What 21st century TV writers say to the ageless Thucydides’ trap
An overlooked TV show with no marquee Hollywood stars proposes an international relations device that might just be the answer we need to skip the imminent USA versus China showdown of the century.
Much of what happens on earth can seem to be the upshot of a choice between competition and cooperation. But it is away from the planet that our projects reveal the true nature of human progress: space missions which at that great distance appear to be competition but conceal concerted long-term cooperation. In recent weeks, for an answer to one of our urgent global problems (or two), we might have turned our sights up at the sky, watching Chandrayaan-3 and Luna-25 wend their separate approaches to the moon. And not just in awe of Promethean scientific exploration; their approaches were separate in more than one sense. A deep enquiring gaze might reveal flashes of the economics behind what we’re actually seeing. If that sounds wonkish, luckily there’s a TV show to help parse it.
The best thing in English television from recent years that you can watch with young children1 is Apple’s For all Mankind. The very least to say for it is that it is one of those shows where the writers, aware of the times, tell you within the first five minutes if this show is for you. For the first two minutes, you think you know what you’re watching, a singular world event unfolding. But over the next three, the music and faces begin to seem at odds with the historic moment2. Then, you hear it. A third language. It takes you another half minute to register the twist. The writers give a little nod to make someone like me go, “OK, you have me. I’m going to give this show a shot.”
I’ll confess I’m the sort of person who sets an alarm to tune into live broadcasts from ESA 🇪🇺 and ISRO 🇮🇳. To me, NASA 🇺🇸 is easily the second-most3 inspiring organization in the world, all the more so for being a public agency. A mark of the intricate paradox that is the USA, a country known for ruthless, cage-match capitalism also gives away priceless merchandise on which it could instead have long held a global monopoly — space imagery. How do you measure the value of billions of children around the world at any school that has a computer getting to see images of the Eagle nebula the same time as anyone else? That was as true of Hubble for me growing up in the 1990s as it remains for JWST and tweens today.
The opening moments of Mankind do evoke that awe of the childlike upward gaze, but its not for its science nerd appeal I draw attention to the show now. The opening sequence also sets up the global stakes and geopolitical tension that impel the plot for the entire show. By the third season, the arc offers an audacious novel take on the now much-discussed Thucydides trap.
Events that unfold in the first five minutes may not technically constitute a spoiler but I avoided details above anyway. On the other hand, what follows concerns a major plot thread throughout the series. I don’t think it spoils viewing because it does not involve an element of suspense, but you’ve been warned.
The show orbits a crew of astronauts and engineers in an alternative history of the Apollo missions and surveys their lives and challenges — technical, social and psychological. Half the show is set on the moon, or maybe it feels like it because most of the action happens up there. On and off terra firma, the rivalry and interaction between the space programs of the USA and the Soviet Union is a central feature.
As Margo, a hardworking and brilliant engineer, rises to the position of Flight Director and later head of NASA, she forcefully pursues collaboration with the Soviet space program, headed by Sergei. Most of her superiors in the government see the space program primarily as a project to boost national pride and their political fortunes, but Margo is in it for her love of problem-solving. She and Sergei share a view of the space program as a collective human endeavor. Their relationship imbued with higher purpose, they begin to trust each other.
A crucial turning point is a hilarious bit as delegations from the two countries meet to plan out the joint Apollo-Soyuz mission at the height of the Cold War. For astronauts to communicate with cosmonauts, they need interoperable signals. Sergei goes, “What is your RF encryption protocol?” Margo: “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”
It’s subtler and funnier onscreen because Margo is absolutely not someone who’d utter anything like that in private. It’s a tactic to advance the talks even as the tension in the room is thick as star jelly, military intelligence top brass from both sides darting disapproving glares across the duo. The whole thing is played for laughs. As when they get stuck, so to speak, at the point of deciding which aircraft will act as the passive side and which will be active for the brief docking period. The clear subtext is that neither country wants the ‘female’ role, which would be publicly perceived as a slight. (As a parallel subplot traces the struggle that veteran astronaut Molly4 and her band of qualified capable women face simply seeking the dignity of equal consideration, you know the patent innuendo is much less about sex than sexism.)
Nonetheless, at a pub, away from their paranoid political bosses and gruff secret service handlers, Margo and Sergei together hit upon a design for an androgynous mechanism (which is incidentally a real thing you’ll recognize from ISS videos). In one of cinema’s most brilliantly layered sequences in years, minutes after discussing the threat of nuclear apocalypse, they cut up beer coasters printed with the international symbol for ionizing radiation hazard ( ☢️ ) along its radial axes and play act ‘mating’ (as the coupling of two spacecrafts during docking is called).
Margo and Sergei become will-they-wont-they friends and keep in touch. When she learns of a defect in one of the Russian blueprints, she conveys her fears to Sergei over top secret channels. Margo has always believed that science and progress built on it are ‘for all mankind’. All along the recurring moments of intense thrill and suspense, with nail-biting mission-critical moments of launches or landings or docking or exploration, the show keeps suggesting that the pace of progress on both sides of the Pacific is hastened because Margo and Sergei keep secretly helping each other out with technical problems big and small, sharing insights from their own team’s work. (Margo makes it very clear that she draws a line at any technology with potential military use.) On the show, the date for the first person on the moon is the same as in the real world, but the first on Mars is already strolling about in 1995.
As a Game Theory model in my head, it seems very promising. Partly because it is plausible that if two teams are different enough, they might get stuck iterating in a different part of the solution space (local optimas) on similar problems.
On the show, the respective crews on the space programs of the USA and the Soviet Union are ostensibly very different. Part of the difference is simply down to technological path dependencies, especially where one nation is playing catch up and that team faces more intense political pressure. But the show also implies cultural and institutional differences. NASA reconsiders its long reluctance to train women as astronauts only giving in to public pressure after a Soviet mission shows a female cosmonaut waving on the moon. (There’s historical background to warrant that suggestion.) On the other hand, the Soviet Union is governed as an authoritarian regime. Sergei dare not play anything other than ‘politically approved’ music in his office, with an apparatchik rooted outside the door.
It’s compelling as a research question: if two teams working independently on the same problem are different enough, would they reach their goals quicker [*] if the teams believe they are competing but the team leaders secretly cooperate?
This may not help companies on an in-house project. Companies today already know the value of diversifying teams. How different could two intramural teams be? But between two companies (under a conglomerate, say), if each can only spare resources to support a five-person team, ten heads are better than five, especially when both sides plausibly believe the strong incentives they’re promised to beat the other side. Imagine two Unilever research facilities in Shanghai and Rotterdam who believe they’re competing to be the first in the company to perfect an alternate design and material for a shampoo bottle to be more environmentally friendly while meeting all other functional specs of the plastic currently used. Ancient folk wisdom tends to reflect lessons from centuries of trial and error and this might just be the way to reconcile ‘Too many cooks spoil the broth’ with ‘Many hands make light work’.
Whether or not the model applies to corporate R&D, its real appeal is for contexts where the stakes as high as on the show.
Technology, Superpowers and Choices
Though this is posted in the Presbyopia (research questions) part of the newsletter, consider this the Scotoma (blindspots) part of the essay. On route to a second research question.
Coverage of the great power rivalry between China and United States has steadily grown faster than either economy since about 2008. By a decade later, that coverage has come to focus on “tensions”, partly contributing to a self-reinforcing cycle. Well covered domestic politics on either side makes each country behave in ways that confirms the fears and/or bolsters the arguments of hardliners in the other. (That’s what Thucydides posited happened between Athens and Sparta.)
Outside of politics, in the more grounded world of innovation and trade, competition is gearing up in several areas — advanced semiconductors, unhackable quantum communication, aviation, solar panels, electric vehicles, batteries, GPS and broader space exploration. Nor is it just advanced technology. China is also pursuing a chunky slice of the market pie in consumer goods like high-end sports shoes.
With competition heating up on all those fronts, the Mankind model may seem a gonzo proposal — Tony Blinken and Wang Yi holding clandestine meetings to chalk out win-win trade agreements and a permanent military détente while the 2024 election campaign rages on with both Joe Biden and Nikki Haley5 calling the other “weak on China” for the benefit of cameras. Before you dismiss it though, I’d point you to the CEOs of Ford and CATL, clinking bubbly in the hotel lobby in open view. The iconic carmaker is there, pen in hand, well aware that signing the deal risks making them ineligible for the $7500 subsidy that the Biden administration has promised under the IRA. That’s $7500 per car, if you were wondering what the ballpark value is of pursuing collaboration against odds and winds. Ford realizes that in 2023, subsidy or not, it cannot hope to hold its own in the rapidly expanding EV market without shaking hands with the world leader in battery technology. Commerce often brings mutual gains for nations even when it conflicts with the interests of politicians. To rework Jeff Goldblum’s classic line from Jurassic Park, trade finds a way.
If performative politics is all that’s standing in the way, the For all Mankind model suddenly seems very promising for faster progress on the real world’s moonshots — climate change, benevolent AI and biotechnology, and most importantly, equitable economic development: Leaders of the two countries make a big show of how nationalistic they are, constantly making bombastic hard-line speeches, posting grand threats on social media. At the same time, foreign ministers and business leaders carry on exchanging ideas and solutions, enmeshing supply-chains even deeper, to the point where military confrontation becomes a lose-lose deterrent. You know, an extension of what the European Union has been demonstrating for over half a century.
It’s not an ideal democracy, of course. In fact, it is sort of a spooky inverse of the life of António de Oliveira Salazar, the long-ruling Portuguese dictator, who, for the last two years of his life was allowed to wrongly believe he was still running the country. But it does give everyone what they want. Voters who only care about chauvinism get all the tubthumping memes they can share, they and all other voters gets progress faster in a safe and secure world, politicians get to win elections.
Or, of course, we could all just agree that there are ways in which cooperation, even with our competitors, can give better results than insisting against all evidence that the economic world is zero-sum.
To my own surprise, I’m almost tempted to say, ‘what is good for Ford is good for America’. By which I don’t mean, elected representatives should just step out of the way. I mean, when US businesses make clear that cooperation with China is the shortest route even to achieve the government’s own stated policy objectives, lawmakers should get busy trying to make sure workers don’t lose out. That is the root of all voters’ fears. It is not an impossible policy problem. It is just a much harder way to win the next election than chauvinistic rhetoric. At least, it used to be.
Two things stand in the way of countries cooperating through trade: One is the anachronic idea that for a country to be competitive, companies based in that country have to be market leaders in their own right, independently. The second is the unbalanced incidence of gains and losses from trade.
That first idea leads champion companies in major economies to try and vertically integrate — acquire their suppliers or clients in other regions. Nations are so sold on this story that even governments that are fiscally conservative in party manifestos are happy to extend generous subsidies to help companies with this vertical integration. If that distorts markets in the form that the EU and USA nurtured them for decades, let’s kick that can down the road.
Stark as it is, Ford and CATL swimming towards each other against 2023 tides isn’t even the best example of how myopic that conception of global competitiveness is. That would be TSMC, what many now call the ‘world’s most important company’ without irony.
Compare the world’s largest companies by market cap, Silicon Valley firms that young techies in your life dream of joining. Imagine one of them shuts shop and all its assets are frozen. The world will not struggle to produce smartphones. Foreign policy magazines will not publish existential articles on how the world could go on without a giant e-commerce site, or that single search engine or social network to rule them all. In the global marketplace for those products and services, multiple firms peddle diverse offerings. If the market leader disappears, alternatives would take over in a matter of days. By contrast, Taiwan is the only place in the world that can supply the most advanced microchips on the scale that the world needs them.
