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.

Exploring the biology of cooperation

image of the course environmentIs 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.

We started out with Lynn Margulis and endosymbiosis. Allow me to quote Wikipedia:

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.

Of course, further on in the course we’ll discuss the commons and the tragedy of the commons (and how societies deal with that) in a human context.

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.

Also have a look at the resources at cooperationcommons.com.

A knowmad’s thoughts about Thanksgiving

Welcome to another episode in which I post about my strange journey through the Wonderland of online courses. Last week I had a most wonderful session of the Digital Awakening course in Second Life: we discussed professor Sherry Turkle’s fascinating text Video Games and
Computer Holding Power
, and we also had Howard Rheingold (from the Toward a Literacy of Cooperation course) visiting us. For a great overview of what Howard is up to these days, have a look at the Meeting Howard Rheingold post on the course blog.

I kept thinking about the notion “holding power of the computer”. Watching people staring at the screens of smartphones, tablets and laptops I realized the importance of that idea. What should we think about it? Is it bad, like an addiction?

Compared to the holding power of the television screen it seems to be better as there is interactivity and user generated content – even though not every creation is another Wikipedia.

What about our perception of reality? Is the world of the computer richer or poorer compared to physical reality? One of those interviewed by Turkle prefers his world of games, considering it richer. These are worlds governed by rules which we can, in principle, discover and exploit.

The rules of the non-game world are more intractable and sometimes mysteriously suspended. People lose or fail in the “real world” and they feel cheated, while the computer program just follows its rules and sequences. So is this gaming universe the new ’opium for the people’? Professor Edward Castronova would disagree as he reads characteristics of virtual and game environments as a kind of revolutionary program and the environments itself as a New World where settlers start a new society: read his book Exodus to the Virtual World: How Online Fun Is Changing Reality. Another story about settlers and starting all over again, seems appropriate for Thanksgiving.

But while games are here with us to stay, the debate seems to belong to another era. The big shift in games did not lead to massive mainstream adoption of sophisticated graphical environments, but to social and casual games.

The big dream of a 3D internet in which the 2D web would just be a less exciting part, appears to be – at least for now – just that: a dream.

It’s interesting to see what Philip Rosedale, the founding father and chief visionary of Second Life, is up to these days. He’s all about coworking spaces and virtual currencies which are being used in the ’real world’ to facilitate exchanges in resilient networks (which does not mean he declares Second Life dead and buried).

’Resilient’ and ’durable’, local while staying connected to global networks is the new rallying cry now. A lot of the user-generated creation ethos is making the transition from isolated virtual spaces to connected virtual spaces (using standardized technology which can be used in many environments), to mixed reality spaces (augmented reality) and plain good old reality (co-working spaces) even though using all the affordances of the net and eventually mobilizing the knowledge acquired while running virtual worlds (management of virtual currencies).

On Queen Street Commons I read this from Robpatrob:

Back in 1800, 80% of people in America worked for themselves. The rise in industrialization created the Job as the new normal. By 1980, the apogee of the Industrial model, 80% of us had jobs. But look now at what has happened in only 40 years. 40% of us now work for ourselves.

The Industrial Revolution made work and life in factories, big offices and institutions the new normal. Our education system became more efficient in preparing youngsters for those environments.

Even though our Western societies were advocating the free market, for most workers and students their daily life was governed by that other major steering system: the bureaucracy.

Evangelists of the network economy now see a new “new normal’: back to the micro-projects and -companies, but this time as parts of networks and using aggregation platforms.

There are three pillars mow: markets, bureaucracy and cooperation. This is not detrimental for the market, quite the contrary. If it pushes back something, it’s bureaucracy. Companies rely more on markets for stuff they used to organize internally by bureaucratic procedures.

At the same time more market makes it harder to accumulate capital: the network economy exerts relentless pressure on profit margins (if any). On the other hand, the cost of living could diminish also as people share rather than wastefully underuse computing capacity, transportation, certain household appliances.

People define new Commons and rediscover & modernize old design principles for governing those Commons. Life seems to become more interesting instead of less so: compare a holiday in another country in some fake resort to participating in a ’share the couch’ network.

