object-oriented rhetoric

minimal rhetoric, memory, and collaboration

I am in the middle of Manuel DeLanda's Philosophy and Simulation (don't tell me how it ends), and it has me thinking about memory and collaboration, particularly in the context of this ProfHacker post on the recurring issue of collaboration in the classroom (and Michael Kramer's thoughts on the matter). 

As professors we know that getting students to collaborate can be difficult. The ProfHacker post points to research that concludes "that the best way to reap the benefits of collaboration and psychological ownership of writing is to have students make suggestions to one another’s drafts, but not to edit one another’s writing directly." Maybe. Kramer, on the other hand, rejects "collaboration" and instead advocates cooperation:

if one of our core tasks as digital humanists is to study and explore what it means to be human within the digital, then we might think more about connectedness in all its vexed but powerful dimensions. To that end, I would suggest that we shift from collaboration to cooperative interactivity as a key goal in the emerging field of the digital humanities.

What he's suggesting here is that collaboration involves submission to some hierarchy whereas cooperation emphasizes mutual benefit, which perhaps makes more sense in the more distributed relations of digital media.

However I want to think about this in the context of minimal rhetoric. To review, the basis of minimal rhetoric is to assert a rhetoricity that precedes symbolic action and participates in object relations that are productive of thought and agency. As I have observed, and I think is fairly well-established, wherever one sets the date for human symbolic behavior (30-50K ago? 100-200K ago?), homo sapien sapiens and our genetic predecessors lived in communities for hundreds of thousands of years without symbolic behavior. Equally obvious is that many of our primate cousins do the same, and it is reasonable to assume that we have some common ancestor from which we all received this shared behavior.

Along these lines of thinking, perhaps the initial rhetorical canon is memory. If we conceive of basic communal relations in terms of game theory, memory is a necessary component. It is difficult to imagine agency in the absence of memory as future actions could not be based upon specific past experiences but only upon some hardwired or effectively random response. Importantly, memory in this situation is not just that of the individual participants but of the community. DeLanda recounts several simulations of various game strategies as they evolve over multiple iterations to recognize that 

it seems plausible to assume that sets of cooperative strategies of changing composition could have become established in prehuman communities through an interaction of several factors: genetic predispositions coupled to good habits; formation of clusters of cooperators living in close proximity; and the effects of inclusive fitness. In other words, stable solutions to social dilemmas involving indefinitely repeated dyadic interactions could have been arrived at collectively and then maintained in a community.(123)

DeLanda pushes forward from this observation to note that ultimately these individual strategies are not sufficient and that communities must develop metanorms, the tendency not only to punish cheaters but to punish those who do not punish cheaters. The more complex the activity the more sophisticated memory needs to be, until one approaches the universal Turing machine with its perfect memory. 

Clearly we see these things at work in the digital reputation economy and its efforts to counteract less sophisticated game strategies that lead to the tragedy of the commons. In some respects that tragedy is a product of poor information gathering and memory and perhaps an unwillingness to punish cheaters. When we think of a digital creative commons at first we think this tragedy doesn't apply since information appears infinitely copyable. However, there are physical limits on memory and bandwidth. In addition, there are human and technical cognitive load issues with the sheer influx of data. Furthermore, the digital commons is situated in competition with the copyright game. As such digital cooperation and sharing requires the development of metanorms, reputation, and, of course, memory.

Returning to the classroom collaboration example, the following observation from DeLanda applies. When an

interaction is repeated many times then mutual cooperation becomes a Nash equilibrium except in the very last encounter in which mutual cheating pays best. But if the agents know when the last interaction will occur then it pays to cheat in the previous one as well, and for that reason in the one prior to that one, and so on all the way to the very first one . So the interesting case from the point of view of modeling the emergence of cooperation in primate communities is a repeated (or iterated) strategic interaction in which neither agent knows when the last encounter will take place. (114)

In the one-semester course, the last interaction is known, so cheating can become prevalent. We confront this with metanorms about academic dishonesty and threats of putting remarks on transcripts that live beyond the university. However, cheating in the context of a collaborative project is different. In fact, the metanorms that exist provide disincentives for students to tattle on their uncooperative classmates (i.e. the social community reputation among students outlasts the classroom community). Interestingly, I have seen this shift dramatically when dealing with a relatively small group of professional writing majors. Those students quickly learn that they will be with one another in many future classes and that there will be many future collaborative projects. In these contexts, one's reputation for collaboration and standing in the community have significant value: the last interaction becomes less certain. Though I have less experience with my UB teaching assistants, I would guess that similar dynamics for encouraging cooperation exist there. 

So why are such cooperative dynamics less common among academics? Why is cooperation among humanities researchers uncommon? Why is there so little integration in curriculum or teaching? Perhaps there is no perceived "big game" out there that would require cooperation and the benefits that result (though digital humanities projects are big enough to demand cooperation). I don't think that's true though. I think the big game is out there, we just haven't reached a point where we can recognize such projects or understand the benefits of cooperating.


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