In game theory and economic theory, if the total gains of the participants are added up and the total losses are subtracted, they will sum to zero. In contrast, non-zero-sum describes a situation in which the interacting parties’ aggregate gains and losses can be less than or more than zero.
Paras Chopra had an interesting twitter thread a little while back that caught my attention. In it he gives his summary of Robert Wright’s Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny:
The basic premise of the book is that history has a direction which favors co-operation and non-zero sum games, and that causes an increase in complexity. Starting from the first replicating molecule which co-operated with an outer layer to form first proto-cell, evolutionary and cultural history is full of examples where two entities come together to survive and progress a lot more than they would have done individually. This co-operative entity fares much better than two individual entities because of specialization. If two entities are in the same boat — that they win together or lose together — then trust is implicit. In a non-zero sum game, trust causes entities to focus on what they do best.
The benefits of cooperation don’t stop with biology though, this win-win non-zero sum game carries over to culture:
Out of all technologies, perhaps information technologies are most conducive to enabling more non-zero sum games. As writing skill spread, more and more people entered into simple written contracts that helped people co-operate and specialize. Perhaps the biggest information technology was money and the corresponding meme of capitalism that helped people express their desires clearly and others to fulfil those desires. We have a thousand different types of shoes because shoe-makers today do not have to worry about baking their own bread. This “trust” in the larger entity of commerce helps everyone progress.
It’s definitely an interesting way of looking at current events, we seem to be embracing zero-sum game theory with movements like Brexit and Trumpsim, game theory might want to have a word with us. Another book to add to the reading list.