Have you heard the one about the original creator of the game of chess, this wily mathematician who submits his invention to the ruler of the country? Asked by the delighted queen what he wants by way of reward, the mathematician requests to be paid in gold. He proposes the queen place a single coin on the first square of the chessboard, two on the second square, four on the next, eight on the one after that, doubling the number of coins on each successive square up to the sixty-fourth.
The queen, perplexed that the mathematician would ask such a meagre reward for his creativity, nonetheless orders her chancellor to total up the coins. In disbelief, the chancellor calculates that this simple sequence of sixty-three doublings has the queen owing the mathematician 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 coins. The coin stack on the sixty-fourth square will reach a little over nine trillion kilometres from earth, nearly a quarter of the way to Alpha Centauri.
Variations on this story are sometimes told in maths classes to give students an idea of how rapidly a system undergoing exponential growth will punch a hole through the ceiling. To understand what it means for us right here and now, imagine the chessboard expanding invisibly to cover our battered old planet, and instead of coins lets travel back in time a short distance and play the game with metallic ores. Iron ore, bauxite, copper, nickel, every tonne of it.
Start in the year 1901. The anti-colonial Boxer Rebellion in China reaches its bloody conclusion, the parliament of Australia sits for the first time, and welfare campaigner Emily Hobhouse reports on appallingconditions in British concentration camps in South Africa. Drop about 150 million tonnes on the first square of the chessboard thats the total estimated figure of metal ores mined, shipped and smelted by the world economy in that year. Call it the queens first coin.
Jump forward a quarter of a century to 1925: the first public demonstration of television transmission is given in London, and Adolf Hitler publishes the first volume of Mein Kampf. Total metal ores mined and traded: 326 million tonnes. Two coins, give or take.
Twenty-seven years and a shattering world war later, we drop four coins on the next square. Its 1952: the US government successfully tests the worlds first hydrogen bomb, and the Mau Mau launch a guerrilla uprising in Kenya. Were up to 620 million tonnes.
The next doubling to 1.2 billion tonnes drops in 1967: its the Summer of Love in Haight-Ashbury, Suharto takes office as the second president of Indonesia, and the Israeli military occupies the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and the Golan Heights in the Six-Day War.
Sixteen coins in 1995: the year in which the World Trade Organization is established, and Typhoon Angela slams into the Philippines and Vietnam.
Thirty-two coins in 2009, the booming globalised economy now trading more than 4.8 billion tonnes of metal ores in the year the United Nations COP 15 climate negotiations end in failure in Copenhagen.
Smooth out the zigzags of global commodity markets, peer past the dust and dinosaur forms of colossal pieces of mining equipment and bulk freighters the size of city blocks. This is what a mild-sounding 3 per cent annually compounding growth rate will do. An increase of 3 per cent a year will double the number of coins on each successive square about once every quarter-century. Non-metallic mining thats all the limestone, sand, gravel and whatever has grown slightly faster since 1901, doubling every twenty years. Coal, oil and gas are a little slower, doubling about every thirty years. You get the idea.
The simplest explanation for this explosive growth is that it coincides with the rapid and unprecedented expansion in human population from a little over 1.5 billion people in 1900 to more than 7.8 billion at the time of writing. But simple explanations are sometimes wrong. World population growth hit an inflection point in the late 1960s and began to decline as womens literacy and access to primary healthcare improved across the Global South, and reductions in child mortality led to smaller family sizes. Nobody suggests our population is set to double again; barring catastrophe, it appears to be headed for a plateau later this century. But there is no indication that the material consumption of the world economy is slowing, by any measure. If anything, the growth curves for key commodities have become even steeper over recent decades.
A better fit for the accelerating growth in material consumption can be found in something non-material: money. If you add up the total monetary value of all the goods and services produced in a country in a year, you arrive at a magic number called the Gross Domestic Product, or GDP.
