Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Digital Maoism


Jaron Lanier has put an essay on edge.org that is most fascinating. His description of "Digital Maoism" is one of the important ideas of 2006 listed in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine.

"What we are witnessing today is the alarming rise of the fallacy of the infallible collective. Numerous elite organizations have been swept off their feet by the idea. They are inspired by the rise of the Wikipedia, by the wealth of Google, and by the rush of entrepreneurs to be the most Meta. Government agencies, top corporate planning departments, and major universities have all gotten the bug.

There is a pedagogical connection between the culture of Artificial Intelligence and the strange allure of anonymous collectivism online. Google's vast servers and the Wikipedia are both mentioned frequently as being the startup memory for Artificial Intelligences to come....George Dyson has wondered if such an entity already exists on the Net, perhaps perched within Google. My point here is not to argue about the existence of Metaphysical entities, but just to emphasize how premature and dangerous it is to lower the expectations we hold for individual human intellects.

The beauty of the Internet is that it connects people. The value is in the other people. If we start to believe that the Internet itself is an entity that has something to say, we're devaluing those people and making ourselves into idiots."

Steven Johnson's comment in the New York Times summary: "In the essay, Lanier grouped everything from his personal Wikipedia entry to “American Idol” under the umbrella of digital Maoism, and many of the responses to the article by assorted Internet luminaries observed that Lanier had elided important differences between these systems to make his point. The entirety of Wikipedia, for instance, is most certainly a collective undertaking, but many articles are written and edited by small numbers of individuals. Wikipedia may be not too far from the historical reality of Maoism itself: a system propagandized with the language of collectivism that was, in practice, actually run by a small power elite.

In any case, culture and technology are increasingly reliant on the hive mind — and whatever its faults, Lanier’s broadside helps us consider the consequences of this momentous development. A swarm of connected human minds is a fantastic resource for tracking down software bugs or discovering obscure gems on the Web. But if you want to come up with a good idea, or a sophisticated argument, or a work of art, you’re still better off going solo."

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