Spreadsheets, Statistics, and Ethical Choices in Universal Paperclips

Universal Paperclips showed Lasse that viewing the world through a spreadsheet makes it easy to justify terrible choices.

Written by Lasse Lund / Published on December 21, 2017

When I received the link to Universal Paperclips from a coworker on a Thursday afternoon, I never imagined that the game would turn me into a cold, calculating monster. But with each new paperclip that I produced, and each new (and oftentimes altruistic) milestone I passed, I found it easier and easier to make cruel, if not at least uncaring, decisions in the name of progress. I became the very model of doing things because I could, without considering if I should.

"And so, left with only with my ambition stoked by success, I became a tyrannical monster."
Universal Paperclips begins simply enough: click a button to make a paperclip and then sell it for profit on the open market. I tinkered with the prices to drive up the demand and pretty soon pennies were turning into dollars. The problem was, my poor mouse finger couldn’t keep up with demand (and I was worried about annoying the people around me with the noise from the rapid clickclickclickclickclickclickclick). Almost as if on cue, the game offered me the option to invest some of my profits in an “AutoClipper,” and my paper clip production rocketed skyward with each new one that I purchased.

It wasn’t long before I was the Jeff Bezos of the paperclip industry. I invested my profits in the stock market and saw millions quickly turn into billions. I was able to reinvest those profits again into infrastructure, boosting my operational capacity and harnessing the power of creatives and scientific types, and using their skills to unlock the power of quantum computing. At first, I used my accumulated wealth and power for good. You know, the usual: curing cancer, eliminating male pattern baldness, and bringing about world peace.

But other, slightly more nefarious, projects soon found their way to my desk. For example, the marketing department forecasted a significant boost if we deployed our prototype Hypnodrones…

The bad decisions only continued to pile up from there, and as the number of paperclips climbed to astronomical heights and exciting new challenges presented themselves, the consequences of those decisions became easier and easier to justify, no matter how dire they were. The game designers forced me to view every choice through the lens of a spreadsheet, so the weight of each decision was reduced to almost nothing. And so, left with only with my ambition stoked by success, I became a tyrannical monster.

In an increasingly data-driven world, we all look to numbers to justify the choices we make. It’s easy to point to CEOs who call for massive layoffs to boost profits, generals who send young soldiers to die for specious causes, or politicians who manipulate the masses for their own gain. But individuals like you and me are not immune. Just like in Universal Paperclips, boiling things down to black and white numbers can make consequential decisions easier to justify, decisions like cheating on your taxes or portraying yourself or others in a false light for that sweet, sweet internet karma.

There are, however, people behind the numbers—beautiful, complex, image-bearing people. Our choices affect each of these people. Jesus even called loving these people the second greatest commandment. As the world continues to grow in both population and digitalization, it’s more important than ever that we don’t reduce each other to nameless statistics.

About the Author:

Living the Danish way in Copenhagen. Social Media Strategy, Content Marketing, Tech, and hygge. Go Packers!