Digital Technology Has Made Day-to-Day Living a Game
"There's no escape. But that's okay."
Alessandro Baricco is one of Italy’s most versatile contemporary writers and public intellectuals. His new book, The Game (McSweeney’s, 2020, translated from the Italian by Clarissa Botsford) is a journey that maps out the transformations that the digital revolution has wrought upon the landscape of human experience Brian Christian is the author of three acclaimed books on the intersection of humanity and technology, including, most recently, The Alignment Problem.
The interview begins in utterly 21st-century fashion. I send a Zoom link but somehow end up in a different Zoom room from Alessandro, each of us patiently waiting for the other to arrive. Zoom sends me a notification that Alessandro has arrived in a different meeting room, but it goes to my personal rather than my McSweeney’s inbox and I don’t see it. I email Alessandro’s assistant and get a WhatsApp message on my phone in reply. Eventually, Alessandro, his friend and translator Claudio Fogu, and I manage to find each other in the same corner of the digital landscape.
Brian Christian: I apologize for the technical difficulties. I was in a different Zoom meeting and I was waiting for you, but you were in this Zoom meeting waiting for me.
Alessandro Baricco: No problem at all. (Laughs.) That is typical; it is the Game.
BC: This question will seem deliberately naive, but: What is the Game?
AB: This is the name of the civilization we’re living in, which is fundamentally connected to the DNA of the digital. I selected it because I’m convinced that the DNA of this civilization comes from video games. Not Call of Duty, but from the first generation of video games, like Spacewar!, where the hackers at the time were experimenting.
Everything was born out of that experimentation. So the basic thesis of the book is that every digital device is, fundamentally, a video game: in its intellectual construction, in its logic.
BC: Thinking back to what you describe as the seminal importance of these early video games—you talk about Spacewar! and Space Invaders—you quote Stewart Brand as saying, “War in space has done a lot for peace on earth.” I found this such a surprising quote. And this idea that part of the objective of building this new society was, in some sense, to achieve peace on earth, in the sense of putting an end to the violent 20th century. Can you say a little bit more about this idea that I think many people will find counterintuitive: that war in space has led to peace on earth? What did Stewart Brand mean by that, and how do you think about that?
AB: The culture of the hackers who were creating that digital world was basically overlapping with the Beat Generation or the hippie generation of the 1960s. Stewart Brand himself is a kind of symbol of that conjunction and the world from which the digital revolution came.
If you don’t recall that origin, it’s very hard to understand what comes after. Even the idea of peace connected to Spacewar! had a lot to do with the fact that of course the world that the digital was going to create was a freer and more open world, which he also identified as more peaceful.
BC: Do you think it’s fair to say that he succeeded?
AB: More than we accept. Much more.The panorama—the background—of our lives is completely changed. Whether we directly participate in it or not, the environment has changed dramatically.
BC: In thinking about the conjunction of early video games and war, there’s a famous film here in the States from the 1980s called WarGames. The most famous line in the film is, “The only winning move is not to play.” I kept thinking about this reading your book. Is it possible not to play the Game? And if it is possible, is it a good idea?
AB: It’s impossible not to play the Game. And it’s not a good idea.
BC: I think that’s part of what I found intriguing and refreshing about the book. There are many books that simply look to the digital revolution as a purely utopian project; there are many that view it as purely negative. I take it that you’re interested in something a bit subtler than either of those views, which is to say, “There’s no escape. But that’s okay.”
Do you feel like you’re balancing between those two extreme views?
AB: I think that, rather than being a balance or a middle point, those two options live together in this book: the utopian aspect, and also the more threatening aspect. We need to fundamentally understand, and orient ourselves towards the idea, that this is a big chance for a better world. Simultaneously, we need to understand the risks, because that’s the only way that we can actually direct the whole process towards the kind of better world that we want to bring about.
BC: One of my very favorite books is Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse. His basic thesis is that there are two kinds of games. In a finite game, you play in order to bring about a very specific kind of ending that you can imagine in advance. So a soccer team plays the game of soccer in order to win the championship, and they’ve already imagined in their mind what it would be to win that championship. All they have to do is make it happen.
