Musing about collaboration

My father, and his father before him, were financial journalists; and for a while so was I, until my father died suddenly in 1980.

They had an unusual approach to vertical integration as practised in those days. They wrote pretty much everything in the journal (with the help of a faithful few), edited it, printed and published it. Every week, around 32 pages of comment, all in English. And all this in Calcutta from 1928 to 1980. They owned the journal, the press, an ad agency and even a restaurant for the print workers.

The “flagship” part of this journal was a weekly 1500 word essay called Clive Street Gossip. Clive Street was the financial heartland of India for many years, until the “political” capital was rudely moved to the Lutyens-designed New Delhi, I think it was in 1910. [Before you say it: I was definitely not around at the time, however old I may seem]. Over the next forty years or so, the importance of Clive Street (and of Bengal, from a financial viewpoint) slowly waned as India lurched towards Independence, and by then it was Bombay that became the financial capital of the country.

Now Clive Street is primarily to be found on eBay, in vintage postcards, interspersed amongst the depictions of the Black Hole and the Great Eastern Hotel. But that was in another country, and besides..

Clive Street Gossip was written by Eavesdropper, the pen-name adopted by my father and his father. I wrote precisely one column using that name. I cannot be sure what images the column name evokes in you, but the reality was quite prosaic. They spoke of markets and of conversations, and of the social life of that information, in something that vaguely resembled a weekly blog with three or four posts every week.

And that’s what put the food on the family table.

So you can imagine what my early years were like. And why I studied economics, why I read voraciously, why I was so struck by The Social Life of Information and The Cluetrain Manifesto. Why I still continue to be struck by them.

But all this was largely before the Information Age; I’d never seen a real computer until 1980, except for a wondrous afternoon playing some form of Star Something on a Commodore Pet in the late 1970s.

What has entranced me since then is the magic of collaboration, the sheer unadulterated joy of co-creation. That may have been influenced at least in part by my Calcutta upbringing: I have often wondered whether it is even possible to do something alone in Calcutta. Anything. [You’re right, I have very fond memories of the place where I spent 23 unbroken years].

So when I think about information, about the internet, about identity and privacy and confidentiality, about patents and copyrights and digital rights and intellectual property, it is always in the context of collaboration.

And currently, I am wrestling with two issues. Particularly as a consequence of the availability of social software at affordable price points in open architectural models, when I can see the possibility of the collaborative magic happening.
One, is there such a thing as group selection, in a Darwinian natural selection sense? Do groups have adaptive capacities? Do social organisms evolve on a natural-selection basis? The concept is not new, but fell way out of favour in the Sixties, and never really resurfaced. And I think it would be really useful to model enterprise behaviour in the context of group selection, both within and well as beyond the enterprise boundary.
Two, was anything ever truly invented by one person in isolation? Here I am not referring to the serendipity aspect, where more than one person “simultaneously” invents something. What I mean is the impact of the group operating around and sometimes under the guidance and tutelage of the “inventor”, or sometimes in partnership.
My interest in the concept of group selection comes from a number of drivers:

  • One, I think it is a good way to understand cellular social organisms ranging from modern church movements through to social or professional networks, even terrorist organisations.
  • Two, it best explains why we have this counterproductive Blefuscu-versus-Lilliput polarisation about everything that matters nowadays. Groups will tend to attack others and protect their own.
  • Three, it allows me to consider and integrate the concepts and issues raised in Emergence and in Linked and in The Tipping Point, amongst others. On relationships and networks and flow.
  • Four, it lets me work in that hard-to-find space where religion and science aren’t necessarily in conflict.
  • And five, it helps me understand, define and defend altruism.

To move this forward, I am currently reading some of the works of David Sloan Wilson, amongst others; if anyone knows of other works they would be prepared to recommend, I’m all ears. Or should that be eyes? Conversations. Ears.

