Ep. 2 "The Game at War with the World"

Dr. S.M. Amadae on the powers of the prisoners’ dilemma

Episode notes and references:

“The Trap”, Three-part documentary, Adam Curtis, 2018

John von Neumann and RAND corporation, origins of Game Theory

Negative Liberty, concept from Robert Nozick

NUTS vs. MAD, doctrines of military strategy and national security policy originating during the Cold War.

The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins, Oxford University Press, 1976

The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, Steven Pinker, Viking Books, 2011

The Fourth Revolution: How the Infosphere is Reshaping Human Reality, Luciano Floridi, Oxford University Press, 2014

Max Haiven: Hello and welcome to “The Exploits of Play”, a podcast about the strange and unexpected role of games and play in our stage of capitalism that just keeps getting weirder. My name is Max Haven and I am Canada Research Chair in the Radical Imagination. 

Halle Frost: And I’m Halle Frost from the platform Weird Economies. We are presenting this podcast. 

Today our interview is with Dr. Sonja Amadae. Dr. Amadae teaches in the Department of Political Science at the University of Helsinki and works as a research affiliate at MIT. Dr. Amadae writes on the foundations of liberalism and the philosophy and history of political economy. Her 2016 book, Prisoners of Reason, Game Theory and Neoliberal Political Economy, as well as an earlier book, Rationalizing Capitalist Democracy, the Cold War Origins of Rational Choice Liberalism– show us the world that game theory built and how this model of human behavior became so prevalent. Before we run this truly sensational interview, Max, do you have any clarifications to add?

Max Haiven: Not so many clarifications. Dr. Amadae is incredibly lucid and, and precise. So I don’t think we need to say much except to perhaps preface this by saying that I think as the interview makes clear, this thing we call game theory has been tremendously influential. So much so that– and these are my words, not Dr. Amadae’s– I think it almost constitutes, almost like a kind of secret religion of today’s major decision makers. It’s really held close to the hearts of many of today’s policymakers and politicians. It is fundamentally believed by most of today’s large business leaders, especially in the realm of finance. It is held to be sort of gospel truth by many of the people who are designing the most consequential software in Silicon Valley. Its influence is actually really difficult to underestimate. And because it masks itself in the language of reason and rationality and sort of zero sum mathematical decision making, it’s very difficult to question by those people who hold it dear. And one of the things I really appreciate about Dr. Amadae’s work is the precision and care with which she really deconstructs it and provides us with a really incredible intellectual history of this concept. I’m so glad we got to interview Dr. Amadae because I feel like the secret core of this question of “The Exploits of Play” is about how games and play have moved from the margin to the very center of the capitalist economy that we’re living in. I feel that in some way, if we can better understand the influence of game theory and how it’s just come to really saturate the thinking of the powerful in the 20th and late 20th and early 21st centuries, we have a much better chance at being able to escape this paradigm together in some way, and also design other kinds of games and practice other forms of play that can liberate us from the sort of horrors of the neoliberal consensus as it enters its weird undead moment, where it lives on in spite of the fact that nobody really seems to believe it anymore.

Max Haiven: I wanted to start as we start many of these interviews by asking our guests to talk a little bit about their memory of playing games as children and a particular game that you learned something from as a child. 

Dr. S.M Amadae: Yes. So I have a brother. He’s three years younger. And what I remember the most about our playing games, we played many, from chess, to checkers, many moving games. I’ll talk about a game that we made that my mom– well, it used to drive her mad. So we would play Snap, which is a game that we all know you put the cards down and then whoever has the higher card gets to end up taking the whole bunch of cards. So what we decided is that we were too stationary. So we had we called it ‘Round the Table Snap’, and we would set up stations across the house, and then we would go walking in circles for very long periods of time, and then end up whoever would win at the time would just we trust each other and we would just end up taking the cards, but because it was sort of this constant movement of us around the house, but my mother would hate the sound we would make as that would get repetitive over half an hour, 45 minutes, an hour play. But what was the most interesting with my brother and I, and we also did this with chess was we made our own rules for games and we would change games collaboratively.

Backwards chess was another game we played a lot, which was when you attempted to make the other person take all your pieces. So if the other person has the opportunity to take a piece, they have to. And then the winner is the one that gets all of their pieces taken first. And what I learned from that is that games, of course they’re fun when you just play them according to the official rules, but that games are malleable and that together you can come up with new rules. One thing we didn’t have the problem with, which we might get into that conversation later is we didn’t cheat. I mean, it would never occur to us to come up with some rules and then find ways to deviously bend our way out of them just to win the game. The fun was in the playing. And so I guess that’s the two examples– making up the ambulatory snap game and then the backward chess. 

That was more our play with the rules of the game that was innovative and that we learned from and had a lot of fun. 


Max Haiven: Yeah, I’m hoping we do come back to that. It’s a fascinating topic and a fascinating topic in the study of children in games is, yeah, when they, when they bend the rules, when they break the rules, when they change the rules, when they cheat, when, when they become spoiled sports. Also, it’s a fascinating thing to reflect on. But by way of talking about your fabulous 2015 book, Prisoners of Reason Game Theory and Neoliberal Political Economy. which I think is, it’s such an important book for everyone to read, to be honest, because I think it really reveals something very profound about the history of neoliberal thought and the way that neoliberal thought took over the world.

I guess I wanted you to begin just by, you know, I think many of our listeners would probably be vaguely familiar with the prisoner’s dilemma as a kind of riddle that, you know, you might’ve heard it at like a party or you might’ve read about, but can you tell us a little bit more about what the prisoner’s dilemma is? Where it came from and how it turned into this thing that now is called game theory. 

Dr. S.M. Amadae: In the research that I’ve done and the years of teaching the history of game theory, the philosophy of game theory, engaging game theory, the way I look at the prisoner’s dilemma now is that it’s a formal mathematical invention that we can think of as a game, but that often teaching it means indoctrinating the people that learn game theory to, to learn this thing called the prisoner’s dilemma often, as far as I can tell, invariably means that you absorb the subjectivity of what it means to be the actor in the prisoner’s dilemma.

So how would I put forward an account of the prisoner’s dilemma? So it didn’t have that impact of indoctrination where it’s hard not to see the world with those prisoner’s dilemma glasses after we are exposed to it. So first, a little bit of the background context that the prisoner’s dilemma was developed in the mid fifties. It was developed within a very specific context, which was this military think tank, the RAND Corporation, and that was in Santa Monica. And it was devoted to coming up with ways to use science to make military decision making and game theory was developed by the physicist and the economist John von Neumann and Oscar Morgenstern, and they were collaborating together during the Second World War on this theory of game theory, which Morgenstern thought would be applied to economics but von Neumann immediately was applying it to warfare and to strategy. And even though it had come up, it was a mathematical means of formalizing games, such as chess or even poker parlor games, then it was put to the test in terms of asking, how can militaries gain an advantage by deploying their resources efficiently, and then gaining military supremacy over the opponent.

Before the prisoner’s dilemma was even invented as an artifact of game theory, you could think of a specific type of resource allocation problem, which is submarines trying to cross a narrow passage. Like between the body of Europe and the United Kingdom. If submarines need to cross a channel and you have airplanes that are trying to strafe them, von Neumann would use game theory with the two actors being the opponent who has the submarine, and we have the airplanes. The submarine has to come up once or twice as it’s crossing the channel because it has to come up either for air or it has to come up for an observation. What should the airplane strafing pattern be in order to have the maximum chances of hitting that submarine? So that was one of the first applications of game theory to that context of a military scenario. And then when von Neumann was one of the major intellectuals who would come and go from the RAND Corporation. He was finding other ways that you would bring this theory of strategy into making rational decisions for military resource allocation and for strategic decisions. So flash forward from the 1940s to the 1950s, and it was two game theorists at Rand who then came up with a game that when you see it on paper, it’s not really a game. It’s just a mathematical matrix, a table with numbers in it. But when you interpret those numbers and you interpret the context of what those numbers mean, then we think in terms of two different actors.