Or compare indebting yourself for getting a degree from one of the leading education factories to organizing peer2peer learning, deciding your own objectives. Have a look at this TEDxBrisbane video featuring Edward Harran talking about the “knowmad” movement, “an emerging generation that has the capacity to work, learn, move, and play – with anybody, anytime, and anywhere”:



I must admit I feel sometimes like a “knowmad”, traveling from one course session in Blackboard Collaborate to another in Second Life, while exchanging ideas on The Well or in Howard Rheingold’s social media classroom. My fellow-travelers come from North-America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and Australia (unfortunately, there are few or no fellow travelers from Africa). My esteemed US co-learners are about to start the Thanksgiving festivities, which inspire me to think about our journey.

There is this so often used word to describe what I feel about my learning and exploration experiences, a word which sounds very American to me: “awesome”. It’s the feeling of awesomeness I recognize in Harran’s talk, which I share and understand. But at the same time I’m also worried. Knowing how to use online media to organize your own learning together with others is much easier when you already had a decent education – and I’m afraid getting such an education is getting harder, not easier.

Those who lack the talents and skills to become an individual entrepreneur are at risk. As the economist Raghuram Rajan says in his article The Undeserving One Percent?, we use to speak about the one percent and the wealth they accumulated. But we could also look at the top ten percent and about how differences in education and opportunities split the middle class into a upwardly mobile, innovation-minded group and a group which gets poorer and is at risk of being left behind.

Who will help them? Are we sure we’ll have an infrastructure for helping those who have great difficulties in gaining access to the education system, those who are needy, or will the networked society leave gaping holes in which the elderly, the digital illiterates, the socially disadvantaged and the sick will conveniently disappear, out of sight for the young creatives? Will taking care for the poor become once again a feel good-activity for the rich?

There is a challenge here. We should not retreat completely in our networked micro-companies, in our resilient durable local communities. There remains the challenge of scaling up and influence big corporations, the schools and universities, big government, the international institutions because they remain relevant and important. Toppling dictators and challenging university chancellors is not easy, but we do know people can do it. The next phase should be going beyond our local or theme-based networks and contribute to solutions on a macro-level.

One course ends, but the cooperation is just beginning

social media classroomImagine you explore in group wild and exotic lands. After six weeks the journey is over, and it’s time to say goodbye. Often that is a sad experience – just sharing the same experiences creates a bond between people, and when they leave, one feels a void.
This was what I felt after six weeks of Toward a Literacy of Cooperation, a course facilitated by Howard Rheingold (see previous posts like this one about the grand narrative or the most recent one about the G20).

I appreciated the format and the process of the course. The format was asynchronous (using wikis, forums, blogs, mindmaps, social bookmarks) and synchronous (live sessions using Blackboard Collaborate – the former Elluminate). Sorry, dear virtual worlds friends, there was no session in Second Life, OpenSim or other virtual environments. However, we used video and audio during the live sessions.

session in blackboard collaborate

Using video was very interesting – it was as if we were looking through that small window into each others world. It really was something which made us connect more. But this was not only about the tools but also about the process.

Howard incited all of us to take up roles during the sessions: people taking notes, others summarizing, participants watching over the mindmaps, other looking up useful links, adding those links to the pearltrees bookmarks. In-between the sessions he encouraged us – pushed us – to participate more on the forums and blogs.

Doing all that stuff was quite an experience, because it made one discover how rich in content each of those one hour sessions was (not to mention the abundant required and recommended reading and the forum discussions). The experience of collaboratively real-time mindmapping was most interesting – it was a demonstration of the power and joy of cooperation. I must say, I already was a user of mindmaps, but now mindmapping has become a fundamental part of about all my project and I try to incite my fellow journalists and members of our newspaper community to use mindmaps.

The last session was very special as well: the learners had to organize and produce themselves the Big Picture of this course. We had so much to discuss we finally needed two sessions and more than two hours in total – after which we all realized we were just beginning this learning journey.

It’s very hard to summarize the content we discussed during the past six weeks, but this TED-talk by Howard will give you an idea what is was all about:

Not the end

Even though this course had ended for us, the journey continues and I guess most of us will continue meeting at the Alumni Community which is organized in pretty much the same way as the course itself, using the asynchronous tools but also very regular live sessions.

The participants have all kinds of projects, from studying the neuroscience of cooperation over media and journalism projects to online community management and peer2peer-learning and I’m sure the Alumni-community will be a great help for these projects.

We’ll also continue discussing the design of this learning process. What about the relation between the inside and the outside? The participation in the course is not for free, and the number of participants is limited. What are the benefits and the drawbacks of these choices?

Also, I’m convinced that using a virtual environment such as Second Life has its advantages. Creating 3D mindmaps in a persistent environment, where one can share a same virtual space and enjoy ‘watercooler chats’, is something I’d personally like to add to the “social media classroom experience” at Howard’s project.

As our esteemed facilitator would say,


Do the G20-leaders have a wiki and other questions

I had some busy days covering the European debt crisis for my newspaper De Tijd and trying to keep up work for my online courses. I had to focus on the Toward a literacy of Cooperation course, facilitated by Howard Rheingold, as the course itself is now in its last days and we, the students, had to cooperate to create to last session, ‘The Big Picture’.

Somehow my experiences liveblogging the G20 in Cannes, France and the Cooperation course got linked together.

- As I was liveblogging the G20 (I was in Antwerp, Belgium, and my fellow journalist Peter De Groote was in Cannes), we made a very intense use of Twitter. It was remarkable how Twitter, as experienced through my list of financial journalists and commentators, became like an augmented, open, international newsroom.

Journalists in Athens provided a realtime translation of the debate in the Greek parliament, other colleagues in Cannes translated, commented and analyzed what was going at the G20 itself. They were reaching out to each other, on the ground and on Twitter, regardless of nationalities or commercial interests. I think the readers of the liveblog somehow sensed that what they were reading was a curated collection of human voices, with all the seriousness, drama and humour involved.

- While the spontaneous virtual newsroom emerged, one could ask whether our beloved world leaders are very knowledgeable in the practice and the ethos of social media. Just wondering whether there is something like a wiki for world leaders, where they can brainstorm, exchange references and ideas. The G20 wanted to discuss new ideas for a new world, but instead it was all about solving the problems of the eurozone. I have no doubt it is crucially important for world leaders to meet each other at such summits, but I can only hope they also cooperate using some kind of secret wiki, forums, blogs and mindmaps. But somehow I doubt they actually use that stuff. Maybe the dominant model of competing nation-states is not compatible with online social tools? But then again, maybe cooperation is at least as important as competition…

- Which brings me to the Toward a Literacy of Cooperation Course. One of the many discussion topics is the application of the principles for the governance of common pool recources (cfr Elinor Ostrom) on online communities. Another one is about collective intelligence. One of the leading thinkers about collective intelligence is the French scholar Pierre Lévy. Howard Rheingold had this video interview with Lévy:


Watching this, I had some other questions. Not only whether world leaders do use or do not use social media tools, whether or not in a confidential settings. There is an even more serious issue: do they have the framework and lenses necessary to even see the importance of the amplification of collective intelligence? Because this amplification brings along opportunities and challenges and makes paradigms shift. It demands new literacies – do our education systems provide those literacies? Do those systems change themselves fundamentally so as to be relevant in a post-industrial society? Do they understand that even the notion of “learning” itself might be changing, as is discussed in the MOOC Change11?

I have my doubts. And the disconnect between the formats for cooperation on the level of our world leaders and the disruptive changes caused by globalization, networks, and the amplification of collective intelligence will lead to even more upheaval.

Are we building a new grand narrative, or are grand narratives things of the past?

At our latest live session of Howard Rheingold’s course Introduction to Cooperation Theory we discussed about narratives in the US and Europe about competition and cooperation. A European participant suggested that the narrative in the US is about competition, while in Europe cooperation is a more common theme. The American Howard Rheingold expressed doubts about this opposition: the US and Europe are big places with huge internal differences, and where different narratives co-exist.

We also discussed the Occupy Wall Street movement and how it spreads worldwide. There is a sentiment that the world leaders fail in addressing the problems and opportunities caused by worldwide disruptive forces (related to technology, globalization, changing preferences etc). My first question is whether we can reasonably expect that world leaders constitute a platform or world government for worldwide cooperation tackling the ecological, social and financial problems.

I’d like to refer to what Elinor Ostrom describes as polycentric governance of complex economic systems. Maybe the definition of the problems, the study of possible solutions and the implementation of those solutions have to take place at different levels. In the European Union we have a lot of experience with “polycentric governance”: there is not one obvious center (the European Commission is rather different from the federal administration in the US), and we try to allocate tasks and decisions to appropriate levels of governance. However, confronted with world financial markets, it seems this model has at least one important shortcoming: when optimal decisions should be taken on the top-level, the decision-making process is very slow.


