My Love Letter to Video Games

When I was maybe three or four years old, my mom would drop me off at the house of a woman that would watch me for the day. She had two sons, who were a lot older than me. The younger of the two, who was maybe 9, figured out a really clever way to keep me distracted. He would turn on his Sega Genesis, hand me the second controller, and promptly start playing a one-player game. I was convinced that I was doing something, so it felt like we were playing the game together. He continued to encourage me like I was really accomplishing something. It was pretty clever.

It wasn’t long before I had the opportunity to actually play.

Gaming in Green

In kindergarten, the system I was constantly exposed to was the Gameboy. It seemed like everyone had one but me! Of course, in retrospect, I don’t think many of my classmates had one at all. There would be one or two of them people had brought to SACC after school and we would huddle around them and hope the owner would let us have a turn.

I can’t remember if it was for my birthday or for Christmas, but I got my Gameboy, the first system I ever owned, when I was just five years old.

 This was so long ago and I was so young that I get the chronology kind of screwed up in my head in terms of what games I got when. Based on the year that I got the Gameboy, I’m pretty sure my first game was Super Mario Land. I definitely remember playing it, getting stuck on specific parts, and doing them over and over until I finally advanced or ran out of lives.

The last level in particular game me trouble. In it, Mario is flying around in an airplane–in space(?)–where he fights some alien who never really made it to King Koopa level infamy.

I acquired a ton of Gameboy games when I was in elementary school, ranging from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II, Tetris, Looney Tunes, and Link’s Awakening, the very first Zelda game I ever played.

The game I remember with the most nostalgia is Super Mario Land 2: The 6 Golden Coins.

There was this sixth grader, Tron, who had it. We would all sit around Tron and watch him play, and sometimes he’d let someone jump in. I wanted it. I wanted it with the intensity that only a little boy who has fixated on something can muster.

It may be a little sad, but I will probably never be as excited about any material thing ever again as I was when I unwrapped a present that Christmas and discovered it was that game. Not because the game itself was so intrinsically amazing, but because I was a 7-year-old, I wanted it so badly, and I got it for Christmas.

My grandparents got me the game on Christmas Eve. I was much more eager to start playing the game than I was to find out what other presents I was getting. So when I woke up Christmas morning, I just started playing it, and assumed that my parents would come get me when it was time to get up. Well, my mother noticed my light was on and popped in to tell me to go to sleep, because it was three in the morning.

I can’t think about the joy I felt about Christmas as a kid without thinking of what it was like to get and play that game.

After I got back to school, Tron was still playing the game, but he was stuck on one part–the Space Zone. Which I just so happened to have beaten over the Christmas break. He couldn’t believe that some kid was better at the game than he was, so he made me prove it. So, I did.

Nintendo Fanboy

I got the next game in the series when it came out (“it’s the first game ever where you get to play the bad guy!” I told my dad with excitement, “yeah, that sounds great” he replied with dripping sarcasm). With it, my grandmother got me a subscription to Nintendo Power magazine. It had the next to last installment of a Super Metroid comic miniseries, which got me hooked right away.

I read every single issue of Nintendo Power for years. It was, in fact, the only magazine that I ever had a subscription to.

That magazine was instrumental in turning me into the kind of gamer that I would be until I was in college. There were PC gamers, and the Sega and Sony faithful. I did play the occasional PC game, such as Age of Empires and Starcraft, and I would play other consoles at my friends’ houses. But for many years I was a dyed in the wool Nintendo fanboy; and I never owned any other brand’s console. In retrospect, Nintendo Power dished out a lot of what was basically propaganda, and I ate it all up.

When I was 9, my dad got the opportunity to do a stint at the embassy in Paraguay the following year, so my parents wanted me to start learning Spanish. My incentive for reaching a certain goal (memorizing “Cultivo una Rosa Blanca“, and explaining what it meant) was that my parents would get me a Super Nintendo. Needless to say, I made damn sure I met that goal!

It came with Donkey Kong Country, which I found particularly exciting because Nintendo Power hadn’t just covered it, they sent a video promoting it!

I played a ton of SNES games over the years. There was Mortal Kombat II, Street Fighter II, Earthworm Jim, ClayFighter, Super Metroid, and many more. While we were in Paraguay I ended up unwittingly acquiring three games that were Paraguayan-made fakes. The first was the original Super Mario Kart. I could tell something was amiss, as the box was entirely in Japanese except for a bit on the back which read “To be sold exclusively in Japan” or something to that effect. The game was entirely in Japanese–but I played the hell out of it anyway.

The others were Toy Story, and Earthworm Jim II. The latter was the real tragedy, as it just did not work right. I had borrowed a friend’s copy and really wanted one of my own, but the thing just glitched out after a few minutes.

The Nintendo 64 came out right around the time that we would be coming back from Paraguay, so I started saving up my allowance. I opened my very first bank account in order to buy the N64. I was 12 years old at the time and needed to make it some sort of joint account with my mom for it to even be legal. But I saved up enough eventually and the N64 became the first console I bought with my own money.

I explored every nook and cranny of Mario 64.

Nintendo Power sent me another promotional video, this time about Starfox 64. It was really laughably ridiculous, and to my great joy I found several copies of it on YouTube:

The Rumble Pack: “A FEEDBACK DEVICE THAT LETS PLAYERS FEEL THE GAME!”

