Saturday, March 12, 2005

In praise of self

Anglos who come to America are struck by the number of people who revel in describing their achievements. It deserves explanation. Here are some reasons why folk might insist on telling you all about the great things they've done.

1. It's the way they've been brought up. There's certainly a cultural component to talking about oneself. The English are taught to take a perverse pride in being excruciatingly humble. the same seems to be true in Japan and the Mid-west. I haven't discerned any regional patterns of American self-aggrandizement, though.

2. They're selling themselves to you. If people feel that they can prove themselves by describing their achievements, they'll do it. If it leads to increased respect, it's in their best interests.

3. They're selling themselves to themselves. This has always been my favorite explanation: people who revel in themselves have a low sense of self-worth. I'm not so sure any more. The very prevalence of the truism that blames all sorts of social ills on people's low self-esteem has made me increasingly skeptical of it. There's even evidence on the other side, now. It's often said that bullies have low self-esteem. However, New Scientist reports that bullying others has social value (Clare Wilson, 5 March 2004, "Teenagers special: Bully boys"). Anthony Pellgrini found in a study of 138 school children that bullying raised a perpetrator's social status (Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, vol 85, p 257). These kids know what they're doing. According to Pellegrini in this story: "Boys have high status with their male peers if they're bullies, and girls like them"

4. They're just bubbling over with enthusiasm for their work, and they love telling you about it. People who are goal oriented achievers will frame their work in terms of accomplishments, and a litany of triumphs will pour out without any ulterior motive.

I'm beginning to think that enthusiasm (#4) accounts for quite a lot of pride expression, particularly in America. Overt enthusiasm is encouraged here, and so enthusiasts are more visible. Tie that to a culture of selling (reason #2), and one can begin to explain #1.

What did people ever do before blogs?

They wrote letters to the editor. From NPR, a story about a man who's written letters to the newspapers around Chicago for thirty years.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Anti-rival and anti-excludable

I've been hearing for some time about rivalrous vs. non-rivalrous goods, and excludable vs. non-excludable ones. This is because physical property is excludable and rivalrous, while intellectual property -- something that's very important in my day job -- is non-excludable and non-rival. (Some definitions subsume "exhaustable" in "rival". The term "rival" is synonymous with "rivalrous", as are "exclusive" and "excludable". For a summary of terms see here.)

In simple terms, the more people share a rivalrous good, the less there is for anyone; when they share a non-rivalrous good, everyone gets the same amount, and the amount doesn't decrease with more users. Apples and seats on a plane are rivalrous; an idea, radio broadcasts and the common cold are non-rivalrous.

Goods are exclusive if producers can prevent people from consuming them if they haven't paid. I can prevent someone from using an exclusive good, but I can't prevent someone from passing on a non-exclusive good like an idea. It pretty easy to make tangible goods exclusive; I can lock up the apples. It's harder with intangibles, as the struggles over managing access to digital music have illustrated.

Some goods are both non-rival and non-excludable, like national defense, and non-DRM protected digital music. Public goods are non-rival and non-excludable. The rival/non-rival and excludable/non-excludable concepts can be shown as a 2x2 matrix:

RivalTangible private goods (eg airline seats)Commons (eg unlicensed spectrum)
Non-rivalIntangible private goods (eg patented inventions)Public goods (eg national defence)

These definitions, however, don't take into effect the network effects that have become so prevalent on the web. Social networks like amazon reviews and tags are not just non-rivalrous, as one would expect from knowledge; the more one uses them, the more value is created.

These goods are "anti-rivalrous". Their use increases the amount available for consumption by others.

One can play the same game with exclusiveness. An "anti-exclusive good" might be one where the my giving it to you actively encourages you to pass it along to others. Viruses are one example; another is peer-to-peer software which someone cannot use without becoming a server node for others.

Expanding the table above to a 3x3 gives:
Non-rival~~(eg viruses)
Anti-rival(eg member-limited social networks)(eg communal site tagging)(eg P2P supernodes)

Note that I haven't given names to the cells - that's left as an exercise to the economists...

Summing up wins

A friend of mine is trying to shift the perspective of someone who sees the world as a zero sum game. My friend is arguing for a new business model; his antagonist thinks of winners and losers.

The Economist's Lexington column in the February 26th, 2005 issue ruminates on America's love affair with success and failure. It makes an observation that speaks to the antagonist's motivation:
[You] can't have winners without losers (or how would you know how well you are doing?).
One can counter, as my friend does, that economic growth has two steps: creating value and dividing value. First you make a bigger cake, which is a cooperative enterprise, and then you divide it up, which is competitive. (This begins to explain, by the way, why evolution hasn't only selected for competitive people. We aren't all hyper-competitive; many people prefer to play rather than win. A successful species (and business) needs both kinds.)

However, even dividing the cake up is only a zero-sum game for "rivalrous goods", that is, goods that can be "used up". A good is rivalrous if my use of it competes with yours. On the other hand, a non-rivalrous good does not cost more to give to additional people, and the use of it by additional people does not diminish the use of it by others. Rivalrous goods include tax money and the water supply. Knowledge -- knowing stories, for example -- is non-rivalrous, as are digital media.

An NPR story on fishermen poets this morning concludes with a poet who says that he'd rather have stories to tell than a bank account. "When you die, I think the winner's the guy that has the most stories".