I couldn’t make it any simpler

I hate to say this – I’ve always loathed VR boosters and been highly sceptical about the people they boost – but Jaron Lanier’s a bright bloke. His essay Digital Maoism doesn’t quite live up to the title, but it’s well worth reading (thanks, Thomas).

I don’t think he quite gets to the heart of the current ‘wisdom of the crowds’ myth, though. It’s not Maoism so much as Revivalism: there’s a tight feedback loop between membership of the collective, collective activity and (crucially) celebration of the activity of the collective. Or: celebration of process rather than end-result – because the process incarnates the collective.

Put it this way. Say that (for example) the Wikipedia page on the Red Brigades is wildly wrong or wildly inadequate (which is just as bad); say that the tag cloud for an authoritative Red Brigades resource is dominated by misleading tags (‘kgb’, ‘ussr’, ‘mitrokhin’…). Would a wikipedian or a ‘folksonomy’ advocate see this situation as a major problem? Not being either I can’t give an authoritative answer, but I strongly suspect the answer would be No: it’s all part of the process, it’s all part of the collective self-expression of wikipedians and the growth of the folksonomy, and if the subject experts don’t like it they should just get their feet wet and start tagging and editing themselves. And if, in practice, the experts don’t join in – perhaps, in the case of Wikipedia, because they don’t have the stomach for the kind of ‘editing’ process which saw Jaron Lanier’s own corrections get reverted? Again, I don’t know for sure, but I suspect the answer would be another shrug: the wiki’s open to all – and tagspace couldn’t be more open – so who’s to blame, if you can’t make your voice heard, but you? There’s nothing inherently wrong with the process, except that you’re not helping to improve it. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the collective, except that you haven’t joined it yet.

Two quotes to clarify (hopefully) the connection between collective and process. Michael Wexler:

our understanding of things changes and so do the terms we use to describe them. How do I solve that in this open system? Do I have to go back and change all my tags? What about other people’s tags? Do I have to keep in mind all the variations on tags that reflect people’s different understanding of the topics?The social connected model implies that the connections are the important part, so that all you need is one tag, one key, to flow from place to place and discover all you need to know. But the only people who appear to have time to do that are folks like Clay Shirky. The rest of us need to have information sorted and organized since we actually have better things to do than re-digest it.

What tagging does is attempt to recreate the flow of discovery. That’s fine… but what taxonomy does is recreate the structure of knowledge that you’ve already discovered. Sometimes, I like flowing around and stumbling on things. And sometimes, that’s a real pita. More often than not, the tag approach involves lots of stumbling around and sidetracks.

It’s like Family Feud [a.k.a. Family Fortunes – PJE]. You have to think not of what you might say to a question, you have to guess what the survey of US citizens might say in answer to a question. And that’s really a distraction if you are trying to just answer the damn question.

And our man Lanier:

there’s a demonstrative ritual often presented to incoming students at business schools. In one version of the ritual, a large jar of jellybeans is placed in the front of a classroom. Each student guesses how many beans there are. While the guesses vary widely, the average is usually accurate to an uncanny degree.This is an example of the special kind of intelligence offered by a collective. It is that peculiar trait that has been celebrated as the “Wisdom of Crowds,”

The phenomenon is real, and immensely useful. But it is not infinitely useful. The collective can be stupid, too. Witness tulip crazes and stock bubbles. Hysteria over fictitious satanic cult child abductions. Y2K mania. The reason the collective can be valuable is precisely that its peaks of intelligence and stupidity are not the same as the ones usually displayed by individuals. Both kinds of intelligence are essential.

What makes a market work, for instance, is the marriage of collective and individual intelligence. A marketplace can’t exist only on the basis of having prices determined by competition. It also needs entrepreneurs to come up with the products that are competing in the first place. In other words, clever individuals, the heroes of the marketplace, ask the questions which are answered by collective behavior. They put the jellybeans in the jar.