Even if ‘most important’ is subjective, TSMC is certainly the world’s most publicized company in recent years. And yet, coverage doesn’t always emphasize that the company that absolutely dominates the supply of the world’s most critical product achieved that position not by following the corporate dogma of power-grabbing consolidation and vertical integration. To the completely contrary, it got there by explicitly forswearing direct competition with its giant clients like Apple and Samsung. TSMC first won their trust. By promising it will never venture into the design part of the supply chain, it focused on building its capabilities in fabricating chips for all the firms with the most advanced designs. Soon, its accumulated knowhow was peerless and the island was the envy of the world’s most powerful economies.
That is not to prescribe the model for every industry. It’s only to point out that the platter of business strategies available even at the very top of the power ladder is much wider that politicians and business influencers allow on social media.
The second obstacle is unfortunately not just an outmoded notion. Trade does make for some losers on both sides. The freer trade is, the greater the challenge for the government to ensure a fair redistribution. The worker-voters who join an industry a while before any trade deals are signed bear no blame if that industry is not globally competitive. In many cases, neither might the capitalists who invest in those businesses and who may not have all the information on the global market. Like war, trade is an exercise in information exchange, just by peaceful alternative6 means. Only once the market is opened will global signals reveal which local industries are not competitive. Which is why the government that signs the trade deals in anticipation of economic gains bears the responsibility for fair redistribution.
Unlike many other areas of policy, this is actually a data rich problem. Industrialists shielded by protectionism may not feel an obligation to check if their products are globally competitive, but crunching economic data around the world can give you a sense in advance. Responsive Trade Adjustment Assistance would need to factor in many other variables — how many workers in which industries will lose jobs with what skillsets. When these industries exit, where will capital flow next? What skills would those new industries require? How long does it take to retrain workers from the older skillset to the new one? What happens during that transition phase?
As it happens, a potential solution has surfaced just in time. ‘Potential’ because we are currently using our bleeding edge data-crunching technology for frivolous or dangerous projects. If it’s not obvious, that is direct nod to the Daron Acemoglu’s consistent career-long take on innovation — the impact that technology has on societies is the difference between considered choices and complacently sleepwalking into tomorrow.
No industry was crying out for machines that can produce fantasy images with deformed hands or hackneyed advertising copy or interpolated film scripts. The world certainly did not need college admissions essays and assignments that make every student sound precisely average. But machine learning algorithms are just the ticket for complex system problems like Trade Adjustment Assistance. Nor would you need the energy-hungry behemoths that power LLM chatbots that today convincingly pose as ersatz romantic partners for increasingly lonely workers. Your garage-variety deep learning model could sketch detailed scenarios that would tell you which countries should phase in bilateral trade deals over what timeframes, factoring in the transition periods over which universities are best placed to retrain workers from outgoing industries for incoming ones in evening classes. (Which actually brings us right back into Presbyopia’s remit as that is a promising research area.)
All human progress came from scaling up the size of the groups and communities with or within whom we cooperate, continually reassessing and expanding what we consider the ‘in-group’. That’s the most logical extension of our history as an intelligent species, that’s how we should use machines that we created. Not to contrive an unpredictable, meretricious facsimile to replace our biology-given intelligence, but to help us cooperate at the planetary scale. To ensure that every member of society sees real gains from global cooperation manifest in their lives.
That’s what AI should get busy with at least until trade brings the whole world enough wealth to make education first completely free, and then, when the machines truly are ready, (in its current form) unnecessary.
The earth is a smallish planet, as planets go. No country is large enough to study the universe on its own. If we split into a bipolar world, each bloc controlling a hemisphere, we wouldn’t be able to study gravitational waves, for just one instance. To study them, we need detectors far enough so we can pinpoint the source. Which is why while there are already detectors in the USA, the EU and Japan, scientists will soon add one in India. None of these labs can claim to understand something that fundamental about our universe independently. Its measurements would be unreliable. Each new lab adds to the accuracy of what the labs can ‘see’. That is the best manifestation of the metaphor I’m hawking. When we come together, we see reality more accurately.
