Howard Rheingold: Cooperation Theory

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Howard Rheingold

Introduction to Cooperation Theory

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.

If you are interested in signing up, contact [email protected]

Learning objectives

About this course: Expect participative and collaborative learning



Below the line: synopsis of course with many open links.

On Cooperation Theory, Social Dilemmas, and Technologies of Cooperation

Digital networks are not important because of their physical capacity to transmit on and off signals very rapidly, but because those signals are the building blocks of symbols that humans use to persuade, inform, and organize other humans into joining or refraining from collective action. The term “collective action” may be dry, but the mysterious magic that enabled homo sapiens to use symbols to organize group activities like hunting or agriculture is what distinguished our ancestors from the other scrawny primates on the savannah, surrounded by much more powerful, much swifter, much better armed predators. “Collective action” is the term sociologists, political scientists, and economists use to describe the human capability to organize group activities to produce something that individuals could not produce on their own — from hunting and gathering to dams to democracies. Although this might seem far removed from the questions posed by digital networks, our species might be in for another leap into an entirely different level of complexity and way of life, depending on how we use digital networks to collaborate in new ways and on new levels. In that regard, a generative question is: In what ways do communication media and practices influence the capability to organize collective action?

The “social dilemma” is another term of art in the social sciences to describe the situations that inevitably arise from the tension between self-interest and collective gain, when, in Peter Kollock’s words “individual rationality adds up to collective irrationality,” when acting in one’s self interest ends up damaging or failing to provide for the interests of everybody. In recent years, such diverse but pressing pragmatic problems as the human population explosion and the possiblity of thermonuclear war attracted scientists from very different disciplines to pursue inquiries regarding collective action — what empirical evidence can be gathered about the forms of human cooperation and the barriers to it, and what pattern does the data reveal? 2010 Nobel laureate in economics, Elinor Ostrom, detailed the ways in which people have worked around or mitigated social dilemmas in order to create institutions for collective action.  Robert Axelrod was concerned about the strategic gameplaying involved with thermonuclear strategy during the cold war, and also curious about why cooperation evolved in a competitive Darwinian environment, so he asked people to program cooperation games that computers could play. Between them, Ostrom, Axelrod, and Kollock could define the foundation for a new interdiscipline of cooperation studies. In biology, the emphasis on competition that was dogmatized by Darwin’s 19th century defenders was challenged and forced to modify when Lynn Margulis‘ 1966 paper on endosymbiotic origins of eukaryotic cells (demonstrated the centrality of cooperative arrangements in the functioning of most life-forms). In scientific, civic,  and business organizations, the role of computer-mediated collective intelligence contributes to a broad resurgence of cooperation-related inquiry.


Week One: Social Dilemmas: Required Texts

Screencast by Howard Rheingold: Introduction to Cooperation Studies

Peter Kollock Social Dilemmas (video)

Kollock, who died in a traffic accident in 2009, addressed the Stanford seminar on “A new literacy of cooperation,” led by Andrea Saveri and Howard Rheingold, in 2005.

Peter Kollock: Social Dilemmas (PDF)

After you watch Kollock’s screencast and want to read a superbly written literature review of interdisciplinary research and theory regarding social dilemmas, this paper (PDF download) is essential.

Week One: Social Dilemmas: Recommended Texts

Game Theory and Social Dilemmas (article)

If you really want to dig into the relationship between formal game theory, social dilemmas, and human cooperation, this entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a great place to start.

Robert Wright TED Talk on Non-zero (18 minute video)

“Author Robert Wright explains “non-zero-sumness,” a game-theory term describing how players with linked fortunes tend to cooperate for mutual benefit. This dynamic has guided our biological and cultural evolution, he says — but our unwillingness to understand one another, as in the clash between the Muslim world and the West, will lead to all of us losing the “game.” Once we recognize that life is a non-zero-sum game, in which we all must cooperate to succeed, it will force us to see that moral progress — a move toward empathy — is our only hope.”

Week Two: The Commons and Institutions for Collective Action: Required Texts:

Garrett Hardin, (1968) “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science, 162 (1968):1243-1248. available online

This is the foundational paper for the modern study of the commons (and modern students of the commons would say that Hardin is not referring to a commons, which is managed in some way by a community, but to an open access common pool resource). Looking ahead to the 21st century from the late 1900s, Hardin foresaw disaster in the way the human population was doubling, and more, with each succeeding generation. He referred to the way common grazing grounds have been overgrazed when individual farmers, unrestrained by regulation or property rights, added more and more animals to their flocks until the common meadows became overgrazed and unusable. Isn’t global climate change a commons problem? Ostrom and other modern theorists react to Hardin. This short paper should be read by anyone who wants to understand issues of human collective action — but no reader should stop with Hardin, whose gloomy assumptions have been shown by others to be something other than inevitable. See also this .jpg of a mindmap about issues arising from this article.

Elinor Ostrom, Governing The Commons: Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action  (summary) and One minute video.

Ostrom asked of Garrett Hardin’s gloomy prophecies regarding the “tragedy of the commons” the question any scientist should ask: is it really true that humans will inevitably despoil any common resource? Looking and thousands of records, ancient and modern, of human use of shared watersheds, fishing and hunting grounds, forests and grazing lands, Ostrom found that a significant portion of communities found ways to override basic social dilemmas, by constructing systems of norms and self-policing social contracts. Ostrom is getting at something deep — can humans learn to be more cooperative through our culturally constructed institutions than our biological heritage as competitive creatures naturally affords? Ostrom’s scope is wide. She wants to know how groups of people overcome barriers to collective action and why they fail to overcome them.

Ostrom’s Nobel Prize Speech (one hour video)

Week Three: Evolution of Cooperation Required Texts

Robert Axelrod, “Three Conditions for Human Cooperation.” (available online)

Axelrod’s book is fundamental. Here is a short summary (available online). 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.

Robert Boyd, Joseph Henrich, and Peter Richerson, Cultural Evolution of Human Cooperation: Summaries and Findings (summary)

Peter Richerson, Robert Boyd, and Joseph Henrich, Cultural Evolution of Human Cooperation (PDF)

Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution Introduction and Conclusion (PDF)

Week Three: Evolution of Cooperation: Recommended Texts

Martin Nowak and Roger  Highfield,  Supercooperators: How altruism and cooperation fit into the larger evolutionary puzzle (1/2 hr video)

Week Four: Technologies of Cooperation Required Texts

Technologies of Cooperation Report (PDF)

This report was prepared by Institute for the Future by Kathi Vian, Andrea Saveri, and Howard Rheingold
Technologies of Cooperation map (PDF)

This chart was created by the Institute for the Future in collaboration with Howard Rheingold, attempting to systematize the relations between the technological affordances and social practices of online collaboration.

Peter Kollock, Design Principles for Online Communities

Peter Kollock, The Economics of Online Cooperation: Gifts and Public Goods in Cyberspace

Week Four: Technologies of Cooperation Recommended Texts

David Bollier, Commons as a Different Engine of Innovation (text of a speech)

David Bollier, a champion of the commons, talks about innovation and the commons.

Week Five: Cooperation in Biology Required Texts

Frank Ryan: Darwin’s Blind Spot (summary of book)

Peter Corning: Nature’s Magic (book summary)

lecture on cooperation in biology and evolution (video)

Lynn Margulis on Endosymbiosis (summary)

Lynn Margulis (Wikipedia)

The Rhizobium-Legume symbiosis (summary)

Week Six: Self-organizing the Big Picture