dan_sperber's picture
Social and Cognitive Scientist; CEU Budapest and CNRS Paris; Co-author (with Deirdre Wilson), Meaning and Relevance; and (with Hugo Mercier), The Enigma of Reason
Social and cognitive scientist; Directeur de Recherche, CNRS, Paris; Author, Rethinking Symbolism

Altruism on the Web

Had the question been, "What are you pessimistic about?" I would have answered: If there is any progress in human wisdom (and, yes, I suppose there is) it is pathetically slow, while ever faster technological advances provide the means for self-righteous, unwise people with power, wealth, or charisma to cause greater and greater havoc. I don't alas have any equally broad and compelling reasons to be optimistic about the future of humankind. Humans, however, are full of surprises, many of them excellent, arousing new hopes every day.

"From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs," so did Marx define communism. Outside of narrow kinship or friendship groups, this kind of altruistic sharing of resources has hardly ever been encountered, and it is not difficult to understand why: Such a utopia, however attractive, is quite impractical. Yet, with the advent of the new information technologies and in particular of the Web, a limited form of informational 'communism' that no one had predicted has emerged and is fast developing. A vast array of technological, intellectual and artistic creations, many of them of outstanding quality, are being made freely available to all according to their needs by individuals working according to the best of their abilities and often seeking self-realization even more than recognition. I have in mind the freeware, the wikis, the open source programs, the open access documents, the million of blogs and personal pages, the online text, image, and music and libraries, the free websites catering to all kind of needs and constituencies. Who had been optimistic enough to expect not just the existence of this movement, but its expansion, its force, its capacity to rival commercial products and major businesses and to create new kinds of services, blogs for instance, of great social and cultural import even if of limited economic value?

Cynics or realists—call them what you want—might say: Economic benefit is still the main force driving innovation. Gifted disinterested amateurs—if that is truly what they are—are a welcome anomaly spurring competition, but what matter to the end user is the utility of the product. A cheaper product, and a fortiori a free one, is preferable, everything else being equal, but businesses, by providing extra quality worth the cost, make it sure that everything is rarely equal. So let us praise innovation wherever it comes from, paying the price when justified and mouthing a word of praise when it comes free. But let us not read too much—informational communism? Give me a break—into a probably ephemeral sociological oddity. As many others have noted, the economics of information are peculiar, if only because you can give information without losing it and you may gain from giving it as much or more as from receiving it. Applying a standard economic model to the movement of information on the Web may not be the best science (actually, applying a standard economic model to standard economic situations may not be the best science either).

I am optimistic about the development of both individual and collective forms of altruism on the Web. Moreover, I believe that what we see on the Web has more diffuse counterparts in society at large. The Web is a network of networks where, at every individual node, many communities overlap, and where local allegiances have at best a weak hold. The World Wide Web is the most dynamic and visible manifestation, and a driving force of a world that is itself becoming one wide web. In this world, more and more altruistic acts—acts that had in ancestral times been aimed just at one's kin, and later extended to tribe, sect, or country—may now, out of sensible sense of common destiny, be intended for the benefit of all. No Hallelujah however. If our destiny is indeed ever more common, it is because we all stand to suffer from the misdeed of a few as much as to benefit from the generous actions of many.