Some thoughts on the Glass Bead Game

17.25, Wednesday 29 Jan 2020

When I first read The Glass Bead Game (Hermann Hesse, 1943), I was awed by the beauty of this (fictional) game that is aesthetically beautiful, simply for its own sake, yet bridges art and science producing new insights.

All reminiscent of cybernetics which - as an interdisciplinary language - bridged fields from anthropology to information theory, and produced insights in cognitive neuroscience, computation, and more. (Some will disagree, which is kind of my point.)

Yet. I spend a lot of time in the tech world, and I frequently run into technologies that

  • I’m sure must be useful – that is, provide leverage meaning less effort for greater value, but
  • unhappily, to me, look like scams… and this is the critical bit: even when they are not.

This is technology from companies that are long-running and therefore successful (by one definition), or startups that are well funded (and popularity is another kind of success).

So what qualities causes my scammy spidey-sense to fire (or misfire)? It turns out it is mostly language. It is when

  • there is language and (conspicuously costly) activity which is working to build excitement and desire… and it seems like this is detached from the underlying technology itself, and
  • a lot of the language points “inward,” the words and phrases being defined in terms of more “in-network” words and phrases – which naturally gives rise to concentric circles of increasing familiarity, where those towards the centre can extract value for providing understanding to those further out. But perhaps the obfuscating language isn’t necessary.

The problem is that many complex disciplines look scammy like this. Without already being an expert, how is it possible to tell the difference between necessary complexity and gatekeeping complexity? I don’t know. I think about this a lot.

Back to tech:

I sit inside the technology ecosystem, and my own perspective is most likely bounded by a bubble - the surface of which is where it refers more inward than outward - and from the exterior probably it too looks like a priesthood that plays with concepts and charges for access. Perhaps? Yet clearly I feel it brings value. Besides its economic impact, it provides me with my tools for thinking and creativity. So how am I to reconcile that with these imagined exterior views?

And my goodness, design. There’s a whole world of mysterious, self-referential language and play with ideas that many have trouble believing actually carries meaning to those participating, but in which I have great faith and find much value and enjoyment.

Back to the Glass Bead Game

Because, with my 2020 perspective, the Glass Bead Game alarms me. The Game is played by a monastic caste of adepts and it takes a lifetime to master. It is supported by the fictional society it sits within.

It’s exclusive. It’s privileged. Although it makes a show of being meritocratic - in theory, recruits can come from anywhere - in practice it perpetuates the class system. Cynically: the meritocracy is a sham to build allegiances with the powerful in society at large, to enrol them in defending its practice of extracting energy from the ecosystem, simply to perpetuate its own complexity.

Thinking about the Glass Bead Game again, it seems more like a warning against societal preoccupations that fiercely gate-keep themselves. Which troubles me, because that also describes a lot of what I enjoy…

So perhaps the book is a doorway into meditating on (and perhaps learning how to distinguish) which unproductive, self-indulgent, expertise-demanding, self-perpetuating, expensive, worlds are actually very much the stuff of life - in that life would have no meaning or joy without them - fiction! art! hiking! opera! sharing great food with friends! – and which pursuits are instead complex emergent parasites on society, with double mouths gulping from the noosphere and the econosphere, getting fat on their own shit.

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