From dilemma to tragedy

In game theory, there’s an interesting problem called the prisoner’s dilemma. There were these 2 prisoners who were accomplices in a crime, but they didn’t know each other prior to the crime. They’ve been caught, and were individually questioned. Assuming no social consequences nor retributions, each prisoner was asked to confess to the crime.

If prisoner A confessed, but prisoner B kept quiet, A was let go and B was to take the full blame (and vice versa). If both confessed, both gets jailed, but less than if a single prisoner took the fall. Now, if both kept quiet, both still gets jailed, but for a significantly less amount of time than the previous situation.

Prisoner hands by Andrejs Zemdega
[image by Andrejs Zemdega]

The action “keeping quiet” corresponds to “cooperate”. The action “confess” corresponds to “defect”.

When I first learned of the concept, it was in the form of rewards, as opposed to punishment above. So here’s a table where the values correspond to rewards.

  A cooperate A defect
B cooperate A gets 0.8
B gets 0.8
A gets 1.0
B gets 0.0
B defect A gets 0.0
B gets 1.0
A gets 0.2
B gets 0.2

[the table might look a bit crushed together if you’re reading in a feed reader]

I made up the values. They’re meant to illustrate the disparity between the cases. You might also have heard of other versions of the prisoner’s dilemma. I want to highlight the part where both prisoners benefit more from cooperation than defection. The special case is if one chose to defect and the other chose to cooperate. But cooperative benefits are higher than an individual benefit.

When total selfishness comes into play, the selfish individual achieves the optimal benefit. But the optimal benefit isn’t much higher than the cooperative benefit. Being even a little less selfish creates a better outcome for all.

Now compare this with tragedy of the commons. A group of people have a shared finite resource. When everyone cooperates by taking only their fair share, all is well. When one person selfishly takes more than his fair share, the group on the whole suffers.

Since there’s no real incentive to be selfless at that point, more people might start taking more (defecting). And suddenly the finite resource gets abused and becomes useless.

For example, carbon footprints. Everyone wants to be environmentally friendly. When someone thinks there’s enough clean air for everybody, he might selfishly decide to up the noxious gas output (as a means of upping his profit too). If it comes to a “every man for himself” situation, the planet is going to be in deep trouble.

Economically speaking, there isn’t much relation between the prisoner’s dilemma and the tragedy of the commons. Socially speaking, in particular selflessness and care for the common good, the latter is a scaled up version of the former.

With the rise of social media and software tools to connect people, I find the relation between the two concepts interesting. Let me know what you think.

A void in humanity

With the advent of more powerful communication tools enabled by technology, will the congregation of social groups suddenly create voids in our humanity? Let’s time travel to the past for a while.

I remember a time when connecting with family and friends was done either face to face or using the phone (the landed one). Then people around me started carrying these things called mobile phones, and it was considered hip to actually own one. I was oblivious to this accessory, since I haven’t found a need to be constantly contactable.

Then I started studying in a university, and through force of pressure, I was strongly persuaded to get a mobile phone. It was a flip phone, one of the earlier models that I got from a friend.

I also found out about the Internet. The hip thing then was ICQ and MSN Messenger, two instant messaging software available. Through peer pressure, I was again strongly persuaded to sign up, so I could go home and chat with my friends online. The conversation usually degenerated into near-monosyllabic words and arcane short forms like gtg (got to go) and lol (laugh out loud).

When we’re free in between attending lessons or doing homework and research, my friends (and I, you got it, strongly persuaded) logged on to Neopets, and practically bashed on the refresh button on the web browser so we could get our virtual hands on the store items when the Neopets server restocked.

Then people found the Internet to be a fantastic communication medium. Community web sites sprung forth, empowering people to reach beyond to the world. Forums and other online groups became connecting points.

Technology advanced. Better features. Faster upload/download speeds. And Web 2.0 came. Digg, Reddit, Technorati, StumbleUpon, Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, YouTube and other social media sites appeared. And people flocked to them in droves.

We seem to have this innate need to connect with other people. Like this elderly gentlemen whom Darren met while shopping for inspiration. Text and images on web sites aren’t enough anymore. We want to see and hear people through the Internet too. Audio and video are becoming more important. My blogging mentor, Yaro Starak, is also experimenting with more video posts, along with Darren and other bloggers.

Then I read about this article on a hole in the universe. Astronomers found a void in space, and their explanation was that gravity from high density masses are attracting nearby matter. When enough of these attractors came together, a void was formed because of the absence of matter between the attractors.

Will this happen to us? Will our new generation social media groups unwittingly create voids in our humanity, by pulling in masses of people to them?