The Nihilism of Rock, Paper, Scissors

We’re all familiar with Rock, Paper, Scissors. It’s that kids game that gives players three options in an interconnected system of choices and consequences where rock beats scissors, scissors beat paper, and paper beats rock. It’s good innocent fun and even to adults it serves a function as a kind of reliable tie-breaking mechanism.

The game presents a kind of closed, zero-sum system of morality where any choice you can pick has virtues and drawbacks — choosing the scissors is good because you can cut the paper, but you’re also vulnerable to being smashed by the rock, etc. You could say that on a personal scale, this teaches kids that any decision you make has pros and cons. But on a much larger scale, it also speaks to some kind of deeper innate understanding of the human condition that is much bleaker. At its heart, Rock, Paper, Scissors teaches that the only ultimate truth cold, hard, nihilism.

The rock — blind, uncaring, brute violence — reigns supreme, destroying everything by smashing it to bits. There is no morality, the only thing that matters, or that possibly can matter, is survival.

Until the paper comes long. The paper, of course, is wisdom, knowledge, philosophy. Only the paper is able to defeat the rock, and does so by “covering” it, Socrates-like, with reason and empathy. Brute strength is fine, yes. But the higher good is wisdom. Now paper is the law of the land.

But the paper gets cocky. It loses sight of what brought it to the party in the first place. Hubris takes hold and blinds the paper to the more sinister elements within its ranks. Wisdom becomes information, reflection becomes logic, and the paper itself becomes weaponized. Sure, technology seems innocent at first — wheels, axes, hammers — these are all instances of humanity using innovation to make our lives easier and more comfortable. But where’s the line? How much should we play god? Sure, we can use science to develop medicine, but should we clone sheep? Should we detect if a fetus will be born with medical defects? Should we replace all of our real life social relationships with digital ones? Technology allows us to, but is it wise? Is there a line where technological innovation gets so out of hand that it starts actively destroying the wisdom that had initially driven it? Inevitably yes.

The paper is cut by the scissors.

Now technology and its virtues are the highest good. Mankind values and worships progress and innovation above all else, consequences be damned. Who cares about motivation? Who cares about implications? The only thing we should, or can, do is hurdle blindly down the path of technology — the Next Big Thing at any cost. Because, hey, even if that cost is dire, if I don’t invent it, someone else will.

And what’s next? Well, technological apocalypse. We finally develop some kind of super technology that we must destroy, thereby learning our lesson. Or maybe humanity’s base instincts finally win out and we decide to smash the technology ourselves. It’s hard to say for sure, of course. After all, that’s where we are in the cycle right now. But in any case, the rock smashes the scissors.

And we’re right back where we started.

Now personally, I think this game is a little too bleak to be teaching our children. But think about it. Nobody really teaches Rock, Paper, Scissors to children. They just kind of inherently know it — and this is true across cultures. Dating back to the 1920s, Rock, Paper, Scissors has popped up independently under different names — Rochambeau, Sansukimi-ken — in societies across the world. Kids are born with this innate understanding that society is cyclical and anything we can accomplish, any morality we can create, now will inevitably be gone when the rock comes back to wipe the slate clean. Even babies understand that the same ability to self-reflect that drives mankind to innovate will also ultimately lead to our downfall.

The other day I saw some kids on the playground playing 4 square, obviously to distract themselves from the uncomfortable truth that existence precedes essence and even our deepest held moral and/or religious convictions don’t and can’t really mean anything.

So yes, the toothpaste is out of the tube. But take comfort in the fact that it was never in the tube in the first place. And the sooner you can throw away that tube, the better. But wait! There’s not even a tube to begin with. That thing you’re holding is just a bunch of toothpaste. Better put it in a plastic baggie or something, it’s getting all over your nice shirt.