Which really just meant that it vibrated every so often in response to something that happened on the screen. I’m not ashamed to admit that my 12-year-old self watched that video like five times in anticipation of getting the game.

I had seen the original Starfox played by the older brother of a friend of mine–we used to sit and watch him play games all the time, back before I had a Super Nintendo of my own–and I still hold a special place in my heart for Starfox 64. The nature of the game was such that there were a bunch of different paths you could take to beat it, and I eventually explored them all. I played it again recently for the first time in years and found that I could still beat it in less than an hour. Like riding a bike.

Another favorite of the N64 era was Super Smash Bros, arguably one of the most original fighting games in its mechanics. Sophomore year in High School, a couple of guys I knew from school would come over to work on our Government class project. Instead of working on that project, we listened to Adam Sandler tapes and played Smash Bros. Those two guys are both going to be groomsmen in my wedding; so the game has a bit more sentimental value than most for me.

The game that is inextricably linked with the N64 in my mind is The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

Zelda Throughout the Ages

The very first Legend of Zelda game I ever played was Link’s Awakening for the Gameboy. Which is funny, because it’s a very peculiar game in the franchise–for one thing, Zelda isn’t in it, at all! For another, the Gombas of the Mario universe make a random appearance. Regardless, I absolutely loved the game, though it took me forever to beat.

Even more than Mario, the Legend of Zelda franchise acts as a reference point for every console I’ve ever owned. The only exception is the Super Nintendo; I did play A Link to the Past but many years after I got the console, and many, many years after it came out.

I can’t even remember how far back rumblings about Ocarina of Time started. All I remember is the teaser screenshots that Nintendo Power seemed to offer what felt like every month for years. Consulting Wikipedia, it seems I’m not exaggerating–it was teased in 1995 and didn’t come out until 1998.

Getting Ocarina of Time was the second most excited I’ve ever been to get a game, after Super Mario Land 2. Once again, I got it as a Christmas gift.

I have a distinct memory of my dad coming down to the basement, Christmas Day, and watching me play it. He commented on how amazing the graphics were. Of course now it all seems so blocky compared to what came after, but that memory of my dad’s remarks are like a snapshot of one moment in the progress of gaming graphics.

There was something about Ocarina that just captured people’s imaginations. I’ve seen people argue that various Zelda games were superior in one or more dimensions, and most of the time I get where they’re coming from. But Ocarina just had some quality that’s hard to put your finger on that made it fun, that makes people want to go back and play it all over again. And what gamer of our generation doesn’t instinctively feel hatred at the words “Water Temple”?

Many years later, the summer after I graduated High School, I used it to get my friend Kelly into gaming. She was content to watch me play through it to begin with, as she enjoyed the storyline. Then she had a go at it.

I think every gamer at some point in their life has the experience of trying to get a non-gamer into it. It always starts out incredibly frustrating, because everything that seems obvious and intuitive to you turns out to have been something completely learned, and the only way to learn it is with experience. There is no quick way to gain experience, so you watch as they walk off cliffs or respond to some new stimuli in a way that seems completely inexplicable to you.

Kelly crossed the threshhold, and became one of my closest gaming buddies. These days, she’s gaming a lot more than I am. In fact, she’s played the latest Zelda game, and I have not!

The sequel, Majora’s Mask, doesn’t get nearly as much attention but I had a blast playing it. I think a lot of people were expecting more of a straightforward sequel to the narrative of Ocarina, and Majora disappointed them in that. Still, as a standalone game I think it’s pretty solid.

Wind Waker is one of the few games for the Gamecube that I really remember. Nintendo went with an aesthetic that was drastically different from the previous two games, and the choice was quite controversial at the time.

I thought the look of the game was fine, and it really is a very fun game. I remember a reviewer at the time saying that it had the potential to be the best of the Zelda games, if you didn’t have to spend a cumulative million years sailing from place to place.

It was probably the best game that came out on the Gamecube, though. There weren’t many memorables ones, unfortunately. Others included Tales of Symphonia, Mario Kart: Double Dash, Soul Caliber II, and Smash Bros. Melee.

The last real Zelda game that I played was Twilight Princess, which came out when I was in college. It was designed for the Gamecube, but didn’t come out until the Wii was on the market–so I played the version for the Wii.

Twilight Princess was a direct response to people who had an adverse reaction to Wind Waker’s playful aesthetic; it was made for people who wanted to see a grown-up Link kick some ass. In that, it delivered, with the addition of occasionally turning Link into a badass wolf, but saddling him with this thing:

In the end Twilight Princess is probably my least favorite of the Zelda games listed here. There was nothing wrong with the game itself; though I found it much too easy to beat. Maybe if it was the first of them that I had played, rather than the last, I would feel differently. I do have some good memories around it–I played this with my friend Sam in Kelly’s dorm during the day, when we were between classes and she was off working. Sam would leave his Wii and his copy of the game in her dorm after he went home, resulting in a great deal of distraction from class and studying on her part. She ended up beating his copy of the game before he did!

The College Years

I commuted to college, which in practice meant I ended up spending most of my time hanging out in my friends’ dorms and off-campus apartments. This meant the consoles I ended up playing were whatever they had, and nine times out of ten this meant it was a Playstation 2.

Three games really stand out in my mind from this time. The first was Soul Caliber II, which a friend I got ridiculously competitive over.

It was, in retrospect (and maybe even at the time), pretty crazy how much time we devoted to trying to one up each other. He always had a slight edge on me, and it drove me crazy. Of course, we ended up getting so good that no one else we knew ever wanted to play with us–talk about counterproductive!

There was also Guilty Gear X, one of the most absurd and fun fighting games ever made, which began each match with the nonsequitur statement “HEAVEN OR HELL” (and yes, it was a statement, not a question).

Finally, there was Dynasty Warriors 4: Empires. This game has a Risk-like conquest element, which is really just an excuse for you to kill hundreds and hundreds of soldiers. It is a truly addictive game, which we would take turns at until we’d all conquered ancient China, and then begin again. It also featured some of the worst voice-acting, and most awkward fake arm gestures, possibly ever conceived of by any human mind.

Kelly and I still play it every so often.

Everything Else

A lot of things happened after college. I started seeing someone seriously. I got a job 30 miles from where I lived. I started grad school 40 miles from where I worked. In short, free time suddenly became a lot more scarce, and what time I had I wanted to spend with my better half.

It worked out really well–I finished grad school, got an even better job, and we got engaged. But during this whole time I barely played any video games at all.

Even putting all that aside, my gaming was already waning. In college, it was my younger brother, not I, who went out at some crazy hour of the morning to wait in line to get the Wii when it first came out. And he had to do this many times before he actually got one–he was very dedicated to his goal. When I moved out, I left my consoles with my siblings because I knew they would get more mileage out of them than I would. At that point I was too busy doing–well, just about everything else.

I have slowly started trying to reconnect with my gaming roots. I reclaimed the old N64 at my parents’ place, and I play it every so often.

The biggest pusher in my life is my brother, who gave me Starcraft II two Christmases ago and Portal 2 this Christmas. Circumstances have made me into a PC gamer–not that I’m complaining! Those are some excellent games.

Gamer Culture

I suppose I’ve just come to realize that being a gamer is an important part of who I am, in the same way that being a sports fan is an important part of a lot of people’s lives. One does not have to acknowledge video games as an art form in order to recognize that gamer culture is culture. There are creators and critics, consumers and commentators, and above all, communities.

We live in an increasingly interconnected age, but we gamers knew of communities of interest long before we took to the web. Some of the greatest and longest lasting friendships I’ve ever had have been cemented through gaming. Now we’re online, connecting to one another in unprecedented numbers, and having a ton of fun doing it!

 

Cultural Innovation — Putting Together the Pieces

My goal in 2012 is to write at least one paper and try to get it published. The paper I have in mind is inspired by three men, and their corresponding books. These are Friedrich Hayek and The Constitution of Liberty, Thomas Sowell and Knowledge and Decisions, and Everett Rogers and Diffusion of Innovations. I want to put the pieces together in order to make a single, solid argument, but I suspect I’m going to need a few more pieces before I can get there.

F. A. Hayek: Trial and Error and Local Knowledge

At any stage of this process there will always be many things we already know how to produce but which are still too expensive to provide for more than a few. And at an early stage they can be made only through an outlay of resources equal to many times the share of total income that, with an approximately equal distribution, would go to the few who could benefit from them. At first, a new good is commonly “the caprice of the chosen few before it becomes a public need and forms part of the necessities of life. For the luxuries of today are the necessities of tomorrow.” Furthermore, the new things will often become available to the greater part of the people only because for some time they have been the luxuries of the few.

-Friedrich Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty

Hayek argued that everything in human society–from technology to words to ideas to norms–begins its life as something developed and adopted by a small subset of the population. Some tiny fraction of these end up gaining mainstream adoption.

When I read The Constitution of Liberty two years ago, I became enamored by this very simple framework. It seemed an elegant explanation for how cultures evolve over time, through a process of rote trial and error.

On the other hand, I found the fact that Hayek didn’t elaborate on the process any further to be frustrating. If I had my way, I would throw out every last section of that book except the bits on cultural evolution, and have had him make up the other 400 some pages by digging deeper into this concept.

What Hayek is known for more widely is his work on local knowledge. In particular, “The Use of Knowledge in Society” discusses how the price system makes it possible for people to act on their specific knowledge of time and place without needing to get the much more difficult to acquire big-picture knowledge. Speaking of a hypothetical man on the spot, he wrote:

There is hardly anything that happens anywhere in the world that might not have an effect on the decision he ought to make. But he need not know of these events as such, nor of all their effects. It does not matter for him why at the particular moment more screws of one size than of another are wanted, why paper bags are more readily available than canvas bags, or why skilled labor, or particular machine tools, have for the moment become more difficult to obtain. All that is significant for him is how much more or less difficult to procure they have become compared with other things with which he is also concerned, or how much more or less urgently wanted are the alternative things he produces or uses. It is always a question of the relative importance of the particular things with which he is concerned, and the causes which alter their relative importance are of no interest to him beyond the effect on those concrete things of his own environment.

Hayek’s entire worldview was built around the idea of complex human systems which required more knowledge than any one individual within them could possibly have, something that Leonard Read captured more poetically in “I, Pencil“. The process of cultural evolution involved individuals and small groups trying out something new, which is observed by others who decide whether or not that new thing fits in with the particulars of their own circumstances, needs, and taste. In short, it doesn’t require much knowledge to come up with something new, and then an incremental amount of local knowledge is brought to bear as more individuals get exposed to that new thing.

But, as I said, he didn’t develop this system in any real detail.

Thomas Sowell: Knowledge Systems

The unifying theme of Knowledge and Decisions is that the specific mechanics of decision-making processes and institutions determine what kinds of knowledge can be brought to bear and with what effectiveness. In a world where people are preoccupied with arguing about what decision should be made on a sweeping range of issues, this book argues that the most fundamental question is not what decision to make but who is to make it–through what processes and under what incentives and constraints, and with what feedback mechanisms to correct the decision if it proves to be wrong.

-Thomas Sowell, Knowledge and Decisions

Sowell begins Knowledge and Decisions by explicitly recognizing his intellectual debt to Hayek in general and “The Use of Knowledge in Society” in particular. Yet in the book he goes far beyond any level of detail that Hayek provided on the subject, at least that I am aware of.

One of the crucial components of the book is the emphasis on feedback mechanisms.

[F]eedback mechanisms are crucial in a world where no given individual or manageably-sized group is likely to have sufficient knowledge to be consistently right the first time in their decisions. These feedback mechanisms must convey not only information but also incentives to act on that information, whether these incentives are provided by prices, love, fear, moral codes, or other factors which cause people to act in the interest of other people.

Clearly, feedback mechanisms must play a huge role in Hayek’s process of social trial and error. Feedback mechanisms are what determine what is considered “error” and force people to change course. As Sowell explains, they take many forms:

A minimal amount of information–the whimpering of a baby, for example–may be very effective in setting off a parental search for a cause, perhaps involving medical experts before it is over. On the other hand, a lucidly articulated set of complaints may be ignored by a dictator, and even armed uprisings against his policies crushed without any modification of those policies. The social use of knowledge is not primarily an intellectual process, or a baby’s whimpers could not be more effective than a well-articulated political statement.

He added “[f]eedback which can be safely ignored by decision makers is not socially effective knowledge.”

So discerning what outcomes we should expect from the various forms of social trial and error requires identifying the relevant feedback mechanisms. The feedback that potential new words faced takes a very different form than the feedback a new product on the market faces, or a publicly funded project.

The particulars of these feedback mechanisms, along with the incentives and institutional context, determine “what kinds of knowledge can be brought to bear and with what effectiveness” in each given case.

In many ways, Knowledge and Decisions is just good old-fashioned economics–it deals with incentives, with inherent trade-offs, and with scarcity. But it is a particularly Hayekian take on economics, with its focus on the scarcity of knowledge in particular and the role of very localized, difficult to communicate knowledge.

I don’t think Sowell gets nearly enough credit for this work among economists generally or even among Hayekians.

Everett Rogers: Curator of His Field

This book reflects a more critical stance than its original ancestor. During the past forty years or so, diffusion research has grown to be widely recognized, applied, and admired, but it has also been subjected to constructive and destructive criticism. This criticism is due in large part to the stereotyped and limited ways in which many diffusion scholars have defined the scope and method of their field of study. Once diffusion researchers formed an “invisible college” (defined as an informal network of researchers who form around an intellectual paradigm to study a common topic), they began to limit unnecessarily the ways in which they went about studying the diffusion of innovations. Such standardization of approaches constrains the intellectual progress of diffusion research.

Everett Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations, 5th Edition

After I read Constitution of Liberty, I realized that there was probably a literature behind the kind of phenomena that Hayek was talking about. The term “early adopter”, which has become part of the mainstream lexicon, must have come from somewhere. Hayek was unfortunately of little help; he cited old theorists like Gabriel Tarde. While the diffusion literature owed a certain intellectual debt to Tarde, he was writing nearly half a century before the modern field emerged.

I eventually happened upon Diffusion of Innovations, Everett Rogers’ book, the various editions of which basically bookend the entire history of the field in his lifetime. Which is quite helpful, because it began in his lifetime–and the first edition of the book was instrumental in its formation.

Where Hayek and Sowell’s works are within the confines of high theory, Diffusion of Innovations is a thoroughly empirical book, at times painstakingly so. There is not a single concept that Rogers introduces, no matter how simple, which he does not illustrate by summarizing a study or studies which involve an application of that concept.

Rogers helped formalize many of those concepts himself with the first edition of the book, published in 1962, when the literature was pretty sparse and dominated by rural sociologists. Since then, it has expanded across disciplines and in volume of published works. As a result, in the last edition of the book, published only a year before he died, there were many aspects of the diffusion process that had been solidly demonstrated by decades of work.

The books always served as a tool for both introducing the field to those unfamiliar with it, and attempting to steer future work. In the final edition, Rogers highlights not only what the literature has managed to illuminate, but its shortcomings. In short, the book has just about everything you would want if you were attempting to get a sense for what work has been done and what has been neglected.

