Exit West | Sunday Observer

Exit West

6 August, 2022

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 De Deo, an assistant professor at the 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.

These points might be rather obvious. But they were not always obvious to me, not at an emotional level. I long believed that things would probably keep getting better for our species. We humans might mess up devastatingly, but we were more likely to find a way. A way to avoid nuclear war and mitigate climate change and expand equality and diminish poverty. This had been my mental model’s base case, as it were. Now I was wondering whether humanity’s true base case was far more grim, and whether my own expectations represented instead an optimistic but improbable best case scenario.

Horrifying wars

To be clear, I never doubted that there would be horrifying wars and mass displacements and economic dislocations in the years ahead. But I somehow imagined that these would be downward zags in our species’ upward-zigging trendline. I am not sure what exactly my faith rested upon. My relative youth, maybe. The overall shifts in human life expectancy and per capita income during my lifetime, perhaps. But also something else. Something from the realm of the spirit, of feeling: a sense of techno-optimism ungrounded in any profound understanding of technology. And now here was this blast of techno-pessimism. DeDeo’s machines had spoken, and they had not said what they were supposed to say. No, you fools, they had proclaimed, the end is quite possibly nigh.

Truthfully, I had been reeling since September 11, 2001, and my move in 2009 to what seemed to be a democratising Pakistan, with expanding freedom of expression and rule of law, had not worked out quite as swimmingly as I had hoped, and then in 2016 my former home Britain voted for Brexit, and my former home America voted for Trump, and I was admittedly in a bit of a funk. It was as if I had been goading the universe: grant me pessimism, but not yet; and the universe had finally slapped me across the face and responded now, child, it is time.

The American empire is waning. This might well be a good thing, for Americans and non-Americans alike. But the early signs are not promising. Like De Deo’s machines in the moments immediately after peak hegemonic cooperation, we are finding that our differences are becoming intolerable.

When empires that span diverse populations disintegrate, history suggests the potential for conflict is high. The British empire in India gave birth to violent sectarianisms; the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian and Soviet empires did much the same. The American empire was far more powerful and wide-ranging than any that came before. As it diminishes, aggressive sectarian impulses are seemingly in the ascendant almost everywhere. Name a country today, and it likely is either run by a strongman who claims to speak for the true people, the folk, or otherwise has a strongman-in-waiting manoeuvring to take control. (There are strongwomen too, but far fewer of them.)

Our impulse to sort one another into like-me and not-like-me comes at the worst possible moment in time

I imagine the empire-building machines of De Deo’s simulation as doing three things increasingly (and exquisitely) well: identifying differences that permit sorting into categories of like-me and not-like-me, cooperating with those in the like-me category, and destroying those in the not-like-me category. Our species has, similarly, become incredibly skilled at cooperating (thousands of people in dozens of countries collectively manufactured the computer on which I am writing this). We too have developed the capacity to kill along an entire spectrum from wholesale (nuclear, chemical, biological weapons) to bespoke (quietly disappearing those who trouble us) – which is obviously a pressing, indeed existential, concern.

But our ability to kill has not changed as rapidly, in recent years, as our sorting mechanism appears to have. It is our impulse to sort, and the importance that we place on sorting that has truly gone haywire.

The end of the American empire is coinciding with the age of the cyborg. I spent much of the 1970s as a child in Silicon Valley. My father was a graduate student, my mother had an entry-level job at a technology company (they made a cutting edge storage medium known as the “audio cassette”), and I ran barefoot up bleached blond dry foothills and watched a black and white television set in which I was convinced I saw colours.

The science fiction I loved seemed to suggest that the future would contain people just like us playing around with transporter beams and hyperdrives and photon torpedoes. None of that has really come to pass: ours is still a world of automobiles and not land speeders, rifles and not laser guns. But a transformation worthy of science fiction did occur regardless. We became attached to our screens, merged with the machine culture behind those screens, and changed far more than some child might in the process of merely becoming a Jedi.

Machine world

The machine world is a binary world, and it strikes me that we have learned to apply those zeroes and ones to our thinking, intensifying our impulse to sort one another into like-me and not-like-me at what might well be, historically speaking, the worst possible moment: a moment when, as empire recedes, we are already predisposed to sort excessively and to fetishise tests of purity.

The result, as we can see all around us, is a disastrous confluence of polarisation, militarism, democratic dysfunction, and environmental disregard. In the same way that the most deadly aspect of Covid, before vaccines and pharmaceutical treatments became available, was an overreaction of our immune systems to the virus – the dreaded cytokine storm – destroying healthy lung tissue in an overzealous attempt to fight disease, the challenge we face now is an overreaction of our societal immune systems to one another. It is ruinous for us to be ones rampantly identifying as zeros those with whom we have any significant level of disagreement.

It underestimates the human capacity for messy and unexpected plasticity. Other approaches to seeking a better, more inclusive, and more equitable future urgently need to be found.