The worlds combined GDP has been growing at about 3 per cent a year, doubling more than five times since 1901 and almost perfectly tracking the surging growth of the industrial tonnage out on the chessboard. Is this correlation, or causation, or just coincidence? Answering that is harder than it sounds, but for the moment the key thing to notice is that one of moneys main functions is just to multiply itself. And because it only exists as symbolic transactions between people and institutions, it is free to multiply into infinity like the mathematicians imaginary coins.
The physical flows and fabrics of a living planet are not so free. Between 1901 and 2015, the human infrastructures of mining, farming, factories and quarries processed a staggering 3.4 trillion tonnes of raw materials in total. By the unyielding mathematics of compounding growth, in fourteen decades time were expected to churn and burn through that amount every single year.
GDP figures accurately track the one-way consumption torrent of the modern economy: from mine to landfill, with a brief pause in the hands of people this kind of economy calls consumers. When particular flows or commodities or workforces buckle or collapse, the doubling shifts somewhere else. To the financial system, the physical flows are almost beside the point; they are simply intermediaries, carrier waves for the duplication of money.
In the glossy annual reports, all the focus is on the input side: tonnages ripped and shipped, board-feet slabbed and chipped, gigalitres pumped and burned, annually compounding metrics of a planet in liquidation.
The architects of this locust economy never sought to design waste retrieval and recycling systems for this growth machine, so it piles up on the edge of town. Weve brought materials into circulation that have no known disposal path an ocean of plastics, incomprehensible new chemicals and murderously long-lived radioactive isotopes. The one that is raining scorched leaves onto the chessboard, the one we cant even see, is the invisible pollution from coal, oil and gas combustion: a careless elbow in the face of the planets highly strung thermal regulation systems.
These are the coins of the Anthropocene, and this is what they buy us. Our present political and economic leaders are unswervingly determined to deliver the next stack twice as high on the next square, no matter what. Anybody who suggests that this is an impossibly dangerous way to organise our economy is treated like a freak.
Thats a problem. In the 1990s, US public-policy thinker Joseph P. Overton introduced an idea that would end up carrying his name. He proposed that public debate is characterised by ideas that are considered reasonable and worthy of discussion. These ideas lie safely within the Overton window. Outside this window lie all the ideas considered extreme, ridiculous or outright unthinkable.
The assumption that coin-doubling growth is good and necessary and normal is so mundane, so beyond question, that most days its all you can see through the Overton window. There do seem to be some freaks outside, banging on the glass about extinction or something, but because the window has become so firmly fixed in place its hard to understand what they are on about.
Joseph Overton suggested that over time, cultural and political tides can move the window, with activists and innovators bringing ideas previously considered extreme into the range of matters that sensible centrists feel comfortable talking about. But today things seem askew: everyone knows something is horribly wrong, but the window refuses to shift.
We were checkmated the moment we bought into the mathematicians coin-doubling scam. Across much of the industrialised world, the consequences of endlessly doubling down now infuse popular culture like background radiation. Dystopian premonitions hover at the intersections of documentary and science fiction, an annoying cohort of doomers and whole sub-genres of apocalypse porn flirting with the aesthetics of global collapse. A few billionaires are even proposing to go and set up colonies on Mars, but as much as we might wish theyd just fuck off and live under a plastic dome millions of kilometres away, it wouldnt stop people from being crushed under the next drop of their coins. The window seems to be jammed, stuck somehow, and so rather than continue trying to shift it politely, maybe its time we put a brick through it.
Sometime between this coin-doubling and the next, the chess game ends because the board is on fire.
While were thinking about that, heres a different game, one thats played with only one rule. It works pretty well with about two dozen people; you just need a little bit of space. Heres how it goes. Everyone stands in a circle, facing inwards, about an arms length apart from one another. Each participant has to choose two other people at random silently, without letting on who theyve chosen. Ready? Okay heres the rule. When the game starts, you have to move so as to stay an equal distance from the two people youve chosen. You dont have to stand directly between them, just try to keep the same distance away from both of them at all times.
Thats it. Thats the rule.
