Technologies of Cooperation

This is the topic for Week 5 of Howard Rheingold’s course – Towards a Literacy of Cooperation

This topic has been discussed in relation to:

  1. Affordances
  2. The role of social media in political events
  3. Sharing economies, social production and collaborative consumption

1. Affordances

Affordances       Slide from Howard Rheingold’s Week 5 presentation.

A number of affordances were suggested in the discussion, some related to the Slide and others not. Click on the image to enlarge it.

  • An understanding of the pedagogies which support cooperation, e.g. a formal hierarchically managed community of practice might not be as effective in encouraging cooperation as a community managed Facebook page.
  • The ability for users of a platform to see the activities, patterns and network relationships of all others using that platform – such as depicted by social graphs, biomapping, system maps etc.)

This enables users to create and adjust their expectations about others.

  • The ability to see the big picture and handle complexity (longbroading and emergensight). I’m not sure about this because the work I have been doing with Roy Williams and Simone Gumtau on emergent learning suggests that in complex environments it is not possible for one person to see the whole picture. For me this is why cooperation might be important.
  • The importance of timely feedback. In order to cooperate we need to know what the other person thinks. Trust is important in this process and reputation and social capital scoring devices were thought to be helpful, such as the system on which eBay works. Brand Yourself is a tool which was mentioned.
  • Open source tools e.g. PLOTs – which is a community which develops such tools to apply to environmental exploration and investigation. This also reminds me of sites such as iSpot – a website which is aimed at helping anyone identify anything in nature and in so doing supports wildlife conservation.
  • Collective disaster response through sites such as CrisisCommons –   which provides a platform for people to self-organise. There are many more of this type of site
  • InnoCentive – which crowdsources innovation problems to the world’s smartest people who compete to provide ideas and solutions to important business, social, policy, scientific, and technical challenges.

A question raised in this discussion was whether we can adapt to the pace of technological change. There is not space here to report on this discussion in depth, but the work of Ray Kurzweil and Bill Joy  was mentioned and thought to be rather depressing.

2. The role of social media in political events

Whilst some of us might only recently have become aware of the power of social media to influence political events, Howard has been thinking and writing about it for more than 10 years.

He talked to us about how he had first thought about this in Tokyo 13 years ago when observed how people were using their mobile phones; about the organized demonstrations in the Philippines, Korea, Spain, the Ukraine, Los Angeles, Chile and Egypt. However he said that a Smart Mob is not necessarily a wise mob and not necessarily non-violent. We continued to discuss this in relation to the events in Cairo and the idea that ‘the new tools of social media have reinvented activism’ – but we also noted the doubts expressed here – and that

‘ The power to gather round like-minded people can lead to false impressions of hearing all voices’.

YouTube, Facebook and Twitter all play a role in world events but the importance of that role is being debated and it was suggested that we ‘Beware the online ‘filter’ bubble’ – where personalized searches might be narrowing our world view.

3. Sharing economies, social production and collaborative consumption

Howard asked us

‘In what ways are technologies of cooperation enabling new forms of economic production, transaction and consumption.’

It was pointed out that forms of economic production are not new (think carpools, car boot sales, community organizations etc.) but that they have been made easier by new technologies. There are many examples

  • Large capitalistic companies (e.g. IBM) are open sourcing their software. This benefits both the company and to a lesser extent others. It is not an altruistic act.
  • Educational leaders now network and interact on a daily basis.
  • Crowdsourcing computation is an example. SETI@home –  is a scientific experiment that uses Internet-connected computers in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). You can participate by running a free program that downloads and analyzes radio telescope data. Literate populations can now do new things together and science has become a collective enterprise.

Perhaps one way to think further about all this would be to read Howard Rheingold’s book Net Smart –  in which he thinks discusses how to use social media humanely, intelligently and mindfully.

Cooperation has shaped our species and our species is shaping cooperation.

‘A new narrative is emerging in a large number of disciplines – competition is shrinking – cooperative arrangements are expanding’

Practical benefits of studying the biological evolution of cooperation

Questions that we have been asked to focus on this week in Howard Rheingold’s class – Towards a Literacy of Cooperation are:

1. Are there practical benefits of studying the biological evolution of cooperation?  To what extent does it provide insights that convert into theories and practices that can be used in formal or informal communities and organizations?

2. What other heuristics can we extract from the material and use as simple rules of thumb for extending cooperative interactions in the world?

Howard explains:

I chose these questions because so much of this course is theoretical and there ought to be some juicy practical suggests from a group like this in regard to heuristics for encouraging cooperation.

 Question 1

Are there practical benefits of studying the biological evolution of cooperation?  To what extent does it provide insights that convert into theories and practices that can be used in formal or informal communities and organizations?

In considering the first question it seemed to me that it would be easier to answer from the perspective of a specific context, and the context of a community of practice seemed appropriate, given that you might expect plenty of cooperation in such a community, if not collaboration.