We also discussed the importance of narratives supporting cooperation. It was claimed that president Obama fails in delivering a mobilizing grand narrative, contrary to FDR (or president Reagan – whether one agrees with the narrative or not, at least there was a big narrative about markets, deregulation etc). My second question relates to this issue of “grand narratives”: is it a coincidence that leaders worldwide fail to provide a convincing grand narrative (do they even try)? Or is this a structural phenomenon, that the era of grand narratives is behind us? After the demise of communism, of social democracy (debt crisis) and of free market ideology (inequality, rogue banking and housing industries… ), what is left to believe in? It seems people distrust even the structure itself of a “grand narrative” – as postmodernism demonstrates, grand narratives can easily be deconstructed, and this not only on an academic level, just look at the news to see how shaky the certainties of the big ideologies have become.

So the third question is whether the cooperation studies (in biology, sociology, anthropology, economics, pedagogy, learning theories etc) could lead to a new grand narrative. If so, would this new narrative fall apart just like the older stories, or can we construct the cooperation narrative in such a way that it would be a fundamentally different kind of narrative, more flexible, adaptable, convincing and relevant than other narratives? Do we need such a narrative, and if so, what are criteria to judge it?

The thinking of such a new grand narrative has its own history of course, with people such as Vannevar Bush, Norbert Wiener, J. C. R. Licklider, Doug Engelbart and Ted Nelson among the Philosophers of our Daily Disruptive Digital Revolution (have a look at this site of the Digital Awakening course).


discussion of Ted Nelson's work in Second Life
Last week we discussed Ted Nelson in Digital Awakening (see picture above), and one of the texts which provoked the most emotional reactions was No More Teachers’ Dirty Looks (in Computer Lib / Dream Machines). In this text from 1974 Nelson is highly critical of the education system:

Some premises relevant to teaching
1. The human mind is born free, yet everywhere it is in chains. The educational system serves mainly to destroy for most people, in
varying degrees, intelligence, curiosity, enthusiasm, and intellectual initiative and self-confidence. We are born with these. They are gone
or severely diminished when we leave school.
2. Everything is interesting, until ruined for us. Nothing in the universe is intrinsically uninteresting. Schooling systematically ruins
things for us, wiping out these interests; the last thing to be ruined determines your profession.
3. There are no “subjects.” The division of the universe into “subjects” for teaching is a matter of tradition and administrative
4. There is no natural or necessary order of learning. Teaching sequences are arbitrary, explanatory hierarchies philosophically spurious.
“Prerequisites” are a fiction spawned by the division of the world into “subjects;” and maintained by not providing summaries,
introductions or orientational materials except to those arriving through a certain door.
5. Anyone retaining his natural mental facilities can learn anything practically on his own, given encouragement and resources.
6. Most teachers mean well, but they are so concerned with promoting their images, attitudes and style of order that very little else can
be communicated in the time remaining, and almost none of it attractively.

Is Connectivism, as practiced for instance in the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) #Change11 more than a practical answer to contemporary challenges for the educational system? Could it also be part of an emerging new grand narrative, together with related components from network theory and cooperation theories? Learner Weblog gives some insights in the discussion about the practical and theoretical merits of connectivism.  In the embedded presentation Frances Bell claims that connectivism has far more impact as a practice than as a theory. Then again, we should reflect on what “a theory” is, and whether our notion of “theory” is changing, just as maybe our notion of “narrative” is being transformed.

Roland Legrand

Connecting the dots between digital awakening, massive online learning and cooperation literacies

I should have done this earlier on already, but here it is (or rather, it’s developing): a mindmap about my online learning experiment. I try to connect the dots between the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) Change11 (facilitated by Dave Cormier, George Siemens, Stephen Downes) , the Digital Awakening (Gardner Campbell)  and Introduction to Cooperation Theory (Howard Rheingold). You’ll find links the courses and some course material in the mindmap.

Some very general remarks:

- In Digital Awakening we discuss texts by the pioneers of our digital era. One of the recurring themes is the need to augment human intellect in order to cope with the complexities and the fast developments in an increasingly interconnected world. Computers and computer networks can help to augment human intellect, going far beyond a vision of computers as just “computing machines for nerds”. Questions here are whether these efforts to augment our human intellect do not contribute to the increasing complexity and the velocity of changes, resulting in increasing unpredictability and chaos. Or in other words: is the empowerment of small groups and individuals leading to a decrease of the capabilities of communities to determine their future development?

