Sunday, October 2, 2011

Book Discussion: The Penguin and The Leviathan

In The Penguin and the Leviathan, Yochai Benkler does a terrific job of synthesizing a wealth of cross-disciplinary research in support of the idea that collaboration isn't just the new competition, it's the driver of progress we've been ignoring for too long.   In many ways, this book felt like The Starfish and the Spider meets The Tipping Point via a trip through the Harvard Business Review.  Which isn't a bad thing at all.  Despite being a first edition, I did notice a bunch of typos.  Anyways, the title derives from the symbol of Linux, Tux the Penguin, and Hobbes' Leviathian.  A more contemporary mashup might be The Penguins' Leviathan as a nod to the equal, if not enhanced, power of new collaborative enterprises over centralized.

Benkler is able to follow his points through many fields of study and even examples like the 2008 Obama campaign don't seem quite so cliched given his mastery of the topic.  I enjoyed the historical references and challenge to the Industrial-era assumption that human motivation is rooted in selfishness.  As the author points out, "[w]e've all known intuitively, that we aren't really selfish and rational all the time."  The references to Adam Smith's Invisible Hand throughout the work made me think of the contrast between Smith's two major works, The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and this book and Benkler's The Wealth of Networks.  In other words, an academic view and a more (for lack of better word) human one.

The cross-disciplinary inquiry begins with the work of Richard Dawkins' seminal work The Selfish Gene and the history of the debate over whether our cultural predispositions or genes control us.  Ultimately, Benkler remarks that "we are not building a society for genes, but for people" and largely welcomes both approaches. 

Key takeaways for me include the idea that punishment often has the opposite of its intended effect, that businesses must "overcome the mind-set that asymmetric contributions amount to a free ride" and that 'good' and 'cooperative' aren't always synonymous. For the punishment discussion, the author relies on the story of an Israeli kindergarten that began imposing fines on parents who picked up their children late. Perhaps the fine or "punishment" wasn't severe enough but it wound up increasing lateness as parents began to see it as an option, or extension of the usual service. Like many examples in the book, framing and presentation seemed to be the key drivers of human reaction. 

Although Benkler has written extensively about open source software, a lot has changed since his last book in terms of the ubiquity of OSS, the number of participants and the models of participation.   Maybe I'm just looking for someone else to do the work of comparing and analyzing the structure of OSS communities that I should be spending more time exploring but I wanted to see more discussion of the topic. Nevertheless, a number of studies are noted on pages 181-86 while probing the question of why some contributors stay involved when they know that others are being paid for their contributions.  The simple answer is autonomy. The context-specific notion of fairness in those communities isn't enough to crowd out the inclusive nature and common good that everyone is working toward (and benefits from). Perhaps the distributed and faceless nature of the work helps keeps jealous impulse out of the way. 

At one point toward the end, Benkler asks the ultimate question: "The challenge is to find a way to motivate those who are self-interested to cooperate, without losing those who are more socially and intrinsically driven." The book spends a lot of time exploring this Zen koan of collaboration, or how to allow us to be both our individual and social selves at the same time. A few ideas and current implementations come to mind:
  • make features and services opt-in 
    • Facebook, for example, keeps learning the lesson that most users want control. At least, the most vocal users will create that pressure. Less creepiness is good too. Trust trumps trial and error.
  • tweaking recommendation engines
    • doing this objectively without compromising personal data is the billion dollar question
  •  defining group benefits in terms of individual effects on those benefits
    • in political campaigns, letting users interact with progress can be done by giving the option to share their effort (for the selfish, e.g. "I raised $xx toward the goal of $xxx), remain anonymous (for the intrinsically motivated, e.g. simply clicking "remain anonymous" gives a sense of fulfillment), start a new initiative (for the leaders, e.g. "We did it once, join me in doing it again")
  • related to the above idea, allow users to choose a different reward structure
    • included in this can be forms of reciprocity, such as donating your award/reward to another user whose contributions you admire, or a Ben Franklin-style "pay it forward" system as Benkler discusses
In short, this book is an important step in our understanding of how non-financial rewards affect human behavior. 

While distracting myself from writing this, I came across this essay adapted from Robert H. Frank's recent book The Darwin Economy which seems to argue that contrary to Adam Smith's view of self-interest leading to overall community good, the negative aspects of selfishness in markets have become too pronounced to tolerate further. Frank's tone is much more academic and prescriptive, suggesting that taxation of harmful (selfish, ruthlessly evolutionary capitalist) behavior could provide a remedy. I'll have to read Frank's book to better compare the two views, but a mashup of Benkler's collaboration medicine and Frank's tax therapy might already be underway in government as Obama recently proposed raising taxes on millionaires and the White House recently unveiled We The People, an online petition platform. We'll see...