being a Pirates fan myself, I haven’t really dug into it, but my favorite nephew swears it’s the greatest series in his lifetime, and he’s like-
Jim: He’s like 33, 34 years old, and he goes, “That’s the Lord of the Rings for my generation” is the way he describes it, and he knows I’m a Lord of the Rings fanatic, so you couldn’t get much higher praise on the broader concept.
Jeff: Well, maintaining the integrity and continuity of that rich universe as it develops into all these different spinoffs and product lines was out job, and we came to appreciate it the same way he did. It is this epic fantasy that deserves to be respected and maintained.
Jim: This is a side question that just struck me. How do you keep it from getting cheesy or, as they say in the series TV world, jumping the shark?
Jeff: It’s actually very difficult because in Hollywood, the visionary is still the director, perhaps the producer, and sometimes they don’t quite have their finger on what exactly made these movies special. Sometimes, we’re allowed to speak truth to power and go, “You know, this screen play doesn’t quite nail it.” Sometimes, we’re told to shut up and let the do it. So, we have watched sequels to the works that we’ve worked on maybe not be quite as good as the previous one. It’s a part of the job.
Jim: Yeah, well those of us who go to movies a lot know that happens all the time, but sometimes you get a big surprise. I still think Terminator 2 was the greatest one in the Terminator sequence.
Jeff: That was awesome.
Jim: Yeah, in fact, I’m going to go watch it again right before I go see the new Terminator.
Jeff: Jim, I knew you were a nerd, just not this kind of nerd. That’s fantastic.
Jim: I’m basically all kinds of nerds. In fact, I think I’m going to coin a new word, poly-nerdish-ness.
Jeff: I’m with you on the poly-nerdish-ness.
Jim: Yeah, exactly. I did a little research before this episode. One of the terms that keeps popping up about you and your company is transmedia storytelling. Could you tell us what that is?
Jeff: That’s a fancy term for being a nerd. Well, think about your experience of reading Marvel or DC comic books, how every so often, Ironman can show up in Spider-Man’s comic book, or Spider-Man can team up with the Fantastic Four. Those were story worlds, those Marvel and DC comic book universes, and in doing so, there was a kind of intertextuality, there was the ability for characters to visit one another and still have a persistent universe going on there. When I was young, I wanted this for the Godzilla movies. I wanted this for Planet of the Apes, and I was often disappointed because the licensing and merchandising of these properties was done in a casual fashion and nobody was interested in making sure that Cornelius spoke in the same manner in the comic books as he did in the movies. The Planet of the Apes cartoon show had dinosaurs in it. What are dinosaurs really doing on the Planet of the Apes? I couldn’t deal.
Jeff: That’s because those worlds didn’t have integrity. Transmedia storytelling is the methodology to take a story world and disburse it across multiple platforms in ways that allow for it to retain a canonicity. There’s a continuity from one medium to the next. The quintessential transmedia universe is Star Wars right now. If you read a Star Wars comic book, it is in canon. That’s the official story, an official story set in the Star Wars universe are as the novels, the movies, the animated stories. And, when you assemble these pieces of the story world, they fit together sometimes almost perfectly, and that gives the fan pleasure because everything that they’re encountering, everything they’re paying for counts as an addition to the story world.
Jeff: My job was to introduce this concept, or help introduce this concept to the Hollywood studios and the big video game companies as a method to increase fan loyalty and sell more stuff, but also to create an integrity to these story worlds as massive entertainment expressions. Almost like artist expressions, if you will.
Jim: Well, the world builder function is an artistic creation, I’d argue as someone who’s fooled around a little bit with building a few games over the years. The first thing you have to do is envision your world in either greater or lesser detail. It sounds like transmedia storytelling starts with building or extracting from a first property a world, and then making it rich enough that you can say whether X is canon or not. Is that a reasonable take?
Jeff: I knew you were my kind of guy, Jim Rutt.
Jim: And, of course, the thing that I nerd out the most on is Lord of the Rings. I’ve read the trilogy 37 times.
Jeff: Holy mackerel.
Jim: And, I’m getting ready to read it for the 38th time. The weird thing is you get something new out of it every time, believe it or not, but Tolkien, as real fans know, spent many, many years … decades … creating this world first before he wrote the book. And, in fact, Lord of Rings is embedded in a much larger narrative, Silmarillion, etc, and some other little bits and pieces and things that were never published. He invented languages, invented genealogies. It’s all reasonably consistent. In some sense, he might be more or less the father of this approach.
Jeff: Fairly close to it, Jim. Actually, I started with Tolkien. I started with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and this was when I was very young, but old enough to understand that everything I’d read up until that moment felt like the author was just making up a story with The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. The richness of the characters, their histories, their genealogies, their cultures mixed with this extraordinarily passionate quest narrative that really can touch your heart because of how Frodo and his fellowship suffer and pull so hard to get this job done. That combination of things felt absolutely palpable and real to me, and made me think, “I need to know how he did this.” It was like a magic trick. How did you convince me that this fantasy world is absolutely real as I’m experiencing it on the page, and that started my own quest to understand the engines of narratives, how story is put together across the world and throughout history.
Jim: Very interesting. Narrative seems to be the base on which you have built. Could you define exactly what it is you mean when you say narrative?
Jeff: Narrative, the way we see it at Starlight Runner is slightly different from story. Story concerns itself with plot and theme and character and so forth, but narrative, to us, is the foundational structure of story. These are the elements that allow for the story to unfold in any direction, backwards or forward through time, but it also allows for the communication between the audience and story. You see, I already was getting in touch with the 21st Century way back in 1979, 1980, and I came to understand that through the internet and my early dabbling with it that the audience was going to have a role in narrative structure, that the narrative is going to have to acknowledge the participation of the audience if it’s going to survive into the 21st Century. So, narrative isn’t just the structure of story, how story is built. It also takes into consideration the response and the participation of the audience.
Jeff: Narrative is a river that we, as audience members, are tributaries into.
