I’ve been reading a text in Wired by Bill Joy with a fascinating title: The Future Doesn’t Need Us. At the same time I was researching some stuff about terrorism, security, things Edward Snowden said. I realize that the empowerment of the individual by information technology and the availability of knowledge about stuff such as nanotech, genetics, robotics, biotech also empowers individuals and small groups to commit mass atrocities. Bill Joy uses the expression “knowledge-enabled mass destruction”. In this context I guess security services everywhere find it easier to convince governments that mass surveillance is necessary.
However, in order to organize the Big Data which they accumulate, super computers are needed, machines which can learn and decide. In order to create that, we need more nanotech, information technology and other stuff which in turn empowers the individuals even more as the availability of these technologies spreads out. It’s like an infernal cycle. I used Google Drawing to sketch my thinking about this (click on the map to go to the clickable version):
I did something strange today. I registered for a course facilitated by Howard Rheingold, the Think-Know Tools, you’ll find more about this on the wiki of Rheingold U (I even think you can still register, but hurry up – also, this course is not free).
The strange thing is that I participate in this course for the second time. In fact it’s about the fifth time I participate in one of Howard’s courses, not counting my participation in real life in a master class he gave in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Here you find his keynote he gave on that occasion:
So, why taking a course for a second time (even taking into account the discount Rheingold U alumni get)? Because, even though it’s important to have a great facilitator such as Howard, the students ultimately learn from each other. New contacts mean new discoveries. And because people change – the questions I have today are different from the questions I had the first time I took this course.
Teller said he believed that a likely innovation within the next 20 to 30 years will be the creation of “factories for ideas”, virtual factories which will produce “new ideas in every domain”. (RL: Astro Teller is the top executive of Google X)
I’ve no idea what he really means by these “factories for ideas”. Maybe these virtual factories are beyond humans, as they will be populated by intelligent computers? But in my presentation we can make virtual factories for ideas today already, using Think-Know tools helping us to collaborate, to detect crap, to filter information and build knowledge radars. That’s at least something I want to explore in this course.
There are advantages of working for an established newspaper. Like having a salary, infrastructure, lots of news-addicts around you. But it’s becoming ever more important to look at how media companies from a streaming tradition innovate. Wire services such as Reuters for instance build rivers of news. Justin Ellis on Nieman Journalism Lab says Every page is your homepage: Reuters, untied to print metaphor, builds a modern river of news.
Ben Adler at the Columbia Journalism Review discusses Streams of Consciousness: Millennials expect a steady diet of quick-hit, social-media-mediated bits and bytes. What does that mean for journalism? Adler:
I found four overlapping, and mutually reinforcing, trends:
Proliferation of news sources, formats, and new technologies for media consumption Participation by consumers in the dissemination and creation of news, through social-media sharing, commenting, blogging, and the posting online of photos, audio, and video Personalization of one’s streams of news via email, mobile apps, and social media Source promiscuity Rather than having strong relationships with a handful of media brands, young people graze among a vast array of news outlets.
One of the most interesting coders/philosophers of the rivers of news is Dave Winer. He explains why every news organization should have a river. It’s about the curation of streams, not of stories: the streams one monitors oneself in order to produce media, the streams produced by bloggers who collaborate or even by those who are competitors, the streams the own organization puts out.Another one by Winer: 11th hour for news nets.
Great story about a start-up, Gittip, getting a call from TechCrunch. The guys from the start-up react by saying they want to stream the interview in real-time and publicly. TechCrunch was not amused. Read about it on the blog of Gittip. Even famous blogs have problems adapting to streams.
I found some great folks on Google+ wanting to discuss media in the era of streams. I asked them: Suppose today you got 15 minutes to either follow your social streams (Facebook, Twitter, Google+… ) or read a newspaper. What’s your choice? Answers on my Google+ page…
There has been an eerie silence on this blog for the past weeks. I was immersed in various learning projects. I had to focus for longer times, and this made me switch my attention away from social media streams, unless I could focus on certain topics via Twitter lists for instance.
– So what is the learning about? I’m still absorbing stuff I learned at the various courses facilitated by Howard Rheingold (there’s a new one coming up about Mind Amplifiers). Also, I attended a real life class featuring Howard in the Netherlands (more about this in a later post, but that’s where I took the picture), where he discussed the major findings of his book Net Smart (which can be considered as a long and deep study of attention practices). In this part of the learning it’s all about forums, blogs, wikis, mindmaps, social bookmarks, synchronous audio, video, chat and Twitter.
– The other part of my learning is about tools for digital stortytelling and data journalism. I made a good start on Codeacademy, but somehow I need the intervention of real tutors to continue the learning process. So I decided to take courses at the O’Reilly School of Technology. They even deliver certificates for professional developments. I do realize it are not the certificates which are that important, but it’s a kind of an interesting gamification element. The ‘school’ offers a nice interactive coding environment and tutors evaluate the homework and give feedback.
Data Journalism is something we’re learning at our media company, and our teacher is Peter Verweij (who was so kind as to include the very basics of using spreadsheets in his program).
– Finally there is a big experiment of helping a newsroom to adapt to the age of never-ending social media streams, community interaction and digital storytelling.
Frankly, all this is pretty exhausting – but at least it forces me to focus for longer periods of time on the same subjects. In this sense it’s immersive – when one is trying to meet some Python course objective, times passes very fast – it’s like playing in some 3D environment.
Is something changing?
These last few years I got the impression we were evolving from longer, immersive experiences to sequences of fast dipping in and out of media streams (status updates, tweets etc). In that context I was not surprised an immersive envrionment such as Second Life was stagnating. It quite simply takes too much time and our attention spans were getting too short for this.
But think again. Maybe we once again want something more. People start complaining about the ‘Facebook-experience’. They start reading books such as Net Smart or meditate about mindfulness. But there’s also something going on at the technology-side of things.
Philip Rosedale (archive picture), the founding father of Second Life, has a new company, High Fidelity, to create a new kind of virtual reality platform. True Ventures invested in the company. It’s about a new virtual world enabling rich avatar interactions driven by sensor-equipped hardware, simulated and served by devices (phones, tablets and laptops/desktops) contributed by end-users. Virtual worlds watcher Wagner James Au on New World Notes says that Rosedale is not alone: others are working hard to create new virtual reality platforms: “Overall, this feels like a real trend, made possible by continued leaps in computer power, especially related to 3D graphics, and their continued drop in price.”
But maybe this new trend is also driven by the need of balancing the short attention bursts by longer periods of mindful attention…
Student journalists, financing their projects through the French crowdsourcing platform KissKissBankBank, that’s what I encountered last Saturday in the offices of the Belgian startup accelerator NestUp at Louvain-la-Neuve (Belgium). The journalist/teacher/entrepreneur/blogger Damain Van Achter facilitates the project. He is a guy who teaches his students to first learn the rules, then break them. Anyway, what he actually teaches them, is to thrive in a media environment which will become totally disrupted.
They also learn themselves to sell their projects on the crowdfinancing platform and to their peers. It involves communicating and connecting, also after they manage to get the money – they need to explain what they’re doing and how the project advances.
In some cases this is a great way to finance the making of a video, in other cases it may lead to the creation of a more permanent project or even… a media company.
Let’s try another MOOC. A real one, along connectivist principles: ds106 for digital storytelling. This is what it’s about, and also why I like it – because it’s free, it’s adaptable to my needs, and I’m sure there will be serendipitous encounters along the way:
Digital Storytelling (also affectionately known as ds106) is an open, online course that happens at various times throughout the year at the University of Mary Washington… but you can join in whenever you like and leave whenever you need. This course is free to anyone who wants to take it, and the only requirements are a real computer, a hardy internet connection, preferably a domain of your own and some commodity web hosting, and all the creativity you can muster.
Looking at the examples of the co-learners there, I feel a bit intimidated – these people create out of the box, and toy around with digital affordances like digital natives should. But hey, let’s give it a try.
What is the role of cooperation in evolution and how does cooperation itself evolve? That’s the topic of our discussions during the course Literacies of Cooperation, facilitated by Howard Rheingold.
The report about the first session can be found here (exploring the biology of cooperation).
We had a second live session about The Evolution of Cooperation, which also is the title of a work by professor Robert Axelrod. Let me quote Howard:
Axelrod’s work is fundamental. Thinking about cooperation, evolution, game theory, and computer simulation led him to use what has since become the e. coli of cooperation studies, the computer-simulated interated prisoner’s dilemma game, a strategy game that probes the ways human react when given the choice between assured self interest and potential but not guaranteed benefits of cooperation. Axelrod’s “Three Conditions” brings the gist of his research to a practical level that can then be used as a lens for looking at collective action online: what are the most important conditions for ensuring cooperation among strangers in a competetive environment.
But first something about the way in which we organize the live sessions in Blackboard Collaborate. One of the neat aspects of these sessions is that Howard incites people to take up certain roles: a lexicon team, searchers, contextualizers, mindmappers, session notetakers en wikimasters. People can propose questions during the chat, and people can jolt short answers on the whiteboard (this involves yet another task: question wrangler).