On the other hand, there are infinite games, games where we play not to conclude play, but to prolong play. If you think about the way children play, or the way that jazz musicians improvise, there is no specific destination, but they are playing in order to extend the process of playing
In what category would you put the Game? Do we have a destination in mind? Or are we going towards a destination we don’t envision in advance, and we’re sort of playing for the sake of continuing play?
AB: Very interesting question. In the first phase, I believe that there was a true end to the Game: that of overturning the culture of the 20th century, the intelligence of the 20th century. But since that has been achieved, it’s clearly a game of the second type.
And this is something that you can find also in the DNA of video games. For most people, video games are infinite play. Very few players get to the end, or exhaust all of their options.
BC: There’s a passage in the book where you talk about a woman named Caterina Fake, who is the co-founder of Flickr. And—
AB: You know her?
BC: I’ve met her. I can attest that she is a real person! I remembered that Flickr originally started as a video game company, and they had created a photo uploading tool as part of their video game. And the video game failed, but the photo uploading tool that they had built went on to become this billion dollar company. I thought that was really remarkable.
And in fact, Caterina Fake’s co-founder, Stewart Butterfield, after they sold the company went on to try a second time to start a video game company. And he tried to make a second video game, but that failed and ended up turning into the company Slack, which is now this other billion dollar company. Your book invites me to think of Silicon Valley as these sort of failed video game designers that have ended up creating billions of dollars by accident. But really all they want to do is make video games.
AB: Oh, we have to send Ms. Fake the book, please! In a way, the Game as a whole could be the collateral damage of searching for video games.
BC: The other thing that occurs to me as far as collateral damage is you talk in your book about artificial intelligence and AlphaGo and deep neural networks. And I’m very struck by the fact that one of the technologies that was critical to deep neural networks was the GPU, which is a piece of processing hardware that was designed for video games.
Only a decade later did people discover that this is the perfect thing for creating artificial intelligence. It seems like history is repeating itself. You’ve identified this bizarre but fundamental law of the digital revolution.
AB: The power of the digital is connected to the needs of the video game industry, which pushed the boundaries of creating that power. And partially the pornographic industry has created that sort of power. That request for higher, and speedier… That happened in cinema as well, in the beginning.
BC: There’s a wonderful scene where you invite us to imagine the table soccer at a bar being replaced by a pinball machine, and then the pinball machine is replaced by Space Invaders. You talk about the dominance of the posture: the physical posture of video games.
The other thing that comes to my mind when I think about this progression is that you play table soccer with other people, but you play Space Invaders largely by yourself. (Although perhaps at an arcade, there are other people there, or you would go with your friends. There was a social aspect of that experience, but it was diminished.)
I’m obviously a couple decades younger than yourself. And so I grew up with Nintendo as a child, but one of the things that I’ve noticed is that the games I grew up with, you could have more than one player on the same television screen. That was true until about 2010. And if you look at the popular games now, whether it’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare or Fortnite, you can’t play on the same TV. It’s impossible to have your friends over and play on the same screen. The only way to play with your friends is for everyone to be in their house separately on a separate computer with a separate screen.
And so video game culture itself is changing, and becoming—I think to some degree—even more anti-social. How do you see the relationship between video games and this posture, to the social aspects of human life? Is it changing the way that people can relate to one another?
AB: If you go play soccer for real, you meet a lot more people than if you play FIFA. The video game has replaced, and sort of filled, those moments of solitude and boredom that were a part of the life of every youth up until my generation. So it is a form of solitude. It’s a more entertaining, and less radical, form of solitude.
There is a lot of time spent by young kids today in talking about video games and their experiences on them, so there is that other component; it becomes social after they are done playing. And of course it is very diffuse: looking at others play is part of the experience of video games today. YouTube is full of gamers that are being watched by kids who just watch others game.
To begin with, it is always connected to solitude. But its articulations are very social, and can be very rich.
BC: There was a very famous book about 15 years ago in the United States that was called The Game. The book was about pickup artists. It was about this culture of people who had created a game out of dating, basically. It was read by many hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions of people, who wanted to learn how to pick up women, basically.
You—I think very convincingly—argue that essentially every app on your phone is a game, whether it’s obvious or not. I think you argue that point well. Does the culture of the Game induce us to view even analog interactions through the framework of games? Or is there still this human refuge, away from that world, that we can sort of escape to?
