Over the past ten years, I've seen the outlines of a new narrative emerging from findings in different disciplines -- a new story about how humans get things done together.
Howard Rheingold, with Andrea Saveri and Kathi Vian of Institute for the Future, organized a database of summaries of key books, articles, and reports in biology, economics, sociology, political science, with one sentence, one paragraph, and one page summaries with links to source documents; searchable by author, topic, title.
This 2005 report by Howard Rheingold & Institute for the Future looks at the intersection of Web 2.0 services and institutions for collective action, the emergence of technologies of cooperation.
.jpg of a chart by Institute for the Future, based on our report
This is the foundational paper for the modern study of the commons (and modern students of the commons would say that Hardin is not referring to a commons, which is managed in some way by a community, but to an open access common pool resource). Looking ahead to the 21st century from the late 1900s, Hardin foresaw disaster in the way the human population was doubling, and more, with each succeeding generation. He referred to the way common grazing grounds have been overgrazed when individual farmers, unrestrained by regulation or property rights, added more and more animals to their flocks until the common meadows became overgrazed and unusable. Isn't global climate change a commons problem? Ostrom and other modern theorists react to Hardin. This short paper should be read by anyone who wants to understand issues of human collective action -- but no reader should stop with Hardin, whose gloomy assumptions have been shown by others to be something other than inevitable. See also this .jpg of a mindmap about issues arising from this article
Ostrom's scope is wide. She wants to know how groups of people overcome barriers to collective action and why they fail to overcome them. The whole book is slow going, because the author operates on so many levels of abstraction, but if nothing else, read Howard Rheingold's summary (available online). Ostrom asked of Hardin's gloomy prophecies the question any scientist should ask: is it really true that humans will inevitably despoil any common resource? Looking and thousands of records, ancient and modern, of human use of shared watersheds, fishing and hunting grounds, forests and grazing lands, Ostrom found that a significant portion of communities found ways to override basic social dilemmas, by constructing systems of norms and self-policing social contracts. Ostrom is getting at something deep -- can humans learn to be more cooperative through our culturally constructed institutions than our biological heritage as competitive creatures naturally affords?
Axelrod's book, The Evolution of Cooperation is fundamental. Here is a short summary (available online). Thinking about cooperation, evolution, game theory, and computer simulation led him to use what has since become the e. coli of cooperation studies, the computer-simulated interated prisoner's dilemma game, a strategy game that probes the ways human react when given the choice between assured self interest and potential but not guaranteed benefits of cooperation. Axelrod's "Three Conditions" brings the gist of his research to a practical level that can then be used as a lens for looking at collective action online: what are the most important conditions for ensuring cooperation among strangers in a competetive environment.[>
In order to understand how and why people cooperate, it is necessary to understand how and why they fail to cooperate. One major obstacle is known to several flavors of social scientist as "social dilemmas." You can see the late Peter Kollock lecturing about this at Stanford. His literature review of the social psychology, sociology, and political science literature about social dilemmas is one of the most comprehensive and lucid examples of the genre.