Posted by: terrapraeta | December 13, 2007

Working Together


We, Jah people, can make it work;
Come together and make it work, yeah!
We can make it work;
We can make it work.

Five days to go: working for the next day;
Four days to go: working for the next day;
Say we got: three days to go now: working for the next day;
Two days to go (ooh): working for the next day, yeah.
Say we got: one day to go: working for the –
Every day is work – work – work – work!

Bob Marley, Work

I have been studying a little bit of Game Theory recently. It covers a lot of diverse topics, but the one that I find intriguing is Prisoner’s Dilemma.

If you have ever watched Friend or Foe, then you are familiar with the basic concept of Prisoner’s Dilemma. Basically, two people are in a situation where they can:
A) Cooperate and both gain a small benefit
or
B) Compete (defect from cooperation)

If an individual chooses to defect, they have the possible chance of great benefit and the possible chance of a small loss.

Over the long term, with multiple, single iterations of the game, those that compete/defect tend to end up ahead of those that cooperate. This is exactly what occurs in our society. For a variety of reasons, (including population and the Monkeysphere, and our economic system based on perpetual growth, and our social isolation) rewards those that break both social and legal rules and get away with it more than it punishes those that are caught.

In fact, lets drop an example out there. Environmental Protection. Let’s say Corporation A is a mining company in Montana. The cost of clean up after mining a particular deposit is $5 Million. What happens if they don’t clean it up? A rational person might think that the fines, penalties and legal ramifications of this would be in excess of $5 Million, yes? In fact, the penalties incurred are always less than the initial cost. Add to this that Corporations are legally beholden to their shareholders to maximize profit. A CEO is almost forced to decide against clean up.

That’s some system we have going on, huh? And we wonder why the world is going to hell?

However, Prisoner’s Dilemma does not stop there. Amongst people you know, how often do you have an interaction with them that is completely segregated from every other interaction you have had or will have with them? In other words, if you screwed over a friend, would they then ‘forget’ what you did the next time you saw them? I don’t think so.

Back in 1980, Robert Axelrod began an experiment – or a contest, depending on how you look at it. He invited programmers to devise various strategies for Prisoner’s Dilemma, to be run through computer simulations. The ‘winner’ would be the one that ended with the most ‘points’. The interesting part is that they ran some of the simulations as ‘infinitely iterated prisoner’s dilemma’. The assumption was that the ‘players’ would never know when or if there was a final round, and the ‘players’ would ‘remember’ what happened previously.

The most successful strategy to be developed in the first tournament was named Tit for Tat. Tit for Tat is a primarily cooperative strategy. On the first iteration, it will always cooperate. After that, it will always do whatever its ‘opponent’ did in the prior round. When played against itself, Tit for Tat generates a ‘perfect score’ as neither competitor ever introduces a defection, so they both end up with perfect scores. By comparison, strategies that favor defection will sometimes excel in the short term, but in the long term, they are almost always beaten by ‘nice’ strategies that favor cooperation.

The point of all this is to consider how to build social systems that reward cooperative behavior over competitive behavior. This is another of those critical characteristics for any society that will work for people

So what are the specific critical characteristics that are needed? First, our social and professional interactions need to be refocused within the Monkeysphere. As human animals, we simply cannot keep track of the social interactions of more than about 150 people. So if we are going to truly create an iterative relationship, we need to consider our own physical limitations.

Second, once you have a community that is capable of being fully integrated (in our minds), you need to build relationships between the individual members. Sometimes, especially amongst people in our culture, this can be difficult to do: certainly at levels beyond the superficial. So how do we ‘teach’ people to understand, trust and care about a large group of people? (Sounds kinda silly, doesn’t it? But ask yourself, how many people do you REALLY understand, trust and care about?)

Let me suggest this: give a group of people, strangers even, a task to perform. Build a handicapped ramp for a neighbor with restricted mobility, get together to install gardens at one another’s homes, cook a meal together once a week. The possibilities are endless. But in my experience, the one thing that they all have in common is that when people work together, they learn to ask each other for help, give help when asked, depend on one another’s judgment and abilities, learn from one another, laugh, joke, cry, eat drink and be merry. And more. This, too, is an iterative process, but I have found that it works.

If you doubt me, try it sometime. Next time you have a big project to do around your home, offer beer and pizza for anyone willing to come and help you out. Stretch it out. Work for a while, then have a beer. Do a little more, then order pizza. Spend a whole day just being with your little group of volunteers, and at the same time accomplish your goal. (Also, you’ll find that the ‘project’ got done without it being ‘work’ – instead it was ‘an activity’. Seriously!)

See how you feel about it at the end of the day. Do you want more?

(Originally posted August 24, 2006)

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