Sunday, September 23, 2007

A real live field note

The other day I was walking past a field and saw two deer -- a doe and a fawn. This was in an area where the deer had no reason to fear people, so I was able to come fairly close without scaring them off. As I approached, I noticed the doe looking at me. I watched her as she took a few steps off toward the woods, then a few more, then a few more, before breaking into a slow trot.

I had been so absorbed in this that I completely lost track of the fawn. I looked back to the field. It was no longer there. When I finally spotted it in the trees, it was already well away. When it saw I'd seen it, it ran off.

At which point I realized I'd been played. The whole point was for the mother to catch my attention so the fawn could sneak off. To do this, the doe had not only to see me, but be sure that I saw her. The same scene has played out, in various forms, for millions of years. The "Who's watching me?" detector (and similar ones like "Do they see me?" and "Do they know I can see them?") have probably been around about as long as eyes have.

So what exactly does this have to do with the web? This sort of awareness and awareness of awareness is one of the key themes in Michael Chwe's book, Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge, which poses questions such as
  • How can a public declaration have political consequences even when it says something that everyone already knows?
  • Why were circular forms considered ideal for public festivals during the French revolution?
  • Why was the advertising during the Barbara Walters television interview of Monica Lewinsky dominated by Internet companies?
  • Why are close friendships important for collective action even though people typically "reach'' many more people through casual acquaintances?
and "tries to answer these and other questions with a single argument, trying to find a common thread among a variety of cultural and social practices usually thought disparate."

The answers, Chwe persuasively argues, are founded in the notion of "common knowledge" -- things that we all know, and that we all know we all know.

Much of Chwe's work involves social networks, knowledge and identity, all viewed through the lens of economics. Good stuff.

("Chwe" is pronounced sort of like "Chet" without the "t")

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