- Which leads us to the complexities of human cooperation and the relation between individual rationality and what is good for communities. In the course about literacies of cooperation we investigate what game theory learns about the tension between individual rationality and collective outcomes, but we also explore design principles which increase the possibilities of governing common pool resources. How can online networks and virtual communities leverage the possibilities of human cooperation?

- Talking about literacies: we have to acquire the insights but also the social and technological skills in order to augment cooperation. Is our education system doing a good job in this respect? Do we apply those literacies in designing education platforms (talking here about education and learning in a very broad sense, not only about schools and colleges catering primarily for young people in a formal context).

To put it more dramatically: if computer networks, mobile and ubiquitous computing lead to the development of a kind of worldwide thinking, dreaming and creating brain structure, how does this worldwide structure enables self-learning and -improvement, what is the role of human individuals and groups in this process, what about our emerging artificial intelligence overlords which may or may not become intelligent, self-learning and self-organizing entities?

(For using this map: use the icons next to the blue “share” button to zoom in and out, to enlarge the screen. You can also drag the map around in order to explore the different parts. Please take into account this is just a general structure and the map will be updated in the coming days and weeks).

Should we apply Ostrom’s design principles to online learning communities?

Getting ready for a second session of Howard Rheingold’s course Toward a Literacy of Cooperation. Today we’ll study Elinor Ostrom, the American political economist who was awarded the 2009 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.

As is explained on The Cooperation Commons, Ostrom found that groups that are able to organize and govern their behavior successfully are marked by the following design principles:

1. Group boundaries are clearly defined.
2. Rules governing the use of collective goods are well matched to local needs and conditions.
3. Most individuals affected by these rules can participate in modifying the rules.
4. The rights of community members to devise their own rules is respected by external authorities.
5. A system for monitoring member’s behavior exists; the community members themselves undertake this monitoring.
6. A graduated system of sanctions is used.
7. Community members have access to low-cost conflict resolution mechanisms.
8. For CPRs that are parts of larger systems: appropriation, provision, monitoring, enforcement, conflict resolution, and governance activities are organized in multiple layers of nested enterprises.

What interests me is that those rules could be used for the management (or facilitation) of online learning communities. Most of the time rules for online learning communities have already been established by the organizers of the platform, but it would be interesting to let the community somehow devise rules and monitor them.

How would that work with large online learning communities? One of the problems would be the boundaries of the group and the monitoring of behavior: can we really identify members (not necessarily by ‘real names’ but by online reputation and persistent avatar identity?).

It seems being part of a group, working together durably so that issues of reputation become relevant, enhances reciprocity and cooperation. I guess that is also the way communities of practice work.

However, how close-knit a group has to be? Is antagonism with other groups desirable because it probably even increases this intra-group cooperation? Is it not a bit suffocating to belong to a community of practice which tries to uphold a certain tradition, a hierarchy of members? (E.g. a group of media professionals, ‘accepting’ student journalists in order to ‘teach’ them the proper principles of journalism – with the best intentions and probably good results… )

The question (and I don’t have the answers yet) I ask myself is whether we can go beyond communities of practice. In the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) #Change11 the learning&teaching experience is based on the connectivist philosophy/practice. This is what Wikipedia says about one particular aspect of connectivism:

One aspect of connectivism is the use of a network with nodes and connections as a central metaphor for learning. In this metaphor, a node is anything that can be connected to another node within a network such as an organisation: information, data, feelings, images. Connectivism sees learning as the process of creating connections and developing a network. Not all connections are of equal strength in this metaphor; in fact, many connections may be quite weak.

So connectivism is allowing for weak ties, which often turn out to be quite interesting, as those nodes may provide new insights from other perspectives, even though they are not high-level members of some formal or informal group hierarchy.

There is also a price to be paid for the connectivist approach: could there be a higher risk that the principles of cooperation and reciprocity are lost in a connectivist approach? That we’d all end up as lurkers, not contributing anything and just attending silently several meetings or courses, without really engaging ourselves? (In this sense, lurkers would be ‘free riders‘).

In fact, I think there’s not much of a problem. Lurkers do not contribute to the discussion, but they are not harmful as ‘consuming knowledge’ is non-rivalry: the knowledge available for all does not diminish because some people listen without intervening actively.

It appears that even in the absence of “the real possibility” of punishment for non-cooperation people act as if that possibility somehow functions – so lurkers should be given the benefit of the doubt: maybe that mysterious push to contribute will manifest itself once they start attending sessions on a regular basis.