By community of practice, I understand this as defined by Etienne Wenger in his 1998 book – where he defines a CoP as having three clearly identifiable characteristics; a domain, a shared practice and a community of members – who participate in the community through mutual engagement, joint enterprise and shared repertoire.

In thinking about what we might learn about cooperation from a community of practice, I have considered the scenario of a long-standing and successful CoP coming under the threat of ‘extinction’, i.e. changing circumstances within the community threaten its continued success.

What can we learn from what we know about biological cooperation that might inform the continued success of this community of practice? The existing conditions within this community, which might support its continued success are:

  • a community history, with memories of past encounters with individual community members
  • members can easily find each other within the community online environment
  • the online environment offers members the chance of future encounters with other members
  • members are ‘nice’ –  there is a culture of willingness to cooperate
  • cooperation in the community is voluntary
  • members are not envious of each other
  • members do not try to be ‘clever’ with each other – they are not ‘tricky’ – they do not introduce ‘noise’ into the community
  • reputation builds through ongoing interaction and reciprocity
  • increased reputation increases the chance of long term success of  cooperating members
  • there is direct benefit to members from the mutualistic sharing of resources, particularly between the core group members, but also from members on the boundary

Challenges to the community in terms of the biology of cooperation are:

A consideration of how the community might be competing for survival – competing against other online environments for members’ time, competing against members’ diverse and dispersed interests and motivations, and possibly membership of other communities.

In biological terms, competition as well as cooperation is necessary for survival. Some questions arising from this are:

  • Does this community pay enough attention to the challenges of competition?
  • Is the community group strong enough/big enough to fend off the pull of other groups/communities?
  • Is there enough ‘social grooming’ in the community?
  • Does Robin Dunbar’s number inform the community’s future success?
  • Is there enough ‘gossip/communication/interaction’ to establish reputation, prestige, trust and norms?
  • Is there a common community understanding of value associated with future outcomes?
  • Is there a role for fairness and punishment in the community?
  • Is the community worth saving in terms of what it can pass on to future generations?

Question 2

Are there simple rules of thumb for extending cooperative interactions in the world?

My response to this, given that I would have to know the context, would be

  • learn from examples in biology
  • consider the relationship between competition and cooperation
  • learn from research
  • consider the context
  • consider history
  • consider the future

For me, it is not possible to be more specific than this without knowing the context.

Finally it’s worth noting here Stephen Downes’ thoughts about this (which might be thought of as rules of thumb)

Stephen has written on his OLDaily newsletter

If Darwinian processes favour successful competitors why does cooperation exist? The answers appear in earnest as soon as you begin to think about it:

  • molecules catalyze each other to higher levels of complexity
  • co-operators benefit from each other through mutual relationships
  • a group which was comprised of cooperators reproduced more effectively
  • people can achieve by collective action what they never could do alone
  • primates pick parasites off each other

Note that none of this resembles collaboration (much less competition). It occurs at a midway point, where there is interaction and exchange, but not a melding into a single unity. Cooperation – not collaboration – is where we should trace the future of learning online.

I am thinking about whether I agree with Stephen about collaboration. I need to think more about when melding into a single unity might be beneficial. Are there examples from biology where this is the case (Lynn Margulis’ work on endosymbiosis springs to mind)  and if so, what can we learn from this?

If this topic interests you and there is not enough information in this post to make sense of this, please refer to

Towards a Literacy of Cooperation

This is a 6 week course being run by Howard Rheingold in his Social Media Classroom. It is a semi-open course – in the sense that the course materials are open to anyone and everyone  – but access to activities and discussion is only open to fee paying participants.

After some deliberation I decided to attend this course for a number of reasons

  • I have recently realized that I need a balance between the open networked MOOC experience and smaller more closed learning environments which are designed for close encounters, challenge and deep learning. It is not impossible, but harder to get this in a MOOC.
  • Linked to this recognition of needing a balance between large loose learning environments and more intimate communities, is a consideration of the balance between cooperation, collaboration and competition. These are topics we will discuss in depth in Howard’s course.
  • Following my experience of Etienne and Bev Wenger-Trayner’s intense Academic BEtreat last summer, I am keen to compare it with this intense online course, and to compare both these with the MOOC experience, to further explore the affordances and designs of different online learning environments

First impressions

The Reading List

I signed up for Howard’s course 3 weeks before the start and was encouraged to complete all the reading for the 5 weekly topics before the start of the course. I am used to feeling overwhelmed once online discussion gets going, but I do not usually experience this before even starting the course. I have found the reading very demanding. It has been a long time since I have had to read so much in such a short space of time and on reflection I realize that although I am usually reading for most of every day, it is usually short forum posts, blog posts, Twitter feed etc. This on its own is worth reflecting on.

