Playing the Infinite Game


The following is adapted from What Technology Wants, published by Viking/Penguin, used with permission.


There are two kinds of games in the universe: finite games and infinite games. A finite game is played to win. Card games, poker rounds, games of chance, bets, sports such as football, board games such as Monopoly, races, marathons, puzzles, Tetris, Rubik's Cube, Scrabble, sudoku, online games such as World of Warcraft, and Halo -- all are finite games. The game ends when someone wins.

An infinite game, on the other hand, is played to keep the game going. It does not terminate because there is no winner.

Finite games require rules that remain constant. The game fails if the rules change during the game. Altering rules during play is unforgivable, the very definition of unfairness. Great effort, then, is taken in a finite game to spell out the rules beforehand and enforce them during the game.

An infinite game, however, can keep going only by changing its rules. To maintain open-endedness, the game must play with its rules.

A finite game such as baseball or chess or Super Mario must have boundaries -- spatial, temporal, or behavioral. So big, this long, do or don't do that.

An infinite game has no boundaries. James Carse, the theologian who developed these ideas in his brilliant treatise Finite and Infinite Games, says, "Finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries."

Evolution, life, mind, and the technium are infinite games. Their game is to keep the game going. To keep all participants playing as long as possible. They do that, as all infinite games do, by playing around with the rules of play. The evolution of evolution is just that kind of play.

Unreformed weapon technologies generate finite games. They produce winners (and losers) and cut off options. Finite games are dramatic; think sports and war. We can think of hundreds of more exciting stories about two guys fighting than we can about two guys at peace. But the problem with those exciting 100 stories about two guys fighting is that they all lead to the same end -- the demise of one or both of them -- unless at some point they turn and cooperate. However, the one boring story about peace has no end. It can lead to a thousand unexpected stories -- maybe the two guys become partners and build a new town or discover a new element or write an amazing opera. They create something that will become a platform for future stories. They are playing an infinite game. Peace is summoned all over the world because it births increasing opportunities and, unlike a finite game, contains infinite potential.

The things in life we love most -- including life itself -- are infinite games. When we play the game of life, or the game of the technium, goals are not fixed, the rules are unknown and shifting. How do we proceed? A good choice is to increase choices. As individuals and as a society we can invent methods that will generate as many new good possibilities as possible. A good possibility is one that will generate more good possibilities . . . and so on in the paradoxical infinite game. The best "open-ended" choice is one that leads to the most subsequent "openended" choices. That recursive tree is the infinite game of technology.

The goal of the infinite game is to keep playing -- to explore every way to play the game, to include all games, all possible players, to widen what is meant by playing, to spend all, to hoard nothing, to seed the universe with improbable plays, and if possible to surpass everything that has come before.

In his mythic book The Singularity Is Near, Ray Kurzweil, serial inventor, technology enthusiast, and unabashed atheist, announces: "Evolution moves toward greater complexity, greater elegance, greater knowledge, greater intelligence, greater beauty, greater creativity, and greater levels of subtle attributes such as love. In every monotheistic tradition God is likewise described as all of these qualities, only without limitation. . . . So evolution moves inexorably toward this conception of God, although never quite reaching this ideal."

If there is a God, the arc of the technium is aimed right at it. I'll retell the Great Story of this arc because it points to an infinite game.

The story and game begin at the beginning. As the undifferentiated energy at the big bang is cooled by the expanding space of the universe, it coalesces into measurable entities, and, over time, the particles condense into atoms. Further expansion and cooling allows complex molecules to form, which self-assemble into self-reproducing entities. With each tick of the clock, increasing complexity is added to these embryonic organisms, increasing the speed at which they change. As evolution evolves, it keeps piling on different ways to adapt and learn until eventually the minds of animals are caught in self-awareness. This self-awareness thinks up more minds, and together a universe of minds transcends all previous limits. The destiny of this collective mind is to expand imagination in all directions until it is no longer solitary but reflects the infinite. Everything present in the universe is a winner.

