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Authors: Marc Stiegler

Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #General

David's Sling (9 page)

BOOK: David's Sling
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"So the two of you would be able to make that agreement without communicating?"

"Sure," Bill snaps. "There's a formula for calculating the right answer."

"And everybody knows the formula." Hammond looks around the class. Some look puzzled; others look expectant.

Hammond continues. "Suppose some of the people didn't know the formula. Then you couldn't guarantee that you and the other person would get the same answer, could you?" A shiver seems to sweep the room as many people shake their heads.

"Okay, now suppose there were a formula for deciding what to do in the Prisoner's Dilemma. No matter who you were, if you applied the formula, you would get the right answer, right? And if you knew that your partner knew the formula, you wouldn't have to worry about the outcome: you could both crank the formula and come out with the right answer."

Hammond raises his arm and points to every person in the class. "So the very assumption that there is a formula tells us what the formula must be, does it not? If there is a formula, the formula says to Conspire, to cooperate with the other prisoner." His arm descends in a human exclamation mark. "But the formula only works if
you
know the formula,
and
if you know that your
partner
knows the formula,
and
if your partner knows that
you
know the formula."

About a fourth of the faces in the class brighten immediately with understanding; others brighten more slowly as they grasp the concept. Hammond drawls, "So you and your partner must in some sense be superrational to succeed, for you must be not only rational enough to select rationally among your individual choices, you must also be rational enough to understand the meaning of rationality for the group."

Hammond's eyes shine with pleasure in revealing the key to the game. "So the big question is, how do you find out if the other guy is as superrational as you are? In the Prisoner's Dilemma, there is one way to find out." He spreads his arms in a gesture of martyrdom. "Assume your partner knows the formula in the first round: Give him a Conspiracy. If he knows the formula, he will also give you a Conspiracy in that first round, and you will have found each other.

"But if he doesn't give you a Conspiracy in that first round, you know that he doesn't know the formula. He may be rational as an individual, but he hasn't succeeded in looking outside his own viewpoint—he hasn't achieved superrationality, so you have to treat him accordingly. In games where your partner is only rational, or worse yet, irrational, you must betray him, for he will betray you."

Bill slides backward in his chair, amazed at the short yet devious flow of this logic.

"Consequently, the only way to make games like the Prisoner's Dilemma safe is to educate all the people who might become your partners, so they can be as superrational as you are. Only superrational people working together can win the Prisoner s Dilemma." Hammond stands triumphant before his newly baptized members of the superrational. At least some of them are superrational, anyway; Bill sees doubt on many laces. From those expressions, he knows which ones he would prefer to have as partners.

Bill cheers for victorious superrational mind. He senses the same desire in other people around the room, but the thoughts are too deep to accept just yet. He, and the others, must chew on the idea of superrationality.

Hammond realizes this. "And with that, we'll take a break. Think about situations in which this kind of thinking might affect
your
life. We'll talk about applications in a few minutes—applications in areas as diverse as office politics and child-rearing." He paused. "And
then
, we'll show everyone how to engage in a decision duel."

Jet lag gave Nathan a tremendous business advantage when he flew west. He noted this with little pleasure, sitting outside the Pelmour complex waiting for MDS Software Associates to open its doors. Here in Mountain View, California, it was not quite 8 a.m. His internal body clocks, still set on D.C. time, told him it was closer to 11 A.M. Everyone on this coast was still coping with morning, injecting fresh caffeine into their bloodstreams. Nathan, however, was almost ready for lunch.

The Pelmour complex was one of the dozens of office clusters designed for the unique requirements of upstart startup companies here in the heart of Silicon Valley. The Silicon Valley entrepreneur could not begin life with merely a great idea, a reasonable product, a decent business plan, and a tight chunk of venture capital. The Silicon Valley entrepreneur had to initiate his future corporate empire with the right
style
.

