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Co-operatively solving the prisoner’s dilemma

Co-operatively solving the prisoner’s dilemma

Listening to a back edition of Seth Godin’s Akimbo podcast “Game Theory & the Infinite Game”, it struck me that a co-operative is, by design, an attempt to collectively escape the prisoner’s dilemma.

To recap the parameters of the ‘game’, two people are caught red-handed for a crime. They are going to serve a year’s jail-time for this. But they are wanted for a bigger crime too. So they are each offered a way out of jail-time, rat on your partner for the bigger crime and you will go free but your partner will get 50 years. The trouble is that if they both sing, then they will both get 5 years.

The expectation is that the rational selfish response will be to rat on the other. In practice, humans have demonstrated a systemic bias to co-operate – we seem to understand that the pursuit of single-minded self-interest can lead to a bad outcome for all.

So now I have added The Evolution of Cooperation by Robert Axelrod to my reading list (here for the abridged version). This book reports on a Prisoner’s Dilemma tournament where he invited game theory experts to submit programs that would be paired off against each other to see which did best over repeated interactions.

“Amazingly enough, the winner was the simplest of all candidates submitted.
This was a strategy of simple reciprocity which cooperates on the
first move and then does whatever the other player did on the previous

He called it the Tit-for-Tat strategy.

By analysing the top-scoring strategies, Axelrod stated several conditions necessary for a strategy to be successful:

  • Nice – Almost all of the top-scoring strategies were nice, that is, it will not defect before its opponent does.
  • Retaliating – A successful strategy must not be a blind optimist. It must sometimes retaliate to avoid being exploited by others..
  • Forgiving – Though players will retaliate, a successful strategy will once again fall back to cooperating if the opponent does not continue to defect. This stops long runs of revenge and counter-revenge.
  • Non-envious – The best strategies did not strive to score more than the opponent.

Whether the players trust each other or not is less important in the long run than whether the conditions are ripe for them to build a stable pattern of cooperation with each other. The successful strategy learns through trial-and-error that it is better to co-operate than not.

Some lessons here for co-operative design!

What is good data governance?

What is good data governance?

Governance is a hashtag that has been growing in popularity.  So it’s great to see the coop sector responding with the BCCM’s impending release of Co-operative and Mutual Enterprise Governance Principles for the Australian co-op and mutual sector. And folk like Coop News dedicating a Governance Edition to analyse the subject.

We’re interested in how this emerging thinking applies to data.

Data governance is the mechanism through which values and expectations with respect to data can be translated into effective management practices.

Good governance is a function of the clarity of shared intent and trust in expected behavior. As Dee Hock writes: “This is not to say that contracts, laws, and regulations do not serve a purpose. Rather it is to point out that…rules and regulations, laws and contracts, can never replace clarity of shared purpose and clear, deeply held principles about conduct in pursuit of that purpose.”

By these definitions, good data governance is broader than legal frameworks or codes of practice – it bridges the gap between the expectations and values that folk have with respect to their data, and the mechanisms by which these are made tangible. It encompasses legal documentation and decision-making protocols that are agreed between the actors involved. And it includes the social interactions that enable these to be made real.

The Cambridge Analytics seraglio exposed the under-belly of the market that preys on our data. And the GDPR has done wonders for focussing attention on data management practices. Next step is to get some clarity around the governance practices that will lay the foundation for better matching of expectations with practice.

PS – An example of a emerging model for personal data, Sovrin have a pretty comprehensive Trust Framework



My non-fungible token is my home

Tokens are migrating to the mainstream. CryptoKitties has demonstrated how the blockchain can extend beyond money into real-world ‘things’. it doesn’t sound like a big leap to enable me to own my own digital cat, but it has the potential to be a whole lot more useful than digital currencies alone.

With CryptoKitties, I can have a cat and that cat belongs to me. If the developers stop supporting the front-end that enables me to look after my cat, it doesn’t change the immutable fact that the cat exists and is mine. I can use someone else’s front-end and my cat will waiting for me. Even better other developers can build other ways of interacting with my cat – my cat can have a hat and that hat belongs to the cat and not me – and the original developers can’t stop this from happening.

This conversation with one of the creators of CryptoKitties Dieter Shirley is good – he is a lucid thinker. Really liked the way he described the potential future for ‘non-fungible tokens’ (and his self-confessed struggle with coming up for a new word for ‘thing’ which must be one of the oldest word in any language).

Once we have things that can exist in their own right on a blockchain, then we have the basis for a whole heap of applications. Dieter talks about something that you earn that contributes to your status – for example, only people who attended a Kanye concert can get a certain token. Collect 10 of these tokens and you graduate to a gold token. This mechanism can send a strong social signal – it’s a form a digital self-expression the way our vinyl record collection used to be. This is exactly the type of mechanism that we are hunting for in regards to ‘reward-for-effort’ tokens in the cooperative space.

The biggest hurdles to mass market solutions are solving the currently very high technical barriers around on-boarding and know-your-customer compliance. And beyond that the scaling problems with ethereum. As Dieter explains ‘we’re running the network on the equivalent of an Apple IIe’… Ah, brings back memories, I loved my IIe.