Learning about evolution, cooperation and our future

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.

Also read The Evolution of Animal Communication by William A. Searcy & Stephen Nowicki (Princeton University Press, 2005) – about for instance ‘deception and evolutions’.

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.

Read also Martin Nowak about all this or watch him.

A co-learner said in the chat:

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):



Are we born with a sense of fairness? Toddlers who look longer to unfair actions (it violates their expectations) tend to behave in a more fair way themselves. Here is a Wikipedia entry about Sesame Street research, an article about whether we are born with a sense of fairness and another one about the evolution of 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.

Have a look at this toolkit for collective action and the technologies of cooperation.

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.

This is Robert Reich’s take on the Non-Zero Sum Society.

We came quite some way from the molecules and algae. In the course, we’ll continue the discussion of evolution issues for the next few days and then we’ll tackle social dilemmas.

Ask Jamais Cascio about the future of the world

At The WELL we’re having a discussion these days with Jamais Cascio. This is how Jon Lebkowsky presented this thinker:

In a followup to our State of the World discussion for 2013, we’ve invited Jamais Cascio to join us for a couple of weeks for more of a “future of the world” conversation. Selected by Foreign Policy magazine as one of their Top 100 Global Thinkers, Jamais writes about the intersection of emerging technologies, environmental dilemmas, and cultural transformation, specializing in the design and creation of plausible scenarios of the future. His work focuses on the importance of long-term, systemic thinking, emphasizing the power of openness, transparency and flexibility as catalysts for building a more resilient society. Among other things, Jamais is a master of scenario development.

You can participate via http://bit.ly/cascio-well.

Three courses, three experiences of education and digital cultures

Three courses, three different formats. The first two courses are about education and digital media. It seems the first one is a MOOC along the connectivist ‘tradition’: distributed on various web media, putting the learners in charge of their own experience, facilitated by what is called in this case ‘conspirators’. The second one is organized on the Coursera-platform, which normally means a more classical, top-down learning experience. However, the participants are invited to co-create course content and the organizers want to involve the “wider social web”.

The last course is not necessarily about education, but about literacies of cooperation. The organizer, the virtual communities and digital culture expert Howard Rheingold, does not want this to be a ‘massive’ experience, instead the course is limited to 35 learners (and you’ve to pay a fee). I participated in previous editions, and I can assure you it’s pretty intense.

#etmooc is a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) about educational design and media.
Welcome (Jan 13-19): Welcome Event & Orientation to #etmooc
Topic 1 (Jan 20-Feb. 2): Connected Learning – Tools, Processes & Pedagogy
Topic 2 (Feb 3-16): Digital Storytelling – Multimedia, Remixes & Mashups
Topic 3 (Feb 17-Mar 2): Digital Literacy – Information, Memes & Attention
Topic 4 (Mar 3-16): The Open Movement – Open Access, OERs & Future of Ed.
Topic 5 (Mar 17-30): Digital Citizenship – Identity, Footprint, & Social Activism

At Coursera: E-learning and Digital Cultures – Jan 28th 2013 (5 weeks long). This course will explore how digital cultures and learning cultures connect, and what this means for e-learning theory and practice. Follow this course at #edcmooc. This course will consist of viewing short film clips alongside associated readings, as well as discussions and group collaborations amongst participants. Interesting: “E-learning and Digital Cultures will make use of online spaces beyond the Coursera environment, and we want some aspects of participation in this course to involve the wider social web. We hope that participants will share in the creation of course content and assessed work that will be publicly available online.”

Howard Rheingold is convening “Toward a Literacy of Cooperation: Introduction to Cooperation Studies,” January 24 -March 1.
A detailed syllabus: http://socialmediaclassroom.com/host/cooperation4 a six week course using asynchronous forums, blogs, wikis, mindmaps, social bookmarks, synchronous audio, video, chat, and Twitter to introduce the fundamentals of an interdisciplinary study of cooperation: social dilemmas, institutions for collective action, the commons, evolution of cooperation, technologies of cooperation, and cooperative arrangements in biology from cells to ecosystems.

Discuss The State of the World

The venerable and ancient community The Well is still alive and kicking – it was bought by community members from salon.com. Right now and for the following days you can participate in the annual discussion with author, journalist, futurist and design guru Bruce Sterling and with entrepreneur and Internet veteran Jon Lebkowski about nothing less than the State of the World.

We’re discussing not just the latest trends in technology but also politics and culture. You don’t have to be a member to participate in this wide-ranging discussion. The URL: http://bit.ly/2013-state-of-the-world

Virtual communities on Google+

Getting tons of invites for communities on Google Plus. A limited selection: communities for Digital Culture (look for Ted Newcomb to get an invite), Second Life (288 members already), Second Life Arts (135 members), Opensim Virtual (‘First there was Second Life, then there was Freedom), MetaMeets (3D internet conference), Augmented Reality, 3D printing (1,307 members), Ingress (the Google alternate reality game) (7,193 members) and other Ingress-communities (for the resistance, the enlightened, for various countries…).

