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Climate change, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, environmental protection and remediation, preservation of human rights… the biggest problems of our time are problems of cooperation, the lack of it, obstacles to it, and ways to work around those obstacles. This series of posts introduce the fundamental work in several disciplines that underpin what science now understands about cooperation.
I started to research the book that became Smart Mobs in 1999–2000, when I noticed people on the streets of Tokyo and Helsinki (but not, in those pre-iphone days, on the streets of USA) walking along while looking at their telephones. While the technology I focused on was the merger of the personal computer, the mobile telephone, and the Internet — which came to be known as the smart phone — it was clear from the start that the upheaval to come would be social. Smart phones lowered the barriers to collective action. When I started to educate myself about the study of collective action, it became clear to me at the time — and still seems clear — that understanding the nature, driving forces, and obstacles to human cooperation is one of the most important learning enterprises humans ought to embark upon. I talked about the importance of an interdisciplinary study of cooperation and collective action in my 2005 TED talk, which is closing in on one million views.
I was naive about the prospects for sparking a truly comprehensive interdisciplinary study. The knowledge-producing institutions of our time — universities, government agencies, commercial laboratories — measure the success of practitioners by their progress in increasingly atomized subdisciplines. This is itself an example of a social dilemma — what is good for the individual (success as a commercial or academic producer of knowledge in their microfield) is not always good for the entire population (most wicked problems require the lenses and frameworks of multiple disciplines). With my colleague from Institute for the Future, Andrea Saveri, we presented a series of lectures and discussions at Stanford University, featuring speakers such as Jimmy Wales (who stayed in the loft in my office before we drove to Palo Alto — I dropped him off at Google after his lecture). But I simply didn’t know how to create an institutional home — and fund it — at Stanford.
Institute for the Future was the one organization that embraced my idea of a high-altitude, cross-disciplinary look at cooperation studies. I worked with Saveri and Kathi Vian, initially sponsored by Herman Miller company, with whom we constructed a handbook for open design. Together with IFTF creative lead Jean Hagen, they took the spaghetti-code chaos of the interconnections I was attempting to map and made it into real maps.
For a time, I tried to get institutions from the Carnegie Corporation to the Omidyar Network to fund a “cooperation academy.” My reason was that people who work in cooperation-related fields, from economic development to ecological remediation to arms control, would be able to think about their specific problems more effectively if they understood what is known about the underpinnings of cooperation. I’m not so good at talking institutions into funding my ideas, especially since I’m not a Ph.D. So I started teaching online courses on cooperation. Although I charged tuition for a five week experience in which we engaged each other around the texts via forums, blogs, mindmaps, and webinars, the syllabus is freely available to anyone who wants to dig into the extensive collection of texts.
In a series of posts, I intend to introduce the most important foundation texts around the biological and cultural evolution of cooperation, the characteristics of social dilemmas, the institutions for collective action that people have created to work around these social dilemmas, and the technologies of cooperation, from the alphabet to the smartphone, that have amplified capabilities for collective action.