I came to read Nonzero

I came to read Nonzero in a slightly embarrassing way. I was sitting at a dinner under the trees outside the student union at Stanford University. I was grumpy and jetlagged — that really awful jetlag the day after you arrive when your body is telling you to go to bed right NOW. Each table had been given a question to consider which I really can’t remember. This was supposed to be an emergent dinner or something, I forget. I was just about to leave.

But opposite me sat a thoughtful but slick looking American guy who introduced himself as Robert. The other people at the table were eclectic to say the least and the conversation went beyond stratospheric very quickly, intergalactic more likely. My problem was that I wasn’t all there as my body was convinced it was still in London. I know you’re supposed to be more ‘giving’ on these occasions but all my brain could muster was complete garbage so I just listened and made a note to find out more later. Sure enough Robert Wright’s presentation the day after was one of the highlights of the conference. His book sold out within minutes of his presentation so it wasn’t until I got back to the UK that I managed to get hold of a copy.

The two main points of the book are that human evolution does have a direction (towards greater social complexity) and that this is because of what Wright calls ‘nonzerosumness’ — a term he apologises for profusely in an appendix. The book is a pretty good introduction to cultural evolution theory, something I profess to have been no expert in except knowing that tribes come before multinationals — or something like that. Wright uses the writings of the slightly bizarre Jesuit theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin a few times, never pretending to fully understand what he meant but obviously inspired by his writings (a sentence in the acknowledgements tells a friend that he can now have back his Teilhard books lent to Wright twenty years ago)

The other thing that nonzero is pretty good on is game theory — something that has come up again and again for me this year. We’ve looked at it repeatedly in the regulation project I’m working on, it came up a few times at the complexity course I went on in the summer and during a recent project about third generation mobile I found out it had been used to devise the spectrum auction game in the UK too.

Nonzero does get better as it goes on and I think lands just about right. Wright ends with a suggestion that we shouldn’t dismiss out of hand Teilhard’s idea of an Omega Moment (termed by others as a Singularity) where cultural evolution advances so quickly that human evolution enters a new, very different stage. It sounds a bit wacky when brushed over in a piece as short as this but at the end of a deliberate ‘brief history of everything’ it is a more convincing proposition.

Anyway, well worth a read and I hope if I bump into him again my body and mind will be in the same continent as one another.

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