Google+ also offers a selection of interesting communities and of course allows you to search for specific interests: fond out more at Google+ communities.

There are discussions about whether the discussion threads should be indexed, tagged (of should we use hashtages), privacy, big corporates, but I definitely have the impression it increases the activity on Google+ and makes it far more valuable.

‘Virtual worlds are not dead, they only smell funny’

Allow Flufee McFluff to introduce this post about the first day of the MetaMeets conference:



You can find the mindmap on which my own presentation (slideshow) was based in the previous post. I update the mindmap in function of what I learn during this two day-conference.
Some highlights of the conference:

The artist Sander Veenhof showed us the beauty and the subversive power of augmented reality. For instance by organizing an exhibition at the MoMa without any official approval:



Veenhof often uses Layar, which is a mobile browser for augmented reality. However, these days Layar seems to focus more on activating print media with interactive experiences – which may be more interesting business-wise, but seems less revolutionary. So it’s not surprising Veenhof these days is rather fond of junaio, which boasts being ‘the most advances augmented reality browser.’

– CJ Davies and John McCaffery presented the Project Open Virtual Worlds at the University of St Andrews. CJ is currently developing a modified Second Life viewer for a tablet computer that allows avatar movement & camera control to reflect the tablet’s real world position & orientation using a combination of accelerometer, magnetometer & GPS data. I think it’s pretty exciting to combine avatars and real world in this way.

– Talking about combining the virtual and ‘the real’, Bart Veldhuizen talked about shapeways.com which is specialized in 3D-printing in various materials – so not only plastics but also metal, nylon or silver. Shapeways boasts a community of about 150,000 members. So would it be interesting for those community members to collaborate in 3D environments? That’s not self-evident as the ideal designs for 3D-printing often diverge from what is ideal in a virtual world such as Second Life. Also, the community members may also be competitors and not so keen on collaborating. There is discussion about all this, as other designers often do want to collaborate and work in ‘virtual guilds’ and virtual worlds could be interesting places for discussions, brainstorming and early prototyping.

– So, to refer to Flufee, are virtual worlds dead, now that the talk is so much about 3D-printing and augmented reality? In the discussions about virtual worlds Maria Korolov (Hypergrid Business) gave expert advice about OpenSim, which seems a good solution for education, especially for younger kids. This was also demonstrated by Nick Zwart, an award-winning pioneer in the educational use of virtual worlds (language education) who uses OpenSim.

MetaMeets! Virtuality Meets Reality

Tomorrow I’ll participate in the MetaMeets gathering in ‘s-Hertogenbosch,The Netherlands. What we’l do and talk about:

MetaMeets is a seminar/meeting about virtual worlds, augmented reality and 3D internet, this year’s topic will be The Art of Creation : Virtuality meets Reality.

Virtual worlds and 3D internet have been developing continuously. Mobile and browser based worlds have been created. Mesh format uploads have provided huge progress in content creation through open source programs like Blender and Google Sketchup.
Machinima creation has grown and improved with special interfaces and innovations in visual possibilities, making films shot in virtual worlds a professional tool for presentation to a mainstream audience.

MetaMeets has chosen this year to shine a light on this versatile digital canvas by taking its participants interactively into the Art of Creation. The programme will begin with a few lectures on the current state of virtual worlds and their new developments. Subsequently, we will have workshops exploring methods of accomplishing each of the key steps in 3D creation. The workshops will range from creating a virtual world on your own server, creating 3D content, creating (motion) pictures of it, and even printing 3D objects as real world 3D models.

We also will have an interactive roundtable discussion based on the movie The Singularity is Near that is released this summer for download and availible on dvd.

This is a mindmap I prepared. My subject is about the virtual which escapes into the real. Or how maybe Second Life is catering for a niche group of people, but the ethos of virtual worlds is spreading fast in what we once called the ‘real world’.


Create your own mind maps at MindMeister

Do we get more happiness from virtual worlds than from real good news?

An academic study co-authored last year by leading virtual world academic Edward Castronova suggests that people get more happiness from being in Second Life than they do from good news in their real life. 

Wagner James Au on New World Notes says this is probably also true for other virtual environments, not only for Second Life. He also points to the bigger question of the shifting boundaries between virtual and real. 

Social media help extend immersive experiences to so-called real world networks. Virtual money is convertible in real money, and solidarity actions for real world issues can start out in virtual environments. 

Manuel Castells explains we live in a cultural of virtual reality – I think the deconstruction of the boundaries between real and virtual is becoming fairly obvious. Virtual is not some exclusive feature of 3D environments, and reality is ever more being augmented and digitally annotated.
via Diigo http://nwn.blogs.com/nwn/2012/10/second-life-and-the-matrix.html

Find out about the future by looking at Defense

The computer visionary Doug Engelbart designed in the 1960s the NLS – the “oN-Line System” – a revolutionary computer collaboration system implemented by researchers at the Augmentation Research Center (ARC) at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI). The NLS system, so explains Wikipedia, was the first to employ the practical use of hypertext links, the mouse, raster-scan video monitors, information organized by relevance, screen windowing, presentation programs, and other modern computing concepts. The project was funded by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, NASA, and the U.S. Air Force.

