Steve Jobs was unveiling the iPhone 4 at Apple’s worldwide developers conference in San Francisco last June when disaster seemed to strike. Jobs found he couldn’t connect to the conference center’s Wi-Fi network. Fortunately, his technical team rapidly pinpointed the problem. “We figured out why my demo crashed,” Jobs announced to the audience. “Because there are 570 Wi-Fi base stations operating in this room. We can’t deal with that.”
Jobs then exhorted the crowd to free up the airwaves so that he could continue. “All you bloggers need to turn off your base stations. Turn off your Wi-Fi. Every notebook, I’d like them down on the floor.” Most complied, but some refused to sever their wireless links, causing a sluggishness in connectivity that continued to dog Jobs during his presentation.
The incident was just a minor blip in the life of Apple. But suppose you had been a tech reporter whose livelihood depended on being able to send out real-time descriptions of events like this. Suppose further that nobody else would have known whether you were using a wireless base station. Would you have done as directed and turned off your gear? Why not stay connected? After all, one blogger, no matter how fast his fingers, wouldn’t have slowed network traffic perceptibly.
The problem, of course, is that the same logic applied to everyone else in that room. And if all those hundreds of Wi-Fi base stations had remained on, Jobs wouldn’t have been able to present the demonstration everyone was so eager to see.
The basic conundrum can be distilled into a simple—albeit not very realistic—game. Suppose you are one of only two reporters present. Imagine that if one of you stays connected, Jobs can still carry out his demo, but if you both ignore his urgings, everyone’s Wi-Fi will completely cut out. You and the other reporter cannot communicate with each other. You just have to pick a course of action and stick to it. What’s the smart thing to do?
Let’s say your counterpart complies with Jobs’s edict and powers down. In this case, you are clearly better off staying connected. Jobs will demo the new iPhone, and you can instantly report about it to the world, earning you fame and fortune.
Now let’s say the other reporter ignores Jobs’s directions while you comply. He will scoop you, making you the laughingstock of the newsroom when you get back to the office. So here again you’re better off ignoring the instructions.
The logic is inescapable: No matter what the other person does, it’s better for you to act selfishly. But the other reporter will surely come to the same conclusion, so you will both miss the demo. Why didn’t the two of you cooperate?
What I’ve concocted here may be thought of as a wireless-networking version of what long ago came to be called the prisoner’s dilemma, which depicts this same basic conflict in terms of two suspects in a crime, each of whom may (or may not) try to pin guilt on the other party. The prisoner’s dilemma is commonly used to illustrate the rudiments of game theory, a branch of mathematics that analyzes not games like chess or checkers but the possible actions of intelligent—and potentially deceitful—adversaries.