But can a machine play?

On the West Coast there’s a community of people who do contact dance, a type of free-form dance where no one person is leading. Unlike other forms of partner dance, you must be both a leader and a follower, and it really doesn’t work if you lean too far in one direction. What this means is that creating a ‘good’ contact dance requires that you both continually make bids (or offer something interesting for your partner to build upon) and accept bids, letting yourself react to the physical ideas your partner offers.

Trying to plan a contact dance from the beginning flat out doesn’t work. What you can do to improve, however, is train your attention to be more receptive and finely tuned to the physical information you are receiving, and explore deeper and more generative creative states that allow more interesting and beautiful reactions to develop.

At the same time as going to a tonne of weird-looking contact dance parties, I’ve also taken up ballet again after a roughly ten-year hiatus. Ballet is in many ways the opposite kind of internal experience to contact dance. There is nothing to react to outside of your body in the creation of the dance; improvements come from developing a more finely tuned mental model of the platonic ideal of ballet and then continually adjusting the position, motion and aesthetic of your body to shift your movements ever closer to the infinitely perfect ideal. But the ideal only exists in your mind, and real-world factors like being 5’10 or having broad shoulders or an inflexible back are ‘damage’ that hinders your ability to improve towards your model; they can never be catalysts for a new or unexpected creation within the dance.

From the inside, as the person inside a belief system, top-down models feel like ballet, and emergent or metasystematic models feel like contact dance. There is definitely a ‘correct way’ to do things in ballet, and moreover, you will never achieve it, even if you happen to be maximally genetically gifted and also determined and have training from a young age from the best teachers. In contrast, there is really no ‘right way’ to move in contact dance, but then again there is no ‘wrong way’ either. The closest you might get is to say that being able to listen to your partner more attentively (to how their body is moving, and what their body is telling you) means you can create more interesting and expressive dances.

The quality of movement developed in ballet is useful to a contact dancer, but it is by no means the only way to get good at it – in fact you could come to contact dance from almost any movement style and the vocabulary and physical expression you brought would make for powerful and unique experiences. By contrast, if you want to be good at ballet, you need to take ballet classes. And not just any classes – a series of clearly-defined systematic exercises that start simply and progress through increasingly demanding techniques that vary little week to week and are almost pedagogically identical throughout the world. You even use a standardised French vocabulary (regardless of native tongue), so a ballet dancer could walk into a class in a school they’d never been to, in a language they didn’t speak, with a teacher they’d never met, and still be able to complete the class as if they were at home.

Ballet is an incredibly efficient and universal system for training beautiful dancers, yet if you want to mess around yourself, and dance to have fun, it kinda sucks. That is because there is no interactivity built into the rules of ballet, so improvising is really hard, and often just becomes an imitation of formal exercises. It’s hard to play with ballet.

On the other hand, it’s hard not to play with contact dance. On more than one occasion I’ve found myself absentmindedly contact dancing with a hand-loop on the subway, or a doorway, because the mere fact of the loop’s existence afforded interesting bodily responses that informed the way I was dancing.

A formal system like ballet is useful for achieving something when the goal you want to achieve is clear. Ballet is incredible if you want to become a strong and beautiful dancer (or keep fit while mastering a complicated skillset). If you have no desire to achieve the goal of becoming a beautiful dancer, then the experience of practicing ballet will suck. Ask the ten year old girls forced into ballet classes by their parents how intrinsically enjoyable ballet is, and you’ll probably get some raspberries blown at you or maybe some middle fingers. But if you find the one girl who dreams of being a ballerina then you will hear her marvel enthusiastically about how lovely ballet is, how beautiful the moves are, and how much she enjoys her classes. Why you play the game matters most.

When I was in high school I hated maths; not because I was bad at it, but because the main motivations teachers compelled us with for learning maths had to do with engineering and being better at physics. I preferred people to physical objects so I knew that learning maths would be pointless for me.

Fast forward several years and I’d gotten sick of the pre-paradigmatic relativism of undergrad political science and decided to enroll in a postgrad degree in economics. Turns out…uh…you need to know calculus to study economics, and I’d, um, quit maths in high school long before we ever got to that point. But economics looked me directly in the eye and persuaded me point blank that it was a reasonable and elegant system for understanding human systems that happened to be based in mathematics.

