Friday, July 20, 2012

In the darkest corner of the Prisoners' Dilemma

Every scenario and interaction in China tends to be influenced by culture and the guoqing, (a nice Chinese term: the factors specific to a country, usually China). It makes us all into sociologists; or just a bunch of angry, ranting foreigners. I'm the former only once the annoyance subsides.
At this point you can imagine me standing waiting for a lift. Lifts are very much a thing of the last ten years. Many residential housing areas don't have them. Even in our far-from-old complex certain buildings don't, which must make moving house and buying new furniture a difficult experience. Lifts, and any sort of convenience for that matter, are a resource and a resource that is always going to be scarce in China. Stairs in many complexes are neglected, dirty and full of shady types. Escalators for each floor are often not placed well for convenience, requiring you to walk a great distance, and incidentally past many shops. So lifts are the way to go, really.
So you can imagine now that I'm not the only one waiting for the lift. DING! The lift has arrived fairly full, and it's going down - I'm going up so I'll wait a bit longer. What little space that was freed up by alighting passengers is taken by people boarding. The surprise is to come when that same lift comes back up: most of the passengers who boarded, and some who had been inside from the start, are still there, jammed in like sardines for the upward leg of the journey. No one gets off. The doors shut probably up one floor before the same scene is repeated. Why would this be the case?
An easy mistake to think is that many people just mistakenly boarded a lift without checking whether it's going up or down. Maybe some do this, but not the majority. When the number of people waiting for the lift and are present in the lift rises to a particular point, the only way to be certain that you'll get to your floor soon is to board at any opportunity. Of course, this isn't pleasant. You'll have to squeeze in, be pushed around as other people leave but it's obviously viewed as worth the experience. Unfortunately, as soon as the strategy becomes rational (i.e. the lift is almost full), it causes problems. For every one person going in the wrong direction, there is one prevented from going in the right direction, a much shorter journey, from boarding. An example would be the lift mentioned, it got to the second basement carpark, the bottommost floor only for the waiting passengers to gasp in the realisation that no-one was getting off and no-one would be getting on. Except they don't gasp. It is an understandable strategy. Other people aren't hell, they're straw dogs, furniture, circumstance, the trees that hide the woods. It is ultimately an antisocial strategy, reducing the utility of the lift and the convenience.
Such situations remind me of the Prisoner's Dilemma. Objectively, option A is better than option B. When everyone would be better off if everyone was to choose option A, and everyone would be worse off if everyone chose option B. But they still choose option B because (1) they don't trust others to choose option A; or (2) they realise that choosing option B would have a more certain, definite, immediate benefit, whereas option A was slightly less certain.
Chinese are often at the bottom-right hand corner of the Prisoners' Dilemma. Resources will always be scarce and they'll always unapologetically, understandably take a life where their adverse effects on everyone else is far too clear to see.
Rain-laden clouds are traipsing in and out of Guangzhou; they growl and menace; zap and spark. My own clouds had barely moved out: My snag has pulled me off my horse. I'm a casualty of the changes that are afoot in my company. I'm on my feet again, a foot soldier. I think I'd better find another horse!

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