Howard Rheingold talks about the coming world of collaboration, participatory media and collective action — and how Wikipedia is really an outgrowth of our natural human instinct to work as a group. As he points out, humans have been banding together to work collectively since our days of hunting mastodons. (Recorded February 2005 in Monterey, California. Duration: 19:30.)
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I’m here to enlist you [picture of Rheingold pointing at you like Uncle Sam’s drafting for the army] [laughter in audience] in helping reshape the story about humans and other critters get things done.
Here is the old story. We have already heard a little bit about it. Biology is war in which only the fiercest survive. [picture of two lizards or dinosaurs fighting] [picture of two business men talking] Businesses and nations succeed only by defeating, destroying, and dominating competition.
[picture of mutilated face of Viktor Yushchenko] Politics is about your side winning at all costs. But I think we can see the very beginnings of a new story beginning to emerge.
It’s a narrative spread across a number of different disciplines in which cooperation, collective action, and complex interdependencies play a more important role, and the central, but not all important role of competition and survival of the fittest shrinks just a little bit to make room.
I started thinking about the relationship between communication, media, and collective action when I wrote Smart Mobs, and I found that when I finished the book I kept thinking about it.
In fact, if you look back, human communication media and the ways in which we organize socially have been co-evolving for quite a long time. Humans have lived for much, much longer than the approximately ten thousand years of settled agricultural civilization.
In small family groups, nomadic hunters bring down rabbits, gathering food.
The form of wealth in those days was to have enough food to stay alive.
But at some point they banded together to hunt bigger game [picture of mastodon with Rheingold in from pointing at it in scare].
And we don’t know exactly how they did this. Although, they must have solved some collective action problems. It only makes sense that you can’t hunt mastodonts while you are fighting with the other groups.
And again, we have no way of knowing, but it’s clear that a new form of wealth must have emerged. More protein than a hunter’s family could eat before it rotted. So that raised a social question that I believe must have driven new social forms. Did the people who ate that mastodon meat owe something to the hunters and their families? And if so, how did they make arrangements?
Again, we can’t know but we can be pretty sure that some form of symbolic communication [shows one hand holding up while other points finger into palm] must have been involved.
Of course, with agriculture came the first big civilizations, the first cities built of mud and brick, the first empires [image of huge palace in stone mountain wall]. And it was the administers of these empires who begin hiring people to keep track of the wheat and sheep and water and wine that was owed, and the taxes that was owed on them by making marks [picture of clay tablet with cuneiform script (spijkerschrift)] marks on clay at that time.
Not too much longer after that, the alphabet was invented. And this powerful tool was really reserved for thousands of years for the elite administrators [shows picture of Rheingold in monk suit scribbling on parchment; laughter in audience] who kept track of accounts for the empires.
And then, another communication technology enabled new media: the printing press came along. And within decades, millions of people became literate. And from literate populations, new forms of collective action emerged in the the spheres of knowledge, [picture of Newton, Luther and Jefferson] religion, and politics.
We saw scientific revolutions, the protestant reformation, constitutional democracies possible where they had not been possible before. Not created by the printing press, but enabled by the collective action that emerges from literacy. And again, [picture of Wall St. and One Way sign] new forms of wealth emerged.
Now, commerce is ancient. Markets are as old as cross roads. But capitalism, as we know it, is only a few hundred years old, enabled by cooperative arrangements and technologies such as the joint stock ownership company, shared liability insurance, double entry book keeping,
Now of course, the enabling technologies are based on the internet. And in the many to many era [picture of complex network mesh of connections between nodes], every desktop is now a printing press, a broadcasting station, a community, or a marketplace.
Evolution is speeding up. More recently that power is untethering and leaping off the desktops. And very very quickly we are going to see a significant proportion, if not the majority of the human race walking around holding, carrying, or wearing supercomputers linked at speeds greater than what we consider to be broadband today.
Now when I started looking into collaborative action, the considerable literature on it is based on what sociologists call social dilemmas. And there are a number of dilemmas that couple a mythic narrative of social dilemmas. I am going to talk about two of them: the prisoner’s dilemma and the tragedy of the commons.