There is even a modern theology that postulates that God, too, changes. Without splitting too many theological hairs, this theory, called Process Theology, describes God as a process, a perfect process, if you will. In this theology, God is less a remote, monumental, gray-bearded hacker genius and more of an ever-present flux, a movement, a process, a primary self-made becoming. The ongoing self-organized mutability of life, evolution, mind, and the technium is a reflection of God's becoming. God-as-Verb unleashes a set of rules that unfold into an infinite game, a game that continually loops back into itself.

I bring up God here at the end because it seems unfair to speak about autocreation without mentioning God -- the paragon of autocreation. The only other alternative to an endless string of creations triggered by previous creation is a creation that emerges from its own self-causation. That prime self-causation, which is not preceded but instead first makes itself before it makes either time or nothingness, is the most logical definition of God. This view of a mutable God does not escape the paradoxes of self-creation that infect all levels of self-organization, but rather it embraces them as necessary paradoxes. God or not, self-creation is a mystery.

In one sense, this is a story about continuous autocreation (with or without the concept of a prime autocreation). The tale tells how the ratcheting bootstrapping of increasing complexity, expanding possibilities, and spreading sentience -- which we now see in the technium and beyond -- is driven by forces that were inherent within the first nanospeck of existence and how this seed of flux has unfolded itself in such a manner that it can, in theory, keep unfolding and making itself for a very long time.

A single thread of selfgeneration ties the cosmos, the bios, and the technos together into one creation. Life is less a miracle than a necessity for matter and energy. The technium is less an adversary to life than its extension. Humans are not the culmination of this trajectory but an intermediary, smack in the middle between the born and the made.

For several thousand years, humans have looked to the organic world, the world of the living, for clues about the nature of creation and even of a creator. Life was a reflection of the divine. Humans in particular were deemed to be made in the image of God. But if you believe humans are made in the image of God, the autocreator, then we have done well, because we have just birthed our own creation: the technium. Many, including many believers in God, would call that hubris. Compared to what has come before us, our accomplishments are puny.

"As we turn from the galaxies to the swarming cells of our own being, which toil for something, some entity beyond their grasp, let us remember man, the self-fabricator who came across an ice age to look into the mirrors and magic of science. Surely he did not come to see himself or his wild visage only. He came because he is at heart a listener and a searcher for some transcendent realm beyond himself." That's Loren Eiseley, anthropologist and author, ruminating on what he calls our "immense journey" so far under the stars.

The bleak message of the stars in their overwhelming infinitude is that we are nothing. It is hard to argue with 500 billion galaxies, each with a billion stars. In the mists of the endless cosmos, our brief blink in an obscure corner is nothing at all.

Yet the fact that there is something in one corner that sustains itself against the starry vastness, the fact that there is anything bootstrapping at all, is an argument against the nihilism of the stars. The smallest thought could not exist unless the entire universe and the laws of physics were in some way encouraging it. The existence of a single rosebud, a single oil painting, a single parade of costumed hominins strolling down a street of bricks, a single glowing screen waiting for input, or a single book on the nature of our creations requires life-friendly attributes baked deeply into the primeval laws of being. "The universe knew we were coming," says Freeman Dyson. And if the cosmic laws are biased to produce one bit of life and mind and technology, then one bit will flow after another. Our immense journey is a trace of tiny, improbable events stacked into a series of inevitabilities.

The technium is the way the universe has engineered its own selfawareness. Carl Sagan put it memorably: "We are starstuff pondering the stars." But by far humanity's greatest, most immense journey is not the long trek from star dust to wakefulness but the immense journey we have in front of us. The arc of complexity and open-ended creation in the last four billion years is nothing compared to what lies ahead.

The universe is mostly empty because it is waiting to be filled with the products of life and the technium, with questions and problems and the thickening relations between bits that we call con scientia -- shared knowledge -- or consciousness.