I first came across this game years ago. It was introduced as part of a workshop series on nonviolence and civil disobedience, co-hosted by American author an anti-nuclear campaigner Joanna Macy. In addition to practical techniques for locking down equipment, dealing with police and understanding your legal rights, Joanna Macy stirs in a measure of deep ecology, Buddhist philosophy and something Id only tangentially read about before, something she calls systems theory. Instead of dropping a bunch of academic papers about chaotic attractors and scale-free networks on us, she starts with this game.
The moment she calls go, the circle dissolves. The two people youre following, now theyre moving too, trying to keep an equal distance from the two people theyve chosen. In your peripheral vision youre trying to keep track of where your people are, avoiding collisions with others, aware that everyone is now weaving and careening around each other in a complex, unpredictable and strangely hilarious dance. Give it a few minutes, and unplanned crowd dynamics will arise; the tempo will slow, or everyone will begin to bunch up, until someone makes a move that drags two other people out of the flow and suddenly youre all in wild motion again.
Just one rule, everyone in the game applying it as best they can in real time.
No supercomputer will ever be able to predict where well all be standing when Joanna calls stop. Nobody is in charge of where we end up. Were all exercising a certain amount of agency, but none of us is completely free of the influence of those were bound to. Everything that happens in the game depends on everything else that is happening, and trying to orchestrate or direct a particular end state would seem to be formally impossible. My enduring memory of all the times Ive played the systems game is of the intangible collective presence that arises: a larger, fleeting something emerging from the moment-to-moment interaction of the crowds individual players.
The search for a theory that would explain these dynamics and the emergence of that something takes us all the way back to the 19th-century study of thermodynamics, with a handful of scientists and inventors struggling to improve the efficiency of the first generation of steam engines. Through slow trial and experimentation, they were stumbling towards some profound understandings. In his one and only publication, Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire, in 1824 French physicist Sadi Carnot put it like this: We may therefore state the following general principle: The amount of motive force in nature is unchanging. Properly speaking, it is never created and never destroyed; in reality it [merely] changes form, that is, assumes one or another form of motion, but never vanishes. This observation ended up being formalised as the first law of thermodynamics, the law of conservation of energy. Energy in the universe is never created or destroyed; it merely changes form.
But changing form carries a cost that you never get back. This second law, flowing from the first, would be of more immediate use to the makers of these machines. Heat dissipates until everything is the same temperature; water flows downhill; friction bleeds energy out of moving machinery and disperses it as waste heat. Youll never see a cold object spontaneously transferring heat to a warmer object. The whole universe is falling inexorably towards thermal equilibrium cold and dead and empty and pointless and dead, as though a Morrissey album has founded its own branch of physics.
The second law gave rise to the evocative concept of entropy. This term was coined by German mathematician Rudolf Clausius in 1865 as the measure of disorder in a closed system, which only ever goes up until equilibrium is reached. As energy dissipates, entropy increases, and this is always and forever a one-way ride. It means these bearded imperial nerds will never be able to build a steam engine with anything like 100 per cent efficiency. The moment they light up the coal in the furnace is the moment high-grade chemical energy begins its cascade into low-grade waste-heat, never to return. Reality is irreversible, as Russian biophysicist Mikhail Volkenstein put it.
It is in the dissipation that everything interesting happens. Carnot and Clausius and the others may be laying the theoretical foundations for a world lit by coal-fired electricity, but they are writing their treatises by the light of gas mantles and candles. Look closer, at the dance of one of these small, perfect flames. Closer: to see what is happening as the superheated gas boils off the melting wax. The fastest, most efficient way for the candle to dissipate this energy is through a teardrop-shaped flame. Entropy is increasing, heat is flowing from a highly concentrated source to gently warm the surrounding air, and while it lasts, this ephemeral structure will float there, illuminating the room.
