Survival games and the role of gossip

Treading through the jungle, children in Venezuela’s Piaroa tribe have their eyes trained on the floor, seeking out the den of the world’s largest venomous spider. They cry out in delight when they spot a suitably dark space under a decomposing log. With a slender stick, they tease the tarantula out of its den before catching it, pulling its legs above its head and wrapping it in a leaf to carry back home to cook over an open fire.

These children are playing games that teach them survival skills.

Friends are those with whom we play to learn survival skills. The ability to read the jungle will be invaluable to the children as they grow up and seek bigger morsels to feed growing bodies and then their children, partners and tribe.

In societies where snacks are available in the brightly lit aisles of corner shops and supermarkets, the games we play to learn survival have changed somewhat. However, the basic principle remains: learn while in a relatively safe environment by “wargaming” or simulating a situation on which survival hinges but without the same risk. In the case of the children they are learning how to read the jungle from the bottom up without the danger of doing it at speed with dangerous weapons in pursuit of large animals.

One example of how we carry on this tradition is gossip, which occupies a surprisingly significant amount of our time.

“We average six to twelve hours per day in conversation, mostly one-on-one with known individuals. What has been found out shouldn’t come as any surprise to you. Nicholas Emler, a social psychologist at the London School of Economics, has studied the content of conversations and learned that 80 to 90 percent are about specific named and known individuals, which is to say, small talk.

Around the dinner table the other day, while discussing the plight of mutual friends one of the participants resisted the nudge to change topic, saying “listen, I need to know, in case I am ever in this situation”.

Gossip is (at its best) not just idle sharing of confidences, opinions and inferences, but a simulation of emotional or relationship survival moments. Through regular exposure to these moments of relationship crisis or success, participants in gossip are honing their own responses, their own intuition. In the safety of an after-meal coffee, surrounded by close friends, it is possible to consider what you would do if you saw your best friend’s boyfriend cheating on her. Perhaps the calm examination of the alternatives, without the pressure of being in that position, ensures an appropriate response should that occasion arise. (We decided to confront the cheater).

A similar dynamic is at play in the game of  “how did he get there”, “how did he do that” – often the journey or action under discussion has already taken place and yet the participants discuss the merits of alternatives, conveying information, knowledge and submitting themselves to a simulation of a situation in which a specific deployment of skill and knowledge is necessary.

Like any good game, though there is more going on than simply the stated goal and one emergent function. These players are also reinforcing their social ties, securing influence, building alliances and assessing status.

It may also be that in talking about other named individuals participants are not only gaining exposure (at a safe distance) to troubles, but also generating their own group rules pertaining to status which will also determine behaviour.


In cash we trust

In cash we trust. We trust that price tags reflect all the costs we are expected to bear (bar the VAT, “optional service charge”, booking charge, luggage).

There are other costs associated with our purchases which don’t get included in the price though. These are reffered to as “externalities”. Some of these we do pay for – though not at the till – others are incurred in distant hinterlands.

Externalities are those costs, such as environmental or social impact, which are not passed on to the buyer and are generally not incurred by the vendor. This might be the cost to communities of being forcibly evicted from land to make way for rubber plantations in Cambodia. It could be the cost in lost lives as workers commit suicide rather than bear the conditions in which iPhones are made. It could be the cost of the loss of biodiversity to an ecosystem, contaminated water basins, erosion of soil as rainforests are felled to make way for cattle.

Some of these do end up becoming costs to businesses: Apple’s manufacturer Foxconn has had to install “suicide nets”, commercial cattle farmers degrade the land to the point where they have to pay to clear more land. A business case for sustainability is that negative externalities will eventually manifest as a cost to business which can be more cheaply paid now.

Our transactions largely ignore these externalities, though there are legislative and voluntary attempts to include them in the price. Carbon trading or taxing places a cost on greenhouse gas emission which companies have to pay. Certification schemes such as FairTrade, FSC and MSC invite consumers to pay a little bit more to guarantee fair wage distribution, sustainable forest and fisheries management.