Jim: Wow, I love that. I guess some of the examples of that two-way-ness, first one I remember … I’m sure there must have been earlier ones … was the whole phenomenon of Trekkie’s and the conventions of Star Trek fans, et cetera, and how that fed back into the narrative I expect. Is that a good example of that two way nature?
Jeff: It is absolutely a great example and a foundational example. I mean, before Star Trek, we brought our Lone Ranger decoder rings … I mean, maybe not me personally. That is even a little bit before my time. We could dress up as the Shadow, but with Star Trek, there was so little of it and we were so in love with it that we began to manufacture content around it, and mail it to one another through snail mail. So, this is the beginning of fanfic or fanfiction. Ultimately, these networks of fans who somehow got in touch with one another, somehow recognized that we were scattered across the United States, began to say, “You know what? Why don’t we gather together to talk about this?” Those initial Star Trek conventions in the very early 1970’s were the result and that birthed the first fandom, but also the first truly transmedia effort.
Jim: Perfect. I can still remember how pissed off I was when they canceled Star Trek. I go, “What the fuck? The only TV show that’s actually worth watching and they cancel it? What?” Of course, because it was the first, there was no Jeff Gomez around in those days and I’m sure you read some of the Star Trek spinoff novels and stuff. Some of them really sucked, right?
Jeff: Well, yes. But, the maintenance of that passion allowed for Star Trek to survive six or seven very lonely years in the wilderness until Star Wars ignited this fan interest in cosmic space movies, and Star Wars, of course, was the first but you better believe Paramount Pictures ran into the studio and started shooting a Star Trek movie to bring that back. It wouldn’t have done that without the support of the fans.
Jim: Interesting. Actually, I’m going to just throw one of my little favorite topics in here before I move on to the next topic, which is Star Trek or Star Wars? Which one are you?
Jeff: This is going to touch on some of the things we’re going to be talking about. It can not be underestimated how deeply influential Star Trek was for me. I’m a Puerto Rican kid in the projects on the lower East Side in the late 1960’s, and this show came on the air unlike almost any other show depicting people who look like the people around me, people who had names like mine in space, in the distant future. Worthy of respect, even worthy of being a villain if you count Ricardo Montalban as Khan.
Jeff: Formidable. Formidable villain. And, you mix that with concepts like Spock’s logic or infinite diversity and infinite combinations, which I think if one of the most wonderful story world philosophies you could ever encounter in all of fiction. That was deeply meaningful to me. The fact that these characters negotiated with their antagonists instead of simply blasting them out of the sky. They did that once in a while, too. It really, really helped to set my frame of mind. Star Wars was deeply influential, too, but it simplicity and the polarity of the franchise, good and evil and that sort of thing, as I grew older, it grew a little too simple for me. I do like what they seem to be experimenting with more recently in the transmedia Star Wars franchise where the force is really this spectrum of all kinds of behaviors and attitudes, and maybe they’ll resolve Star Wars in a way that makes it a more interesting and collective kind of property from now on.
Jim: I love your analysis. I just tell people, “I’m a Star Trek guy”, and I leave it at that, but I do enjoy the Star Wars movies. I see them all, though I guess there was that one series with that goofy character … The second trilogy that sucked so bad. I think I did not watch the last of the three.
Jeff: You’re going to get nasty emails.
Jim: Sue me, right?
Jeff: Yeah, that’s Jar Jar Binks I think you’re talking about.
Jim: Yeah, yeah. Jar Jar Binks. I go, “What the hell? Who came up with that?” I’m sure that was not Jeff Gomez, right?
Jeff: Well, there is a defense of Jar Jar but I don’t know if you want to get into it.
Jim: I don’t quite go there. Another little sidebar, I hadn’t really intended to ask this but I’m going to anyway, where do you think is the really rich fan fiction community that lets say middle class, Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers probably don’t even know about? What would you say is a great example of that that’s probably outside the view of people like me?
Jeff: There are fascinating collectives of fan fiction. It’s unbelievable what some people believe to as boy bands, bands like One Direction, have these ardent fan bases that have written reams and reams … I mean, gigabytes of fiction, usually involving homosexual relationships between band members or band members having relationships with fans. Very soap operatic, epic storylines involved with these kids, as well as things like K-pop bands and so forth. There’s oceans of it. In television, believe it or not, Supernatural, the CW television series, has a colossal amount of fanfic devoted to those two brothers and their adventures.
Jim: Cool. I had no idea. I almost never watch anything that has advertising in it so I miss … I try hard to immunize myself against bad memes being stuffed into my head, so I tend to miss things like network TV, and I have to say my musical tastes don’t really go towards boy bands or K-pop, but that’s interesting.
Jeff: Hey, that’s my job, Jim. That’s my job and I have a TiVo still.
Jim: A real live brand TiVo?
Jeff: Yep. The latest.
Jim: Me, I’m a Roku guy. Even when I travel, I carry what I call my traveling Roku in my gadget bag and I can generally hook up my Roku up with one of my little adapters to the hotel TV, so I don’t have to watch the crap [inaudible 00:20:17] and deal with their hideous user-interface.
Jeff: See, if I did that, I’d never get anything done.
Jim: Goodness. Another bit of terminology I saw, especially in the more recent materials that I reviewed before the show, is a concept that you guys call Collective Journey. Could you explain that?
Jeff: Gosh, Jim, the Collective Journey work is truly … I thought transmedia was going to be my signature work, and here I am with collective journey and it’s something that’s so exciting for me. Back in the 1990’s, I was a video game developer. I had developed some Nintendo 64 video games, and a company called Acclaim Entertainment approached me about building a massively multiplayer online game. This was early in that format, and so there wasn’t all that much to compare it to. There was Ultima Online. I don’t know if you remember Ultima.
Jim: I probably still have an account on that. EverQuest, Ultima, all those early ones.
Jeff: There you go.
Jim: Hell yes, hell yes.
