Nasty, brutish, and wiki

What is life like when all effective law enforcement breaks down? Hobbes had an answer: life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. And all empirical evidence suggests he was right. When the police go on holiday, the nasties come out to play.

Hobbes then set himself the task of explaining why it is that life isn’t so nasty in the civilized state. He said it’s because there is One Big Bully to rule us all – the State – and calculated self interest tells us we’re better off obeying and cooperating than either battling the Bully or reverting back to the dog-eat-dog state of nature. Self interest is the key.

The Hobbesian view of human nature is pervasive. Political scientists employ it when trying to ground the obligations of political citizenship, and behavioral scientists use it to try to explain a wide range of human behavior. Asking “Why is it rational for humans to do that?” is automatically understood by everyone to mean “What’s in it for them?”

What are we then to say about the wiki phenomenon? On Wikipedia there are over a hundred thousand contributors, and over five thousand editors, who have all volunteered to create history’s largest encyclopedia, with ten million articles in over two hundred languages. It gets used at least twenty thousand times each second. And the users/editors are vigilant; an MIT study found that “an obscenity randomly inserted on Wikipedia is removed in an average of 1.7 minutes” (Tapscott & Williams, Wikinomics, p. 75).

What’s in it for these people? Tapscott and Williams suggest it is partly the geeky thrill of working on a task, and partly self-interest – since somebody might notice the fine work a wiki-person is doing and, I don’t know, throw them a party or something. The self-interest motivation sounds like a reach to me. I think it must be 99% geeky thrill. It’s fun to be part of an unimaginably massive epistemological project – Wikipedia is just Hegel’s Encyclopedia in the flesh, so to speak (topic for a future post) – and to see your work made available to millions. You could call this self-interest, but only in the sense that whatever we do on purpose is something we’d like to see done. More informatively, wiki work is motivated by a desire to see a project flourish. It’s done for the same reason kids work together on a really cool sand castle. It’s fun to build. Call this the wiki motivation.

To what extent is the wiki motivation a component of human nature? My bet is that it is as much a component as the self-interest motivation. Long, long before the computer, people were building, creating, and making just for the sake of doing it. People have always liked creating stuff – along with all the other well-known projects like eating and sex and getting power. And this is true even when the creating doesn’t do anything more for the creator than it does for the “free-riders” who get to make use of it.

The wiki and the self-interest motivations apply at different junctures, though: when survival is at stake, count on self-interest to call the loudest (but with interesting exceptions, note well). Once survival is secured, then the wiki motivation speaks up (though self-interest continues to growl). But if this is true, then that means political science and behavioral sciences need to start complicating their models of human nature. Economics, in particular, needs to start making models which incorporate the wiki motivation. (Tapscott & Williams stop just short of this; they try to sell “wikinomics” as a strategy any modern, self-interested person should take up.)

Indeed, the biggest innovations of the late 20th century – the internet, followed then by the web – are stellar examples of wiki motivation. Their inventors could have acted in a much more self-interested way, to put it mildly. And the creators of all the stuff web work requires (XML, SOAP, FTP, etc) mostly made what they did just for the sake of making a cool thing work. The whole thing makes no sense whatsoever, from a self-interested standpoint. Yet they did what they did, and here we are. The whole open source movement is what happens when you let the wiki motivation go unbridled, and it is without question the lynch-pin holding the entire IT world together.

So Hobbes didn’t have all the answers. He accurately described how nasty life can get when threatened, but couldn’t account for why life gets as civilized as it does when safety is secured. The nobility of human civilization consists in a transition from “what’s in it for me?” to “Whoa, isn’t that cool?”

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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6 Responses to Nasty, brutish, and wiki

  1. Hanna says:

    Hobbes?! wheres Calvin?


  2. Huenemann says:

    You’re right, Hanna! Calvin (John) was all for community, but the pride in knowledge would have him seriously worried!


  3. Hanna says:

    thanks, dadypants


  4. Alex says:

    I REALLY enjoyed this article. I am close to finishing my Political Science major (can’t come soon enough!) and frankly, I’m getting a bit tired of the rampant negative vibes I get from the classrooms. Perhaps the ‘vibes’ I feel stem from attending a university in the ‘reddest’ state in America (from what I remember in the last presidential election?) thus having to listen to conservative views day-in and day-out – which, at least in my opinion, all too often focus on the negative.

    I seem to always get myself in trouble when talking politics in class or with friends, often I’m the guy that gets labeled the ‘idealist.’ Idealists don’t have it easy in Utah or at USU (or many places at all, actually), the ‘realist’ point of view so completely dominates the political spectrum that idealists are quickly regarded as ‘having their heads in the clouds’ or ‘pipe-dreaming.’ Can we chalk up the ‘wiki motivation’ as a win for the idealists? “The nobility of human civilization consists in a transition from ‘what’s in it for me?’ to ‘Whoa, isn’t that cool?'”

    “Once survival is secured, then the wiki motivation speaks up (though self-interest continues to growl).” Maybe it’s not a complete victory, as the ‘wiki motivation’ requires some grounding in ‘reality’ (safety, government, Hobbes’ stuff). But, darn-it, being an idealist, I’ll take whatever ‘win’ I can get!!


  5. Pingback: Wikinomics » Blog Archive » Wikinomics in the Blogosphere

  6. dust4ngel says:

    i think this whole debate centers around a misunderstanding of self-interest – the self-interest of a social animal – that is, an animal whose identity and well-being depend on social integration – is not as straight-forward a topic as you might think at first.

    consider maslow’s hierarchy of needs ( ) – you see achievement, self-respect, and respect by others somewhere near the top of the pyramid of self-interest. if you consider these closely, it is difficult to separate them from values we develop socially – in ‘achieving’, we typically achieve things that people find valuable; in respecting ourselves, we typically do so because we embody the virtues that people hold in high esteem, etc. hence our self-interested ambitions tend to be influenced in the directions of pro-social projects, and i think this is a serious problem for the hobbesian school of thought.


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