Prisoners Creating Our Own Dilemmas

Taking a gander over at the TED website to see what talks have been released since last I visited. Apropos to yesterday’s entry is this talk from Howard Rheingold about collaboration and cooperation. It is a short piece, only 20 minutes, but if you don’t have time to listen to the whole thing, move the handle down to the Cooperate=Wealth section of the index that pops up when you move the cursor across the bottom of the video.

He addresses the idea that if survival is all about competition, there wouldn’t be so many humans. At some point, humans began to cooperate and that helped them thrive. The benefits of cooperation are generally understood, even across cultural lines. He speaks of how players of the ultimatum game seem to innately know that proposing a 50/50 split offers the most likely path of greatest reward. (At least among Americans, Europeans and Japanese. Rheingold notes that slash and burn folks in the Amazon, pastoral herders in Central Asia and other countries proved to have different sense of fairness when playing the game.)

He also briefly addresses the Tragedy of the Commons, the idea that unless there is a way to restrain overuse, humans will exhaust a commonly held resource. He cites a counter study that found that people are only captives of what is essentially a multi-player prisoner’s dilemma if they view themselves as such. Those who are able to successfully break out do so by “creating institutions for collective action” with common design principles.

As his talk draws to a close, he cites the example of how some of the most cutthroat competitive corporations like IBM, HP and Sun Microsystems are open sourcing their software and some of their patents to be worked on by the commons. He mentions that Eli Lilly has “created a market for solutions for pharmaceutical problems.” Though he doesn’t mention it, I assume that is also an open source type effort. He also cites Toyota which works to make their suppliers more effective even though it means increasing supply efficiency for Toyota’s competitors. EBay has solved the prisoner’s dilemma by introducing a mechanism by which two people who can’t necessarily trust each other can make an exchange. He says they are doing it because they have realized that a certain degree of cooperation is beneficial for the bottom line.

So my obvious question is, if multinational corporations can extend a little trust to cooperate, can’t arts entities from the service organizations down to the smallest theatre/dance/music/visual art company find a way to do it as well? While large organizations might be most immediately influential by providing an example for many others to emulate, technology allows the successes of smaller to be disseminated as they couldn’t even a handful of years ago.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


1 thought on “Prisoners Creating Our Own Dilemmas”

  1. That’s a great question. I believe that part of the answer is due to a lack of incentive. Corporations competing in the marketplace have more motivation to continually improve than do arts organizations. Companies like HP, IBM, etc. report to shareholders and a board, and while there is certainly an “old boys club” atmosphere, there is tremendous pressure to meet the quarterly numbers. Just look at the various banking CEOs getting fired (or the thousands of jobs being shed by the domestic auto companies) these days to see what happens when a corporation doesn’t succeed.

    On the other hand, I would suggest that arts organizations don’t feel as much the competitive pressures that motivate innovation. While you hear about symphonies having to shut down, you also hear about plenty of them that are saved in the eleventh hour by a donor’s generosity. As long as there is the expectation that last-minute donations (or endowment draws, etc.) will compensate for poor ticket sales and inefficient use of resources, there isn’t as much incentive to improve.


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