I am also looking as deeply as I can into the process of invention and of music/literature creation. Who did the inventing or creating. Who helped. How they learnt from mistakes. What the original idea was, and what was patented or published. What type of patent. What the time delta was between original thought, the experiments and failures, the final patent or product. Were Lennon and McCartney collaborators? An author and his/her editor? A husband and wife? Is a family a group that behaves selectively? No Man is an Iland.
To move this forward, I am busy acquiring hardcopy of original patents and a whole pile of literature ranging from scientific papers through to biographies and autobiographies. And reading them. Again, if anyone out there has some pointers to give me, I’d be grateful.

I think these two aspects are crucial to our understanding of collaboration. Does group selection exist, and if so how does it work? Is invention or music/literature/art creation a solo process or is it truly collaborative and only superficially solo?

14 thoughts on “Musing about collaboration”

  1. Eric Beindocker just published a fascinating description of complexity economics called Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics. The whole book is about group selection, in particular how businesses are selected by consumers and capital markets. The central claim is that economic evolution is not analogous to biological evolution, but rather than both economic and biological evolution of special cases of a more general evolutionary algorith.

    One of the many pleasures of this book is perusing the bibliography. It incluses references to biology, economics, strategy, organization, finance, computer science, business history, systems dynamics, and physics.

  2. Thank you Dave, and welcome to the conversation. And it looks like the name’s Beinhocker, not Beindocker. I shall check out Barnes and Noble or Borders tomorrow.

  3. “One, is there such a thing as group selection, in a Darwinian natural selection sense?”

    If I’m understanding you correctly, I think a natural selection approach is still critical today for our ideas to evolve. Closed systems or closed selective groups can only achieve so much. Often times the best ideas are those that occur on the edges or fringes. Therefore a multitude or diversity of groups is important to let people take their own “approach” to an idea or concept.

    And even when one group’s idea is successful, it doesn’t mean it’s a long term sustainable one which is why various paths of evolution should be going on at the same time. NASA’s current shift back to modular rockets vs shuttles is a good example of this. You have a new group’s idea (i.e. space shuttle) being discarded to revert back to a previous group’s idea (i.e. rockets) because the new idea wasn’t sustainable.

    Along the same lines, I’ve been noticing some really quite paradoxical things in our society today. We have many people who are starving for this feeling of being “connected” to others (i.e. collaborating), yet at the same time we are pushing each other apart more than we have ever done before. Often I’ve experienced people getting excited about having similar viewpoints or thoughts and wanting to collaborate. But as soon as they do, differences appear and that collaboration quickly breaks apart because of those differences

    Instead of forcing ourselves to collaborate though, I think we should be taking a “situational awareness” approach instead. For example, imagine two scientists who are both doing similar research. They try to collaborate but their approaches / attitudes clash and it isn’t possible. Instead they both decide to setup a blog to writing a journal of their research (i.e. just blog posts, no comments allowed). In doing so, each writes down their own findings as they progress through their research and at the same time they are still able to learn from one another because of this sharing of experiences and knowledge. Yet again, they aren’t talking to each other at all.

    Taking this a step farther, I think events like the Katrina disaster can potentially benefit from this same type of approach say if taken from a citizen action group point of view. Instead of having a centralized command and control, you instead take an awareness approach. People just relay what is happening in their area and every individual / local group decides what they want to do based upon this information and what they are capable of based upon their local knowledge / skillsets and resources. Again as this awareness of actions is relayed, natural selection occurs as other people like the ideas of other certain people and follow suit as well, thus creating a swarm / mob effect.

    “Two, was anything ever truly invented by one person in isolation?”

    Define isolation? A person may be totally alone, away from any other individuals, yet nature that surrounds him or her may be influencing and contributing to their every thought. Actually many new ideas today are based upon observing nature.

