Our minds on media.

Musings on the effects of media on cognition.

Art Illustrates Cooperation in People (in NYC anyway)

As a former New Yorker, I’ve often felt the need to dispel people’s stereotypes of New Yorkers—that they’re mean and rude. Make no mistake, New Yorkers all have somewhere they have to be right now so if you don’t obey the rules of the sidewalk (like, say, ride the escalator on the wrong side) you will be curtly reminded of the rules. I remember the day that I realized I had truly become a New Yorker with some chagrin. I was walking through the West Village (which has small enough sidewalk to begin with) when I came to a wall of tourist looky-loos four people deep staring in a shop window. I announced to the group, “This is a sidewalk, not a gallery,” and thus the crowd was parted.1

But I always found that it was perfectly reasonable to simply turn to a fellow subway rider or coffee shop occupant and chit-chat—especially if it was about an even weirder third occupant. You could always tell if someone didn’t have the time to chit chat because they would just give you a polite nod and not reply. To anyone who’s not lived in New York, that means, “Ok, now shut up.” But you’d be surprised at how many people would happily chat and you have to recognize that New York City is nothing but a giant collective; one that wouldn’t work at all if people weren’t generally nice and decent.

So, I wasn’t surprised to find these two really neat art projects, Say Something Nice and Tweenbots. In the latter project, the group Improv Everywhere simply set up a podium with a mega-phone and a sign that said, “Say Something Nice.” And people did! Tweenbots on the other hand illustrates people’s inherent desire to help in a different way. Tweenbots released a small robot into the wilds of Washington Square Park. The robot wasn’t clever enough to get through the park on it’s own, so it had a small flag attached that read “Please help me get to the Southwest corner.” And once again, with no reward or even awareness that they were being filmed, people helped him!

My graduate school work has kept me busy thinking about cooperation and competition among humans this last year (and will continue to do so for the next few years). I think economics and competitive marketplaces are fine tools for accomplishing some things, but the amount that it has become ingrained in our culture while lacking a nuanced understand has caused a lot of people to forget that we have an inherent desire to help and share. Put it this way, you can’t have a competitive market when the participants just kill each other.2

Say Something Nice” came to me via Nerdist

  1. I also feel it was a worthwhile cause to give some midwestern tourists more bang for their buck by giving them an authentic that-New-Yorker-was-rude story. 

  2. If that sounds like hyperbole to you, think carefully for a moment what pollution is and why markets are so bad at solving the problem. 

« Previously: