The art of getting along

I don’t do Facebook. I don’t Tweet. On those rare occasions when I need to borrow someone’s cellphone, I have to ask the owner how to turn it on. Texting? Forget about it. Divorced from the social network, I am quite outside the global discussion that will likely formulate answers to the great questions of our times. But if one has friends (not to be confused with the Facebook variety), and if they trust you to listen, you can eavesdrop on the parts of the chatter that are interesting.

I don’t do Facebook. I don’t Tweet. On those rare occasions when I need to borrow someone’s cellphone, I have to ask the owner how to turn it on. Texting? Forget about it.

Divorced from the social network, I am quite outside the global discussion that will likely formulate answers to the great questions of our times. But if one has friends (not to be confused with the Facebook variety), and if they trust you to listen, you can eavesdrop on the parts of the chatter that are interesting.

A family member Facebooked (is that really a verb now?) my wife, knowing that an online discovery would be drawn to my attention. That item was a blog entry by a UCLA professor who encouraged his students to cheat — and cheat egregiously — on an exam he promised would be “impossibly difficult.”

Peter Nonacs is a professor in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department at UCLA. He studies the evolution of the social behaviour of animals and relates his findings to human behaviour. It’s one aspect of game theory.

The single exam question, to be answered in writing in one hour, was:

“If evolution through natural selection is a game, what are the players, teams, rules, objectives, and outcomes?”

Outside of violence or other criminal acts, there would be no rules to the exam process of finding the best answer to the question, in order to get a good mark.

The story contained in the blog is interesting enough to repeat, but for time’s sake, we’ll condense to the outcomes. The students put game theory into practice, and found that even in as competitive an environment as obtaining a good grade at university, altruism and co-operation work best.

The group did not do better than all individuals who decided to take the test alone, and there were probably a few “scroungers” in the group that got a bigger benefit than their contributions warranted. But the best outcome for the largest number occurred when people pooled resources, shared openly and then selected the best answers.

This looks a lot like what many people hope the online social network could achieve, when it works at its best.

As an outsider to that system, I still say the wider process (or game, if we want to call it that) applies to the “impossible questions” that the world faces today.

Consider climate change as one example. Who are the players, what are the rules, and what are the goals (as in “how will we know we’ve won?”) for the game of an economy based on fossil fuels, vs the planet’s ecology?

Just over the weekend, a NASA-led study that compared a dozen climate models concluded that the current trend of climate change is leading to some regions of the planet (the American southwest and the Mediterranean) becoming dustbowls. At the same time, areas that already get a lot of rain will get a lot more, leading to frequent flooding.

You can get hung up on the causes — man-made or natural — while millions of acres of cropland dry up, or disappear into swamps. Or, you can join the group that’s looking for a united response to an apprehended disaster.

And we should have no doubt that large numbers of people can solve impossible problems, when they agree to co-operate and share findings.

Some years ago, the rock band Nine Inch Nails printed tour T-shirts with certain letters on the back highlighted. That’s all they did. Somebody noticed that if you arrange the letters a certain way, they say “I want to believe.” Somebody else entered those words in a Google search, and found a website with numbers in it.

Thus was born one of the world’s most famous alternate reality game, in which millions of players had to work online together to solve incredibly obscure puzzles.

The point here is not that online networking can solve the world’s problems, but that co-operation can.

An article in The Atlantic over the weekend by U.S. academic James Kwak suggested a simple way for that country to guarantee stable funding for its entire social security system for decades to come. Will anyone in power examine the idea, or explain why it can or cannot work?

Not likely. That would require too much co-operation. Even if the idea were examined and found valid, could required legislation be proposed and passed into law to make the idea work?

Again, not likely. It is not in the nature of governors to co-operate with ideas they do not generate themselves.

Think of the mess the world seems to be in. If the real game is economic and ecological survival, why do we keep putting our hopes in elected officials who do not co-operate with each other?

Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at readersadvocate.blogspot.ca or email greg.neiman.blog@gmail.com.