There are aspects of the diffusion literature which are quite Hayekian. In particular, the emphasis on uncertainty and discovery processes.

One kind of uncertainty is generated by an innovation, defined as an idea, practice, or object that is perceived as new by an individual or another unit of adoption. An innovation presents an individual or an organization with a new alternative or alternatives, as well as new means of solving problems. However, the probability that the new idea is superior to previous practice is not initially known with certainty by individual problem solvers. Thus, individuals are motivated to seek further information about the innovation in order to cope with the uncertainty that it creates.

The various mechanisms which Rogers describes which individuals employ to reduce uncertainty–trying the innovation on a partial basis, or observing how it goes for peers who have adopted the innovation, or measuring the innovation against existing norms, to name a few–can be seen as clear cut cases of economizing on information.

In many ways the diffusion model that Rogers lays out is the detailed system that I wanted Hayek to develop. Rogers discusses so many specific aspects of the process; such as the role of heterogeneity and homogeneity, people who are more cosmopolitan or more localite, the different categories of adopters–including the familiar early adopters–and on and on. Rogers concisely describes and categorizes the various feedback mechanisms against adoption in the system.

On the other hand, the beginning of the process–the actual generation of the innovation–is where the literature is by far the weakest. Rogers cites several who have criticized it for this, and agrees that it is a problem. He points out several attempts that have been made to address this problem, but it’s clear that not nearly as much work has been done nor are the results as solid.

Part of the problem is the historical origins of the field–the diffusion literature began with rural sociology, where innovations were developed in universities who then peddled their wares to American farmers. The single most influential study dealt with the diffusion of hybrid corn, which seemed very clearly to be a quantifiable improvement over its alternatives. As such, many diffusion studies have the perspective of assuming that an innovation should diffuse, that there is some problem with the people who reject rather than adopt.

How did the pro-innovation bias become part of diffusion research? One reason is historical: hybrid corn was very profitable for each of the Iowa farmers in the Ryan and Gross (1943) study. Most other innovations that have been studied do not have this extremely high degree of relative advantage. Many individuals, for their own good, should not adopt many of the innovations that are diffused to them. Perhaps if the field of diffusion research had not begun with a highly profitable agricultural innovation in the 1940s, the pro-innovation bias would have been avoided or at least recognized and dealt with properly.

Moreover, the outline of what he believes is the process by which innovations are generated is a very directed, top-down process. It involves “change agents” that are consciously attempting to solve problems and diffuse some innovations. I’m not arguing against the existence of such agents–they are obviously an extensive part of society, from medical researchers seeking a cure for cancer and pharmaceutical companies attempting to get their drugs mainstream adoption, to Apple coming up with a completely different kind of smartphone and tablet and bringing them to market.

But the change agents, as Rogers and the diffusion literature envision them, are only a part of Hayek’s story of social trial and error. Consider language–new words and phrases emerge all the time and diffuse through a process which I am certain is identical to the one Rogers describes. On the other hand, I highly doubt that there are “change agents” who developed these new words and phrases in a lab somewhere and then promoted them. I think the process is far more organic.

Rogers also discusses the role of norms in terms of how they hinder or help the diffusion of an innovation, but left unsaid I think is that those norms are themselves undoubtedly the product of a previous diffusion. In Hayek and Sowell’s framework, traditions and existing norms emerged in response to trade-offs that needed to be made throughout a culture’s history. As Edmund Burke put it succinctly in Reflections on the Revolution in France:

We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages.

The trial and error process that Hayek envisioned built up that “general bank and capital of nations, and of ages” as societies developed increasingly effective ways to manage their trade-offs.

Rogers does touch on this point of view from a couple of angles. First, he describes the work of Stephen Lansing in uncovering the astonishing effectiveness of the local knowledge contained in the religious hierarchy of Bali, as he described in his book Priests and Programmers. This was a case where the seemingly beneficial innovations of the Green Revolution proved inferior to what seemed like mere superstitious practice.

The Balinese ecological system is so complex because the Jero Gde must seek an optimum balance of various competing forces. If all subaks were planted at the same time, pests would be reduced; however, water supplies would be inadequate due to peaks in demand. On the other hand, if all subaks staggered their rice-planting schedule in a completely random manner, the water demand would be spread out. The water supply would be utilized efficiently, but the pests would flourish and wipe out the rice crop. So the Jero Gde must seek an optimal balance between pest control and water conservation, depending on the amount of rainfall flowing into the crater lake, the levels of the different pest populations in various subaks, and so forth.

When the Green Revolution innovations were introduced to the region, crop yields dropped, rather than increased. This intrigued Lansing.

In the late 1980s, Lansing, with the help of an ecological biologist, designed a computer simulation to calculate the effect on rice yields in each subak of (1) rainfall, (2) planting schedules, and (3) pest proliferation. He called his simulation model “The Goddess and the Computer.” Then he traveled with a Macintosh computer and the simulation model from his U.S. university campus to the Balinese high priest at the temple on the crater lake. The Jero Gde enthusiastically tried out various scenarios on the computer, concluding that the highest rice yields closely resembled the ecological strategies followed by the Balinese rice farmers for the past eight hundred years.

Clearly, Balinese society had arrived at this optimal solution through some process. But Rogers does not delve too deeply into this.