But there is great difficulty in factoring in all externalities and there are many we are not even aware of yet. Ultimately this is because of the needs of transaction.

Transaction cuts out externalities on both sides. When I hand over my cash, it isn’t dripping in sweat, it doesn’t carry my hopes that this will finally be the year I get healthy, it isn’t burdened with my anxiety at buying into a product whose sustainability I am doubtful of. Cash is cash, unburdened and unattached.

So here is a suggestion. Rather than have a point of transaction which ignores externalities, we could try to blur that point of transaction, stretching it in both directions; closer to production and further into the consumer’s life.

This could be achieved by more common ownership.

Imagine a dairy farm which had shares in Tescos. At the moment the externality associated with the low cost of milk (21p to produce, farmers paid 17p) is that small dairies are going out of business, affecting livelihoods in towns and villages around the country.  The dairy could use its voice as a shareholder to argue for a fairer purchasing policy. The producer is in this way moving closer to the consumer.

Imagine now that I also have some stake in the dairy, whether financial or I visit the area occasionally for walks and have “adopted a cow”. I might be more willing to pay a bit more for my milk as I will have a better idea of the costs and needs and externalities involved in running a dairy.*

Instead of a single point of transaction, at the till, I am in a more regular relationship with the milk. I am part of the equation again not simply a cash dispenser. I am an advocate, a supporter, a campaigner, a stakeholder, whatever the actual relationship is, me and my customer externalities are part of the transaction.

In me we trust.

In us we trust.

* As supermarkets drive small dairies out of business, it seems that proposed superdairies will produce too much pollution and that the supermarkets themselves will not buy from them.


Contributor not consumer

Rachel Botsman ( @RachelBotsman) at the British Library today clearly surprised a few old business heads. Some of us will be familiar with many of the examples she mentions as part of her Collaborative Thinking chat, and certainly the trends the examples reflect.  Her contribution is to go far and wide with examples from diverse sectors (travel, automotive, music, convenience) and introducing collaboration as a method to businesses. She is a great speaker deliberately speaking the language of business. (follow twitter chat on #collcons )

One concern I had was that bringing to light of these models and ways of working might help extend the reign of incumbents who really don’t “get it”. Nike’s Run Plus is held up as an example of collaborative consumption and community creation in which buyers are “contributors not consumers”. This, she says, has increased the amount of Nike products the ex-consumers buy. The lesson here to established firms is something like improve your marketing. Other businesses that take collaboration-lite may continue their dominance of markets by carrying out arms-length collaborative marketing excercises. Important to note that at the core of this model, the contributors are contributing to brand, not company, and contributing to shareholder value.

Maybe because many of the organisations Botsman used as examples are relatively new ( TaskRabbit, AirBnB), they have not yet dealt with the next collaboration that needs to happen for a real revolution – Botsman claims that the collaborative consumption model will be a revolution on the scale of the industrial revolution. I asked whether the new collaborative platforms, which apparently refer to users as “members not customers” are also collaborative in their ownership structures – are they including their members in share offerings? For now, said Botsman of the examples she knew, they include members in decision making and in parties they throw, but their funding comes significantly from the usual places – Sequoia in the case of AirBnB ( She did mention growing cooperative movement and the excellent People’s Supermarket @TPSLondon ). So, the collaborators are still creating value for shareholders. (OR is this the point, capital collaborates with people to create conditions in which capital gets what it wants and people get what they want?)

Towards the end Botsman touched on the concern over who owns the social graph and suggests that in future we could have reputational value. Perhaps using this would be a way to include the collaborators in the ownership structure. Afterall, Facebook needs the confluence of a whole lot of dollars and a whole lot of social graphs, so why not value the social graphs as a means to give some form of ownerhsip to ex-consumers. This way they could contribute to shareholders, fellow users and derive their own value from the service.

By the way, I have a copy now of  Whats Mine is Yours – let me know if you want to borrow it.


Disjointed distributed cognition

I used to know the phone numbers of about 5 of my friends at any given time, as well as my father’s work number. Then I got a mobile phone. Since then I only remember one – my wife’s. I also remember how to go about extracting the hundreds of phone numbers on my phone. Two things have changed: the type of knowledge I have (now it is a process) and where my knowledge resides (outside me).

