Neil Leyden Logo

Monday, December 11, 2006

The New Online Collectivism

I came across a recent article on, a site whose self-proclaimed objective is to “promote inquiry into and discussion of intellectual, philosophical, artistic, and literary issues”. The article entitled “Digital Maoism: The hazards of the New Online Collectivism” was written by Jaron Lanier, the nature of whose background and biography itself instigated the penning of the article. Lanier’s frustration with his biography on Wikipedia – wherein he is listed as a Film Director – was the starting point for his rant against the false promise of what he calls the “new online collectivism”.

Mao Tse Tung by Andy Warhol

As he points out in the article, his Wikipedia entry identifies him as a film director, even though his only dalliance in the world of film was an awful (his words) experimental short film made over a decade and half ago. He has repeatedly tried to change his details on Wikipedia to reflect reality but has consistently been overruled by an assiduous member of the online collective. Inevitably, his Wikipedia reference has reverted back to its old form and he has had to put up with the not-unflattering, if only untrue, label of being a film director. In fact, he curtly signs off his article with the line “Jaron Lanier is a film director”.

His legitimately argued worry is that the concept of a “hive mind” i.e. the collective networked data of the internet as potential startup memory for an Artificial Intelligence (as some think) clouds the real value of the internet. As he notes, quite profoundly, “the beauty of the Internet is that it connects people. The value is in the other people. If we start to believe that the Internet itself is an entity that has something to say, we’re devaluing those people and making ourselves into idiots.”

In the article, he rails against the de-personalised “meta” intelligence that is being promulgated by online aggregation tools. By removing the constraints of the individual i.e. some sort of editorialising, the collective will throw back up the lowest common denominator. This is the real “dumbing down” that society should fear, because it comes not from the broadcaster, but from the collective itself. This is what happens when the aggregator is valued more then what is aggregated. But that is not to say that he is dismissive of collectivism, or indeed the benefit of using online tools to facilitate collectivism. He just argues that the tools need to value and incorporate the input of the individual intelligence. The guiding hand, so to speak. For example, Wikipedia has being forced to put constraints on those editing the topic “George W. Bush”, for obvious reasons. This wasn’t due to libel – but rather due to the fact that a huge number of individuals were constantly updating it for their own purposes. Thus they limited how many times one individual could change it. This is a smart individual decision providing some constraints to the collective, for the benefit of the collective.

To illustrate further the benefits of a smart collective, he gives an example of a ritual practiced in many business schools for incoming students. A jar of jellybeans is placed in front of the classroom. Each student is asked to guess how many beans there are in the jar. While the guesses vary wildly, the average of all the guesses is demonstrably shown to be accurate to an uncanny degree. This is an example of the “Wisdom of Crowds” – the same smart collective thinking (within constraints) that can be seen in Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand, Google’s page rank algorithms and Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point. However, without constraints this collective “wisdom” becomes hysteria over things like fictitious satanic cults, commies under the bed, alien abductions and Y2K mania. Lanier conjectures that it is the marriage of collective and individual intelligence that is best for a healthy marketplace, engendering competition and nurturing and rewarding entrepreneurs.

In many ways this article throws down the gauntlet for content aggregators and broadcasters as we hurtle blindly into the digital future. Technology is absolutely merciless when it comes to its own effect on society. Should we blindly allow information to be aggregated by the deadened number-crunching “hive mind” of the net? Are we not in danger of replacing one self-regarding bureaucracy with another? Or should we now try to look at how the individual mind can marry with the collective power of technologies and the network to create an even more powerful media landscape – one that is democratic, even meritocratic. Or will be just taken by the sway of the “hive” mind, happy to allow the lowest common denominator infiltrate and have our personalised home pages throwing up the news we want to hear, the images we want to see. If so, then we may well learn that the internet is a much more powerful opium for the collective masses then television ever was.

posted by Neil Leyden @ 11:06 a.m.


Post a Comment

<< Home