Heat a pan of water until it begins to boil, and the water will self-organise into bubbling convection cells hot water rising, dissipating heated steam into the air, cooling and falling back towards the bottom of the pan. The same overturning convection structures can be observed on the surface of the sun, or in a bowl of hot miso soup. At the scale of the whole planet, slow-moving ocean currents and the largest-scale weather systems are in ceaseless overturn, dissipating equatorial heat towards the poles.
We may all be sliding towards the eventual heat-death of the universe, but the structures and standing waves that form as energy tumbles from high-grade to low have shaped everything we see around us. The study of such dissipative structures is one of the tributaries that led, in the mid 20th century, to the development of what is known as general systems theory.
Austrian biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy went looking for a unifying theory that would describe any complex system with constituent parts; he probably would have enjoyed the swerve and flow of Joannas game. In 1946 he wrote: It seems legitimate to ask for a theory, not of systems of a more or less special kind, but of universal principles applying to systems in general.
A quick search turns up this definition of system: A regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming a unified whole. Any discipline that seeks to formalise the universal principles of systems in general would seem to be hopelessly ambitious in scope. After all, we could be referring to the solar system, or the immune system, or an ecosystem. Or, for that matter, the phone system, the criminal justice system or the global financial system. This is a word that really gets around, and when it shows up it usually means things are getting complex.
Over the decades, this quest for simplicity has ramified into dozens of disciplines and sub-disciplines, elegant propositions and empty dead ends. The cybernetics people, with their feedback loops and ballistics tables. Game theory types, with their bounded rationality and prisoners dilemmas. The chaos theory school, wielding strange attractors and infinitely self-similar fractal geometries. More than metaphor, it seemed the stirring of a butterflys wings in the Amazon might really trigger a storm in the North Atlantic.
Its not immediately obvious why Joanna would invoke any of these abstractions at a civil disobedience workshop for a few dozen middle-class kids learning how to shut down logging operations. Or, for that matter, their relevance to people working any dimension of the larger struggle against a coin-doubling economy that has clearly lost its mind. Most of us dont have the time or the faintest flicker of interest in bringing graph theory or nonlinear dynamics into any part of our waking lives, so, as fascinating as these things might be to some, what is the pitch here, exactly?
By the 1990s, students of what would come to be termed complex adaptive systems were turning their minds to questions that had previously been squarely in the domain of political philosophers and revolutionaries. Lines of inquiry that had begun with steam engine efficiency were somehow casting light on patterns of social contention, and the stratification of classes, and outbreaks of industrial action.
Across widely diverse contexts, some researchers clocked the recurrence of a fourfold cycle of innovation and conservation, collapse and renewal, operating at scales from local to global. Named it the adaptive cycle and began to see it all over the place: the beginnings of a theory of how natural and social systems undergo regime changes. Ecologists put forward a name for the complex interplay of fast and slow adaptive cycles that sometimes collide with spectacular effect: they called it panarchy. Thermodynamics wont help us find the people throwing children into the water: thats a political journey. But ever since I first played the systems game, Ive wondered whether a theory of collapse and renewal might be valuable when we do finally meet our monsters face to face.
This is an edited extract of Scott LudlamsFull Circle, published by Black Inc.
Scott Ludlam is an ICAN ambassador and aformer Australian Greens senator for Western Australia.