So it could be us and them in a military context, or it could be two people. It could be a man and a wife. It could be any two different actors, and they each have two decisions. And those decisions are usually just stated in shorthand. So it could be cooperate or defect. And the scenario plays itself out that there are four different outcomes, depending on how about to simplify it, me and you, so there’s Sonia and there’s Max and we’re in a situation where both of us have a choice and that choice would be to cooperate or to defect. And then depending on if we both cooperate, neither of us cooperates, Max cooperates and I defect, I defect and Max cooperates. Then there is the outcome that if we both cooperate, then we share some kind of an opportunity or reward if we both. Defect from cooperation, then we share a mutually poor outcome, but it turns out and let’s play it this way. Since we don’t know each other, maybe Max in the world of game theory is really well, speaking now from a game theoretic point of view, if Max’s naive, then he might think, ‘Oh, well, this Amadae person, you know, likely to cooperate.’ Then come to find out that I’ve actually been very well trained in game theory. And I know that if I want to walk off with more of this good, it could be money. It could be if we’re having some kind of an exchange where Max has a car and I have money and we agree to make an exchange economists view that as a prisoner’s dilemma. So it could be that Max just brings over his car and says ‘Here, here’s my car.’ And then here’s Sonia. What do I do? Well, I’m like, Max has given me the car, so I will just take the car and my money and then poor Max is left with nothing. 

So at least in my research, I have found it extraordinarily difficult to understand why it would be that a situation as simple as a car exchange– how is it that we went from a time when to truck barter and exchange from Adam Smith turned into this situation where both of us are going to want to cheat the other. Max wants the money in the car. I want the money in the car according to the way game theory works. And so the end is that we have some kind of a conflict, the money’s lost, the car is lost, and we both end up impoverished. And probably the way I explained it, it’s not going to sound so rational because I’m critiquing this principle of action as I speak.

But the documentary filmmaker, Adam Curtis, made a documentary film about game theory in specific, how it comes out of the World War II and then Cold War context. In his episode, the three part documentary is called “The Trap”. And then he made a specific episode about the prisoner’s dilemma and the theorist John Nash. Who is one of the most important initial game theorists and it’s called, “Fuck You Buddy”. But when he tells the story, I think he manages to convey that initially it was the Cold War distrust and the application of this to military scenarios where in a military scenario, of course it would be more natural if it was the Second World War and we were representing different flags, then it may be that it would be more rational to be suspicious and not trust the other. And so from the telling of the narrative from the Adam Curtis perspective, we end up with this worst scenario thinking, which I’ve also written about. And now lo and behold, that worst scenario thinking is what we think is normal for all actors in all situations.

I’m maybe making it a little blacker than game theorists would, but not that much blacker in terms of the black and whiteness of having a lighthearted perspective on things to being dark and gloomy and suspicious. 

Max Haiven: One of the things I love about this book and I think is so important is you sort of show how what originally began as a kind of playful if pessimistic model, a very abstract model for certain kinds of human behavior, not only comes to be used in more and more different applications, first in the context of the Cold War, and then in the context of rethinking governance of society towards neoliberalism, and then even human evolution, and we’ll talk a little bit near the end of this episode about tech and how it’s influenced the tech sector– but you actually show how this model basically in some ways took over the world and reshaped the whole way in which not only particular scientists are thinking about decision making but lots and lots of very consequential decision makers. I want to go back to a point before we get there that you alluded to just a moment ago, which is that even though the prisoners’ dilemma and the game theory field, to which it’s so pivotal, claim to be working within a tradition of classical liberalism. It is a very jaundiced, pessimistic understanding of human behavior, a very highly delimited understanding of human behavior that is actually at odds with the broadly humanistic ideas of even someone like Adam Smith who is considered it to be the godfather of capitalist thought. And I just wonder if you can explain a little bit about what the differences are between the kind of the worldview that informs the prisoner’s dilemma in game theory and that older model of classical thought that they claim to be their lineage.

Dr. S.M. Amadae: Yeah, this is a question that fascinated me and I’ve devoted countless research hours to it. So let me mention, well, the big names. So, Adam Smith. Most of us living in the West have heard the name Adam Smith and are aware of his Wealth of Nations and maybe haven’t read his Theory of Moral Sentiments, but we definitely know the idea that in the free market, people have their individual private property. They come, they exchange, and then through this system of natural liberty, we are all better off. Well, that system of natural liberty for Adam Smith and I can say absolutely assumes, that we all respect one another’s personhood, property, and contract. And so we will act in our self interest that is absolutely vital, that we don’t harm other individuals. This is a theme then that Isaiah Berlin, an important political theorist that came up with two theories of liberty, contrasted negative liberty, which is also the same vocabulary that Adam Smith used. Negative liberty means we’re free to act as we please, short of harming other actors. And that has been the Archimedean point, the pivotal point for all of classic liberalism, whether it’s liberalism, liberalism and international relations theory whether it’s a Kantian idea of cosmopolitan internationalism– that actors are free to do what they wish so long as they do not harm one another.

What has been an amazing sea change in political theory that has not, I think been really grappled with, confronted, acknowledged, is that as we move into what I call this neoliberal turn around the 1970s, then definitely into 1980, where increasingly the tools for public policy, for political theory, were  put together using game theory, or also what’s known as rational choice theory, that there is no harm principle in the political theory, approaching politics from the political theoretic point of view of game theory. And I could say a lot more about that. One economist that I’ve gotten to know quite well, Sean Hargraves, he has written about how you might try to introduce the no harm principle back into economics, but it’s a complete paradigm shift from classic liberalism where we’re free to do as we like short of harming one another to this new theory where instead, we’re more bound to think that you need to have an advantage. You need to issue coercive threats. If you can’t issue core coercive threats of harm, then you will be debilitated in bargaining so that we flipped from a version of capitalism, which was already, you know, hard on the working class, but now it’s just ruthlessly, ‘Well, if you have to threaten harm, or if you actually do harm people, that’s water under the bridge. We do what we can do in order to benefit, to maximize our own self interests and realize, satisfy our own preferences.’

 If you look at the political theory, I don’t know if people are aware of that name, Robert Nozick. He’s a Harvard political theorist that was very famous around 1970, 1980 into the 1990s. His Anarchy, Utopia and the State was one of the last articulations of this classic liberal position where he still has the no harm principle. But as more and more theorists adopted the game theoretic perspective that the negative liberty tradition fell away. And now there doesn’t even seem to be a memory that what was making sure that when people were acting in their self and markets that people were overall getting better-off because if people don’t harm one another and they’re needing to exchange and improving others condition to do so then the world would probably overall continue to get better. So yeah, I’m surprised that it hasn’t been a topic of greater scrutiny, examination, discussion because I think it’s like one of the big Elephants in the room.

Max Haiven: I was thinking about it as connected. It helped me understand something about the writing, although she doesn’t refer to game theory at all, that I know of, of the Caribbean thinker Sylvia Winter, who sort of makes this distinction between these two models, these two universalist European models of man. Man one, who’s sort of that Enlightenment rational man that Adam Smith has in mind and those other sort of classical liberal thinkers who is has a kind of, to use the term other term from smith a theory of moral sentiments like you have to behave morally you have to consider the other– even if it’s in a completely perverse and sort of socially shaped way, but there’s some sense that you’re part of some sort of society. Then what she sort of calls Man two, which is kind of the neoliberal man is this kind of very pessimistic, dark vision of humanity as the kind of neoliberal actor who’s only out for themselves, no matter the cost. And yeah, she speaks about the incredible danger, the catastrophic danger of man to now being the global template that everyone is instructed to. 

Dr. S.M. Amadae: Yeah. And institutions are built on the assumption that we have to be, that we are that way. And then if we live in institutions where it’s assumed that we would cheat. Or break the rules if we could get the opportunity and there weren’t incentive structures, which could be positive incentives, rewards or sanctions, penalties for breaking the rules that we all need to be channeled in our conduct so that we can realize this more socially beneficial outcome that would never happen because if we would left to our own self natures, according to that view.


Well, obviously for all acting in our self interest and we don’t mind harming one another to get our way. You can imagine that of course would be a pretty negative society. Adam Smith has a minimal state. If we start assuming that all actors would be criminals, unless they’re policed, you can imagine that we need a pretty big state. So the Adam Smith state was a minimal state because the actors, Adam Smith and Kant– they all believe that people would, at a minimum, that we would not harm one another. We’re taught that when we’re small, it’s something that’s in our social fabric because that’s something that’s been inculcated and then we’re pathologically somehow different. But if you imagine now being in a world where the expectation is that we are going to be criminals unless we are incentivized to do otherwise, then you can see that there would be a rationale for a very large security state. So if you look at Bernard Harcourt’s work, for example, he’s looked at the mass incarceral society, which is in my work too. I’ve talked about how this neoliberal state is going to be a massive police state that is going to have to be constantly operative to apply the the threat of sanctions in order to keep the population in line. That’s a huge sweeping change because Adam Smith thought the danger of a big state would be a welfare state where because you have the lower working class that in Smith’s day it was well known they might confront famine, so there were arguments for beneficence, which would mean taking and redistributing resources. So of course, as we know conservatives tend to think that would be the role of private charity and not the welfare state. But also as we know right now in the Nordics, the welfare state model is still quite active. It’s not just a theory. It actually works. But if you then imagine turning into a neoliberal society, not only do you have this idea that there shouldn’t be necessarily any redistribution of resources, but then additionally, you’re going to constantly need to siphon more and more resources to policing functions, because as it’s been known from a political theoretic point of view for centuries and what John Rawls argues in his theory of justice is that the more that you’re in an oppressed class, the more there’ll be social instability. Because maybe if you don’t have opportunities, you might end up being one of those people that, you know, bending the rule of law in order to get opportunities.

That was a big debate that was between Rawls and James Buchanan, who’s one of the public choice theorists, who’s a neoliberal thinker, James Buchanan argues, just use more force. But if you’re having trouble maintaining the social contract, maintaining social stability because you have some elements of society that don’t see what’s in it for them to go along with a radically inegalitarian social contract, that you might just introduce more police powers. So these are writings of the theorists in their own words. 

Max Haiven: Yeah, I want to come back to this question of how this Prisoner’s Dilemma and game theory renovated neoliberal governance models, but before that, just so we can continue chronologically, I wanted to go back to the role of this in the Cold War, and in your book you sort of make the distinction between what you’re these two acronyms, which people might have heard of, but I wonder if you can sort of explain them. On the one hand, Mutually Assured Destruction, and then which MADD or MAD, and Nuclear Utilization Targeting Selection, which people probably heard about less. In your book, you talk about this kind of quite seismic transition in terms of how people understood the threat and how to respond to the Cold War between the Soviet and American superpowers and the very real threat of nuclear war.

Dr. S.M. Amadae: So game theory is a theory of strategy and arguably if you do want to do play power geopolitically on it on the international stage. Arguably you would want to be aware of game theory. Why not? If it’s a good theory of strategy and it’s a worst case scenario I’m not going to throw it out. Bring on those theorists and let’s see what they have to say. So, and in fact, it’s the case that Rational deterrent, deterrence theory is essentially game theory and rational choice theory because to this day, and I stand to be corrected if someone comes up with something new, but to this day, game theory and rational choice theory, that is nuclear deterrence. They’re wedded together and there’s evidence of texts that goes through the 1990s into the 2000s that will show you that nuclear deterrence theory is game theory. So the United States, of course, is the first to get the atomic bomb. When it was on the world stage, and it was the only one that had the atomic bomb, it was great because if you’re the only one that has the atomic bomb, then you don’t have to worry about being attacked by anybody else with an atomic bomb. But as we know, the Soviet Union then got the atomic bomb, and then there was a race for the thermonuclear bomb. And so the strategic question then changed from, how do we maintain that superiority because we’re the ones at the forefront of this arms race to suddenly then it was this superpower standoff. And you have the nuclear armed United States and you have the nuclear armed Soviet Union with atomic bombs that are hundreds of times as powerful as Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And by the 1960s, they could annihilate everyone on the planet if we have this cataclysmic nuclear war.

Okay, so now you have Thomas Schelling, Harman Kahn, John von Neumann who was still involved to some extent. You have people working on strategy that don’t have any better sense of how to come up with a nuclear strategy than deferring to game theory. So in Thomas Schelling’s case, he actually was the one that was the first one to use the prisoner’s dilemma model in his 1960 book. And remember the prisoner’s dilemma was created, I think 1956, I think it was 56 is the number in my book. Then the prisoner’s dilemma is supposed to then start looking at– instead of the United States having supremacy, we know that now there are these thermonuclear bombs, and it’s an arms race. And so the question is, how do we secure the American homeland?

How do we make sure that if there is some kind of a nuclear war, how do we make sure that America ends up to be survivable at a minimum, maybe victorious? So Thomas Schelling was the first to actually use a prisoner’s dilemma model, assuming that at that time in the 1960s, that there’s a rough equality. The Soviet Union and the United States can threaten each other with an equal amount of  provocation of fear and reality of destruction. So then the prisoner’s dilemma becomes the standoff where you have both of the powers. So it’s kind of played out in two ways. One is, do we attack? Do we not attack? Another is, do we engage in an arms race? Do we not engage in an arms race? And maybe it’s better to think because we haven’t had an attack to think of an arms race. And of course, in the prisoner’s dilemma, we’ve shown that it’s rational that both nations would defect. So you have this standoff and both nations will commit themselves to this arms race.

Okay. So Schelling actually was relatively optimistic.  I argue in my own work that he was still thinking in the classic liberal way and the classic liberal way would look to mutual security as a way to exit a security dilemma. And so he comes up with this idea that if we have survivability, so that no matter who attacks first, there’s always that guaranteed second strike counterforce attack. Then he showed at that time that if you have a nuclear submarine and you can survive the initial attack, everyone is going to die. And so obviously in this MAD world of mutually assured destruction, no one is going to go anywhere by attacking the other with a nuclear attack. And so it seemed like potentially in the 1960s, there was some optimism that we could have this kind of precarious balance, but nonetheless, nobody was really going to benefit from this, as you might say, omnicidal nuclear war. That’s MAD. 

