By Jaron Lanier [5. Why pay attention to it? 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. He cites as an example the Wikipedia, noting that "reading a Wikipedia entry is like reading the bible closely.
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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. Only later did I realize it represented the opening of another front in the battle against traditional culture being waged by certain parts of the technology industry.
This is most clearly occurring in books. Most of us were taught that reading books is synonymous with being civilized. The New York Times Magazine recently had a long essay on the future of books that gleefully predicted that bookshelves and libraries will cease to exist, to be supplanted by snippets of text linked to other snippets of text on computer hard drives. Comments from friends and others would be just as important as the original material being commented on; Keats, say.
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. Between 15, and 20, people have accessed the book electronically, with some of them adding comments and links to the online version. Benkler said he saw the project as "simply an experiment of how books might be in the future. Keep your edges dry.
Your edges are our edges. For some of us, books are intrinsic to our human identity. The human mass. The impossible agglomerate mass. The incommunicable human mass. The people.
Masses of what? One does not ask. 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.
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 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. Speak, I charge you. Witches vanish The earth hath bubbles, as the water has, And these are of them.
Or have we eaten on the insane root That takes the reason prisoner? After talking to John Brockman, we decided to try to capture some of the best responses here. 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. 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. This new modality of production offers new challenges, and new opportunities.
It is the polar opposite of Maoism. 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.
The Britannica is great at being authoritative, edited, expensive, and monolithic. Wikipedia is great at being free, brawling, universal, and instantaneous. 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. 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. Well, the problem is that epistemic collectivists like Wikipedia but for the wrong reasons.
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. 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. 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. 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.
Lanier is not condemning collective, bottom-up activity as much as trying to find ways to check its development. 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. Our fledgling collective intelligences are not emerging in a vacuum, but on media platforms with very specific biases. 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.
It is an ecology of interdependencies. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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. In any case, the true value of the collective is not its ability to go "meta" or to generate averages but rather, quite the opposite, to connect strangers. Already, new sub-classifications of diseases have been identified when enough people with seemingly unique symptoms find one another online.
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. 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. 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. And watching for signs of such intelligent life is anything but boring. 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. 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.
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.
The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism
Why pay attention to it? 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. He cites as an example the Wikipedia, noting that "reading a Wikipedia entry is like reading the bible closely. There are faint traces of the voices of various anonymous authors and editors, though it is impossible to be sure". And he notes that "the Wikipedia is far from being the only online fetish site for foolish collectivism.
Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism
DIGITAL MAOISM: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism