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When Pong played Humans

3 min read

It was a blistering July day in Las Vegas, with temps hitting 109.  Inside the SIGGRAPH 91 convention hall Yello's Rubberbandman looped on the speakers. On each chair: a red/green paddle.

I was a student volunteer, stamping the finest hands in Computer Graphics.  Those hands (and my own) each controlled those paddles.  Then 5000 people looked up and saw a Pong Game appear on the screen.

And then..  the machine started playing us.

In response to visual stimuli we changed the color of our paddle.  The ball moved left, then right.  The crowd shouting "red red red", "green!" and cheering as the game played on.

The rules of the game and the feedback loops directed our actions.  It was a complex adaptive system with emergent behavior.

And luckily there is some footage of this moment.  Watch this excerpt from "Machines of Loving Grace" that talks about this moment in history:

Loren Carpenter Experiment at SIGGRAPH '91 from Zachary Murray on Vimeo.

Loren Carpenter cofounded Pixar.  Check out the TurboGopher appearance at the 5:00 minute mark.

Today the simple pong game is now the multilayered technological environment we interact with on a daily basis. Instead of red/green paddles with 1 bit of data we carry phones that generate a wealth more.  These devices also provide the aural/visual and haptic stimuli.    With that our collective actions power all kinds of "games" today:

  • Aggregated location data and movement speed generates traffic data in maps.
  • Aggregated search queries and click data deliver better search results.
  • Aggregated likes, views and interactions with content power trending data and even news and politics.

As technologists we need to remember that by controlling the game, we are indirectly controlling the players.  The choices we allow (and forbid) define the behavior.  The game "plays" the player.  And often the only way to be free is to not play at all.

Except that is if maybe, just maybe, the people start playing a different game than the one we designed.  In the giddy demonstration it was assumed that people wanted to win at Pong.  But we didn't play long enough for abuse or scheming.  It would have only taken a few people to cross over to sabotage the other side, or for trolls to have changed the outcome.

Finally this level of power and control demands great responsibility.  The only thing worse than control used for malicious purposes is control wielded without thought, without thinking of the consequences.  So the next time you're designing a product think about the whole system and all the inputs and ask "who's really in control?".

h/t to the General Intellect Unit podcast and their Machines of Loving Grace episode for reminding me of this unsung moment in history.