On "Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism" By Jaron Lanier [5.30.06]
Responses to Lanier's essay from Douglas Rushkoff, Quentin Hardy, Yochai Benkler, Clay Shirky, Cory Doctorow, Kevin Kelly, Esther Dyson, Larry Sanger, Fernanda Viegas & Martin Wattenberg, Jimmy Wales, George Dyson, Dan Gillmor, Howard Rheingold
Now, another big idea is taking hold, but this time it's more painful for some people to embrace, even to contemplate. It's nothing less than the migration from individual mind to collective intelligence. I call it "here comes everybody", and it represents, for good or for bad, a fundamental change in our notion of who we are. In other words, we are witnessing the emergence of a new kind of person.
Lately, there's been a lot of news concerning the Wikipedia and other user-generated websites such as Myspace, Flickr, and others.
For example, in today's Wall Street Journal "portals" column, Lee Gomes ("Why Getting the User To Create Web Content Isn't Always Progress", June 7, 2006, p B1) writes:
"Mash-ups", which allow active (vs. "passive") participation, is another term for "'user-generated content', referred to by the smart set as "UGC:"
Yesterday, at a panel discussion at a Newsweek Conference on Science, Technology and Education, the moderator, Brian Williams, Anchor and Managing Editor, NBC Nightly News, spent a great deal of his time at the hour-long panel disparaging the Wikipedia.
Williams noted that NBC Nightly News was the largest news provider in America, reaching 9 to 12 million Americans, vastly more than any of the discrete digital audiences for websites; when he goes to his office and walks in the door, people are there and they are gathering the news. They are professionals, you know their names, and this is very different than anonymous contributors to the Wikipedia or other user-generated websites.
On Monday of this week, in "Digital Publishing Is Scrambling the Industry's Rules" (June 5, 2006,) Motoko Rich writes:
John Updike's comments were also reported by Bob Thompson in The Washingon Post ("Explosive Words", May 22, 2006, p C01):
About ten years ago, the big realization (as expounded by Wired, Nicholas Negroponte, among others) was a perceptual migration from atoms to bits, from the world of the physical to the world of information.
Now, another big idea is taking hold, but this time it's more painful for some people to embrace, even to contemplate. It's nothing less than the migration from individual mind to collective intelligence. I call it "here comes everybody", and it represents, for good or for bad, a fundamental change in our notion of who we are. In other words, we are witnessing the emergence of a new kind of person.
I've been tracking this development since 1969 when I wrote in By The Late John Brockman:
This isn't going away. Rather than demonize, we need to think through what's going on.
In this regard, no one is deeper, more thoughtful, on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies than Clay Shirky, a consultant and NYU professor. His writings, mostly web-based, are focused on the rise of decentralized technologies such as peer-to-peer, web services, and wireless networks that are leading us into a new world of user-generated content. As adjunct professor in NYU's graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), he teaches courses on the interrelated effects of social and technological network topology — how our networks shape culture and vice-versa.
Shirky commands wide respect within the user-generated web community, both for his authoritative writings as well as his leadership role as a speaker. I have reached out to him for help in organizing a serious response to Jaron Lanier's essay, and he graciously accepted. The people he assembled, a "who's who" of the movers, shakers, and pundits of this new universe of collective intelligence, of the "hive mind", have written essays that are at once unfailingly interesting, maddening, thought-provoking, depressing, and a window not to the future but to where we are today.
I am now pleased to turn the proceedings over to Clay Shirky with warm thanks from Edge for his help in organizing this project. But before I get off the stage, one final note.
Shakespeare's snippets pound in my head, as I ask myself Banquo's question...
Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism" By
When Jaron Lanier's piece on "Digital Maoism" first went out on Edge, I knew he'd be generating hundreds of responses all over the net. After talking to John Brockman, we decided to try to capture some of the best responses here.
Lanier's piece hits a nerve because human life always exists in tension between our individual and group identities, inseparable and incommensurable. For ten years now, it's been apparent that the rise of the digital was providing enormous new powers for the individual. It's now apparent that the world's networks are providing enormous new opportunities for group action.
Understanding how these cohabiting and competing revolutions connect to deep patterns of intellectual and social work is one of the great challenges of our age. The breadth and depth of the responses collected here, ranging from the broad philosophical questions to reckonings of the ground truth of particular technologies, is a testament to the complexity and subtlety of that challenge.
like Wikipedia do not overthrow any elite at all, but merely
replace one elite — in this case an academic one — with
another: the interactive media elite.
new tool for communication and computation may take us away
from distinct individualism, and towards something closer to
the tender nuance of folk art or the animal energy of millenarianism.
distributed, social production, both individual and cooperative,
offers a new system, alongside markets, firms, governments, and
traditional non-profits, within which individuals can engage
in information, knowledge, and cultural production. This new
modality of production offers new challenges, and new opportunities.
It is the polar opposite of Maoism.
personal computer produced an incredible increase in the creative
autonomy of the individual. The internet has made group forming
ridiculously easy. Since social life involves a tension between
individual freedom and group participation, the changes wrought
by computers and networks are therefore in tension. To have a
discussion about the plusses and minuses of various forms of
group action, though, is going to require discussing the current
tools and services as they exist, rather than discussing their
caricatures or simply wishing that they would disappear.
isn't great because it's like the Britannica. The Britannica is
great at being authoritative, edited, expensive, and monolithic.
Wikipedia is great at being free, brawling, universal, and instantaneous.
bottom-up hive mind will always take us much further that seems
possible. It keeps surprising us. In this regard, the Wikipedia
truly is exhibit A, impure as it is, because it is something
that is impossible in theory, and only possible in practice.
It proves the dumb thing is smarter than we think. At that same
time, the bottom-up hive mind will never take us to our end goal.
