Sunday, May 29, 2005

Games in the Theories of Life

What interests me more in my chosen field (for the moment) is not so much the intricacies of the algorithms and constructs that go into making good software, as observing (and trying to influence) the effects of organization-wide software on the people who actually use it. This is hardly a new interest, as I can testify after having spent a significant chunk of my last year as an undergraduate in dissecting the nuances of Structuration Theory, and the applicability of such a theory in social situations involving interactions with information technology (specifically, enterprise systems, my pet subject).

Structuration Theory (and the occasional excursions into other social theories like Actor Network Theory) went a long way in (temporarily) sating my appetite for the social consequences of situated action. Thesis done, I took a leave of absence from theory and, by way of my current job, had the immense pleasure (and an equal amount of frustration) in the rather pragmatic concerns of real-life situated action.

But these are qualitative theories, and I've always felt that there was a chunk of understanding missing somewhere. Like a piece of a jigzaw puzzle that needed completing. (Roshan and I have repeatedly talked about (and slammed) people who deal purely in quantitative worlds, relying on fancy spreadsheets, time series, data mining and forecasting models to inform their decision making). Going by the same logic, there must be something equally wrong if I ignored quantitative contributions to the theory of human interaction situtations altogether. With that nagging thought, I decided to take the leap into the world of elementary Game Theory.

And, it seems, there are few better ways to foray into Game Theory than through a gem of a book entitled 'The Compleat Strategyst' by one J.D. Williams. Apart from a very lucid (and eminently understandable) treatment of the theory of games, Mr Williams makes no bones about the limitations of Game Theory as he understood it (at the time of writing), at the same time arguing for more research in and acceptance of the field, as the excerpt below shows (which I've taken the liberty of copying from an aptly named section titled 'Sectarian Remarks on Method'):

"It is sometimes felt that when phenomena include men, it is tremendously more difficult to theorize successfully; and our relative backwardness in these matters seems to confirm this. .. These (amateurs who lead the impetus towards simple theory) are often viewed by professional students of man as precocious children who, not appreciating the true complexity of man and his works, wander in wide-eyed innocence, expecting that their toy weapons will slay live dragons as well as they did inanimate ones..."

"The motive force that propels the game theorist isn't necessarily his ignorance of the true complexity of man-involved conflict situations; for he would almost surely try to theorize if he were not so ignorant. We believe, rather, that his confidence - better, his temerity - stems from the knowledge that he and his methods were completely outclassed by the problems of the inanimate world...since he has had some success in that field, he suspects that sheer quantity and complexity cannot completely vitiate his theories..."

"He (the game theorist) is also aware that his successes occur spottily so that his knowledge is much less complete that the uninitiated suspect - the uninitiated including of course those who believe that the animate field must be vastly harder than the inanimate because the latter has done so well(!) For example, modern physicists have only the foggiest notions about some atomic constituents - though they designed successful A-bombs. Their favourite particle, the electron, is shrouded in ignorance...they have decided that this information is in a strict sense forever unknowable. The mathematicians are likewise a puny breed. Item: after centuries of effort, they still don't know the minimum number of colours needed to paint a map (so that adjacent countries will not have the same color); it's fair to add that they suspect that number is four, but they haven't proved it."

He goes on to ask, "So what are the reasonable expectations for us to hold regarding Game Theory? It is certainly much too simple a theory to blanket all aspects of interest in any military, economic, or social situation. On the other hand, it is sufficiently general to justify the expectation that it will illumine certain aspects of many interesting conflict situations."

So there it is, then. Game Theory as a theory to illumine, to inform. That seems about right. This world needs more integrative thinking. And there has been some progress in this direction. Psychosociologists, biochemists, biotechnologists, international political economists and technopreneurs form but a small chunk of individuals who've looked beyond the boundaries of one field to illuminate their understanding of a facet of life.

Geopolitical-socio-cognitive-engineering, anyone?

Caveat: Integrative thinking should, of course, have its limits, and not result in the kind of rubbish described so aptly in this article entitled Postmodernism Disrobed.


Blogger Roshan said...

There's another book that's relevant, but in a tangential way. I want to read it, but haven't yet found a copy. Have read excerpts though. It's called Finite and Infinite Games, by James Carse

7:47 PM  
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