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On Finite & Infinite Games

Wellcome Image Award. This small collection led me on a small tour-de-link this evening that began with the offerings of The Wellcome Library, turned to the ever-absorbing Tree of Life Web project, and ended with thoughts about IBM’s Watson.

How did I get there? I’m not sure. I do know, though, that I found myself looking up the James Burke Knowledge Web somewhere along the way—a project that aims to serve as a counterpoint to specialized, stove-piped knowledge by connecting overlapping bits of history, technology, science, and culture. I used to read Burke’s ‘Connections’ column in Scientific American and recall, long ago, watching episodes of the TV series. I’ve loosely followed Burke’s web project for many years, hoping it would take off. Unfortunately, the site looks much the same now as it did when I last checked several years ago. I think it’s long been surpassed (or, rather, bypassed) by other collaborative projects, namely Wikipedia.

Yet I don’t think today’s offerings on the Web come anywhere close to meeting the intent of the Burke project. The nearest example I can think of that emphasizes discovery across disciplines and through history is the Wikipedia Game, although it’s only a shadow of the bigger idea. 

While searching for the rules of the Wikipedia Game, I inadvertently came across a reference to something altogether new to me, called The Game:

The objective is to avoid thinking about The Game itself. Thinking about The Game constitutes a loss, which, according to the rules of The Game, must be announced each time it occurs. It is impossible to win The Game; players can only attempt to avoid losing for as long as they possibly can.

Funny stuff. This obscurity reminded me of one of the first philosophy books I ever read: Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse. It’s an abstract book that I find myself revisiting over the years, as I’ve found that it means different things to me as I grow older. It’s what you might call a long-term reading experience, in much the same way that Sun Tzu’s Art of War isn’t something you really read. The content is best sampled, sparingly.

Of course I had to look up the Carse book in Wikipedia, too. I was delighted to find a reference there to the Clock of the Long Now, which is a project to create a 10,000 year clock. This interesting idea comes from the Long Now Foundation—another site which I frequent—dedicated to long-term thinking. If there’s one thing we humans need to do more often, it’s surely long-term thinking. 

What do finite and infinite games have to do with long-term thought? I’ll quote what seems to be the most-often quoted part of Carse’s slim book (from the first chapter):

There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.

The Long Now is about playing the infinite game. What could help us become better players? At least one answer is to improve our ability to connect the dots between our history, technology, science, and culture.

I wound up my evening Web surf with a really interesting post about IBM’s Watson performance on the Jeopardy! game show. Watson certainly put in an impressive performance, demonstrating how computing power is starting to make inroads into the realm of knowledge and language.  Certainly, it showed great promise at answering questions based on ambiguous, misleading, and subtle clues (with notable exceptions). Perhaps we should introduce Watson to the Wikipedia Game. Then we could see how it does at assembling Burke’s Knowledge Web. I bet Watson could turn up some interesting connections.