The New Online Collectivism

Edge.org founder John Brockman asked a few of us to respond to Jaron Lanier’s essay, Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism. Jaron’s main point seemed to be that we are overestimating the potential of online collectivist projects. In Jaron’s words:

“The hive mind is for the most part stupid and boring. Why pay attention to it?

“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.”

Clay Shirky collected and contextualized the responses of 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 and me. Here’s just a taste from mine:

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.

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.

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