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.