Tuesday, October 23, 2012

How Mass Effect Taught Me about Collective Action Problems

Gerald Singh and Karina Benessaiah

In today’s technological world, it’s important to keep in mind that every medium has something insightful to say, not just books and literature.

Consider a story. In this story you are the hero(ine). Although you command respect based on a long history of past exploits, it's still difficult to convince others to follow your advice, let alone save the world.

You are a Spectre - an agent of cosmic importance - and you report directly to the galactic council, an interplanetary organization that outshines the UN in terms of bureaucratic complexity. Oh, have we mentioned that this is a science fiction universe set in a video game? Specifically, the universe of Bioware's Mass Effect?

Anyway, you are a Spectre, and you found out the galaxy is under threat by an alien previously unknown. Naturally, you assume that all sentient life in the galaxy must unite under a common banner to defeat this threat.

You assume.

What you fail to recognize is that uniting means that the galactic council has to cut through never-ending bureaucratic procedures to act fast. Uniting also means that the Quarians and the Geth people have to set aside centuries-old enmities, all races are probably going to have to take orders from the Turians (the species with the greatest military might), the Krogan feel they have no future anyway (they are an infertile species so what's the point), the Salarians are the reason the Krogan have no future, the Asari are hesitant to heed advise from a species whose individuals can barely (if at all) live a century, and species like the Batarians take pride in never have joined the Council in the first place. Let's not forget that Humanity is universally believed - and in some ways rightly so - to place its own interests over those of other species and to work politics in ways that raise its status in the galaxy.
And of course, so does every other species.

It is these power grabs, the pride and distrust and political jockeying - it is these individual and tribal goals that prevent any larger collective goals from being accomplished. You are frustrated because they won’t pull together. You’re even more frustrated because the reasons that everyone won’t pull together are not all trivial. And you suddenly realize why harnessing collective action can be so problematic.
It's a good thing you are such a charismatic and valiant hero because in the end the fate of the galaxy is in your hands.

Luckily, should you fail you always have resets.

Stepping out of the science fiction, most see our Earthly challenges as rather less dramatic. There is no alien threat; there are no malicious beings out to get us. What happens to us on Earth now happens because we do it to ourselves. And the problems we face are planetary in scale, not galactic. (But really, isn't that big enough?)

And there's no lone hero to save the day.

Yet, Mass Effect is allegorical for many social and environmental issues we face today, as is the best science fiction. 

Mass Effect and International negotiations aren’t exactly the same, but they’re similar, if you look close enough.
Humanity is poorly equipped to address global climate change and other planetary issues (desertification, resource shortages, etc.) because global concerns tend to take a backseat to national and local concerns. Results from past international meetings to take action to slow or prevent further climate change, species loss, and other forms of pollution and environmental degradation are widely seen as failures, because, as with the universe of Mass Effect, the goals and agendas of smaller groups can hinder action on the issues that the larger group faces. And the reasons for these outcomes aren’t trivial.

Not always.

We cannot overlook concerns over who will benefit, and who will lose from what outcome. In climate debates, many argue that those countries that caused the problems in the first place should take the bulk of the steps to reverse them. Some countries will be hit harder and faster than others, so the immediacy of environmental threats differs across groups. There are tribal and national interests everywhere there are tribes and nations. And while the concerns of small groups are worthy of consideration, sometimes only considering what's good for the small group is counterproductive or detrimental to the larger group. The trick is finding ways that compensate the concerns of smaller groups while achieving the larger objective. Those who benefit could recompense  those who don’t, or groups can mobilize to work together to achieve mutual or reciprocal goals. 

Collective action is difficult, but imagine yourself as the hero(ine) again. Imagine how frustrating it is to know that all your attempts to save others are thwarted by the same people you're trying to save. It's not malicious: no one wants environmental problems to persist just as no species wants to see the end of the galaxy. Everyone wants to see the larger goals achieved, just after the more personal goals are met first. Commander Sheppard helps multiple alien species achieve their individual goals, and in doing so wins their trust and their support to fight back the Reapers. Winning trust among groups can help foster the compromises, compensation and group mobilization to achieve collective action.

Then remember that there are no solitary heroes. Winning trust takes multiple groups working with each other. Collective problems require collective action.  

And remember, in our world there is no reset option. 

Monday, October 8, 2012

Connecting the Dots: Why there are no straight paths to becoming an interdisciplinary scholar

Steve Jobs mentioned in his famous 2005 Stanford graduation speech that you can only connect the dots looking backwards.  He speaks of learning calligraphy as a Reed College dropout and how it informed the fonts in Apple’s first computers.  He explained:

“. . . you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”
These words have often encouraged me as I look at my life and wonder how all the pieces fit together.  I have followed my heart and my passions and they have led me to Indonesia and Guatemala, photography and woodworking, anthropology and ecotoxicology.  Yet even when each step feels right to me at the moment, I often doubt myself, wondering: how might I ever have, as my grandmother implores, a “marketable talent”? And more importantly to me: how will this seemingly random collection of experiences allow me to contribute anything worthwhile to the world? Is ‘follow your heart’ just some Pollyannaish hippy advice sure to leave me unemployed and useless?

Yet my recent Master’s thesis research gave me hope and made Steve Job’s words come alive.  There were moments when I had the feeling that the disjointed experiences from my past came together to prepare me for the task at hand.  Once, I was hiking through an abandoned field with a couple farmers, looking for the source of the river, a place where I could take my control water samples.  Chatting in Spanish, analyzing the landscape for run-off patterns, and tromping around a Colombian swamp in rubber boots—I saw all the dots connect. 

Looking for the source.

Years ago when I decided to learn Spanish and spent months and months straining to understand farmers, learning tricks to get by, I had no idea that I would be using it to discuss the watershed structure and local history with these farmers in Colombia. 

When I signed up for fluid dynamics and hydrology courses in my undergrad years I had no idea these would inform my analysis of this one watershed in Colombia. 

 Walking through a swamp in Patagonia (with my husband Claude).

And when I traveled to Patagonia to see the glaciers I had no idea that the days I spent learning to walk through a swamp in rubber boots would help me navigate this field in Colombia.
Even all the hours waiting for the bus by the side of the road years earlier in Costa Rica, when I learned to be patient and let events progress on Latin time, gave me the frame of mind to accept the slow but steady progress of my master’s research. 

Collecting a water sample in Colombia.

This is the reserve of life experiences that I drew on to guide me.  To do my Master’s research, required all my being, my experiences, my patience, my knowledge. It was precisely my broad and diverse experiences, the avenues I had pursued without knowing where they would lead, that enabled me to conduct my research.

Now I am starting my PhD at an interdisciplinary institute and I face the uncertainty of my future with more comfort.  The work we do is founded on bringing together diverse experiences. These experiences are what allow us to see a problem from many angles and to know that no matter how many angles we analyze, we will always miss part of the story.  As we pick apart an issue we each connect the dots in our own way, finding the linkages that a traditional career path would never prepare us for. 

And my grandma would be happy too—they even pay me to do this!

-Mollie Chapman