08/09/2010 11:47 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Game

In tangling with a subject that's loco, one runs the risk of going loco oneself. It's probably why I've been struggling with this post, to the point of being driven crazy by it, for a week. Here we go, this time for sure, hoping that some semblance of sanity awaits you and me on the other side of the exercise.

The 'Wall Street Game' is destroying the economy. The end? Okay, on the chance that it's not, that there's still hope for dealing successfully with the godzillagram knocking on our door, let's, just for the torture of it, keep going...

The game played by Goldman Sachs and all the predatory satellites in its system goes beyond crooked. It's criminal. And worse than criminal, it is a crime that can't be prosecuted. Here's why: The game has been designed so that it cannot be played by human beings. It can only be played by programs. In milliseconds-long synapses of electrons that can be parsed only by machines, programs perpetrate crimes with no witnesses, no fingerprints, no conscience, no heart. The humanity, and along with it, the culpability, has been bred out of these programs. They are pure, unassailable, law-unto-themselves, math. Data for data's sake. Programs designed to interact with other programs without any of the patience, tolerance or thought that will give a human being pause.

The originators of these programs are as guilty of their crimes as Smith & Wesson are of the next murder committed with one of their handguns, which is to say they cannot be held accountable. "That's just the way the game is played," say the originators. Exactly. This does not, however, mean that the way the game is played is any good, or helpful to the 95% of U.S. households that, together, control as much wealth as the top 1% do. What the originators call 'innocence,' and 'what no one could have anticipated,' and 'God's work,' is actually ignorance by design. What comes across as confidence is actually just a con. On Wall Street, nobody really knows anything. The machines are in control. So don't bother asking.

Here is a good explanation by Ellen Brown of how the Wall Street game is rigged. Brown, author of Web of Debt: The Shocking Truth About Our Money System and How We Can Break Free, does an excellent job of unmasking the mechanics of the game that swings advantage toward the casin--errr--banks. She points a finger in particular at High Frequency Trading (HFT) software (I didn't know its code originated with the Hollywood Stock Exchange of the dotcom era. Interesting.) that gives Wall Street's traders the ability to make money in thousandths of a second with programmed trading.

I call this game 'Global Owning without Local Consent.' Go Loco, for short. It's just that crazy.

Because it relentlessly seeks victims to separate from their money like hustlers of a quantum three-card monte game, Go Loco systematically destroys the potential of money to be productive. Money is too busy changing hands and getting hustled to be put to work any other way. In this game, money talks only to itself, like a patient in an asylum.

We see the outcomes of this insanity all around: Foreclosures on every block; constant and permanent erosion in the jobs market; crippling household and national debt; crumbling infrastructure; broke education systems; a dispirited class of permanently unemployed. The game saps entrepreneurship of its passion by punishing risk-taking. It smothers human creativity with machine rationality. Because it is based on consumption, it regards sustainability as an enemy. Because it is pure data, it has no resonance as a narrative. No soul. It is a cousin to the game played by people who sit under a mountain in Utah and fly drones that blow up villages halfway around the world. Hey, it's all just a game, right? Yes, it is. A terrible, horrible, no good, very bad one.

At GameChangers, we define a game as consisting of Rules, Roles, Environment and Objective(s). Here's a breakdown of the Go Loco game in terms of these four elements:

Terrible Rules:
The rules of a productive game are known by all its players. This is not the case with Go Loco. Far from it. Its rules are so opaque and complex that no one holds an entire playbook. Its most significant rules are programmed like a virus (with no known antidote) to infect every significant, or anomalous, movement of money across the networks that carry financial data. The rules do not determine or care where the money is going, any more than a rattlesnake cares where a mouse is taking a kernel of corn. They are designed only to sense movement like the snake senses the mouse, then, like the snake, strike with blinding speed. The rules are machine-enabled executions of that old business bromide, "Follow the money." With the added instruction: "And when you catch the money in an unlit alley, jack it and get some."

Horrible Environment: Viola Spolin, the godmother of modern improvisation, said, "Act on environment, and environment will act on you." Because the environment for the Go Loco game is 'inside machines,' those who 'act on' the game naturally begin behaving like machines themselves. The tasteless offices in which they work, the sameness banality of their attire, their fear of creative disruption, and their relentless calculating for advantage, all reflect the electronic latticework across which these players crawl like spiders on crack. Because players' insides have a machined sameness to them, extra emphasis is placed on possessions. What you own becomes more important than who you are, because who you are is so...unremarkable. All you talk about is money. Give a man a billion dollars and try talking to him about anything but the billion dollars. It can't be done.

No Good Roles: Wall Street's game is to business what pornography is to sex. Don't for a second believe it has anything to do with love, or with having a relationship. It's all about volume, baby. It's as real as reality TV. What do we have that we can sell? How many units can we move? When the autistic boy who senses the world at different frequencies than you and me puts his hands to a machine running a program playing the game, the voice he hears will be saying, "Faster, pussycat, kill, kill!" Is it pure coincidence that Laurence Fishburne's daughter sold herself to the Matrix? Or did she hear the voice, too, and simply obey its instructions?

Very Bad Objectives: In improvisation, a game's objectives are win/win. All the players benefit from the communication, learning, and transformation that result from playing. The Go Loco game is, by contrast, win/lose. Bigtime.

A lot of people will tell you winning and losing is inherent in the nature of trading, someone wins and someone loses, and the objective is to win more than you lose, and that this dynamic drives markets. There are two problems with excusing the Go Loco game for this reason: 1) It ignores the power of collaboration, which is where most of the growth potential exists in the networked business environment; and 2) in this game, the winners win so much (when's the last time you made $28,000 in milliseconds? For doing nothing?) and the losers lose so much, the game produces extreme cycles of bubble-and-burst, of richer-and-poorer, that only promise to get more extreme, because the more the Go Loco programs eat, the hungrier they get. It is a zero sum game they play, and they will play it until the sum of all accounts not controlled by the programs is zero.

Now what? The big problem we have now is that in one breath we can find agreement that the current game is rotten, in the next breath we will be arguing over what to do about it, and as long as we're arguing, the rottenness persists. The way to break through this dilemma is to quit worrying about what the new game should be and focus on changing the old one. One way to begin changing the old game is by changing the conversations we have:

From being about money, to being about how money is put to work.
From consumption to sustainability.
From fast food (or fast anything) to local food (or local anything).
From destination to journey.
From connecting the dots to connecting.
From owning the story to sharing the story.
From programmed to human.

Make moves that programs cannot see, with a gait that describes the glorious, inchoate lurching of love! Trust your intuition! Express what's in your heart instead of your head for a change. Howl with your dog! Prove that it is we, and our beautiful gift of a planet, and not the programs, who are truly alive! Change the game!

Mike Bonifer is the author of GameChangers -- Improvisation for Business in the Networked World. and the CEO of GameChangers LLC