Jeff: Sure. So, I looked at those games. I had not been a part of that. I did Dungeons and Dragons. We were telling stories around a table. There were tangible little miniatures that you could move about, and you could engage in dramatic storytelling face-to-face, and there was an emotional component to tabletop gaming that I found missing when I went into the worlds of Ultima and EverQuest. In fact, I noticed that pretty soon after I showed up in those worlds, I’d get myself killed. I noticed that that was a fairly pervasive problem. Here you are in a situation where there’s an opportunity to tell a massive collective narrative where each participant could somehow count for moving the story of this world along, but what we were stuck with due to all kinds of limitations, but I think predominantly a limitation of imagination, is the fact that you were basically going to this fantasy world to be a member of the audience.
Jeff: If you didn’t get instantly killed, all you’re really doing is walking around looking at things and hoping that you can I don’t know slaughter a monster or something like that every once in a long while, a generation treasure. It just wasn’t that satisfying. It was a movie in which we were all extras, and I started to think about what if there were a way for everyone to have a rich story who was in that world? Something that was meaningful and had some kind of impact in that world? Well, I suggested this with some documentation to Acclaim Entertainment and they told me to go away because of course, to do that would have been to flip the table upside down and start from scratch and create an entirely new format for gaming. They weren’t prepared to do that. They just wanted to do their Ultima game. That, by the way, never manifested. After I left, it eventually shut down. But, I thought about that for a long time.
Jeff: Then, as the years progress and I began to notice how the internet was giving fans a voice, so first in the 90’s, if you had some kind of genre property there was going to be fans to complain about it and fans to adore it, and fans to argue over every aspect of it, right? There was the Bronze for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, these online message boards and things like that. Message boards for Marvel and DC Comics, and that was interesting because I was a part of a comic book company and we would read those messages and we would adjust the content in our comic books at Valiant Comics. That was really interesting. That was, to me, signified that an individual fan somewhere could voice their opinion and impact the business plan, the creative strategy of an entire company. Little did I know that it would be just a few short years later that many people would get together and voice their opinions online and alter the course of the way politics happen. Vote a black man into the White House, generate an Arab Spring.
Jeff: This is a method that seemed to mystify all the people around me, but for me, it was, “Hey, we’re all in this massive multiplayer online game and what we are doing and saying count. I don’t have to be the white savior coming in to kill the villain, grab the treasure and save my community, save the world. I could just have a voice that collectively combines with other voices and alters the course of the narrative.” I didn’t see a map for this in the Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. Joseph Campbell mapped out this mono-myth, the story that all cultures have told themselves from the dawn of time.
Jim: Back to Gilgamesh. I remember it.
Jeff: There you go. Absolutely.
Jim: I read my Joseph Campbell until I eventually threw it against the wall because he had too much numerology in it.
Jeff: Well, a little of that. But really, I have enormous respect for Campbell and his research, and really my quarrel isn’t with Joseph Campbell. It was with the co-opting of the Hero’s Journey narrative cycle. Those steps, the call, the refusal of the call, the mentor, the threshold guardian. Those standard beats that you see in every Hollywood movie. It was a Hollywood-ization of the Hero’s Journey that I progressively got more and more uncomfortable with, especially with the rise of social media and this global network of pervasive communication. Why? Because, the Hero’s Journey cycle emerged out of narratives that made their cultures right. These are the stories of rightness. Stories are built to teach us, right? From the dawn of time, that’s the role of story and if we adhere to that, that’s fine until Hollywood becomes the epicenter of story. Then, Hollywood’s version of right and wrong, Hollywood’s version of the archetypal hero is going to stand and be distributed to the entire planet.
Jeff: While that was fine for some years, more recently the entire planet gained a voice and the entire planet wants to see itself in these movies and television shows. The entire planet wants to be sure that we understand that heroes don’t have to have white skin and blonde hair, that certain very narrow depictions of right and wrong are not necessarily the whole world’s interpretation of right and wrong. The American way is not the entire planet’s way. Well, we need to understand how to tell stories in a world where we now have global television networks like Amazon and Netflix. This new modality of storytelling, Collective Journey, the observation that I’m making in response to this white savior Hero’s Journey narrative.
Jim: Ah, that’s a great transition point. I noticed, again, on your materials and as I was doing some research that while the big brands make the big bucks, you’re also been working on applying your techniques to educational geopolitical causes. In fact, the audience for this show is probably more interested in those then they are in the in’s and out’s of Hollywood. Sounds to me like this Collective Journey idea of yours is made to order for political, geopolitical and educational applications.
Jeff: It’s really where we began to hone it and prove its efficacy, yes. And you’re right, there’s another aspect to what Starlight Runner has done over the years that is not very well discussed, not publicized. We don’t seek too much publicity around it, and it is these geopolitical transmedia population activations.
Jim: Could you tell us about some of those? At least one of those in some detail?
Jeff: Sure, well the story is that we were going about our business working on projects like Avatar and Transformers and so forth, and it was shortly after the election of Barack Obama that we got a phone call from the Department of Defense. I was like, “Hello?” They said, “Listen, the new administration is studying various think tank files on asymmetrical warfare. It is a problem that is happening at an unprecedented level at this point, and President Obama wants to wrap it up and extricate ourselves from this kind of situation. We’re looking for ways to do that effectively and we came upon this term transmedia when looking through some materials from the Aspen Institute.” I said, “Well, who mentioned transmedia because I certainly wasn’t there.” They said, “A gentleman named Jordan Greenhall.”
Jim: Ah, okay.
Jeff: A friend of the Jim Rutt show, I understand.
Jim: Yeah, Jordan and I go way back, right? We’ve been co-conspirators in all kinds of crazy stuff over the years.
Jeff: So, now it all ties together. It becomes a transmedia story right now. Jordan was in the audience at MIT when I first was talking about the efficacy of participative narrative in transmedia storytelling, and he was fascinated with it and wrote me. We began this correspondence and we eventually became tremendous friends, and he helped me to start thinking about applications of transmedia outside of the conventional nerd space. He was the one who had mentioned it as a possible application in geopolitical situations. Of course, the first instinct for the government about that was to weaponize it and that’s what I was confronted with, which was a very sobering situation. Could you imagine? Here I am playing with transmedia storytelling and creating entertainment with it, and these guys are saying, “Well, can transmedia be used in the theater of combat?” My response actually, Jim, was that I wasn’t particularly interested in pursuing that because in order to weaponize transmedia storytelling, you needed to remove the component that made it transmedia, or special, which was authentic dialogue, transparency.
Jeff: When you remove that, you get super propaganda. You get multilateral narrative, which could be used to foment chaos and create confusion amongst a population, and that didn’t interest me at all. In fact, I’d been observing that methodology in Russia at the time and thought that it was actually frightening to use story to confuse and antagonize and exhaust an entire nation of people so that you could assert authoritarianism over them. So, I said, “No, I’m not interested.” And, I said, “However, I do believe that you can use authentic transmedia storytelling to get people to organize themselves better and to pursue progressive, positive issues in a way that could generate significant positive results. They said, “Well, we’ll pay you a lot less, but let’s look into that, shall we?”
Jeff: We did an experiment in Afghanistan that resulted into tapping into these towns in Afghanistan. Tapping into an ancient, mythic condition where if a stranger crosses into the town, they’re protected no matter what collectively. The whole town has to get together and stand up for that person, so that person is safe so long as they’re in the town. That actually saved some soldiers lives in Afghanistan. There was a Mark Wahlberg movie where there’s a sequence where that actually happened. It was a depiction of an actual event. So, that was successful so we began working with the DOD and United States Special Operations Command and other branches of intelligence and the military to promote a transmedia population activation elsewhere in the world.
Jim: Interesting. I’m going to come back to this and talk about Jordan and some of the things him and I worked on, et cetera, but I’m going to pick up on a line you just said about seeing what was going on in Russia. You’re a good guy, but what about bad guys using these same techniques? How would you suggest that people become aware that these techniques exist and could be used for evil, and how do we detect them and how do we fight against them?
Jeff: That’s been really one of my major concerns over the past few years because I’m extremely concerned about the fact that techniques that were once used to generate joy and to foment a community, fan communities and things like that, in some ways have been corrupted and turned into scenarios that are promoting extremism, internal conflict, strife, dividing and conquering entire peoples. I think it’s vital that we recognize this. What we have to look for essentially is inauthentic communication. That’s the bottom line. If story is coming at us in a fast and furious way from a single source, and those stories have traits like the fact that they can contradict themselves, storytelling between morning, noon and night, or they are divisive. If they’re deeply negative, if they’re attacking, if they’re laying claim to our darker impulses, then we would know that there is an in-authenticity behind their application.
Jeff: It’s just not the way to promote unity and a progressive direction for society. It’s easy to say that. It’s much more difficult to tell somebody who’s reacting to it and lost in it, and actually is enjoying it. It’s hard to tell that person, “You know, you’re being gas lighted.” Or, “You’re allowing yourself to be manipulated by false meme’s and this invasion of divisive narratives.”
Jim: Fortunately, and unfortunately, your whole career is based on it, right? We are suckers for narrative probably going back to sitting around the campfire in hunter/gatherer bands, and various people took their turns either telling new stories or probably telling the old classics with a few twists and spins that had been passed down through the generations for a thousand years. That’s been a big part of conviviality at the level of the small bands of humans. So, we are good at that. We like that. We’re suckers for it, so it can indeed be weaponized. As you were describing all these attributes, two examples came to mind. I’d like to get your reactions to both of them. The first, and perhaps the purest example, I would call the Bannon Trump narrative. Talk to me about that a little bit.
Jeff: Well, chaos is a ladder. In the 1990’s, a gentleman named Vladislav Surkov, a Russian ad agent, a guy who was a failed science fiction author who was in the advertising industry, he visited Paris, France and was struck by an avant-garde art movement that was going on at the time. Essentially, you entered into the gallery and the gallery was jammed with all kinds of pieces of communications, videos, signs, neon lights and things like that. It was all flickering at you and it was bombarding you with very provocative imagery, sometimes very enraging imagery. There was racist material in there. It essentially was there to discombobulate you and get you upset, and keep you on edge all the way through until by the time you were done with the exhibit, you came out exhausted and almost unmoored from reality.
Jeff: He thought that was fascinating and he went back to the Russian kremlin and said, “You know, we can use this. We are in a situation where glasnost is failing, where the Russian economy is on the verge of collapse, where the people are extremely restless, and where Vladimir Putin is not firmly gripping onto power. If we use these techniques, we can freak out our own citizenry and then assert an overriding theme, that of management, that of the fact that we’re going to take care of things.” Jim, here was the pattern. See if you recognize it. These narratives began to be communicated across Russian media, and of course there is such a grasp on Russian media by the Russian government, it was a little easier even than here. But, these kind of strange, contradictory narratives began to be disbursed across Russia, and at first, they seemed obviously fake. It seemed to the average Russian person that the kremlin were a bunch of clowns, that they were behaving in bizarre and silly ways.
Jeff: Then, Surkov hired groups or fomented anti-Muslim groups to be on the rise, a neo-fascist and things like that. Sometimes, in ways that actually allowed for them to clash in the streets until the Russian police forces descended on them and brought them under control. This seemed bizarre and frightening to the Russian people. Then, the attitudes about the levels of freedom or restrictions, can we practice Orthodox Christianity or can we not, all of these crazy contradictory stories were bombarding the Russian people. Yeah, at first they laughed, but then they got angry and then they got exhausted, and then within five or six years, they said, “You know what? We give up. Just manage it. Just take care of it. We’re withdrawing from this conversation.” Putin firmed his grasp, the oligarchical network settled into power, and Steven Bannon was studying every step of this.
Jeff: He was a student, in essence, of Surkov. This is something that worked, that Bannon understood, and certainly that our president, as a figure of the media, fully and deeply understands.