Now when I talked about this with Kevin Kelly he assured me that everybody in this audience pretty much knows the details about the prisoner’s dilemma. So I’m just going to go over that very very quickly. If you have more questions about it, ask Kevin Kelly later [laughter].
The prisoner’s dilemma is actually a story that is overlaid on a mathematically matrix that came out of the game theory in the early years of thinking about nuclear war: two players couldn’t trust each other.
Let me just say that every unsecured transaction is a good example of the prisoner’s dilemma [picture of quadrants showing prisoner’s dilemma]. Person with the goods, person with the money, because they cannot trust each other, are not going to exchange. Neither one wants to be the first one or they going to get the sucker’s payoff. But both loose of course because they don’t get what they want. If they could only agree, if they could only get the prisoner’s dilemma into a different payoff matrix called an insurance game they could proceed.
Twenty years ago Robert Axelrod used the prisoner’s dilemma as the probe of the biological question: if we are here because our ancestors were such fierce competitors, how does cooperation exist at all? He started a computer tournament for people to submit prisoner’s dilemma strategies and discovered much to his surprise that a very very simple strategy won. It won the first tournament, and even after everyone knew it won, it won the second tournament. That’s known as tit-for-tat [shows $100 bill with piece torn off and Rheingold as the president’s head; laughter in audience].
Another economic game that may not be as well known as the prisoner’s dilemma is the ultimatum game. And it is also very interesting probe of our assumptions about the way people make economic transactions.
Here is how the game is played. There are two players that had never played the game before. They will not play the game again. They don’t know each other. And they are in fact in separate rooms. First player is offered a hundred dollars, and is asked to propose a split: 50/50, 90/10. Whatever that player wants to propose. The second player either accepts the split, both players are payed and the game is over. Or rejects the split. Neither player is paid and the game is over.
Now, the fundamental basis of neoclassical economics would tell you it is irrational to reject a dollar because someone you don’t know in another room is going to get 99. Yet, in thousands of trials with American and European and Japanese students, a significant portion would reject an offer that is not close to 50/50. And although they were screened and didn’t know about the game and had never played the game before, proposers seemed to inately know this because the average proposal was surprisingly close to 50/50.
Now the interesting part comes in more recently when anthropologists began taking this game to other cultures and discovered to their surprise that slash-and-burn agriculturalists in the Amazon or the nomadic pasturalists in Central Asia, or a dozen different cultures, each had radically different ideas of what is fair. Which suggests that, instead of there being an innate sense of fairness, that it somehow the basis of our economic transactions can be influenced by our social institutions, whether we know that or not.
The other narrative of social dilemmas is The Tragedy of the Commons. Garrett Hardin used it to talk about overpopulation in the late 1960s he used the example of a common grazing area in which each person, by simply maximizing their own flock, led to overgrazing and the depletion of the resource. He had the rather glooming conclusion that humans will inevitably despoil any common pool resource in which people cannot be restrained from using it.
Now, Eleanor Ostrom, a political scientist, in 1990, asked the interesting question that any good scientist should ask, which is: Is it really true that humans will always despoil commons? So she went out and looked out at what data she could find.
She looked at thousands fo cases of humans sharing watersheds, forestry resources, fisheries, and discovered that, yes, in case after case, humans destroyed the commons that they depended on. But she also found many instances in which people escaped the prisoner’s dilemma. In fact, the tragedy of the commons is a multiplayer prisoner’s dilemma. And she said that people are only prisoners, if they consider themselves to be.
They escaped by creating institutions for collective action. And she discovered, I think most interestingly, that among those institutions that worked, there were a number of common design principles. And those principles seem to be missing from those institutions that don’t work [shows beehive hanging from tree trunk].
I’m moving very quickly over a number of disciplines. In biology the notions of symbiosis, group selection, evolutionary psychology are contested to be sure. But there is really no longer any major debate over the fact that cooperative arrangements have moved from a peripheral role to a central role in biology from the level of the cell to the level of the ecology.
And again, our notions of individuals as economic beings have been overturned. Rational selfinterest is not always the dominating factor. In fact, people will act on punished cheaters, even at a cost to themselves.
[shows picture of lateral brain scan with colors] And most recently, new physiological measures have shown that people who punish cheaters in economic games show activity in the reward centers of their brain. Which let one scientist to declare that altruistic punishment may be the glue that holds societies together [show slide with: new forms of cooperation create new forms of wealth].
