On future mentality and tricking people into altruism
By Denis Rivin
Hello. My name is Denis Rivin. I am a Danish/Ukrainian factotum kind of person with an immense amount of interest in an immense amount of things, having 'properly' studied business, marketing, economy, art history, and now communication and digital design, all the while home studying astronomy, philosophy, poetry, publishing, politics, ancient history, activism, hacktivism, gastronomy, and so on. This consumption of knowledge and continuous acquaintances with the wonders and horrors of our present and our past have many a time made me marvel at the evolutionary accomplishments of the humanoid, our collective intellectual achievements, our invincible adventurous spirit, and overall megalomanic belief in ourselves. But ultimately, unfortunately, and to my great frustration, when all comes to all, this myriad of knowledge has left me with an utterly disbelief in the human race.
The staggering egocentrism, general lack of empathy, and perpetual pursuit of personal enrichment seems to pervade human nature to such an extend that for the most part of my life I've truly seen no hope for human kind. As such, I really still don't; in a historical context the few will inevitably ruin everything for the peaceful many. Elementary as this statement might be, I am preoccupied by it – and the most heartbreakingly devastating realization has for my part always been that I'm intelligent enough to understand and recognize this as being a fundamental issue in our world, but far from intelligent enough to understand what to do about it.
Recent development and expansion of my field of interest has led me to believe that some kind of hope might endure after all. In fact, this is the very first time in my thirty years of life, where I genuinely glance just a glimpse of feasible opportunity to fundamentally (and non-violently) reshape the world we live in, because it seems we have come to an evolutionary crossroad that grants a radical change of paradigm – and the change has been taking place for decades already. Quite roughly speaking, we are presented with two options: 1) To continue the path towards ultimate collapse, or 2) re-prioritize our values, re-organize our societies and governing bodies, and profoundly modify our behaviour towards a collective, altruistic way of thinking in order to outgrow the destructive, egocentric way of life we have grown accustomed to, and start creating civic value instead. Together. The tools to take such an epic leap are emerging before our eyes, but are we ripe to embrace this pending opportunity and finally take full responsibility of our lives, choosing to be the cause rather than at effect? The answer may be no, but the good news is that we've taken the first steps already, and it didn't hurt at all.
The profound movement before us can most essentially be defined through the fact that we are living in the middle of a very remarkable increase in our ability to share, to cooperate with one another, and to take collective action – all outside the framework of traditional institutions and organizations. We're already seeing evidence of impressive collaborative achievements based on large-scale coordination at a very low cost, and as a result of it serious, complex work taken on by people without institutional direction; just think of Wikipedia.
An intriguing quality of social media such as Facebook is not how they have come to consume our free time, but how they have clearly come to illuminate a certain fact across all national boarders and social classes: That we are social. Inherently most of us seem to care for and need each other, and it has never been easier to act on it. We are rapidly becoming aware of each other through an increased distribution of knowledge and understanding of our interdependency, collectively becoming conscious of the status quo and the heart-breaking nature of how we got here: Finally, we are synchronizing! This is an ongoing enlightenment on an unprecedented scale, and the way social media have been training us in the art of sharing along the way is slowly propagating into real life, fostering creation, collaboration, and participation all around the world.
What social media have shown us so far is the very clear fact that people really like to and want to share something, anything almost, just as long as it's appreciated by others. This is a tendency of giving out a bit of oneself for free, often contributing to the wellbeing, education, or at least entertainment of others. Alas, many a people will come to regret bitterly the things they have shared, the Internet does not easily forget, but these misunderstandings are only very natural in the beginning of such an upheaval – a revolution, if I may. We just need to learn how to behave accordingly and what to share where and with whom. And most people will. But the awareness of the collective and sensing of the vast opportunities for collaborative interaction has made its imprint; it is changing the way we think and behave.
