Sunday, July 11, 2010

Pruning Our Virtual Gardens of Good and Evil

People say I make strange choices, but they're not strange for me. My sickness is that I'm fascinated by human behavior, by what's underneath the surface, by the worlds inside people.  - Johnny Depp
My final 12th grade AP English assignment was to craft a position paper about any one of the ideas or issues that we discussed during the year. I had no idea that the issue I selected would fundamentally stay with me throughout my life, much less highlight interesting points about human behavior, games and Blizzard's Real ID.

The assignment read something like "You must write about just one issue. This is a position paper, not a recap of what we've discussed." I struggled for a couple of days to pick just one thing and finally sought guidance from our teacher Mrs. Jones.

Mrs. Jones was dynamic and outspoken. She wore huge round black rimmed glasses and she had this fiery red hair that stood six inches above her head and poured down over her shoulders like a volcanic eruption. She was somehow intimidating and yet approachable at the same time. When I asked for her advice she suggested that perhaps I should just take my favorite book and go from there; I'm pretty sure she knew what I would select. Mrs. Jones had some crazy psychic powers to go along with that red lava mane.

We read the normal course of AP literature - Bronte, Faulkner, Hawthorne, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Lee, etc. - but my personal favorite was Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (with Wuthering Heights a close second). Mrs. Jones was right, settling on Heart of Darkness made finding just one issue much easier.

Good or evil?

Mrs. Jones always stuck to her rubric. On each assignment, there on the top corner of the first page was a crimson ink ladder of scores along with her thoughtful notes, references and reminders. She was the only teacher I ever had that did this so diligently, and despite your grade it was hard not to appreciate the time she put into her reviews. But this time there was no inked ladder on my position paper, only a short note "Please see me after school today."

(You might be thinking "Uh oh", but to be honest by the end of my senior year I was pretty used to getting "into trouble" at school. I wasn't a bad kid; I just did things differently.)

Mrs. Jones' class was in one of three trailers that were added to the high school the year before I arrived.  The tan metal soldiers stood in a line on the asphalt that previously rebounded handballs and were dedicated to course enrollments that were less than the normal 40-45 students per class - AP English, Drama and AP History. I waited on the wood steps for Mrs. Jones to finish her Camel; hoping we could get this over quickly so I could get to practice before it ended.

Soon she emerged from the pseudo teacher's lounge behind the trailers, and stopped at the foot of the stairs. She removed her spectacles, rubbed her eyes indelicately, peered through the thick lenses at the cracked asphalt and sighed. "It's too hot out here, let's go inside."

I agreed. I knew enough to let Mrs. Jones do the talking at her own pace and to do my best not to seem distracted or in a hurry to get out of there. She walked over to her desk, picked up a piece of paper then walked back and sat down sideways in one of the cramped student desks. "Have a seat."

I sat down at the next desk in the row, sideways as she had. I noticed the paper she held included the red ink ladder and a nearly perfect score. She folded the paper in half, running her fingers along the crease over and over again as she stepped through her concerns. The gist was this: As a position paper, my score based on the prescribed rubric was nearly perfect. However, Mrs. Jones wanted to talk a little more about the nature of the thesis I chose to present: Living With a Heart of Darkness | People are inherently evil.

I should tell you that I have no belief that people are inherently good or evil. I believe it's neither a thing that can be known, nor is it an absolute, nor is it a meaningful distinction without context. I had no opinion as a high school senior either but there I was, trying to write a position paper for a final grade.

I admitted to Mrs. Jones that rather than agonize over it, I just wanted to get the paper done and I found crafting the position that people are inherently evil infinitely easier to defend than the reverse, especially in the context of Heart of Darkness and my fascination with T. S. Eliot (bonus points).

Thankfully, although Mrs. Jones disagreed with the position I'd taken, she didn't want to debate or judge me. She just wanted to impart a bit of her wisdom about how fundamental beliefs regarding good and evil shape society and how that in her experience, people generally believe one or the other about other people, while holding themselves to some neutral standard.

Blizzard blusters, then retreats

I haven't thought about Mrs. Jones for a very long time, but she came my mind as I read the news about Blizzard's plans to make it mandatory for people to reveal and use their real names in order to post on any of the official Blizzard forums. Blizzard admitted that they had a behavior problem on the forums (akin to what Jaron Lanier labels "drive by anonymity") and proposed that by making people reveal their real names, that behavior problem would go away (emphasis mine):
Removing the veil of anonymity typical to online dialogue will contribute to a more positive forum environment, promote constructive conversations, and connect the Blizzard community in ways they haven’t been connected before.
Just three days later, after a healthy uproar from the Blizzardites, people canceling accounts outright, and wealth of mixed opinion about the rightness or wrongness of this decision, Blizzard changed their minds and retracted the policy.

I had to wonder, did Blizzard truly believe this was going to be a brave step -  as Jane McGonigal (@avantgame) tweeted -  toward "good" gaming behavior? My first question was, how does using your real name lead to good behavior? Isn't our collective history filled with tyrants who use their real name?

Or maybe an illustrative way to look at this example is: Can you design systems to make someone be "good" if they have decided to be otherwise?

Be good and you get a cookie (we sure hope you like cookies)

Psychologist B.F. Skinner shed new light on the mysteries of human behavior with his meta-scientific theories of Radical Behaviorism. Using his infamous operant conditioning chamber, aka the Skinner Box, Skinner demonstrated the power of reinforcing consequences to shape future behavior by using environmental controls.