Now I’ve been talking about how new forms of communication and new media in the past have helped create new economic forms. Commerce is as ancient, markets are very old, capitalism is fairly recent. Socialism emerged as a reaction to that. And yet we see very little talk about how the next form may be emerging.
[00:14:00] Jim Surowiecki briefly mentioned Yochai Benkler’s paper on open source, pointing to a new form production, peer-to-peer production. I simply want you to keep in mind, that if in the past, new forms of cooperation, enabled by new technology, create new forms of wealth, we maybe moving into yet another economic form that is significantly different from previous ones.
Very briefly lets look at some businesses. [shows slide with logos from Toyota, HP, Sun Microsystems, (Linux at) IBM, Sony, Amazon, eBay, Lilly and Innocentive] IBM, as you know, HP, Sun, some of them most fierce competitors in the IT world are open sourcing their software. Are providing portfolios of patents for the commons. Eli Lilly, and again, the fiercly competitive pharmaceutical world has created a market for solutions for pharmaceutical problems.
Toyota, instead of treating its suppliers as a marketplace, treats them as a network and trains them to produce better, even as they also training them to produce better for their competitors. Now, non of these companies are doing this out of altruism. They are doing this because they are learning that a certain kind of sharing is their self-interest.
Open sourced production has shown us that world class software [shows slide with Linux penguin and Mozilla dinosaur] like Linux and Mozilla can be created with neither the beaurocratic structure of the firm, nor the incentives of the marketplace as we known them.
Google enriches itself by enriching thousands of bloggers through AdSense. Amazon has opened its Application Programming Interface to 60,000 developers, countless Amazon shops. They are enriching others not out of altruism but as a way of enriching themselves.
Ebay solved the prisoner’s dilemma and created the market where none would have existed by creating a feedback mechanism that turns a prisoner’s dilemma game into an insurance game instead of neither of us can trust each other so we have to make suboptimal moves, it’s you prove to me that you are trustworthy and I will cooperate.
Wikipedia has used thousands of volunteers to create a free encyclopedia with a million and a half articles in two hundred languages in just a couple of years.
We have seen that ThinkCycle has enabled NGOs in developing countries to put up problems to be solved by design students around the world. Including something to be use for tsunami relief right now. It is a mechanism for rehydrating cholera victims that is so simple to use it that illiterates can be trained to use it.
BitTorrent turns every downloader into an uploader, making the system more efficient the more it is used.
Millions of people have contributed their desktop computers when they are not using them to link together to the internet into supercomputing collectives that help solve the protein foldings project for medical researchers. That is Folding@Home at Stanford. To crack codes. To search for life in outer space.
I don’t think we know enough yet. I don’t think we have even begun to discover what the basic principles are. But I think we can begin to think about them.
And, I don’t have enough time to talk about all of them. But think about self-interest. This is all about self-interest that adds up to more. In El Salvador [picture of El Salvador art] both sides that withdrew from their civil war took moves that had been proven to mirror a prisoner’s dilemma strategy.
In the US [picture of mobile phone showing message: “email@example.com /Riot cops w/ netting stationed at 5th ave and 17th st”] in the Philippines, in Kenya, around the world, citizens have self-organized political protests and it get up the vote campaigns using mobile devices and SMS.
[picture of self pointing to man on moon] In the Apollo project of cooperation possible? A transdisciplinary study of cooperation?
I believe that the pay off will be very big. I think we need to begin developing maps of [picture with concentric circles] these territories so that we can talk about it across disciplins. And I am not saying that understanding cooperation is going to cause [picture of self demonstrating “ignoring alien orders] us to be better people.
And sometimes people cooperate to do bad things. But I will remind you that a few hundred years ago, people saw their loved-ones die from diseases they thought were caused by sin or foreigners or evil spirits.
Descartes said we need an entire new way of thinking when the scientific method provided that new way of thinking, and biology showed that microorganisms caused disease, suffering was alleviated.
What forms of suffering could be alleviated, what forms of wealth could be created if we knew a little bit more about cooperation? I don’t think that this transdisciplinary discourse is automatically going to happen. It is going to require effort.
So I enlist you to help me get the cooperation project started. Thank you.