We are too impatient. So we add design and top down control to
get where we want to go.
to get the best results, we have people sharpening their ideas
against one another rather than simply editing someone's contribution
and replacing it with another. We also have a world where the
contributors have identities (real or fake, but consistent and
persistent) and are accountable for their words. Much like Edge,
can both I reject epistemic collectivism and yet say that Wikipedia
is a great project, which I do? Well, the problem is that epistemic
collectivists like Wikipedia but for the wrong reasons. What's
great about it is not that it produces an averaged view,
an averaged view that is somehow better than an authoritative
statement by people who actually know the subject. That's
just not it at all. What's great about Wikipedia is the
fact that it is a way to organize enormous amounts of labor for
a single intellectual purpose.
rich context, attached to many Wikipedia articles, is known as
a "talk page." The talk page is where the writers for
an article hash out their differences, plan future edits, and
come to agreement about tricky rhetorical points. This kind of
debate doubtless happens in the New York Times and Britannica as
well, but behind the scenes. Wikipedia readers can see it all,
and understand how choices were made.
response is quite simple: this alleged "core belief" is
not one which is held by me, nor as far as I know, by any important
or prominent Wikipedians. Nor do we have any particular faith
in collectives or collectivism as a mode of writing. Authoring
at Wikipedia, as everywhere, is done by individuals exercising
the judgment of their own minds.
does not want to debate the existence or non-existence of metaphysical
entities. But his argument that online collectivism produces
artificial stupidity offers no reassurance to me. Real artificial
intelligence (if and when) will be unfathomable to us. At our
level, it may appear as dumb as American Idol, or as pointless
as a nervous twitch that corrects and uncorrects Jaron Lanier's
Wikipedia entry in an endless loop.
debate does demonstrate how much we need to update our media literacy
in a digital, distributed era. Our internal BS meters already work,
but they've fallen into a low and sad level of use in the Big Media
world. Many people tend to believe what they read. Others tend
to disbelieve everything. Too few apply appropriate skepticism
and do the additional work that true media literacy requires.
action involves freely chosen self-election (which is almost
always coincident with self-interest) and distributed coordination;
collectivism involves coercion and centralized control; treating
the Internet as a commons doesn't mean it is communist (tell
that to Bezos, Yang, Filo, Brin or Page, to name just a few
billionaires who managed to scrape together private property
from the Internet commons).
Despite comparing Wikipedia with the likes of American Idol, this is a more reasoned and hopeful argument than it appears at first glance. Lanier is not condemning collective, bottom-up activity as much as trying to find ways to check its development. In short, it's an argument for the mindful intervention of individuals in the growth and acceleration of this hive-mind thing called collective intelligence.
Indeed, having faith in the beneficence of the collective is as unpredictable as having blind faith in God or a dictator. A poorly developed group mind might well decide any one of us is a threat to the mother organism deserving of immediate expulsion.
Still, I have a hard time fearing that the participants of Wikipedia or even the call-in voters of American Idol will be in a position to remake the social order anytime, soon. And I'm concerned that any argument against collaborative activity look fairly at the real reasons why some efforts turn out the way they do. Our fledgling collective intelligences are not emerging in a vacuum, but on media platforms with very specific biases.
First off, we can't go on pretending that even our favorite disintermediation efforts are revolutions in any real sense of the word. Projects like Wikipedia do not overthrow any elite at all, but merely replace one elite — in this case an academic one — with another: the interactive media elite. Just because the latter might include a 14-year-old with an Internet connection in no way changes the fact that he's educated, techno-savvy, and enjoying enough free time to research and post to an encyclopedia for no pay. Although he is not on the editorial board of the Encyclopedia Britannica, he's certainly in as good a position as anyone to get there.
While I agree with Lanier and the recent spate of articles questioning the confidence so many Internet users now place in user-created databases, these are not grounds to condemn bottom-up networking as a dangerous and headless activity — one to be equated with the doomed mass actions of former communist regimes.
Kevin's overburdened "hive mind" metaphor notwithstanding, a networked collaboration is not an absolutely level playing field inhabited by drones. It is an ecology of interdependencies. Take a look at any of these online functioning collective intelligences — from eBay to Slashdot — and you'll soon get a sense of who has gained status and influence. And in most cases, these reputations have been won through a process much closer to meritocracy, and through a fairer set of filters, than the ones through which we earn our graduate degrees.
While it may be true that a large number of current websites and group projects contain more content aggregation (links) than original works (stuff), that may as well be a critique of the entirety of Western culture since post-modernism. I'm as tired as anyone of art and thought that exists entirely in the realm of context and reference — but you can't blame Wikipedia for architecture based on winks to earlier eras or a music culture obsessed with sampling old recordings instead of playing new compositions.
Honestly, the loudest outcry over our Internet culture's inclination towards re-framing and the "meta" tend to come from those with the most to lose in a society where "credit" is no longer a paramount concern. Most of us who work in or around science and technology understand that our greatest achievements are not personal accomplishments but lucky articulations of collective realizations. Something in the air. (Though attributed to just two men, discovery of the DNA double-helix was the result of many groups working in parallel, and no less a collective effort than the Manhattan Project. ) Claiming authorship is really just a matter of ego and royalties. Even so, the collective is nowhere near being able to compose a symphony or write a novel — media whose very purpose is to explode the boundaries between the individual creator and his audience.
If you really want to get to the heart of why groups of people using a certain medium tend to behave in a certain way, you'd have to start with an exploration of biases of the medium itself. Kids with computers sample and recombine music because computers are particularly good at that — while not so very good as performance instruments. Likewise, the Web — which itself was created to foster the linking of science papers to their footnotes — is a platform biased towards drawing connections between things, not creating them. We don't blame the toaster for its inability to churn butter.
That's why it would particularly sad to dismiss the possibilities for an emergent collective intelligence based solely on the early results of one interface (the Web) on one network (the Internet) of one device (the computer). The "hive mind" metaphor was just one early, optimistic futurist's way of explaining a kind of behavior he hadn't experienced before: that of a virtual community.
Now sure, there may have been a bit too many psychedelics making their way through Silicon Valley at the same time as Mac Classics and copies of James Gleick's Chaos. At the early breathless phase of any cultural renaissance, there are bound to be some teleologically suspect prognostications from those who are pioneering the fringe. And that includes you and me, both.
Still, what you saw so clearly from the beginning is that the beauty of the Internet is its ability to connect people to one another. It's not the content, it's the contact.
Internet itself holds no philosopher's stone — there's
no God to emerge from the medium. I'm with you, there. But there
is something that can emerge from people engaging with one another
in ways they hadn't dreamed possible, before. While the Internet
itself may never produce the genuinely cooperative society so
many of us yearn for, it does give us the opportunity to model the
kinds of behaviors that may work back here in the real world.
Meanwhile, offline collectivist efforts at dis-intermediating formerly top-down systems are also creating new possibilities for everything from economics to education. Local currencies give unemployed Japanese people the opportunity to spend time caring for elders near their homes so that someone else can care for their own family members in distant regions. The New York Public School system owes any hope of a future to the direct intervention of community members, whose commune-era utopian "free school" models might make us hardened cynics cringe— but energize teachers and students alike.
I'm troubled by American Idol and the increasingly pandering New York Times as much as anyone, but I don't blame collaboration or techno-utopianism for their ills. In these cases, we're not watching the rise of some new dangerous form of digital populism, but the replacement of key components of a cultural ecology — music and journalism — by the priorities of consumer capitalism.
