Response to Jaron Lanier’s Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The Edge on 8 June 2006

Despite comparing Wikipedia with the likes of American Idol, this is a more reasoned and hopeful argument than it appears at first glance. Lanier is not condemning collective, bottom-up activity as much as trying to find ways to check its development. In short, it’s an argument for the mindful intervention of individuals in the growth and acceleration of this hive-mind thing called collective intelligence.

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. And I’m concerned that any argument against collaborative activity look fairly at the real reasons why some efforts turn out the way they do. Our fledgling collective intelligences are not emerging in a vacuum, but on media platforms with very specific biases.

First off, we can’t go on pretending that even our favorite disintermediation efforts are revolutions in any real sense of the word. 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. Just because the latter might include a 14-year-old with an Internet connection in no way changes the fact that he’s educated, techno-savvy, and enjoying enough free time to research and post to an encyclopedia for no pay. Although he is not on the editorial board of the Encyclopedia Britannica, he’s certainly in as good a position as anyone to get there.

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.

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. I’m as tired as anyone of art and thought that exists entirely in the realm of context and reference — but you can’t blame Wikipedia for architecture based on winks to earlier eras or a music culture obsessed with sampling old recordings instead of playing new compositions.

Honestly, the loudest outcry over our Internet culture’s inclination towards re-framing and the “meta” tend to come from those with the most to lose in a society where “credit” is no longer a paramount concern. 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.

Now sure, there may have been a bit too many psychedelics making their way through Silicon Valley at the same time as Mac Classics and copies of James Gleick’s Chaos. 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. It’s not the content, it’s the contact.

The Internet itself holds no philosopher’s stone — there’s no God to emerge from the medium. I’m with you, there. But there is something that can emerge from people engaging with one another in ways they hadn’t dreamed possible, before. 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. 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.

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.

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.

One person’s check is another person’s balance.

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. They are a desocialized society’s first baby steps toward acting together with more intelligence than people can alone.

And watching for signs of such intelligent life is anything but boring.