Tag Archives: Skyrms

Ideas and Intellectuals

Not long ago, seated for lunch in a meeting of academics, I participated in a discussion about the future of the university. The subject of what it takes to be an intellectual came up. Imagine my surprise when one of the scholars at the table contended that academics were the only people who could lay claim to that title. Having spent twenty years of my life at the Office of Technology Assessment, engaging in what I had always thought to be intellectual pursuits, I was truly taken aback! I asked, But what about Erasmus? What about experiential learning? My colleague looked at me, somewhat disdainfully, from across the table, a wry smile on his face. And I experienced what I imagined Arnold Toynbee might have felt, in the face of his critics.

I asked: But what about Erasmus? What about experiential learning? My colleague looked at me, somewhat disdainfully, from across the table, a wry smile on his face.

Ironically, many of today’s scholars are seeking to flesh out a number of theoretical propositions by conducting empirical experiments that are aimed to provide them a better grasp of what constitutes experience, and how it affects not only behavior, but also their own, specific realms of inquiry. In my previous blog, I mentioned the work of Joshua Epstein, who uses computational technologies to model artificial communities. Equally relevant, especially in the context of the recent discussion of the nature of cooperation, is the volume, edited by Herbert Gintis, Samuel Bowles, Robert T. Boyd, and Ernst Fehr, entitled Moral Sentiments and Material Interests: The Foundation of Cooperation in Everyday Life (MIT, 2005). Going somewhat further than Brian Skyrms’ narrative in The Stag Hunt, the editors, together with a diverse collection of authors, claim that the inclination to cooperate, and to act equitably, is inherent in mankind, and reinforced through the evolutionary process. Their arguments are based not only on the logic of game theory; as well, they build on a variety of human-based experiments. In another mode, Martin Nowak, Professor of Biology and Mathematics at Harvard University, has used mathematical models to formally account for cooperative behavior, using an array of cases that rival Toynbee’s history, ranging, for example, from a study of cancer cells to more generalized types of human behavior. Beautifully written, so as to be accessible to the lay reader, Nowak’s book, Evolutionary Dynamics: Exploring the Equations of Life is an absolute tour de force. Most appealing to me, as a professor in the Communication, Culture and Technology Program, obsessed by networks in whatever their form, is the author’s claim that the thing that evolves in any networked organism or organizational entity is information itself.

Moral Sentiments and Material Interests (2005)

Moral Sentiments and Material Interests (2005)

So I ask myself, do ideas and intellectuals evolve in much the same way that cooperation and language do? Are they the result of interactions? Ron Burt, who I mentioned in an earlier post, would — I believe –respond affirmatively to such a claim. In his recent book, Brokerage and Closure (2005), Burt talks about what is it that characterizes good ideas. According to Burt, people are likely to have good ideas to the extent that they reach out and engage in multiple directions, thereby incorporating a variety of new — and as importantly — diverse perspectives. In contrast, according to Burt, people who limit their conversations to the narrow set of members in their own group, or — as I might add, to their own disciplines — are unlikely to go very far. In Burt’s characterization, they might as well be in an echo chamber, where ideas are endlessly recycled. Under these circumstances — that is to say, when surrounded by poor ideas — few intellectuals can survive.

As Burt suggests, the answer has to do with crossing boundaries — organizational as well as disciplinary.

According to my understanding, the goal of universities, as well as intellectuals, is to generate good ideas. Doing this will require taking on new challenges, some of which — compared to our traditional way of doing things — may appear risky. The question is how do we break out of our traditional ways of doing things without sacrificing that which is best about them? As Burt suggests, the answer has to do with crossing boundaries — organizational as well as disciplinary. As a recent convert to blogging, I would suggest that this is a good place to start.

A Froggy Goes A-Courting

Bull Frog, courtesy dbarronoss on FlickrIn Washington, D.C., I am often awakened by the shrieking sounds of sirens, as police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances go racing past my house and down my street. But here, at Lake Hawthorne, it is the sounds of frogs — Bull Frogs to be exact — that interrupt my nightly reveries. Some say that it is chirping, but I perceive the Bull Frogs’ vocal chorus more like “plink-plunk,” as in the cello’s pizzicato notes that adorn some of Beethoven’s chamber music. Except for their mysterious, and thankfully temporary, disappearance several years ago — the Bull Frogs, together with many amphibians all across the States, constitute an eternal feature of The Lake. Thus, as is true for other aspects of my surroundings here, I have tended to take them for granted. No longer! Reading Skyrms’ The Stag Hunt, I have been inspired to ponder them, or in Jim Rosenau’s words, “to think about them thoroughly.”

Nature’s solution to this dilemma is the evolution of a signaling systems (or, as we have seen in the specific case of language, conventions) are established not by prior agreement. Rather, they evolve through interactions.