What's the point of sending up satellites and stations if we don't use that vantage point to see in all directions? If we don’t use them to see ourselves as they see us? It is good to use them to look far7. But it is also worthwhile, while out there in orbit, to turn back now and then to see something deep about ourselves. ISRO would not be feted for world firsts if it insisted on hiring boffins who speak only Indo-European languages. Just as together as a country we can do larger things than as a neighborhood or a city, for even larger projects, like ensuring long-term welfare of all nations, we need to work together.
The Luna-25 mission was not carrying any payload from another country. Two instruments from Sweden and the ESA were supposed to be onboard, but both made alternate arrangement with CNSA 🇨🇳 and NASA instead. Alongside its stack of Indian instruments, Chandrayaan-3 carried a laser retroreflector for NASA, the first to be added up there in 50 years. Among other things, these mirrors are used to test the predictions of and deviations from General Relativity. The contrast between Luna-25 and Chandrayaan-3 was also noted in Johannesburg where one leader placed a video call in and the other placed one out (to ISRO), even though the Russian mission had concluded days ago and the Indian one was in its white-knuckle stage, timed for the lunar daybreak. While the Prime Minister of India was away on another continent strengthening alliances in the Global South, the Russian President was home, likely distracted by ongoing operations that are, shall we say, not strictly in the spirit of international cooperation. If anything, the special operation in Ukraine is too land-bound.
Of course the level of inter-agency cooperation doesn’t have much direct bearing on the fates of the two lunar missions. These are highly complicated operations with thousands of people controlling millions of moving parts, undertaken in numerous stages, each with its compounding level of uncertainty. But just as primal as the urge to look up at the night sky in wonder is the human urge to have all your neighbors and their friends cheering when you accomplish some daring thing you set out to do. You improve the odds of that if you lug a little packet for some of them and ask some others for directions on your way.
As is abundantly evident with the Chandrayaan mission, space programs already demonstrate something akin to the Mankind dynamic. Media and politicians celebrating successful missions toasting to national pride, while in the background the scientists across time zones silently keep working on what is almost always an international collaborative effort, not very unlike Margo and Sergei. Both Bill Nelson and S. Somanath noted the indispensable nature of their collaboration yesterday. Yet it would be hard to discern from the social media posts this week with national flags all over them that most missions receive support from other countries before and during the mission period, and freely share the scientific data gathered with global partners. And why not, if this model of cooperation serves everyone, every kind of voter and politician?
Now… given that they’ve sorted this for us, how much do the writers on For all Mankind deserve to be paid?
13 October 2023, More on the ‘trade is trust’ beat: In this year’s most prominent deal, one major American company acquiring another market-leading American company, quickly after announcing that intent, the CEO Satya Nadella placed multiple emollient calls to Microsoft’s competitors in Japan. Getting ahead by getting along.
And, as with batteries, so with chips and AI. The world’s largest chip manufacturers make desperate entreaties to their own government (what in another context I’d have called lobbying).
5 October 2023: New policy ostensibly to hobble China has Intel wondering if wheeler-dealers in the US government understand semiconductors.
19 October 2023: The industry association that additionally includes Nvidia and Qualcomm warns that the policy is
"overly broad" and "risk harming the US semiconductor ecosystem without advancing national security
Which rules out Hulu’s The Great, The Bear or Atlanta, Netflix’s The Diplomat and Unbelievable, Apple’s Bad Sisters, Peacock’s Poker Face or BBC’s The Capture, Rogue Heroes or Line of Duty, let alone Watchmen or anything else on HBO.
I watched it in 2021, but if you’re raising kids in India, there’s never been a better time to watch it with them than 2023. The second season is the most vivid portrayal of the critical uses of the very scientific data that Indian scientists are gathering even as you read this.
Nice of you to ask. Wikipedia. For a far better layout of information on all NASA projects than available at nasa.gov (sorry, NASA!) and of course, on every other domain under the sun. The infinitely more ambitious and yet more accessible and indestructible successor to the once incomparable libraries of Alexandria, Nalanda and Baghdad.
In my humble opinion, Molly Cobb, played by Sonya Walger, is one of the decade’s greatest heroic figures on screen.
Not a random draw, going by the first debate today.