War Games and the End of the World

In this section of War in the Age of Intelligent Machines, Manuel de Landa recounts the role of modern war games in predicting military conflict. When modern war games first came into being, there were two theories of how these games should be played  to accurately predict battles. There was the theory of Jomini: war as a purely military concern, governed by a set of eternal laws that act as the basis of the game.  There was also the theory of Clausewitz: war as an extension of politics with outside factors such as friction and fear, taken into account. In the end, it was Jomini’s theory that became the basis of modern war games.

De Landa suggests that war games consist of two components:  hardware and software. The hardware component consists of a model of a stretch of terrain or a map. The software component consists of a relatively rigid set of rules that represent the laws of warfare, as suggested by Jomini.

The eternal laws of war were first expressed in mathematical form when Richard Lanchester distilled Jomini’s concentration of force principle into an equation, encouraging a purely numerical approach to warfare. Mathematics was applied to warfare with the creation of the RAND Corporation, which focused on game theory. The main application of game theory in this setting is to create a model of the enemy’s mind (in this case the Soviet mind) and then use this model to predict how a conflict (global nuclear war) would play out.

De Landa suggests that this mathematical modeling of conflict has introduced an artificial pro-conflict bias into nuclear negotiations, making nuclear disarmament impossible. RAND’s simulations depended on one scenario created by game theory, a branch of mathematics created to analyze poker games. This scenario is called “The Prisoner’s Dilemma” in which two prisoners are accused of a crime. The prisoners are separated and each presented with the choice of testifying against his partner or of maintaining his innocence. If one betrays the other, the betrayer walks free and the other gets a long sentence. If they both betray each other, they both get mid-length sentences. If they neither betrays the other, they both get short sentences. Although the best overall outcome is for neither to betray the other, it is considered more rational to betray one’s partner. If his partner does not betray him, then he goes free. If his partner does betray him, then he avoids the longer sentence.

prisoners dilemma

This conclusion was applied to the process of nuclear negotiations. While the best overall result is nuclear disarmament, neither can risk betrayal, and the nuclear annihilation that could accompany it. So they betray each other, and build up nuclear arsenals.

The Trap

According to Adam Curtis’ film “The Trap”, this paranoid philosophy has infected all aspects of society. Both sides use their stockpiles of nuclear weapons as deterrents and each side is kept from acting out of the fear of nuclear annihilation. This proves that stability can be created through fear and self-interest.

The mathematician John Nash applied this to all human interactions. He showed through his Nash Equilibrium, the point at which neither player can improve his outcome assuming that the other player does not change her actions. In this sense, everyone’s self interest is balanced. This only works when people behave selfishly and fails when people begin to cooperate. This theory relies on the idea that people are selfish and isolated, working only for themselves. This idea gained acceptance in the climate of fear that accompanied the Cold War period, when the world seemed to be on the edge of nuclear annihilation. To get a sense of the possible consequences of nuclear war and better understand this paranoid mentality, I would recommend Albino Black Sheep’s “End of the World” Video and the doomsday scene in the film “Dr. Strangelove or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”, see bellow.

Social policies based on these theories were implemented by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom. In these policies, public servants were encouraged to follow their own self-interest through incentives rather than for the public good. These systems utilize a strategy created by Alian Enthoven called Systems Management that aims to eliminate all emotions and replace them with mathematical targets. These mathematical incentives helped shape the health care systems of the US and UK.

At first, these theories of self interest reminded me of the 17th Century economist Adam Smith and his book “The Wealth of Nations”, in which he advocated for a free market, unrestricted by government intervention. He believed that the individual’s pursuit of his own interests would inadvertently benefit society more than if he had been working to better society. However, as I progressed further into the reading and the film, it became increasingly clear to me that the theory of unimpeded self-interest benefiting society, as supported by John Nash and Margaret Thatcher, was really an excuse to take stricter control. By supporting this bleak vision of humanity and keeping the United States on the brink of nuclear war, these governments kept people in constant fear, both of nuclear annihilation and of the motives of those around them. In this climate, it was easy to maintain control over people by placing them into a mathematical system in which they governed themselves, chasing after the goals that the government had set for them.

So what do you guys think? Do I have it completely wrong and am I just a crazy conspiracy theorist?  Do you think that people are as isolated and selfish as suggested by this Cold War ideology?

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3 responses to “War Games and the End of the World

  1. Your last statements eerily remind me of the government described in George Orwell’s 1984. I’m not sure what I think about it specifically, but I do have a brief thought about game theory and what we previously discussed about artificial intelligence.

    When we discussed Turing’s ideas of artificial intelligence and the Turing Test, we reviewed some of the skepticism expressed by his contemporaries, much of it having to do with the fact that we as humans cannot fathom the idea of a computer being as intelligent as us, and that a computer can only know as much as we program it to know or figure out. Well if Turing’s colleagues were simply concerned about a computer emulating human behaviors, game theory would probably generate a whole new concern.

    While, in my opinion, the Lady Lovelace idea is very applicable to game theory in that the theory generated from it can only exist as a result of humans programming in certain codes (i.e. creating a model of a Soviet’s mind), the fact is that in game theory the computer is not only emulating human behaviors. It is not merely capable of performing the same functions as a human can. In this case, the computer is predicting the future in a way that the US military could not do on its own. So in a sense, game theory allowed the computer to become not just equally as intelligent, but more intelligent than a human.

    • I think that Lauren is making an interesting point here. If I understand correctly, she is basically saying that we have empowered machines to such an extent that they end up doing much of the thinking we used to do on our own, and even more.

      This consideration is reflected in DeLanda’s analysis of Jomini and Clausewitz military strategies. While Jomini models the battlefield and war in purely logical term (thereby taking out of the equation human factors such as the fear of the enemy), Clausewitz saw the war as a continuation of politics by other means, i.e. as a much more complex affair.

      But when the Jominian strategist prevailed within the Prussian, (then German) military command, this purely logico-mathematical vision of the war set Germany on a very dangerous track, which eventually led to WWI.

  2. In my opinion, I agree with Lauren that game theory certainly resulted in the acceptance of computers as intelligent sources. By the creation of all these mathematical equations we let computers decide the safest approach to one of the biggest global threats: war. Perhaps individuals moved to the idea that we can only trust numbers and basic human opinions were no longer reliable means of making decisions.

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