Collective action


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Yesterday I had lunch with Howard Rheingold, author and visionary. It was a small and intimate gathering of students and faculty from the IT department, organized by Professor Liz Lawley, prior to his lecture that evening as part of the Liberal Arts department's Gannett series of lectures: Globalization, Human Rights, and Citizenship.

Thought provoking and stimulating, Howard is a fascinating person to listen to because much of what he says has to do with emerging technological trends and their impact on sociological behavior. Although I have very little knowledge of sociology and of the many terms and concepts he brought up, it is still intriguing to hear what he has to say simply because what he observes and writes about affects us all.

In particular, he is currently gathering his thoughts and ideas for his next book which will be on the topic of emergent collective action: tendencies towards acting in cooperation with others even though motivation is generally self-preservationistic. And while sitting in the Webb Auditorium last evening listening to his talk, I couldn't help but feel that I was participating in a form of collective action even while he was talking about it:

Several minutes into Howard's speech, a woman entered the auditorium late and chose to sit in the only available seat in the row in which I was sitting, right next to me. I found it difficult to pay attention to Howard as she removed her coat and adjusted it behind her so that she was comfortable. For what seemed like several minutes, questions popped into my head like: "Why did she decide to sit in the middle of the auditorium knowing the lecturer's talk had already begun?" and "Wasn't she cognizant that it was likely she would be disrupting those around her?" and "Why did she continue to be disruptive by adjusting herself once she sat down?" She was evidently oblivious to the impact she was having on others.

Furthermore, after she was settled it became apparent that she was suffering from a nasty persistent cough. Another reason, I thought, not to plop one's self in the middle of a group of people already engaged in an activity. It became so distracting, this cough of hers, that I began wishing I had brought with me one of the many cough drops I keep in a little basket on my desk at home. How selfish of me to begin thinking of ways to quiet her down, I thought.

Then it dawned on me: I did have some spearmint lifesavers in my coat pocket that would be quite suitable for quieting her nasty cough. So, I reached into my coat and offered one to the woman who was then very appreciative and thankful for the offer while taking one from the roll.

That was virtually the end to her cough and an epiphany for me: through my rather simple display of collective action, I was able to improve the immediate situation for myself and those around me. Motivated by selfish desire to engage in Howard's talk uninterrupted, I removed myself from my irritation long enough to see that by helping the woman, I was also helping myself.

I plan to ponder more on the topic of collective action, of which I'm also seeing via the flocking and schooling simulations in the Muti-User Media Spaces class, and also follow Howard Rheingold's progress towards the publication of his next book.

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