A Constellation of Guiding Stars

As my mama always said, every pipe bomb has a silver lining.

2016 hasn't been the most uplifting of years, world-events-wise. This summer we saw two lone-wolf terrorist attacks, shootings of police and by police, as well as a violent military coup attempt. And personally, I'm worried by the rise of zero-sum nationalism in the US, UK, India, China, Sweden, France, Germany, etc in the past year – even if it is an understandable backlash against the irresponsible form of globalism in the past decade.

But if this year's been a dumpster fire, it should be a dumpster fire under our ass. It should kick our butts out of learned helplessness and/or complacency. I know 2016's left many of my friends de-motivated, but personally, I've never felt so motivated in my life. Because, for the first time in a long time, I have a newfound clarity over what I must do.

And I need to share this feeling with the world. So, after much reflecting on this past year, here's my three guiding stars that I'll do my best to follow in the new year:

Cooperation, Complexity, and Consonance.

(pictured: an example of cooperative symbiosis – the hummingbird gets nectar from the flower, and in exchange, the flower gets a bird inside it. Free trade!)

“Hey mom, what's that word for when two people are competing, but they both get what they want?”


“No, like... both people end up happy?”


“More scientific-sounding than that.”

[fifteen flash-backs later]

“Non-zero-sum game.”

“Yeah. Yeah that's the word. Thanks, mom!”

~ from Arrival, my favorite non-Zootopia movie of 2016

Guys. It's time for some game theory.

Too often we think of our politics and personal relationships as "zero-sum games", like sports or chess, where "they" must lose for "us" to win. Immigrants must lose for native citizens to win. Majority groups must lose for minorities to win. The working class must lose for the larger economy to win. And so on.

But more often than not, the real world is non-zero-sum: everyone can win – as long as you're patient and creative enough to find long-term Win-Win solutions. For example: a revival of civic nationalism could help both immigrants and natives win. Community-oriented policing could help both cops and minority communities win. Job re-training & trade schools could help both the working class and the larger economy win.

Maybe. I don't know if those specific suggestions will work, but I do know if we want to solve the big pressing problems of this century, we have to break out of our zero-sum mindsets, and think non-zero-sum.

So how will I follow my guiding star of Cooperation, of non-zero-sum thinking, in 2017?

1. Join organizations committed to finding Win-Win solutions. One group I'm already volunteering with is Better Angels, an organization dedicated to depolarizing America, to re-build that "more perfect Union". Look forward to some of my collaborations with them in the coming year!

2. Take time to understand and befriend people outside my bubble. Earlier this year, I made a short comic to help peeps understand those on the other side of the left/right political spectrum. But that's just understanding people from an academic distance – nothing beats actually getting to know others, person-to-person, friend-to-friend.

3. Make games to teach people to think non-zero-sum. Now this one uses my specific skills and knowledge! I've already made many games to explain complex systems, I know quite a bit about the game theory and social psychology of cooperation, and I want to share all that with the world.

However, in order to find non-zero-sum solutions, we first have to break out of our simplistic ways of thinking, which brings me to my second guiding star in 2017...

(ayyyyy it's everyone's favorite fractal, the Mandelbrot Set! this fractal is an example of how even simple rules can create infinite complexity)

Look at this GIF of a pendulum:

Pretty simple, and pretty predictable. That's what most of our businesses, policymakers, and world leaders strive for: predictability. But look what happens when we simply add another pendulum to the end of that pendulum:

Chaos. You can't predict what it'll do. And that's just a double-pendulum – what would that mean for far more complex systems like economics, politics, and culture, where the parts of the systems aren't just mindless physical objects, they're human beings who can change, react, and fight back in response to the policies you try to enforce?

When I talked about "irresponsible globalism" earlier, this was what I meant. The <scarequotes>elites</scarequotes> were over-confident in their ability to predict, plan, and engineer their desired solutions – just "export democracy" to Iraq, right? Maybe put all of Europe on a common currency? Ooh, those subprime mortgages look like a reeeeeal good investment... (To be fair, the leaders of the populist backlash against globalism don't have much better answers, either. Protectionism may hurt our economy in the long run, doesn't protect workers against automation anyway, and most importantly, it makes war in both directions more tempting. To quote Frédéric Bastiat, “When goods cannot cross borders, armies will.”)

There's no conspiracy, just cockiness.

