01 June 2018

Video Games, Systems, Consequences and the Afterlife

I'm a fan of video games. I think that the world will get better as we build more effective simulators to teach systems dynamics that include the behavior of nations at war, ecosystems, financial and labor markets, popularity, and the change in social norms. Different dynamics are tough to understand as prose or equations; sometimes the patterns become easier to see when they play out in video simulations that let us see causality that simulates centuries within an hour. I don't think that we've really understood how powerful this potential technology is for teaching systems dynamics that so define our world.

There is one lesson that these video games gloss over, though. And it may be the most important lesson of all.

What we enjoy or suffer today rarely has anything to do with today.

Mark Zuckerberg made $1.5 billion today. I'm not even sure he went into the office today. He may have stayed home with a cold or may have had a really important strategic meeting. I don't know what he did today but I guarantee you that it does not explain his gain in wealth today. That is the consequence of things he did years ago.

Probably 99.9% of what we enjoy or suffer from today is the consequence of something done in the past. Little of it even done by us. Today my portfolio is up. It is the result of investments and sacrifices I made in the past, but that's the least of it. It's also the result of the Dutch who came over to New Amsterdam and recreated the stock market they'd first established in Amsterdam. It's the result of countless employees and entrepreneurs who have created equity out of thin air. It's the result of laws that protect private property. And so on.

That lesson that evolutionary biologists and religious teachers would both teach you is that causality does not stop at death. There is an afterlife. The lives of people in the future will be diminished or enhanced based on what you do in your lifetime. I suppose it is a kind of evil to believe that your life has no consequence and a sort of good to believe that it does.

If you are looking for cause and effect that can be experienced within a day or even a year, it is easy to get discouraged. Little of consequence plays out that rapidly and if you are measuring the impact of yesterday or last month's efforts on today, you'll conclude that there's not much that can be done. But the stories that inspire are those of the immigrant mom who worked two jobs to get her kids through college. There is generational causality and it doesn't end with her grandkids. One of the reasons I love history is that it explains so much of what defines today. We are the product of decisions made centuries earlier.

The community you live in is the product of the despair or hope of past generations, their action or inaction, their creativity or conformity. One definition of foolishness might be to believe that nothing we do has any consequence; one definition of wisdom might be to believe that what we do has consequences for generations. (Even if that consequence is to have made no difference because even not making a difference makes a difference.)

Finally, I leave you these words of advice from one of my favorite people.

The Buddhists have a good piece of advice: “Act always as if the future of the universe depended on what you did, while laughing at yourself for thinking that whatever you do makes any difference.” It is this serious playfulness, a combination of concern and humility, that makes it possible to be both engaged and carefree at the same time. One does not need to win to feel content; helping to maintain order in the universe becomes its own reward, regardless of the consequences. - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

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