As we embrace the binary thinking of digital technology the divisions between us are growing ever starker. Can fiction help us imagine a different future?
In 2017, I published my fourth novel, Exit West, and bought a small notebook to jot down ideas for the next one. I thought it would be about technology. I came across an article by Simon DeDeo, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University, discussing an experiment he and his colleague John Miller had conducted in that same year. They simulated cooperation and competition by machines over many generations, building these machines as computer models and setting them playing a game together. An interesting pattern emerged. Rather than constant trading for mutual benefit among equals, or never-ending fights to the death among foes, instead a particular type of machine became dominant, one that recognised and favoured copies of itself, and enormous prosperity ensued, built on ever-growing levels of cooperation. But eventually the minute differences that naturally occurred (or were, in the experiment, designed to occur) in the copying process, as they do in organisms when genes are passed on, became intolerable, and war among the machines resulted in near-complete devastation and a new beginning, after which the cycle repeated, over and over.
I remember being struck by this article. Not because I fully understood what the simulation was or even how it worked. No, I was struck by its similarity to a narrative I had already been feeling drawn to myself: that the rise and fall of human society is not merely something that has happened but also something that will continue to happen, that moments of peak cooperation contain within them the tendency for differences to become utterly intolerable, and that the transition from one societal epoch to the next is rarely a series of gently eliding waves, each a bit higher than the previous one – to the contrary, humanity’s trajectory on the way down is often far more steep than it was on the way up.