Jim: You think Trump himself … My read, I could be entirely wrong here, is that Trump is some kind of natural genius at rabble-rousing, right? He also has this amazing ability to be completely unconnected to reality, like so as you were talking about people would say, “Red in the morning, and blue in the afternoon.” Trump does that with no psychological stress whatsoever. Five equals four, four equals three. Okay. He has this amazing talent. Bannon was the one who then weaponized it with these insights you’re talking about. We talk about Marxism–Leninism. I think of the Trump administration as Bannonist-Trumpism. It’s an odd amalgam of Trump’s amazing idiot savant abilities and psychological peculiarities plus Bannon’s insights. Does that make any sense to you?
Jeff: To a degree, certainly. However, you have to believe that there is some kind of roadmap being followed by the president himself. Whether a lot of it is intuitive or not, there is a specificity with regard to the kinds of narratives he’s pursuing, a specificity to the strategies that he’s running through that are yielding fairly specific results and seem to be consciously directed. Now, again, whether he’s following some kind of instruction book or intuiting himself, I couldn’t tell you but the results speak for themselves.
Jim: You’re seeing him following almost a checklist that was developed by the Russians. That’s interesting, very interesting.
Jeff: It’s not that complicated, sadly.
Jim: Yeah, and here we go to the weaponization. Here’s another one that fits the prototype though with a very different constituency and intent. At least, it strikes me as following many of the things that you enumerated, and that’s the Extinction Rebellion.
Jeff: Yes, fascinating. That’s an example of a spontaneous, self-organized social system. It’s transnational, which I think is fascinating. A lot of the ones that we followed thus far have remained national around the world, and it’s interesting that it coalesced around a young girl. A teenage girl who found a very simple and direct way of telling that story. It seems to be building momentum based on the power of narrative, how easy it is to pick up on, and of course, how easy it is for people in this day and age to participate in these rivers of narrative, these Collective Journeys.
Jim: And, of course, also they’re pressing the piano keys for darkness very heavily, right, and saying a lot of things that aren’t true that spin people up in terms of “The world’s going to end in 12 years, blah, blah.” All right, and there’s no nuance to the story at all. It’s very pruned down to be easy to digest, press all the negative buttons one can imagine, et cetera.
Jeff: Well, I think one can account for the role of Malcolm X as opposed to Martin Luther King. In some progressive movements, there is this extreme end of it that does some of the rabble-rousing and does push things forward even if it sometimes borderlines on violence or violent verbiage. We allow for some of that, but yes, there’s been more of this extreme rhetoric around the world, which concerns me when it comes to the rise in this hyper-nationalism and authoritarianism.
Jim: Extinction Rebellion is just an example of someone who has taken the template and adapted it to a different domain and for, at least partially, a good purpose. We do have to deal with climate, though most of their prescriptions are non-realistic. They terrify people, and psychological research indicates that paralyzing people with fear is not the way to get people to take action.
Jeff: It’s not.
Jim: They’ve essentially taken the Russian playbook and adapted it to another domain, and it may well be doing more harm than good. It’s hard to tell.
Jeff: Well, I’m looking forward to a time where the world changes its relationship with rhetoric because right now there’s a little too much of this extreme application.
Jim: Yeah, unfortunately we are suckers for narrative, but we are creatures of language above all else. My own field of cognitive science, cognitive neuroscience, the main thing that differentiates humans from chimps, let’s say, is language or the thing that’s just free language, which is symbols. So, the idea that humans are not going to be vulnerable to rhetoric, that’s pretty hard to imagine.
Jeff: Well, let me ask you something, Jim, and I’ve been curious about this. It seems to me that right now infusing as much meaning as possible into words has been de rigueur, and we see this on the left and the right. We see this in students on college campuses and things like that. I’ve wondered whether it would pay for us to explore diffusing language altogether and placing more distance between ourselves and words and recognizing words as just that, things that have potentially no power at all so that we can get back to a level of decorum that could allow for a more even keeled debate or the ability not to be so wounded and damaged by a rhetoric. I get scared sometimes because if mythology is taught in school and the students tell the professor, “I’m going to report you because you just talked about a myth where gods are raping each other” and so forth, we could start to lose our grip on understanding human nature and literature and the arts.
Jim: Yeah, and it’s happening. My take on it is that we’re becoming re-tribalized. You have these factions like the Wokes, who do the kinds of things you just described. We have the Alt-right, which have their own rhetoric and stories, and there’s fundamentalists, religious people of three or four different varieties. People are becoming more intensely tribal and interrelated into a closed model of discourse rather than having a broad social model of discourse in which we can agree to disagree and do so civilly.
Jeff: So, Jim, I’m actually hoping that this is a phase that we are all experiencing because of the absolutely free availability for us to express ourselves, anonymously or not. Remember where I came from. I came from fandom. Star Wars fans hated Star Trek fans.
Jeff: And, in sports fandom, there are these terrific rivalries and you can see fights and even riots take place because fans are on the sides of different sports teams. The reason those things could happen the way they happen was because the fans were allowed essentially to network. They were put in direct contact with each other, and so were giving forums to advocate for their tribes. Now, the entire planet has been given the opportunity to do that, and so we are factionalized. We are tribalizing across all these different subjects and so forth. The reason I have some optimism, Jim, is because there are children who are now growing up within this, who are a bit more chill because they’ve always had a voice. I’m talking about Gen Z, I’m talking about kids 18 and under roughly. Maybe 19, 20. They’ve grown up with the free and clear ability to just be on the internet.
Jeff: Yes, there’s internet bullying and things like that, but generally they’re freely expressing themselves and don’t seem to have this level of avarice and selfishness and tribalism amongst them, at least what we’re observing and that’s part of my job is to watch these things. So, I’m hoping that as these young people come into prominence and start to help run the world, that we’ll all get a little more chill.
Jim: Interestingly, you listen to people like Jonathan Haidt and some of the others who have been talking about what’s going on on college campuses, the reports back seem to be that actually it’s getting worse on college campuses. That this Woke phenomenon is just completely out of control. The examples that you gave, and that if anything this tribalization is, at least on college campuses … I can’t say less for the non-college people, which of course, people needs to remember is two-thirds of the country … But, at least on college campuses, this pressure cooker of tribalization and not just the Woke’s but also the anti-Woke’s are also binding together becoming more and more inflammatory, et cetera. So, I’m not sure that what we’re seeing in the 18-21 year old crew actually bears that out.