Rogers also acknowledges that the literature may have focused too exclusively on more centralized processes.

In recent decades, the author gradually became aware of diffusion systems that did not operate at all like centralized diffusion systems. Instead of coming out of formal R&D systems, innovations often bubbled up from the operational levels of a system, with the inventing done by certain lead users. Then the new ideas spread horizontally via peer networks, with a high degree of re-invention occurring as the innovations are modified by users to fit their particular conditions. Such decentralized diffusion systems are usually not managed by technical experts. Instead, decision making in the diffusion system is widely shared, with adopters making many decisions. In many cases, adopters served as their own change agents in diffusing their innovations to others.

Though recognizing that such processes exist, it’s clear that the work that has been done on this is much thinner than the more traditional, change agent based research.

Questions That Remain

As I said, all three of these pieces have some holes in them, and those holes aren’t necessarily filled just by putting all of them together.

The next logical step would probably be to seek out more material like Rogers’, where a lot of work has been done and concrete conclusions can be drawn. Any work on how new words and phrases emerge and proliferate would probably be a good start.

Online communities also have many customs, such as hashtags on Twitter and the hat tip among bloggers. The advantage to customs like this is that they leave behind recorded evidence, unlike, say, an oral tradition. We know, for instance, when hashtags first became popularized among Twitter users–it is documented. A great deal of work is being done by communications scholars on subjects such as these; this could also probably provide some more solid leads.

What I want to argue is that innovations are generated in a Hayekian trial and error process, and some subset of them gain mass adoption in the manner described by the diffusion of innovations literature. I want to describe the role that local knowledge plays in that process; how the feedback mechanisms and incentives shape what innovations are generated and which ones ultimately are adopted.

But there’s more research to be done before I can make a case for this thesis that is solid enough for me to be comfortable with.

Homesteading the Open Web

Look at four other social things you can do on the Net (along with the standards and protocols that support them): email (SMTP, POP3, IMAP, MIME); blogging (HTTP, XML, RSS, Atom); podcasting (RSS); and instant messaging (IRC, XMPP, SIP/SIMPLE). Unlike private social media platforms, these are NEA: Nobody owns them, Everybody can use them and Anybody can improve them.

-Doc Searls, Beyond Social Media

Unlike Searls, Zittrain, and many others, I am not greatly bothered by the fact that a huge amount of our social interactions are taking place on privately owned platforms like Facebook or Twitter, and an increasing amount of stuff we used to use the web for is being done on privately owned platforms like iOS. From an economic point of view, I think it’s good for someone to have a vested interest in investing in these platforms.

It cannot be denied, however, that a user of Twitter is much more a tenant than a landlord; they can be kicked off without any reason whatsoever, if the company desires it. Moreover, the consolidation of such a large and distributed platform under one company gives it many of the characteristics of a technology of control. This is obscured by the fact that it has already been the tool of resistance in several countries; and certainly it isn’t straightforwardly one or the other. But Twitter is a single company that hundreds of millions of people are using as a communications platform; it therefore is one big target for regulators and tyrants the world over.

Consider: they recently announced that they created a way to censor tweets in specific countries without removing them globally. They knew that in order to enter certain markets, they would be forced to comply with some less than thrilling local regulations on freedom of expression. As a company, the decision was either to stay out of those markets or comply with the regulations. So they came up with an approach that wouldn’t allow local censorship to extend its reach globally, and they announced it before anyone asked them to use it in an attempt to preempt the bad PR this would inevitably bring.

That will never happen on a blog like mine.

I pay for server space and a domain name, and I use WordPress’s software. If the hosting company tried to mess with me, it is trivial to move to another one. If WordPress makes changes I dislike, or somehow builds tools for censorship into its code, I can swap it for Moveable Type or any number of alternatives. I regularly backup my data, so if someone seized the servers it was on I would not lose it.

In short, I have carved out a small piece of real estate in the open web.

Now, the advantages to platforms like Twitter are undeniable. No one is going to Twitter in order to see what the latest thing I have to say or share is; they go there because everyone they might be interested in hearing from is there. Most of the time this blog sees very little traffic, while I have conversations on Twitter and Facebook basically every day of the week.

Again, unlike Searl, I do not see the rise of these walled garden platforms as onerous. But I do think everyone should consider homesteading the open web; setting up something that is truly theirs that they can invest in over time.

That is part of the reason why, after seven years on Blogger, I decided to jump ship and start this site.

If you’re interested in this but aren’t sure how to proceed, my friend Lauren is offering to help people for free, if you sign up for a Bluehost account through her site. Many hosts have easy, one-click options for installing WordPress after you’ve paid for space, so you probably won’t even have to worry about the technical aspects of installation.

Just as there are benefits to having privately owned platforms, there are definite benefits to having something that you own from end to end.

 

The Diffusion of Innovations

One kind of uncertainty is generated by an innovation, defined as an idea, practice, or object that is perceived as new by an individual or another unit of adoption. An innovation presents an individual or an organization with a new alternative or alternatives, as well as new means of solving problems. However, the probability that the new idea is superior to previous practice is not initially known with certainty by individual problem solvers. Thus, individuals are motivated to seek further information about the innovation in order to cope with the uncertainty that it creates.

