Altruistic Media

24 04 2010

The other day my classmate Paul gave a presentation about game theory and it’s role in interactive media.  Game theory attempts to mathematically capture behavior in strategic situations, in which an individual’s success in making choices depends on the choices of others.  He was enlightening us on how users in an interactive world feed off of each other and help one another regarding the creation and sharing of multimedia content and applications.

Game theory plays a large role in the field of ecology in that relationships with in a community revolve around this theory, which in the biological world is more commonly referred to as altruism.  Coincidentally, altruism has something I’ve been thinking about and relating to the Internet and interactive media throughout this past semester of graduate school.

Altruism is the enhancement of the fitness of an unrelated individual by acts that reduce the evolutionary fitness of the altruistic individual.  Examples of altruism include individuals of the same  species preening one another (removes parasites from another), hunting cooperatively (helps to provide food with no guarantee they will get food of their own) , or giving warning signals to each other in the presence of danger (one individual attracts the attention of the predator by warning others).  All this behavior benefits the species as a whole.

We all know that most of us are willing to lay down our lives to save the live of one of our relatives.  This is a basic form of altruism.  However, altruism plays a large role in communities of unrelated individuals.  For example, in olive baboon (Papio anubis) communities when a female comes into heat a male will form a consort relationship with her, following her around await an opportunity to mate with her.  Sometimes an unattached male will enlist the help of another male to fight with the consort male so that he may attempt to mate with the female.  This behavior would then be reciprocated in turn at a future time.

I’m not going to go into the more specific theories of altruism in that they can be rather complicated and mind blowing in understanding relationships within a society.  I only want to point out that this type of behavior is mimicked in interactive media.

Generally, if a user needs an add-on, plug-in, or application to accomplish a goal, they can easily find a free version online.  There are thousands of people out there that are creating these applications which they make openly available to society as a whole without gaining any benefit, in this case money.

Although, these individuals may be seen a parasitic to large media companies who are hell-bent on protecting their own – their own content and delivery of said content- they are helping society and the communities they exist in by providing free information and knowledge to the group.  They are essentially aiding the evolution of interactive media through generativity which is explained in Jonathan Zittrain‘s book, The Future of the Internet.

This behavior should be embraced by large media companies as they too may benefit from this generativity.  Just as in many species of ants in which sterile females exist only as workers who’s sole existence is to help the queen and the colony as a whole, those developing free applications and content, with no financial benefit may be the workers that create the newest technology that would aid media companies in creating better content and delivering that content to larger audiences or groups of consumers.

All this is just another example of digital media mimicking biology and proof that by doing so, interactive media will evolve into a greater entity that will make our communities and society as a whole stronger and more survivable.



23 03 2010

Over the past few years as I’ve been utilizing the Internet and related plug-ins and understanding their capabilities, I’ve come to admire the way the Internet resembles nature in form and function while seeming to follow laws, not unlike those of science.

As I’ve been reading the “The Future of the Internet:  And How to Stop It”, by Jonathan Zittrain I’ve again returned to the repeating realization that the Internet has become and will remain successful because it is us who control it.

The Internet is organic.  We, the users create and maintain the content that is displayed online while also developing the plug-ins and applications that make the online experience more entertaining and engaging.

Zittrain believes that the Internet has been so successful because of its generative characteristics.  Generative systems are those that have the ability to be reprogrammed and thus repurposed.

A lot of the content found online can be altered or interacted with by others and ultimately changed.  In addition, applications and programs can be created by almost anyone that improve browser capabilities, offer new sets of tools to users, and ultimately diversifying the content.

This is not unlike nature.  Much like natural selection, minor mutations or alterations in a system such as genetic code or the Internet, allow parts of the systems to adapt to change and survive.

In order for users to keep up with the changing online environment they must continually add plug-ins that are openly shared so they can continue to ingest the endless experience and knowledge than can be found on the World Wide Web.   For example one must continually download the latest version of Flash Player to be able to watch the ever-advancing online videos that are generated on a daily basis.

In nature, females, when searching for mates look for the strongest most attractive males with whom to procreate.  The fitness of the male shows the female that he possesses the latest and greatest genes (plug-ins) found in their species, increasing her and their offspring’s chance of survival.

I’ve come to realize that my belief that the Internet’s biomimicry is shared by others.  Recently at SXSW 2010, one of the keynote speakers was Valerie Casey of the consulting firm, Designers Accord.  Her address touched on the idea that interactive media will be at the heart of environmental change.

The Designers Accord believes that manufacturers in various industries would benefit by looking to nature and mimicking in the way it designs, constructs, and evolves in order to produce more ecologically friendly devices.  Nature comes up with ingenious ways of ensuring the survival of species and companies and new technology can do the same.

Casey also believes that multimedia is the pathway in which information and knowledge about the conservation and sustainable development of our planet will be shared with the masses.  Sharing this knowledge in more efficient ways increases the chance for change in how we all look at the environment.

I believe Zittrain would feel the same.  On page 43 of his book he says, “generative systems are built on the notion that they are never fully complete, they have many uses yet to be conceived of, and that the public can be trusted to invent and share good uses.”  Like nature these systems are constantly evolving and offering opportunity to their users.

I’m sure Zittrain’s fellow former Oxford University professor Stephen Hawking, would understand how the social and technological adaptation of the Internet is occurring in that it is entropy in full effect.

The Internet is merely controlled chaos.  Much like in the field of astrophysics, the Internet is like the universe in that it is randomness that is somewhat controlled and directed by puny forces such as gravity in a physics sense and norms in an online social sense.

We oversee and filter the use of the Internet of not only our own friends and family but that of all other users we encounter online.  As I’ve discussed in a prior blog regarding the Solove reading and online anonymity, users construct norms by deciding what gets heard or seen and what doesn’t.

A case that Zittrain brings up in his book to support this is the “verkeersbordvrij” experiment in the Dutch town of Drachten.  The town decided to remove all it traffic signals and signage with the result of less accidents and overall safer driving by its citizens.

One would think that this would be complete chaos with people doing what they will and a moving in all directions.  However, when the signs are taken away the only option drivers on the road has is to conform to societal norms regarding the way people drive.  Drivers or “users”, must rely on each other to follow these same norms in order to coexist and operate the vehicles in a safe and efficient manner.

Norms that are the formed by the online majority dictate what devices are used and which voices are heard online.  Like Harvard University’s Berkman Center and the Oxford Internet Institute’s StopBadware project, users pick out the bad content and either block it and redirect other users away or alter it to reuse it for good.

It is us, and our natural “instincts” that are transforming the way we interact online and what the Internet can provide us.  The Internet and its technology is ours, we keep it healthy and clean and as Valerie Casey has suggested, we can use this technology to keep out planet the same.