Responses to Jaron Lanier's Crit of Online Collectivism

[ Fri. Jun. 9. 2006 ]

Two weeks ago, Edge.org published Jaron Lanier's essay "Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism," critiquing the importance people are now placing on Wikipedia and other examples of the "hive mind," as people called it in the cyberdelic early 1990s. It's an engaging essay to be sure, but much more thought-provoking to me are the responses from the likes of Clay Shirky, Dan Gillmor, Howard Rheingold, our own Cory Doctorow, Douglas Rushkoff, and, of course, Jimmy Wales.

From Douglas Rushkoff:

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...

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... Claiming authorship is really just a matter of ego and royalties.

From Cory Doctorow:

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.

From Jimmy Wales (italics indicate quotes from Jaron's original essay):

"A core belief of the wiki world is that whatever problems exist in the wiki will be incrementally corrected as the process unfolds." 

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. 

"The best guiding principle is to always cherish individuals first." 

Indeed.

Link

UPDATE: Jaron Lanier writes us that he's received a lot of negative feedback from people who he thinks may not have actually read his original essay:

In the essay i criticized the desire (that has only recently become influential) to create an "oracle effect" out of anonymity on the internet - that's the thing i identified as being a new type of collectivism, but i did not make that accusation against the wikipedia - or against social cooperation on the net, which is something i was an early true believer in- if i remember those weird days well, i think i even made up some of the rhetoric and terminology that is still associated with net advocacy today- anyway, i specifically exempted many internet gatherings from my criticism, including the wikipedia, boingboing, google, cool tools... and also the substance of the essay was not accusatory but constructive- the three rules i proposed for creating effective feedback links to the "hive mind" being one example.

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