The 6th Annual Year in Ideas

[ Wed. Oct. 11. 2006 ]

Digital Maoism

Karl Marx famously predicted that industrial capitalism’s individualist ethos would engender its opposite: a new collective consciousness that would ultimately fuel the socialist revolution. But the old dialectician would probably have been shocked to see how much collectivism has flowered in the hypercapitalist Internet economy of late. First there was open-source software — large-scale digital engineering projects miraculously executed by groups of programmers contributing their intellectual labor for the sheer reward of participation. Then Google took on the seemingly insurmountable problem of organizing the Web’s information by tapping the collective wisdom embedded in the links between Web sites. Then Wikipedia applied the open-source model to encyclopedia production, and — against all odds — built a genuine challenger to Britannica in four short years.

But all the hype over the powers of the so-called hive mind was bound to provoke a reaction, and in May of this year, it arrived in the form of a thoughtful — though controversial — essay by the artist and computer scientist Jaron Lanier. “What we are witnessing today,” Lanier wrote on Edge.org, “is the alarming rise of the fallacy of the infallible collective. Numerous elite organizations have been swept off their feet by the idea. They are inspired by the rise of the Wikipedia, by the wealth of Google and by the rush of entrepreneurs to be the most Meta. Government agencies, top corporate planning departments and major universities have all gotten the bug.” Lanier dubbed this newthink “digital Maoism.” Against this collectivist mythos, Lanier tried to carve out a crucial space for the insight and creativity of the individual mind.

Unlike most counterrevolutionary manifestoes, however, Lanier’s essay aimed not so much to topple the dominant regime as to limit its application. “There are certain types of answers that ought not be provided by an individual,” he wrote. “When a government bureaucrat sets a price, for instance, the result is often inferior to the answer that would come from a reasonably informed collective. . . . But when a collective designs a product, you get design by committee, which is a derogatory expression for a reason.”

In the essay, Lanier grouped everything from his personal Wikipedia entry to “American Idol” under the umbrella of digital Maoism, and many of the responses to the article by assorted Internet luminaries observed that Lanier had elided important differences between these systems to make his point. The entirety of Wikipedia, for instance, is most certainly a collective undertaking, but many articles are written and edited by small numbers of individuals. Wikipedia may be not too far from the historical reality of Maoism itself: a system propagandized with the language of collectivism that was, in practice, actually run by a small power elite.

In any case, culture and technology are increasingly reliant on the hive mind — and whatever its faults, Lanier’s broadside helps us consider the consequences of this momentous development. A swarm of connected human minds is a fantastic resource for tracking down software bugs or discovering obscure gems on the Web. But if you want to come up with a good idea, or a sophisticated argument, or a work of art, you’re still better off going solo.

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