The evolution of cooperation

Patrick, in comments to my early post about the effects of blackberries and other push e-mail devices, recounts his experience of a meeting where nine out of ten of the people present – well – weren’t:

“They would look up upon hearing a word they find interesting, then went right back into their text-messaging. Then during Q&A, one guy asked three questions in rapid succession (all of which pertained to topics we had already discussed in our presentation), then promptly went back to typing in his SK. After answering his questions in rather lengthy detail, the presenter (our Exec Creative Director) asked him whether or not we’ve addressed his concerns, he replied: “uh, more or less.” never once loosened his grip on his opium pipe.”

Was talking with Foe about this again tonight, and realised that of course, I have done the equivalent of this in meeting rooms that have wifi – checking my email, or attending to some other work, while being copresent, but not really concentrating on the content of the meeting. Is is again the effect of the tools? Having ‘prescence’ in buddy lists means you are available for chat or queries to others. Do we now think that it is enough to be ‘present’ in reality – available, but not concentrating – awaiting a call to participate rather than participating by default? Would we be more productive or creative and less stressed if we opted out of one ‘buddy list’ of prescence – perhaps even sometimes the physical prescence. Just be honest and say – “You know what? I shouldn’t be here if I’m not concentrating on this.”

I know that Joi Ito has written a lot about his thoughts on “m-time and p-time” before now – I really should go back and read it more thoroughly.

All of this thinking about berrybites and the technologies that create constant partial attention put me to mind of the first time I heard the phrase, on Neal Stephenson’s well page – and how much of the communication technology we think essential to productivity is nothing of the sort:

“Linda Stone, formerly of Apple and Microsoft, has coined the term “continuous partial attention” to describe life in the era of e-mail, instant messaging, cellphones, and other distractions. This curious feature of modern life poses a problem for a someone like me. Every productive thing that I do requires ALL my attention.

I cannot put it any better than Donald Knuth, who writes on his website, “Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration. ”

Knuth also provides the following quote from Umberto Eco: “I don’t even have an e-mail address. I have reached an age where my main purpose is not to receive messages.”

One other thought – form factor.

Different form factors set up different spaces of interaction and particpation around them. Handhelds and laptops, while seeming quite different in form-factor – both create ‘private’ spaces for different reasons (size for handhelds, lids for laptops) which have similar impacts on the feeling of the social space around them.

I wonder what meetings feel like if the particpants are still connected but using devices with form-factors that create ‘semi-private/semi-public’ interaction spaces around them, e.g. tablet PCs. Does anyone have first-hand experience?

Alex Wright on the wikipedia / autonomy!=authority thing:

“What irks me about some of the dialogue to date is an assumption (usually implied) that networked systems are somehow inherently more “fair” than top-down systems. Democracy, like unregulated free markets, are no guarantee of fairness. And while networked systems surely give users more opportunity for input, they also abide by power laws which, though perhaps ineluctable, are neither equal nor fair (especially insofar as they favor early adopters). Top-down systems, while seemingly authoritarian, may paradoxically do a better job of defending the interests of the individual. Just as mob rule is no way to run a country, so purely democratic classifications could lead lead to groupthink, favoring conformity and marginalizing dissent.

But again, I don’t believe that top-down and bottom-up systems necessarily have to stand in opposition; the two models may ultimately prove consilient.”


“Fast [to iterate] at the bottom, slow [to consolidate] at the top” to paraphrase Alex quoting Kevin Kelly.

This, however, does seems to be the überpattern of wikipedia afforded by its structure, as demonstrated by Historyflow, with some catastrophy and punctuated equillbrium thrown in.

“(Medium-)Fast at the bottom, slow at the top” was the principle behind iCan‘s information architecture, enabling campaigners to say exactly what it was they were campaigning for, and letting casual browsers have a way in which had some stability, and common currency of meaning at the top levels.

Neologism alert – after all this talk of ‘folksonomies’ can I say information arcology yet?


This animation of the Breedster universe mapped onto a toroid is fantastic.

Around 1 minute and 2 seconds into the animation of the expanding insect cosmos, a pattern emerges of a heart, described by hundreds of individual breedsters acting in concert. It takes about 2 seconds in the animation to form, corresponding to and remains there, more or less inviolate for the remaining 40 seconds, like some sentimental insect Arcosanti, or the Burning Man playa as sponsored by Hallmark.

The animation was compiled:

“of hourly Grid snapshots taken from 2004-04-09 02:00 until 2004-05-22 12:00, at 10 fps.”

Therefore (and correct me if i’m wrong) every second is 10 hours in real time, meaning the heart emerged in 20 hours, and remained for 400 hours or nearly 17 days.

I guess my next questions would be

  • how did the heart get started?
  • how did the idea spread?
  • how was it’s construction coordinated, if at all?
  • how long, in subjective time, would this structure have ‘lasted’ from the breedster insect-avatar point-of-view?

Hopefully, Breedster will have some longevity, and so will these pattern plotting exercises – perhaps through this playful format somethings we think we know about how cities and societies form and grow can be explored.

From the delightfully-irreverent “symposium”* “On Fornication And Genetics in The Breedster Age”

“How to write a manifesto in an age disgusted with them? The fatal weakness of manifestos is their inherent lack of evidence. Breedster’s problem is the opposite: it is a mountain range of evidence without manifesto.”

Conversation with Foe in IM:

FOE: “see I told you breedster was about more than just copulating with strangers”

FOE: “it’s pretty much dead now since they started giving us diseases though”

ME: “well, life’s like that”

ME: “you just see the civilisation and great works of art in the historical view, but not all the copulation and diseases that people were really caring about at the time…”

Move over, Simon Schama! Ach. Lunchtime.