Jeff: Your point is well taken. I do think that there’s a lot of steam being let off in perhaps the wrong direction because young people feel that they are not able to assert as best they can some national direction, determine the outcomes of major elections and so forth, so the small ponds becomes the place where they are expressing their anxieties. But, I also think that the generation gap is pretty much the largest one that we have ever seen in the history of humanity. So, these kids are communicating with one another and super positioning themselves on the internet in all of these interesting and complex ways, and their professors, who maybe 10 or 20 years older than them, don’t have access to any of that and have very little understanding for what amounts to an entirely different way of being with it’s own language, with its own cultures, and this is creating a friction in it of itself.
Jeff: This isn’t some hippie slang from the 1960’s. This is an entirely different way of being, and young people aren’t being taught media literacy in school, so they’re having a difficult time reaching across these divides to make connections with older people, and professors and other authority figures in the room are not attempting too much to figure out why these kids think, believe and behave this way. They’re just judging them. That creates more friction.
Jim: And, of course, probably the nature of essentially the fractal ability to organize at every level from the micro to the macro makes this much more confusing for the older folks. Back in my day, say in the 60’s, we basically had three factions: the jocks, the hippies and the collegiates. It wasn’t that hard to figure out which of the three you were in. Maybe you were halfway in between. I was probably halfway between the hippies and the collegiates, but basically three big boxes. Today, there’s a zillion levels at which people identify and organize, and it’s multidimensional, intersectional, et cetera, so it’s a much more difficult cognitive map for us poor old fogies to try to figure out.
Jeff: I’m going to call you on the Star Trek, and what I want you to think about because it’s easy to say, “Ah, these kids today.” But, think about infinite diversity and infinite combinations. In some ways, that’s happening right now, and if we step back far enough and look at the expression and look at their ways of communicating, and look at the fact that they are enjoying being somewhere on various spectra, or spectrums, that’s beautiful in a way. I like the fact that a child can walk into a school and say, “I’m a they.” It’s upsetting when they get angry with you for forgetting that they’re a “they” or what have you, but isn’t that fascinating that we have become like the United Federation of Planets just on planet Earth. And, allowing for that, I can tell you both firsthand and through close observation, particularly of this Gen Z cohort, that that aspect allows for liberation. That aspect has helped them to reduce the kinds of anxieties particularly those of us who are different in someway never got to experience in previous generations. So, there is something wonderful about what’s going on today.
Jim: Yeah, and I want to make clear I was not hacking on the kids today. I was actually trying to make the distinction that the older folks looking back at this fractal world where everybody has a different way of positioning themself in many dimensions is inherently a difficult gap to transcend. Not to say that, frankly I’m with you. I think probably these more dimensions of freedom will end up good. Though, I suppose the one question mark I might put on it is will we lose any sense of social coherence, and will our society be strong enough to persevere against challengers who are more coherent than us?
Jeff: Wow, that’s fascinating. I’m a little bit optimistic. I’m from New York, but I’m optimistic. We’re going to get through this transition. This transition is bigger than the advent of radio or television or any broadcast medium. When we were all sitting in front of something and watching or listening to it, there were a very small number of people who were establishing our reality for us. There wasn’t much choice in terms of how we responded to that reality. Maybe a small percentage of us rebelled against it, another small percentage of us super took advantage of it and became [inaudible 00:59:32] system. But, by and large, there was this age of broadcast that lasted for 150, 180 years with the advent of mass media, the printed press, and so forth. Now, we are in a new age, Jim. We’re in the age of pervasive communication, and we are attempting to find our footing, and when everyone’s a broadcaster, things are going to get messed up and things are going to get confusing and people have learned how to try and fire cannons near the murmuration of birds to try and push us in certain directions.
Jeff: That’s those multilateral stories, like what happened in Russia. Maybe what’s happening here in the United States today, but we’re going to get a grip, I believe. We’re going to start to figure out what these methodologies are and how to transcend them. Then, our diversity will become a strength. I don’t believe that we’re going to diffuse ourselves out of existence. I think we’re going to be able to get our act together.
Jim: I like that. That’s a good hopeful enlightenment view, I would say. Think about whose our global competitors for whose model will dominate in the future. We have the Chinese on one hand, which is the absolute opposite, and then we have the Russians, which are essentially chaotic. If we can maintain a disciplined but free, essentially the enlightenment ideas, we may be able to explore the opportunity space better than any of the people we are in competition with.
Jeff: But, Jim, in order to do that, we can not submit ourselves to a multipolar world. If nations like China and Russia become dominant, if the United States cedes power and influence to those two poles, then our voice doesn’t become the one that is the shining beacon. Our voice becomes sublimated to the cash that’s coming at us from China, or the power that’s coming at us from Russia. So, we have to be careful about remaining not just great storytellers, but aspirational storytellers and aspirational people. If we start compromising and sublimating ourselves to authoritarianism, we’re going to have major problems because then who’s there to be a role model for the way the rest of the world behaves?
Jim: I guess I’m not quite following that. What should we be looking out for to do and to not do when we’re in a world in which our model, or let’s call it the model that you very eloquently described before where everybody can find their own space in a high dimensional universe versus other models, which are much more constrained?
Jeff: Could you have imagined a world or a United States where the NBA had to quell people who were advocating for freedom? It never would have been thinkable. Just a few years ago, I work in the video game business, Activision Blizzard punished a player in its tournament for advocating for a free Hong Kong.
Jim: Hopefully we’re going to get through this. I think that that American people should stand up and should start boycotting any company that does that. I know those companies are very tempted to not antagonize that billion person market in China, but that’s a long way off before they’ll make any money there. They can lose their ass right now if all decent Americans would say, “We’re going to boycott anybody who plays that game, who tries to suppress free speech in response to complaints from the Chinese.” I’d like to see a mass movement start where we just do not accept that from our American companies.
