I don’t watch a whole lot of Television. In fact, I can probably count on one hand the number of hours in a week that I am sitting on my couch watching TV. When I share this with people, the most common question is, what do you do with your time? Amongst a lot of activities, I read. I am a voracious reader. I used to be able to have 3 books on the go at a time scattered throughout the house depending on where I was when I picked up the book. I am down to one at time – for some reason the retention isn’t what it used to be.
So my most recent read (if I went by purchase we could be here for a while) was The Immortal Game: A History of Chess, or How 32 Carved Pieces on a Board Illuminated our Understanding of War, Science and the Human Brain, by David Shenk. A very long title for a relatively short book. Here’s the premise; the evolution of the style of chess mirrors social evolution. The opening game is the Romantic Phase, where the style of play was offensive, short-sighted, attack driven. The mid-game is the Scientific Phase, where the style is calculated and strategic. The end-game is the Hyper-Modern Phase, where human interaction with artificial intelligence has become the norm and the game of chess, now played on computers, is not about strategy but about out-manoeuvring the opponent (in this case the computer).
Here are some givens:
When faced with a state of chaos, human nature strives for order. This sense of order can be perceived or real and it is based on the understanding of one’s world.
When designing artificial intelligence machines, scientists ask, “Should we design machines to think like human beings… or should they play to the more obvious strengths of the machines’ ability to conduct brute-force mathematical calculations?” (Shenk, pg. 211)
Okay, so chess mirrors life. Art mirroring life is common-place. This is what I find interesting, we have a game that withstood the test of time. This test includes cultural impressions through its travel from the Middle East to North Africa, Far East Asia and Europe; religious impressions of the Crusades and various other “In the Name of God Wars” (including the one currently being waged by the Taliban and Western Judeo-Christian societies); socio-economic impressions of the integration of chess in public schools in low-income communities as a tool for teaching conflict management and team work; and last (but probably not least) the introduction of a technology based society where interaction with other humans comes in the form of a keyboard, web-cams and other artificial intermediaries.
This game, having withstood bombardments from all of these different directions has another thing to share with us. The basic premise I have outlined is that the way the pieces and the players interact with each other is similar to how we interact with other people and systems. When we are looking at community building and development, one move might be beneficial in the short-term but could put us into “check-mate” in the long-term. What would the chess game of NGO’s and Developing Country governments look like? I also thought about it from the perspective of Global Warming. Taking “if-then” statements around global warming and putting a chess framework overlay, would we change our actions knowing that check-mate was in a matter of moves (as opposed to over a matter of decades)?
Kind of out there, I know. But here it is in a nutshell – the style of play in the game of chess has evolved as human interactions and learnings have evolved. We are now at a point in human evolution where we have a lot of information, we have machines that can process that information and spit out “a move.” We can see where check-mate lies. Check-mate can be the polar ice-caps melting. Check-mate can be the loss of an ancient culture through socialization (i.e. sending kids from rural tribal Africa to the cities to learn only to not have those children return back to the tribal villages). Check-mate can be seen by the inability to teach our children proper social skills because we ourselves are too busy talking on the phone, staring at our computer screens, absorbed in TV.
There is a Native American saying, “The earth isn’t ours for the taking. We have merely borrowed it from our children and grandchildren.” Since we can see check-mate, and we have the technology to lay out the directions to go, or not go, how will we play out this game of chess?