Free-Goodness Model

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Current Technological support for free–goodness

Brian Whitworth and Alex P. Whitworth:

The conflict between individual selfishness and public good morals has been around as long as humanity itself, but modern technology magnifies the issues.

In this model, human evolution occurs when social and technical advances go hand–in–hand. Technical inventions like printing helped spread social inventions like democracy which then enabled technical innovations like the Internet which today allow further social invention. It is the combination of social and technical evolution that is succeeding today. A new generation of online technologies is allowing the social innovation of open access at sites like SourceForge and Wikipedia. These “socio–technologies” are a new social form, as well as a new technical one.

As online citizens come and go at will, engaging synergy becomes as important as defenses against anti–social acts. This changes the social lens, from people as selfish, ignorant primitives to be bribed or controlled by the arbiters of society (Rules 1 and 2), to people as free citizens whose competence and kindness need only to be activated (Rule 3). Indeed if users were purely selfish, systems like Wikipedia or SourceForge could not succeed, as no one would give away their work to others for no profit.

Hence the Internet has led to new business models based on public service. Yet research on trust still largely frames the business problem as how to manipulate customers to trust and buy. Even if this were possible, customers would lose money buying foolish things. Such customers die out, economically speaking, and their business dies with them. Seeking propaganda to create stupid customers is neither desirable, sensible, nor sustainable.

Community–based business models change the goal from tricking customers out of their money to working with them to create sustainable synergy. Instead of customers being sheep to be herded and fleeced, they are invited into the business house, as partners in joint value creation. In systems like eBay and Amazon, reputation, review and feedback systems generate customer value. Google illustrates the power of this approach, as what began as a free public service now rivals Microsoft in influence. The Google motto, “Don’t be evil”, clearly works. However, communities are not built as bridges are, by putting parts together, but emerge naturally from social interactions and growing trust and social health. One should not “manage” citizens by manipulating them,

A feature of today’s online communities is the willingness of individuals to help others they have never met before and may never meet again, e.g., experts helping others with hardware problems on online boards or people reviewing movies for others on Netflix. No selfish rule alone can explain this. Yet it is common in physical society too; urban dwellers will give lost visitors directions even though they will probably not see these strangers again. That people willingly help others for no reward is distinct from Smith’s argument that people seeking selfish rewards in markets unconsciously help society. Here even if individual rewards are not available, a positive urge for social value remains. In BitTorrent, users help each other download files yet they could just download and leave. In open source initiatives like FLOSS (free, libre, open source software) and community sites like SourceForge, people freely give their work to others (synergy) provided they don’t copyright or sell it (defect).

Socio–technical systems succeed because people made free by the nature of online interaction, are still willing to be good citizens and contribute to social synergy. The socio–technical invitation to be a “small hero”, to do small acts of selfless service, is taken up. In this, the democratization of heroism, community citizens freely give their time and effort to help others (Rule 3b). If the free–good citizen rule was invalid, socio–technical systems could not succeed.

This then is new. We knew from history that enforced order enables synergy, as the pyramids of Egypt attest. We also know today that markets can incentivize synergy, given legal systems to prevent injustice. However it was not generally known, or even suspected, that people not coerced, controlled or enticed could freely synergize in a stable way. We knew that people could be forced to work together, brainwashed to follow social rules, or threatened or bribed to be a social unit, but not that they would freely act together to generate synergy. Yet the fact is that when systems like Wikipedia threw themselves upon the goodwill of online humanity, they didn’t just survive, they prospered."

The emergence of Free good citizens

"What then is the rationale behind this? It is proposed that as anchoring social good and invoking self–interest gave the free market successes of last century, so anchoring individual good and invoking community interest is giving us the socio–technical successes of today. If so, the latter is not just a technical change. That technology can support productive “virtue” is both an important technical discovery and also an important social discovery, with implications for all humanity (Benkler and Nissenbaum, 2006).