Jeff: Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that movement didn’t have to start because our leaders said, “That is unacceptable”? Just as Americans, that behaviors is unacceptable and told the NBA, “Would you stop that?”, and so forth. Or, for example, the fact that so much of the real estate in my city is now owned by factions outside of this country, and their influence, their demands, some of which are unlawful, some of which are not in the interest of my city, but have to be acceded to because they own huge numbers of blocks of real estate in my city. That’s an insidious incursion into our integrity.
Jim: Absolutely, and fortunately real estate’s a good one, right? Because, they can’t take it with them. They act like a bunch of assholes, we say “Go back where you came from. We’re taking your real estate, you clowns.” That’s something that people could do should they get themselves organized. That’s why it never bothers me when people say, “Oh, yeah, the Chinese are buying up this or that.” Well, if they get too obnoxious, we’ll just kick them the hell out and just take it back, right?
Jeff: And yet, right now, that would be incredibly difficult to do because they own so much that to kick them out would mean those buildings get emptied out. Well, who’s going to pay those rents? Who’s going to own those massive multimillion dollar apartments and so forth? It would be easier to just quietly give them what they wanted, which corrupts our politics, corrupts our civic situation here, and it can be not that easy to do just to simply say, “Beat it.” So, these are forces that are pressing on us that if our leadership is not holding to the foundational values, the American narrative, if that collapses on itself, then we could easily be overwhelmed by these techniques, these strategies, these stringencies, these different ways of being that could cause our fall. Those are things that Jordan Greenhall and Daniel Schmachtenberger are really concerned about. I’m a little bit a part of that group that has that concern about what direction the world is going in.
Jim: Indeed. Let’s make that our last topic. We’ll talk a little bit about Game B. If you know Jordan and you know Daniel, then you know about Game B. Actually, Jordan and I and about 20 other people actually cooked up Game B back in 2013 and we developed a fair amount of doctrine, and then it didn’t really seem to be going anywhere, and we all went our way and did our own little Game B’ish stuff, or not. Frankly, I didn’t mostly. I worked on other things, but it seems like Game B is coming back again. A surprising amount of traffic on Twitter, on Facebook, et cetera. For those listeners who don’t know what it is, you can go check out the Game B group on Facebook, or check out GameB, all one word, hashtag on Twitter and you’ll see a surprising amount of traffic.
Jim: Essentially, what Game B is is it’s a still fairly hazy and rough attempt to define a new social operating system for at least the civilization, and maybe for the world, that keeps us from committing ecocide, which we appear to be on despite what I said about Extinction Rebellion. The basic idea is correct that if we don’t reform our ways, we will destroy the care and capacity of the earth and there’ll be a massive die off. And, we need to find new ways of being that aren’t … I mean frankly, these jackasses that have these 22,000 square foot townhouses, apartments in New York, they should really just be taken out and shot, right? Or, at least-
Jeff: Oh, be nice.
Jim: … put on a barge and sent back from whence they came.
Jim: [crosstalk 01:08:18] barge at that, and then fill those places full of the homeless. How many homeless people are there in the United States? No reason we couldn’t do that if we had the will. But, that’s just an example of some radical thinking outside the box. The whole idea of Game B is to let’s start with a blank sheet of paper, know we want to avoid ecocide and a major die off and collapse, and essentially we want to create the operating system, the values, the way we react with each other, the ethos to make a truly better world. In fact, the original Game B we had a concept of what do we say when we want a Game B world? It’s basically to create a society … This is, I think, very simple but powerful … that we would be happy to live in ourselves, truly happy, and proud to leave to our children. I don’t think we can say either of those things about our current world. At least most people can’t.
Jim: So, we start with that. At this stage, it’s still preliminary but it struck me when I was doing my research that you build imaginary worlds. At some level, that’s your super power. Game B is in its own struggling, early, partial kind of way trying to think about what a new world would look like. Of course, we have the constraint in the Game B space that we’re operating in the real world. When you’re developing an imaginary world for a movie, you have a lot more degrees of freedom. But, let’s jam a bit. What are some of the things that people should be thinking about when we’re designing … Designing is too strong a word because it has that utopian flavor, just follow these directions. We know that’s not the way it’s going to be. It’s going to unfold organically, in a network basis partially, and experimentally and evolutionarily. What advice would you give to the Game B world from your experience in narrative around the Collective Journey, and even transmedia might be useful as this community of people tries to invent the future, a better future than the road we’re on otherwise?
Jeff: I certainly think Game B is fascinating. Some of it floats a little above my head at moments, and the story sometimes is not well told because you have all of these extremely brilliant people talking to each other about it, and the ability to enroll people who may not quite be as brilliant but still could have power and influence, that hasn’t quite gotten there so the story needs to be told a little better to start with in order for greater influence and success to be achieved. But, I do think, Jim, that it is possible once we have a strong idea, a powerful foundational narrative, to execute. The reason is that our transmedia population activations didn’t stop in Afghanistan. We’ve done these in Mexico, in Columbia, in Canada and in Australia, and for the most part, they have been remarkably successful. When a compelling story is combined with some simple training, the media literacy, the ability to use social media to help foment social self-organization, these can be good things and can result in a spontaneous self-organized social system that effects change, that can move whole societies in a positive direction.
Jeff: With Plan B, one of the ideas that I might contribute to this besides telling the story better and thinking about how that foundational narrative can reach people forming and galvanizing a foundational narrative, the other thing I think that’s necessary is for us to understand how and why negativity can be so pervasive, and how to remove it from our lives. I’ve started examining the way that human consciousness works and it’s relationship to not just our lives and our past traumas, but to things like our five senses, particularly our eyesight. Can things be done to wake us up, to make us use our brains more efficiently, more effectively? Daniel does this with Neurohacker, those neurotropic supplements that he’s developed, and those are fantastic. I take them. Those have helped me think more clearly. Perhaps even figure out ways to be a less negative person, and by negative, I mean these kind of strange defaults that exist since childhood that says that I can’t do certain things, rules that I set up for myself that are almost arbitrary now that I think about them.
Jeff: If we could figure out how to remove these negative impulses from people, then the possibilities inherent in Plan B become easier to embrace, develop and execute.