AB: It certainly has changed and produced effects on our way of interacting with other humans. Obviously the sentimental/emotional relations, going through the websites that connect humans now have changed dramatically the way in which humans interacted before.
The panorama—the background—of our lives is completely changed. Whether we directly participate in it or not, the environment has changed dramatically. The feelings, the instincts; everything is the same, though. We just move in a different landscape.Thanks to this new digital civilization, people experience emotions, have emotional states, that were reserved, until the last century, only to very few people.
BC: I want to ask you about the book as a book—and yourself as a writer. There’s a moment near the end of the book where you talk about having this realization of why you hate social media. You talk about this idea that people in Generation Z, the young people today, are using these tools to “elaborate on life”—but in some sense this is what writers have been doing for centuries.
I loved this moment, because at this point in history we think of writers as kind of stodgy, or representing an older way of life. But I think you can turn it around and say, in effect, “Writers were the early adopters. We got there first. What you’re doing now? We’ve always been doing that.”
Can you say a little bit more about what it means to make art, and to make literature, as you think about the digital landscape now?
AB: This is typical of the digital civilization. It was an experience that was very selective and it was kind of a privilege of the few. And then the digital civilization makes that experience available to a huge number of people.
I believe that thanks to this new digital civilization, people experience emotions, have emotional states, that were reserved, until the last century, only to very few people. Naturally, that comes with huge risks. But we have de facto accepted this risk. There is no more question about that.
BC: I’m interested in the fact that this book in the US is being published through McSweeney’s, which is based in San Francisco. Most of the American publishing industry is in New York City, thousands of miles away from Silicon Valley. But McSweeney’s has an office on Valencia Street, which is where all the young tech employees go on Friday night to hang out. And there’s this strange juxtaposition of this publishing office right next to those bars.
I’m curious if you anticipate the reception being different, or if it means something different, to have an American edition of the book that’s going to be read by people of that very culture.
AB: The fundamental point is the curiosity I’ve got about how it will be received in the States in general: either coast. Generally Americans don’t like to be told what they have done by somebody else that is not American.
We’re a little different in Europe, from that perspective. We’re always told what we’ve done by others. The greatest historians of Italy, of course, are from England—the most well-known and most read.
The second thing is that of course it is difficult because it is a book that is written by somebody who’s known as a fiction writer, in the United States especially. So that’s also something I believe Americans have a little more trouble with. They’re more sectorial; you either write essays or you are a fiction writer.
The strength of the book, instead, is precisely in the fact that it’s neither an essay only, nor, of course, a novel. When I announced the idea of the book to my Italian publisher, I announced it as a “sentimental thriller” and a geographical book composed of maps. It’s good for Italy; it’s good for Spain; it’s good for the Latin-American world. It’s not good for France, for example, because a writer should not do maps, in their opinion. They should only write beautiful sentences. Or make maps but without beautiful sentences.
BC: There’s a beautiful line where you say, “Books are a totemic fortress.” And you say later, “We will never be lost as long as we have books.” I’m very struck, in a story that is all about this digital revolution, there are these moments where we come back to the essential role that books can play. And how they have such a different posture: you read them from start to finish. They’re not hypertextual; they’re not interactive.
As I take the spirit of these lines, there’s this essential role for a media with those properties—particularly in this world where everything has been turned into a game. So that’s my first question: the role of the book, this idea that we’re never lost as long as we have books.
The second question, which I think is probably related, is this idea of “contemporary humanities.” You say it’s essential for the humanities to “close the gap and catch up with the Game.” So I’m wondering how you think that can be achieved, and what you think the way forward is for contemporary humanities.
AB: Actually the two questions are truly interconnected. What the book symbolizes is humanism as a whole. It’s my conviction that if we fail to bring humanism into the Game, we will create a society that will be ever more capable of solving problems, but ever more incapable of understanding why it solves problems.
How do we do that? Basically, changing the intelligences that represent humanism today. So, today, changing those ideals of what it means to be a humanist. It’s a problem of institutions, it’s a problem of schools, it’s a problem of people. But it’s fundamentally a problem in which we need to create a new generation of contemporary humanists that replace the generation of 20th-century humanists. It’s not a question of age, at all; there are 80-year-old people who are contemporaries to this shift. It’s a problem of mental elasticity—and the ability to be at home in the Game.
The Game is available via McSweeney’s.