Mao Mao Mao

There’s been a lot of buzz over the last week or so about Jaron Lanier’s “DIGITAL MAOISM: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism”
[] in which he warns of a sort of irrational exuberance about “collective intelligence.”

I found myself taking mental notes as I read it, ticking off what I agreed and disagreed with and why. But then I read Douglas Rushkoff’s response:

And I realized he’d already expressed everything in my tick-list, and then some, and better than I would’ve.

Lanier’s essay and all the responses to it at Edge are excellent reading for anyone who thinks deeply about what the Internet means to the social fabric, culture, learning and history.

Just a couple of personal reactions:

I found myself feeling a little mollified reading Lanier’s essay. I already knew what it was about and was ready to find mostly disagreement with his points, but ended up realizing I had been guilty of some of the foolishness he calls us on and agreeing with most of what he says.

But then I thought about what I’ve actually believed on the subject and realized, I don’t think I’ve ever thought or said the collective is superior to the individual. Only that “architectures of participation” allow even more individuals to participate in the marketplace of ideas in ways that they simply couldn’t have before. Lanier runs the risk of equating “collective intelligence” with “collectivism” — which is a bit like equating free-market capitalism with Social Darwinism (itself a misnomer).

His main bugbear is Wikipedia. I agree there’s too much hype and not enough understanding of the realities of Wikipedia’s actual creation, use and relevance. But I think that’ll sort itself out over time. It’s still very new. Wikipedia doesn’t replace (and never will) truly authoritative peer-reviewed-by-experts information sources. Even if people are currently referencing it like it’s the highest authority, over time we’ll all start learning to be more authority-literate and realize what’s ok to reference at Wikipedia and what isn’t (just like War of the Worlds tricked thousands in the earlier days of radio — but you really can’t imagine that happening now, could you?)

One thing Lanier doesn’t seem to realize, though, is that Wikipedia isn’t faceless. Underneath its somewhat anonymous exterior is an underculture of named content creators who discuss, argue, compromise and whatever else in order to make the content that ends up on the site. Within that community, people *do* have recognizable personalities. In the constrained medium of textual threaded forums, some of them manage to be leaders who gain consensus and marshall qualitative improvement. They’re far from anonymous, and the “hive” they’re a part of is much closer to a meritocracy than Lanier seems to think.

Not that Wikipedia’s perfect, and not that it meets the qualifications of conventional “authoritative” information sources. But we’re all figuring out what the new qualifications are for this kind of knowledge-share.

At any rate, his essay is very good and has important stuff we have to consider.

Author: Andrew Hinton

I use information to architect better places for humans. More at