Thursday, June 08, 2006

Online collectivism: Following Mao or Friedman?

John Brockman and Clay Shirky have captured a fascinating series of responses to Jaron Lanier's thought provoking essay "Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism"

Set aside some time for some of them. Douglas Rushkoff for instance:

"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.

Kevin's overburdened "hive mind" metaphor notwithstanding, a networked collaboration is not an absolutely level playing field inhabited by drones. It is an ecology of interdependencies. Take a look at any of these online functioning collective intelligences — from eBay to Slashdot — and you'll soon get a sense of who has gained status and influence. 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...

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.

If you really want to get to the heart of why groups of people using a certain medium tend to behave in a certain way, you'd have to start with an exploration of biases of the medium itself. 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. We don't blame the toaster for its inability to churn butter.

That's why it would particularly sad to dismiss the possibilities for an emergent collective intelligence based solely on the early results of one interface (the Web) on one network (the Internet) of one device (the computer). The "hive mind" metaphor was just one early, optimistic futurist's way of explaining a kind of behavior he hadn't experienced before: that of a virtual community...

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. It's not the content, it's the contact... 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. Craigslist's founder is a hero online not because he has gone "meta" but because of the very real and practical connections he has fostered between people looking for jobs, homes, or families to adopt their pets. And it wasn't Craig's intellectual framing that won him this reputation, but the time and energy he put into maintaining the social cohesion of his online space...

I'm troubled by American Idol and the increasingly pandering New York Times as much as anyone, but I don't blame collaboration or techno-utopianism for their ills. In these cases, we're not watching the rise of some new dangerous form of digital populism, but the replacement of key components of a cultural ecology — music and journalism — by the priorities of consumer capitalism.

In fact, the alienating effects of mass marketing are in large part what motivate today's urge toward collective activity. 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. "

Other responses come from Quentin Hardy, Yochai Benkler, Clay Shirky, Cory Doctorow, Kevin Kelly, Esther Dyson, Larry Sanger, Fernanda Viegas & Martin Wattenberg, Jimmy Wales, George Dyson, Dan Gillmor, Howard Rheingold. Benkler most eloquently gets to the heart of the issues, in a reprise of the thesis of his recently published book, The Wealth of Networks:

"Lanier has two driving concerns. The first is deep: loss of individuality, devaluation of the unique, responsible, engaged individual as the core element of a system of information, knowledge, and culture. The second strikes me as more superficial, or at least as more time- and space-bound. That is the concern with the rise of constructs like "hive mind" and metafilters and efforts to build business models around them.

Like Lanier, I see individuals as the bearers of moral claims and the sources of innovation, creativity, and insight. Unlike Lanier, I have argued that enhanced individual practical capabilities represent the critical long term shift introduced by the networked information economy, improving on the operation of markets and governments in the preceding century and a half. This is where I think we begin to part ways. Lanier has too sanguine a view of markets and governments. To me, markets, governments (democratic or otherwise), social relations, technical platforms are all various and partly overlapping systems within which individuals exist. They exhibit diverse constraints and affordances, and enable and disable various kinds of action for the individuals who inhabit them. Because of cost constraints and organizational and legal adaptations in the last 150 years, our information, knowledge, and cultural production system has taken on an industrial form, to the exclusion of social and peer-production. Britney Spears and American Idol are the apotheosis of that industrial information economy, not of the emerging networked information economy...

Take Google's algorithm. It aggregates the distributed judgments of millions of people who have bothered to host a webpage. It doesn't take any judgment, only those that people care enough about to exert effort to insert a link in their own page to some other page. In other words, relatively "scarce" or "expensive" choices. It doesn't ask the individuals to submerge their identity, or preferences, or actions in any collective effort. No one spends their evenings in consensus-building meetings. It merely produces a snapshot of how they spend their scarce resources: time, web-page space, expectations about their readers' attention. That is what any effort to synthesize a market price does. Anyone who claims that they have found transcendent wisdom in the pattern emerging from how people spend their scarce resources is a follower of Milton Friedman, not of Chairman Mao.

At that point, Lanier's critique could be about the way in which markets of any form quash individual creativity and unique expression; it might be about how excessive layers of filtering degrade the quality of information extracted from people's behavior with their scarce resources, so that these particular implementations are poor market-replacement devices. In either case, his lot is with those of us who see the emergence of social production and peer production as an alternative to both state-based and market-based, closed, proprietary systems, which can enhance creativity, productivity, and freedom.

To conclude: The spin of Lanier's piece is wrong. Much of the substance is useful. The big substantive limitation I see is his excessively rosy view of the efficacy of the price system in information production. Networked-based, distributed, social production, both individual and cooperative, offers a new system, alongside markets, firms, governments, and traditional non-profits, within which individuals can engage in information, knowledge, and cultural production. This new modality of production offers new challenges, and new opportunities. It is the polar opposite of Maoism. It is based on enhanced individual capabilities, employing widely distributed computation, communication, and storage in the hands of individuals with insight, motivation, and time, and deployed at their initiative through technical and social networks, either individually or in loose voluntary associations."

Now how do I translate that in a such way that ordinary folk can engage with it?

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