    At the same time, unless this person was magically born out of the air, their parents influenced and instilled in them ideas and beliefs that are constantly within them but may not fully ripen until later in their life. Sometimes the simplest lessons we’ve learnt in our life can help to realize other ideas or lessons as well. As Miyamoto Musashi said, “From one thing, know ten thousand things”.

    And finally culture itself influences us every single day. We may live our lives in total isolation with regards to never speaking to anyone about anything yet in walking through the streets of a city or town, we are influenced by its surroundings. And yet, just as our culture influences us, so to do we in turn influence our culture. Each and every one of us has the ability to change the world, by just changing ourselves which in turn influences those around us which in turn influences our society and culture. As Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world”.

    PS. I envy you. I’d love nothing more than to research and think about this stuff all day (which I actually did for a while last year while I was unemployed). Who hires a person just based upon their mind / research ideas nowadays though? Seems like technology skillsets set the agenda and determine your worthiness today, no matter how interesting your ideas may be. :)

  4. Funny, I was just about to recommend Eric Beinhocker’s book too. I haven’t finished it yet, but it’s clearly one of the most insightful books I’ve ever read. I’m sure it will answer many of the questions you are struggling with, while provoking some new ones.

    As Dave said, you shouldn’t think economic/technology/science evolution as analogous to biological evolution. Instead, you should understand the general evolutionary algorithm, will all its complexities and game-theoretic twists…

    If you will decide to read it, please write your thoughts about it :)

  5. Clearly knowledge and understanding are continually refactored. That is why ‘memes’ are such a poor analogy for ‘genes’ which – by contrast – have a very well defined scientific meaning.

    A great example of this is the idea of a JOKE. This is closely related to ‘fair use’ and comment issues in copyright. To illustrate this point, please let me link to this highly apposite blog post by Tim Malbon:

    This post is great because, to ‘get it’, you have to follow Tim’s refactoring of a number of ideas (call them memes if you insist), which simultaneously forces you to understand their ancestry (note genetic analogy), and yet appreciate that Tim is creating something new.

  6. I still think Dawkins may be more apposite than Darwin here. There’s an often-repeated story about birds rapidly learning how to get milk from milk-bottles left on the door-step. The point being that the UK’s entire population of small birds acquired this skill in a short time once the initial sighting was recorded.

    The spread of the idea was certainly too rapid for any genetic or generational influence to have been the vector. Whether the idea spread by social learning from one Einstein of the bird population or was simultaneously invented in a number of discrete events is really not important.

    I think there is a good reason for protecting a small organisation’s ability to operate fairly in the market. Otherwise large corporations would steal their ideas and undercut them until they were out of business. Copy protection and electronic DRM isn’t the right way to do this though.

  7. Especially over the last 10 years or so, it would appear that large corporations are the only ones with the resources to implement patent defences; unlike the Fisher concept of a tax, I have seen suggestions that patent protection is only provided to SMEs, which, unfortunately, has advantages and disadvantages. There are sectors in India that have been protected for SMEs for many years, and the experience has not been good.

  8. Darwin’s evolutionary theory works because if things live longer they breed more and so changes for the ‘good’ create positive virtuous circles.

    It seems to me that applying the concept to groups (or even humans these days) is tough because of a combination of the following:
    1) the goals of groups are multi-faceted and stretch beyond survival
    2) groups morph more quickly and unpredictably than living organisms

  9. Hi JP, thanks a lot for this piece, I’m sorry I did’nt see it on Wednesday, I’d been busy. “Clive Street Gossip”: In late 79-early 80, the block for this page masthead was damaged, and “gossip” became “go”. I once asked your father “whether Clive Street was still go-ing”. He laughed heartily! Best, chutki

  10. I argue that the applying the concept to ‘ideas’ is equally difficult.

    Even in the example given above, where birds learnt to peck bottle tops to get at milk, relies upon our subjective judgement that any two birds share ‘the same idea’. This is extremely hard to do, due to the fact that, to date, our most compelling evidence for identity of ideas comes from introspection. From introspection, we realise that attention, recognition and understanding all contribute to the ‘refactoring’ of ideas as in the example I gave above where someone made a complex joke involving several contemporary ideas.

