Live versus Dead Players

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[Cross­posted from my Medium blog]

When look­ing out into the world, it’s use­ful to dis­t­in­guish be­tween live ver­sus dead play­ers. A live player is a per­son or a tightly co­or­di­nated group of peo­ple that is able to do things they have not done be­fore. A dead player is a per­son or a group of peo­ple that is work­ing off a script, in­ca­pable of do­ing new things.


This dis­tinc­tion mat­ters be­cause it tells you how to act, offen­sively and defen­sively. Offen­sively, if you figure out whether a player is al­ive or dead, you can pre­dict how they will re­spond to things and what that means you can do. If you find out that a player is dead, then you know that you can at­tack them in ways that are not known to them, and they will not be able to fight back. On the other hand, if you fail to figure out that a player has died, you might not re­al­ize that you can get away with re­plac­ing them. Defen­sively, pay­ing at­ten­tion to live play­ers al­lows you to an­ti­ci­pate and pre­vent the grab­bing of power, for in­stance.

The dis­tinc­tion be­tween live and dead play­ers also mat­ters if you are try­ing to pre­dict the fu­ture of so­ciety. If you pay at­ten­tion to the land­scape of live ver­sus dead play­ers in a so­ciety, you can pre­dict what will hap­pen in that so­ciety. So­cieties with few live play­ers will stag­nate; so­cieties with many live play­ers will de­velop and adapt.

Below we’ll de­scribe the char­ac­ter­is­tics of live ver­sus dead play­ers in greater de­tail, which will help in dis­t­in­guish­ing be­tween them.

Live Players

Let’s re­view and ex­plain the defi­ni­tion of live play­ers. A live player is a per­son or a tightly co­or­di­nated group of peo­ple that is able to do things they have not done be­fore.

Some Ne­c­es­sary At­tributes of Live Players

Tight Coordination

A group must be tightly co­or­di­nated in or­der to be flex­ible and re­spon­sive enough to do things they have not done be­fore. This al­lows them to take moves out­side of the for­mal struc­ture of the group, go off script, mod­ify them­selves, con­tinue act­ing even if the outer form dies (i.e. imag­ine a team of peo­ple be­ing able to con­tinue work­ing to­gether even if the com­pany for­mally blows up), and so forth.

A Tra­di­tion of Knowledge

The gen­er­a­tion of new tac­tics, strate­gies, co­or­di­na­tion mechanisms, and so on en­tails the pro­duc­tion of new, use­ful knowl­edge. Thus, a live player must have a liv­ing tra­di­tion of knowl­edge. For the tra­di­tion of knowl­edge to be liv­ing, it must have at least one the­o­rist, among other things.

Signs of Live Players

What are signs that a player is al­ive? One strong sign is a player do­ing things out­side of their do­main, which in­di­cates that they can figure things out. Take Steve Jobs. Not too long ago, we saw Ap­ple fight­ing against com­pli­ance with gov­ern­ment back­doors. This means that Jobs had pre­vi­ously found a way around com­pli­ance, which means that Jobs was able to figure out ways to deal with the in­tel­li­gence world. This was out­side of his core do­main of build­ing com­pa­nies. This is a strong sign that Ap­ple, at least while pi­loted by Steve Jobs, was a live player. Another sign of a live player is ex­cep­tional in­di­vi­d­u­als grav­i­tat­ing to­wards them. Such in­di­vi­d­u­als tend to be good at as­sess­ing oth­ers, and will tend to seek out oth­ers who are also ex­cep­tional. If they cluster around a per­son or group, there is some­thing ex­cep­tional about that per­son or group. Suc­cess­fully re­verse-en­g­ineer­ing an at­tack is an­other, albeit weak, sign of a live player. Those who can make novel moves will also tend be able to re­verse-en­g­ineer moves, but those who can re­verse-en­g­ineer moves of­ten lack the abil­ity to cre­ate novel ones.


