On Collaboration, Wealth, Game Theory, and Collective Action

In this TED talk, Renaissance man Howard Rheingold manages to synthesize a lot of things that I’ve discussed before on L&UL through a lens that’s pretty new: collaboration.

The beginning of Rheingold’s talk focuses on one of the products of collaboration: wealth. This is a key feature of gift economies as well. There is some worth that resides exclusively in the group and is not divisible among or attributable to any its individual members. As tribes of humans farmed and hunted in larger groups, the result was more food than individuals could eat and greater wealth than they could produce on their own. With this new wealth comes specialization, trade, and, ultimately, counting and language. When the printing press emerged, it made language easier to produce and the goal of widespread literacy more possible to obtain. With more people reading, writing, and circulating their ideas, major shifts in thought occurred: the scientific revolution, the Protestant Reformation, and constitutional democracy to name just a few. Rheingold’s point is that new wealth always results from new forms of collaboration, and new ways of managing that wealth are then necessarily devised. In this case, simple commerce morphs into Capitalism, a brand of commerce with its own, more institutionally collaborative instruments like insurance and incorporation.

What grabbed me most, though, is the way Rheingold elegantly shifts from wealth and gift economies to collective action and game theory. Toward the middle of his talk, Rheingold focuses on two “major narratives” that surround and frame human attempts at collective action. The first is the Prisoner’s Dilemma, named for its two titular prisoners, both of whom have been arrested and asked by the police to inform on the other for a lesser sentence. If they collaborate, they get six months in prision. If one squeals on the other, the nonsquealer gets ten years. If they both squeal on one another, they get five years each. The logic of this game’s payoffs suggest that both prisioners are incentivized to defect rather than collaborate, even though both will get more jail time having stabbed each other’s backs than if they had worked together to cover them.

Rheingold’s alternative to the Prisoner’s Dilemma is what’s known as an Assurance Game or, more commonly, a Stag Hunt, which takes its name from a comment by Rousseau. If two hunters work alone, they each might kill a rabbit. But, working together, each can kill a stag, which is a much more valuable prize. While the Prisioner’s Dilemma has a clear equilibrium with mutual defection, a Stag Hunt has two equilibria – mutual collaboration and mutual defection – and the best predictor of which will be employed in a given situation comes from a third model, known as Equivalent Retaliation, or Tit for Tat. Actions in a Tit for Tat game are not based on a singular instance (hunt together or alone); rather, they’re contingent on each individual’s prior actions. Its rules state:

  1. Unless provoked, the agent will always cooperate
  2. If provoked, the agent will retaliate
  3. The agent is quick to forgive
  4. The agent must have a good chance of competing against the opponent more than once

What this suggests is that, given two equal possible equilibria for an Assurance Game scenario, the best way to ensure collaboration is to predispose both agents to it. This predisposition is socially learned: it’s why parents are always asking their children to share.

But there are rules to sharing as well. If something is shared, our default ruleset is that it is shared equally, and, when this supposition is violated, the results can seem to defy rational logic. The best case of this is the Ultimatum Game, in which two strangers are put two separate rooms. The first player is told he has been given $100 to share with the second player and asked to propose a split. That proposal is taken to the second player who decides to either accept or reject the offer. If he accepts, both players are paid and the game is over. If he rejects, neither player is paid and the game is over. The first player has control over how a good is shared, the second player has control over whether or not collaboration or defection results from that idea of sharing. Even though it would be rational for two strangers to get paid just for showing up regardless of what split is proposed, the game shows that the second player generally decides to collaborate only if the first player’s split is somewhere near 50-50. Given the choice between violating learned and socially valuable notions of sharing for a small sum of money or protecting them for no money at all, again and again the second player chooses the latter. Rheingold notes that other cultures do not necessarily share these seemingly ingrained notions of fairness. They are not instinctive, but entrenched; not nature, but nurture.

Rheingold’s second “major narrative” is built on the first. He characterizes the Tragedy of the Commons, which takes its name from an 1986 article by ecologist Gerrit Hardin, as a “multiplayer Prisoner’s Dilemma.” If the upside of human collaboration is additional wealth, the downside is the depletion of shared (or common) resources, even if it’s against the long-term interest of individuals to let such depletion happen. Wealth, then, is a zero-sum game: as you kill more stags and have more to eat and more food to share, trade, and distribute, there are inevitably fewer stags to graze the pasture and keep it from turning to barren desert, even though doing so ensures your culture will survive for generations to come. Safeguarding the commons from human destruction comes by agreement that separate institutions are needed to protect and preserve them. Rheingold cites the work of political scientist Elinor Ostrom as groundbreaking in this regard. Ostrom calls the institutions tasked with protecting the commons “common property regimes,” or CPRs. (In a bit of a confusing twist, the acronym also refers to “common-pool resources,” which are what common property regimes are designed to protect.) Ostrom studied the design of CPRs and noted eight principles that are fundamental to their success:

  1. Clearly defined boundaries
  2. Congruence between appropriation and provision rules and local conditions
  3. Collective-choice arrangements allowing for the participation of most of the appropriators in the decision making process
  4. Effective monitoring by monitors who are part of or accountable to the appropriators
  5. Graduated sanctions for appropriators who do not respect community rules
  6. Conflict-resolution mechanisms which are cheap and easy of access
  7. Minimal recognition of rights to organize (e.g., by the government)
  8. In case of larger CPRs: Organisation in the form of multiple layers of nested enterprises, with small, local CPRs at their bases

The last rule, in particular, is of interest: to me, it’s possible to read it as describing the relationship between local, state, and federal governments. At the very least, it’s reassuring that the rules for designing a successful protector of the commons involves the self-replication of just such a protector. Essentially: pass it on.

Much of this isn’t new, and certainly the final third of Rheingold’s talk, in which he turns to specific companies to see how these factors are at play in contemporary life, is not as inspiring as the first portion of his talk. What I think is really valuable here is the way he puts these seemingly divergent ideas together all under the umbrella of collaboration. From the world of art (relational aesthetics) to the world of commerce (just-in-time production models, it’s clear that a shift from, as Rheingold quips, “me-centered to we-centered” affects humankind in a deep and meaningful way. Designers, I’d like to suggest, are already finding themselves central to this shift, and I have great hope that our ability to foster and promote collaboration across many different parts of society will only grow as time goes on.