    Another example is given by asking if when two people use the same word, they are necessarily referring to the same idea. Or, as was once famously argued, to ask on what basis my using a given word today might mean that I used it in the same sense yesterday. I.e. that ‘in my understanding’ or ‘in my mind’ the word referred to the same idea today as it did yesterday.

    To conclude: the bird example tempts to believe something that it is hard to argue for in a sustainable way due to problems such as those illustrated above, as well as Nic’s groups example.

    Patents are attempts to put artificial hard boundaries around ideas, by using language as a tool. This is more successful when

    (a) the language used is clear and has a relatively stable widely agreed meaning.
    (b) this is also true for the idea, such that if it gets refactored, the heritage of ‘derived ideas’ is extremely clear (i.e the. child idea is in breach of the patent of the parent idea)

    Opponents of the patent system argue that (a) and (b):

    – are difficult to achieve,

    – rely upon the questionable statement that two ideas
    I and J are the same if and only if their descriptions
    in language, D(I) and D(J), are the same across time
    and space (eg description created London in 1920,
    vs in New York in 2006)

    – rule out complex chains of creation involving
    many sources over time, as JP argued

    – encourage artificially broad descriptions of ideas
    (which can in turn cause an extreme reaction
    eg descriptions that are so narrow that the patentor
    gains nothing)

    – are expensive and arbitrary to legislate, as many
    have complained

    – favour vested interests over innovators, as was
    argued above, with alternatives being equally
    interventionist and unsuccessful

    – and are counterproductive because they discourage
    innovation based on subtle refactorings ‘close to the
    idea’. By describing the idea such that it cannot be
    redescribed, you effectively kill it.

    The last thing is really interesting. Imagine if you could patent mathematical proofs, instead of, as is current practice using attribution which is much better it seems to me. Then, ipso facto, a proof B that was ‘too close to’ a previous proof A, would break the patent. This would stop people from improving proofs which is one way that maths progresses. Ho hum.

    So to summarise, the ‘memetic assumption’ that you can wholly describe ideas as if they were genes in some pseudo-Darwinian system, appears to me to underly much of what is wrong with patents.

  11. Off-topic but I couldn’t help it: Alexis mentions language change being a threat to the sustainability of a patent-based system of IP protection.

    Just to point out that lawyers thought they had this covered in the fifteenth century, according to David Crystal :-)

    At the time legal language in the UK was moving from Latin and French to English because hardly anybody spoke French at home any more, even the nobility of Norman origin and not even the clergy spoke Latin in conversation except to show off. However, to maintain continuity they simply added the new English term to the existing French or Latin word in the description of common concepts.

    Thus we still say “will and testament” when both words mean the same thing – they just come from different source languages (English and Latin). Similarly “goods and chattels” (English and French), “fit and proper” (English and French) and so on.

    As an attempt at future-proofing the meaning of legal documents it wasn’t entirely successful as it really just created a corpus of difficult-to-read technical gobbledygook. But full marks for being aware of the problem.

  12. Off topic, but it reminds me of my favourite language-change story. There was a bridge in Madras (as it was then), officially (and officiously) called Hamilton Bridge.

    The local citizens had problems pronouncing such an Anglo-Saxon name, so over time it dropped the “l” and added a “b” and became Ambattan Bridge. But that was not its name. Just the way the locals pronounced Hamilton.

    Along came a new officious official. “What’s that bridge called?” “Ambattan Bridge, sir”. “Ambattan, what’s that?” “It means barber, sir” [It so happened that in the mangling of Hamilton, the locals produced a sound which was close to the Tamil for “barber”].

    “well, it’s not going to be called Ambattan, no dashed native names here, get it renamed Barber’s Bridge immediately!”

    His wish was their command. So Hamilton became Barber.

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