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A Game for Love and Fascism

The story of Giacomo Pucchini's opera "Tosca" provides an exercise in game theory.

"Fascism today will not be the same as fascism in the past."

The story of Giacomo Pucchini's opera "Tosca" provides an exercise in game theory. Tosca is a beautiful singer and her lover Mario a painter, arrested by the police for having sheltered an escaped political prisoner. Mario is sentenced to death. To rescue him, Tosca has to negotiate with the police chief, Scarpia, who lusts after Tosca. Scarpia offers a conditional deal: he will save Mario's life only if Tosca becomes his lover. Tosca agrees to the deal and Scarpia orders blanks to be substituted for the firing squad's bullets. However…

Game theory looks at how an individual makes decisions based on instrumental rationality. John von Neuman - mathematician, Hungarian immigrant and pioneer of the modern computer - developed the discipline together with his colleague, economist Oskar Morgenstern. (Von Neuman is also well known for his crucial mathematical contributions to the Manhattan Project to develop atomic weapons during WWII.)

While playing poker and observing the role of bluffing, von Neuman became interested in the general problem of what to do when your best choice depends on what other persons think you might to do. He and Morgenstern defined game theory as any interaction between agents that is governed by a set of rules specifying the possible moves for each participant, and a set of outcomes for each possible combination of moves. Game theory can be applied to decisions of all kinds -- crossing the road in traffic, negotiating disarmament, raising prices, giving to charity, joining a union, producing a commodity, having children, and so on.

Among various "games" studied, the Prisoner's Dilemma is perhaps the most fascinating for many social scientists. The name comes from a particular illustration of the interaction of two people. The story behind the game is this:

Two people are picked up by the police for robbery and placed in separate cells. They each have the option to confess to the crime or not. The prosecutor tells each the consequences of the combined decisions made by the two prisoners. If both "confess", the judge, having no doubt over their guilt, will give each 3 years each in prison. If both do not confess, then conviction is still the result, but the doubts in the case make the judge err on the side of leniency, handing down sentences of only one year each.

Here's the catch: the prosecutor also notes that he can intercede with the judge on behalf of one prisoner when that prisoner confesses and the other does not. The judge looks kindly on such action: it helps to make the prosecution's case, and thus earns the confessing prisoner a suspended sentence of no jail time. But exemplary punishment of five years is meted out to the prisoner who does not confess, as his plea of not guilty has wasted court time.

According to the rules of game theory, a strategy is "dominated" if it is never an optimal strategy no matter what strategy the opposition chooses. Conversely, a strategy is "dominant" if it is the optimal strategy (i.e. it maximizes a player's utility pay-off) regardless of the opposition's choice of strategy. And when an outcome results from strategies that agents have good reason to follow, game theory defines that outcome as an "equilibrium".

If we assume that each prisoner only cares about avoiding prison time, then confession becomes the dominant strategy for each player. The result of three years in prison for each prisoner is the equilibrium.

Each prisoner knows that the best thing to do is to confess -- and yet that choice yields the paradoxical result of making each worse off than he would have been had he chosen "don't confess" and thereby spending only one year in prison.

On Being Nice

The Prisoner's Dilemma, originally conceived in the 1950s, has spawned numerous games, each uniquely different from the original. The popularization of the computer has allowed the study of repeated games, which extend the scope of game theory considerably.

In the 1970s, political scientist Robert Axelrod organized a tournament of computer programs employing strategies to "win" a Prisoners' Dilemma situation. The winning program was Tit-for-Tat (TFT), submitted by Anatol Rapoport. The TFT program cooperates on the first round, and on every subsequent round mimics the other player's previous move. Thus, if the other player cooperates (defects) in the nth round, TFT will follow (defect) on the (n+1)th round. This strategy is very simple - proving that simplicity is not necessarily a disadvantage. TFT achieved the highest average score among a field of far more complicated programs.

Axelrod pointed out that TFT contains two elements in its strategy. These can be described with the words "nice" and "forgiving". The biologist Richard Dawkins also introduced the Tit-for-Tat strategy in his book "The Selfish Gene". He agrees with Axelrod, noting that many wild animals and plants are engaged in ceaseless games of Prisoner's Dilemma. Niceness is a technically important strategy, according to Dawkins: "If we translate the colloquial meaning of 'nice guy' into its Darwinian equivalent, a nice guy is an individual that assists other members of species, at its own expense, to pass their genes on to next generation. Nice guys, then, seem bound to decrease in numbers: niceness dies a Darwinian death. But there is another, technical, interpretation of the colloquial word 'nice'. If we adopt this definition, which is not too far from the colloquial meaning, nice guys can finish first."

