Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Jane Austen, Game Theorist

Michael Chwe, himself a game theorist/political scientist, has a new book out under this title. As the befittingly straightforward heading suggest, he argues that the English dame was the unacknowledged founder of the academic field in which he studiously labors. How did he make this discovery? As he was watching “Clueless,” a romantic comedy from the 1990s loosely based on “Emma,” he was struck by all the interpersonal manipulation and strategizing he saw unfolding on the screen.

Apparently, Prof. Chwe recognized in Jane Austen a kindred soul – someone who was, as the NYT review of his book puts it, “a kind of Empire-waisted version of the mathematician and cold war thinker John von Neumann, ruthlessly breaking down the stratagems of 18th-century social warfare”; and who is worth reading by “anyone interested in human behavior” (i.e., hard-headed social scientists like himself) “because her research program has results.”

If I may refer to another movie to make sense of Prof. Chwe’s epiphany, it strikes me as “The Matrix” in reverse. While Cypher looks at those greenish strings of numbers streaming down the screen and sees peculiar human behaviors and interactions, Chwe looks at peculiar human behaviors and interactions and all he sees is numbers, tables, graphs, and equations. And this striking vision of humanity is deemed worthy of publication by Princeton University Press.

Come to think of it, such a penetrating insight may demonstrate that, at some deeper level, the “reality” we unreflectively inhabit is, indeed, reducible to a mathematical matrix. Or maybe it is increasingly made to resemble the mathematized dreamworld inhabited by all sorts of misdeployed geeks and wonks? Or perhaps we shouldn’t at all care about such profound and puzzling philosophical problems – if, as Morpheus famously noted, the brain doesn’t really know the difference…