In fact, the alienating effects of mass marketing are in large part what motivate today's urge toward collective activity. If anything, the rise of online collective activity is itself a check — a low-pass filter on the anti-communal effects of political corruption, market forces, and strident individualism.
One person's check is another person's balance.
The "individual" Lanier would have govern the collective is itself a social construction born in the Renaissance, celebrated via democracy in the Enlightenment and since devolved into the competition, consumption, and consumerism we endure today.
While the tags adorning Flickr photographs may never constitute an independently functioning intelligence, they do allow people to participate in something bigger than themselves, and foster a greater understanding of the benefits of collective action. They are a desocialized society's first baby steps toward acting together with more intelligence than people can alone.
And watching for signs of such intelligent life is anything but boring.
Jaron Lanier contends with several ideas at once. What I take out is:
• That Wikipedia is the best possible example of the collective mind. It may be the worst.
As he indicates, and others have shown before, successful collectives are something like tribes, with like-minded people assuming a common culture which they see as both valuable and fragile. It has rules, boundaries and guardians. Wikipedia is unbounded and (for the most part) ungoverned. It is a great experiment, the kind of thing that is necessary when learning to use a new tool, but that does not make it the best model.
This collective, it is worth noting, made of those individuals he cherishes. The "crowd" does not keep acclaiming Mr. Lanier's skills behind the camera; one or more people do. Even in a healthy financial market, everybody's favorite collective mind, there is plenty of mispricing.
• That it would be an absolute good if all error were eliminated. Most errors, in society and nature, are unfortunate. The process is necessary. The ill-formed and stillborn bird is the other side of species creation. We have to have error if Columbus is ever to sail off for India, so finding America, or if Leibniz is to misunderstand the I Ching, thereby exploring binary math.
• That existing definitions of the self and the crowd are permanent. Our new tool for communication and computation may take us away from distinct individualism, and towards something closer to the tender nuance of folk art or the animal energy of millenarianism. Either way, however, both "individual" and "folk" should stand as metaphors. Possibly a third thing is happening, as yet poorly understood.
At times like that, it is easy to bemoan losses and overestimate gains. Yet while the electronically enhanced collective mind is novel, but the discovery of new ways to be is not a new phenomenon in the history of human consciousness. Rather it is typical of revolutionary advances in transport or communications (and responsible for most market manias and political upheavals, as well as much progress. )
• That collectives will purportedly resolve one of the key problem of an era of media onslaught: What is successful filtering? With so much information at hand, what should we consume? Popurls doesn't offer much info in advances in diabetes management, but I read three newspapers a day and I missed it too.
It's certainly unclear that collectives will eliminate the culture of celebrity, one of the more woeful primary filters of our time. But bashing American Idol (another unbounded collective) for not advancing the cause of pop music is just strange. Pop (like most things) never threw out endless great stuff. Clay Aiken is not supposed to be John Lennon, he is the current version of Disco Tex and the Sex-o-Lets.
• That existing hierarchies are the best places to test the efficacy of the new communications tools. This is like asking the Catholic Church, circa 1475, about the uses of the printing press. Mr. Lanier is probably consulting for wealthy companies and governments, which would rather co-opt the collective phenomenon than see it authentically transform the world they know. That may be why the results there are often uninspiring.
All that said, massive kudos for suggesting some rules around collectives (i.e., "at best when not defining its own questions") that he moves toward in the last third of this essay. Getting this right will take years. That is a real service that can't happen without some belief that there is deep value in the collective.
Which is to say that Mr. Lanier does believe in the crowd, or he would not go to the trouble. What I suspect gets up his nose is the recurring failure of "the crowd," no matter what the century or the tools in question, to be clear-eyed about where it is in History: Usually someplace in the middle, but acting like we are at the beginning or end of something major, something world historic. Something that will finally afford us, as individuals and a species, a kind of certainty in Time. Something that will bring absolute judgment after all the generations. Something that will relieve each individual of the burden of being good.
Extracting Signal From Noisy Spin
I agree with much of what Jaron Lanier has to say in this insightful essay. The flashy title and the conflation of argments, however, conspire to suggest that he offers a more general attack on distributed, cooperative networked information production, or what I have called peer production, than Lanier in fact offers.
What are the points of agreement? First, Lanier acknowledges that decentralized production can be effective at certain tasks. In these he includes science-oriented definitions in Wikipedia, where the platform more easily collates the talents, availability, and diverse motivations throughout the network than a slower-moving organization like Britannica can; free and open source software, though perhaps more in some tasks that are more modular and require less of an overall unifying aesthetic, such as interface. Second, he says these do not amount to a general "collective is always better," but rather to a system that itself needs to be designed to guard against mediocre or malicious contributions through implementation of technical fixes, what he calls "low pass filters." These parallel the central problem characterized by the social software design movement, as one can see in Clay Shirky's work. Those familiar with my own work in Coase's Penguin and since will notice that I only slightly modified Lanier's language to show the convergence of claims. Where, then, is the disagreement?
Lanier has two driving concerns. The first is deep: loss of individuality, devaluation of the unique, responsible, engaged individual as the core element of a system of information, knowledge, and culture. The second strikes me as more superficial, or at least as more time- and space-bound. That is the concern with the rise of constructs like "hive mind" and metafilters and efforts to build business models around them.
Like Lanier, I see individuals as the bearers of moral claims and the sources of innovation, creativity, and insight. Unlike Lanier, I have argued that enhanced individual practical capabilities represent the critical long term shift introduced by the networked information economy, improving on the operation of markets and governments in the preceding century and a half. This is where I think we begin to part ways. Lanier has too sanguine a view of markets and governments. To me, markets, governments (democratic or otherwise), social relations, technical platforms are all various and partly overlapping systems within which individuals exist. They exhibit diverse constraints and affordances, and enable and disable various kinds of action for the individuals who inhabit them. Because of cost constraints and organizational and legal adaptations in the last 150 years, our information, knowledge, and cultural production system has taken on an industrial form, to the exclusion of social and peer-production. Britney Spears and American Idol are the apotheosis of that industrial information economy, not of the emerging networked information economy.
