Home All Nonzero: Reflections on Social Complexity

Nonzero: Reflections on Social Complexity

written by Kathryn Britton 7 November 2008

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, is a former software engineer and executive coach. She is now a writing coach and editor with a focus on helping people write books, blogs, and articles that contribute to the greater good (Theano Coaching LLC). She has been facilitating writing workshops since 2013. Her own books include Sit Write Share on how to get writing done well, Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.

I started first grade in a segregated whites-only school in North Carolina. By the time I was in high school, schools were integrated. We welcomed an exchange student from Argentina. During the first part of my working years, I had colleagues with green cards from Russia, Hong Kong, India, and Taiwan. Towards the end of my information technology career, I worked with teams in Germany, Poland, Japan, China and Australia. It was difficult to schedule phone meetings. In my work now, I have close email and Skype relationships with people in Australia, Mexico, Canada, England, Switzerland, Malaysia, Denmark, and China.

Robert Wright

Robert Wright

As my short sketch illustrates, I’ve seen a vast increase in the breadth and complexity of social integration in my lifetime. In his book, Nonzero, Robert Wright traces this integration to ongoing evolution of non-zero-sumness leading to greater interdependence and greater social complexity. Non-zero-sum is a term from game theory that means having overlapping interests as opposed to the competing interests of zero-sum games. A tennis match is a zero-sum game where only one side can win. In a non-zero-sum game, either both win (positive game) or both lose (negative game).

Wright attributes greater social integration to technologies that pull us together and to common threats that push us together.

Meal on the tableWe are pulled together as we create technologies that produce energy, including the food that fuels our bodies, more reliably but require many people to conduct. These technologies started simple – for example the Shoshone rabbit nets that brought otherwise independent hunters together periodically to trap a major food source. Nowadays they are very complex, involving world-wide networks of producers, middle-men, processors, and consumers who never meet each other. How many people were involved in the production, packaging, transport, and merchandizing of the food we ate last night?

“New technologies arise that permit or encourage new, richer forms of non-zero-sum interactions; then (for intelligible reasons grounded ultimately in human nature) social structures evolve that realize this rich potential – that convert non-zero-sum situations to positive sums. Thus does social complexity grow in scope and depth” (p. 5-6).

Wright describes some factors that lead to social integration – including the need to spread risks, divide up labor efficiently, manage our use of scarce resources such as water, and avoid overexploiting fish populations and arable land (p. 338).

International MarketplaceThe two main problems that have to be solved to form such a web are communication and trust. We have seen vast changes in the communication reach of ordinary people in my lifetime. We used to write letters to a few people we knew well. Now I communicate routinely with people all over the world, including people I’ve never met who read my blog. The need for trust has led to governing structures that have become increasingly interconnected.

We are pushed together by the need to deal with common threats. Over history these threats have often been warfare, invasion, and piracy. Threats are related to our economic interconnection. Wright argues that “disruptions in trade spurred the evolution of governance” (p. 121). He claims that war contains the seeds of its own demise, quoting Herbert Spencer, “From war has been gained all that it had to give…” (p. 238). I believe that we face common threats now – for example global warming – that will take global cooperation to address effectively.

Moral Animal

Moral Animal

When I first started working for IBM, a lack of effective external competition led to internal competition – giving multiple groups the same problem to solve – to push people in the groups together. Over time, plenty of external competition appeared, and then internal competition became wasteful and destructive to our common interests. I believe we are reaching a similar point where we need to get beyond internal competition among humans to turn our collective attention to the threats that face us all.

Let me end by saying humbly that Robert Wright’s arguments are far more interesting, colorful, and complex than I can capture here. Greed and lust for power are not ignored, and in fact play a role in the evolution of social complexity. Yet there is such a hopeful message about the test we are now facing to our moral imagination.

“So how will we do on this test? Judging by history, the current turbulence will eventually yield to an era of relative stability, an era when global political, economic, and social structures have largely tamed the new form of chaos. The world will reach a new equilibrium, at a level of organization higher than any past equilibrium. And the period we are now entering will, in retrospect, look like the storm before the calm” (p. 9).

Will it? It depends on all of us. “All told, our menu of options is rich, ranging from self-annihilation to graceful adaptation” (p. 10).



Wright, R. (2000). Nonzero: The logic of human destiny. New York: Vintage Press.

Wright, R. (2006). Robert Wright on TED Talks. “We are going to have to see a major round of moral progress in the world.”

Clinton, W. (2001). Remarks on Nonzero. Speech as the Dayton Peace Accords Anniversary. I love this speech.

Lederach, J. P. (2005). The moral imagination: The art and soul of building peace. Oxford University Press.


Food on the table – http://www.taiwanfun.com/pics/0807/taiwanfun/NONZERO001.jpg

Robert Wright – http://www.newamerica.net/people/robert_wright

Cover of Moral Imagination is from Amazon.com: Akmal MizshakaroI painted the image found on the cover of this book following the tragic events unleashed in New York and Washington D.C., on September 11, 2001.

Not seeing the pictures for the book links? Disable Adblocking for this site to view them.

You may also like


Sean 7 November 2008 - 5:28 pm

Thank you for this article Kathryn. Nonzero has been on my shortlist of books to read for quite some time. Your article bumped it up a notch.


Kathryn Britton 7 November 2008 - 7:27 pm


It was on my shortlist for a long time after MAPP, but I was very glad when I made my way through it. I just wish I’d read with a highlighter, because some points were hard to find again.

I just have to give myself credit for following the no-politics policy in this of all weeks. It wasn’t easy!


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

WP Twitter Auto Publish Powered By : XYZScripts.com