Response to Jaron Lanier’s Digital Maoism


By Juliana Brunello

Jaron Lanier is a computer scientist, composer, visual artist, and an author. His homepage affirms that "he either coined or popularized the term 'Virtual Reality'". He has been doing business in this area since the early 80s; which led him to be chosen as one of the 100 "remarkable people" of the Global Business Network, his topics of interests being "high-technology business, the social impact of technological practices, the philosophy of consciousness and information, Internet politics, and the future of humanism."

In his essay 'Digital Maoism' Jaron Lanier makes an open criticism on Wikipedia and its 'hive mind' style. He criticizes the idea of the collective as being 'all-wise' and points out how this idea can be dangerous, if one looks up the examples when the extreme Right or extreme Left were in power in history. Wikipedia, according to him, reestablishes the idea of the collective being 'all-wise'. The central problem that he sees in Wikipedia is not the experiment itself, but its rapid growth in size and importance. He believes it makes Wikipedia a source of social danger, increasing collectivists' thoughts, mob-like acting and turning otherwise creative individuals into idiots. However, can we compare an organization such as Wikipedia to political extremism?

Lanier further compares the Wikipedia to:
  • Myspace, which in opposition to Wikipedia is "all about authorship, but it doesn't pretend to be 'all-wise'."
  • Meta-sites, which, like Wikipedia, "remove the scent of people…. simulating the appearance of content emerging out of the Web as if it were speaking to us as a supernatural oracle".
  • Popurls, which presents topics of different matters and importances as equals, "without context or authorship".
  • Artificial Intelligence, as they try to appear as a smart entity, lowering the expectations people "hold for individual human intellects". So if the Internet itself has something to say, one would be devaluating other people they are connected with.
  • Big organizations, where "individuals are not required to take on risks or responsibility".
  • American Idol, which is another problem of collectivity. Like Wikipedia, the problem is its centrality.
I believe Lanier missed the point. I will start with some quotations and show how he misunderstands Wikipedia's concepts:

Maoism: He associates Maoism with collectivism, with the collectiveness being 'all-wise'. I associate it in addition with China, socialism, censorship, centralized control and mind-wash due to lack of perspectives. Wikipedia presents a new and different system of information production and distribution, which in many cases shows different perspectives on the same topic. Moreover, it is the result of cooperation between individuals and not of collective (forced) action. It does have debates around certain political topics, but it is not a political movement. Digital Maoism is hence a misleading concept.

Hive-mind: Lanier uses this term, but does not define it. He cites Kevin Kelly, so I looked for his definition of it in the Internet and found an online version of his book 'Out of Control'. He says: "… the ant colony moves. Without any visible decision making at a higher level…The marvel of 'hive mind' is that no one is in control, and yet an invisible hand governs, a hand that emerges from very dumb members." This should be the case in Wikipedia according to Lanier. However, this is like saying 'the system did it; 'the system' being an independent entity. What one can easily forget is that systems are a result of human individual actions and much pondering. A further critic point that I have concerning the 'hive mind' metaphor is that he basically equals it to anonymity: "On Cool Tools, the contributors … are not a hive because we are identified." Anonymous contribution does not equal hive/collectiveness/invisible government. The fact that anonymous contribution is possible in Wikipedia does not mean that the contributor is part of a hive, that thinks and acts under an invisible command. Besides, not all contributions in Wikipedia are anonymous; many are identified either by usernames or real names. I believe Lanier confuses the common goal of trying to create an encyclopedia with a dangerous mob of brain-washed individuals.

Lanier also compares Wikipedia to Meta-sites ruled by algorithms, American Idol, Myspace, and so on. What he takes for granted is that these websites/TV shows have all different goals and products, gathering different public for different reasons. Like a popular saying states: Don't compare apples with oranges.

"Every authentic example of collective intelligence… was guided or inspired by well-meaning individuals." Lanier mentions that as if it is the opposite of what happens in Wikipedia. However that is exactly the case there. Many individuals have achieved a higher authoritative status based on their merits, well-meaning individuals that guide and assist others of the community.

I do agree with him when he brings up that there is "…an increased tendency to enshrine the official or normative beliefs of an organization." He mentions it as one of the "inappropriate uses of the collective". Many good intentioned contributors end up resigning Wikipedia due to others who like making it into a battleground for the "most correct" appliance of norms. This can lead to a rigid and slow adapting organization, which would eventually cause the end of it.

For further responses to Lanier's essay click here. http://www.edge.org/discourse/digital_maoism.html

The essay on the Edge is a preview of his new book entitled 'You Are Not a Gadget'. Lanier criticizes the Web 2.0 and its "denatured appropriation". According to Publishers Weekly review in Amazon, Laniers argues that "Web 2.0 sites such as Wikipedia undervalue humans in favor of anonymity and crowd identity... have created a hive mind mentality emphasizing quantity over quality." Further, the argument of his book is that "the Open Culture/Hive ideology prioritizes getting stuff for free over creators being able to survive by making stuff." (See his homepage's FAQ about the book) He believes that the minority of people, who actually have something to offer, should be protected against the "numb mob".

References:

Lanier, Jaron: Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism. Edge, 2006. URL: http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/lanier06/lanier06_index.html (Stand 08.02.2010)

Jaron Lanier's homepage: http://www.jaronlanier.com/ (Stand 08.02.2010)

Review by Publishers Weekly in Amazon: URL: http://www.amazon.com/You-Are-Not-Gadget-Manifesto/dp/0307269647/ref=br_lf_m_1000470971_1_2_img?ie=UTF8&s=books&pf_rd_p=507407031&pf_rd_s=center-2&pf_rd_t=1401&pf_rd_i=1000470971&pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_r=09QNB791D20137056GBP (Stand 08.02.2010)

Kelly, Kevin: Out of control. URL: http://www.kk.org/outofcontrol/ch2-c.html (Stand 08.02.2010)

Further responses:

http://www.edge.org/discourse/digital_maoism.html
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