Slowly, we are outgrowing this unilateral, uncritical fascination with content on social media, instead gradually getting to know how to identify what is irrelevant and what can be defined as actual digital pollution. We are increasingly making use of our online experience, looking outward with inspiration, and liberating ourselves from the societal mechanisms we have gotten used to by adapting our material existence to the social ideals we practice online, the primary offspring of which being crowdfunding and crowdsourcing.
Funds and resources
As such, I am not that interested in crowdfunding, the financial assembly of collective capital, although I fully support the progress of this part of the movement as well. Recent incidents in Canada and Ukraine, where huge civilian crowds have respectively raised $200.000 to release a video of a certain mayor smoking crack and hundreds of thousands of dollars to equip an impoverished army, fully show the potential of the aggregate of ordinary people contributing small amounts to collectively help out or ensure the realization of a certain project. But crowdfunding is primarily interesting on a much larger scale, I think, for example imagining your whole nation as something crowdfunded; imagine actually having control over how your tax money is being spent in society on a monthly basis, taking part like every other member of influence, voting on where your money should be spent and how.
Crowdsourcing, on the other hand, is really something else, something more sustainable in a way; something more detached from the monetary values we have gotten used to. Crowdsourcing is about human resources. Crowdsourcing is about how to establish mutually beneficial collaboration and making use of the massive potential you and I posses: No single person knows what everyone knows, and what takes one person years to accomplish can be accomplished by a million people in hours. Only in this perspective, our world is truly facing an unprecedented opportunity to collectively change for the better, where we help each other thrive, because we understand that helping others is in fact helping ourselves.
Examples of how we can make use of mutually beneficial platforms based on crowdsourcing, where other people help you all the while you are helping them, are many: First off, if you are good at anything and need a few bucks, please do begin to consider the world as your field of employment. Mainly applied to digital work, a website like Freelancer.com offers you endless cases of random people from all over the world in search of programming, graphic design, writing, data entry, online marketing, and other more or less technical skills. If you have the skills, you bid for the projects and likewise, if you yourself are in need of someone doing something for you, you hire a qualified stranger to do it. Similarly, at Fiverr people offer various services at a fixed price of $5 – would you like someone from London to transcribe that interview for you? Done. Or how about a custom-made stop motion video of your logo in Lego? Done. Or maybe you would like a person to post 50 of your flyers at the University of Chicago? Might not be such a bad idea if, say, you're a musician with all your music online. And then perhaps get that cool girl from Cape Town to design the flyer for you; it'll cost you $5 more.
Then you have all your sites for applied arts, property-sharing, ridesharing, ad-hoc personal assistants, domestic helpers, and what not. At the base of their core they all have that same idea of sharing something. Not very surprising, quite a lot of this 'sharing economy' got hold of its users during the first years of the financial crisis of the 00s. But to keep this from being merely a reaction to a crisis and a prolonging of a malfunctioning, individual-oriented era of monetary value, we need to establish and articulate a sharing mentality. The word economy indicates too much a continuation of a paradigm that has already proven insufficient; it is not reminiscent with change at all. And change is what we need. We need to acknowledge and once and for all recognize the fact that we are surrounded by limited resources and implement the concept of sharing so deep in our minds that it will slowly resemble of ownership, something we understand only too well; popularly speaking, we should get used to using and having access instead of owning. The implementation of the idea of sharing knowledge, visions, goods, responsibility, one's time – whatever resource one has, as long as sharing it not in any way harms others or oneself – is what we need. This will change society for the better, not economy as such; the ongoing shift in the relation between time and money will not allow it. The old proverb that time is money, i.e. time spent on activities that do not generate money is a sort of waste, has never been true. And especially in the 21st century it will come to sound particularly ridiculous, because our time is undoubtedly more worth than money. Soon enough, people will re-realize this obviousity: Surely, we are not here to earn money and buy stuff. We are here to live, with all do respect.
On a more cognitive note, the field of crowdsourcing is particularly thrilling when merged with the philosophy of open source, where the nerve-wracking risk of loosening on the rights over one's intellectual property in the end can create more value through collective collaboration on an intellectual level. A platform like Feedback Army is genius if you're in need of advice while building a website. Here you pay a small fee for a certain amount of people from all over the world to critically evaluate the design, communication, and functionality of your work, which may prove priceless once you launch your site. At UserTesting you can observe people navigating real-time on your soon-to-be published website, thus evaluating the structure of your platform against the logic of future users. Quirky has for some years been transforming manufacturing by letting its users decide what and how to produce by vote, sharing a percentage of revenue with the users who's ideas had the most impact on the end product, while Local Motors has applied that same crowdsourcing technique to the development and production of actual vehicles.
And speaking of cars, Tesla Motors sure is a great example of how this whole shift in mentality is even propagating into the traditionally relatively despicable realms of multinational corporations. On June 12 2014 the CEO electric car pioneer, Elon Musk, suddenly released most of the 1.400 patents that Tesla Motors had amassed over the last 11 years. Why? Because the rules of the game in business are changing, too, because encouraging more rapid development and sharing ideas is beneficial for you, other businesses, society, and then you again. Whether patents in general will be replaced in favor of open source is hard to say. In Elon Musk's own words, receiving a patent really just means buying a lottery ticket for a lawsuit. But how the patent itself is established and who decides what can and what cannot be monopolized for an extended period of time is a very different story. Should having the power to decide who gets the rights over an entire field of inventive activity lie with a single individual? Or could this, too, be subject to an open source decision-making? A very interesting initiative from the United States Patent and Trademark Office itself suggests so: A social network called Peer to Patent is now seemingly opening up all patent applications for citizen participation.
Something for everyone
A compelling supplement to these crowdsourced initiatives is a recent study made by Gallup that indicates how much people actually dislike their jobs. The study shows that roughly 70% of all Americans either literary hate their job or at the very least feel completely disinterested in it.
The good news is that now we're becoming connected and aware of each other's capabilities, realizing how many individuals with each a unique set of preferences we are, we might figure out that whichever task it is that we so dislike, preventing us from enjoying or committing ourselves to the job we were actually hired to do, there is definitely someone out there who would genuinely enjoy to complete that exact task. For example, in this argument I would like to allow myself not to think about the pitfalls welcoming actual outsourcing of horrifyingly boring and slave-like tasks, exploiting cheap labour wherever cheap labour may be found, because I truly trust that someone else will – someone who is primarily preoccupied with that exact pitfall and who's attempt of preventing it would fulfil that person's purpose, and I thank them for it. Now please let me do what I enjoy this instant: Momentarily being optimistic on behalf of our collective future.
Naturally, all these opportunities, tendencies, and seemingly positive signs of transformation have hitches to them; every single technological invention will ultimately have a weakness welcoming reverse engineering and intentionally wrongful usage, just like anything else invented throughout time, nothing new there (I am in no way expecting a significant change in the fundamental psychologically awkward ways of the individual, but I am indeed expecting a sincere, ground-breaking leap in what feels like natural behaviour amongst and towards the overall population (The People)).
An obvious and logical by-product of this transitional shift towards collective collaboration will likely take shape of a lengthy sense of confusion, chaos even, like in every other period of sociological and technological transformation. Real revolutions are never based on an orderly transition from A to B – they rather go from A through a long period of turmoil and only then reach B. But in this period of true transformation the old systems get broken long before new ones become stable, and in the case of traditionally manipulative, fortune-hunting institutions, which ever you may feel they are, our present shows great signs of cracks and progressive pockets.
For now, I personally enjoy taking the liberty to believe that any of this actually might work. I do realize that some of these initiatives are in fact relatively unethical corporations with immense legal departments behind them, trying to lure out the intellectual property of people – of course they are, they are invented by Man. But the tendencies they represent are still positive, aspiring participation, collaboration, and sharing, which is a whole lot better than having people passively watching brain-killing TV all day, wouldn't you say?
Clay Shirky, professor in social and economic effects of Internet technologies, has coined a term called cognitive surplus, which I have become quite fond of. Cognitive surplus, he argues, is the fact that our world has over a trillion hours of free time (i.e. 1.000.000.000.000 hours) among the world's educated population that can be considered a considerable social resource; a social asset that can be harnessed and made use of. Shirky has a great way of comparing the mental state of the 20th century with the Gin Craze of London in the 1720s, where a majority of the population was on a collective decade-long gin bender as a way of coping with the dramatic social changes and general restructuring of society in the earliest days of industrialization, anesthetizing themselves against the horrors of city life. In the 1900s, during the post-war transition from industrialization to post-industrial societies with new social challenges on a massive scale as a result, our gin became TV, absorbing a substantial part of the free time available to citizens in the developed world (statistically, people born in the 1960s have already watched around 50.000 hours of TV (every weekend people spend roughly 100 millions of hours just watching commercials)). But this, too, can become something of a relatively recent past. The media landscape of the 20th century was explicit at anesthetizing people and helping them consume, Shirky points out, and as a result we got very, very good at consuming. We still really like to consume, but the media landscape of the 21st century seems to be helping us to create and to share, and I agree; imagine what we can get really good at in a hundred years!
A reasonable argument would be to compare the 20th century's TV-watching with the 21st century's video watching online, but still, people engulfed in a haze of YouTube do have new ways of interacting with their medium, for example by commenting, sharing, labeling, ranking, and rating it – and most importantly be motivated to create something themselves.
Moms Demand Action
All these new platforms are interesting and representative, I would say, of a movement towards a radically refreshing way of commerce and general interaction with your fellow citizens, decentralizing previous societal structures and cutting out the traditional middleman, although naturally creating a new one, the facilitator, while reinforcing the level of convenience and conformity, too, potentially bringing out menacing laziness in us. But, ignoring the hazards for now, what we most importantly are observing is that new technologies are turning previous consumers into producers, activating people. This totally new production capacity combined with our genuine willingness to share, to be social, can truly change society – especially if applied to civic endeavours. And this is exactly what suddenly turns me into a believer of genuine change: That we can achieve profound and positive alterations to our society on a large scale, should we decide to do so. You and me, buddy.
A favourite example of mine at the moment is momsdemandaction.org, which is a rapidly growing grassroots movement of moms in the US that demands action on public gun legislation in the country. From a European point of view the group's demand for 'reasonable limits on where, when, and how loaded guns are used and carried in public' fortunately seems absurd, because we are not familiar with shopping next to people with loaded guns, nor can we buy bullets next to candy, but these moms were exposed to exactly that, and they got fed up. They got fed up by loud, manipulating minorities dictating how the majority conduct their lives and by the staggering ridiculousness, incompetency, lack of ethics, and general out-datedness of American right and left wing politicians obstructing each other from accomplishing anything but clinging pathetically to power (check out by the way allaregreen.us by the 16-year old, self-taught Nicholas Rubin, who has developed an app that exposes how American politicians earn their living (and do excuse my biases on this one)).
These moms simply asked for a feeling of safety while shopping groceries with their children, but nobody listened. So Shannon Watts, a mother from Indianapolis, got fed up and made use of the communication tools at her disposal and shared her opinion: Now they are 150.000 moms sharing a cause – and now they demand, refusing to shop anywhere where guns are carried openly, causing massive economic impact on the retail stores in question and changing regulations shop by shop.
The tricking part
The example of Moms Demand Action is inspiring, I think, not because it in any way illustrates a new concept of rebellion, but because it illustrates the efficiency of civic action in the 21st century. It illustrates the power of will and that loosely coordinated groups will soon be able to achieve things that were preciously out of reach for any other organizational structure, because we have vastly increased the efficiency of our communication – we have changed the way we communicate and history shows that when we do that, we change society; we change the tools that a society uses to create and maintain itself, and we change the way social interaction is conducted.