To illustrate this, once more (just the once) with the Italian terrorists. There are tens of thousands of people, at a conservative estimate, who have read enough about the Red Brigades to write that Wikipedia entry: there are a lot of ill-informed or partially-informed or tendentious books about terrorism out there, and some of them sell by the bucketload. There are probably only a few hundred people who have read Gian Carlo Caselli and Donatella della Porta’s long article “The History of the Red Brigades: Organizational structures and Strategies of Action (1970-82)” – and I doubt there are twenty who know the source materials as well as the authors do. (I’m one of the first group, obviously, but certainly not the second.) Once the work’s been done anyone can discover it, but discovery isn’t knowledge: the knowledge is in the words on the pages, and ultimately in the individuals who wrote them. They put the jellybeans in the jar.

This is why (an academic writes) the academy matters, and why academic elitism is – or at least can be – both valid and useful. Jaron:

The balancing of influence between people and collectives is the heart of the design of democracies, scientific communities, and many other long-standing projects. There’s a lot of experience out there to work with. A few of these old ideas provide interesting new ways to approach the question of how to best use the hive mind.Scientific communities … achieve quality through a cooperative process that includes checks and balances, and ultimately rests on a foundation of goodwill and “blind” elitism — blind in the sense that ideally anyone can gain entry, but only on the basis of a meritocracy. The tenure system and many other aspects of the academy are designed to support the idea that individual scholars matter, not just the process or the collective.

I’d go further, if anything. Academic conversations may present the appearance of a collective, but it’s a collective where individual contributions are preserved and celebrated (“Building on Smith’s celebrated critique of Jones, I would suggest that Smith’s own analysis is vulnerable to the criticisms advanced by Evans in another context…”). That is, academic discourse looks like a conversation – which wikis certainly can do, although Wikipedia emphatically doesn’t.

The problem isn’t the technology, in other words: both wikis and tagging could be ways of making conversation visible, which inevitably means visualising debate and disagreement. The problem is the drive to efface any possibility of conflict, effectively repressing the appearance of debate in the interest of presenting an evolving consensus. (Or, I could say, the problem is the tendency of people to bow and pray to the neon god they’ve made, but that would be a bit over the top – and besides, Simon and Garfunkel quotes are far too obvious.)

Update 13th June

I wrote (above): It’s not Maoism so much as Revivalism: there’s a tight feedback loop between membership of the collective, collective activity and (crucially) celebration of the activity of the collective. Or: celebration of process rather than end-result – because the process incarnates the collective.

Here’s Cory Doctorow, responding to Lanier:

Wikipedia isn’t great because it’s like the Britannica. The Britannica is great at being authoritative, edited, expensive, and monolithic. Wikipedia is great at being free, brawling, universal, and instantaneous.If you suffice yourself with the actual Wikipedia entries, they can be a little papery, sure. But that’s like reading a mailing-list by examining nothing but the headers. Wikipedia entries are nothing but the emergent effect of all the angry thrashing going on below the surface. No, if you want to really navigate the truth via Wikipedia, you have to dig into those “history” and “discuss” pages hanging off of every entry. That’s where the real action is, the tidily organized palimpsest of the flamewar that lurks beneath any definition of “truth.” The Britannica tells you what dead white men agreed upon, Wikipedia tells you what live Internet users are fighting over.

The Britannica truth is an illusion, anyway. There’s more than one approach to any issue, and being able to see multiple versions of them, organized with argument and counter-argument, will do a better job of equipping you to figure out which truth suits you best.

Quoting myself again, There’s nothing inherently wrong with the process, except that you’re not helping to improve it. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the collective, except that you haven’t joined it yet.


One Comment

  1. Rob Jubb
    Posted 13 June 2006 at 22:32 | Permalink | Reply

    I’m tempted to go a bit old-left, and just throw my hands up in exasperation at the wikipedians expectation that the marketplace of ideas – or some rough analogy to it – is going to arrive at truth. Virtually none of Wikipedia’s content is like guessing at the number of jellybeans in a jar, after all: people have existing convictions about the topics in question, and about how they should be presented, and will act so as to further those beliefs, neither of which are likely to be true of the jellybeans in the jar example. The signal to noise ratio is just always going to be high in the absence of much of a barrier to entry, a barrier which I suspect as wikipedia becomes more widely known is in effect falling further. That said, I’ve re-written and defended – to a limited degree – an entry on wikipedia – on Rawls’ ‘Theory of Justice’ and would again if I thought it was worthwhile enough.

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