On the wiki we gather session notes – making life easier for those who missed part of the activities during the week. We’ve a growing collection of mindmaps and resources about stuff such as Honeybee Colony Thermoregulation, the symbiotic relationship between golden jellyfish and algae and cleaner wrass eating parasites from larger fish. One might well ask what all this has to do with human societies in this century, but this will become more obvious – I hope.
Cooperation in a competitive world
Robert Axelrod and W.D. Hamilton found that cooperators can thrive in a competitive environment… if they can find each other and establish mutualistic relationships. We can see how sometimes environments which are dominated by competition can at a certain point harbor colonies of cooperation, and then grow to a situation in which cooperation becomes the dominant theme, only to break down to the previous phases and go into a cycle.
Computer simulations of ‘evolutionary games learned Axelrod and Hamilton these characteristics for success:
– Be nice: cooperate, never be the first to defect.
– Be provocable: return defection for defection, cooperation for cooperation.
– Don’t be envious: be fair with your partner.
– Don’t be ‘too clever’ or too tricky.
A group with cooperators – whether or not those cooperators pay a cost for that – can have an evolutionary advantage, they can survive and reproduce more effectively. Small differences in that regard can make big differences in the very long term.
Cooperation can involve direct reciprocity, but also and maybe even more importantly indirect reciprocity. This simply means that I can consider doing a favor to someone who never before did a favor to me – but others may signal that this person is cooperative and reliable. Hence the importance of gossip – some even think that language was developed so as to enable our ancestors to gossip and in that way establish reputation when the groups became too big for one individual to keep track.
Of course, these days we have alternative systems to establish reputation as demonstrated by eBay for instance – one of the questions of the course will be whether these online developments are radically changing our possibilities to adapt to a changing environment.
I thought it was interesting that Nowak talked about language being the big way of fast-forwarding evolution and the introduction of reproduction of culture/ideas/
In that same text chat also Carver Mead‘s book Collective Electrodynamics was mentioned. He was quoted as saying:
In a time-symmetric universe, an isolated system does not exist. The electron wave function in an atom is particularly sensitive to coupling with other electrons; it is coupled either to far-away matter in the universe or to other electrons in a resonant cavity or other local structure.
Shadow of the future and other topics
We also discussed the notion “The shadow of the future”: individuals will cooperate more if they know they’ll meet again in the future. Question in the chat: what are the communication mechanisms of initiating reciprocity? Are there ways to predict success or failure of cooperation? or sustaining cooperation?
What about kin selection? Would you jump in the river for two siblings or eight cousins – what about one brother? Read also The New Yorker about Kin and Kind.
Talking about gossip and social grooming, there are quite some studies about the notion of fairness among pre-speech children and primates. Watch this video about capuchins rejecting unequal pay (primate fairness):
We discussed the role of religions: stories inciting the group to act cooperatively and eventually to sacrifice their individual self-interest (because of the reward in the after-life or compelling examples) could enhance the chances of such a group in the competition with other groups. Read also: Wikipedia about Darwin’s Cathedral (read also this book review and here is the book itself).
Evolution and the future
Culture is what we learn from each other based on biological evolved attentional and social capacities. This evolved capacity for social learning was particularly adaptive during times of radical environmental change. Learning capacities also created processes that changed the selection environment in which genes develop. E.g. cooking meat selects for those with efficient digective chemistry.
One of the question asked by the co-learners was whether one can design for cooperation? If so, through what tools? But also, what are the outside factors that can disrupt cooperation? How do systems protect and resist these forces?
We continued talking about the channeling of tribal instincts via symbol systems. This involves cultural transmission and selection that continues the evolution of cooperative human capacities at cultural rather than genetic level and pace.
Cultural tools channel innate sociality into cooperative arrangements. Institutions may be punishment, language, technology, invidual intelligence and inventivenesss, ready establisment of reciprocal arrangements, prestige systems, solutions to games of coordination (which could involve our newish web-technologies)…
In this regard Howard mentioned the book Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny by Robert Wright. Wikipedia says: It argues that biological evolution and cultural evolution are shaped and directed first and foremost by “non-zero-sumness” i.e., the prospect of creating new interactions that are not zero-sum.
The group of co-learners is extremely active in our forums (we use the socialmediaclassroom, the “place” in which our esteemed facilitator, Howard Rheingold, also organizes the course wiki, the blogs and social bookmarks. We use Blackboard Collaborate for synchronous sessions).