I would argue, and this is going along with the important American international relations theorist, Robert Jervis, that shows that human civilization has achieved the ceiling on violence. Why? Because after you can destroy all life on earth, destroy all human civilization, why do we need more bombs, more ways to kill people, higher ceilings for violence? It doesn’t do any good. Seems pretty clear, right? Okay. But that was not a satisfactory answer. I’m not going to speak for the Soviet Union and the Cold War or continue to maintain, you know, who’s the worst in terms of being more provocative. I’m not going to enter into that question because there’s so many different perspectives. But what is the case is the United States was very, very worried that it would fall behind in an arms race and thinkers like Herman Kahn were not satisfied that we could just let MAD be MAD and have mutual assured destruction. The point of MAD is that it would deter a nuclear attack because any nuclear attack then would be met with a counterattack. So what ended up happening was that in using game theory, which is, well, it’s based on an instrumental theory of rationality where everything you do has to pay off in some way. So they’re crept into the theory, this doubt that because issuing a nuclear threat and then following it with an attack would lead to everyone dying, that it would be irrational. And so, there were a number of strategists in the United States, especially the military hawks, that said that MAD is MAD because it proves that you can’t use a nuclear weapon.

People who believe in MAD feel a sense of security because there’s an known ceiling for violence. And so no one will go there, so to speak, because it will kill everyone. So the strategists that were on the hawkish side of this ended up prevailing in the argument that in order to credibly threaten the other actor, then you need to go to this new position, which has that cute acronym NUTS, but it’s made to be a debate between the MAD nuclear strategy and the NUTS nuclear strategy, meaning that at the end of the day, they’re all probably taking us in the direction where we might all die and that there’s gotta be some insanity there. But the NUTS position says that we have to prepare to fight and win a nuclear war. And that the aim of strategy should be escalation dominance, which means that at any rung of conflict– on the nuclear security, on the escalation ladder, then it would be good if the United States could win and that the idea was that if you could win at one of the levels of escalation and the other guy saw that you couldn’t go any higher, then you would have this escalation dominance. And that’s the NUTS position. 

So I’ve argued in my work that once you buy into this game theoretic way of thinking, and you start to take on board the assumptions that more is always better than less and that you have to act with this rational credibility, which has defined a very specific way in game theory, then you will not be able to exit this nuclear security dilemma because at the end of the day, you will wed yourself to this position that you need to get a strategic ascendance. And if you look at who’s won the nuclear security debate in the United States, and you look at those theorists, Lieber and Press are two of the authors in this domain, Michael Kroenig, they argue that the United States can win this arms race and that there is no ceiling to violence and that we can end up dominating at all of these different rungs.

I argue that if we don’t leave this thinking of the strategic rationality, even though I think we should pay heed to it, we should know what it says, but we should know it’s not the be all end all on all forms of rationality and all cogent and coherent thinking, but that if we are stuck in that paradigm, then we’ll end up being in an endless arms race that, if you read through the literature, there’s the idea that maybe Russia no longer has guaranteed second strike counterforce. And there’s an idea that maybe the United States can become the military supreme superpower on the planet and does attempt to get that. And that would be something that would seem to be reinforced by game theory. So yeah, so that was Nuclear Utilization Target Selection for that acronym, NUTS.

Max Haiven: I think just to follow up on what you were just saying, like, I think many people imagine that these are matters that were safely consigned to the history of the Cold War. But in fact, these principles continue to undergird the military and nuclear strategy of the United States. The world’s preeminent superpower who has incredible nuclear, an incredible nuclear arsenal, which has recently been you know, they’ve exited various treaties.

Dr. S.M. Amadae: Yeah. Yeah. And not to cast aspersions on who’s the right guy or the wrong guy and to, to realize everybody is trying to get deterrence, defense, not to, I’m not trying to paint. Some actors are the bad actors, but more trying to understand the ideas that inform and rationalize the way that we think about military power. So what is fascinating to me is just the way that we don’t realize we’ve gotten rid of the no harm principle. There’s a second point that the public is largely kept in the dark. The public largely thinks we’re in a MAD world and that, and you, we hear this all the time in Finland that don’t worry, these nuclear weapons will never be used because why? Because it would lead to mutual assured destruction. But actually, and actually Yuval Harari in one of his books, he actually says, you know, we live in a MAD world, the world of mutual assured destruction. So it’s a very widespread popular assumption that these weapons are just there to deter.

So for example, NATO has that policy that we have these weapons for deterrence and we’re under this extended deterrence umbrella from the United States. And of course, that sounds very good and defensive and who wouldn’t want to have a defensive position? But at the end of the day, it’s realized that the US nuclear position is one of preparing to fight and win a nuclear war.

And that part of that is to win on every rung of the escalation ladder and to vie for supremacy. Then you see that that’s a real instability because unless all the other nations concede that, yes, it’s good right and de facto is the case that the United States has this power of nuclear and military superiority, then that would seem to be rather an unstable position. 

The other aspect of this nuclear war fighting stance that is, I think it’s alarming that over and over when you read the texts that these strategists write, that in order to show that credibility at every minute, because you have to show that your willingness to use these weapons is credible, that means you have to gamble with situations, and you have to be willing to take the risk that there’s a 1%, a 0.5% that there is every time you engage in these conflicts, there is a risk of this escalation to all out flat out nuclear war. And I mean, in my thinking, when we should be worried about catastrophic existential risk and doing everything to avoid it, then it is a call to examine this misplaced confidence in MAD, the way that the weapons policies are actually on this nuclear war fighting footing and the willingness that every second to absorb to entertain or accept these, these catastrophic risks for total nuclear annihilation. 

If you look at William Perry or a number of the US defense secretaries that changed their mind, like when they were in office, they thought it was all a great idea that we have this nuclear war fighting power. But then when they left, they have been really reticent about that position and quite cautious and saying, no, we really need to wake up to those risks that are involved. And from the neoliberal thought, the reason I think that we end up placing so much confidence and also an unnerving, like, there’s a non negotiability to these weapons is that we end up thinking– this paradigm accepts that force is the final arbiter, and there’s no other way that when push comes to shove, it’s always going to be forced, so you might as well just build that into everything you’re doing, as well as this coercive bargaining that if you don’t want to concede value on the table, then you need to be able to have these coercive threats. So this, this whole paradigm from individual interactions. To community interactions to state interactions to international interactions is all premised on at the end of the day, it will come down to some kind of a power play and a willingness to use force or to threaten the use of force in order to prevail in defending, protecting and promoting one’s interests.

Max Haiven: Let’s go there now. We talked a little bit about how this paradigm informs neoliberal policymakers who then have to sort of justify more and more coercive and carceral force in order to contain and control the world of competitive actors they themselves have kind of created in a certain sense.

But how did the Prisoner’s Dilemma and game theory more generally— How did it make the jump from the world of, like, military strategy to being so key to the ideas of neoliberal thinkers and policymakers?

Dr. S.M. Amadae: So, throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, game theory and rational choice ended up being the staple curriculum and economics programs and public policy programs and political science departments. It was wedded with the behavioral paradigm in a way that you observe what people do even though there’s. This new phenomena of the behavioral economics, which shows that somehow people don’t really act in those predicted ways. It doesn’t matter. The paradigm of rationality is still that put in to orthodox expected utility theory and game theory.

So once you start building and rationalizing all of your public policies, according to these tools, and you start building institutions. So for example, if you’re designing an auction, then you would. Likely introduce game theory into the work, the way that you do auction design. And if you look at the catalog of Nobel prize winners, then basically in economics, then you’ll basically see that those are the architects of the economic and financial world that we’ve built is built with the institutions with the thinking. And the formulas from those game theorists.