Jim: Interesting. In part of the Game B conversation, there’s a tension between personal development I guess I would describe it and building institutions to help us be better people. It sounds like your suggestion is to start with the personal development side, maybe?
Jeff: I think that’s the easier of the two because personal development, it’s easier for me because I am the poster child for how story can take someone from the lower East Side, poverty, the projects, and despite my last name, achieve a fair modicum of success and live a life that I could have only dreamt about. I couldn’t have even dreamed of these experiences that I’m having right now, and that is because of story and the impact of story. Maybe a little bit of love here and there, but mostly story.
Jim: Let’s also be honest, both of us had interesting and successful careers. Let’s also not disregard the fact that we’ve also had a lot of luck.
Jeff: Maybe you, Jim Rutt. I had to fight tooth and nail for anything. All I ever heard was “No”. And, it was a fierce determination, a street fighter mentality that caused me to figure out things. Yeah, luck comes into play, but you make that luck because I fought against myself. I’m shy. I had OCD. All I wanted to do was rock back and forth in my bedroom, so it was a real fight, a grappling with myself to push myself into these social situations that resulted in the luck of meeting certain people or the opportunities that happened to come along. I try to teach young people about don’t think about luck because there’s a lot of work to be done in order for luck to come into play.
Jim: I’ll say the same thing. If you push against the world hard, your share of luck will probably come your way plus or minus a little bit, but the other part is you have to be prepared and fearless and courageous and go with it. I still think about the amazing bit of luck I had when I was 26 or 27, but involved quitting my job, my wife and I both quitting our good jobs, moving to Boston and starting a company with some guy with a story. And, most people thought we were nuts. We did it, and it was successful and that changed the complete trajectory of our lives.
Jeff: That’s fantastic.
Jim: The luck was meeting this guy at the right time and the right place, but the other part of it was being decisive and courageous and willing to follow that opportunity.
Jeff: That’s right, that’s right.
Jim: Any final thoughts for the Game B folks as they continue to work together as an ill-defined cloud of people to try to define this future?
Jeff: An aspect of Game B that I’ve heard about seems to center on erecting new social media platforms and other kinds of communication tools and things like that. I’ve been more someone to want to leverage the platforms at hand. When Starlight Runner goes to these movie studies or video games and so forth, the first thing that we ask them is “What do you have access to?” For the Walt Disney company, it’s everything already. So, that’s the pallet from which we do our work. I would rather Game B be implemented across established multiple media platforms than take the time, effort and massive cost to invent the so-called trust platform or some other kind of interface or software that could make this thing work. I think a lot of the people of the world want it to be better, and will respond if the story is well told.
Jim: I agree with you. Truthfully, we tried to build our own platform back in 2013, and as you would have predicted, it was a whole lot of work and didn’t get any traction. It’s much easier to tell a better story across the platforms that exist. The other part that I push heavily is my doctrine of weak links and strong links, and that is no matter what platform you’re on, more relationships in the online world are inherently weak links. The people that I know only through the internet are generally not people I would ask to help me out if I got into a jam, or as I like to say a friend is someone that will help you move. A real friend is somebody that’ll help you move a body, right?
Jim: I doubt you make too many real friends on the internet so I keep pushing, and I think it’s being accepted in the Game B world that we need to build a tapestry that uses the inexpensive, wide-ranging weak links to meet people, but then to damn sure make sure that when we can get together face-to-face. And also, to build a real face-to-face community where we live. As apes with clothes, we really are all about being with other humans, conviviality is the word I think that’s starting to be used in Game B to describe the fact that what really rings our bell is being with our friends, our family, having food and drink and singing songs, and clapping each other on the back and telling jokes and those kinds of things. I certainly hope that as Game B moves forward, it won’t forget the real face-to-face human stuff and over-emphasize the network stuff.
Jeff: I’ll agree with you, Jim. Don’t underestimate the level of intimacy and connection that can be possible with a technological interface. As we stumble past augmented and virtual reality into scenarios where we will in effect be able to look into each other’s eyes across great distances, I believe we can develop strong and powerful relationships, move the body kind of relationships. Again, we’re seeing this with the youngest of the prominent generations, and if and when that’s possible, it will be possible to activate very large numbers of them through a passionate storytelling and passionate requests for assistance so that while you’re seeing these massive movements coalesce and form and in some cases, push things past the tipping point to change, you’ll be able to see them do this through work, largely online, that can bring us closer to the realization of Plan B. Just leave yourself open to that possibility because it’s something that’s fascinating that we’re seeing the seeds of right now.
Jim: That would be interesting. You probably don’t know this about me, but I’ve been involved with building our online world since 1980. I went to work for the very first company that had a consumer online service, so I’ve been doing the many-to-many online, social media we call it now, for almost 40 years, and yet, there are some cases where I have made some relationships that are as good as the real world, but not that often. It would be interesting if the new tools, and at some point they may be there, can do that. So, I guess I would amend my statement a little bit. Use weak links to reach lots of people but build the real thing with strong links, and today, that’s mostly face-to-face, but perhaps in the future as our technology gets richer, and as you say, something beyond augmented reality, maybe brain-to-brain networking, over time, the ability to build strong links could also move into the virtual and we should be open to that and not close our eyes to it.
Jeff: I think it’s not too far off, Jim. That’s great. I appreciate the consideration.
Jim: Anyway, this has been wonderful, Jeff. This was everything I would hope it would be …
Jeff: Oh, gosh.
Jim: Absolutely rich and fascinating and wonderful, and we’ve covered a huge amount of ground and I’m sure our audience will love it.
Jeff: I look forward to their feedback. They can connect with me through LinkedIn, Jeff Gomez, through Twitter, @Jeff_Gomez. Remember the underscore because the other Jeff Gomez is completely pissed at me. And, Facebook, it’s Facebook/Transmedia. But, you’ll find me if you type in Jeff Gomez.
Jim: Great. Well, on that note, I’m going to sign off and ….
Jim: Production services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting. Music by Tom Muller at ModernSpaceMusic.com.