Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Toothless Trojans

I came across this quote from Confused of Calcutta on Media Influencer today.

"The people who don’t get it can’t understand altruism, think every gift horse is a toothless Trojan. Can’t understand openness and sharing and community. Can’t understand trust. The people who don’t get it live in this weird bondage of isolation and distrust. I couldn’t do it. Just couldn’t."

Yes, but in any human group, a given proportion of individuals will favour closed, less collaborative behaviours. It's not a fixed proportion, but in my view you certainly need more than top-down communication to significantly influence the overall ratio.

Howard Bloom's Global Brain explored this field of the mind en masse in fascinating fashion, suggesting Athens and Sparta as the archetypal poles, the one open and pluralist, the other closed and totalitarian.

Yet for me my experiences in Guatemala have tended to epitomise the negative extreme of these game theory models - a society where a palpably large proportion of people will attempt to cheat (or at least seriously distrust) you even when they are actually aware that it is not in their best, rational interests to do so!

Establishing what makes one set of individuals culturally open, tolerant, altruistic etc. and another exihibit the opposite set of instinctive attitudes is probably one of the biggest unanswered questions at the end of Bloom's book. In my view. any discipline that sets about answering it will probably need to be a practical extension of game theory.

The 'cheaters' in Guatemala are not necessarily bad eggs per se, it's just that they expect to be swindled in turn (and are probably right). Not to rip someone off when the opportunity presents itself would be for some, a dangerous demonstration of weakness. This is partly a deep cultural problem, but also one that I'm sure could be predicted at a statistical level if you could plot the inclinations of the population as a whole.

Bloom, like Popper prefers the Open society, but his model is a continuum with many different perspectives, none of which are good or bad in themselves, as social and political circunstances will always influence the distribution.

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