Live play­ers fre­quently con­ceal them­selves to avoid op­po­si­tion from other live play­ers or oth­er­wise in­cite at­tacks. By con­ceal­ing them­selves, they de­lay other peo­ple’s re­sponses to them. For ex­am­ple, Ama­zon branded it­self as a book-sel­l­ing com­pany long af­ter it stopped be­ing merely a book-sel­l­ing com­pany. This helped it avoid hav­ing Wal­mart think of it as a com­peti­tor.

Note on Classification

Whether a player is al­ive or dead is always rel­a­tive to them­selves. Thus, a live player is not nec­es­sar­ily ex­cep­tional in its skill, al­though this is usu­ally the case. So if a player has already done X, do­ing X again does not make them a live player, even if other play­ers can’t do X yet or X is an im­pres­sive move. The player would have to make a move that is new for them in or­der to be a live player.

For ex­am­ple, Putin is a live player. The Rus­sian state is do­ing things they haven’t done in a long time, things that were un­think­able a few years ago. They an­nexed Crimea, for ex­am­ple, and such a thing hasn’t been done in Europe for decades. They also com­pleted a mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion in Syria, no­table in part be­cause Syria is out­side of Rus­sia’s sphere of in­fluence (i.e. the post-Soviet sphere), where they achieved their for­eign policy ob­jec­tive of sta­bi­liz­ing As­sad. They didn’t have much time to de­velop the plan for Syria — per­haps three years — which means they had to pull things to­gether quickly. And so this is a very strong in­di­ca­tor that Rus­sia can figure things out, and quickly at that. How­ever, one coun­try hav­ing this kind of in­fluence over an­other coun­try is noth­ing new — it’s merely new for mod­ern-day Rus­sia, which is why we would deem Rus­sia a live player. This same ac­tion taken by France in Mali would not in­di­cate that France is a live player, for ex­am­ple, be­cause France has rou­tinely in­ter­vened in West Africa. A bu­reau­cra­tized ac­tion, even if it is an im­pres­sive ac­tion, is not a sign that the player is al­ive.

Dead Players

We defined a dead player as a per­son or a group of peo­ple that is work­ing off a script, in­ca­pable of do­ing new things.


What can cause a player to die? A player will die if their in­tel­lec­tual tra­di­tion dies and they are un­able to re­place their thinkers or the­o­rists. Even if tight co­or­di­na­tion re­mains, the player is dead. They will com­pete in old ar­eas, but have a hard time ex­pand­ing into new ar­eas.

A player will also die if their tight co­or­di­na­tion is re­placed by for­mal struc­tures, which can hap­pen as mem­bers of an or­ga­ni­za­tion change. If you’re stuck in for­mal struc­tures, you have to fol­low the script, and this won’t be adap­tive enough. Re­mem­ber, how­ever, that tight co­or­di­na­tion can be achieved by just one ex­cep­tional per­son.


How can you re­vive a dead player? It only takes one great per­son to re­vive a dead player. That said, re­viv­ing a dead player is challeng­ing — more challeng­ing than re­viv­ing a dead tra­di­tion of knowl­edge. In or­der to re­vive a dead player, you have to dis­place an ex­ist­ing power struc­ture. It is fre­quently eas­ier to do this by con­quer­ing the ex­ist­ing power struc­ture with out­side, owned power, than by try­ing to trans­form the player from dead to al­ive from the in­side. This is be­cause a dead player, if it is an or­ga­ni­za­tion, may con­tain mechanisms that pre­clude in­sid­ers from gain­ing enough power to re­struc­ture it into a live player.


Ap­ple is a dead player. It be­came much less in­ter­est­ing and pow­er­ful af­ter Steve Jobs’ death. Un­der him, it was a cul­tural and com­mer­cial force that was able to in­ter­face effec­tively with the US gov­ern­ment. Now, it is a bu­reau­cracy imi­tat­ing his taste. It is in­ca­pable of adapt­ing, build­ing beau­tiful new things, and ac­quiring power.


It’s much eas­ier to de­tect live play­ers than it is to de­tect dead play­ers. This is be­cause seem­ingly dead play­ers might ac­tu­ally be al­ive (and play­ing dead).