And whether we like it or not, we stand at the fulcrum of the future. We are in part responsible for the evolution of this planet proceeding onward.

About 2,500 years ago most of humanity's major religions were set in motion in a relatively compact period. Confucius, Lao-tzu, Buddha, Zoroaster, the authors of the Upanishads, and the Jewish patriarchs all lived within a span of 20 generations. Only a few major religions have been born since then. Historians call that planetary fluttering the Axial Age. It was as if everyone alive awoke simultaneously and, in one breath, set out in search of their mysterious origins. Some anthropologists believe the Axial Age awakening was induced by the surplus abundance that agriculture created, enabled by massive irrigation and waterworks around the world.

It would not surprise me if we saw another axial awakening someday, powered by another flood of technology. I find it hard to believe that we could manufacture robots that actually worked and not have them disturb our ideas of religion and God. Someday we will make other minds, and they will surprise us. They will think of things we never could have imagined, and if we give these minds their full embodiment, they will call themselves children of God, and what will we say? When we alter the genetics in our veins, will this not reroute our sense of a soul? Can we cross over into the quantum realm, where one bit of matter can be in two places at once, and still not believe in angels?

Look what is coming: Technology is stitching together all the minds of the living, wrapping the planet in a vibrating cloak of electronic nerves, entire continents of machines conversing with one another, the whole aggregation watching itself through a million cameras posted daily. How can this not stir that organ in us that is sensitive to something larger than ourselves?

For as long as the wind has blown and the grass grown, people have sat beneath trees in the wilderness for enlightenment -- to see God. They have looked to the natural world for a hint of their origins. In the filigree of fern and feather they find a shadow of an infinite source. Even those who have no use for God study the evolving world of the born for clues to why we are here. For most people, nature is either a very happy long-term accident or a very detailed reflection of its creator. For the latter, every species can be read as a four-billion-year-long encounter with God.

Yet we can see more of God in a cell phone than in a tree frog. The phone extends the frog's four billion years of learning and adds the open-ended investigations of six billion human minds. Someday we may believe the most convivial technology we can make is not a testament to human ingenuity but a testimony of the holy. As the technium's autonomy rises, we have less influence over the made. It follows its own momentum begun at the big bang. In a new axial age, it is possible the greatest technological works will be considered a portrait of God rather than of us. In addition to holding spiritual retreats in redwood groves, we may surrender ourselves in the labyrinths of a 200-year-old network. The intricate, unfathomable layers of logic built up over a century, borrowed from rainforest ecosystems, and woven together into beauty by millions of active synthetic minds will say what redwoods say, only louder, more convincingly: "Long before you were here, I am."

The technium is not God; it is too small. It is not utopia. It is not even an entity. It is a becoming that is only beginning. But it contains more goodness than anything else we know.

The technium expands life's fundamental traits, and in so doing it expands life's fundamental goodness. Life's increasing diversity, its reach for sentience, its long-term move from the general to the different, its essential (and paradoxical) ability to generate new versions of itself, and its constant play in an infinite game are the very traits and "wants" of the technium. Or should I say, the technium's wants are those of life. But the technium does not stop there. The technium also expands the mind's fundamental traits, and in so doing it expands the mind's fundamental goodness. Technology amplifies the mind's urge toward the unity of all thought, it accelerates the connections among all people, and it will populate the world with all conceivable ways of comprehending the infinite.

No one person can become all that is humanly possible; no one technology can capture all that technology promises. It will take all life and all minds and all technology to begin to see reality. It will take the whole technium, and that includes us, to discover the tools that are needed to surprise the world. Along the way we generate more options, more opportunities, more connection, more diversity, more unity, more thought, more beauty, and more problems. Those add up to more good, an infinite game worth playing.

That's what technology wants.
















Teaser image by mbahareth courtesy of Creative Commons license.