So too is the decline he decries for the New York Times. In my recent work, I have been trying to show how the networked public sphere improves upon the mass mediated public sphere along precisely the dimensions of Fourth Estate function that Lanier extolls, and how the distributed blogosphere can correct, sometimes, at least, the mass media failings. It was, after all, Russ Kick's Memory Hole, not the New York Times, that first broke pictures of military personnel brought home in boxes from Iraq. It was one activist, Bev Harris with her website blackboxvoting, an academic group led by Avi Rubin, a few Swarthmore students, and a network of thousands who replicated the materials about Diebold voting machines after 2002 that led to review and recall of many voting machines in California and Maryland. The mainstream media, meanwhile, sat by, dutifully repeating the reassurances of officials who bought the machines and vendors who sold them. Now, claims that the Internet democratizes are old, by now.
Going beyond the 1990s naive views of democracy in cyberspace, on the one hand, and the persistent fears of fragmentation and the rise of Babel, on the other hand, we can now begin to interpret the increasing amoung of data we have on our behavior on the the Web and in the blogsphere. What we see in fact is that we are not intellectual lemmings. We do not meander about in the intellectual equivalent of Brownian motion. We cluster around topics we care about. We find people who care about similar issues. We talk. We link. We see what others say and think. And through our choices we develop a different path for determining what issues are relevant and salient, through a distributed system that, while imperfect, is less easily corrupted than the advertising supported media that dominated the twentieth century.
Wikipedia captures the imagination not because it is so perfect, but because it is reasonably good in many cases: a proposition that would have been thought preposterous a mere half-decade ago. The fact that it is now compared not to the mainstream commercial encyclopedias like Grollier's, Encarta, or Columbia, but to the quasi-commercial, quasi-professional gold standard of the Britannica is itself the amazing fact. It is, after all, the product of tens of thousands of mostly well-intentioned individuals, some more knowledgeable than others, but almost all flying in the face of homo economicus and the Leviathan combined. Wikipedia is not faceless, by an large. Its participants develop, mostly, persistent identities (even if not by real name) and communities around the definitions.
They may not be a perfect complete replacement for Britannica. But they are an alternative, with different motivations, accreditation, and organization. They represent a new solution space to a set of information production problems that we need to experiment with, learn, and develop; but which offers a genuinely alternative form of production than markets, firms, or governments, and as such an uncorrelated or diverse system of action in the information environment. Improvements in productivity and freedom inhere in this diversity of systems available for human action, not in a generalized claim of superiority for one of these systems over all the others under all conditions.
This leaves the much narrower set of moves that are potentially the legitimate object of Lanier's critique: efforts that try to depersonalize the "wisdom of crowds," unmooring it from the individuals who participate; try to create ever-higher-level aggregation and centralization in order to "capture" that "wisdom;" or imagine it as emergent in the Net, abstracted from human minds. I'm not actually sure there is anyone who genuinely holds this hyperbolic a version of this view. I will, in any event, let others defend it if they do hold such a view.
Here I will only note that the centralized filters Lanier decries are purely an effort to recreate price-like signaling in a context — information in general, and digital networks in particular — where the money-based price system is systematically disfunctional. It may be right or wrongheaded; imperfect or perfect. But it is not collectivism.
Take Google's algorithm. It aggregates the distributed judgments of millions of people who have bothered to host a webpage. It doesn't take any judgment, only those that people care enough about to exert effort to insert a link in their own page to some other page. In other words, relatively "scarce" or "expensive" choices. It doesn't ask the individuals to submerge their identity, or preferences, or actions in any collective effort. No one spends their evenings in consensus-building meetings. It merely produces a snapshot of how they spend their scarce resources: time, web-page space, expectations about their readers' attention. That is what any effort to synthesize a market price does. Anyone who claims that they have found transcendent wisdom in the pattern emerging from how people spend their scarce resources is a follower of Milton Friedman, not of Chairman Mao.
At that point, Lanier's critique could be about the way in which markets of any form quash individual creativity and unique expression; it might be about how excessive layers of filtering degrade the quality of information extracted from people's behavior with their scarce resources, so that these particular implementations are poor market-replacement devices. In either case, his lot is with those of us who see the emergence of social production and peer production as an alternative to both state-based and market-based, closed, proprietary systems, which can enhance creativity, productivity, and freedom.
To conclude: The spin of Lanier's piece is wrong. Much of the substance is useful. The big substantive limitation I see is his excessively rosy view of the efficacy of the price system in information production. Networked-based, distributed, social production, both individual and cooperative, offers a new system, alongside markets, firms, governments, and traditional non-profits, within which individuals can engage in information, knowledge, and cultural production. This new modality of production offers new challenges, and new opportunities. It is the polar opposite of Maoism. It is based on enhanced individual capabilities, employing widely distributed computation, communication, and storage in the hands of individuals with insight, motivation, and time, and deployed at their initiative through technical and social networks, either individually or in loose voluntary associations.
Jaron Lanier is certainly right to look at the downsides of collective action. It's not a revolution if nobody loses, and in this case, expertise and iconoclasm are both relegated by some forms of group activity. However, "Digital Maoism" mischaracterizes the present situation in two ways. The first is that the target of the piece, the hive mind, is just a catchphrase, used by people who don't understand how things like Wikipedia really work. As a result, criticism of the hive mind becomes similarly vague. Second, the initial premise of the piece — there are downsides to collective production of intellectual work — gets spread it so widely that it comes to cover RSS aggregators, American Idol, and the editorial judgment of the NY Times. These are errors of overgeneralization; it would be good to have a conversation about Wikipedia's methods and governance, say, but that conversation can't happen without talking about its actual workings, nor can it happen if it is casually lumped together with other, dissimilar kinds of group action.
The bigger of those two mistakes appears early: "The problem I am concerned with here is not the Wikipedia in itself. It's been criticized quite a lot, especially in the last year, but the Wikipedia is just one experiment that still has room to change and grow. [...] No, 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." Curiously, the ability of the real Wikipedia to adapt to new challenges is taken at face value. The criticism is then directed instead at people proclaiming Wikipedia as an avatar of a golden era of collective consciousness. Let us stipulate that people who use terms like hive mind to discuss Wikipedia and other social software are credulous at best, and that their pronouncements tend towards caricature. What "Digital Maoism" misses is that Wikipedia doesn't work the way those people say it does.
Neither proponents nor detractors of hive mind rhetoric have much interesting to say about Wikipedia itself, because both groups ignore the details. As Fernanda Viegas's work shows, Wikipedia isn't an experiment in anonymous collectivist creation; it is a specific form of production, with its own bureaucratic logic and processes for maintaining editorial control. Indeed, though the public discussions of Wikipedia often focus on the 'everyone can edit' notion, the truth of the matter is that a small group of participants design and enforce editorial policy through mechanisms like the Talk pages, lock protection, article inclusion voting, mailing lists, and so on. Furthermore, proposed edits are highly dependant on individual reputation — anonymous additions or alterations are subjected to a higher degree of both scrutiny and control, while the reputation of known contributors is publicly discussed on the Talk pages.