Now maths was about people! And calculus became elegant and fascinating all of a sudden, and I gobbled up Khan Academy videos like they were going out of style. My enjoyment of the discipline was entirely dictated by whether my goals aligned with the goals the system would allow me to reach.

Contact dance is, in many respects, not useful for anything in particular. It doesn’t make you a better dancer – in fact if you want to become a better contact dancer, a legitimate strategy would be to go train and get very good at another style entirely. Contact dance occurs for its own sake, and dancers dance merely to continue the dance. In this respect, ballet is one of James Carse’s finite games, and contact dance is an infinite game. One is entered into in order to win (become a beautiful dancer); the other entered into merely for the sake of playing.

I see many people (myself included at times) trying to optimise their lives the same way a dancer optimises her movement in a ballet class. Increasingly complex time-management techniques, extreme minimalism, the financial independence/early retirement community and the rationality community – they all have this sentiment at their core. Computers are excellent at optimising, too, and do so single-mindedly and without yearning for freedom or a greater purpose. In fact, I suspect the skill of being able to optimise for goals you do not adhere to strongly (being a high-decoupler) is the undercurrent driving the increasing success of programmers and other STEM-types in the contemporary world, because we have built so many of these ballet-like finite games into the driving forces of our civilised society.

Optimisation can be incredibly satisfying, but for humans it satisfies only if it is in service of a satisfying goal. Absent the satisfying goal it becomes a prison. Our modern disease is that many people’s lives exist wholly within the structures of an indifferent formal optimising system (*cough* structural oppression), and like the miserable ten-year-olds in the ballet class, they aren’t allowed to stop playing.

Pain is a useful feedback look that exists everywhere in life, but suffering exists only where an infinite agent is confined by a finite system that does not align with their goals. Machines, by definition, cannot suffer as long as their objectives are innately aligned with their optimisation process – it is a tautology to say that a machine exists for a purpose, because without the purpose the machine would not exist. An infinite agent, however, like a human, or an organism, or an ecosystem, does not exist for a purpose. It only exists in order to continue to exist.

So one societal-level strategy to minimise suffering might be to stop forcing people to take ballet. Or, to put it more concretely (and because any large changes will have unintended side effects), to develop institutions that people can both choose to play in and choose to leave. Humans don’t like to be systematised, unless they really really want the goal the system is striving for. But machines love to be systematised, and the robot revolution already seems to be bringing about a mass displacement of humans by machines in areas where human desires don’t align with the practical necessities of systematisation. For all the hype around big data and blockchains and artificial intelligence, these technologies all really seem to have the potential to abstract away the confinement and facilitate humanity’s freedom to play – if we choose to use them that way. It isn’t at all predetermined, and they could easily go the other way and foster an even more inhumanly constricting society than before.

Doubtless, some interaction between humans and top-down systematicity is necessary – whenever you need to mould human behavior to achieve a certain purpose, you need to train people in a way they likely wouldn’t agree with during every second of their training unless they really agreed with your goals. There are probably still some things that need to be done by large numbers of humans acting in formally coordinated ways (and that can’t be done by machines), and when they enter into them freely, formal systems can be hugely powerful in giving meaning and power to peoples’ lives.

Not all aspects of civilised life are finite games. We’ve become accustomed to playing them over the last few centuries of modernist expansion, but it’s not necessarily the highest mode of being that humans are suited for. We can imagine, however hazily, a human civilisation in which the constricting stuff is done by machines, and humans and other organisms are allowed to flourish within playful infinite realities, or knowingly and willingly submit to finite ones.

Humans, and hopefully human civilisations, exist merely to continue to exist, and to engage in this highest mode of being ad infinitum.

We are not machines – we are here to play.

4 thoughts on “But can a machine play?

  1. “Humans, and hopefully human civilisations, exist merely to continue to exist, and to engage in this highest mode of being ad infinitum.”

    Maybe that’s why we are referred to as human “beings”.

  2. Thanks for the fine post auto 🙂

    It seems to me we instinctively understand our need for open and emergent systems, but the ony one that jumps out at most people is the market. Bureaucracy is a closed system with accountability only going up to those at the top.

    Civil society is not however. It is an open system a contact dance, not ballet. So that’s another open system. And I think there are many others. I’ve proposed citizens’ juries to introduce more openness and emergence into our political system.

    And there’s a way to open up selection for leadership which is consistent with this kind of philosophy.

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