Friday, March 29, 2002

Trust and Communication

Over at blogtank, the tankies are meditating on online Trust. The Non-zero perspective is that Trust and Communication are strong catalysts for non-zero-sum activites, such as markets, conversations, and weblogs.

Gaspar mentioned the Prisoner's Dilemma, and Appendix 1 of Nonzero discusses Axelrod's iterated Prisoner's Dilemma experiments:
By showing how cooperation could evolve without formal communication, Axelrod had shown how reciprocal altruism could evolve in animals that don't do much talking—including chimpanzees and vampire bats. He had also shown how stable, cooperative relationships could form in a very small society of humans without much explicit discussion; so long as the same players encounter each other day after day—as in a small hunter-gatherer society—trust could develop even with little explicit commitment.

Of course, through cultural evolution, the settings for non-zero-sum games have gotten much less intimate than a hunter-gatherer society. Chances are you've never met the person who made your shoes. In fact, chances are that any one person who had a hand in making your shoes has never met all the other people who had a hand in it. A key feature of cultural evolution has been to make it possible for such non-zero-sum games to get played over great distances, among a large number of players. And in these kinds of situations, typically, there does need to be explicit communication (however circuitous), and there do need to be explicit means of sustaining trust. Hence the importance of evolving information technology in expanding the scope and complexity of social organization. Hence, too, the importance of evolving "technologies of trust" (often, though not always, in the form of laws enforced by a government) in helping to realize the non-zero-sum potential that new information technologies (and other technologies) create.

Thursday, March 21, 2002

The Long View

Doc Searls is goaded into stating his politics. They sound ready for the Nonzero underpinning:
I hate war, love markets, and trust business and government to do what each does best, and don't trust either to meddle in the others' work.
  I also think the world is basically a good place, and that the most powerful forces for change are what the great religions at their cores have always favored: kindness, generosity, mercy and forgiveness. [...]

  I also favor taking the long view — one that spans generations. [...] Simply yet cryptically put, I believe there is an Economics of Altruism that has been essential to business since markets first appeared, and that we're only beginning to recognize.

The non-zero-sum insight is what unifies altruism, markets, kindness and forgiveness, and is against war. All these things expand the non-zero-sumness in the world, which is what leads to interesting things, in the long term.

Global brains

AKMA sees the net as a mind we are building together. This is a persistent metaphor from Nonzero too:

gadgets that pile up at an ever faster rate as population grows are not just subsistence technologies. Even back during the Middle Paleolithic, more than 50,000 years ago, people were intrigued by ochre (for painting) and pyrite crystals. And, as we've seen, during the Mesolithic, such "prestige technologies" as jewelry became an appreciable chunk of gross domestic product.

Great effort went into getting these status symbols. They seem to have been traded over hundreds of miles, back in a time when hundreds of miles was nothing to sneeze at. Even by 30,000 B.C., long before the Mesolithic, beads made of pierced seashells were migrating 400 miles from their point of- origin. Later, regular networks of exchange blossomed, linking local invisible brains to distant invisible brains. The faint outlines of giant regional brains began to form. And the driving force wasn't periodic environmental "stress" but a more constant force: human vanity, powered by the status competition that is part of all known societies and seems to be innate.

The fitful but relentless tendency of invisible social brains to hook up with each other, and eventually submerge themselves into a larger brain, is a central theme of history. The culmination of that process— the construction of a single, planetary brain—is what we are witnessing today, with all its disruptive yet ultimately integrative effects...

Trust and communicationa re what we need for non-zero sum gains, and the net provides a whole new level of both.

Wednesday, March 20, 2002

Wild Utopia

I don't see the Web as socratic. I see it as connective, and socratic dialogue is only one form of connecting, and a pretty paltry one at that. Yelling, joking, teasing, provoking, criticizing, grieving, and flirting are all forms of connecting. So is simultaneous masturbation (no, I don't mean blogging). What makes the Web utopian (in some sense) is that it's connective, not that it's polite, rational or even intelligent. At least that's what I meant to say. If I threw off the estimable Kevin Marks, I must have put it badly.

Tuesday, March 19, 2002

Caliban's mirror

Dave, being a nice bloke, sees the web as utopia. A transcendent Platonic ideal of Socratic discourse, where those of good faith commune on the nature of the world.
Then there are those who see in the seedier side of the web the darkness of their own souls, for we are all fallen creatures, and the line between good and evil runs through all our hearts.