So, what, does that mean that planning means nothing? Not at all! Think of a football game. It's a chaotic, complex system. There's no way to predict where the ball will be in a minute's time, but that doesn't mean a coach or player can't be highly skilled. No, what matters is not precision and prediction, but habits and heuristics. (In the case of football, habits = a player's reflexes, and heuristics = a coach's flexible game plan)

More examples: It's the difference between micro-managing, and giving your employees autonomy over their craft. It's the difference between planning your entire life's career path while you're still in high school, and allowing yourself to stumble upon serendipitous opportunities. It's the difference between revolution – which usually ends in bloody death – and evolution – which gave us all life on earth. (Evolution isn't just a heuristic, it's a meta-heuristic! Also, see this post I wrote this summer: Evolution, Not Revolution)

I have no idea if what I'm saying makes sense to someone who's not already familiar with chaos theory. But that's exactly why I need to build new habits and heuristics, to follow my guiding star of Complexity:

1. Make games to teach & apply complexity theory. The first step is to break people out of their old mindset of trying to control chaos, and give 'em a new mindset of trying to harness chaos. My words are incredibly bad at explaining this, so hopefully playful games will do a much better job at creating an intuition for complexity.

2. Make tools for thinking and talking in complexity. The second step is to help people use their new complexity-mindsets to tackle the problems we face today. To do this, I'll make tools so people can model real world problems as feedback loops, complex networks, agent-based simulations, etc. I don't know the solutions to the world's problems, but whatever they might be, I know one thing: we have to figure it out together.

3. Actually reach out to teachers, researchers, and policymakers. All the stuff I've made so far has been for a "general audience", but I think maybe 2017 is the year I actually reach out to "the experts", to also get them to think, talk, and teach Complexity as well.

But maybe now I've gone way too abstract, too meta. It's time for me to get intimately personal, with my final guiding star next year...

(it's the neko marching band, what more do you want)

Think of humanity as a band playing a tune. To get a good result, you need two things. Each player’s individual instrument must be in tune and also each must come in at the right moment so as to combine with all the others.

But there is one thing we have not yet taken into account. We have not asked [...] what piece of music the band is trying to play. The instruments might be all in tune and might all come in at the right moment, but even so the performance would not be a success if they had been engaged to provide dance music and actually played nothing but Dead Marches.

Morality, then, seems to be concerned with three things:

Firstly, with fair play and harmony between individuals.

Secondly, with what might be called tidying up or harmonising the things inside each individual.

Thirdly, with the general purpose of human life as a whole: what man was made for: [...] what tune the conductor of the band wants it to play.

~ from C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity, a book I haven't read yet but it's full o' tasty quotes

That's what I mean by Consonance: being in tune with others, being in tune with yourself, and altogether, singing a greater song.

We're failing on all three counts.

"Being in tune with others" – I don't think I need to recap the anger and extremism and political polarization we've seen this year. Everyone's thinking zero-sum Win-Lose, few are thinking non-zero-sum Win-Win.

"Being in tune with yourself" – gawd, everyone I know is an anxious wreck, including myself, honestly. Maybe it's our thirst for bloody, sensationalist "news". Maybe it's our culture's fostering of mental fragility. Maybe it's our fear of becoming unnecessary in an age of globalization & automation. Maybe maybe maybe.

"Singing a greater song" – You'd think the globalists would at least sing Lennon's ♫ Imagine there's no countries ♫ but instead it's all calling their opponents racist. And you'd think the nationalists would at least sing the praises of the Great American Dream, instead it's all calling their opponents elitist. We're no longer for things, we're simply against things. Things like "optimism" and "actually wanting to find solutions" are seen as naïve, and now it's Cool™ to be cynical – in fact, the only way I can convince people not to be cynical, is to be cynical about being cynical. So, here goes:

Cynicism is lazy, self-serving wank.

I try to live by the habit/heuristic, “Think Global, Act Local.” Thinking global means you actually have a greater song you want to sing, instead of becoming a self-serving narcissist. Acting local means you can effectively sing your part of the song, instead of becoming overwhelmed, helpless, cynical about everything that has to be done.

And acting on yourself is the first step to acting local. Be the change you want to see in the world, and whatnot. So, here's how I'll follow my guiding star of Consonance in 2017:

1. Get in tune with others. On a very very very personal note, I've realized that I have a breadth of friendship, but I don't really have a depth of friendship. Many friends, but not many close friends. Quite honestly, I feel lonely sometimes. I want to fix that next year.

2. Get in tune with myself. Know thyself, as some dead philosopher once said. 2016 was the year I finally took up Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which gave me lots of good habits and heuristics to help with my anxiety. But I still need to go beyond fixing neuroses, and strengthening my core character. I'll start by honestly admitting my problems: I sometimes don't admit personal responsibility. I sometimes let myself get taken advantage of. I can get caught up in my violent intrusive thoughts. I want to fix all these next year, too.

3. Sing a greater song. And this is where I get hopelessly meta. I've already picked not just one song to sing along with others, but three: Cooperation, Complexity, and Consonance. And as you saw, these guiding stars are really a constellation – they all connect with each other in some deep way.

Of course, these aren't the only or even best guiding stars you could follow, and I encourage you to find the star(s) that are most meaningful to you. But I truly believe, not only would the Cooperation-Complexity-Consonance constellation help our society as a whole, following them would help you personally, as a human being.

So, I'm gonna try to make myself the best example I can be, in the coming year.

See you in 2017!

~ Nicky Case