How (not) to promote solidarity: ‘The Platform’ movie review.

A few months ago I watched The Platform (‘El hoyo’ ie ‘the pit’ in its original Spanish version). Someone recommended it to me and as soon as they told me what the plot was about I was keen to watch it.

I couldn’t help but doing so through the lens of We-Guild, so I mentioned to Zahida (We-Guild’s co-founder) if she thought I could do a blog post about it. Let’s take it as a chance to explain some of the principles of We-guild she said. Yes I can do definitely do that.

 Sorry it’s not a short article, but I hope you enjoy the read!

By the way, if you want to become a We-Guild beta-tester you better join the waiting list. We are launching our crowdfunding campaign in October 2021, and this would be the only chance. Join the waiting list now.

According to its director, Gaztelu-Urrutia, The Platform is a “sci-fi thriller, a Kafkian fable and a movie with a social message; in that order”. Some think that we should also add ‘horror’ to that list as it does have quite a few gruesome scenes. In fact, Wikipedia just prefers the shorter “social science fiction horror”.

The Platform poster

Spoiler Alert!

We’re going to talk in detail about some aspects of a movie so a cautionary spoiler alert is due!

If you have intentions of watching The Platform, and you hate spoilers, we’d recommend doing so before reading this post.


Although we’re mostly talking about the set-up of the movie itself and not about the script, plot-twists, characters or things like that; we might mention bits that happen in it here and there so, just in case, do watch it if you intend to before reading this blog post.

The Platform is a "sci-fi thriller, a Kafkian fable and a movie with a social message; in that order” director Gaztelu-Urrutia

The set-up. The Vertical Self-Management Center

Most of the movie is set in the Vertical Self-Management Center (VSC). This is a facility with 250 levels and 2 people per level. The levels are numbered from 1 to 250 from top to bottom.

The actual 'hoyo' (pit)

Although it may remind us of Bentham’s Panopticon (a type of architectural design to allow all prisoners from an institution to be watched by a single security ward without the inmates being able to tell whether they are being watched), the VSC is actually quite different in some essential ways:

  • The levels are numbered from 1 to 250 from top to bottom.

  • A platform with (allegedly) enough food to feed everyone descends from the top to the bottom once every day.

  • The platform stays 2 minutes at each level and the people on each level cannot keep any food for a later moment.

  • The platform starts full of food at level 1 and it only goes down. So the two people on each level have available to eat whatever everyone above (before) them has left.

  • At the end of each month the same two people are switched to another level randomly.

  • The levels are physically connected by an open vertical hole (‘the pit’, Spanish ‘el hoyo’, the movie’s original title) along which the platform with food descends every day.

  • If a resident looked up or down over the hole they could see others that stood close to the edge of the hole.

  • What happens in the movie is that whoever happens to be on top levels tends to eat loads more than they would need and leave the ones at the bottom starving.

Imoguiri's “Spontaneous Sense of Solidarity”

Goreng, the main character

At some point the main character, Goreng, shares level with Imoguiri, the woman who had helped him fill in his form to volunteer himself into the VSC and who later volunteered herself as well.

Having worked for the organisation behind the VSC, she seems to know a bit more than Goreng about it, but not much more. She tells our hero that for the food to reach everyone (all the way down) there needs to be a “spontaneous sense of solidarity”.

It is not clear though whether that is the actual purpose of the facility. Imoguiri seems to imply that the VSC was built in a way to enable such spontaneous solidarity manifest itself among the residents. Goreng agrees with her but takes it further. He believes that the purpose is to learn from such experience (if successful) so as to know how to stop it in the outside world.

Yet we will not touch upon the ultimate goal of the VSC.

Imoguiri

Our approach is to look at the VSC through the lens of the iterated prisoner’s dilemma (and a couple more frameworks).

But, before that, three points:

⦿ Whatever conclusion we reach it wouldn’t mean that there aren’t other ways for the residents of the VSC to help each other.

⦿ Whether this would mean that the VSC is well (or badly) designed’ depends on what the ultimate purpose of the facility is and that is not the purpose of this post.

⦿ We are not here to talk about what solidarity is strictly speaking. Our interest is to express why we believe that with such a set-up, the residents of the VSC are unlikely to help each other in terms of distributing the food more fairly. Whether such help, if it were to happen, would come from self-interest, group solidarity, pure altruism… and whether consequently it fits this or that definition of solidarity is also beyond this post.