Friedrich spoke of those who fight against dragons becoming dragons, and that when you gaze into the abyss, you find the abyss gazing into you.

Oscar said
The artist creates beautiful things. Art aims to reveal art and conceal the artist. The critic translates impressions from the art into another medium. Criticism is a form of autobiography. People who look at something beautiful and find an ugly meaning are "corrupt without being charming." Cultivated people look at beautiful things and find beautiful meanings. The elect are those who see only beauty in beautiful things. Books can’t be moral or immoral; they are only well or badly written.
People of the nineteenth century who dislike realism are like Caliban who is enraged at seeing his own face in the mirror.
People of the nineteenth century who dislike romanticism are like Caliban enraged at not seeing himself in the mirror.
It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.

They had the 20th Century ahead of them. Lets hope we can do better with the 21st.

Wednesday, March 13, 2002

Quote of the day

Even if murderous extraterrestrials aren't a strict prerequiste for global governance, they would be a big timesaver
The book was written befoer the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, but in many ways it anticipated them, as the increasing interconnectedness of the world enables small groups to advance their agenda.
Here the author expands on this.

Monday, March 11, 2002

Chapter Ten Our friends the barbarians explains why the sack of Rome by the barbarians was a good thing on the whole. Compared to what Romans did to captured cities, it was pretty mild. Rome had lost any technological lead it had, and its nasty side (slavery, debauchery) had taken hold. The barbarians were quick to adopt technological memes that helped them; less interested in the art that was lost. They can be viewed as another case of competition between rival societies.

Wednesday, March 06, 2002

I just read a bit that reminded me of Dave objecting to Dawkins' view of religion, but not quite being able to say why.

I can't be bothered to type the whole passage in this time, so I'll summarize wildly, You really should buy the book and read it (this is chapter 7, Age of Chiefdoms).

Dawkins compares memes to viruses, not just to genes. There aren't many prolific memes that are like viruses (Wright suggests the meme for injecting oneself with heroin). He says the brian has got quite good at rejecting memes that are bad for oneself, and retaining those that do some good (or are at worst benign).

Memes that manage to get through the various individual and cultural selection mechanisms are often those with non-zero-sum value to them, and most religions fit this mould (with the obvious exceptions of those like Heaven's Gate). Most religions are averse to theft and free-rider behaviour, thereby enhancing the trend to non-zero-sum exchanges.
I bought Nonzero by Robert Wright last night, and am enjoying it a lot. By applying the game theory concept of 'non-zero-sumness' to human and biological interaction, he shows how communication and trust are necessary to establish non-zero-sum exchanges, such as markets, information sharing (conversations) and reciprocal exchanges of hospitality. Here he is discussing the Shoshone Indians, traditionally regarded as 'the Irreducible minimum of human society':

A successful Shoshone rabbit hunt would culminate in a "fandango". Sounds like a spontaneous and carefree celebration - and indeed fandangos featured, as one anthropologist put it, "gambling, dancing...philandering". Still, as scholars have noted, the fandango was eminently utilitarian. First, it distributed fresh meat among the rabbit hunt's various kinds of workers. Second, it was an occasion for trading such valuables as volcanic glass. Third, it was a chance to build up a network of friends. (Even the ritual exchange of knickknacks, though economically trivial, can be a way to bond, forming conduits for future favor-swapping of greater moment). Fourth, the fandango was an opportunity to trade information about, say, the location of food.
All of these are non-zero functions, and the last is especially so. Giving people data, unlike giving them food or tools, has no inherent cost. If you know of a place where the supply of pine nuts far exceeds your own familiy's needs, it costs nothing to share the information with a friend. So too if you know the location of a den of poisonous snakes. Sometimes, of course, surrendering information is costly (as when the supply of nuts doesn't exceed your family's needs). Still, data are often of little or no cost and great benefit; swapping them is one of the oldest froms of non-zero-sum interaction. People by their nature come together to constitute a social information processing system and thus reap positive sums. The fandango, the academic conference, and the Internet are superficially different expressions of the same deep force.

More extracts at, but buy this and read it, you won't regret it.