pondering the emerging cultural dynamics of life on the Web

ETEC 642 Week 4

I seem to have accidentally anticipated Rheingold’s fourth chapter, with its opening emphasis on the human propensity for cooperation. I am convinced about the value of the social brain hypothesis and expect that we will see a continued limit of around 150 direct contacts regardless of how many “friends” one might have on FB. Within the hundreds or thousands on a friend list, I suspect the closer interactions will remain limited to that group size because it is just how we are hard-wired. Cultural evolution has to some degree outstripped our neurolgic capacity.

Humans are notoriously bad at thinking on very big scales, as is illustrated in the “tragedy of the commons” (Kramer & Brewer, 1984) and in denial of effects of carbon fuels as we race to burn up global reserves. Ostrom’s superb enumeration of factors needed for successful “institutions of collective action” become too abstract to achieve buy-in when the average person must imagine cooperation with people on the other side of the globe, even if that average person is running a country. We inexorably think in terms of in-group and out-group, even when the group is made up by researchers in a lab using the most meaningless criteria they can dream up, as Marilyn Brewer has demonstrated for decades (Brewer, 1979, etc.). We align best with villages and clans, though we are capable of identification with super-ordinate groups such as national, ethnic, or religious groups (Kramer & Brewer, 2006). Unfortunately, this is most effectively done in contrast to an opposing group and not in unifying the human race for cooperative efforts.

The section on crowdsourcing gives a certain amount of hope, though Rheingold’s summary of Sharma’s elements of successful crowdsourcing begin with buy-in and include identification with the superordinate project group to stimulate a sense of self-interest .

Sharma’s elements

  • Vision & strategy
  • Human capital
  • Infrastructure
  • Linkages & trust
  • External environment
  • Motive alignment of the crowd

In the long run, commons based production will be a challenge for prevailing social psychological thought. That thought, however, is based on a predominance of Western researchers located in the US, using American college students as participants, most of whom are raised in a highly individualistic culture. The Web democratizes intercultural contact beyond any single region or culture, perhaps providing a counter to the alarming focus on individual gain characteristic of American culture and business.


Brewer, M. B. (1979). In-group bias in the minimal intergroup situation: A cognitive-motivational analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 86(2), 307-324. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.86.2.307

Brewer, M. B. (1996). When contact is not enough: Social identity and intergroup cooperation. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 20(3-4), 291-303. doi:10.1016/0147-1767(96)00020-X

Kramer, R. M., & Brewer, M. B. (1984). Effects of group identity on resource use in a simulated commons dilemma. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46(5), 1044-1057. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.46.5.1044

© Stephen Fox, 2013, contact stephen.fox.phd@gmail.com


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