My strategy for dealing with this was to decide not to attempt to read everything but to

  1. Watch all the videos first, required and recommended – and make notes
  2. Read all the short required texts
  3. Read as many of the short recommended texts that I have time for
  4. Read what appear to be the key texts for each week.
  5. Not even pretend to think that I can understand or suddenly become a mathematician or economist within a couple of weeks – so not even attempt to engage with those bits
  6. Relate as much as I can to my own personal context – to try and make sense of it all.
  7. Keep an open mind until after the orientation session. Howard said that we could still withdraw at that stage.

Well I attended the Orientation session and I haven’t thrown in the towel

The Process

It is clear that the process of learning will be as much an experience as the content – which is what I had hoped. Howard is very clear about his expectations for participation, active learning, co-construction of knowledge, discussion in the forums and the development of a learning community.  Blogging is recommended but, unlike participation in the forums, is not a requirement. The intention is that through the use of a variety of media tools and by taking on specific roles (my role is live session note-taker) we will by the end of the course see the world in a different way through having new frameworks and lenses for looking at cooperative behaviours.

The Topics

The topic this week is Cooperation in Biology and we have been introduced to

  • Lynn Margulis and Endosymbiosis. Margulis’ observations on symbiotic arrangements between micro-organisms helped her to ultimately convince the science world of the importance of cooperation in evolution (but not without considerable difficulty)
  • Stuart Kauffman and co-evolution at the molecular level. This idea is still controversial.
  • Parasites, Symbiotes, Co-evolution and Mutualism, between plants and animals, such as in the pollination of flowers by birds and bees.
  • Commensalism – one organism benefits without harming the other, unlike parasitism where one benefits at the expense of the other and mutualism where both benefit.
  • Superorganisms – an organism consisting of many organisms e.g. leaf cutter ant colonies.
  • Rhizobia – nitrogen fixing soil bacteria.
  • Mycorrhizal networks – soil inhabiting fungi in the root systems of forests, which link plants of the same and different species.
  • Imaginal cells – in the development of butterflies from caterpillars (I found this link to be helpful in explaining this).
  • Ecosystems – community of living organisms and non-living components, which interact as a system – through complex synergies.

A Cautionary Word

Howard has warned us that

We have to be careful about extending biology metaphors to humans.

We should look for relationships and analogies between levels, but look at them critically and not adopt them too readily.

Cooperation and competition are two sides of the same coin and seem to be co-drivers of evolution

And I have just been pointed to this article Evolutionary Ecology of Technology –  which further discusses these points – so it’s back to the reading.

Changing attitudes to leadership

Dr Martha Cleveland-Innes asks (in changeMooc) this week – ‘Who needs leadership?’

This was a thoughtful presentation. I liked the measured pace and the challenge to traditional ways of thinking about leadership.

It seems that there is no longer in this post-modern era a grand theory of leadership . Leadership theory is either so broad that it is meaningless or so granular that it is too narrow to be useful. Leadership is thought to be contextually based.  If it can be defined at all (Dr Marti Cleveland Innes suggested that it is beyond our ability to define it) then leadership depends on having ‘the right person at the right time, in the right place doing the right things’. A very tricky ‘definition’ because of that loaded word ‘right’.

It was suggested that in today’s world, leadership is no longer thought of as being in an individual, but because we live in a complex, distributed and networked world, we should all be leaders.  As Marti mentioned on her blog complexity theory is now being applied to leadership. (As an aside: ‘Everyone a leader’ is similar to the ‘Everyone a teacher’ argument – see Howard Rheingold talking about peeragogy ).

That we should all be leaders suggests that anyone can be a leader, that is anyone who has followers. A leader has to have followers. This video, also shown in Marti’s presentation, might suggest that it doesn’t take much to get some followers. It also raises the question of whether people who have a large number of blog, Twitter or network followers (or just any number of followers) are therefore automatically leaders.

There’s no doubt that if everyone in a given group or network is a leader, then everyone is also a follower and a view of leadership as invested in one charismatic person would have to change. The questions we ask about leadership would have to change.

But do we really think that there is no longer a place for the charismatic leader. World events, such as what is happening in Burma at the moment would suggest otherwise. Aung San Suu Kyi is clearly thought of as a charismatic leader – a leader of change.

Leadership and the type of leadership that we experience and want is strongly affected by context and culture. So charismatic leadership seems to be just what Burma needs at this current time, but is charismatic leadership what we need for education (my own context is education in the UK)?

Marti mentioned in her presentation that education is notoriously difficult to lead because institutions of Higher Education are notorious resisters to change. That fits my experience. Perhaps education is an example of a system that is too complex to be led by an individual, and all who work in higher education need to see themselves as leaders of change. Perhaps change in Higher Education can only come from the bottom up, through covert, subversive action.

But I know of many charismatic school head teachers who have pulled failing schools out of the mire and turned them into examples of excellence.  So what are the contextual and cultural differences between schools and Higher Education that call for different styles and a different understanding of leadership?

As always a Changemooc session leaves me with more questions than answers – always the sign of a good course:-)