Apart from sessions on space exploration, the other highlight of Sci Foo for me was, naturally, the discussion of the dynamics of cooperation in America (I have more to say about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and will return to it in the next blog).
The session was well attended by folks with very different backgrounds. Most (or the ‘plurality’) were social scientists of various kinds, including political scientists and an economist. There were a few ‘techno-geeks,’ this being the Silicon Valley (at least one was a Google employee). And there were other folks such as journalists/media folks and an artist or two.
Such a mixture made for an interesting discussion. I started the discussion by showing a bunch of slides that support my contention that the level of cooperation in America has indeed been declining in the last 3-4 decades. You can see these graphs in the previous blog.
As soon as I showed the first slide (on average membership rate in voluntary organization) the social scientists around the table started questioning whether it was truly showing that cooperation was declining, or could be explained by… and then giving some specific reason why the trend has been declining.
To this I replied that, sure, you can explain this particular trend with that particular explanation, but wait and see until I show you more data. And I went to show the rest of my slides. A couple of other times people would bring up special explanations for one or another declining trend.
Once I showed all the slides, I argued that you can explain any single one away, but it would be a kind of ‘special pleading.’ Numerous indicators of different aspects of cooperation all experienced trend reversals around the 1970s. We can either try to explain each of them separately, by bringing up an ad hoc explanation (different for each trend), or we can admit that something fundamental is going on. I think this argument made an impression, because the discussion next turned to the possible causes of the decline in cooperation and what can be done about reversing it.
There were a lot of interesting points. At one point we were discussing whether it would be a good idea to devolve a lot of functions from the federal to the more local level (states and communities). I thought that was an excellent suggestion because that’s what the theory of cultural multilevel selection suggests. We should allow (indeed, promote) a diversity of approaches by different communities, let them try to make it work, and then other communities (or states) can imitate those solutions that showed they work best. This is one of the ways that cultural group selection can operate without ‘ethnocide’ (that, is only successful practices are borrowed, instead of replacing culture whole-sale).
The idea is, of course, not new. It’s something that the Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis used to call “laboratories of democracy.” Unfortunately, this idea was never implemented systematically and we now live in an overly centralized (unnecessarily so) state, in which the freedom of different states to experiment is severely limited by the center.
Another interesting discussion centered on whether technology will enable novel ways of cooperation (well, this should have been expected since we were hosted by Google). In fact, it may already be happening. People brought up two excellent examples: Wikipedia and Linux. I am more familiar with Wikipedia, and I must say that it is a true example of cooperation on a very large scale. It involves huge numbers of contributors donating selflessly their time, energy, expertise, or even money (you can make a donation). And the result is quite spectacular. Wikipedia is by far the most useful web place for looking up facts and data (yes, you have to check it, but most of the time it checks out well; studies show that Wikipedia gets more facts right than traditional encyclopedias).
The future will show whether new technologies will enable large groups of people to cooperate better. Note that most of activities facilitated by the social media are not cooperation in the strong sense, because no public goods are produced as a result of individuals contributing their time, money, or energy (unlike Wikipedia, Facebook and Twitter are for-profit corporations).
I’d like to end this blog on an upbeat note, but there is one area where gloom reigns. We may argue whether Americans are cooperating less or cooperating less in traditional ways, instead shifting their cooperation to new domains opened up by the Internet and computer technology. But at the national level the news are uniformly grim. Our political elites are increasingly polarized and not only between the two parties. The Republicans are now split into two parties: the traditional GOP and the Tea Party. The federal government, and many states, are increasingly dysfunctional, the political gridlock is getting worse, and I see no hope that new technology could somehow save us.