Law in the Internet Society

FoldIt and "Citizen Science"

-- By AaronChan - 19 Oct 2011

Online Models of Volunteerism

Information access does not need to be unidirectional. Instead of traditional broadcast models, information is a two-way street on the Internet. Online access is a tool for empowerment, not just by giving power to users, but also in allowing them to contribute. The Web is now a vast depository of human knowledge; it can be leveraged for greater societal goals. For example, the success of Wikipedia demonstrates what can be accomplished with collaborative experience.

Why does Wikipedia work? Under traditional capitalistic models, it should not. There is no payment, no remuneration for the hours upon hours editors put into it, yet it still exists and is constantly improved. The problem with understanding the new Information Goods Society where marginal cost of informational goods is zero is in grafting old models of compensation that ill fit the reality of online collaboration.

Is it na´ve to believe that people will contribute to the greater good merely out of their desire to improve the human condition? The failure of communism in practice was in the old economy where marginal cost does not equal zero. In the Informational Goods Society, economic models of compensation hold less weight. Eben speaks to this in the dotCommunist Manifesto.

This is just apple-polishing. There's no actual reason to be citing my writing here. There's also no "failure of communism" to discuss. Communism didn't fail, because there never was communism anywhere. You will have some recollection, I'm sure, that communism was the end stage of socialism, after the "withering away of the state." The 20th century "socialist" regimes had little enough to do with socialism, and nothing to do with anything that presupposed the non-existence of the State. The euphemism employed in the USSR was "presently existing socialism," which speaks volumes,

If compensation is not the model in the Informational Goods Society, then what is the main motivation for work?

How did the existence of monetarily uncompensated activity become "compensation is not the model"? Do you mean "not the exclusive model"? In that case the latter part of the sentence makes no sense, because what is not the exclusive model might still be the "main motivation." In fact, this "death of compensated work" meme is wrong, and the logic overall needs tighter editorial scrutiny.

Michael Goldhauber suggests that motivation on the Internet is driven by reputation.

He's Goldhaber. Editing includes both fact-checking and proofreading

This is further refined by Rishab Aiyer Ghosh, who reapplies economic concepts to the Internet.

What's the refinement? If it was worth citing, it must be worth stating. Name-dropping serves no purpose here.

Yet whatever the form the remuneration takes, it is still premised on a quid pro quo. Yet reputation would lose its incentivizing effect as the activity becomes increasingly dispersed and individual contributions are further anonymized. This is precisely the environment necessary to harness the widest participation. I focus instead on the frequently overlooked incentives of satisfying human curiosity, problem solving, and amusement as driving forces for scientific research.

If that's what you "focus on," why are we more than 30% of the way through the essay before we hear about it for the first time?

These incentives drive the human attraction to games. Harnessing these incentives joins gaming with research in a way that channels mindless diversion into productive causes.

Games and Citizen Science

FoldIt is computer game designed by University of Washington researchers that allows players to design protein structures by folding amino acids. Given the complexity of folding dozens, if not hundreds, of amino acids into viable protein structures, brute force computing power would not be a practical way of solving the problem with the current technology. Humans have an advantage in recognizing patterns and certain three-dimensional spatial intuitions that computers cannot currently simulate. What had stumped scientists for more than a decade, a retrovirus protease in rhesus monkeys, was solved by a worldwide consortium of players in ten days. The vast majority of these players had little biology or chemistry experience, relying only on the rules of the game as dictated by real physics. The discovery of the retroviral protease has been published in a scientific journal, naming a team of players, the FoldIt Contenders Group (FCG), as coauthors. In an interview with one of the FCG members, “mimi” preferred to be credited pseudonymously or anonymously. The main motivation for many of these players was advancement of science, not fame or recognition. They were not paid for their participation; many simply wanted a challenge and to work towards something big.

Video games, at their most fundamental level, are sets of puzzles. Why create arbitrary puzzles when real life puzzles exist with greater implications for their completion?

For proprietary game producers, because there is more money to be made from sex and violence than there is from science. This is an example of the distortion of technology by capitalism. The primary mechanism of the essay at this point appears to be to assume the realities away.

FoldIt is only one of several other projects collectively grouped together as “citizen science.” These projects crowdsource because they benefit from certain human attributes that are not duplicable in computers currently.

Yochai Benkler’s paper Coase’s Penguin, or, Linux and the Nature of the Firm evaluates the motivations for contribution to the open software movement. He identifies the spontaneous creativity birthed when components from production are “sufficiently small grained, and the cost of connecting people to projects sufficiently low thanks to cheap network connections.” By breaking difficult project into discrete consumable parts and make participation as least cumbersome as possible, crowdsourced projects can harness the creative spark in a wide participatory network. While this phenomenon has been documented before, I suggest that there is an additional incentive that is a driving factor for FoldIt—specifically, gaming taps into satisfying human curiosity, problem solving, and diversion.

Is that an incentive, a motive, emergent human behavior? Does it matter? What's the psychology here? You seem to want us to understand that you're not using the thin psychology of the economist, but you don't actually give us any sight of the model of human behavior you are using. In what system of thinking about human behavior is diversion an incentive, or curiosity a motive? Don't you need to ask what the incentives are for solving problems or the motives for diverting oneself in one way rather than another?

Tapping into the non-gaming online behavior has been a critical model for the success of such projects as Google, which reinforces its search algorithms based on the conduct of its users.

Is this what we mean by "learning"? Or even "existing"? "Tapping into behavior" is what organisms do, right?

But given the tremendous amount of energy devoted to quick and simple online games (Farmville at its peak had 83 million monthly active users) some of that mindless clicking can be channeled into more productive projects.

What does the adjective "productive" mean here? Producing more diversion? Producing less curiosity? Producing more profits for drug companies?

People naturally seek out fun and challenges.

Umm, are you sure?

It takes what Benkler calls an “integrator” to manage those clickstreams and combine the discrete component functions. He identifies four mechanisms for solving the integration problem.

  1. Iterative peer production of the integration function itself
  2. Technical solutions embedded in the collaboration platform
  3. Norm-based social organization
  4. Limited reintroduction of hierarchy or market forces to provide the integration function alone.
Though the last mechanism would run the risks of the firm, real-life examples in open software, such as Mozilla and Red Hat have shown its value.

What is the similarity between Mozilla, which is a non-profit primary producer of free software, and Red Hat, which is a commercial organization supplying combinations of free software, almost all of which they don't produce, to businesses? Perhaps some actual attention to the facts would make this illustration informative, but at present it seems more confusing than illuminating, at least to a reader who actually knows what these things are.

For scientific research, the first three mechanisms may not be appropriate unless the players are all sophisticated because it would require a high level integrator to atomize the tasks and divine larger meaning from their outcomes.

I don't understand this statement. What does it mean with respect to MarsClickworkers? , the example that Benkler uses, or the anthrax detoxifier that was an initial example of folding proteins at home? Technical integration measures embedded in the collaboration platform don't seem to require "sophistication" from users. And what has that to do with "norm-based social organization"?

The reintroduction of the firm for the purposes of integration does not necessarily have to be completely noncommercial.

Indeed. One supposes it wasn't meant to imply "non-commercialness" at all. Why do you suppose it does?

Scientists can team up with game developers to create a saleable video game with puzzles that have real-life applications.

Why should "saleability" be relevant? Now we have gone from "needn't be non-commercial" to "must be commercial" without any reasoning.

The game developers are not looking to control the outcome of their puzzles; they only seek to provide the highest level of amusement.

No. They only seek to achieve the highest level of profitability. Whether that lies in producing "the highest level of amusement" is completely obscure to me, and gets no argument from you.

Scientists may benefit from game designers who can help craft seemingly mind-numbing research tasks into appealing challenges and puzzles.

What? Where did this idea of "crafted puzzles" come from? The puzzle originally proposed was the actual problem: folding a protein following particular rules to achieve a given shape. The "video game" is the physical chemistry visualization software. There's no "game-designer" involved. To describe these as "video games" is imprecise. They're not technically remotely like the games produced by entities like Electronic Arts, nor are they web services like Zynga products, nor even like the world's 900 million Tetris clones. A little attention to the technical issues might be helpful.

Overall, it feels to me like the draft has wandered somewhat off center. It is still difficult to tell what the main idea is. Even what you say is the primary focus of the essay doesn't appear until graf after graf has come and gone. I suggested looking at Benkler in order to further develop your own ideas; now we have a longish summary of Benkler that nonetheless manages to leave out most of his ideas without, apparently, much furthering your own.

The first draft gave us the material that underlies your thinking. In the second draft I hoped for your thinking. That apparently must, however, await the third.



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r6 - 16 Dec 2011 - 19:46:01 - EbenMoglen
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