Read the original post:
- Overthinking the silence - Chessbase News - June 11th, 2021
- Jan Werle: Beat the King's Indian - Chessbase News - June 11th, 2021
- Alethea AI and artist Robert Alice launch Sothebys auction of the first intelligent NFT - VentureBeat - June 11th, 2021
- How Philipp Grubauer used blood, sweat and technology to launch the Avalanches Stanley Cup run: Ive never seen a goalie do that - The Denver Post - June 11th, 2021
- NBA playoffs 2021 - What could shift Jazz-Clippers and every conference semifinal series - ESPN - June 11th, 2021
- The Supercar/Hypercar Wars Continue, But The Roadster Still Has An Ace Up Its Sleeve - CleanTechnica - May 30th, 2021
- Slitherine announces a plethora of new wargames at 'Home of Wargamers 2021' - The Next Web - May 18th, 2021
- How Stupid Does Governor Whitmer Think Michiganders Are? - wbckfm.com - May 18th, 2021
- Mad pawns can save the day - Chessbase News - Chessbase News - May 5th, 2021
- ASTRA Reveals 2021 Best Toys for Kids Finalists The Toy Book - The Toy Book - May 5th, 2021
- Is Bioelectricity the Key to Limb Regeneration? - The New Yorker - May 5th, 2021
- The ultimate staycation treat - charter a 1m superyacht, and it's based here in Gosport - Portsmouth News - May 5th, 2021
- Chess.com's New Events Feature, The Perfect Platform To Follow The Candidates - Chess.com - April 21st, 2021
- Turing AI: 'We can help develop a product in an eighth of the time, minimum' - FoodNavigator.com - April 21st, 2021
- The Machines Gambit - The Good Men Project - April 5th, 2021
- A sandwich, a beer and ... here's what you see on TV (and what to avoid) - Prudent Press Agency - April 5th, 2021
- Spurning the morsel - Chessbase News - April 5th, 2021
- Is AI Next in REI Education? - Think Realty - April 5th, 2021
- The IBM 305 Ramac: The secret grandfather of Deep Blue? - Chessbase News - March 9th, 2021
- Feeding the flames - Chessbase News - March 9th, 2021
- NEW - Andrew Martin: The Grnfeld Formula - Chessbase News - March 9th, 2021
- War Of The Wingmen: New Robot Fighters Promise To Transform Aerial Combat - Forbes - March 9th, 2021
- Businesses offer help as problems remain in Texas from winter storm - Yahoo News - February 20th, 2021
- Wet Start To The Weekend - Yahoo News - February 20th, 2021
- Chess and Artificial Intelligence (2) - Chessbase News - February 17th, 2021
- What is the secret of Wesley So's success? An interview - Chessbase News - February 17th, 2021
- Five Issues Washington Should Consider In Reviewing A Lockheed-Aerojet Merger - Forbes - February 17th, 2021
- Artificial Intelligence And The End Of Work - Forbes - February 17th, 2021
- Why Ricciardo said 'yes' to McLaren the second time they asked RaceFans - RaceFans - February 17th, 2021
- Opera Euro Rapid SF: Carlsen and So reach the final - Chessbase News - February 15th, 2021
- Letters: 'Darlington Borough Council has a terrible record of looking after heritage sites, maybe they shouldn't keep Locomotion No 1' - The Northern... - February 12th, 2021
- Fat Fritz 2.0 - The new number 1 - Chessbase News - February 10th, 2021
- 25 Years Ago, Chess Changed Forever When Deep Blue Beat Garry Kasparov - Slate - February 10th, 2021
- Chess In The COVID Era | Webster Kirkwood Times | timesnewspapers.com - Webster-Kirkwood Times, Inc. - February 10th, 2021
- 10 Things We Want From The Legend Of Zelda's 35th Anniversary - TheGamer - February 7th, 2021
- Travis Kelce is the best tight end in football. Just ask any NFL player. - The Union Leader - February 7th, 2021
- 120 things you probably didn't know were created by Black inventors | Venture - Daily Hive - February 6th, 2021
- Red Sox Truck Day approaches and theres a different feeling in the air - BoSox Injection - February 4th, 2021
- The future is augmented - The Bookseller - February 4th, 2021
- How to Use a Chess Engine? Your Quick & Effective Guide - February 3rd, 2021
- Stockfish+NNUE, Strongest Chess Engine Ever, To Compete In ... - February 3rd, 2021
