Playing the infinite game

I was listening to Kevin Kelly’s Long Now talk this afternoon while out for a walk (as an aside, the Long Now talks are one of the things I miss about the Bay Area, but I’m catching up on the ones I’ve missed over the past two years by listening to the podcasts on my iPhone). I liked Kelly’s book Out of Control many years ago, and in this talk, he applies some of those ideas to science. In talking about how science is evolving, he discussed the contingent nature of Truth, and got me thinking about science as a system. But let’s start with something easier: Wikipedia.

Clay Shirky has a great quote in Here Comes Everybody, where he says “A Wikipedia article is a process, not a product, and as a result, it is never finished.” Think about what Wikipedia is. If you took a snapshot of all the articles at a given point in time and recorded it, would that be Wikipedia? No.

Wikipedia is not just the knowledge contained in Wikipedia, but also the process by which that knowledge grows. It’s the thousands of people fixing typos and subscribing to articles to revert vandalism. It’s people building on each other’s knowledge (Shirky points out that the initial entry for asphalt was just “Asphalt is a material used for road coverings.” and has since evolved into a detailed entry). Wikipedia is an evolving system that includes the people, the knowledge embodied in the articles and also the wiki technology that enables the system.

Shirky’s other point that “it is never finished” is also important. Wikipedia articles are never “done”, with no more that needs to be said. Articles can always be improved. More citations can be added. Topics can be made clearer. New information can be included.

The analogy to science is clear. Science is a process, not a product that can be “finished”. It is a systematic way of expanding our knowledge. Scientists are always looking for ways to improve scientific knowledge, by running experiments to test the outer limits of current theories. Kelly touched upon this in the question and answer period – he said he realized that science was not about discovering the Truth, because Truth is a contingent entity (shades of Latour’s “Constitution”). The goal of science is instead to continue doing science, to continue expanding the realm of questions that we can ask, because good discoveries always bring more questions than answers.

Kevin Kelly described science as an infinite game, a concept which I learned about at the Long Now talk of James Carse. Infinite games are where the goal is not to win the game, but to keep playing the game, changing the rules as necessary so that the game endures. Science keeps on evolving, not just in terms of its knowledge, but also in how it is done (see the talk summary for a chronological history of improvements of how we do science).

I love this vision of a contingent, fluid, evolving system. I don’t like absolutes, or the idea that there is a single answer, or that there is only one way of looking at a situation. This may be because that’s just how my brain works. But I think the infinite game is a powerful vision of how we should conduct our lives. It’s why I felt discomfort with The 4 Hour Work Week, as that treats life as a finite game where the goal is to win. But how would one play an infinite game in other areas of life besides science?

Built to Last is a business book designed to extract the lessons learned by companies that have been successful for decades. Yet one could interpret the ideas in that book as a guide on how to play business as an infinite game. “Preserve the core, but stimulate progress” – stick to your core values, but be willing to change everything else from your business model to the products you make. Keep changing the rules by which you’re playing towards the goal of continuing to play the game.

Preserving the core is also important in playing an infinite game. With nothing to cling to, the game spins out of control and loses meaning. Kelly was asked about “intelligent design” in his talk. I see “intelligent design” as mimicking the trappings of science, without applying the core values – the scientific method and controlled experiments and falsifiability. Creationists are trying to win the finite game of we’re right and you’re wrong, but in doing so, lose all credibility in the infinite game.

We see this cargo cult science all over the place, where people take the surface lessons and try to apply them in such a way as to win their finite game, without understanding the core lessons that are what made the original an infinite game. I’m thinking of how we are fooled by randomness, or how people imitate the clothing and affectations of wealthy people in the hopes of becoming wealthy.

Another interesting aside is thinking through the implications of the idea above that it is the process that is important, not the end result. You may recall that I am scornful at best of process in the workplace, preferring to put my trust in the resourcefulness of people. So how can I support this idea of science as a process?

My review of a Six Sigma book gives a hint: “when process is an end in itself, … it can choke an organization and prevent people from achieving what needs to get done.” In other words, when the process is viewed as a finite game that takes precedence, it is a bad thing. However, if process is viewed as part of an infinite game, where it is being used to promote core values and where the process can modify itself to improve its ability to achieve those core values, then I think process can be valuable. Science is a great example – it continues to evolve in its search for answers, answers which then provoke more questions.

This is a big topic and I need to think more about it. I should also probably re-read Finite and Infinite Games for ideas. But I really like this vision of things like science and Wikipedia being processes in a continual state of evolution without an end goal, and of how that ties into the idea of infinite games. I think there’s a powerful idea lurking here someplace, and I’ll have to see if I can tease it out. I also need to figure out if I can apply these ideas to running one’s personal life – where the goal of life isn’t to have the most money, or most knowledge, or most fame, but to have created a process by which one is continually growing.

What do you think?

5 thoughts on “Playing the infinite game

  1. I think that one of the huge benefits that I’ve gotten from a lot of the Buddhist mindfulness techniques that I’ve been getting from my therapist is the conversion of my (perspective of my) life from a finite game to an infinite one. I sincerely doubt that’s the *only* way of bringing infinite games into one’s life, but it’s what I thought as I read the last bit of your post, and then you went and asked what I thought. 😀

    And amusingly, I’ve been trying to find a used copy of _Finite and Infinite Games_ for the last couple of weeks so that I can re-read it (and add it back onto my shelves, because I gave away my last copy). I haven’t been trying especially hard, because I’m sure Powell’s could send it to me, but I have been into a couple of my usual haunts here in town with no luck. Maybe that’ll be my spring break reading.

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