Much of that style was embodied in the building where the entrepreneur began his life. He could not tool up in an old warehouse, tainted by vanished crates of fruit once plucked from orchard groves that blossomed in the days before silicon. No one would believe he could succeed from such a decrepit location; certainly, his business plan was inadequate in scope.

Nor could he start life in an opulent penthouse office overlooking the ocean. Such ostentation was allowed only to those who had succeeded. Anyone who started in this manner was just a pretender; his great new idea could only be vaporware.

The proper entrepreneur instinctively understood that proper businesses started in two-story buildings: Shipments came and went through the loading dock in back, on the bottom floor. Customers came and went through the door in front, on the top floor. Back in the '90s, construction crews had built miles of ridges here in Mountain View, to create enough cliff edges in which to embed such proper two-story buildings.

The Pelmour complex was a long chain of these startup company buildings, the entrepreneurial equivalent of a tenement row. Nathan couldn't help chuckling as he squinted down the stretch of bland sandstone building fronts. Though he had started the Zetetic Corporation outside Seattle, not San Francisco, he too had worked out of one of these tenements for a time. Indeed, for Nathan, the move to a Seattle tenement had been a step up; he had written the first Personal Enhancement Program—the Advertising Immunity PEP—in the spare bedroom of a friend in San Antonio. No real entrepreneur would have considered working under such conditions. Only his friends in San Antonio, and his sister Jan, had supported his efforts at the time. Jan had always believed in him.

The doors of MDS Software Associates opened. Delilah Lottspeich, the woman he had come to see, had a subcontract with MDS Software. He walked along the curved sidewalk to the front door. Few employees or subcontractors had arrived during the minutes before 8 o'clock; either they arrived enthusiastically early, or they started randomly late.

When he entered, he found people hurrying along behind the receptionist; evidently, enthusiasm was the driver here. Nathan held a brief negotiation with the receptionist before he persuaded one of the passing young men to escort him back to Delilah's office.

Security was not as strict here as it usually was in fledgling companies: the man waved at Delilah's office, then disappeared behind a labyrinth of room dividers. The whole office had the unnatural quiet that follows after the discussions have worn down, when everyone can strive toward well-understood goals. Only the soft click of keys, and the softer sound of mouse buttons, broke the stillness. A weak aroma of coffee came from the brewing station in the corner.

Nathan stepped across the threshold of Delilah's office. He did not announce himself. The mental gymnastics of a programmer are too delicate to disturb lightly; he would wait for the right moment.

She sat facing away from the door, unmoving, absorbed in the computer display. Her hair spilled across her pale shoulders, then cascaded down her back in a golden wave—a frozen wave, like a waterfall turned to ice in mid-flight. Touch it, and it might break.

The golden wave shimmered. Delilah twisted in her seat, and Nathan knocked on the door. She swiveled to face him.

Nathan's sense of watching a frozen waterfall did not diminish. Her arms and neck were long and thin and delicate. Her face held a cold, closed expression—the expression of someone who expects to be struck at any moment.

Nathan gave her his warmest smile. "Delilah Lottspeich? I m Nathan Pilstrom. I called yesterday about a project we need you on."

"I remember," she snapped, her voice sharp with tension. "You wouldn't tell me what it was over the phone." She smiled, moderating her tone. "But I bet it's something interesting. I've taken about half the Zetetic series on liars."

"Oh, no!" Nathan exclaimed, slapping his forehead with mock dismay. "Then I don't stand a chance of manipulating you—unless you missed the course on Lying at a Job Interview."

She didn't respond to the joke.

The Liars series included Lying with Statistics, a study of economists; Lying with Facts, a study of news reporters; Lying with Implications, covering advertising strategies; and Lying with Words, on the fine art of politics. She offered him the chair next to her work station. "Call me Lila." As he sat down, she asked, "What's the Institute working on?"

Nathan leaned forward on the edge of the seat. "Have you ever heard of the Sling project?"

"I don't think so."

Were developing a way to limit the death and destruction caused by war."

