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Playing the Infinite Game

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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

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

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

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

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

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

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. 


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