The Playmaker Ontology: A Lesson From Rand Waltzman

August 24, 2011

In the bowels of the secretive federal agency DARPA last week I had the pleasure of meeting one The Fed’s finest minds, Dr. Rand Waltzman (pictured), a scientist most interested in all things that influence. “It’s an ontology,” Waltzman said flatly, as he flipped through the Playmaker table and glossary.

I’d heard the term and knew I was in the neighborhood of so many ologies that have been used to describe the the second-generation of the Taxonomy of Influence Strategies and the underlying content of its two-dozen plays. I’d have to guess he saw the panic. Should I also nod and say something clever, like, Oh, haha…and so many times I’ve been told I’m doing etymohhhhology!  But then I wasn’t sure if it was ETYmology (the study of words and their origins) or ENTOmology (the study of insects). And, oh crap, what about EPISTEmology (that branch of philosophy that studies knowledge)?  The gaffe would be worse than the imperceptible pause.

Meetings like this are like intellectual chess matches, and I had just blinked.  It reminded me of when I once threw down three bucks at a NYC Washington Square blitz table, only to be beaten by a languid speed chess hustler…in 1:45 seconds. Gad.

With humble thanks to my host, I sculked back to the Playmaker’s batcave, frosted that I’d been schooled on my own subject, and uncertain why, in the eyes of this PhD, my life’s work was so-surely a so-called Ontology.  But a few quick quick sessions on google proved to me that it is, more so than anything having to do with words, insects or philosophy.

Here’s Merriam-Webster’s definition of Ontology:  def. (2) “a particular theory about the nature of being or the kinds of things that have existence.”

What my formidable new friend confirms is that influence and strategy are things to be studied. We can look at them as words as might an etymologist. We can look at them as knowledge as might an epistemologist.  And we can look at them as classifications, as might a taxonomist. But this link, from Stanford’s Tom Gruber, tells it all: “An ontology is a specification of a conceptualization.” In other words, it’s like a taxonomy with meat on the bones. It’s the discovery, organization and explanation of something heretofore amorphous. Thanks Tom.

Do influence and strategy or their associated practitioners need an ontology? I don’t know how we’ll progress without it. How we look at the world has as much to do with how we shape it — and that’s the stuff of playmakers, from entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley to politicos of DC to marketers of Madison Avenue to activists of the enduring Arab Spring.

You run plays. Plays are run on you. Influence and strategy are everywhere. They are to be understood. Precisely. Not casually. Not just instinctively. And through true ontologies, their most basic components are to be known and mastered.

Post by Alan Kelly


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