Recall that the Stag Hunt is all about cooperation, and how it might emerge and be maintained, notwithstanding that, at the individual level, non-cooperation will likely have a higher pay-off. Here we have a major social dilemma; for, although the individual may gain in such a case, society as a whole loses. Nature’s solution to this dilemma is the evolution of a signaling systems (or, as we have seen in the specific case of language, conventions) are established not by prior agreement. Rather, they evolve through interactions. As importantly — pointing to many human experiments and computer simulations — Skyrms notes that signaling systems are in equilibrium (in other words self-enforcing) in nature; hence, alternative strategies just don’t survive the evolutionary process. No wonder, then, that this kind of cooperation can be observed all around us, especially in the biological world. Thus, we find that cells merge together to create organisms; mouth bacteria join together in a community to form plaque; and myxococcis xantus aggregate themselves in mounds so as to survive food shortages. When, and how, these life forms alter their behaviors — often described as a phase transition — depends on timing and the specific situation in which they are located, as well as the types of messages that they exchange. 

At Lake Hawthorne, with Skryms’ discussion in mind, I am not only awakened by the Bull Frogs, I typically spend the next few hours, after their first “plink-plunk,” contemplating their sounds and signals. Imagining the contours in the lake’s circumference, and imaging the sequence of coves, I wonder which frogs are making what signals, where? I ask myself: What messages are they communicating? Do their different pitches signal a different message? According to my subsequent Google search, Bull Frogs communicate in order to stake out their territories, or to attract a mate and reproduce — certainly one form of cooperation. That the Bull Frogs signaling system is effective in this latter regard is verified to the extent that, according to my Google sources, female Bull Frogs — on connecting up with a Bull male — produce up to 25,000 eggs. This number assures their survival, even if, as my dog Sparky is wont to do, intruders constantly dive into the frogs’ habitat, seeking to satisfy their own curiosity about the sounds and signals.

There is another way in which The Stag Hunt is relevant to my experiences with frogs at Lake Hawthorne. As young adults, my cohorts and I initiated one more yearly tradition — the Frog Jumping Contest. It was held on the Fourth of July. To enter, and capture a contestant, we had to organize a “stag hunt.” In our little cooperative venture, one person rowed the boat, one held the flashlight, and two got in the muck (along with the leeches) to net the frog. The pay-off was having fun. In those days, we called it a “blast.” But one night, after searching all the coves, and getting all mucked up, we had little to show for our efforts — a smallish frog, no more that four inches in length. Perhaps we were over-zealous, but in our merriment, we decided to substitute our frog for a larger frog that our friends — who were also competing in the Jump — had sequestered that evening in their bathtub. Stealthily sneaking into their house, and switching our frog for theirs, was every bit as challenging, not to say entertaining, as the hunt itself. But in the morning, it didn’t seem so funny: our friends, viewing us as “defectors” who had broken the rules of the game, were no longer enthusiastic about the Jump. Understandably, there were few subsequent jumping contests after that night. And it was soon thereafter that the frogs just disappeared. My mother, who loved the frogs, said it was the fault of Frog Hunts. Post-Skyrms, I think that she might have been right — too many intruders disrupting their life cycle, or, better yet, their signaling system.

Blogging Lake Hawthorne

It might be somewhat unusual to start a blog on vacation in the highlands of northern New Jersey, but I thought that this was a good time to read the stack of books I have been collecting, and to try to tie them together in anticipation of teaching my courses Networking, Technology, and Society and Networks and International Development in the Communications Culture and Technology Program this fall. It so happened that, once we became ensconced in our chairs on the front veranda, my husband stared at the pile of books I brought and asked somewhat skeptically: “Do all the theories is those books really tell you anything about every day life?” That statement became my inspiration. My plan now is to reflect upon and characterize my surroundings here at Lake Hawthorne through the lenses of the theories presented in my books. The question I ask myself is: What do I see that would have been invisible to me if I had not used theory to focus my attention?

First, let me say a little about Lake Hawthorne. It is located in the mountains, literally at the top of New Jersey. My great-grandfather, H. P. Dillistin, belonged to a hiking club in Paterson, NJ, and he and his friends would explore the area. One day, when he found out that he could buy the property (540 acres) for $540 dollars, he didn’t hesitate. The land was purchased and then parceled out to independent families with the number being limited to 30. This limit remain in place today.

Who knows, if behind the next turn in the road, you might find a coyote, fox, or bear. Sometimes they come visiting.

The house we live in, at the south side of the lake, was built in 1908 by my grandfather, Franklin Crosse. Except for indoor plumbing, the installation of a refrigerator to replace an “ice box,” and the electricity, the house is pretty much the way it was when my grandfather built it. Imagine the screened-in veranda facing the lake, and the creaking sound of the front porch door. The house is ten feet from the lake, so the view is both spectacular and serene. Around us is a second growth forest, which is home to a large variety of birds, including an occasional herring or bald eagle. Who knows, if behind the next turn in the road, you might find a coyote, fox, or bear. Sometimes they come visiting. The motto of Sparta, New Jersey, the township in which we are located, is very apropos: “People living with their environment.”

It has been my good fortune to have spend most of my childhood summers here, as did my son Steve and daughter-in-law Haley, who are now rearing our grandson Ben and granddaughter Sophie (five and seven), in accordance with the same kinds of traditions and activities. The common meaning of our experiences is re-enacted each year, generation after generation, so that everyone has come to take it for granted. No matter what our age, we all feel the same excitement, and know what’s in store for us, when we say: “We are going to ‘The Lake.'”

This description suffices as background materials for the coming discussion linking theory and everyday life, which I will begin to pursue next time. In particular, I will look at “the Lake” as a commons, and discuss it in terms of Brian Skyrms‘ book, The Stag Hunt (2003).