homeaboutarchives + tagsshopmembership!
aboutarchivesshopmembership!
aboutarchivesmembers!

kottke.org posts about Robert Wright

Better Living Through Non-Zero Sum Games

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 14, 2018

One of the very few books I think about all the time is Robert Wright’s Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny. Paras Chopra tweeted out a good summary of the book a couple of weeks ago.

The basic premise of the book is that history has a direction which favors co-operation and non-zero sum games, and that causes an increase in complexity. Starting from the first replicating molecule which co-operated with an outer layer to form first proto-cell, evolutionary and cultural history is full of examples where two entities come together to survive and progress a lot more than they would have done individually. This co-operative entity fares much better than two individual entities because of specialization. If two entities are in the same boat — that they win together or lose together — then trust is implicit. In a non-zero sum game, trust causes entities to focus on what they do best.

This type of win-win cooperation in biology is mirrored in the cultural world:

Out of all technologies, perhaps information technologies are most conducive to enabling more non-zero sum games. As writing skill spread, more and more people entered into simple written contracts that helped people co-operate and specialize. Perhaps the biggest information technology was money and the corresponding meme of capitalism that helped people express their desires clearly and others to fulfil those desires. We have a thousand different types of shoes because shoe-makers today do not have to worry about baking their own bread. This “trust” in the larger entity of commerce helps everyone progress.

Nonzero is an intriguing lens through which to view current events (which is why it’s often in my thoughts). As Chopra notes, cooperation isn’t always the norm…Trumpist Republicans and Brexit proponents are both veering towards the zero sum end of the spectrum and I don’t think it will work out well for either country in the long run.

We found love in a hopeless battle royale game

posted by Jason Kottke   May 10, 2018

I love this little piece by Robin Sloan about the world’s current video game obsession Fortnite Battle Royale, its relation to Liu Cixin’s Three-Body Problem trilogy, and how humans can turn zero-sum situations into nonzero-sum ones.

Worse, and predictably: I’d offer my heart and it would be accepted — I knew this because I received a heart in return, sometimes a merry dance emote — and then, delighted with our teamwork, I would turn around and … get blasted in the back.

I tried this negotiation many times with no success at all and my “Is this it?” curdled into “Is this us?” These were just the rules of the game — its very design — but even so. What a dire environment. What a cruel species!

Then, one night, it worked. And, in many games since, it’s worked again. Mostly I get blasted, but sometimes I don’t, and when I don’t, the possibilities bloom. Sometimes, after we face off and stand down, the other player and I go our separate ways. More frequently, we stick together. I’ve crossed half the map with impromptu allies.

A book I think about a lot is Robert Wright’s Nonzero, in which he argues, contrary to conventional wisdom about capitalistic competition, that much of human progress comes about through cooperation and that the effect increases as the complexity of the possible cooperation increases. As Sloan notes, the brute force of 1 vs 1 vs 1 vs 1 can get a bit boring after awhile, but add a simple way to communicate with other players and suddenly there’s more you can do with the game.

What is the mindful response to a school shooting?

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 20, 2018

In the latest issue of the Mindful Resistance newsletter, Robert Wright, author of the great Why Buddhism is True, explores what a mindful response to a school shooting like the one in Parkland might look like and what benefits might accrue from such a response.

How do you deal mindfully with the emotions aroused by the shooting? For example: feelings like fear and anxiety (which you may feel if you have a school-aged child); or outrage (if you think politicians should offer better policy responses than they’re offering); or despair (if you believe politicians will never change, or you just feel that things are spinning out of control).

A meditation teacher, if asked this question, might say something like: you should experience these feelings mindfully, and this may give you a kind of critical distance from them, so they don’t dominate and distort your thinking.

And a meditation teacher trained in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) might add some facts to facilitate this perspective.

For example: There are more than 50 million public school students in America. So, to judge by the school shooting statistics of the past two years, the chances of a child of yours dying in a school shooting this year are less than one in a million.

And when you read about the “18 school shootings” that have occurred in 2018, remember that this statistic rests on a broad definition of a school shooting: the discharging of a firearm on school grounds. In about half of these “shootings,” no one was shot. Some of the others were either suicides or led to injuries but not deaths. If you define a mass shooting as a shooting that kills at least four people-as this Washington Post tally does-there have been two mass shootings at schools over the past three years (plus one at a college).

Wright’s explanation of what he means by mindful resistance is also worth reading.

When people hear “mindful,” they may think “Buddhism” or “meditation.” Which makes sense: “mindfulness” is the standard English translation of the ancient term sati, which refers to a kind of Buddhist meditation and to the frame of mind this meditation cultivates.