"Really." For a moment she lit up with excitement. "What have you developed? A new method for negotiating treaties?" Suspicion closed around her once more. "Wait a minute. Why do you want a digital sensor specialist for something like this—to verify compliance or something? You don't need me for that."

"No, we don't need you for that." Nathan took a deep breath. Just listening to her combination of hope and suspicion, he could predict her reaction to the real project— she would be horrified. "The Sling is a defensive system. By using Information Age techniques, we can pick out key elements in an enemy attack. By destroying those key elements, we can stop the attack with a minimal cost of life."

Her strident voice took on a pleading tone, hoping he would yet allow her to disbelieve what she had just heard. "Are you telling me that the Zetetic Institute now develops
weapons
?"

Nathan felt like he had been slapped. He sat very straight, very open, as if offering the other cheek for yet another blow. "Yes. We also develop weapons, Lila. If we have to fight a war, it is terribly important that we fight it the best way we know how, to end it quickly."

"You build machines to kill people? I can't believe it!" But the vehemence in her voice suggested that she
did
believe it. And she hated it.

"We build machines that kill people, yes." Nathan continued to speak as if to a rational person, though he doubted that his mental map of rationality matched the terrain he now faced. He had entered the room as one of her heroes; he would leave as one of her enemies. "But that's not the whole story. Just as we must accept some of the responsibility for the men who die because of the machines we build, so must we accept responsibility for the men who do
not die
, who
would have died
had we not built those machines."

She wheeled away from him. He had run out of time for rational discussion.

He had one more avenue of approach available: he could try manipulation. "Lila! You're a smart and sane person. You don't make decisions because of slogans and peer group prejudices—you make decisions because they are right decisions, after fully examining the facts." He had started his speech rapidly, with her name, to get her attention. As he proceeded he slowed down, to let the words set up a cognitive dissonance in her mind.

She now had two views of herself warring within her. One view said that she must not listen, because she hated war regardless of arguments. The other view said that she must listen, because she believed in making right decisions after hearing all the arguments. This conflict, this cognitive dissonance, had to be resolved. If Nathan could enhance her view of herself as a thinking person, she would resolve the dissonance by listening to him objectively. She would
become
, for a short time, the smart and sane person Nathan had told her she was.

This tactic assumed her emotional reactions clouded her views. If reflexive emotions held her, then Nathan's new words would appeal to her emotional belief in rational self. Thus Nathan could manipulate her.

But if she were fully rational, the words he had just offered would have no effect. She would weigh his words about the Sling independently from his words about her as a person. And that, too, would be wonderful; his purpose was to get her to give him a fair hearing. Thus, his best hope for success was that she was immune to his manipulation.

Nathan's use of cognitive dissonance here presented the only ethical use of manipulation that Nathan knew— manipulation geared to making a person less easily manipulated.

Small twitches of doubt broke the brittle lines of her face; the cognitive dissonance held her in thrall, unresolved.

Nathan continued, "I'm glad you see as clearly as I do the importance of careful thought. The lives of thousands of people rest with your analysis of what I have to say. " He watched her face carefully, but could not tell if he was winning. "The key to ending a war and saving lives is to prevent people from ever going onto a battlefield. To prevent that, we want to confuse the commanders who order men into battle, to remove them from the picture. Doesn't that make sense?"

"No!"

The intensity of her response had surprised her, Nathan could see. Of course, her exclamation had not been an answer to Nathan's question. It had been her answer to herself. She had resolved the dissonance. Nathan had failed.

Nathan watched her turn back to her work station, bringing up a page of test graphics. Having denied his thoughts and facts, she now denied his existence.

Nathan did not know which parts of the Zetetic series on liars Lila had taken, but he knew one part she had missed—Lying with Your Own Preconceptions. The toughest part of the series, it dealt with the lies people told to themselves.

PAN. They step into another room. The room has the contours of a small auditorium, though only the first two tiers support ordered rows of seats. At the focal point of the room, Bill confronts the largest computer display he has ever seen—larger than the one in Houston for controlling spacecraft launches.

BOOK: David's Sling
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