-Everett Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations, 5th Edition.

No one can pretend to a comprehensive understanding of human social systems until they have read the latest edition of Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations, or familiarized themselves with the literature it surveys by some other means. This is not to say that you will achieve perfect knowledge of such systems upon completing the book, nor would Rogers have made such a claim. What Rogers provides is a sense of how much has been accomplished in the young field he helped to create, and how many unanswered questions still remain.

The Basics

Image from UNODC

Rogers is relentless in his categorization and definition of concepts in the diffusion model, but some basic notions can be spelled out without resorting to his level of detail.

The contribution of the diffusion literature that has itself diffused widely beyond the field is the concept of the early adopter. Rogers lays out several categories of adopter, including a stage before the earlier adopter, which he calls the “innovator”. Counterintuitively, the innovator is not actually the one who comes up with the innovation, but is simply the very first to adopt it. Then comes the early adopters, followed by the early majority, the late majority, and the laggards.

Studies conducted in different disciplines across a broad range of subjects over a course of decades have consistently found that adoption, plotted over time, looks like the S-shaped curve pictured above. The initial adoption period, during which only the innovators and the early adopters are adopting, begins relatively slowly. The middle period, when the early majority and then the late majority adopt, occurs extremely quickly. Finally, the laggards are the last to the party and even after everyone else has adopted their adoption is quite slow.

The part of the diffusion curve from about 10 percent adoption to 20 percent adoption is the heart of the diffusion process. After that point, it is often impossible to stop the further diffusion of a new idea, even if one wished to do so.

Heterogeneity and homogeneity are crucial components of the social system in which innovations spread. Innovators are standalone individuals who are so different from the rest of the people in the social system that their adoption does nothing to encourage other individuals to adopt the innovation. I used to think that Robert Scoble was the quintessential early adopter, but by Rogers’ terminology I think he is actually an innovator. He tries out absolutely everything, often years before anyone else does. The way he uses the innovations he adopts is often very different from how much later adopters will end up using it. I think few people actually adopt something because the Robert Scobles of the world did it first.

On the other hand, early adopters are different enough that they are more likely to adopt an innovation than the majority, but similar enough to the majority that they are much more likely to follow suit eventually.

Early adopters are a more integrated part of the local social system than are innovators. Whereas innovators are cosmopolites, early adopters are localites.

In spite of what many early 20th century communications thinkers believed, mass media has an insignificant effect on our behavior compared to our peers. Once adoption reaches the “majority”–which Rogers claims accounts for about 68 percent of a population–the adoption rate skyrockets, because the early and late majorities are comprised of a large number of highly homogeneous individuals who are looking to one another for cues about whether the innovation is worth the effort of adopting.

The laggards are the last group to adopt, and their rate of adoption remains quite slow relative to the big upsurge in the middle period of diffusion. One interesting thing I had not realized before reading Diffusion of Innovations is that there usually exists a big socioeconomic gap between early adopters and laggards. This makes a certain sense–the downside risk is smaller for a relatively wealthier person taking on the costs of adopting an untested innovation than it is for a relatively poorer one. The difference between the two categories isn’t always one of wealth, though, but the gap usually does exist in some form of social status.

There is much, much more to it than this basic picture. An enormous amount of work has been done studying the various communication channels through which innovations spread, and the social systems that provide the institutions and context the adopters interpret the innovations from, and just about every aspect of the innovation-generation, diffusion, and implementation processes.

The Book and Its Author

Diffusion of Innovations is an interesting book with an interesting history. I don’t know if it’s really accurate to call what I read the 5th edition, as I get the sense that it is so radically different from the first as to be almost an entirely distinct book. The first edition was published in 1962, with the express intention of unifying the research efforts conducted in disparate academic disciplines and providing a common theoretical framework. The 5th edition was published in 2003 and is just as concerned with criticizing and exposing the flaws in what Rogers calls “the classical diffusion model”–the one he himself was instrumental in formalizing!–as it is with introducing the basics to newcomers.

Rare is the scholar who introduces a theoretical model that becomes the foundation for an entire line of academic research. Rarer still is the scholar who is able to see various critiques and contradictions to his model, accept them, and work to improve the model! Rogers was exceptionally open minded and well read. On the latter count, every theoretical concept introduced in the book is immediately followed up with specific case studies to demonstrate what they mean in practice. He was there at the very beginning of diffusion research and has lived to see it evolve.

My only regret where the book is concerned is that it was not written more recently–at the time it was published, Rogers’ most recent source of information on Internet adoption showed that there were a little over 500 million computers connected to it in the world. Today, over 800 million people are active on Facebook alone! From his Wikipedia page I see that Rogers passed away in 2004–this is truly tragic, as I would have loved to read what he thought about what has transpired on the web in the 9 or so years since the 5th edition was published.

Any scholar of human nature who isn’t familiar with this literature owes it to themselves to read this book.

Parting Ways With 2011

2011 was a year of turmoil and misfortune. Nonbeliever though I am, I am tempted to say that it was a cursed year.

Some would point to the movements, which began in Tunisia and became then Arab Spring, and then spread around the world, and say that 2011 was in fact a year of hope. Unless these movements result in lasting, positive change, however, we will only be able to say that 2011 was a year of great upheaval and unrest.

I wish I could say that I will remember it as the year that I got engaged, but then, it was also the year my fiancée went to the emergency room three times for two complete freak accidents. I wish I could merely remember it as the year we spent five romantic days in San Francisco, culminating in the wedding of our two good friends. However, I cannot remember that without thinking also of the call I received the very last night there informing me that my aunt had passed away at the age of 59. What would have been her 60th birthday came and went earlier this month.

2010 concluded on a joyous note, as family gathered from far and wide to celebrate my grandmother’s 90th birthday. 2011 began with a tragedy, as her brother, 5 years her senior, passed away in early January. It was not unexpected, yet in my short life I’ve already learned that every passing is a surprise, no matter how anticipated. He was a great man, a loving father and uncle, and we were all thankful that he had made through nearly all of his 95 years of life without any mental deterioration whatsoever until near the very end.

I have since heard from friends and family that they lost loved ones and suffered several misfortunes in the first half of the year, but between my granduncle’s passing and the phone call I received in San Francisco, 2011 showed the potential for being a wonderful year.

Knowing me too well to trust my judgment on such matters, Catherine accompanied me to pick out a ring. So we made an appointment, and one Monday in April we took an early morning Bolt Bus up to New York City, where we made our way to a tiny little place in the Diamond District. We picked a beautiful ring, and celebrated with lunch at Le Bernadin. We would keep the trip a secret until I had formally proposed, meaning I had to come up with an excuse when my parents left me a worried voicemail because I hadn’t been flooding Twitter and Facebook the way I do on a typical day.

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When the ring arrived a few weeks later and I proposed, we had a romantic dinner together at Cork, one of our favorite restaurants in the neighborhood. We then went through the age-old process of deciding who needed to be told first, followed by addressing the more modern question of “who do we want to make sure knows about this before we put it on Facebook?”

Once that was taken care of, announcing it on Facebook and Twitter was really very fun. Facebook automatically does this thing where it pulls up pictures that have both of us in it, it was very nice. Of course, the announcement ended up getting slightly overshadowed by a minor event you may have heard about that happened later that evening.

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We had been going back and forth on whether to go out to San Francisco for our friends’ wedding because of how big a commitment such a trip would be, but at a certain point we decided that we just did not want to miss it. So we turned the trip into our vacation. We used Airbnb to find an extremely affordable place to stay for five nights. We reached out to our friends who had lived in San Francisco before, and they reached out to their friends who were still there–and the response was overwhelming. On June 1st, we flew out to San Francisco armed with more than enough information about the restaurant and cultural scene there to ensure we would have a good time.

It was one of the best vacations I have ever had, if for no other reason than I shared it with her. It was also the first time that I was really able to appreciate the food culture of a place I was visiting; before I met Catherine I was an extremely picky eater, and although I had been to Paris and Madrid and elsewhere, I had not even attempted to enjoy the local cuisine. Catherine began broadening my tastes early in our relationship, and by the time we went to San Francisco I was trying everything and anything. It’s a beautiful city and we had a fantastic time. The wedding was wonderful and and a lot of fun, as well.

We were sitting in the little room we had rented in a flat in the Mission District late in the afternoon of June 5th, the day after the wedding and our last day in San Francisco. We were trying to decide what to do for dinner; at that stage in the trip neither of us were feeling very adventurous so we were thinking of what we could do that was close by. In the middle of this discussion I received a call from my mother. I could tell something was wrong, and I was afraid that something had happened to one of my grandparents. Then she told me it was my Aunt Mari, that she was gone.

I don’t really remember the initial explanation she gave me, and I wasn’t much good at conveying the details to Catherine. I was, frankly, in shock. How could this have happened? Catherine and I spent our last evening in San Francisco in a quiet, mostly empty wine bar, not far from where we were staying, trying not to think too much about the news which seemed bigger than my mind could begin to absorb.

2011 will always be the year that my Aunt Mari died.

The year did not go well after that, either. I don’t feel comfortable talking about all of it here out of respect for the privacy of the particular individuals, but several of our loved ones have struggled with health problems–physical, mental, and emotional. One of my best friends in the world had an anxiety attack on a scale that she had never experienced before. Several members of both of our families have ended up in hospitals. Catherine herself was there three times–once because she was hit by someone on a bicycle, and the other times after she accidentally splashed boiling water on herself. There is much about the year after our return from San Francisco that was truly wretched.

However, I am not so blind as to miss how lucky we really are, through all of this.

Much of our pain is the pain of seeing the people we love suffer, yet this is an unavoidable part of having so many wonderful people in our lives, from family to friends. The tragedies that have happened this year have shown me how truly lucky I am to know such truly good people. I am so proud to be joining Catherine’s family; the way they came together to support one another this year was very humbling. From friends and family alike, I saw people commit acts of love and kindness, big and small, for those who were hurting.

There is no one who I knew in January that I think less of now in December as a result of what transpired in between. 2011 was a troubling, awful year, but I wouldn’t have chosen to navigate through it with any other group of people than the ones I had.

I hope the journey we take through 2012 is a better, brighter one, but either way I am eternally grateful for the people I will be taking it with.