- Top Chess Engine Championship - Wikipedia - January 30th, 2021
- Building My Own Chess Engine Andrew Healey - January 30th, 2021
- Stockfish Chess Engine Download - softpedia - January 30th, 2021
- Play Online Chess at Caissa's Web - January 30th, 2021
- Alto AMT Should it be back? - MotorOctane - MotorOctane - January 30th, 2021
- Does the rift in AI matter to marketing? - MarTech Today - January 30th, 2021
- Scientists say dropping acid can help with social anxiety and alcoholism - The Next Web - January 28th, 2021
- Meet Yash Aradhya, a Bengaluru Formula 4 racer and a recipient of the Pradhan Mantri Rashtriya Bal Puraskar - EdexLive - January 25th, 2021
- Dancing, vacuuming, learning: What's next for robots and their creators? - ASU Now - January 23rd, 2021
- Signature Theatre announces cast and dates for 'Simply Sondheim' review - DC Metro Theater Arts - January 23rd, 2021
- SwitchArcade Round-Up: 'Scott Pilgrim vs. The World', 'Shadow Gangs', and Today's Other New Releases and Sales - Touch Arcade - January 15th, 2021
- Their Uniforms Say Ohio State and Alabama. The Players Are From Everywhere. - The Wall Street Journal - January 13th, 2021
- Ziggurat Interactive Releases First Retro First Friday Pack Of 2021 - Bleeding Cool News - January 9th, 2021
- TV tonight: another day in paradise for detective Ralf Little - The Guardian - January 9th, 2021
- The Board Games Global Market is Expected to Grow at a CAGR of 13% Between 2021 to 2026 - Yahoo Finance - January 6th, 2021
- 50 Best TV Shows To Watch In 2021 - Highest Rated Television Series - OtakuKart - OtakuKart - December 29th, 2020
- Red Bull think they have secret weapon to catch Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas | F1 | Sport - TechnoCodex - December 23rd, 2020
- HBO's Industry creators and Myha'la Herrold break down season 1 finale - Entertainment Weekly - December 22nd, 2020
- Research at Microsoft 2020: Addressing the present while looking to the future - Microsoft - December 22nd, 2020
- Deals of the Week, December 11 to 18 Growth Business roundup - GrowthBusiness.co.uk - December 18th, 2020
- Turns Out Its Pretty Good: Doomscrolling - The Cut - December 18th, 2020
- A Letter to My Kids - The Good Men Project - December 15th, 2020
- Yakuza Remastered Collection On The Way For Xbox & PC - Bleeding Cool News - December 13th, 2020
- Hitman 3 Gets A New Trailer Showing Off The Features - Bleeding Cool News - December 9th, 2020
- Reflections on 40 years: thanks for the memories (we can remember) - NOLA.com - December 9th, 2020
- AMD Ryzen 7 5800X Review: The Pricing Conundrum - Tom's Hardware - December 8th, 2020
- AI has almost solved one of biologys greatest challenges how protein unfolds - ThePrint - December 8th, 2020
- Demis Hassabis interview: the kid from the comp who founded DeepMind and cracked a mighty riddle of science - The Times - December 6th, 2020
- Online Chess and Working from Home - Chessbase News - December 5th, 2020
- Full Fischer film in YouTube - Chessbase News - December 5th, 2020
- New C360 CEO Howard Wright Sees Broadcast Tech Putting Fans on the Field of Play - Sports Video Group - December 5th, 2020
- This is what would happen if a Hind took on a Cobra - We Are The Mighty - December 5th, 2020
- Hyundai Takes The Wraps Off Its E-GMP Electric Car Platform - CleanTechnica - December 3rd, 2020
- Top 9 Reasons to Rent an RV when you traveling - The Dubrovnik Times - December 3rd, 2020
- Akron flashback: Some childhood toys you never forget - Akron Beacon Journal - December 1st, 2020
- 24 Comments on GM is Paying Cadillac Dealers to Ditch the Brand... - The Truth About Cars - November 29th, 2020
- Skilling Open QF2: Day of the Comebacks - chess24 - November 27th, 2020
- Jelurida Announces Bridge Champ, an On-Chain Version of the Famous Card Game - IT News Online - November 27th, 2020
- The 37 Best Black Friday Smart Home and Kitchen Deals (2020) - WIRED - November 27th, 2020