The Platform and the iterated prisoner’s dilemma

Remember The Evolution of Trust game? That beautiful interactive website-game that we mentioned in the Christmas truce post? It’s based on Robert Axelrod’s prisoner’s dilemma research from the 80s (also mentioned in the Christmas truce post) and at the end of it its author, Nicky Case, sums up the principles for co-operation to happen. Of these the most relevant to us is…drum roll…

Repeated interactions!
Trust keeps a relationship going, but you need the knowledge of possible future repeat interactions before trust can evolve.

You just can't compare the VSC and the Evolution of trust settings

Cool, let’s check repeated interactions at the VSC. Oops, wait! As soon as we try to do so we notice the essentials are already too different!

The prisoner’s dilemma set-up is based on two ‘players’ interacting with each other in turns and, most importantly, they are equal in terms of what they can do.

They can either cooperate or defect and this determines the outcome of each round to each of them (see Wikipedia and Nicky Case for more details on how this works).

As a general conclusion of the iterated prisoner’s dilemma, players with more co-operative strategies (but which still don’t allow for others to take advantage of them) are better off. In fact, according to Axelrod’s research, players following nice strategies that also ‘start nice’ are even better off.

Participants of an iterated prisoner’s dilemma are thus on the ‘same level’ of decision, and this is radically different from the set-up at the VSC. This notion of being on the same level is essential for cooperation (reciprocity) to emerge this way

The problem with VSC is that it’s very unlikely that residents have got the chance to develop reciprocity!

Monthly level switches are random and having 250 levels means residents of each level are practically strangers to their neighbours after each platform change (more on this in the next point). Not good news for emerging reciprocity.

The Platform and Dunbar's number

The Dunbar number is 150 and it owes its name to British anthropologist Robin Dunbar who first proposed it in the 1990s.

According to Wikipedia the Dunbar numberis a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships—relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person. […] By using the average human brain size and extrapolating from the results of primates, [Dunbar] proposed that humans can comfortably maintain 150 stable relationships.

So, roughly, this means a human can only recognise up to 150 people in person. Our brain is not wired to deal with more than that.

Within the context of the VSC we can calculate that 250 levels times 2 residents per level is 500 people: over three times Dunbar’s number. This fact, together with how the monthly platform changes happen, means that each month you will practically come across strangers on levels closest to you (above and below). Not great news for cooperation.

Baharat

There is in fact one moment in the movie where character Baharat meets someone he’s met before. This resident reminds Baharat about their past encounter and tries to leverage that in his favour. Here we see how this unlikely encounter already has some potential for reciprocity. One wonders what things would be like if this kind of encounter could happen more frequently.

Based on the little bits we’ve seen about the iterated prisoner’s dilemma and the Dunbar number, we could imagine that a VSC with, say, 25 levels and more frequent level changes could have different outcomes.

Things would not be perfect anyway, as there would still be quite a few issues with its design that we feel could be a big hurdle for some types of solidarity to develop. One framework comes to mind that could be useful at this stage: Elinor Ostrom’s eight design principles for governing the commons (don’t panic, we explain what this is in the next paragraph).

The Platform and the commons

Elinor Ostrom
Elinor Ostrom
We also cannot fail to mention the late Elinor Ostrom. Her work on management of commons that earned her an economics Nobel Prize (the only economics Nobel Prize ever earned by a woman) is relevant to us. In a way we can also think of the food on the platform as a commons pool resource.

In brief, Ostrom studied many cases of communities of people that managed common pool resources. Whether it was water in irrigation systems, forest management, fisheries or underground water reservoirs she studied them all. The cases are in her native USA or elsewhere in the world; recent or centuries old and, most importantly, successful or not. She looked at them all in depth and concluded that to maximise the chances of such a common resource to be properly managed (utilised for the benefit of the community but not depleted), eight principles have to be followed.

[...] to maximise the chances of such a common resource to be properly managed eight principles have to be followed [...]

Is the platform a common pool resource?

Ostrom was mainly concerned with depletion of a resource if overused. This doesn’t apply exactly at the VSC as food would always be replenished each day at the first level.

However, we feel some of her principles can be extended to cases of a more equitable sharing of a resource, even if the aspect of running out of doesn’t apply in a strict sense. There is plenty of information around on Ostrom’s eight design principles so, although we could go through each of them in detail, we won’t. (This blog post is long enough already!)

This is because We-Guild does not operate as a commons as We-Guild users have full individual control of their own personal resources as they give more or less based on their individual decisions (find more about How We-Guild Works on this section).

With Ostrom’s we just wanted to highlight another relevant framework (Ostrom’s work on the commons) through which one can look at the set-up of the VSC. As a spoiler alert (since we tried briefly), the set-up of the platform doesn’t tick many of Ostrom’s design principles so, from this point of view, the resource is not bound to be shared equitably. We will only share our views on two of the principles that are relevant to the platform and that we think are not ticked:

 

—> Design Principle 1) Clearly Defined Boundaries

It has to be clear who is and who isn’t happy to partake in the sharing of the resource – and consequently happy to follow the rules agreed by the group managing the resource. From this point of view the problem with the VSC is that anyone will eventually have access to the platform at some point (with or without food on it).

Even with the ‘mini-VSC’ example we mentioned before (25 levels, ie 50 residents and with, say, weekly level changes) there could always be residents who don’t care about any sharing agreements that a group of other residents could come to (even if this is absolutely everyone else).

Those below the person who prefers not to follow the sharing arrangement are at the mercy of whatever this person does to the food. However, this might be less likely if there are only 50 people on 25 levels.

 

[...]the set-up of the platform doesn’t tick many of Ostrom’s design principles [...]

—> Design Principle 4) Monitoring of Resources
The only way to monitor how the food on the platform is managed (eaten) by others is if those at the top levels looked down at the platform to see whether those below eat only their share or more.

Those below the platform would need to trust those above as to how the resource is managed (food is eaten) each time. The infrastructure of the VSC makes this very cumbersome (if possible at all) to follow this design principle.

These three frameworks and We-Guild

Let’s now see how We-Guild would fare based on these frameworks as well.

We-Guild and the iterated prisoner's dilemma

When We-Guild users link with friends their relationship is ongoing unless either of them decides to break the relationship. The same is the case for friends’ friends but through the linking friend.

Either way, the quality of the relationship between We-Guild users is one without a definite endpoint by default. Repeated interactions are the normal state of affairs in We-Guild. Especially since users join We-Guild and link with others knowing that this is the nature of the relationship. (Yet the option to leave is always there to either of them.)

We also mentioned the idea that the interactions should be on the same level. Let’s look at this aspect as well. In We-Guild help can always flow in either directions; from user A to B and vice versa. It is just a matter of whether either of them requests help

By the way, if you want to become a We-Guild beta-tester you better join the waiting list. We are launching our crowdfunding campaign in October 2021, and this would be the only chance. Join the waiting list now.

We-guild and Dunbar's number

In order to build the biggest possible network (this might mean more chances to be helped) and at the same time to avoid anonymity in between users(and consequently less desirable behaviour), We-Guild needs to strike a balance between these two forces.

So we settled for 20 friends max in a user’s close circle (your first line of friends, or close friends). If each of them had 20 friends (of which you would be one), you would have 380 friends’ friends (or far friends as we sometimes call them). This number is about 2.5 times the Dunbar number – yes, pretty high!

However, most people have groups of friends whose members are interconnected with each other to different degrees. 

Think about it, it is really unlikely that someone will know 20 separate friends who don’t know each other at all.

On top of that you wouldn’t need to know much about these people, apart from that they are the trusted ones of your closer network.

Remember how under certain circumstances the soldiers on either side of no man’s land would arrange not to shoot at each other even though they hardly knew anything about those on the other side (see the post about The Christmas truce)

We-Guild and the commons

As we have mentioned already, Ostrom’s principles don’t really apply to We-Guild. At We-Guild users have full individual control of their own money as they give more or less based on their individual decisions. Therefore, money, the resource at play in We-Guild, is not a common pool resource in any way.

Nevertheless, Ostrom’s work has influenced some of the principles of how We-Guild works and we will look at that in another post.

And now is your turn… How would you increase the chances of people genuinely helping each other? Let us know in a comment below, we want to know about your thoughts!

By the way, if you want to become a We-Guild beta-tester you better join the waiting list. We are launching our crowdfunding campaign in October 2021, and this would be the only chance. Join the waiting list now.

2 Replies to “How (not) to promote solidarity: ‘The Platform’ movie review.”

  1. Thanks for the film recommendation – I just watched and then read this post!

    The most insightful book I know of on relationships of trust is the Dictionary for the Future and How to Survive It, which you can – of course! – access for free. Here’s the entry on Reciprocity and Cooperation, which pertinently lists seven principles necessary to cooperation (aka collaboration) at the rough scale of Dunbar’s number:

    https://leanlogic.online/reciprocity-and-cooperation/

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