Throughout the history of computing we see the crucial role being played by the military and the intelligence community (this is just one of the many interesting discussion threads of Howard Rheingold’s course about Think-Know tools). One of these famously funded project gave us the Mother of all Demos by Engelbart (the mouse! videoconferencing! hyperlinks!):

Maybe it’s a good idea to have a look at what they’re funding now in order to get an idea of the longer term developments in computing. Typically projects which are too long term and risky to be interesting for big corporations or even venture capitalists sometimes get support from those defense-related agencies. However, these days the capital needed for innovative projects is no longer as enormous as it used to be, and we see how agencies invest in commercial start-ups not only to stimulate research which otherwise may not have been done, but also to get first-hand information about research which the private sector is doing anyway.

One of the most fascinating agencies is DARPA, which has a habit of changing names. Wikipedia: “Its original name was simply Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), but it was renamed to “DARPA” (for Defense) in March 1972, then renamed “ARPA” again in February 1993, and then renamed “DARPA” again in March 1996.”

DARPA of course is not only active regarding information processing. This is what Wikipedia tells us about the more recent history: “During the 1980s, the attention of the Agency was centered on information processing and aircraft-related programs, including the National Aerospace Plane (NASP) or Hypersonic Research Program. The Strategic Computing Program enabled DARPA to exploit advanced processing and networking technologies and to rebuild and strengthen relationships with universities after the Vietnam War. In addition, DARPA began to pursue new concepts for small, lightweight satellites (LIGHTSAT) and directed new programs regarding defense manufacturing, submarine technology, and armor/anti-armor.
On October 28, 2009 the agency broke ground on a new facility in Arlington, Virginia a few miles from the Pentagon.
In fall 2011, DARPA hosted the 100 Year Starship Symposium with the aim of getting the public to start thinking seriously about interstellar travel.”
Interstellar travel really sounds cool, but let me look at that another time. For now, let’s just read how the Information Innovation Office describes itself on the DARPA-site:

I2O aims to ensure U.S. technological superiority in all areas where information can provide a decisive military advantage. This includes the conventional defense mission areas where information has already driven a revolution in military affairs: intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, command, control, communications, computing, networking, decision-making, planning, training, mission rehearsal, and operations support.

It also includes emergent information-enabled technologies and application domains such as social science and human, social, cultural, and behavioral modeling; social networking and crowd-based development paradigms; natural language processing, knowledge management, and machine learning and reasoning; medical/bio informatics; and information assurance and cyber-security.

I2O works to ensure U.S. technological superiority in these areas by conceptualizing and executing advanced research and development (R&D) projects to develop and demonstrate interdisciplinary, crosscutting and convergent technologies derived from emerging technological and societal trends that have the potential for game-changing disruptions of the status quo.

The capabilities developed by I2O enable the warfighter to better understand the battlespace and the capabilities, intentions and activities of allies and adversaries; empower the warfighter to discover insightful and effective strategies, tactics and plans; and securely connect the warfighter to the people and resources required for mission success.

Headings on that page are “understand“, “empower” and “connect“.

One of the many fascinating programs is Social Media in Strategic Communication (SMISC). It aims to develop “a new science of social networks built on an emerging technology base. Through the program, DARPA seeks to develop tools to support the efforts of human operators to counter misinformation or deception campaigns with truthful information.”

It’s all there: analyzing narratives, experiments with role-playing games which make heavy use of social media…


Yet another interesting organization is In-Q-Tel, launched in 1999 as an independent, not-for-profit organization, IQT was created to bridge the gap between the technology needs of the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) and new advances in commercial technology.

Just looking here at information and communication technologies, the site of this special kind of venture capitalist explains:

Focus areas in the ICT practice include advanced analytic tools, next generation infrastructure and computing platforms, mobile communication and wireless technologies, embedded systems and components, geospatial and visualization tools, and digital identity analytics.

For more concrete information one can simply consult the list of companies in which In-Q-Tel invests (note to self: make a Twitter list which includes these companies to get updates!). To give but two examples:
Streambase Systems, Inc., a leader in high-performance Complex Event Processing (CEP), provides software for rapidly building systems that analyze and act on real-time streaming data for instantaneous decision-making. The World Economic Forum awarded StreamBase the title of 2010 Technology Pioneer.

Cloudera Enterprise is the most cost-effective way to perform large-scale data storage and analysis, and includes the tools, platform, and support necessary to use Hadoop in a production environment. (The Apache Hadoop software library is a framework that allows for the distributed processing of large data sets across clusters of computers using simple programming models.)

Read also:

Pentagon’s Plan X

Bezos, CIA invest $30M in quantum computing startup

Big Data and Cyberpunk

– Cloudera Makes Hadoop Real-Time with Impala (SiliconAngle)