Still, the British scholar who settled on that translation more than a century ago-Thomas William Rhys Davids-was drawing on the simple, non-exotic meaning that the word “mindful” already had in English. And that meaning points to a frame of mind that even non-meditators can cultivate. Namely, a clear, alert, acutely aware mind. Rhys Davids said the Buddhist ideal of “right mindfulness” refers to “an active, watchful mind.”

So what does all this have to do with Donald Trump-and with fighting the dark forces he represents? For starters, an alert, attentive, watchful mind is, obviously, a good thing to go to battle with. But there’s more to it than that. If you delve into the mechanics of mindfulness meditation, you’ll see that the kind of alertness and attention it is meant to foster is a kind that’s unclouded by the sort of feelings that can lead to tactical blunders-such feelings as rage and hatred, and also subtler feelings that can distort our perceptions and color our thoughts.

One reason I started mindfulresistance.net is that I think the resistance to Trumpism is sometimes impaired by such feelings. To take one example: I think we sometimes react to Trump’s provocations with a level of outrage that, even if justified (as it often is), is tactically unwise because it winds up helping him. I’m not saying you have to meditate to avoid these overreactions (though I think meditation helps, and I do it myself). And I’m not saying I always avoid such overreactions myself. I just think it’s good for opponents of Trumpism — meditators and non-meditators alike — to be aware of this pitfall, and aware of how their feelings can lead them into it.

Britain votes to leave the EU

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 24, 2016

I awoke at 3am last night, perhaps having sensed a disturbance in the Force, read a late-night text from a friend that said, “BREXIT!!” and spent the next two hours reading, shocked and alarmed, about Britain’s voting public’s decision to leave the European Union. Although according to a piece by David Allen Green in the FT, the decision is not legally binding and nothing will immediately change with regard to Britain’s laws or EU member status, the outcome is nevertheless distressing for the reasons outlined succinctly by an FT commenter.

A quick note on the first three tragedies. Firstly it was the working classes who voted for us to leave because they were economically disregarded and it is they who will suffer the most in the short term from the dearth of jobs and investment. They have merely swapped one distant and unreachable elite for another one. Secondly, the younger generation has lost the right to live and work in 27 other countries. We will never know the full extent of the lost opportunities, friendships, marriages, and experiences we will be denied. Freedom of movement was taken away by our parents, uncles, and grandparents in a parting blow to a generation that was already drowning in the debts of our predecessors. Thirdly and perhaps most significantly, we now live in a post-factual democracy. When the facts met the myths they were as useless as bullets bouncing off the bodies of aliens in a HG Well novel. When Michael Gove said ‘the British people are sick of experts’ he was right. But can anybody tell me the last time a prevailing culture of anti-intellectualism has lead to anything other than bigotry?

Reading this and casting your mind to Trump and the upcoming US election is not that difficult.

I’ve been thinking a lot about a book I read several years ago by Robert Wright called Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny. In it, Wright argues that cooperation among individuals and ever-larger groups has been essential in pushing biological and cultural evolution forward. From the first chapter of the book:

The survey of organic history is brief, and the survey of human history not so brief. Human history, after all, is notoriously messy. But I don’t think it’s nearly as messy as it’s often made out to be. Indeed, even if you start the survey back when the most complex society on earth was a hunter-gatherer village, and follow it up to the present, you can capture history’s basic trajectory by reference to a core pattern: New technologies arise that permit or encourage new, richer forms of non-zero-sum interaction; then (for intelligible reasons grounded ultimately in human nature) social structures evolve that realize this rich potential — that convert non-zero-sum situations into positive sums. Thus does social complexity grow in scope and depth.

This isn’t to say that non-zero-sum games always have win-win outcomes rather than lose-lose outcomes. Nor is it to say that the powerful and the treacherous never exploit the weak and the naive; parasitic behavior is often possible in non-zero-sum games, and history offers no shortage of examples. Still, on balance, over the long run, non-zero-sum situations produce more positive sums than negative sums, more mutual benefit than parasitism. As a result, people become embedded in larger and richer webs of interdependence.

The atmosphere of xenophobia on display in the US, Britain, and elsewhere in Europe is affecting our ability to work together for a better future together. World War II ended more than 70 years ago, long enough in the past that relatively few are still alive who remember the factors that led to war and the sort of people who pushed for it. Putin, Brexit, Trump, the Front National in France…has the West really forgotten WWII? If so, God help us all.

P.S. I also have a couple of contemporary songs running through my head about all this. The first is What Comes Next? from the Hamilton soundtrack:

What comes next?
You’ve been freed
Do you know how hard it is to lead?

You’re on your own
Awesome. Wow
Do you have a clue what happens now?

And the second is a track from Beyonce’s Lemonade, Don’t Hurt Yourself:

When you hurt me, you hurt yourself
Try not to hurt yourself
When you play me, you play yourself
Don’t play yourself
When you lie to me, you lie to yourself
You only lying to yourself
When you love me, you love yourself

Britain just played itself.

