Better Living Through Non-Zero Sum Games


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.

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