The forums are for registered students (and we do pay a fee). This makes this experience different from a Massive Online Open Course. However, our proceedings are not secret, so I’ll report on the course here, on this very open blog of mine.
Be warned: my selection is rather arbitrary, as my time and attention span are limited. I just mention two discussion threads. There are many more, but even though the course is still in the early phases, the discussions are very rich and challenging – just looking at the links and references, making a selection, doing some reading and watching for one single discussion thread takes quite some time. But yes, it’s very worthwhile.
Did you ever learn about autoethnography? I did not. Yet, one of the co-learners started a thread about ‘narrative inquiry, autoethnography, personal narrative and collaboration.’ Wikipedia explains:
Autoethnography is a form of self-reflection and writing that explores the researcher’s personal experience and connects this autobiographical story to wider cultural, political, and social meanings and understandings. It differs from ethnography —a qualitative research method in which a researcher uses participant observation and interviews in order to gain a deeper understanding of a group’s culture— in that autoethnography focuses on the writer’s subjective experience rather than, or in interaction with, the beliefs and practices of others. As a form of self-reflective writing, autoethnography is widely used in performance studies and English.
Collaboration or cooperation
Another thread is a discussion about the big picture of cooperation while examining the details. But first of all, what’s the difference between cooperation and collaboration? A learner suggested:
coLABORation – labor, or work synchronously, toward a shared, identical goal. This seems better and more fun to me. I love collaborating (as I understand it).
coOPERATion – operate synchronously toward the same goal, toward similar but individual versions of shared overall goal. More attainable in terms of what’s possible in the world?
Howard’s take on this:
People who have shared interests can cooperate without agreeing on specific goals, but collaboration involves some kind of signalling or communication about what the shared goal is. People know what their interests are without needing to confer with others.
Yet another student:
I think somewhere along my journey through Howard’s work I read: coordination is what it takes to get on the dance floor and actual throw down some funky dance moves (dance solo), cooperation is two people navigating the dance floor together and collaboration is a flash mob of dancers.
This student referred to an interesting book by Peter Corning, Nature’s Magic: Synergy in Evolution and the Fate of Humankind (summary). A quote:
Synergy, “the combined or cooperative effects produced by the relationships among various forces, particles, elements, parts, or individuals in a given context – effects that are not otherwise possible,” is a key driver of biological and human cultural evolution by providing immediately useful packages of benefits.
The participants then started to think about design of communities and about mechanisms and environments which facilitate participation or make it harder. Another quote:
I think communities fall apart when there isn’t a process where people take quick steps to get over whatever fear keeps them out of the process. Making a post, asking a question in chat, writing on the map in the first class like last night… I believe there are a lot of people who are actually more fearful of participation-even those teeny acts.
At this point it became obvious that the discussion in the forum is already looking forward to sessions we’ll have in a few weeks – most notably about the question of how people work together to get things done. And this question is not only about idealistic people working together explicitly to make the world a better place. Students get also inspired by Daniel Pink for instance and his work To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth about Moving Others (it seems the answer is beyond being introvert or extrovert, but being ambivert – understanding your partner’s thinking and creating the best outcomes for both sides.)
But how do we experience our participation in a collaborative community – and maybe more to the point, how do we remember it? One student mentioned a TedTalk by Daniel Kahneman, how our “experiencing selves” and our “remembering selves” perceive happiness differently. This new insight has profound implications for economics, public policy — and our own self-awareness. Other references which were exchanged in the discussion were Thinking Fast and Slow (Kahneman again), and Why Plans Fail: Cognitive Bias, Decision Making, and Your Business by Jim Benson.
Is there something like a biological underpinning of cooperation? We’re used to the idea that there is competition for scarce resources, but what about cooperation? Biology was very much the topic of the first session of our course Toward a Literacy of Cooperation: Introduction to Cooperation Theory, facilitated by Howard Rheingold.
The interesting fact about the course is that while the subject is cooperation, the meta-experience here is about co-learning. How do we cooperate as a community of learners? The process of learning to inquire together, so Howard explained, is more important than the product.
The underlying theme of endosymbiotic theory, as formulated in 1966, was interdependence and cooperative existence of multiple prokaryotic organisms; one organism engulfed another, yet both survived and eventually evolved over millions of years into eukaryotic cells. Her 1970 book, Origin of Eukaryotic Cells, discusses her early work pertaining to this organelle genesis theory in detail. Currently, her endosymbiotic theory is recognized as the key method by which some organelles have arisen (see endosymbiotic theory for a discussion) and is widely accepted by mainstream scientists. The endosymbiotic theory of organogenesis gained strong support in the 1980s, when the genetic material of mitochondria and chloroplasts was found to be different from that of the symbiont’s nuclear DNA.