So if we build our social infrastructure, according to those rationales and logics, then we will end up living in those institutions. And even if we want to resist, I think I mentioned to you that artists John ledger, who makes art about capturing this neoliberal moment, we might be feeling horribly alienated, feel despair. I feel like, why is the world built in this way? And yet, if we’re confronted with the realities of that world, then we just by and large have to go along with it. So I know that’s all very vague. So I’m going to give you a concrete concept. So for the book that I’m working on right now, which is this book on how neoliberalism and algorithms and artificial intelligence are I was just looking to see how Amazon uses game theory because, you know, these algorithms, whether it is how you price airplane tickets or on how you price products on Amazon, then game theory can provide you a living.

[00:41:56] It’s a way to model markets and it’s a way to come up with pricing. And sure enough, I found this wonderful ad that Amazon had for, “Join our team”. And then one of the missions of this new hire would be to create a black belt training program in game theory, because this game theory is sort used throughout the social sciences. It’s very convenient because you can mathematize people’s actions and behaviors, and you can predict how markets would operate. All you need to know is what people like, and you can reduce people their identity to just a preference function. And basically, as you know, with all of our online digital footprint, all you really need to know about people is how they make their consumer choices and then you can fill out what this utility function is in terms of what are the consumer choices people make. So the people become this sort of a, I guess you could think of it as one dimensional preference ranking of what their likes and dislikes are and how they choose to spend money. Yeah. So this Theory, it’s taken over a here.

[00:43:02] I sound like a more like a conservative thinking. It’s taken over elite education. And I always think that there should be some, some unity somewhere between the leftist critics and some of the right wing thinkers. Cause there’s some common ground there that this theory that has definitely taken over elite education.

[00:43:21] And I don’t think in the social sciences, it is possible to graduate without it, but probably the, the better paid you are, the more exposed you’ve probably been to this theory. Yeah. I mean, it’s, it’s very common in political science and some of the more conservative approaches in sociology. But then of course it’s, It’s just really baked into the way in which economics is taught, the way that computer science is taught, the way engineering is taught.

[00:43:44] Yeah, it’s, it’s fascinating. And also the way that financial models, for instance, get developed, the kind of algorithms that move money around the world and develop sort of the macroeconomic. movements and microeconomic movements of huge corporations. I mean, it really is kind of everywhere, like an ingredient that’s been mixed into every recipe on some level.

[00:44:05] Yeah. It’s become the way that we think about how agents make decisions. What is a rational decision? How you, if you know enough about what people like and what they don’t like, how you can start to make predictive models. If you’re doing climate change, a lot of the climate change models are based on rational choice and game theory.

[00:44:21] And one of the, my frustrations is that it’s become such a colonizing hegemonic paradigm of action that we forget all of the alternatives. Theories and alternative modes of being that are present to us, but get eclipsed because when an institution is operating according to what you would think of as a neoliberal logic, like assuming every actor is going to try to take out all rewards for themselves, you know, and playing it out as a game so that you just assume every actor has different prerogatives and they’ll end up with different.

[00:44:53] Amounts of value at the end and you just play it out trying to see what everyone’s best strategy would be and to think that institutions are created in that way. And if you don’t play along, you know, luckily, you might end up being somebody who has nothing. And then we’re sort of, you get coerced in a way to just.

[00:45:09] Playing along with this game. This is what I meant by are we making the rules of this game? Is it a fun game or is the game playing us that it has these imperatives and the game theorists thought? We are being played by the game and that in evolution animals are being played by the game So that if animals have to survive and propagate and that the game is In nature and nature has these objective survival criterion that if you don’t move in the right ways and make the right decisions, you’ll die.

[00:45:38] So it isn’t, it is a game that plays us. And the neoliberal paradigm just assumes that from all animals in nature to. individual humans to the way governments interact with humans to these international states that yeah, we’re, the game is playing us and we don’t have any choice if you want to survive and propagate.

[00:46:01] We have to do what’s necessary. And that’s it. That’s the end of the story. There’s no more or less to life than that simplicity. Can you talk a little bit more about that? I really wanted us to go here because I think it allows us to move into talking about. How this now works in the tech sector as well, like you read a little bit about Richard Dawkins and some of these other very popular theorists of evolution and trying to understand social behavior from the lens of a kind of universal Darwinism as Dawkins puts it.

[00:46:31] Yeah. So this, this is another huge sea change where. As a political theorist, where we look at the trajectory of ideas over centuries and millennia, this Richard Dawkins so I read Selfish Gene first, you know, when I was not even not as a professional researcher and the Selfish Gene theory always really bothered me from the first time I read Dawkins.

[00:46:55] It was 1976 with selfish genes, so a long time ago. And so he argues that we’re all innately selfish. We had to be, we had to be because evolutionary pressures would make it so that if there were, let’s say there was a family or a tribe that were all like naively cooperative. Then the idea is that this other group from somewhere else would come in and they would just see our naivety or, you know, they would interact with it and we would all end up dead.

[00:47:26] So but at that time, I didn’t really have much perspective, but when I full circled back to looking at Dawkins for the Prisoners of Reason book, I had been aware at some level that he was using evolutionary game theory. So this is just taking game theory and applying it to as a How possibly theory of how evolution worked.

[00:47:45] And the most amazing thing is Darwin had this idea that through natural selection, that there’s mutations and changes. And so that species are constantly changing and evolving because as conditions change or as even an eco change. Happens with different predators or different food sources. Then there’s, I mean, we know from the history of fossils that there’s constantly changes of these species.

[00:48:09] So Dawkins comes along and instead he has this idea of the eternal gene and even just sort of how can it be, you know, Darwin comes up with this idea of dynamism and change mutation. And then Dawkins comes up with this idea that genes are eternal. There are these little programming codes and they’re fighting with each other all the time to be who’s the one that is going to be the one to survive into the next generation.

[00:48:31] Instead of each gene, maybe changing to become more survivable. Instead it’s just a battle of the way these genes operate at any given time. So the gene never changes in Dawkins story and the ones, and so then the gene that’s going to survive, all the ones that will survive are the ones that are tap into this.

[00:48:52] Selfish self interest so that you’re the one that’s always going to get the upper hand in every instance, and it’s going to be that gene for that genetically programmed behavior that then is passed down. So it’s this eternal selfish gene, which is not mutable, which is the one then that we all have to have within us because otherwise we would have been part of, well, who knows Neanderthal, you know, the guys that didn’t make it.

[00:49:15] So it’s again, it’s a huge sea change of this thinking of dynamism and change to know this eternal selfish gene Who’s been that’s the gene that successfully navigated this survival protocol and even if you you’re probably familiar with Steven Pinker his better angels of our nature why why violence has declined.

[00:49:35] That’s something in the subtitle. And even he uses Prisoner’s Dilemma because there’s this one argument that reciprocal altruism, it’s not really stable in large populations, but in small groups that if we’re reciprocally altruistic, which means I’m only nice to you because it will pay and that we can punish each other.

[00:49:53] Like if it’s, we’re playing repeated Prisoner’s Dilemma. all over the place all the time. And that if you defect on me, then I can defect on you the next time. So then we managed to have this sort of emergent kind of stability. It isn’t really stable and it’s not really it’s not a evolutionary stable equilibrium, but on the other hand, it’s just enough according to these theories to account for how cooperation has emerged.

[00:50:15] But yeah, it’s incredible. Like from evolutionary game theory to. individuals acting in small groups to individuals in large groups to states to warfare. This same logic is thought to animate these actors and it’s, and it’s supposed to be handed down to us from nature because there’s no alternative.

[00:50:35] Otherwise we would die or go bankrupt or we would fail in some way. It’s pretty incredible. It is incredible. And the sense you get from reading your book is that you, you come to realize how The, the, the premises about human nature and human behavior. That are presented in the 1950s and the kind of early thought experiments of game theory become this kind of both a self fulfilling prophecy and a Frankenstein’s monster.

[00:51:04] Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. I would say self fulfilling prophecy because, well, it’s self fulfilling in that, that generation of theorists, definitely. Like if you look at Thomas Schelling. So I was able to interview Thomas Schelling. And so again, he’s this economist who was one of the first game theorists who worked on the nuclear warfare question.

[00:51:22] And I met with him in the late 1990s and he openly told me that about the problem of climate change, that it was his, a group that was investigating that, that it was called global warming. But climate change is just a more less threatening name in any way. The temperature goes up sometimes it goes down.

[00:51:40] So he was part of that group that changed the name from the alarming global warming. Hey, we better do something about it to this more soft sounding climate change. And he, he also said that that group that was you know, this elite group of Western theorists, probably spearheaded by the United States, that they were well aware that in the equatorial belt, that the effects of this.

[00:52:01] Global warming, renamed climate change would be way worse for any of those countries in the equatorial belt because the heat would be much more intense there. And in terms of virus activity, bacterial activity, the negatives would basically hit a lot harder in that belt. And so this kind of hard hearted view of.

[00:52:19] Well, you do what we need to do for us to survive and that that’s rationalized from this theory and there’s no other way it’s it is self fulfilling and then it does become a way to write a narrative about one’s own actions and then insofar as we either learn it as an undergraduate and we imbibe that subjectivity like, oh, it’s rational to defect in a prisoner’s dilemma.

[00:52:40] It is irrational to be cooperative. We can absorb that subjectivity by Well, all the important people in the white coats, you know, they tell you this is true, but then you can also be in an institution where you’re treated a certain way. And then the, the way that you act, what I have thought in my own work is the following Michel Foucault’s idea of the.

[00:53:03] Panopticon that the Panopticon was supposed to be this mode of governmentality that was from modernity around from the 1700s, even a little bit earlier, all the way up to, and then he was the one that first was was applying this term neoliberalism. He was one of the first because he thought looking at the work of Gary Becker, who’s the game, well, he was using rational choice and rational expectations that looking at that, that we’re now in this new paradigm where if you’re in A mode of governance where people are treating you just like with Foucault’s panopticon.

[00:53:36] If you’re in the system and you’re treated in that certain way, it’s very hard not to modify your behavior because everybody on the outside has so much power over you. And the same with these new institutions made using whether it’s human capital theory or the law and economics, people are public choice.

[00:53:53] It’s very hard not to. You’re reacting to this world where you don’t have much leeway for doing something alternative. And as well, when these theories completely blast, there’s no class interest. There’s, there’s nothing cooperative or collective. It’s a way of life. That’s more than self fulfilling. It’s it’s constructing an alternative reality that then people get trapped in and they don’t even have the wherewithal.

[00:54:18] I mean, the theorists themselves are. Sort of a, they don’t have the critical thinking abilities to see the outside people who teach game theory usually don’t. And, or very few do with the exceptions like Sean Hargraves Heap and Yanis Varoufakis, the former minister. I mean, they have their book on game theory, which is intensely critical, but most game theorists just would not have this big canvas of thinking about this world that they’ve created.

[00:54:42] So yes, majorly self. Fulfilling, self creating, self constituting. And now I want to come to your current work, which is on a group of people who were raised on this stuff. You know, the children of game theory in some ways, which is the Silicon Valley set, who now are building Some of the tools that have already transformed society and especially with the rise of artificial intelligence, such as it’s called, really threaten to radically transform the future of human life.

[00:55:14] How do we get there to these guys? I’ve started to now see the work, my first book Rationalizing Capitalist Democracy is a very gentle take. Charitable, very charitable and gentle attempt to understand how in the 1950s and 1960s, you could understand that people were worried about communism, totalitarianism, fascism, and you can see why people would emphasize an individualistic theory of democracy.

[00:55:40] Okay. We give them that. Then prisoners of reason starts to say, Hey, but wait a minute, this new neoliberal capitalism, it’s really brutal. No amount of inequality is too great a course of bargaining rather than the no harm principle. And then we live in this. World war nuclear weapons are the epitome of our power, and they’re not going anywhere.

[00:56:02] So now, as we move forward, obviously, the world that we’re living in the A. I. Revolution is. I mean, arguably, if you look at some theorists like Luciano Floridi, the AI revolutions, the fourth revolution, the information revolution that you have Copernicus, you have Darwin, you have Freud, and now we have that AI information revolution.

[00:56:24] So I, I I was able to interact with, I’ve invited Floridi to a panel. I’ve been on a panel with him and this whole idea of this new AI revolution has been percolating since I finished Prisoners of Reason. I have, and I teach a class on this. I’m trying to get to the bottom. What is this theoretical infrastructure of this information revolution?

[00:56:46] Because at the end of the day, I believe humans are reflective beings that we do socially construct our own reality. I I’m a social constructivist, so I don’t believe there’s just this immutable laws. I don’t believe the game has to play us. I believe we can create games and we can play them. And that’s a fundamental feature of what it means to be human.

[00:57:06] But I’ve wanted to understand what is this new intellectual infrastructure that’s animating this new phase of the information revolution. So as I was putting the pieces together, I’ve gravitated towards three main theorists. One of them is our friend, John von Neumann. You know, he’s the third in line, then the other one is Alan Turing, who of course, as we know, is the father of computation.

[00:57:27] And the other Claude Shannon, who was the information engineer who came up with a theory of information. So it turns out that Claude Shannon, Alan Turing, and John von Neumann were, they were a triangle of figures who Had all interacted with each other. We’re very well aware of each other. And I’m writing this out in a lot of detail in the new book manuscript.

[00:57:50] But as I come to see it, they each have talk about these sea changes that we went through with with game theory from getting rid of the no harm principle from accepting any amount of inequality. For these, these huge transformations that now. With Claude Shannon, we have a theory of information that is totally lacking in meaning and truth, and so we’re all familiar with that because we all know how big our files are when we’re sending them online and whatnot, so we can all count the bits of information in our files, but at the same time, we’re losing.

[00:58:21] What does it actually mean to have justified true belief, or what does it mean to socially construct knowledge together? And that’s an implication of Claude’s theory of Claude Shannon’s theory of information. Then we turn to Turing, and he is famous, of course, for the Turing test, and he argued that if you can’t tell the difference between answers that a computer gives you or a human gives you, that there’s no categorical difference and that really for all intensive purposes, artificial intelligence and human intelligence, they may differ in their levels of capacity, but they’re no different in kind and he had already basically argued that.

[00:59:00] But now, you know, with these generative AI, where they, they are able to, we can’t tell the difference. When I get a student paper, I don’t know who has written or coauthored with chat GPT, for example. And with that AI revolution, this is something that other authors have written about as well. We lose the idea that there’s something about.

[00:59:20] Phenomenal experience, mindful presence, reflectivity, like how, if we’re starting to equate those, those two, then we lose I mean, that’s the tip of the human iceberg, right? Of what it means to be human. That’s a little, the little peak or it’s like the bottom tip somehow. And then Von Neumann came up with this idea, like when you add these together, that we have information without meaning and truth.

[00:59:44] We have intelligence without mindful presence, reflection, without phenomenal consciousness, and then we add in that all human interactions don’t actually have intention. We’re just coordinating in these automatic equilibrium according to how individuals best. Satisfy their preferences, then you’re in the society we now live in.

