Jaron Lanier and The Hazards of Online Collectivism

Jaron Lanier, who is famous for having coined the term virtual reality and the concepts that go with it, wrote an essay in late May that has provoked discussion all over the internet. Here is a quote from the piece. The complete article can be found at the EDGE website. The essay is entitled, "Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism."

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. At the very least it's a success at revealing what the online people with the most determination and time on their hands are thinking, and that's actually interesting information.

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. 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. The fact that it's now being re-introduced today by prominent technologists and futurists, people who in many cases I know and like, doesn't make it any less dangerous.

The EDGE also has 28 pages of responses to what Lanier says.

The essence of his argument is that collaborative work on the net has become increasingly hive-like. This leads to a "group mentality" approach to ideas and the notion that the "collective is all-wise." The result is a tyranny of the majority with a simultaneous loss of value both to intellectual depth and the way democracies operate. He is particularly critical of wikipedia— the online encyclopedia which is being built by individuals from all over the world in much the same manner as open source software. I have commented on wikipedia before. Some of Lanier's fears are well-founded, but for the most part, his comments don't explain or clarify why networked forms of knowledge contruction are any more hive-based than most intellectual projects. Generally, irrespective of the type of knowledge or information produced, there are communities of interest that define and reinforce the concepts, categories and arguments that they support. This has been discussed in great depth by people like Bruno Latour and Elias Canetti wrote an important "Crowds and Power," in 1962 on the phenomenon of mass hysteria and the tendency to a kind of viral effect when large groups of people operate in tandem.

Lanier's points need discussion, not the least because networked forms of interaction on the scale that we are seeing at the moment are still very new. That said, there is not much to his analysis of conventional media. He is too skeptical of Popular Culture and gives too much weight to the role of sites like Wikipedia. His concern, that the aggregative role played by the many sites that are about sites is overstated. He is worried that these meta-sites will play an overly powerful role as arbiters of taste and choice. I think in this, he underestimates the intelligence of Internet users. Nonetheless, an important article to read.