Distributed cognition refers to the fact that cognitive functions (remembering, organising, calculating, processing)  take place outside my skull. This is not particularly novel – mankind has long used artifacts in the world to carry out acts of thought. Note taking and use of abacus was effectively an outsourcing of mental activities. Some theories of distributed cognition might even argue that the rush of birds into the skies that alerted our ancestors to a prowling predator might count as an extension of our mental capacities.

The shapes those early note takers carved onto clay tablets reflected some underlying structure of the human mind and, as we can still see in pictorial alphabets, something of the underlying structure of the visible world.


Sacks points out that all writing systems, from Roman letters to Chinese ideograms, have evolved to take advantage of the preference of “inferotemporal neurons” in our brains for certain shapes found in the natural environment.

While alphabets and ideograms from around the world may look superficially different, topological analysis shows a strong underlying similarity that would not be present if written shapes were an arbitrary cultural choice.

In the written element of our distributed cognition system the external artefacts in which we trust some of our mental faculties reflect the structure of what is inside our own skull.

But as the creation of external mental artefacts has increasingly been dictated by the materials and means of production with which we work, I wonder whether the efficiency of our distributed cognition systems decreases. Where once the external representations were designed by a human brain, eye and hand, now this can be done at a remove, by machines and computers which have a different underlying structure to our own brains. (examples welcome, stick them in the comments)

We are able to learn new systems and the lack of the direct correlation to the underlying structure of our mind is something we can overcome. But this learning is not always instantly portable across operating systems. A friend of mine recently changed phones and had significant difficulty entering new phone numbers into his device, eventually asking the lady he was seducing to enter the number in it herself as she had a similar model.

It is ultimately the avoidance of such fraying of the connections between external mental processes and internal ones that  earns the label “intuitive” to user interfaces.


David Bryant (@davidbryant ), notes that actually computers are becoming more like the objects in the world that we can manipulate, perhaps  making the artefacts of our distributed cognition better reflections of our mental structures.


Parasite (v.) to Transcend

An ant climbs up a blade of grass with a dedication which cannot be explained by its own biological imperatives, nor those of its colony. Gusts of wind blow it off and dew washes it back down, but it continues, driven by a parasite inside – a fluke. The fluke needs to enter the stomach of a sheep to complete the next stage of its lifecycle and so it drives the ant on which it parasites to the top of the grass, where it is most likely to be swallowed by the grazing sheep. (See Daniel Dennet on ants and ideas as parasites)

One type of transitional business model is also parasitic, though it doesn’t drive it’s unwitting host to self destruction in sheep guts, but rather to obsolescence.

Amazon parasited the bookshop chains, exploiting their bricks and mortar resources for its own survival. Waterstones, Blackwells et al were powerless to stop themselves becoming the real life browsing site for Amazon. Their advertising and marketing campaigns helping fuel purchases at the online retailer.

And then, as part of Amazon’s next lifecycle, it is working to replace the whole purpose of bookshops with Kindle designed to replace physical books and hence the need for bookshops.

At the same time, Amazon, having parasited on the infrastructure of bookshops, has created a symbiotic ecosystem infrastructure in which other vendors (potentially rivals) are invited to sell their own wares. The potential parasites are being brought into a mutually beneficial relationship. As these relationships grow, so do the storage needs of the Amazon system.

There is more to Amazon’s transitional business model. James Governor ( @monkchips ) of Red Monk reports that EMC CEO Joe Tucci said: “Amazon is clearly being subsidised by the bookstore at some level.

One reading of this is what I mentioned before, that the real life bookshops act as unpaid browsing counters for Amazon.

Another is that (if I understand Governor), Amazon is growing its data storage capacities because “everything drives storage” (see above link) and this could, ultimately be the real bedrock of what Amazon ends up doing. So, for now, Amazon is parasiting its own book selling business to increase its storage capacity and, perhaps, transcend its original business model once more.