Update: Excellent op-ed in the LA Times by Brian Klaas and Marcel Dirsus.

This is the glaring contradiction in the muscular nationalism of right-wing populism, blended with isolationism, that seeks to withdraw from international unions: It cannot shape a better world by shutting the world out. The same people who cheer when Trump laments the decline of American leadership want to ignore key global issues and put “America First.” The people who voted for Brexit, attempting to create a border between Britain and challenges such as the refugee crisis, seem to think Britain can solve such problems without consulting Germany or France or, worst of all to them, Brussels.

The world doesn’t work that way, and it hasn’t for decades. Ever-increasing globalization has created an unprecedented surge in prosperity, but it has also ushered in jarring changes. The rough edges of those changes can only be overcome with more aggressive cooperation and engagement, not less. Whether it’s the risks of terrorism, the tragic flow of refugees, or economic shocks, Britain cannot solve problems alone and neither can the United States.

Should we assassinate terrorist leaders?

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 19, 2010

Robert Wright ponders that question and offers a surprising answer: no, because it’s not that effective at weakening their organizations.

You might as well try to end the personal computer business by killing executives at Apple and Dell. Capitalism being the stubborn thing it is, new executives would fill the void, so long as there was a demand for computers.

Of course, if you did enough killing, you might make the job of computer executive so unattractive that companies had to pay more and more for ever-less-capable executives. But that’s one difference between the computer business and the terrorism business. Terrorists aren’t in it for the money to begin with. They have less tangible incentives - and some of these may be strengthened by targeted killings.

Religion and science sitting in a tree, c-o-o-p-e-r-a-t-i-n-g

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 24, 2009

Writing in the New York Times this weekend, Robert Wright attempts to reconcile religion and science. The middle ground is the “built-in” moral sense of our universe, in that the universe builds and rewards organisms that cooperate with one another.

I bring good news! These two warring groups have more in common than they realize. And, no, it isn’t just that they’re both wrong. It’s that they’re wrong for the same reason. Oddly, an underestimation of natural selection’s creative power clouds the vision not just of the intensely religious but also of the militantly atheistic.

If both groups were to truly accept that power, the landscape might look different. Believers could scale back their conception of God’s role in creation, and atheists could accept that some notions of “higher purpose” are compatible with scientific materialism. And the two might learn to get along.

This is essentially the subject of the last chapter or two of Wright’s The Evolution of God, the only part of this excellent book that I didn’t quite buy into, even though I’ve been thinking about his conclusion quite a bit since finishing the book.

Altruism in economics

posted by Jason Kottke   May 29, 2009

Altruism in business and behaviorial economics is a topic that comes up quite often on kottke.org, even when it’s not explicit. (For instance, the central issue in the Atul Gawande article I pointed to yesterday pits the individual financial desires of doctors vs. the health of their patients.) This article from Ode Magazine takes a look at the research done in this area so far and how the idea of altruism in economics is currently on the rise.

The theory is based on the premise that humans evolved in small groups with strong social contracts and plenty of contact with strangers. Cooperation within the tribe was advantageous so long as free riders were punished. It was also the best gambit on encountering strangers. Cooperation, particularly in times of famine, was the only means of survival, so altruism became a favored evolutionary trait.

One of my favorite books on altruism and economics is Robert Wright’s Nonzero.

The Evolution of God

posted by Jason Kottke   May 11, 2009

Robert Wright has a new book out soon called The Evolution of God. Andrew Sullivan has a review.

From primitive animists to the legends of the first gods, battling like irrational cloud-inhabiting humans over the cosmos, Wright tells the story of how war and trade, technology and human interaction slowly exposed humans to the gods of others. How this awareness led to the Jewish innovation of a hidden and universal God, how the cosmopolitan early Christians, in order to market their doctrines more successfully, universalised and sanitised this Jewish God in turn, and how Islam equally included a civilising universalism despite its doctrinal rigidity and founding violence.

Last month’s issue of The Atlantic contained an excerpt.

For all the advances and wonders of our global era, Christians, Jews, and Muslims seem ever more locked in mortal combat. But history suggests a happier outcome for the Peoples of the Book. As technological evolution has brought communities, nations, and faiths into closer contact, it is the prophets of tolerance and love that have prospered, along with the religions they represent. Is globalization, in fact, God’s will?

I loved two of Wright’s previous books, The Moral Animal and especially Nonzero. (via marginal revolution)

Nonzero

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 07, 2003

The main thesis of Nonzero is that social complexity of human culture has been increasing since the dawn of man and will continue to do so until forever. Wright argues that non-zero sum games are the culprit: societies get more complex (moving from tribes of hunter gatherers to mutli-trillion dollar global economy) because in order to play ever more lucrative non-zero sum games with an increasing number of people, that’s the way it has to be. It makes a lot of sense.