Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Howard Rheingold TED talk urges a global movement to study cooperation

Posted 21 Oct 2011 / 1

A few weeks ago I posted an aside about Howard Rheingold’s 6-week online course on cooperation theory. One of my questions about the course regarded how to assess Rheingold’s credentials to teach the course: he is not sanctioned by any university (although he does call what he does — modestly — “Rheingold U”), and there is not any clear indication on his site as to what qualifies him — beyond his enthusiasm — to teach this course. But I also do not want to be one of those ‘from inside the academy’ academics who looks down his nose at anyone not in possession of a Ph.D.: the time required to get an advanced degree also allows one to see that plenty of dopes are on my side of the academic-public divide. And after all, if we are going to move education from the academy to the internet, who says that the professors still have to come from the academy?

So to give Rheingold a fair shake I tracked down this TED talk entitled “Howard Rheingold on collaboration” from 2005. It is an interesting talk given that Rheingold’s interests in cooperation seem to be completely homegrown: he has taught himself about cooperation theory based on his interest in the subject.

If you need an introduction to some basics of how cooperation has been studied, Rheingold delivers a nice brief overview. He discusses the recent move away from evolutionary theory based solely on competition, and gives a short summary of the prisoner’s dilemma, assurance game (a.k.a. stag hunt), and ultimatum games as ways of understanding cooperation. He rightly suggests that cooperation is in part based on socially-constructed ideas of what is fair. These basic ideas will be more like ‘leads to follow’ than fully-explained concepts for audience members unfamiliar with this area.

Rheingold’s most innovative and interesting idea is that our propensity to cooperate is accelerating in parallel with our rapidly-evolving communications technologies. Again, he rightly identifies that culture rather than biology is probably the most important determinant of how cooperative a particular society can be. He discusses Elinor Ostrom’s work on the tragedy of the commons, and explains that some cultures are more successful than others at maintaining common resources: this itself is a question of technology, the technology used to govern.

Rheingold looks at capitalism as a fairly new cultural invention founded on expanding cooperation. He looks to the printing press as a technology that in producing literacy produces the potential for cooperation. And while Rheingold speaks of building a “new economy”, he also has faith in the dominant economy of our time to morph itself into something novel. His favorite examples of how cooperation has proliferated are centered on large companies that set up cooperative networks to maximize their profits and the profits of their partners. Rheingold’s optimism is for me a bit unwarranted: while I totally agree that the success of modern capitalism is built on a foundation of cooperation, one has to acknowledge that most of this cooperation is coerced by a variety of top-down governance structures that leave individuals with few viable options beyond cooperating with the existing system. The cooperation of today is a far cry from the communal mastodon hunting invoked in the earlier part of Rheingold’s talk.

Rheingold mentions one example very briefly — that of Wikipedia — without really getting deeply into how it plays a role in his “technology leads to cooperation” hypothesis. This is too bad, because if I am to get on Rheingold’s cooperation train at all, I will be buying a ticket on the Wikipedia car. Unlike his other examples (which really amount to corporations setting up networks to control and organize cooperation between consumers), Wikipedia (and other open-source, non-profit projects) actually does have the potential to create a new economy. What is fascinating about Wikipedia is its ability to motivate indirect reciprocity: people contribute free information and/or media in exchange for the ability to consume the contributions of others. Wikipedia has not just eliminated the middle man, it has eliminated the sale. That so many people are economically satisfied enough to give away the fruits of their labor is interesting. Rheingold concludes his talk with a justifiable call to better understand how cooperation evolves, and I think that understanding open source projects would be a wonderful place to center such research.

There are not that many earth-shattering ideas in this talk, and there a few aspects of it I would question. Rheingold loves the illustrative example, but it is not always clear that he has carefully considered the full implications of these examples. For instance, in suggesting that cooperation evolved as a result of big game hunting, he asked his audience to imagine a tribe of humans going after the aforementioned mastodon. Correctly he points out that while a mastodon is harder to bring down alone, the rewards of killing that mastodon are so great that sharing with others is an obvious choice to make: the meat will spoil before a single hunter’s family can consume it. So cooperation must have evolved as humans started to go after big game like mastodon, right? Yikes! Are we sure this is the best example? Are we implying that cooperation emerged after humans left Africa? Do we have any basis for doing so? I am sure that Rheingold was just looking for an example that would engage his audience’s imaginations, but one needs to be careful about speaking authoritatively about how and particularly when cooperation evolved. I am not even sure how to test the question of when cooperative hunting evolved, but given the ubiquity of human cooperation I would be surprised to learn that the Europeans who did end up cooperatively hunting for mastodons were compelled by the presence of mastodons to cooperate for the first time: cooperation most likely has its roots in Africa.

Rheingold’s presentation style is also not all that effective. Talking is pretty much his sole means of communicating ideas, as he uses for presentation slides a series of fairly meaningless pictures of himself superimposed in various contexts (makes one wonder whether all new technologies, especially Photoshop, always help us progress!). I am not universally against professorial flamboyance, but it helps if this flamboyance is in service of teaching; Rheingold’s is not.

Beyond this TED talk, you can also check out the Wikipedia page dedicated to Howard Rheingold as well as his website. He also has a 2002 book called Smart Mobs about how web-based communication systems enable large-scale cooperation; although I have not read the book, it seems pretty prescient in light of recent “social media revolutions”.

Altruism, Cooperation, Cultural Evolution, Evolution, Game Theory, Group Selection, Mutualism, Punishment, Reciprocity, Talks & Seminars, Web

1 Comment to "Howard Rheingold TED talk urges a global movement to study cooperation"

Ben Knight 21st October 2011 at 3:09 pm

On the topic of flamboyance and academia, I am reminded of Aaron Marcus. His lecture on cross cultural communications/design can be perceived as flamboyance, though it is hard edge academic. Rheingold seems to flourish how most do via TED, through the its middle name (Entertainment)

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