Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Digital Maoism

The hive mind is for the most part stupid and boring. Why pay attention to it?

The problem is in the way the Wikipedia has come to be regarded and used; how it's been elevated to such importance so quickly. And that is part of the larger pattern of the appeal of a new online collectivism that is nothing less than a resurgence of the idea that the collective is all-wise, that it is desirable to have influence concentrated in a bottleneck that can channel the collective with the most verity and force. This is different from representative democracy, or meritocracy. This idea has had dreadful consequences when thrust upon us from the extreme Right or the extreme Left in various historical periods. The fact that it's now being re-introduced today by prominent technologists and futurists, people who in many cases I know and like, doesn't make it any less dangerous.

-- Jaron Lanier, "Digital Maoism"


Thomas Basbøll said...

Hi Brian, I think Lanier gets this exactly wrong. The way he reads his own entry earlier in this essay, and is concerned about its not corresponding with his own self-image, shows that his mindset has more in common with the one he alleges "elevates" it. A Wikipedia article, it turns out, is not a passive representation of some body of fact but a site for active inquiry into it. The fact that Lanier's view of himself can't gain consensus among those who take an interest in him should not tell him something about Wikipedia, but about himself. He is too ready to judge Wikipedia as a product; its value lies in its process.

That's my two cents anyway. Wondering what you think about this.


Brian Campbell said...

Actually, Thomas, I found the article both fascinating and thought-provoking. I think the bit about his entry on Wikipedia is only a small and rather humorous example, a kind of audience warming joke before the main speech, as it were. (There have been more serious charges though...) His concerns though about rise of the impersonal collective and its effect on the responsibility and personality in communication are worth taking heed of, as well as his critique of the oft-vaunted (but to his view, more hit-and-miss) self-corrective nature of Wikis and the like. His cautionary note is especially interesting considering that he is not just a passive observer, but an active participant in highest echelons of zis newwww communicashuns era.

For me, Wikipedia is a fabulous research tool, but it's always good to be reminded that findings there are to be taken with a grain (perhaps even a shaker) of salt. Check out this article about relatively recent Wikipedia libel case:

From the Lanier article, I cut and paste another well-put passage for your (and my) reconsideration, edification, etc. (So that we may become two big edified edifaces.)

It's not hard to see why the fallacy of collectivism has become so popular in big organizations: If the principle is correct, then individuals should not be required to take on risks or responsibilities. We live in times of tremendous uncertainties coupled with infinite liability phobia, and we must function within institutions that are loyal to no executive, much less to any lower level member. Every individual who is afraid to say the wrong thing within his or her organization is safer when hiding behind a wiki or some other Meta aggregation ritual.

I've participated in a number of elite, well-paid wikis and Meta-surveys lately and have had a chance to observe the results. I have even been part of a wiki about wikis. What I've seen is a loss of insight and subtlety, a disregard for the nuances of considered opinions, and an increased tendency to enshrine the official or normative beliefs of an organization. Why isn't everyone screaming about the recent epidemic of inappropriate uses of the collective? It seems to me the reason is that bad old ideas look confusingly fresh when they are packaged as technology.

I'd like to know what he means by the "recent epidemic..." -- but for the rest, well, it's well put, a mon avis.

Thanks for the response.