[ExI] Status Competitions and the Singularity (was Re: Elusive word...)

Emlyn emlynoregan at gmail.com
Sat Dec 13 06:33:17 UTC 2008

>> It occurred to me that there ought to be a word for it. And
>> of course
>> that there will already be a word for it (probably
>> multiple). Anyone
>> know what the word or words is/are?
> When it happens in biology, it is called convergent evolution or simply convergence. An example would be wings and flight. Insects, birds, and bats all converged on flight albeit with differently structured wings and flight behavior because it was so evolutionarily advantageous to fly. Such a solution could be considered a local fitness maximum and as such could be converged upon from many different starting points on the fitness landscape. Memes evolve even faster since their replication is so cheap. Of course the actual fitness of memes and genes are determined by their expression and selection, either natural or monkey-mediated. ;-)

I have some ideas here that I haven't written down in a very
coordinated way, here's a messy first shot at it.

The internet has reduced the cost of collaboration, which also reduces
the cost of competitions. Competitions can visibly only have a few
winners, now from a global pool. So, there are now more competitions,
across a mind boggling expanse of domains. Competitions have a
characteristic resource (such as money, time, social network, physical
ability, intellect). Crucially, **competitions are algorithms for
finding those who will maximise use of the characteristic resource**.

To me, the really interesting competitions have intellect as the
characteristic resource, and as a side effect produce intellectual
output of increasing quality, which can be used at a cost approaching
zero by everyone else, forever.

This, of course, is why unrestricted information sharing is important.
These competitions require free access to knowledge. Free universal
access to all human knowledge will maximally support these
competitions, and that, I think, will be the genesis of singularity.


We're seeing something really fascinating with the evolution of ideas
in the presence of the internet. I think of the free software
movement, and (Gnu)Linux as the most striking example, but it's really
only one of many.

People like ladders to climb. Ladders of status. That's much of the
appeal of games, it's why we play politics and why we accumulate
money. What the internet has provided is a new, much richer set of
competitive environments; more status ladders.

Status is relative position in a ranking system. Status competitions
are played out over different domains, and these different domains
reward the spending of different kinds of resources. The types of
resources that come to mind to me are money, time, physical ability,
domain skill, raw intellect, and social network. There are probably

I think each type of status competition has a characteristic resource,
the use of which dominates all others for that competition. This is
key. I describe competitions below in terms of their characteristic

I think money competitions are more common in the offline world,
simply because it works as a default; you might have nothing in common
with those geographically close to you, but you all need money, so you
can all compete with money.
You can have pissing contests over houses, cars, etc, all of that is
money as the characteristic resource. Intellect, special knowledge,
time, all these can contribute to mitigate absolute money costs of
such a competition, but ultimately a bigger wallet will dwarf all

There are a lot of literal games online, particularly commercial
games, that reward primarily time. The World of Warcraft is the
canonical example. Other resources types are necessary but not
sufficient. eg: intelligence lets you use your time better, an
encyclopedic knowledge of the rules will let you use your time better,
physical dexterity will lead to better gain for time input. Money can
even help. But time is king. If you can't put in the hours, none of
the other resources will help you.

Commercial games favour time as the primary resource, because it's the
least alienating to the most people. You might not have much money,
you might not be terribly smart or terribly focused or terribly
bright, but your time is as good as the next person's. Requiring time
as the characteristic resource seems to be most likely to be seen as

Another competition rewarding time might be government work (public
service). Many large orgs are like this too. Promotion is rarely a
meritocracy, it is often rather about number of years served. Also
social network plays well here, but still often is only a modifier to
raw time.

Physical ability:
Physical ability is a resource that we see in sports, and online we
see it in the class of player vs player games. Particularly, wherever
games require dexterity, where they are short (minutes or hours rather
than weeks, years or indefinite), and where there is no character
progression (no idea of "my character is level 57"), physical ability
is king.

Domain knowledge and raw intellect are a bit hard to separate. Let's
just call it intellect (oversimplification). You see intellect as the
characteristic resource in player provided tools for online games,
also in all kinds of "grey" areas online (particularly the guys that
crack software / drm!). We are beginning to see it in the creative
commons community (a random example, http://ccmixter.org/). And, of
course, you see it in the open source and free software community.

Why is this interesting? It's interesting because the internet
decreases costs of collaboration toward zero, and adds the power of
large numbers (of people!). So these very specific competitions become
global and extreme, and something like a genetic algorithm moves the
competitions to extreme conclusions. The type of extreme result
depends on the characteristic resource.