The implication is that modern socio–technology depends as much on social health as on technology. The democracies of today were not just unthinkable a thousand years ago, but also unworkable. Even if an all powerful being gave today’s freedoms to yesterday’s citizens, they would still probably not have succeeded. For example, the French Revolution’s “liberté, égalité, fraternité” soon reverted to the anarchy of Madame Guillotine, then the autocracy of Emperor Napoleon. Social growth can be neither given nor enforced, but is a fruit only possible if the people are “ripe”. Yet today, democracies work so well we find it hard to see why our predecessors ever settled for less.

The socio–technical systems that now transform the Web (Kolbitsch and Maurer, 2006) differ from physical society in being more open to everyone, more transparent in action, more freely participative, more democratic in control and more community focused. The members of these systems generally oppose all forms of social control, whether the denying of acts (repression), or the denying of ideas (censorship), or the imposing of acts (coercion), or the imposing of ideas (propaganda). They see themselves and others as adults, not children, who will act rightly if left alone to do so.

This is not capitalism, as value is given for free. It is not communism, as individuals can differ from the collective. It is not socialism, as competent individuals can take value and give nothing back. It is not anarchy, as anti–social defenses oppose disorder. It is not altruism, as no one must sacrifice for the community good. It is not liberalism, as citizens seek not freedom from society’s demands but to be part of a community. It is not progressivism, as no one dares to presume to change others, to make politically correct choices for them, or tell others how to live their life. Socio–technical systems, it is here argued, are a new technology–based social form."

What's next: adapting the model to society as a whole

"Autocratic social systems that coerce citizens are already seen as outdated, but capitalist systems that incentivize individuals may also be ending their dominance. While it is true that if one offers peanuts one gets monkeys, it is also true that if one offers honey, one gets wasps.

It is time to try something new. Instead of bribing or forcing individuals to virtue, let the incentive simply be that it manifestly works. Socio–technical systems do this by decentralizing control, making actions transparent to others, letting people freely participate, making the system open to all, supporting legitimate rights like privacy and encouraging the common good. Systems that everyone sees working have no need for propaganda. Systems that employ no rewards offer few temptations to steal or cheat. Systems that are not centrally controlled are harder to hijack. Systems where acts are transparent can name and shame the corrupt or inept in the court of community opinion. Systems that aim for the common good have an aim that everyone can agree on.

If such systems work online, can they work anywhere? As technology learns from society to be more social, can society learn from technology to be more open? Can a nation without reward tokens, run by no person or clique, open to all, defended by all, ever actually work? The Internet says yes, but the jury is still out on whether it is possible in the larger society, as it depends on both the social health and practical competence of its citizens, both to discern good and choose it.

This model predicts the rise of independent voters, sitting between the traditional right and left wings of politics, and who already decide many elections. Traditional parties call them “swing voters”, but they are just free voters who decide each case on its merits. Members of this party of free choice accept no conventions, agree to no rules, follow no formats and believe in no final solutions or utopias. To them, every political vote should be a conscience vote, as they hold that:

a) I am free. I am not a slave to anyone else, however righteous or powerful.

b) I am good. I seek the benefit of others as well as myself.

c) I am a citizen. I am not alone, but part of a larger group.

Free–good citizens reject personal power, selfish profit and community control as evolutionary dead–ends that have been tried and failed. They hold that each person should freely do what they think is best, and let others also do so, as while some may err most will not. Simply put, they believe in “us”. When people openly talk and interact, as science should, it is felt that the truth will always win out in the end. Conversely, what harmful plan is so secret that someone somewhere does not know of it, and can tell others? If humanity can use technology to tap the social goodness of its many “small heroes”, whose lineage has already given us civilization, it can further transform itself. If freedom is the price of individual evolution, and goodness the price of social evolution, the socio–technical experiment suggests that humanity can have both. Beyond grand social schemes of domination and the anarchy of selfishness is the original human spirit of freely doing what is best." (