Friday, July 18, 2008

Amazing talk about distributed groups vs. hierarchies

Please watch this - a very thought-provoking 20 minutes:

The lecturer, Clay Shirky, discusses distributed organizations and how they are different/better/worse than traditional top-down or hierarchical organizations.

One of the advantages Shirky points out with a distributed organization is that many of the costs of a traditional command & control structure are avoided (such as paying for an office to house your workers and hiring a supervisor to monitor them). Because the cost-per-worker goes way down, the number of workers who can participate goes way up. This means that there's much less risk in letting amateurs & hobbyists participate; if they aren't very productive, well you haven't lost anything because you didn't pay for them in the first place. The distributed organization gains access to a much larger pool of resources: no corporation could afford the cost to hire every amateur out there in a traditional sense, and yet these people have the potential to contribute something of real value to the project.

One of the drawbacks Shirky identifies with a distributed organization is that while you gain access to many more participants, you surrender control over their efforts. If somebody is volunteering their time to work on a project, nobody can really boss them around because they aren't beholden to a boss!

The challenge, I suppose, is figuring out how to take existing problems or efforts such as "let's make a product and sell it for lots of money" or "lets feed all of the starving people in the world" and re-frame them in a distributed manner.

Or put another way: how do you incent masses of people to participate in your project?
The answer (as Shirky points out) is that you can't: it is too costly to provide incentives for all of the individuals who may want to work on your project.

So, for example, Wikipedia and Flickr work because people are self-motivated to publish facts and photos in which they are interested. What has to happen so that large numbers of middle class North Americans become self-motivated to send a meal-a-day to starving people in Third World countries? Problems which are based in the physical realities of manufacturing & logistics seem opposed to distributed solutions.

So it seems to me that a distributed organization of workers will only arise when the individuals have their own incentives to participate. And the unfortunate truth is that most people are *not* self-motivated to work on your project (such as eliminating starvation or developing a product that you can then turn around and sell for profit.)

Do you have any ideas or examples of real-world, distributed problem-solving? Put 'em in the comments section! (Here's one to get you started!)


easyrider said...

Well, I think the problem with an issue such as world hunger, is that the solution isn't obvious. The "meal-a-day" option falls under the "give a man a fish" category, rather than a "teach a man to fish" one. Since I'm never afraid to take on harsh criticism for controversial views, allow me to point out that years of financial support has not had the kind of success in bolstering the status of the aboriginal population in Canada that we had hoped. We address a symptom, not the disease.

If we want to rally the people to fight world hunger, we have to come up with concrete solutions that seem plausible to people. Of course, as long as exploitation of some of these people remains profitable, we're going to be a little slower than we might be...

But to me, to get the cooperative working you need a) people to care about the issue, and b) concrete solutions or goals (even if they turn out to be ultimately wrong or misguided).

easyrider said...

If you can get through this article, it's worth it, and it includes a few references to the distributed network systems of the brain.

Johnny GoTime said...

Hey easy, thanks for the link.

I enjoyed the review of "learning by selection", the idea that our minds are rewired on the fly based on how happy we are with the result of our actions.

The physical framework for "good" ideas is reinforced, and the structure for "bad" ideas is allowed to decay. Evolution of the mind, but governed by the mind's own opinion of what's "good".

PS: The link you provided eventually gets around to mirror neurons...The neatest thing I've read so far about mirror neurons is from a study on cooperation & conflict:
"While viewing fair partners who appeared to be in pain, men and women both empathic response for pain.
[The study] also found that when men *but not women* watched unfair proposers receive pain, activity increased in reward regions."

Physiological evidence that men want to see cheaters punished. I assume there are studies out there that show a higher % of men favor the death penalty than do women..?