But maybe the problem is not so much ‘free riders’, but participants who contribute negatively. In the case of trolls monitoring and gradually sanctioning can help. But often the problem is not so clear-cut: what if one wants an in-depth discussion, and too many participants add just noise – without really transgressing the boundaries of civil discourse?

Typically learning communities ask their members to do some required and/or recommended reading, so as to ensure at least a minimal common background. While this may be common practice for academically inspired communities, it’s much less self-evident for newspaper discussion groups for instance.

An interesting experiment for media could be to organize discussion groups for specific topics, with the aim to learn stuff or to formulate solutions for certain problems, enabling the members to define rules and expectations, to monitor and sanction the behavior of participants. Such groups would use synchronous (web conferencing, virtual meetings…) and asyncrhonous (forums) communication tools and/or a blogging platform. Gradually more challenging tools could be introduced such as collaborative mindmapping and wikis.

Journalists/bloggers would be facilitators of the interactions and would help introducing the tools. This is one of the major lessons I learn by participating in the Digital Awakening course (#nmfs_f11): how tools have to do with augmenting our humanity.

As became clear during this week’s discussion of Augmenting Human Intellect (Doug Engelbart), introducing a new tool such as a computer (or a portable, a smartphone or tablet) requires careful consideration of the many ways in which a new tool can change our practices. All too often people use new tools with the mindset of a previous phase: using a desktop as a typewriter, a portable as a desktop etc. The same applies for online social tools: social networks risk being used as just the continuation of the office or pub conversation, while they could also empower people to reach out and explore new possibilities. So maybe that’s yet another thing to take into account when designing online learning communities.

Is abundance a myth? The Original Affluent Society and Social Media

I stumbled upon the theme of “abundance” in the Toward a Literacy of Cooperation course (#cooplit) and the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) #Change11 (see previous posts on this blog about both courses) – and I have some issues with the underlying idea that our advanced societies and technology fundamentally alter the situation of humankind from problems of scarcity into issues regarding abundance. In the MOOC there is a discussion of A Pedagogy of Abundance, a meditation by education technology professor Martin Weller on how researchers and teachers are confronted with the avalanche of available content (and of course, this is something happening in many other activities such as news media, music industry etc). In the Social Media Classroom of the #cooplit Kathy Gill posted about Cooperation, Competition and Power:

At its core, however, I believe that zero-sum thinking reflects a dance for power in a world where resources are limited. But today’s economy is moving towards unlimited, not limited, resources. That’s what digitization does to information — it breaks the scarcity barrier. Pre-digital, if I wanted to read “the newspaper” — then you, my partner, could not read it at the same time (unless you read over my shoulder). That’s gone. Ditto for movies and music. And then there is the co-creation that Howard talked about today — wikipedia, SETI at home. Lots of examples in Tapscott’s Wikinomics. Perhaps cooperation is something that humans can achieve only when they have moved to the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In the U.S., at least, systemic cooperation will require a major cultural shift inside and outside of institutions. And a new definition of “success” that does not rely on wielding “power” over others.

Of course, there is much truth in what Weller and Gill say. But still I’m not so sure we come from a situation defined by scarcity and move to an era of abundance, enabling us to freely cooperate and to stop fighting each other. Howard Rheingold in a comment on Gill’s post gives examples of zero-sum situations such as scarcity of water, but I think there is more. The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins articulated the theory of the original affluent society, saying that hunter-gatherers often had far more leisure time than people in contemporary societies. It seems industrialized countries are very good in maintaining a feeling of scarcity, however rich they may be in absolute terms. The structure of desire and the never-ending game of shifting reputation signifiers cause scarcity and competition to stay very important aspects of these societies. This is true – I think – when we think about classical aspects of the consumption society, but maybe also when we think about social media production. What about the effects of shifting reputation signifiers on the competition on social networks? The emergence of new metrics such as the Klout influence index? The time people invest in polishing their online reputation and image, not to mention the work involved in dealing with the noise on the social networks? Which means that maybe, in order to change the nature of often destructive competitions, we’ll need to change the structure of the game. In very (too) general terms I suspect this is related with the production of meaning and with fundamental issues such as how we define what is means to have a good life. It means we should practice the capability of “letting go” of the stream of updates, blogposts and alerts. I guess this has to do what Douglas Rushkoff discusses in Program or be Programmed. He advocates programming, not just blogging in the boxes provided by the big corporations.