Tue 29 Sep 2009
This past week I took a short trip to Yosemite to climb Half Dome. Along with my wife, brother, sister-in-law, and father, we started in the Yosemite Valley, and hauled ourselves and our packs up some very steep slopes, backpacking for several nights and enjoying the peace of the high Sierra.
If you've been up Half Dome, you know all about this. If you haven't, let me try to explain how ridiculous it is. You begin in Yosemite Valley at about 4000 feet, and begin the climb straight up past two waterfalls, Vernal and Nevada. We chose the Mist Trail (not so misty this time of year), which consists of a series of steep granite steps and switchbacks. About 2000 vertical feet and almost 3 miles later, you're at the top of the falls. Now hike another 2 miles (and 1000 vertical feet) to the base of sub-dome, where the hard work begins. A vertical-seeming face with switchback steps cut into it. Get to the top, and your reward is pictured to your left: a final, slick face of 50+ degree rock face with two thick metal cables running up it. Metal poles and slats are placed every so often. Grab a pair of gloves and haul yourself up. Stupid, right? Not as stupid as trying to get down, shimmying from slat to slat because your boots have almost no traction at all.
Well, we survived. Certainly there was spectacular scenery, but the most memorable part of the trip for me was being on the cables. It's like nothing I've ever done. On the side of this slick rock, hanging precariously off of a metal cable along with fifty or so other people. But somehow the only drama is a fallen water bottle or two.
In my research I frequently use the notion of social value orientation (SVO). The idea is that people have certain general dispositions towards the distribution of rewards from themselves and others. You've got the self-interested folks who worry about themselves. You've got the competitive folks who try to maximize the difference between themselves and others. And you've got the pro-social folks who worry about others.
Well, being the typical geek that I am, I was hanging off of the side of Half Dome and thinking about how my experience speaks to SVO. Getting up and down those cables safely requires that everyone works together. Some people are just worried about their own adventure, bitching about slower climbers and failing to make room for others when they need to. Some people just want to beat everyone – like the intrepid souls who decided to climb outside the wire and blow right past everyone. But most people are considerate and encouraging (pro-social), they help others, they're patient, and concerned for each others' safety. It's the only reason more people don't die out there.
I think it says a lot about human beings – or at least the people who go to Half Dome – that we can end up hanging on a wire, in a life and death situation (albeit a minor one), and that everyone looks out for each other. My experience mirrors what a lot of the participants in my interview research have been saying about Wikipedia. Why does Wikipedia exist? Why do people put in the time and effort? They believe it's because people are generally good and giving. Because they want to share, and they want to help. I think there are many other motivations that drive people, but I love that people believe in the good as a primary reason. Having been up and down Half Dome recently, it seems like a perfectly reasonable assumption.