Wikipedia is best viewed as an engaged community that uses a large and growing number of regulatory mechanisms to manage a huge set of proposed edits. "Digital Maoism" specifically rejects that point of view, setting up a false contrast with open source projects like Linux, when in fact the motivations of contributors are much the same. With both systems, there are a huge number of casual contributors and a small number of dedicated maintainers, and in both systems part of the motivation comes from appreciation of knowledgeable peers rather than the general public. Contra Lanier, individual motivations in Wikipedia are not only alive and well, it would collapse without them.
"The Digital Maoism" argument is further muddied by the other systems dragged in for collectivist criticism. There's the inclusion of American Idol, in which a popularity contest is faulted for privileging popularity. Well, yes, it would, wouldn't it, but the negative effects here don't come from some new form of collectivity, they come from voting, a tool of fairly ancient provenance. Decrying Idol's centrality is similarly misdirected. This season's final episode was viewed by roughly a fifth of the country. By way of contrast, the final episode of M*A*S*H was watched by three fifths of the country. The centrality of TV, and indeed of any particular medium, has been in decline for three decades. If the pernicious new collectivism is relying on growing media concentration, we're safe.
Popurls.com is similarly and oddly added to the argument, but there is in fact no meta-collectivity algorithm at work here — Popurls just an aggregation of RSS feeds. You might as well go after my.yahoo if that's the kind of thing that winds you up. And the ranking systems that are aggregated all display different content, suggesting real subtleties in the interplay of algorithm and audience, rather than a homogenizing hive mind at work. You wouldn't know it, though, to read the broad-brush criticism of Popurls here. And that is the missed opportunity of "The Digital Maoism": there are things wrong with RSS aggregators, ranking algorithms, group editing tools, and voting, things we should identify and try to fix. But the things wrong with voting aren't wrong with editing tools, and the things wrong with ranking algorithms aren't wrong with aggregators. To take the specific case of Wikipedia, the Seigenthaler/Kennedy debacle catalyzed both soul-searching and new controls to address the problems exposed, and the controls included, inter alia, a greater focus on individual responsibility, the very factor "Digital Maoism" denies is at work.
The changes we are discussing here are fundamental. The personal computer produced an incredible increase in the creative autonomy of the individual. The internet has made group forming ridiculously easy. Since social life involves a tension between individual freedom and group participation, the changes wrought by computers and networks are therefore in tension. To have a discussion about the plusses and minuses of various forms of group action, though, is going to require discussing the current tools and services as they exist, rather than discussing their caricatures or simply wishing that they would disappear.
Where Jaron Lanier sees centralization, I see decentralization. Wikipedia is notable for lots of reasons, but the most interesting one is that Wikipedia — a genuinely useful information resource of great depth and breadth — was created in almost no time, for almost no cost, by people who had no access to the traditional canon.
We're bad futurists, we humans. We're bad at predicting what will be important and useful tomorrow. We think the telephone will be best used to bring opera to America's living rooms. We set out nobly to make TV into an educational medium. We create functional hypertext to facilitate the sharing of draft physics papers.
If you need to convince a gatekeeper that your contribution is worthy before you're allowed to make it, you'd better hope the gatekeeper has superhuman prescience. (Gatekeepers don't have superhuman prescience.) Historically, the best way to keep the important things rolling off the lines is to reduce the barriers to entry. Important things are a fraction of all things, and therefore, the more things you have, the more important things you'll have.
The worst judges of tomorrow's important things is today's incumbents. If you're about to creatively destroy some incumbent's business-model, that incumbent will be able to tell you all kinds of reasons why you should cut it out. Travel agents had lots of soothing platitudes about why Expedia would never fly. Remember travel agents? Wonder how that worked out for them.
The travel agents were right, of course. Trying to change your own plane tickets stinks. But Internet travel succeeds by being good at the stuff that travel agents sucked at, not good at the stuff that made travel agents great. Internet travel is great because it's cheap and always-on, because you can reclaim the "agency" (ahem) of plotting your route and seeing the timetables and because you can comparison shop in a way that was never possible before.
Wikipedia isn't great because it's like the Britannica. The Britannica is great at being authoritative, edited, expensive, and monolithic. Wikipedia is great at being free, brawling, universal, and instantaneous.
Making a million-entry encyclopedia out of photons, philosophy and peer-pressure would be impossible before the Internet's "collectivism." Wikipedia is a noble experiment in defining a protocol for organizing the individual efforts of disparate authors with conflicting agendas. Even better, it has a meta-framework — its GNU copyright license — that allows anyone else to take all that stuff and use part or all of Wikipedia to seed different approaches to the problem.
Wikipedia's voice is by no means bland, either. If you suffice yourself with the actual Wikipedia entries, they can be a little papery, sure. But that's like reading a mailing-list by examining nothing but the headers. Wikipedia entries are nothing but the emergent effect of all the angry thrashing going on below the surface.
No, if you want to really navigate the truth via Wikipedia, you have to dig into those "history" and "discuss" pages hanging off of every entry. That's where the real action is, the tidily organized palimpsest of the flamewar that lurks beneath any definition of "truth."
The Britannica tells you what dead white men agreed upon, Wikipedia tells you what live Internet users are fighting over.
The Britannica truth is an illusion, anyway. There's more than one approach to any issue, and being able to see multiple versions of them, organized with argument and counter-argument, will do a better job of equipping you to figure out which truth suits you best.
True, reading Wikipedia is a media literacy exercise. You need to acquire new skill-sets to parse out the palimpsest. That's what makes is genuinely novel. Reading Wikipedia like Britannica stinks. Reading Wikipedia like Wikipedia is mind-opening.
Free software like Ubuntu Linux and Firefox can have beautiful UIs (despite Lanier's claims) and the authors who made those UIs and their codebase surely put in that work for the egoboo and credit. But you'll never know who designed your favorite UI widget unless you learn to read the Firefox palimpsest: the source-tree.
Wikipedia doesn't supplant individual voices like those on blogs. Wikipedia contributors are often prolific bloggers, wont to talk about their work on Wikipedia in LiveJournals and Typepads and Wordpresses. Wikipedia is additive — it creates an additional resource out of the labor of those passionate users.
So Wikipedia gets it wrong. Britannica gets it wrong, too. The important thing about systems isn't how they work, it's how they fail. Fixing a Wikipedia article is simple. Participating in the brawl takes more effort, but then, that's the price you pay for truth, and it's still cheaper than starting up your own Britannica.