[01:00:06] And it’s a mindless, it’s a mindless world where we’re alienated from one another. We’re not able to cooperate, we can’t work together. And more and more of the hybrid systems of the AI and the humans, we kind of have to defer because there’s no cat, there’s no difference in quality to what it means to be an intelligent agent.

[01:00:24] So we’ve kind of, the more that we go, go into this, the, the more we’re Utterly losing our humanity. And then when you loop back to the question of these nuclear weapons, nuclear weapons have always been in this hybrid system of nuclear command and control, because you need to have computational and informational infrastructure to operate.

[01:00:43] You need to know what’s happening, situational awareness, global situational awareness, and the ability to command these weapons. So that this whole, the, the, the main nexus of power that’s controlling the world is one already that’s. It’s accepted this triad of the information, the computation, and this strategic coordination without, you know, is there, what does it matter, if there’s a human in the loop at the end of the day?

[01:01:07] And these machines don’t care if we die or not, obviously. And at the same time, humans aren’t really like where, where does human ability. To what we’ve lost the ability to act cooperatively or to have collective will formation, at least down this trajectory of theory. So we radically need alternatives.

[01:01:23] You know, so yeah, that’s what the third, the third book is about that new constellation. It’s way beyond neoliberal capitalism now. It’s like, but they’re, they’re together neoliberal capitalism, you don’t have those Silicon Valley companies that have this mandate to just make money. Like money is the final register of whether these things are.

[01:01:43] Good or not. Are they making money? And and then you’ve you get those theories of Shannon and Turing and von Neumann and you don’t have any other way to guide what’s happening. So, yeah, I mean, I was just looking at the, you know, Silicon Valley. Has had this sort of shifts in the last few years from, from a kind of optimism, let’s say, about the future and about technology and the possibility of technology liberating us, which was always a bit eye watering and, and utopian for critics.

[01:02:17] But now, I think maybe especially since the pandemic and since the new wave of global conflicts that we’re in, and also because a different group has really taken over. The financing of Silicon Valley. There’s a very, very dark view of the future that’s really based on these rational choice theories that everyone is kind of fundamentally self maximizing competitive actor and that you know, the dark forest principle that, you know, we’re just you know, you have to kind of look out for yourself in a world of hostiles, which leads to the kind of Silicon Valley obsession with You know luxury bunkers and apocalyptic fantasies that, you know, are associated with someone like Peter Thiel or even sort of the ideas in the recently published techno optimist manifesto, which very much based on ideas of games and game theories as well.

[01:03:08] Yeah, it’s pretty terrifying. And, and there’s a, there’s a a powerful. Patriarchy I would say a play in that because there’s a sense that masculinity with AI can perpetuate whatever life or this new hybrid is that it’s not something that takes conventional human pro creativity with male and female principles that would come together.

[01:03:31] It’s, it’s, we could almost associate it potentially with a toxic masculinity, which I think it’s Possible to associate game theory well with as well that it and it’s really taken hold where anybody that’s Like, if you or I would just sound like bohemian hippie people, like, what do we know about this world?

[01:03:50] Which is actually why I’ve been really careful in my own work to be part of the conversation, to be taken seriously. That’s why I’ve generated my own game theory model to show I can see the inside of that paradigm. I can understand why people would. Come to see the world that way. I can see why it’s self perpetuating.

[01:04:09] I can see why it can be attractive even, but it, it can’t be the final option. There are alternatives. And I guess that’s where I’ve tried to be in conversation with people that really take those theories. Seriously, which you have to in social science, so much of social science, if you can’t talk the talk of game theory, then you won’t be part of the conversation.

[01:04:31] But at the same time, like the, the team reasoning concept or to, to try to open up and expand the mind, because I, I think it’s hard from the outside. If you’re not part of the conversation in any way, shape or form, it’s, it’s hard to just carry the flag around. And I mean, I guess Greta Thunberg has been quite successful on being on the outside, but now that she’s up against war and conflict as opposed to the climate battle, it’s harder for her to be part of that conversation anymore, you know, because it just sounds like we don’t have time for climate change anymore where, and, and the climate change again, for the people that are making their bunkers are hoping they’ll get to Mars, I guess, you know, maybe some people have already given up on that collective action situation, but Yeah, my work is toward, like, what do we, how do we approach collective action to really be able to gain traction and make a difference rather than, you know, opting out or being part of the self fulfilling cynical worldview?

[01:05:26] Yeah, I mean, this is where I want to bring our interview to a close with this question about like what are the alternatives that we can begin to imagine? Because it feels like now we’re into several generations that have been quite literally brought up on game theory Whether it’s literally game theory making itself known through the games that are built on it like video games are often built by designers who Our influence is board games, which is something I’m very interested in but then also, as you point out, in universities, in the workplace, I mean, we have several generations who think as game theorists, whether we know we do or not, and I wanted to come to this question, you know, because game theory begins as a theory of You know, as you point out in the Cold War is a theory of kind of international relations and the relationship between fundamentally adversarial competitive nation states.

[01:06:14] The one thing we were talking about before we began this interview is like, what are the prospects for a kind of internationalism? And as you pointed out, the kind of collective decision making that we would need to undertake on now a global scale to deal with. The kinds of conundrums that we face, not only as our own species, but as a species entangled with other species, climate change, just to begin, but also the continued threat of nuclear war and the fact that capitalism, neoliberal capitalism is seems to have, you know, run us aground in a lot of ways, but we don’t seem to be able to break the habit.

[01:06:49] Yeah, well, I think that it starts with subverting that paradigm. I’ve heard people sit next to me in cafes that start treating all of their relationships through a game theory lens and, and you, you hear that dialogue, right? Or this, this maximizing value added type of language of how do you squeeze value out of things.

[01:07:10] But. So start with dyads of individuals. And I think that going back to for example, I know that Habermas seems way overly optimistic in terms of that orientation to understanding. But on the other hand, there’s a number of theorists that are working in the field of collective intentionality and looking even at how children, the default for children.

[01:07:32] Is to be able to partner very quickly and operate as a team, even before they really have verbal skills, or is there getting verbal skills and that there’s an expectation of reciprocity and that that’s where social beings way before we learn to be these strategic beings. And in a way, that was a debate that Habermas, I think.

[01:07:50] Had quite unsuccessfully because he was willing to say, yeah, there’s a game theory people in the, the people doing instrumental rationality. They’re over there. We, the communicative rationality theorists are over here. We can, we can co we can peacefully coexist. And then he also said that. To be a strategic actor, we also need, we need meaning, we need truth, we need we need to be social beings before we can learn to be strategic.

[01:08:16] So that anything strategic is parasitic on, like if you tell a lie, you’re trying to deceive somebody, you need them to understand what you meant, what the lie that you’re trying to, so, so, so the deception has to be parasitic on the, on the meaning, because to lie, you’re always Taking that we can confirm meaning.

[01:08:35] So you’re taking according to Habermas and I would basically agree. And this is the beginning of that international cosmopolitanism as well. That that base level before you can be a strategic actor, you have to be able to have that basis of communicating a meaningful utterance that could be true in some possible world.

[01:08:52] And you know, whether it would be true or not. So the whole idea that the game theorists say is, yeah, but the only time you can communicate is to manipulate the other to realize your ends. And Claude Shannon actually says that already in his information theory. But I think a number of us would say that having a view of communication where that, what is it?

[01:09:11] The proof is in the pudding or the the, the act itself is the, it’s not, it’s the journey. It’s not the end. So, and it’s the thing with this game, this game playing as well, that. It’s the fun of the game. It’s the presence, the mindful presence in the interactions. So the more that I think that we can have that in small groups and bring it to a small group with all of our intentional presence, then the more that it can be in a group of three people or four.