Margulis had to struggle to challenge the very strong emphasis on competition in biology. Cooperative arrangements are as important and maybe even precede competitive arrangements, so she maintained.
Stuart Kauffman even says that molecules can co-evolve cooperatively, becoming self-sustaining chemical factories of higher levels of complexity in which the product of one reaction is the feedstock or catalyst for another (read also this article at technologyreview).
But then again, as Howard said, we have to be careful about how far we want to extend any metaphor. These studies are providing frameworks and lenses we can use to look at our societies, but I guess this is just the start of an inquiry about human cooperation. Anyway, we discussed plants (mustard seedlings) knowing, and liking, their relatives. In this study, it seemed that siblings did not compete among each other but shared resources.
Or what to think about a symbiotic relationship in which each organism derives a benefit such as the red-billed Oxpecker eating ticks on the impala’s coat. There even is speculation that the mechanism of sexual reproduction may have started as a defense against parasites… The Red Queen’s Hypothesis suggests that co-evolutionary interactions, between host and parasite for example, may select for a sexual reproduction in hosts in order to reduce the risk of infection. Of course, of you look for it, there is mutualism everywhere: not only the birds and the bees but also domestication is an important kind of mutualism.
Leafcutter ants don’t actually eat leaves, they cut up the leaves, bring them to their nests and use them to grow a fungus, like farmers – or one could think they use the fungus as an external gut. In this arrangement bacteria are a third partner.
((While Howard was presenting some of the course materials, we had a text chat running in which participants shared interesting links such as this one about the book When Species Meet by Donna Jeanne Haraway. Yet another one: “Dogs Decoded” reveals the science behind the remarkable bond between humans and their dogs and investigates new discoveries in genetics that are illuminating the origin of dogs—with surprising implications for the evolution of human culture.)).
In Commensalism one organism benefits without affecting the other (fish-eating particles falling out of the mouth of larger fish, organisms that grow from the excretions of other organisms).
Yet another example are superorganisms such as we, humans: we carry twenty times as many living bacteria as human cells. We have 40,000 species of bacteria in the human gut and probably a hundred trillion bacteria in a human – we would not be able to digest without them.
The examples in biology we discussed tended to illustrate the notion that instead of competing for a resource, there is a lot of cooperation going on to multiply the resource. Not only a Californian expert in virtual communities and cooperation such as Howard is using this lens to look at nature, the very business-like The Economist recently ran a story about Me, Myself, Us, “Looking at human beings as ecosystems that contain many collaborating and competing species could change the practice of medicine.”
Rhizobia are yet another classical example of mutualism and show how complex the relationships can become:
The legume–rhizobium symbiosis is a classic example of mutualism—rhizobia supply ammonia or amino acids to the plant and in return receive organic acids (principally as the dicarboxylic acids malate and succinate) as a carbon and energy source—but its evolutionary persistence is actually somewhat surprising. Because several unrelated strains infect each individual plant, any one strain could redirect resources from nitrogen fixation to its own reproduction without killing the host plant upon which they all depend. But this form of cheating should be equally tempting for all strains, a classic tragedy of the commons. There are two competing hypotheses for the mechanism that maintains legume-rhizobium symbiosis (though both may occur in nature). The sanctions hypothesis suggests the plants police cheating rhizobia. Sanctions could take the form of reduced nodule growth, early nodule death, decreased carbon supply to nodules, or reduced oxygen supply to nodules that fix less nitrogen. The partner choice hypothesis proposes that the plant uses prenodulation signals from the rhizobia to decide whether to allow nodulation, and chooses only noncheating rhizobia. There is evidence for sanctions in soybean plants, which reduce rhizobium reproduction (perhaps by limiting oxygen supply) in nodules that fix less nitrogen. Likewise, wild lupine plants allocate fewer resources to nodules containing less-beneficial rhizobia, limiting rhizobial reproduction inside. This is consistent with the definition of sanctions just given, although called “partner choice” by the authors. However, other studies have found no evidence of plant sanctions, and instead support the partner choice hypothesis.
Trees and roots are other important examples/metaphors such as mycorrhizal networks connecting trees.
So ecosystems are complex cooperative arrangements demonstrating mutualism and commensalism at work – typically, if key species are removed, the whole structure collapses – once again, this can be used as a lens for looking at human societies.
This session with Howard and hyper-active co-learners was done in Blackboard Collaborate, using shared screens, text chats, audio and video. This week the discussion continues on the course forums and blogs.