The ‘Game of Life’ and the 1960s Counterculture

I lived through the late 1960s as a student at UC Berkeley, the epicenter of the counterculture and radical chic. And yet somehow I missed the grand intellectual underpinnings of hippie-dom and the Summer of Love. (The people I knew who championed “People’s Park” and wore dashikis were mainly the lazy kids who’d rather smoke dope than study.)

Now, along comes UCLA Political Science Professor Brian Walker to point out what I missed, in the final two lectures of his excellent course United States Political Thinking from 1865 (website, feed ).  (Lecture outlines and syllabus are here.)

It seems that the theoreticians of the counterculture, like Stewart Brand of Whole Earth Catalog fame, were enthusiasts of a then-emerging field of study called Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS).

Walker illustrates CAS with the famous Game of Life, developed in 1970 by British mathematician John Conway. In this single-player game you make only one move. You select a number of initial “cells,” which are like squares on a piece of graph paper. Then the cells follow three simple rules to determine which cells live or die, and you watch the colony grow or perish, like cells in a petri dish. Some amazingly complex patterns can result from this very simple structure.

What this game and other Complex Adaptive Systems show is that complicated systems can arise from very simple rules which repeat over many generations.

So what does this have to do with the counterculture? Walker says that theorists like Brand believed that grand cultural change could begin from small individual actions. Thus, if we all recycle paper, we can save the forests. If we all use reusable thermos bottles instead of disposable plastic, we use less petroleum and decrease global warming. You get the idea.

It’s a theory of change that doesn’t rely on grand revolutions. Instead it says that little things, repeated hundreds of thousands of times, will matter.

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One Response to The ‘Game of Life’ and the 1960s Counterculture

  1. Dara says:

    I plan on using a quote from this article for a research paper I’m doing on 1960’s counterculture, and I have to properly cite my sources; could you please give me your last name? I can’t seem to find it.

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