In relation to Shirky's theory, the encouraging aspect of our current age is that we can now treat free time as a general social asset that can be made use of for large, collaborative projects, rather than as a set of individual minutes to be spent one person at a time. An interesting illumination of this perspective is digital entrepreneur Luis von Ahn and his invention of Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart (CAPTCHA), used to prevent bots or automated programs from using computing services or collecting certain types of sensitive information disguised as human users. You probably know CAPTCHA from filling out forms all over the Internet; a somewhat annoying constellation of numbers and letters you have to identify and type before entering a site or logging on to a service. The technology was a huge success, quickly adapted by major institutions of the web, but von Ahn soon got a devastating revelation: He found out that 200 million CAPTCHAs were being typed every day, which at first made him proud of the impact his invention had had. But then he realized that every CAPTCHA takes about 10 seconds to type and if 200 million people do it every day, humanity as a whole wastes around 500 thousand hours daily doing this, which is a vast waste of human resource he could not live with. So in instead he invented reCAPTCHA, a modified version of the same technology that constructively turns this massive waste of human effort into something useful. Now, every time you're typing in CAPTCHAs, you're not only authenticating yourself as a human, you're actually helping to digitize books: Every single word you type is being cross-referenced with other people's response to the same constellation of letters, which computers haven't been able to identify (computers are still surprisingly bad at meaning, they read and translate with no relation to context), validating the respective constellations as being specific words, and in the end being part of digitizing approximately 2,5 million books per year – enhancing awareness wherever books are read, for the common good of all.
And this is an important point: Would you ever voluntarily contribute even seconds of your daily time to digitize random books or translating random sentences, so people you don't know and will never meet will have better access to knowledge? Even if you theoretically would, because you are such a nice and unique person, would you then prioritize it on a daily basis, having the busy life that you have? Whichever, my argument here is that for the most part I actually honestly believe that the vast majority of people would answer yes, because we are inherently good, concerned for the wellbeing of others, and in general willing to help; we just rarely display these qualities, unless we're faced with a situation where it's absolutely required – or unless we are tricked into acting so: Tricked into being good.
Following the success of reCAPTCHA, von Ahn wondered how else to use small contributions on a massive scale for the greater good and thus came up with the idea for Duolingo: A crowdsourced translation and educational platform that makes a 100 million people translate the Internet to every major language without them even realizing it (i.e. for free). How do you do it? You create something beneficial for the user, make it free of charge, and let the beneficial element benefit on several levels. In the case of Duolingo, you learn a language of your choosing while simultaneously translating parts of the Internet containing the same words, for example the English version of Wikipedia into Spanish (the Spanish version is only a quarter of the English). And the platform seems to be an efficient tool, too; recent studies show that 34 hours of Duolingo is equivalent to a full university semester, 11 weeks, of language education.
An important point here is that it's not a question of tricking people into working for free. Rather, the point is that we are now dealing with technologies that can actually generate civic value from work that is being done anyway – and more importantly doesn't necessarily even take the shape of work. In the case of Duolingo you get to learn a new language, but you don't have to pay for it with money; you pay for it with time – time you would have spent learning that language anyway.
And the brilliant thing here, the whole source to my cautious optimism on behalf of our shared future, is not just that these new technologies are so profoundly different in their nature from inventions of any other historic era, but that the minds that are shaping these technologies are different, too. These minds regard our world as a community and they aspire to create something mutually beneficial for you, me, themselves, and all of us. Why? Because everything else is simply ridiculously out-dated. Because egocentric human beings as we are, combined with the rapid level of increasing awareness we are granted of the overall history and condition of life on Earth and the universe in general, we should soon finally come to recognize that our happiness and sense of safety is inevitably interconnected with and ultimately a by-product of other people's happiness and sense of safety (least to say the health of our planet).
And because really, when all comes to all. What else could you ever wish for than being happy and feeling safe?