The Wikipedia is all that it claims to be: a free encyclopedia created by its readers, that is, by anyone on the internet. That feat would be wonderful enough, but its origin is so peculiar, and its existence so handy, the obvious follow up question has become, is it anything else? Is the Wikipedia a template for other kinds of information, or maybe even other kinds of creative works? Is the way the Wikipedia authored a guide to the way many new things might be created? Is it something we should aim towards? Is it an proxy of what is coming in the coming century?
That's a heavy mythic load to put on something only a few years old, but it seems to have stuck. For better or worse, the Wikipedia now represents smart chaos, or bottom up power, or decentralized being, or out of control goodness, or what I seemed to have called for the lack of a better term: the hive mind. It is not the only hive mind out there. We see the web itself, and other collective entities, such as fandoms, voting audiences, link aggregators, consensus filters, opens source communities, and so on, all basking in a rising tide of loosely connected communal action.
But it doesn't take very long to discover that none of these innovations is pure hive mind, and that the supposed paragon of ad hocary — the Wikipedia — is itself far from strictly bottom-up. In fact a close inspection of Wikipedia's process reveals that it has an elite at its center, (and that it does have a center is news to most), and that there is far more deliberate design management going on than first appears.
This is why Wikipedia has worked in such a short time. The main drawback to pure unadulterated Darwinism is that it takes place in biological time — eons. The top-down design part woven deep within by Jimmy Wales and associates has allowed the Wikipedia to be smarter than pure dumb evolution would allow in a few years. It is important to remember how dumb the bottom is in essence. In biological natural selection, the prime architect is death. What's dumber than that? One binary bit.
We are too much in a hurry to wait around for a pure hive mind. Our technological systems are marked by the fact that we have introduced intelligent design into them. This is the top-down control we insert to speed and direct a system toward our goals. Every technological system, including Wikipedia, has design in it. What's new is only this: never before have we been able to make systems with as much "hive" in it as we have recently made with the Web. Until this era, technology was primarily all control, all design. Now it can be design and hive. In fact, this Web 2.0 business is chiefly the first step in exploring all the ways in which we can combine design and the hive in innumerable permutations. We are tweaking the dial in hundreds of combos: dumb writers, smart filters; smart writers, dumb filters, ad infinitum.
But if the hive mind is so dumb, why bother with it at all?
Because as dumb as it is, it is smart enough. More importantly, its brute dumbness produces the raw material that design smarts can work on. If we only listed to the hive mind, that would be stupid. But if we ignore the hive mind altogether, that is even stupider.
There's a bottom to the bottom. I hope we realize that a massive bottom-up effort will only take us part way — at least in human time. That's why it should be no surprise to anyone that over time more and more design, more and more control, more and more structure will be layered into the Wikipedia. I would guess that in 50 years a significant portion of Wikipedia articles will have controlled edits, peer review, verification locks, authentication certificates, and so on. That's all good for us readers. The fast moving frontiers will probably be as open and wild as they are now. That's also great for us.
Futhermore, I know it is heresy, but it might be that the Wikipedia model is not good for very much more than writing universal encyclopedias. Perhaps the article length is fortuitously the exactly right length for the smart mob, and maybe a book is exactly the wrong length. However while the 2006 Wikipedia process may not be the best way to make a textbook, or create the encyclopedia of all species, or dispense the news, the 2056 Wikipedia process, with far more design in it, may be.
It may be equally heretical (but not to this group) to suggest that the hive mind will write far more of our textbooks, and databases and news than anyone might believe right now.
Here's how I sum it up:
The bottom-up hive mind will always take us much further that seems possible. It keeps surprising us. In this regard, the Wikipedia truly is exhibit A, impure as it is, because it is something that is impossible in theory, and only possible in practice. It proves the dumb thing is smarter than we think. At that same time, the bottom-up hive mind will never take us to our end goal. We are too impatient. So we add design and top down control to get where we want to go.
Judged from where we start, harnessing the dumb power of the hive mind will takes us much further than we can dream. Judged from where we end up, the hive mind is not enough; we need top-down design.
Since we are only at the start of the start, it's the hive mind all the way for now.
Long live the Wikipedia!
I'll just be short, since I'm too busy reading hive-mind output:
I think the real argument is between voting or aggregating — where anonymous people raise or lower things in esteem by the weight of sheer numbers — vs. arguments by recognizable, individuals that answer the arguments of other individuals... The first is useful in coming up with numbers and trends and leading movements, but it's not creative in the way that evolution, for example, creates species. Evolution isn't blind voting. It works by using a grammar (of genetic materials and unfolding proteins; some biologist will correct me here for sure) to make changes that are consistent with the whole - i.e. adding two new limbs at a time, or adding muscle to support added mass. Arguments may win or lose and a consensus argument or belief may arise, but it is structured, and emerges more finely shaped than what mere voting or "collectivism" would have produced.
That's why we have representative government — in theory at least. Certain people — designated "experts" — sit together to design something that is supposed to be coherent. (That's the vision, anyway.) You can easily vote both for lower taxes and more services, but you can't design a consistent system that will deliver that.
So, to get the best results, we have people sharpening their ideas against one another rather than simply editing someone's contribution and replacing it with another. We also have a world where the contributors have identities (real or fake, but consistent and persistent) and are accountable for their words. Much like Edge, in fact.
What exactly is Jaron Lanier's thesis? His main theme is that a certain kind of collectivism is in the ascendancy, and that's a terrible thing. He decries the view 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."
I find myself agreeing with Lanier: the collectivism he describes is a terrible thing, by golly, and far too many people we admire seem to be caught up in it. But in agreeing, I find myself in a couple of paradoxes. First, surely, no one would admit to believing that the "collective is all-wise." So hasn't Lanier set up a straw man? Second, I myself am an advocate of what I call "strong collaboration," exemplified by Wikipedia, in which a work is developed not just by multiple authors, but a constantly changing battery of authors, none of which "owns" the work. So am I not myself committed, if anyone is, to believing "the collective is all-wise"?
To understand Lanier's thesis, and where I agree with it — and why it isn't a straw man — it helps to consider certain attitudes one pretty commonly finds in the likes of Wikipedia, Slashdot, and the Blogosphere generally. Let me describe something close to home. In late 2004 I publicly criticized Wikipedia for failing to respect expertise properly, to which a surprisingly large number of people replied that, essentially, Wikipedia's success has shown that "experts" are no longer needed, that a wide-ranging description of everyone's opinions is more valuable than what some narrow-minded "expert" thinks.
Slashdot's post-ranking system is another perfect example. Slashdotters simply would not stand for a system in which some hand-selected group of editors chose or promoted posts; but if the result is decided by an impersonal algorithm, then it's okay. It isn't that the Slashdotters have a rational belief that the cream will rise to the top, under the system; people use the system just because it seems fairer or more equal to them.
It's not quite right to say the "collectivists" believe that the collective is all-wise. Rather, they don't really care about getting it right as much as they care about equality.
You might notice that Lanier never bothered to refute, in his essay, the view that the collective is all-wise. That's because this view is obviously wrong. Truth and high quality generally are obviously not guaranteed by sheer numbers. But then the champions of collective opinion-making and aggregation surely don't think they are. So isn't Lanier just knocking down a straw man? I don't think so. As I take it, the substance of his point is that the aggregate views expressed by the collective are actually more valuable, in some sense, than anything produced by people designated as "experts" or "authorities."
Think about that a bit. Ultimately, I think there is a deep epistemological issue at work here. Epistemologists have a term, positive epistemic status, for the positive features that can attach to beliefs; so truth, knowledge, justification, evidence, and various other terms are all names for various kinds of positive epistemic status.
So I think we are discovering that there is a lively movement afoot that rejects the traditional kinds of positive epistemic status, and wants to replace them with, or explain them in terms of, whatever it is that the collective (i.e., a large group of people, of which one is a part) believes or endorses. We can give this view a name, for convenience: epistemic collectivism.
Epistemic collectivism is a real phenomenon; whether they admit it or not, a lot of people do place the views of the collective uppermost. People are epistemic collectivists in just the same way, and for just the same reasons, that they are abject conformists. Surely epistemic collectivism has its roots in the easy sophomoric embrace of relativism. If there is no objective truth, as so many of my old college students seemed to believe, then there is no way to make sense of the idea of expertise or of intellectual authority. Without a reality "out there," independent of us, that we can be right or wrong about, there is no way to justify placing some "experts" above the rest of us in terms of the reliability of their claims. If you're an epistemic collectivist, then it's natural to think that the experts can be overruled by the rest of us.
Now to the second paradox I mentioned earlier. How can I agree with Lanier and still promote strong collaboration? How can both I reject epistemic collectivism and yet say that Wikipedia is a great project, which I do? Well, the problem is that epistemic collectivists like Wikipedia but for the wrong reasons. What's great about it is not that it produces an averaged view, an averaged view that is somehow better than an authoritative statement by people who actually know the subject. That's just not it at all. What's great about Wikipedia is the fact that it is a way to organize enormous amounts of labor for a single intellectual purpose. The virtue of strong collaboration, as demonstrated by projects like Wikipedia, is that it represents a new kind of "industrial revolution," where what is reorganized is not techne but instead mental effort. It's the sheer efficiency of strongly collaborative systems that is so great, not their ability to produce The Truth. Just how to eke The Truth out of such a strongly collaborative system is an unsolved, and largely unaddressed, problem.
So online collaboration in some people's minds can be indistinguishable from a new collectivism, and Lanier is right both to say so and to condemn the fact. But this collectivism is inherent neither in tools, such as wikis, nor in methods, such as collaboration and aggregation.
The hive mind ain't what it used to be
Jaron Lanier raises important points about collectivism, yet the barbs thrown at Wikipedia seem misplaced. There's no doubt that online aggregators such as Digg, Reddit, and popurls can seem faceless to the point of being soulless. However, the irony of his critique is that Wikipedia is very much the opposite of these aggregator sites. Instead of algorithmically aggregating content, Wikipedia depends on writers settling their differences on an individual level. Nothing is created or posted automatically — and it shows.
Consider Lanier's praise for seeing "the context in which something was written" coupled with his condemnation of the "anti-contextual brew of the Wikipedia." Yet context is one of the great strengths of Wikipedia. Here's a magic trick for you: Go to a long or controversial Wikipedia page (say, "Jaron Lanier"). Click on the tab marked "discussion" at the top. Abracadabra: context!
This rich context, attached to many Wikipedia articles, is known as a "talk page." The talk page is where the writers for an article hash out their differences, plan future edits, and come to agreement about tricky rhetorical points. This kind of debate doubtless happens in the New York Times and Britannica as well, but behind the scenes. Wikipedia readers can see it all, and understand how choices were made.
This visible process can illuminate the intellectual liveliness of topics that may seem like dry fact to the casual reader. Take the talk page for "denotational semantics." In a textbook this recondite computer science concept may sound set in stone, but it comes to life when you read a sharp argument between an MIT professor and other experts over exactly what should be in the article. Moreover, these debates are full of personality and individual voice. Wikipedia etiquette dictates that most people sign their contributions to talk pages. Read the discussion pages for "Feminism" or "Chess," and you'll see a cacophony of individual voices. The hive mind ain't what it used to be.
Lanier brings up the specter of Maoism, but let's take a look at the authorial crowd in action on the "Jaron Lanier" talk page. Here is what we see: someone has pointed to Lanier's article and suggested removing the incorrect reference to filmmaking. Someone else agrees and says they'll be watching the article. A second piece of dialogue on the page ends with a signed post saying, "We should use his [Lanier's] own words when possible, especially as he objects to a lot of the article." This is not exactly a Maoist mob.
These efforts can also be seen through another arena of context: Wikipedia's visible, trackable edit history. The reverts that erased Lanier's own edits show this process in action. Clicking on the "history" tab of the article shows that a reader — identified only by an anonymous IP address — inserted a series of increasingly frustrated complaints into the body of the article. Although the remarks did include statements like "This is Jaron — really," another reader evidently decided the anonymous editor was more likely to be a vandal than the real Jaron. While Wikipedia failed this Jaron Lanier Turing test, it was seemingly set up for failure: would he expect the editors of Britannica to take corrections from a random hotmail.com email address? What he didn't provide, ironically, was the context and identity that Wikipedia thrives on. A meaningful user name, or simply comments on the talk page, might have saved his edits from the axe.
Perhaps the most interesting part of this story is that Wikipedia already had guidelines to cover this situation. The "Wikipedia: Biographies of living persons" page specifically warns that seeming vandalism of the biography of a living person might be by the subject him or herself, inexperienced with Wikipedia editing procedure. While this guideline didn't prevent the unfortunate reverts to the Jaron Lanier article, it was sufficiently well-known to be used by one of the discussants on the talk page to justify keeping Lanier's own language. The emergence of this type of shared policy is one of the fascinating developments in Wikipedia — and yet another way that Wikipedia can be distinguished from an automatic algorithm or mindless crowd.
The truth is, it can be hard to find a crowd on Wikipedia, let alone a "hive mind." Lanier decries an amorphous, anonymous collective that edits Wikipedia pages. As with the Jaron Lanier article, it is usually a small group of editors who steadily work on a given page over time. We often know who these people are (they may sign their posts on talk pages or have personal user pages). Generally speaking, the few pages on Wikipedia that are edited by a truly amorphous crowd either cover current events or are featured on the front page of Wikipedia (front page articles are highly visible). Even then, crowd editing is usually transient and, once it plummets — either because the article gets off the front page or because the event stops being featured in the news — the core group of editors typically takes over the page maintenance again.
In short, it is hard to claim that Wikipedia is built by an anonymous, mindless mob engaged in foolish collectivism. As long as critiques of Wikipedia's processes stop at the article level, they will continue to miss the point. The persistent, searchable archives provided by Wiki technology allow individual voices to survive even as consensus is reached. At the same time, there is certainly a collective will — one that may make mistakes, but also attempts to keep itself in check through emergent policies, guidelines, and elements of bureaucracy. It is this publicly available context and meta-structure that truly distinguish Wikipedia from algorithmic or market-based aggregation. It's by no means certain how stable this system is, or what it will look like in 10 years. But the fact that these processes emerge is a testament to the power of transparency and persistence — and it will be interesting to see what happens next.
My response is quite simple: this alleged "core belief" is not one which is held by me, nor as far as I know, by any important or prominent Wikipedians. Nor do we have any particular faith in collectives or collectivism as a mode of writing. Authoring at Wikipedia, as everywhere, is done by individuals exercising the judgment of their own minds.
This delightful and much-needed essay is the product of a brilliant individual mind at work.
However, Lanier's high-level insights are themselves the result of exactly those collective, haphazard, and noisy processes that are under criticism here. Deep within Jaron Lanier's brain, layer upon layer of anonymous neurons have cycled collectively through meta-meta-meta levels of information processing to produce the thinking he presents so coherently in words. Underlying everything from music to vision are social networks where popularity and having the right connections wins. When Lanier was in his infancy, processes similar to PageRank, AdSense, and AdWords, running (and competing) amok among billions of neurons and trillions of synapses, allowed the language, symbols, and meaning embodied in his surrounding human culture to take root. When it comes to natural intelligence, Wikipedia, not Britannica, wrote the book.
All intelligence is collective. But, as Lanier points out, that does not mean that all collectives are intelligent.
The important part of his message is a warning to respect, and preserve, our own intelligence. The dangers of relinquishing individual intelligence are real.
Lanier does not want to debate the existence or non-existence of metaphysical entities. But his argument that online collectivism produces artificial stupidity offers no reassurance to me. Real artificial intelligence (if and when) will be unfathomable to us. At our level, it may appear as dumb as American Idol, or as pointless as a nervous twitch that corrects and uncorrects Jaron Lanier's Wikipedia entry in an endless loop.
collected thoughts from people responding to Jaron Lanier's
Does Lanier truly not see the historical absurdity of equating Wikipedia and other such phenomena with Maoism and collectivism? Even the most cursory examination of the Communist predations of the 20th Century makes that clear. A tendentious title and analogy undermines the many interesting facts he's assembled.
The better analogy is the old-fashioned barn-raising, where people contribute their labor for a specific purpose. It takes more than a hive to raise the barn. (I'd say it takes a village, but that's been turned into a political cliche.) People with a variety of expertise, ranging from expert to pure novice, come together to solve a problem. Leaders emerge to steer the process, and a barn happens.
It's not about an all-wise hive mind. It's not about a collective. It's about community.
It's also about persistence — and celebrating the reality that knowledge is not a static end-point but rather an ongoing process. New facts and nuances emerge after articles are published. One of Wikipedia's best characteristics is its recognition that we can liberate ourselves from the publication or broadcast metaphors from the age of literally manufactured media, where the paper product or tape for broadcasting was the end of the process. My mantra as a journalist was a simple one: My readers know more than I do. We may (should I use this word?) collectively not get it right, and in fact humans almost never get anything entirely right, but get closer the more we assemble new data and nuance. If Steven Spielberg and other Hollywood folks can create directors' cuts of their movies, why can't journalists and other creators, amateur and professional, keep updating and improving some of their own works?
Pointing out the flaws in Wikipedia seems to be a new participatory sport. Let me join for a minute; the entry about me is both incorrect in small ways and grossly out of date. I've honored the site's request that people who are the subjects of articles not fix them, but I'm definitely annoyed.
Then again, no article about me or my work in a traditional media outlet has ever been precisely correct. Factual errors, mostly minor, are common. Ditto out-of-context quotes. Yet those articles are now there — in print and even in databases, never to be updated, because the manufacturing model doesn't permit such things.
The flaws in Wikipedia and other kinds of media are real. (Disclosure: Jimmy Wales is a friend; he is on my advisory board; and I'm an investor in his for-profit company.) But ways it shows us how to improve, along with watching how the community (not collective) operates around individual articles and the project as a whole, are lessons in themselves.
The debate does demonstrate how much we need to update our media literacy in a digital, distributed era. Our internal BS meters already work, but they've fallen into a low and sad level of use in the Big Media world. Many people tend to believe what they read. Others tend to disbelieve everything. Too few apply appropriate skepticism and do the additional work that true media literacy requires.
We need better tools to help us, as a community, gauge the reliability and authenticity of what we find online (or in print or on the air, etc.). Popularity is only one measure. Reputation has to become part of the mix in systems that combine human and machine intelligence in novel ways.
What's most essential, though, is to remember how early we are in this process. Wikipedia isn't the ultimate authority. It is, however, a remarkable achievement. And it's getting better. I look forward to seeing how it proceeds.
I agree that new notions about collective intelligence and peer production should be viewed critically and not embraced in a spirit of magical thinking — but I find it strange that someone as educated as Jaron should fall into the same simple fallacy the Cato Institute fell for: collective action is not the same as collectivism. Commons-based peer production in Wikipedia, open source software, and prediction markets is collective action, not collectivism. Collective action involves freely chosen self-election (which is almost always coincident with self-interest) and distributed coordination; collectivism involves coercion and centralized control; treating the Internet as a commons doesn't mean it is communist (tell that to Bezos, Yang, Filo, Brin or Page, to name just a few billionaires who managed to scrape together private property from the Internet commons).
Return to "Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism" By Jaron Lanier