The strength of the 'niceness' strategy was only realized using by computers for repeated games. Repeated games gave us new views into game theory, biology, and computer science, all at the same time.

Fascio on Networks

Fascism today will not be the same as fascism in the past. Fascism derives from the Italian word "fascio", which equates to "bundle" in English -- for fascism bundles people up like straw. We now have the grandchildren of old fascists trying to "bundle up" people in Austria, to oust foreigners from the homeland. These Austrian fascists, following the way of the old-time fascists, have so far been enjoying power in a coalition government. Their fortunes seem rooted in local causes, such as reaction against the former government and people's xenophobia.

However, their time could be short. "Bundling" is an old idea in today's information society. Information flow is essential to our society -- that is, to the global flow of information, materials, and people, borderless in every dimension. At any given time, the equivalent of the entire population of the USA is moving around the world, in the form of refugees, tourists, businesspersons, and exiles. The fascism idea is just a backlash against this situation.

Our life itself depends on information flow in DNA. Mutation from a normal gene to an oncogene can be caused by some extremely subtle change in this flow. For example, the human bladder carcinoma oncogene and its precursor, the normal human ras gene, are outwardly very similar. Both are five thousand DNA bases long -- identical in all bases but one, where the sequence GCC GGC GGT changes to GCC GTC GGT. That single replacement of one G by a T in the bladder carcinoma cell DNA is a very subtle difference in an information flow -- which leads to drastically different results. We'd do well to realize that fascism today is also a malfunction in information flow -- not only in a political context but also in technological, economic, and cultural contexts. Another characteristic of fascism as totalitarianism is monitoring. The slogan "BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU" from George Orwell's "1984" is hardly an original citation, but "1984" has played an amazing role as a prophecy for certain realms of politics in the twentieth century. Many people think of monitoring as specific to totalitarianism, whether fascism or communism, but it's specific to organizations in any form: the state, company, school, hospital, union, etc. The e-mail system at work is recognized as company property these days; a system operator in the employ of the company might be reading your e-mails. In the early days of Internet use at offices, some employees tried to sue employers for invasion of privacy after they found managers reading their e-mails. Yet monitoring of e-mail on a company-owned mail system has become almost the norm. It's common sense in the business world.

However, common sense can lead you into a trap on the national and international stage. Monitoring exists not only in totalitarian countries but also in "free" nations. Echelon is known as a spy system designed and coordinated by the US National Security Agency (NSA) to monitor everything from e-mail to satellite communications. Shared by five English-speaking countries -- the USA, England, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand -- Echelon is a global network of computers that automatically search through millions of intercepted transmissions for pre-programmed keywords.

It is suspected that Echelon has been used not only for national security purposes but also for spying on large-scale business projects in the private sector, for perceived impact on national welfare. Is this a new type of fascism? A system like Echelon literally "bundles up" cables used for communication - a network fascio, if you will. At least with e-mail, you can encrypt messages using a program like PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) to keep your messages for intended eyes only.


Getting back to Tosca's story: how does this opera end? The bad outcome reads as follows. As they embrace, Tosca stabs and kills Scarpia, deceiving him. She expects that her negotiations with Scarpia will let her reclaim her lover Mario and escape - but alas, Scarpia also defected! The bullets were real. The opera ends in tragedy as Tosca leaps to her death.

You may wonder what the game theory aspect of "Tosca" has to teach us, or how it applies to Austrian politics. Theoretically speaking, the fascist situation is not so much an instance of a Prisoner's Dilemma game, but another classic game: Hawk - Dove. So the instrumentally rational decision for people and artists is to maximize democratic freedom, and obviously to not compromise with fascists. Those bad guys can not finish first.

My favorite ending for the opera also strays from serious game theory. Most audiences today want happy endings. They want Disney. In Tosca by Hollywood, a sympathetic soul would aid Tosca in escaping with Mario. The credits would roll as Tosca and Mario embrace. Kiss, kiss.

Watch out! This might be another type of totalitarianism, attacking our sense of aesthetics.

Content type
Projects World-Information.Org
Date 03.10.2000


future heritage fascism Prisoner's Dilemma Big Brother Manhattan Project interaction totalitarism DNA Echelon game theory Tit-for-Tat TFT information flow computer PGP internet email Austria USA England Canada Australia New Zealand National Security Agency NSA Oskar Morgenstern John von Neuman Richard Dawkins Tosca Robert Axelrod George Orwell Giacomo Puccini Anatol Rapoport Keisuke Oki
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