The algorithm seems to be roughly
- Evaluate and rank competitors against the fitness function (defined
largely in terms of the characteristic resource and the environment)
- Modify the set of competitors based on this (losers tend to leave,
new blood comes, some existing competitors modify strategies)
- Modify the environment as a side effect of the fitness function
- Rinse and Repeat

The extremes of time competition:
Time competitions iterate until the winners are spending quite
stunning amounts of time. Top World of Warcraft players can easily
spend far more time in game than they spend in work or at school, for
instance. The most extreme example I remember was when "honor" (an
in-game statistic, at that time not a currency) was awarded in a
relative fashion based on how much success you had in battlegrounds.
Not how much relative success, but how much absolute success. For any
given week, the players would be ordered in terms of absolute number
of kills (I think, this is hazily recollected), and assigned a rank
based on where they were in the ordering, and their previous rank (so
you would climb or fall back in ranks slowly, week by week). The
ranks, in turn, as well as being status in and of themselves, allowed
characters to purchase items that were excellent and otherwise

There were a small number of ranks (14 in total?) At the height of the
madness, I remember a friend telling me that to get from the 13th to
the 14th rank, you needed to play the battlegrounds at a high level of
skill for 24 hours a day, for 3 weeks! No one can do that, but people
would team up to play a character in shifts to make that happen. Also
you need a guild (in game group of allied players) to be feeding you
gold to repair your character's gear during that time (because there
is no time for your character to go doing that for itself, and the
requirement for gold and supporting items was a huge burden). And of
course you needed to get to the 13th rank, no mean feat itself.

What's interesting about this level of time investment is that there a
level of selection for it. If you join successful guilds, they'll be
full of people who are willing to commit seemingly endless amounts of
time to the game. People don't join guilds then become like that;
rather, people who are already like that form and are invited to join
the great guilds. The environment doesn't teach you to maximise the
characteristic resource, it selects for those that do.

Money extremes:
Donald Trump. Warren Buffett. Bill Gates. Offline stuff. See the last
few hundred years. I wont discuss this further here.

Physical skill extremes:
You'll see this in any Player vs Player game's online arenas. For
games like quake or halo or nexuiz, the classic experience is to learn
to play offline, playing against the computer until you are as good as
you can be, think you are pretty good, then to go online and play
against other players, and to lose and lose and lose. Humiliating. I
speak from personal experience. It takes a lot of play against other
humans to even come close to par. Tellingly, unless you are actually
physically good at these games (good reaction times?), there is a
ceiling above which you will just never rise (it seems to me).

Why is this so common an experience? It's not just because people
become good who play online regularly (although you do improve). It's
more because people who aren't skilled don't stick with it, where
people with ability stay. So just about any forum like this selects
for the physically adept. The environment doesn't teach you to be
better, it selects for those who are.

Intellect extremes:
And of course we come to intellect competitions. Again, we see that
the environment doesn't teach you to maximise the resource, it selects
for those that can. In any of the intellect competitions I come
across, especially those that have been running for a while, I am
struck by the excellence of the output. We could say Science is an
example. But the example that's really struck me recently is the open
source / free software domain.

It's tempting to think, as a professional commercial software
developer, that you could just swan into one of the open source
projects and do important work, but it's really just not true. It's
tempting to think of these efforts as those of a few bleeding heart
info hippies, under resourced and producing barely functional product.
Barely ok but if you want something serious you need to pay for a
commercial product. But that's wrong.

I've been amazed to discover just how wrong this is. As a newly turned
on Ubuntu user, I've seen the incredible breadth and depth of tools
available for every conceivable task, all freely available. eg: You
want to burn a CD? There are many alternatives, all easy to get, all
polished, a couple of them stronger than any commercial offering.
That's a banal example, but it's just so vast, there's no way to do it
justice. From the little I've seen into the development process itself
so far, I am humbled by the quality.

The Cathedral and the Bazaar covers a lot of why this works, but I
think there's an extra point to be made explicit, which is this: Open
Source and Free Software development are a competition. They're a
competition for mindshare. Because there are a lot of people involved,
and because no one can really stand in the way of people doing things
well (anyone who tries can really just be routed around; projects
fork), and because the arbiters of mindshare are exactly the same
people as the competitors, the dominant way of gaining mindshare is to
just do a better job than others. I'm sure this is enhanced by money
(buys useful resources, and can pay people), and time (software
development is always an endurance effort), but the characteristic
resource seems to be roughly intellect, or more specifically, being
great at what you do.

And, as with the other types of competition, although this improves
you, it doesn't teach you to be great at building software. It just
selects for those who are.

I think we are beginning to see this kind of thing in artsy creative
areas, although it's hampered because its not as self-referential. For
authors, the mindshare is not based in the minds of your peers, it's
based in the great unwashed public, who still believe what the
marketers tell them for the most part. I think we can expect to see
this pick up eventually, but without the tight feedback loop and heavy
interreliance that free software enjoys, the algorithm isn't as strong
and works more slowly.

There's probably more, but I'm out of puff. I can't win at time based
competitions. My contention though is that this is the stuff of

And, of course, I dedicate this post into the public domain, to the
detriment of my heirs and successors, etc etc, beautiful!


http://emlynoregan.com - my home
http://emlyntech.wordpress.com - coding related
http://point7.wordpress.com - downshifting and ranting
money is a sign of poverty

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