According to Skinner's theory, there are positive reinforcement as well as negative reinforcement processes that can be devised to strengthen behavior. Punishment, (which is not a negative reinforcement) actually serves to weaken behavior and no matter how I look at it, exposing someone's real name as a cost to post on a forum feels like some weird twist of punishment before the crime with the added bonus of completely unpredictable consequences with subsequently high risk.

The risk here is the issue; people are generally risk averse and the risk of this choice is so wildly unpredictable that it becomes essentially no choice at all. This is why instead of deciding simply to not post to forums in the future, people canceled their accounts entirely (they saw no choice) and it's also why some claimed that revealing real names would reduce everyone's contributions to the dialog, not just trolls or trouble makers.

There is no doubt in my mind that absolute anonymity is a protective umbrella from consequence for those that wish to escape the rain - this applies equally well to those who need the protection and those that leverage it merely to misbehave. In light of this, Skinner might have suggested a mix of positive and negative reinforcement processes; an example would be to eliminate anonymity and replace it with a persistent, pervasive and singular pseudonymity and instill a means of managing reputation. In other words, give people a unique name everywhere, and allow that name to be the nexus of reputation.

A pervasive pseudonym coupled with a meaningful reputation system can extend consequences of behavior across a person's activity footprint, increasing the likelihood that bad behavior is at least more widely exposed and at best a matter of consequence (assuming here that reputation has value in the Blizzard-sphere). Several people suggested this as a workable solution, see Randall Farmer's posts if you are interested in that approach or more about online reputation models.

What is appealing about Skinner to system designers is that the ideas of reinforcement appear to be conveniently packed into code-like if-then statements. If we do this, then this happens - easy peasy. That is the crux of the Blizzard note: if we remove anonymity, then we will have a more positive forum and environment.

What we miss, dear Skinnerites, is that the social environment is not under your control - it's maintained by those pesky humans. It is also not short-lived, not the same for every person, and not static. The challenge to success is that is takes a great deal of hard work to actively maintain universal, on-going and relevant reinforcements and consequences, master the dynamic environment (this includes human decision-making) and even find the right cookie for everyone, or even remove the right anti-cookie.

Anti-cookies, a new particle in the universe?

Deterrents, or anti-cookies (my word and not to be confused with this), are designed to reduce behavior subject to the deterrent with all other things being equal, but they can also have other interesting and opposite effects when presented in dynamic environments. Deterrence theory is popular in legal realms (pay a fine for speeding), and is also in military strategy (peace through power).

Consider the case presented by Uri Gneezy and Aldo Rustichini in the paper "A Fine is a Price" with regard to the predictive strength of deterrent theory. I first learned of this example while reading Clay Shirky's latest book Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. Shirky recounts the study and the paper itself is a good read but for brevity, here's the abstract with the main points:
The deterrence hypothesis predicts that the introduction of a penalty that leaves everything else unchanged will reduce the occurrence of the behavior subject to the fine. We present the result of a field study in a group of day-care centers that contradicts this prediction. Parents used to arrive late to collect their children, forcing a teacher to stay after closing time. We introduced a monetary fine for late-coming parents. As a result the number of late-coming parents increased significantly. After the fine was removed no reduction occurred. We argue that penalties are usually introduced into an incomplete contract, social or private. They may change the information that agents have and therefore the effect on behavior may be opposite than expected. If this is true, the deterrence hypothesis loses its predictive strength, since the clause 'everything else is left unchanged' might be hard to satisfy.
Let's review what happened here. Essentially the fine (designed to deter behavior) transformed a loosely formed ambiguous social contract (if I am late, I unfairly inconvenience another person) into a fee for service contract (I can pay for your inconvenience) for which there is no expectation of cultural or behavioral norms, only rationalized if-then actions. The price of the fine allowed late-arriving parents to ignore the human element of their transaction and their perception of the new contract remained unchanged even after the fine was removed.

Blizzard may have presumed that using real names was a suitable deterrent to their behavior problems, packaged in a code friendly and convenient "set and forget" policy space. That might be true within the confines of a Skinner box, but in the non-static real world, the social environment cannot be controlled and people make decisions and change their subsequent perception based on subtle changes.

Are we human, or are we dancer? [cue dramatic Disney-like music, or maybe just The Killers]

Ariely, Pink, TED, IDEO and the RSA are popularizing conversations about design thinking, neuroscience and behavioral economics. These challenge us to think differently about the ways humans derive value and make decisions within our biological, economic, cultural and technical environments.

Design thinking encourages us to focus not on products, but on the people and the environments and experiences in which they make decisions, albeit sometimes irrationally. Successful execution relies on active observation and participation holistically (not hierarchically) and extends the promise of a new empathy economy - built upon bridges across disciplines and industries and divergent ways of thinking about ourselves and each other with the promise of delivering great human experiences, high profit growth and better societies.

But the epicenter of these disruptive ways of thinking must be human, and this is the rub, isn't it? Human centered design can challenge our very sense of the rational - like paying people to remember to take their medications as a viable future economic model. That is a big leap.

Instead of making that big leap, it would seem that system designers and world builders are off figuring out how to plug into the latest social web gadgetry, plowing scarce resources into the one thing that will not deliver results in any meaningful way, whilst imposing rules of law here and there, trying to keep the virtual rats playing nicely while still pressing on the bar time and time again.

The horror!  The horror!  - Kurtz
Share Some Grace:

blog comments powered by Disqus