The Cooperation Revolution

By Howard Rheingold
photo Howard Rheingold in Tokyo  [Justin Hall]

When I started investigating the nature of cooperation, I kept running into a familiar story about human behavior. Humans are particularly adept at telling themselves what kind of creatures they are, and these narratives have proved tenacious and potent. When the stories people fervently believe about the nature of human nature change, lives and civilizations change. When the old tale about the flat Earth was replaced by the story of a globe you can sail around, people discovered new worlds. When the story about the Earth being the center of the universe changed to one about the sun-centered universe, the scientific revolution erupted. We're still experiencing the shocks from the new narratives Darwin and Freud detonated in the 19th and 20th centuries. I see a new transformation afoot, catalyzed in part by technology, but driven primarily by social practices: a cooperation revolution.

What if the story we tell ourselves and teach our children today about the way humans get things done has been fundamentally wrong for centuries?

You'll recognize the old story: Biology is war, in which only the fiercest survive. Businesses and nations succeed only by dominating or defeating others. Politics is about your side winning at all costs.

[©Ed Holub/Getty Images]

Recent scientific research and bottom-line economic realities both point to a very different scenario emerging, however. New evidence from the pragmatic world of business fits well with new findings in the sciences: from the subcellular level to that of markets and civilizations, humans and other creatures accomplish the tasks of life far more cooperatively than the "survival of the fittest" myth that previous centuries have tried to portray. Cells do it. Ecosystems do it. And people have grown uniquely capable at ways of coordinating, cooperating, collaborating for mutual benefit.

Humans have been tapping the power of cooperation for a long time. Indeed, according to the "social instincts" hypothesis, cooperation played an important role when our primate ancestors evolved into humans. But we haven't known much about this power until recently. It is hardly the first case where our ability to do something preceded understanding of how to do it. Humans have thrown rocks for much longer than we've known anything about muscles or ballistics. However, knowing how muscles work won't make you stronger--whereas learning something about how humans cooperate might make it possible to create culture, build enterprises, transact, govern and socialize in ways never possible before.

Three Stories

Three friends of mine, Brian Behlendorf, Jimmy Wales and Larry Harvey, could tell you that understanding cooperation has practical consequences. When Netscape went public and the World Wide Web became big business, Brian rallied a worldwide network of programmers to voluntarily create and maintain free software for putting sites on the Web. The Apache webserver is now 50 percent of the market, and is the basis for IBM's web software. He is a real altruist, and Brian knows that in sharing economies, altruism can work in one's own interest--his company, CollabNet, makes a healthy profit teaching enterprises how to use open source techniques to become more productive.

Wales, a former options trader, convinced thousands of people around the world to help him create Wikipedia, a free, volunteer-created encyclopedia of nearly 10 million articles in over 250 languages.

Harvey started building a big wooden man and burning it on a beach with a few friends; today, the Burning Man festival constitutes the fourth largest city in Nevada for a week every summer, when 40,000 people come together on a dry lakebed, provide everything a city of 40,000 people requires, display (and burn) huge works of art and leave the desert as clean as they found it.

Who would have thought, a few years ago, that a 23-year-old programmer and his friends, working for no economic incentive, could create and give away an essential building block for the World Wide Web? Or that volunteers could even dream of achieving Wales's goal of "a free encyclopedia for everyone on Earth, in their native language"? Or that a city of 40,000 people could self-organize itself annually in one of the most physically hostile environments on Earth?

New Networks

Understanding cooperation can change your life. I know that my own life, career and way of viewing the world began to change 20 years ago, when I found the power of what I called "virtual communities." The night that my wife found a tick on our daughter's head and I got an answer from my online friends about how to deal with them before she got a callback from our pediatrician was a major illumination for us about the cooperation-amplifying properties of social cyberspace. But in 1986, Netscape, Wikipedia, eBay were unimaginable. Nowadays, most people who use the Internet have had the experience of turning to an online chat room, e-mail list or discussion board to find technical, emotional, even medical support.

photo One of the many art installations at the 2007 Burning Man festival  [©SCOTT LONDON]

The trail of evidence started in the sciences, but recent powerful developments in the worlds of politics, business and civic affairs have convinced me that a new picture of cooperation is coming into view. I see new ways of discovering knowledge, creating wealth, managing political governance emerging right now, in the era of the always-on and in your pocket Internet. I can see the outlines of a new way of thinking about our personal strategies, about our social relationships in families and communities, in our civic and political institutions, our businesses, our means of producing wealth and culture.

I first started piecing together new findings in biology, sociology, economics and political science six or seven years ago, when I was writing Smart Mobs, about the way people were using mobile telephones and the Internet to organize collective action. It occurred to me, as I looked broadly at such different enterprises as Napster, eBay, SETI@home and Wikipedia, that these technological, cultural, economic phenomena were all expressions of new forms of collective action that became possible through the technical infrastructure provided by PCs and the Internet, but were driven by new human-invented social contracts.

In the 1990s we began to see changes in our social systems driven by the growing use of personal computers and the rise of the Internet. Now that the mind-augmenting computers and community-linking networks are in place around the world, accessible through devices that billions of people carry in their pockets, the effects shift from technology-enabled to human-driven: at this point, the way people organize economic production, create and distribute culture and knowledge, manage global and local business enterprises and influence political processes is where the action is, not on the LCD screens or in the microprocessors, optic cables or wireless hotspots. The technology, four decades in the making, is a platform for human endeavor. Now, the biologist and sociologist have more to tell us than the electrical engineer about how the cyber-amplified, wirelessly linked populations of the Earth are going to build upon this platform.

Howard Rheingold is the author of a number of books exploring the cultural, social and political implications of modern communications media. His Cooperation Commons website ( is an ongoing interdisciplinary investigation of cooperation and collective action in collaboration with the Institute for the Future. See also: