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prisoner's dilemma world - Cold War lives

 


The conceptual children of the Cold War came out of its belly with the apocalypse in their eyes, a mindset conditioned by the great global unconditional surrender of the Axis. There was a ghastly optimism in it that danced in the nuked ruins of cities, and then rebuilt them carefully, like the potential targets that they were. Keep your high use population away from the epicenter, and let the low use population take the brunt - that was the day's secret slogan. Its secret epic was composed of the classified memos the AEC scientists and functonaries send each other about the "downwinders" who took the greatest fallout hit from above ground atom bomb tests. But downwind is a generous wind, which is how testbomb strontium 90 became a component of every pint of milk drunk on the Eastern seabord too.
Among this progeny one finds the “prisoner’s dilemma.” Like all the problems in game theory, the prisoner’s dilemma arose in the fold between economics and the Air Force – between the Cowles commission and the Rand corporation, between the economy of managed demand of the future and the Air Force’s interest in dropping hydrogen bombs, or at least threatening to, for maximum effect. In reality, it came out of a problem in game theory developed at Rand and observed by Albert Tucker, a Princeton mathematician who grasped the structure of the game in a story about two prisoners who are confronted with a “game matrix” of three options. They can either both stay silent, they can, one or the other, rat on the other, or they can both confess. The payoffs are structured so that the one who rats on the other will get the most benefit – if, that is, the other doesn’t rat on him as well. If they both confess they will get the least benefit. The most rational option, the “equilibrium” point, is the most irrational from the point of view of self interest: that they both stay silent. That irrationality evolves from the fact that neither knows what the other is doing – they are isolated from each other.
This impressed game theorists, who defined rational in that irrational way that utilitarians and economists define it: as maximizing one’s own ‘advantage’. In this world; the advantage of, say, true repentance a la the end of Crime and Punishment is hogwash – Raskolnikov got it right the first time when he axed the pawnbroker. But in the world of Bentham and Raskolnikov, the prisoner’s dilemma seems to show that situations can arise when an action that is logically rational turns out not to bring the maximum payoff – that is, it turns out to be irrational. Of course, iterated prisoner dilemma games often tend towards the maximum payoff, but this is because iteration sneaks in communication between the two parties.
In Alexander Mehlman’s Games Afoot, which explains the prisoner’s dilemma, he uses a beautiful, hoodish terminology to divide the strategic positions open to the prisoners: the sucker and the traitor.
If we look at the prisoner’s dilemma game long enough, we can see something more than a variation of détente and deterrence between the superpowers: we can see the deep structure of Cold Warf American politics and its drift after the war was “won”. It is a politics divided between “individualism” and “collectivism”, or, to put it more frankly, between traitors and suckers. Individualism is not actually a natural position – in the game, it is a condition enforced on the players via the simple but elegant use of iron cages. This is a more difficult thing to accomplish outside the think tank laboratory, but you can approximate it through a vast media noise machine. Which is exactly what we have. And then you have the suckers – the “liberals” – who have made their bet on solidarity. But of course this solidarity is a funny thing – suspecting the traitors of having the better deal, accepting the terms of rationality as Raskolnikov defines it, it is solidarity with a bad conscience. Suckers in American politics have long satisfied their thirst for solidarity by being solidaire with liberal financiers and corporate heads. Not, by any means, the dreadful suckers who sweat and, when you give them computers and the Internet, immediately start using them to play online poker and watch porno – the dark mass out there sometimes despairingly referenced by NYT’s finest one percent opinion columnists.
The prisoners dilemma regime is at an interesting point. The neo-liberalism that attempted to “do’ social democracy whilst allowing the 1 percent to gorge themselves with a vast share of the social product is now disappearing in the maw of “debt” – while who the “debt’ is owed to is a nicely obscured topic, never broached in polite circles. But as this happens, the prisoners start crowding into the cells. The capitalism that in their parents and grandparents lifetimes proved wildly beneficial, elevating lifestyles over three generation, is now spinning back. The generation coming up may be the first since the nineteen twenties to experience capitalism as a curse, rather than a blessing. The prison can only hold so many prisoners before they do start communicating. And who knows what “irrationality”will result.
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Anonymous said…
This does beg the question of rational/irrational correct and how one might distinguish them? And relatedly free/prisoner. Thank you for the post, I'm very glad that my aunt and your friend alerted me to your blog. I've been reading your blog and her notebooks for a while now and hope to put the latter at least in part on a website despite all the resistances I am encountering. She writes about this as you might already know - and debt. I recently read the post she had written on your blog regarding Marx. The comment thread to that blog is really something, to be polite. It does in its less virulently bad moments include a discussion on your part of 'rational choice theory'. I've read some of her thoughts on the matter and will share them on her website one day.
Sophie



Sophie
Roger Gathmann said…
Yeah for that! If you need any help, write me at rogergathmann@gmail.com. I can add to your collection with emails your aunt wrote to me, if you wish.
Yeah, the conga line of madness after Amie's post was somehthing to see. But those were the days of the theory bloggers, a very odd crew. I think, in her own way, your aunt took a benevolent view of them - we were all lost souls, and our internet encounters showed, sadly, how lost we all were.
Anonymous said…
I don't know about the theory bloggers from that time. She only told me of yours and I haven't found any mention in her notebooks so far though she does refer to yours several times. There are notes dating from when she wrote that post for your blog but they seem attempts to think about related questions rather than direct responses to that comment thread. There is one though that mentions the initials of one of the participants in the thread, which leads her to write about materialism, seances, social media and the Grimm story Snow White....
Sorry, not trying to highjack this post. I said I've been reading her notebooks and your blog. Can't help but notice convergences even if they are in different styles, with different references. As in this post re 'prisoners dilemma'. And yeah, I'm determined to have a website for some of her writing. Who doesn't want to read about Snow white, materialism, psychic and social media....
Occurs to me, such a website might occasion the return of more than one ghost
Sophie
Roger Gathmann said…
Hey, your aunt made a lotta comments on blogposts here. I'll signal two in particular you might look at. https://limitedinc.blogspot.com/2008/06/fairy-tales-in-pin-factory.html
https://limitedinc.blogspot.com/2010/07/la-belle-et-la-bete.html


Anonymous said…
Those are such great posts of yours! As for Amie's comments, I should be used to this from reading her notebooks, the moment when a cinder gets in my eyes. I was holding out till I got to this:
The magic wand - that piece of wood - that she is given doesn't just help her filer, but also dress up and do her hair, something she is no good at, at least in terms of the court. Rosanie whose hair is beautiful and ash blonde: Ses cheveux, qui étaient du plus beau blond cendré.

I'll send you an email soon or perhaps when I'm closer to having the website ready.

Sophie
Anonymous said…
I will stop with this sidetracking of your post but after the cinders had somewhat cleared from my eyes I noticed how your post ends with: "A closet that seems to hold an indefinite number of women who magically continue to bleed after their death, forming a pool or a lake of blood in which they are reflected." I found that line in her notebook too, and didn't know it was from your post.
Yeah, I'll be getting in touch. Thank you.
Sophie
Roger Gathmann said…
I often felt like I communicated with Amie by ESP. And I always wanted her to make a blog, or a book, or something - cause what a brilliant person! She told em she was going to make a blog, and a book about film sound. So I am so for your project, Sophie!