[I was part of the herd...]
that went to hear Howard Rheingold and Mark Earls talk lastnight at NESTA's hosted session on Mass Collaboration.
It was fully booked.
Howard kicked things off with some tales of collaboration, or rather lack of: politics is about "your side winning," and biology is war.
But, over the last few years Howard explained that he's been tracking the emergence of a "new narrative; one in which competition is still central but no longer all encompasing and shrinks just a little bit to leave room for some of the new knowledge that's developing over a wide variety of field about complex interdependencies and cooperative arrangements."
Then Howard brought up his second mythic narrative, the tragedy of the commons (see G. Hardin, Science 162, 1243 (1968).) Basically, human behaviour is dog-eat-dog and when there's something like, oh, let's say a nice green pasture, people will keep adding one more sheep to the field in the end "desertifying" it as Howard says. Moving from that idea that humans inherently want to maximise their own gain, Howard referred to Elinor Ostrum, a political scientist, who asked important questions of groups who did not deforestlands or over fish etc...how did some of these communities manage their resources? Or, in Ostrom's words:
Howard went on to talk about three "mythic narratives" one of which was the prisoner's dilema in which (more or less) the prisoners need to cooperate in order to win. (For a little blurb on this see here).
"The central question in this study is how a group of principals who are in an interdependent situation can organize and govern themselves to obtain continuing joint benefits when all face temptations to free-ride, shirk, or otherwise act opportunistically."
What Ostrom found was that in each of the groups that successfully managed their environment, there was a set of 8 design principles including "clearly defined boundaries, monitors who are either resource users or accountable to them, graduated sanctions, and mechanisms dominated by the users themselves to resolve conflicts and to alter the rules." The principle Howard focused on is that of "altruistic punishment." To explain the point
Mark Earls began by being "outed" as having a background in advertising though his own beginning to the presentation included a quote (seemingly) not about branding or commercial gain but from African philosophy, Ubuntu. Mark explained the quote, and he did say he was explaining it as "he" understood it: "a man is only a man with and through other men." Yeah...what about women? At least the translation might seek to collaborate with the other half of the community; women! I googled Ubuntu as soon as I arrived home, hoping to find out a bit more about this philosophy. Instead, I was reminded that Earls is all about branding because Ubuntu, of course, is the name of that new
"community developed, linux-based operating system that is perfect for laptops, desktops and servers. It contains all the applications you need - a web browser, presentation, document and spreadsheet software, instant messaging and much more. Ubuntu is free software."Archbishop Desmond Tutu defines Ubuntu as having "to do with what it means to be truly human, to know that you are bound up with others in the bundle of life."
Anyway, that invocation of African philosophy came back to Earls during the question/answer session.
Funnily enough, in a presentation about collaboration Earls asked the audience members to collaborate by doing a "Mexican wave." That was erm...fun. With audience members busy scribbling, typing, clicking, and videoing away, we had to be asked twice and indeed, needed to practise. Here we are trying to collaborate:
Earls further exemplified (to me and Jo Howard who later asked him a question about this) an undercurrent in his theorising that doesn't really seem to be about collaboration but more about power. For one, he created a divide between "us" (northern europeans) and "them" (non-northern Europeans) Plus one image he used in his ppt really stood out for me, an image of a young woman pointing up into the sky with the words "bigger boys" at the top.
Earls said he uses this excuse himself, that "bigger boys made me do it." But why not use an image of himself pointing up? Why an image of a woman? The image was related to a story about a handful of "loonies" pointing up into the sky being enough to make passerbys also look up as they're "covinced" they've missed something...this is an indication of how easy it is for other people to influence us.
Again in question time this binary opposition was picked up and someone asked Earls about aligning the west with a more combative approach and the east with a collaborative one. Interesting. In his answer Earls refers to Richard Nisbett's book The Geography of Thought which is based upon explaining these dualities. I like Razib's review at the Gene Expression where he says
"Nisbett's book is worth a read, at least if you are a business-person or a marketer, but he really does not present any new axiomatic constructs that shift anyone's paradigm."Maybe I just happened to be more aware of binaries or the invocation of "otherness" because of a sign I had spotted in a shop window on the way to the NESTA building:
NESTA has put up the podcast from the evening: http://www.nesta.org.uk/assets/mp3/11-09-07/howard_rheingold.mp3 and http://www.nesta.org.uk/assets/mp3/11-09-07/mark_earls.mp3.