[01:09:40] And I think it can. Radiate outward so that it can be the basis of like, I think all of civil society actually was premised on small social like take Toastmasters. I don’t know if you’re familiar with just a voluntary civil club, but there’s so many civil society groups and they actually, that’s a big test of more totalitarian countries versus constitutional democracies that we have this civil society, which I Has these groups that are run by vol, you know, you come together, you come up with your own laws and bylaws and you, you abide by them voluntarily.

[01:10:15] That’s the whole magic of the Western political institutions. So we need to go back to that way of thinking and this bizarre thinking that it’s more natural to come up with the rules, but then you’re going to cheat. And I mean, of course, there’s corruption. But that, that shouldn’t mean that it’s like that we’re rational not to be corrupt, right?

[01:10:33] Like that’s just going too far. It’s more that we recognize, yes, there are some corrupt actors and actually living in Finland right now, as I do, but the university house I’m working at the university of Helsinki, that’s a a A nice aspect of living in Finland. There’s still that a deep commitment to civil society, which means it’s one of the most trusting and trustful countries where people, you know, Oh, so that’s the other insight that is instead of waiting for other people to be trustworthy, it’s always, are we trustworthy?

[01:10:59] What does it mean for me to be trustworthy and to living up to promises, commitments, obligations, and being, being trustworthy. And in a way it’s, it’s almost so deceptively simple, right? But of course it’s not because first of all, there’s all of these huge global challenges that make it hard. You know, if, if people are pushed down to precarity, it’s hard then to say, Oh, but be nice to everybody and, you know, be beneficent and all of that.

[01:11:25] But yeah. And for those actors that are, Led to believe that no inequality is too much and that if you have a lot of money, you earned it, all of that. Well, I don’t know. It’s another question of how to reach different groups of people with different lenses on social reality. I mean, just to bring us full circle to how you began talking about playing, like inventing games and changing games with your brother as a child.

[01:11:49] It just strikes me that in. In the world that Game Theory built, there’s just one game that takes many, that has many different skins, as they say, like many different boards, but it’s always the same game, and I feel like what you’re drawing our attention to is that even at the most basic level of sociality itself, we’re always making and changing and adapting games In the name of being together in the name of being a social and cooperative species, and that yeah that we would want to play the games and participate and be voluntarily cooperative, and that I mean that’s that’s sort of that’s the fun of life is as being able to play games, not because we have to were mandated to.

[01:12:30] And. That if we fail, there’s some horrible punishment, which is what the way political economy feels so much now that if you forget to mail something on time or you didn’t notice something or you miss something in the mail that suddenly you might go bankrupt. Yeah. I mean, it’s bizarre. It’s like the, the smallest little ding, like you read about somebody from financial times that didn’t pay a bus fine.

[01:12:51] And the next thing they can’t enter the U S on a visa because. Everything’s so catastrophic now. So yeah, it would be nice that we could jointly construct games, but it comes down to all being trustworthy and, and having this feeling of the power to create games and the rules of games and that we would play them voluntarily, not.

[01:13:11] because we’re mandated to play them and not always with a dagger in our throat, life and death, or this idea that the only way that you can bargain is getting the coercive advantage. And coming back to the nuclear weapons in a way, because we’ve outruled like laws of weapons of mass destruction, biological and chemical, we have a pretty good sense of a human species that those should be prohibited, but somehow with the nuclear weapons and the fact that.

[01:13:36] Some powers are really wedded to I don’t know, the prestige, the glory, the the symbolism of the power that in a way, if we could move toward like a new internationalism would seriously look at having a way that we would be able to live in a world where we, no one’s, of course, I’m not advocating, let’s just get rid of all the nuclear arms.

[01:13:56] It would have to be a process, obviously, and I’m not going to advocate this like some kind of a naive disarmament. I don’t want to be. Put into that camp. But on the other hand, having an idea that this preparedness and willingness to fight and win a nuclear war, that there is a ceiling to violence and that that’s something that we share commonly with our humanity.

[01:14:16] So that would be another part of we have to address that problem and where the others we as we move forward. I mean, it’s not something that can it’s not sustainable in the long run to have all those nuclear weapons being there, ready to use without having different arms, arms control initiatives and treaties.

[01:14:34] Fantastic. Is there anything else you want to add before we? Wrap it up. I’m aware that we went a little bit longer than we intended, but it was very rich. Yeah, time went really, really fast. Well I really look forward to continuing to be part of the conversation and I really, I hope that we can help get away from that.

[01:14:51] Sort of the forced subjectivity of being this neoliberal subject, playing games that we don’t enjoy and don’t want to play and feel like we don’t have any control over the rules, more to commonly making rules and working to figure out how we can serve, resolve our resource quandaries together and all being trustworthy as well as hoping others to be trustworthy as well too.

Halle Frost: So my main takeaway from this interview was the optimism that Dr. Amadae somehow is able to transmit. I feel like in a lot of the interviews that we have done over the course of this recording, there is a general state of malaise at the fact that we are not able to construct a universal reality anymore. And when Dr. Amadae goes back at the very end to talk about How small acts of subverting and these like actions that are collective and intentional When we become social beings rather than strategic beings that really gave me a lot of hope. I had this interview was really powerful Max, what did you come out of it with?

Max Haiven: I came out of it. I you know at the beginning of all of these interviews I often ask our guests a game they remember from childhood and what it meant to them and what they learned from it. And I, I wanted to go back in this and our previous episodes to that, those thoughts, because I think they’re really important. You know, I’m, I’m always a bit skeptical of like big paradigmatic explanations for human behavior. But I do think that there is something to be said for taking play and the creation of games really seriously as something that defines us. I mean, it is fundamentally the. First way in which we learn you know, even playing peekaboo with a baby is a game that teaches both the infant and the adults quite a bit. There’s so much that’s communicated there. And then in the example that that Sonja gave at the beginning of our episode about playing with her siblings. I was thinking a lot about, you know, the, the capacity for creativity and cooperation, even in competitive games. And that just made me think about how tragic it is that one very dismal and pessimistic game about human nature has come to dominate so much of the thinking that shapes the economy and society. And statecraft, and, you know, the future of life itself when we think about the influence of game theory on nuclear war, on the development of artificial intelligence. There are so many other games that are possible. So many of the games that people play in their lives generally from the board games they might play with their friends or family, to sexual relations, to just the games that people play in very small, weird ways on the street, and just the basic elements of human interaction when they become playful. These have so much to teach us, so much more than this horrifically reduced, sort of cauterized vision of human nature that’s baked into the game theory paradigm.


It would be a horrible legacy if humanity essentially destroyed itself or committed horrifying misdeeds against itself and other not more than human species of the world based on this incredibly reductive understanding of what it means to play. That’s, you know, baked into the prisoner’s dilemma. And how much more all of those fields of inquiry and thinking would be if they actually took games seriously? Like, I would love a theory of economics based on cooperative games or the games that children play. I would love a theory of political science that took the kind of compassionate and cooperative and even some of the other competitive games seriously. I think it would be amazing to design forms of artificial intelligence. that were based on very different kinds of games, rather than the kind of zero sum, you know, battle royale, winner take all game that’s projected in The Prisoner’s Dilemma. So there’s so much more to explore out there, and it’s just a tragedy that we’ve become so enthralled to this one paradigm. And with that, let’s talk about our guest next week briefly, because Dr. Tom Boland specializes in dystopian games, which if we do not change any of our behavior, right, this is where we are allegedly headed. So with that, we’ll see you next week.