Altruism, 2019

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KEITH NEGLEY

Zeynep Tufekci, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has not made her way into these pages before because her focus on the digital world does not frequently overlap with our themes. But ALTRUISM STILL FUELS THE WEB. BUSINESSES LOVE TO EXPLOIT IT maps on to one of our earliest themes, which had a great run but has been neglected more recently. The article she has published in Wired (also not frequently cited here, for the same reason) is a good corrective:

HERE’S A THOUGHT experiment: Imagine for a moment that a hardheaded social scientist from, say, 1974 is plucked out of time and dropped here, in the midst of the internet age. What, more than anything else, would blow their mind?

I’m not just asking what they’d be most dazzled by. I’m asking what would shake their sense of how the world works. What would they least have seen coming?

My hunch is they wouldn’t be as astounded by our world as we like to think. Our technologies of instant communication would be impressive, yes, but they’d at least make sense as the culmination of a trend that began with the telegraph. Other seemingly new phenomena like viral false news and deepfakes have predigital precedents. Even some of the most bizarre facts of online life chime with what’s come before: Anyone familiar with the ancient Egyptian fixation on felines (cat mummies, cat statues, cat pictographs) and the mid-century American obsession with TV would at least have some pretext to accept that one of the largest conglomerates on the planet is the owner of a massive video site with millions of cat clips.

My guess is that the real surprise for our visitor would be the vast open source projects, relying mainly on volunteer labor, that underpin the internet. As a social scientist myself, I can say that convincing a colleague from the past that Wikipedia and Linux actually work the way they do would be a pretty huge lift. Given the assumption, common to many 20th-century schools of thought, that humans act in incorrigibly selfish ways, the notion that tens of thousands of people would collaborate to create, respectively, a living monument to human knowledge and a foundational piece of computing infrastructure, free of charge, simply sounds too fanciful.

And it’s not just Wikipedia and Linux. The whole open source software ecology is a miracle whose branches sprawl in every direction. The internet as we know it simply couldn’t operate without it.

To put things in terms our time-traveling professor would understand, much of the web is an exception to the famed “free rider” problem—the idea that people will not make sacrifices toward a common goal if they can get away with coasting on other people’s efforts…

Read the whole essay here.

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